Bhutan for the Backpacker: My Experience

Bhutan is a magical place, one that many travellers can only dream about. Wanting to make the most of my opportunity, my two weeks could not have more perfect! I left with new friends, a wealth of Buddhist knowledge and hunger for more. Friendly, respectful and outgoing, the Bhutanese welcomed me with open arms.

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Thangthangka, Bhutan <- 26th March.2016

Well, I’m freaking tired. So is my guide so it makes me feel a little better. Somehow I missed that we’d have 2 more passes, even if we made it over Bronte La. 4800m sucks, but hopefully we don’t go higher than that.

The climb to the lakes was beautiful but hard at 9am and 4100m. My guide had decided we’d walk until 11:30 and see how far we got. We ended up getting high enough to see the Pass! Definitely “bush-walking” and snow plowing but we followed the Yak trail as far as we could. Coming back sucked, straight up. It was stunning scenery and on the way back we hung up prayer flags which I’ll claim was badass! The assistant cook ended up waiting for 3 hours back at the Jomolhari Base Camp and, after we had finished eating, we headed down together. Although it was only 4 hours getting up, it took 3 to walk down. My heels are shot (Blisters obliterated, but hey!) and I’m sure I’ll be sore in the morning! 3 days down, 3 to go!

In the bush near Yakse ← 27 March

…Today’s mission took us from Thangthangka to (nearly) the Yakse village. There was a building at the end of the valley that Pema no. 2 was aiming for but I had to, for the first time, bail on our destination! I had felt the resistance early on from my feet, and knew that coming back down to the campsite would suck. I performed minor surgery on my blisters this morning but there wasn’t much I could do to minimise the uncomfortable throbbing pain. On top of it all I had layered up, preparing for the worst of the weather and we ended up spending 5 of our 6 hours in 20oC sun! I seriously developed heat rash! At 3500m I saw it first this morning on my hands, initially thinking it was a reaction to the sunscreen. A few days of ‘liberal’ application evidently doesn’t let your skin breath. When we got to our base camp, I discovered it was also starting on my legs. 20oC doesn’t call for thermals to say the least. To top it off, I am recovering from a freakin’ sunburn! Thanks to the beautiful day at Tigers Nest, my face and neck feel like I fell asleep on a beach.

Enough of my whining! Who have I spent the last five days with?

Pema no. 1- Guide turned confidant
Pema no. 2- Cook helper & lunch runner
Jigme- Bhutanese cooking magician. Could make a meal out of water.
Dorley- One-eyed horseman. Definitely would hire him if I moved into the woods. Could easy make a mansion from a tree.

 My first six days in Bhutan was my Jomolhari Base Camp trek. Although I had booked the Jomolhari Loop Trek, it was evident early on that it wouldn’t be possible due to the snow still at high elevations. The normal plan in this case, would have been to spend a full day at the Jomolhari Base Camp for some sightseeing hikes, and then slowly head back down. Thankfully our cook (who was very experienced with over 30 years in the trekking industry) had suggested that we head further down and have the chance to head up to the Soi Yakse Valley, an area that I should have seen on Day 5 of the trek. Despite not completing the full loop, we hiked one day high enough that we could almost see the first pass. It had snowed in Thimphu only a few days before I arrived in Bhutan and, as I live in Switzerland, fully respected the “don’t mess with Mother Nature” attitude. We weren’t going to be annoying any mountain deities on my trip.

I was thankful to see more than other tourists but it made for two long days, aided by blown-out blisters. (My hiking boots are years old, but my soft snowboarding winter feet hadn’t seen my hiking boots for over six months!) Blisters riding Blisters x3, I was walking like I had a stick up my bum. And with sun on us all day, it was an overly exhausting 5th day. The best thing about the Trek was coming back to camp with an amazing fresh meal of vegg, rice and chilli cooked up. I didn’t know it then, but it would be the best Bhutanese food I had the whole trip.

The second week is referred to more a “Cultural Tour” where I had the opportunity to visit monasteries, Dzongs (fortresses) and temples in Paro, Thimphu, Punaka and Gantey. Although I have hundreds of photos of the beautiful architecture, I wasn’t able to take photos inside the temples out of respect for the deities and Buddha. With the oldest of temples, it really felt like I was walking into a museum…floor to ceiling murals of various historical stories. Lord Buddha’s life story, Buddhist teachings and Bhutanese folk-lore decorated entrances around Bhutan. I was lucky to have a very patient and knowledgeable guide who answered all my questions — especially when I asked them multiply times!

 During the second week of the tour, I would typically have breakfast at the hotel, buffet style with a mix of Indian and western items; scrambled eggs, toast, fresh fruit, etc. Lunch would be had a (very touristy) set restaurant. My driver would need to pre-order the food, usually ‘fusion’: a standard mix of three vegetables, rice and a noodle dish. During my holiday in Bhutan, it fell on a religious Buddhist holiday whereas you couldn’t buy fresh meat in the markets. Larger hotels would have stuff stock-piled, or used canned variations imported from India. DSC08344Dinner was usually again at the hotel, but on a few occasions we ate in the town, but again at touristy restaurants. Although I would request to try local restaurants, it took a few days for me to learn that this isn’t really their culture. They’ll eat together with friends and family, and on special occasions go to a nice restaurant. In reality though, what a meal cost was not something they could afford eat week. It was an interesting change from Switzerland, where people eat out regularly! In Thimphu, the most metropolis city (but still small by European standards), there was a few bars / nightclubs, but this was mostly to placate the modern-thinking younger crowd.

I learnt towards the end of my trip that the restaurants where we ate at, had already typically agreements set up with my company. Although alcoholic drinks weren’t included, tea, coffee and water weren’t a problem and were added to the bill that would be later sent to the company office.

There was a standard list of sites that we visited during the second week. My only (small) regret with my trip, was that I didn’t get to see any of the famous Bhutanese festivals. There are 100s of dances performed by monks dressed as various folklore. We did get to see a small cultural show on my last night but unfortunately it wasn’t comparable to the real thing. It’s on the list for next time!

Although we spent the second week during various goembas and temples, I actually visited the famous Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) on my second day as the altitude change was perfect for trekking acclimatisation. It was a beautiful day, and the hike to the monastery was certainly easier that I expected.

22nd March – Paro

…One of the most exciting things was when Pema told me about a ,,wishing relic rock”. You have to make a wish, close your eyes, and aim your thumb at the round impression in the rock. My first two goes didn’t amount to anything, so wishing for children were so far off! The third go I changed my wish and got it! Now let’s see if it comes true! …

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As for the sites we saw after the trek, we started in Paro Valley where we visited Kychu Lhakhang, Paro Dzong and Sangchen Choekor Shedra. We made our way east, towards Thimphu where we would spend a full day exploring. We hiked to Tango Monastry and then had lunch back in the city. While we waited to visit the Tashi Chho Dzong in the evening, we stopped at the Big Buddha (50m tall!) and the Takin animal reserve.

When we did make it to the Thimphu fortress, it was so much bigger than I anticipated! Ironically, the King, Queen and Prince live in a modest one-story building in the lush grounds away from the busy Palace (although the king will walk the 500m to work every day!). There was surprisingly little security for the royal family, in the way of guards and security. Just one huge fence! The guards for the palace were the first ones I had seen in Bhutan that did actually carry guns, but we could almost look into the window of the royal residence across the river! We weren’t allowed to stop and look (or take photos) out of respect. When I asked about the lack of guards, Pema said that almost all tourists will have a personal guide and therefore it is the responsibility of the guide to keep their tourists in line. (On this note; when we went into the Palace, I was wearing my Burmese htamain (a long skirt) with my rain jacket. It took some discussion between my guide and the guards to let me in as they thought it was part of the ‘Kera’, the tradition Bhutanese dress for women . Had this been the case I would have need to wear the rest of the outfit, including a small jacket over the top. I had to show them it was certainly not a kera dress by un-folding it.

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Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’.

Inside the Thimphu Fortress- you can see the local men in the background wearing the ‘gho’. I didn’t realise until I saw photos from that evening that it had a very likable resemblance to the tradition dress. Although I never meant to insult anyone, my guide did get a quick lecture about what is appropriate attire for the tourists!).

After our day in Thimphu, we had a full day’s drive east to Gangtey. On route, we had stopped at Dochula Pass for tea but as the weather was slightly cloudy we couldn’t see the panoramic view. It was amazing to think that every year the Chief Abbott (Bhutan’s religious leader) makes the pilgrimage from Punakha to Thimphu each year Spring. It was almost 100km over a mountain pass!

Gantey was definitely the smallest town I had seen, with only one main street and a few hotels. The Gantey Valley is best known to bird watchers as the nesting grounds for the black-necked crane. Unfortunately all the birds were still in Tibet while I was there, and only got to see the injured crane whose home had been made in the Information Center.

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Rural Bhutan
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Phobjikha Valley

The following day we walked, and sloshed our way through the Gantey Nature Trail. Unfortunately my shoes were lost to the good cause due to the mud and puddles, but we continued nevertheless onwards. We saw the Fertility Temple, and later back in Punakha, the Punakha Dzong. From Punakha we headed back to Paro, stopping at a Nunnery and a local Tao Village. As I was flying out the next day we also did some souvenir shopping, where I was able to get myself a painting!

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Was it worth it? A perspective slice.

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 As a ‘backpacker’, my average Asian travel budget (or estimate while saving) is an average of 50USD per day, and I don’t include my international flights in this estimate. Usually within a few days of arriving this budget will change– especially in Central and South-Eastern Asian countries. As I mentioned before, the daily limit during my visit to Bhutan was $250 per day. Fives times more than my average budget. I am very, very fortunate to work in Switzerland at the moment, and without having much in the way of expenses, we work to travel. Making the most of my situation, Bhutan was not going to be missed!

I was certainly part of the small younger crowd that was travelling in Bhutan. Most of them visit for trekking, but usually for the one week tour. After, while I was in India, I usually had two reactions: 1) Omg! You were in Bhutan!! 2) What the fuck. Why would you spend so much money for that? … granted, the later came from one disgruntled Scottish traveller that was being pulled through India by his girlfriend and had consequently given up enjoying any last possible experiences.

Bhutan was the first country in Asia that I have not seen poverty. There wasn’t people sleeping on the streets (it’s illegal), children went to school everyday and were not allowed out after dark (unofficially). The only time I saw children selling anything, was personally made book-marks along the path to the Fertility Temple. When I asked my guide, he quickly said that the parents will get in a lot of trouble from the police if they saw that and chances are, the kids (maybe 5 or 6 of them) were doing it in secret. He thought it probably would have been to purchase sweets from the local shop– I compared this to kids selling lemonade on the street corner. Certainly not the beggars on the streets on India.

There is still certainly an economic class structure in Bhutan, but certainly not as rigid as neighbouring countries. My horsemen, the lowest earner in my group during the trek, still made enough to send two kids to school. One son was studying to be a monk, but he had a sick wife in the hospital. His main form on income was the tourist treks, where he made 450 Nu./ 7USD per horse, per day.

For the duration of the trek my 250USD daily tariff kept four people employed. Sure, you could argue that I was sleeping in a tent and eating by a campfire for six days but I knew after that, these guys would all have money to support their families after. The company could also afford to buy good quality gear from Nepal, instead of cheaply made tents imported from India. When it was 5oC at 4100m, I was happy to be sleeping in a -10oC Marmot bag.

During the later part of my trip, the daily tarif included all meals, the accommodation (which was easily over 100USD each night for the hotels I was staying in), and of course pay the wage of my guide, driver and having a nice car for 8 days.

Although I thought I would argue with myself for why they don’t provide a cheaper, affordable option in order to carter to a larger market, the quality was unbeatable. This is a country that is proud of its image; an educated country that is welcoming to their guests. They are not shrouded in corruption and political problems with homeless people sleeping in the doorways. Indian labourers work often in Bhutan as they earn more, but still must follow strict Bhutanese rules. The population is educated, often up through to university and has a better sense of the global world than some of the visiting travellers themselves. All the younger generations spoke amazing english, and most hindi, as well. Television, although recently introduced, played BBC, CNN, HBO, SKY and Al Jezeera New stations- a more rounded source of information than available in Switzerland! Other than selling hydroelectricity to India, the only other main source of income for Bhutan is tourism. This funds the education system, health care and infrastructure (which as I was there, they were widening the national highway which travels through to Eastern Bhutan).

Financially, I couldn’t afford to travel through Western Europe on the same budget while being offered similar quality services. And even if I could (and did), that money would be going straight into the pocket of the private company’s bank account, leaving nothing for the local people to benefit from.

Was 250USD a day worth it? Yes! For the sake of preserving their culture, they are doing it the right way 🙂

My trip to Bhutan was definitely once-in-a-lifetime, and combined with my 4 days in Delhi/Agra, but I left knowing that I will have to go back at some point. So much still to see!

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Author: Monika

Trying to make the most of being the "Lonely Planet" generation!

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