The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Bhutan: Antonia Neubauer of Myths and Mountains.
Founder of the award-winning travel company Myths and Mountains, Antonia “Toni” Neubauer has spent the past 30 years exploring Asia, focusing on the culture, crafts, religions, and natural environments of the places she visits, and forging and cementing close relationships with communities there. Her vast network of loyal friends and experts on the ground means you get a warm welcome as well as unique, meaningful experiences far from where other tourists go. Whether you want to plan a Burmese wedding, learn how to make a mandala or understand Bhutanese architecture, or spend time with a Nepali Mothers’ Group, you’re guaranteed an imaginative and immersive experience. Toni is dedicated to making a positive contribution to the countries in which Myths and Mountains operates; as of fall 2015, READ Global, the renowned nonprofit she founded, has built 79 libraries in Nepal, Bhutan, and India. Toni was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Bhutan has three official levels of hotels—basic, middle range, and luxury. For value, my personal favorite is the Nak-Sel, in Paro, which is in the middle range. Built in traditional Bhutanese style and featuring the latest energy-saving technologies, including radiant heating, solar power, and LED lighting, Nak-Sel is a peaceful and pampering retreat located on a hill above the town. Rooms are light and spacious and decorated in a contemporary design, and the spa offers a full range of treatments. There are lovely forest walks around the property and a good downhill path to Paro, passing farms and traditional homes along the way.
Restaurant the locals love
ZaSa’s, on a hill above the town of Thimphu, is difficult to find but worth the effort. The kitchen serves creative and contemporary takes on traditional dishes, and everything is organic, GMO-free, and delicious. My favorite is the chicken Zaza. In a country not known for its food, ZaSa’s is well worth the trip.
If you tire of traditional fare and just want to dig into a good pizza, Seasons, a popular and casual eatery in Thimphu, serves a supertasty selection, as well as pastas and some local dishes.
What to See and Do
Eastern Bhutan, particularly the district of Tashigang. Most tourists don’t bother visiting this part of the country, because it’s hard to reach and not as developed as the western regions. That’s a mistake: The people are warm and friendly, and their festivals—in particular, Gomphu Kora in the spring and the many tshechu festivals in the fall—are not inundated with foreign visitors as they are in the rest of the country. The area also boasts Sherubtse College, one of the oldest and largest in the kingdom, and the alma mater of many of Bhutan’s major government officials.
Though it’s a top tourist attraction, you might consider skipping Paro Dzong. There are so many other magnificent dzongs (fortresses that house monasteries and other key religious and administrative offices) to see throughout the country that you should save your appetite for the very best—or risk getting dzonged out!
Dungtse Lhakhang temple, in Paro, dates from the early fifteenth century and was constructed by Thangtong Gyalpo, a noted iron bridge builder. Visitors climb narrow wooden stairs from the ground floor, which represents hell, to the second floor, symbolizing the realm of earth, and finally to the top level, which represents heaven or nirvana. The temple paintings are among the finest in the country.
Gomphu Kora is a small temple next to a cave where Guru Rimpoche (the founder of Tibetan Buddhism) is believed to have meditated and vanquished a demon in the form of a snake. It is said that circumambulating the temple gains a pilgrim more merit than reciting Guru Rimpoche’s mantra 100,000 times—and that’s a lot of merit! Bhutanese and tribal people from Arunachal Pradesh flock here for the spring festival, where, in addition to celebrating the triumph of good over evil, they come to find a husband or a wife.
Mushroom fans will love Bhutan, where the markets are filled with an amazing variety. You can pick up a pound of dried chanterelles for about 50 cents, a small fraction of what they cost back home.
Bhutan is so beautiful that there are picnic spots all over for anyone with imagination. Two of my favorites, though, are the Serbithang Botanical Garden in Thimphu and the Lamperi Botanical Garden on the Thimphu-Punakha Highway. During the spring and summer, in particular, these gardens are a kaleidoscope of colors and the perfect setting for a picnic.
Because we founded READ Global, a nonprofit that has been building rural library community centers in Bhutan, we have unique access and can arrange very personal get-togethers with the local people in these villages. Myths and Mountains travelers have met with members of the royal family, local mayors, medical officials, and other key people in the country. For those romantically inclined, we can arrange a wedding that is astrologically perfect, complete with guests, catering, and Bhutanese finery for all of the wedding party. Just ask!
Bhutan is a very photogenic country. Sunrise and sunset shots from Dochu La, between Thimphu and Punakha, are always beautiful. Festivals are a photographer’s dream: The local people are dressed in their finery, and the monks and other participants are all in their costumes. Personally, I also love watching children, particularly the small children, early in the morning outside of their school doing their regular exercise.
Bhutan is famous for its unique handwoven textiles. The traditional dress for women, the kira, is a long piece of fabric that wraps around the body. It can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $30,000. The best are made of handwoven silk, and the least expensive are usually machine-made of cotton. Men sport a gho, a kind of robe that varies in cost according to the material and the amount of decoration. Both kiras and ghos make excellent souvenirs. You can learn about the designs and quality at the textile museum in Thimphu, and then our guides can take you to the best shops to make a purchase. We can also introduce you to the weavers for the royal family, but we need plenty of advance notice to do that.
Handmade leather boots for men are another great souvenir. We’ll take your foot measurements and have the boots crafted by expert boot makers while you’re touring. Bhutan also has wonderful antique handwoven baskets, often now only available at festivals or tucked away in special local shops. These can cost several hundred dollars or more, depending on the quality, size, and age of the basket. Be sure to consult your guide to ensure that you’re buying a real antique.
Bhutan sits at the same latitude as Florida but rises from about 100 feet to nearly 25,000 feet above sea level, which means that there’s a tremendous variability in climate in every season. That said, the following guidelines are a good place to start when making your plans:
My favorite time of year is May and June. Most of the tourists are gone, flowers are in bloom, you don’t have to eat from large buffets and can get your food cooked to order, and the road (yes “the road”) across the country is not packed with cars and buses. You may have some rain showers, views may not be crystal clear, but having the country almost to yourself is worth the compromise.
Spring and fall have the least rain and are ideal for trekking, biking, and touring. Festivals, such as the tshechus held in each district annually, abound in all seasons, but the height of the festival season is usually spring, before planting, and fall, just before or after the harvest—times when it is best to exorcise the demons and guarantee plentiful food.
Rafters should travel in the fall, which follows the monsoon and finds the rivers at their fullest. Conversely, rivers are at their lowest in late spring. In general, fall’s crisp clear weather is ideal for viewing the snow-covered Himalayas. Trekkers, however, need to be prepared for sudden snows at high altitudes.
Spring is prime time for flower lovers, when the country—70 percent of which is primary forest—blossoms with rhododendrons and magnolias. Summer in the mountains, although rainy, is also beautiful, as the wildflowers are blooming their hearts out.
Mid-July through September is the rainy season, when clouds obscure the mountain views and trekkers are met with rockslides, leeches, and lots of mud. On the other hand, there are practically no tourists so you’ll have the locals all to yourself.
Late December through January (and sometimes February) is quite cold, with frequent snows limiting travel on the high passes.
Not knowing that there is only one east-west road in the entire country, meaning that every tourist (and there are many, despite what anyone else says) who is not trekking is driving back and forth along that same road.
The airport is basic and quite easy to navigate. Be mindful of the weight of your baggage on departure, though, as the authorities are real sticklers.
A service charge is typically included in restaurant bills, but adding 2 to 5 percent on top of that is customary when you’re happy with the service.
Temperatures vary greatly depending on the altitude, so be sure to bring clothes that layer well, along with a fleece and a compact warm jacket in the winter months.