In 2022, Bhutan tripled its Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) from $ 65 USD to $ 200 per person per night with all travel costs added to the SDF. We are happy to report that a change in policy has created an opportunity to return to Bhutan in 2024 at a competitive rate.
Memories of past Bhutan travel
Roughly the size of Switzerland, the nation is fondly referred to by the Bhutanese as Druk Yul – land of the Thunder Dragon. My first visit to Bhutan was in 1999, and my most recent one in May, 2023. How exciting it is to journey to this mountain Kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and Tibet. Travel was not so easy back in 1999 as road conditions hampered long distances. That 8 day visit included areas in Western Bhutan, namely Paro, Thimpu, Punakha with a short time in Trongsa and Bumthang.
Bhutan travel highlights
First stop on most itineraries is the Paro Valley where the countries only International airport is located. From our hotel we watched a lone plane land, and later take off in the early morning when the lift was ideal for flight. I enjoyed watching the aircraft between the green hills and towards the higher mountains that were visible when the clouds parted. There are so many highlights in Paro including the watch tower/museum, and the Paro Dzong. My best best memories were of a visit to the Paro festival where crowds gathered to watch masked dancers, socialize with family and friends, and wander through the outdoor market set up in the festival courtyard. There are no shortage of festivals and cultural activities. The sound of drums, long horns and short horns emanate from the temples, so many of which visitors are permitted inside while the rituals were occurring. Monks, nuns, and religious Bhutanese keep butter lamps lit, the prayer wheels spinning, and the celebratory dances alive.
I have been back to Bhutan with groups four more times in the 2 decades that followed the initial visit. I have ventured to the most Western district – Ha, which was restricted for tourists at the time of my first visit. This area borders India and Tibet. To reach Ha, we crossed the highest pass, Chelala, at 3700m, and enjoyed a farm-house lunch.
I am fond of visiting the capital district Thimpu. The scenic journey from Paro can be done in just two hours. The road crosses the Dochula Pass where prayer flags and 108 stupas mark the 3111 meter boundary between the adjoining districts. Thimpu has grown drastically since my first visit. It is the largest city with over 115,000 residents. New hotels, cafés and souvenir shops extend a great distance. Still so many of the industries are cottage scale. Weaving centres show off the intricacies of hand-made kiras. Some of these traditional skirts will take 10 months to finish. The price tag reflects the workmanship at $ 2500 USD per piece. Several new trekking areas and monasteries are open for tourism's relaunch. Although most accommodation used is in 3-star Bhutan hotels, a range of 5 star luxury properties now exist.
is hard to imagine a more spectacular setting for the winter palace and Dzhong of Punakha. At the confluence of two rivers, the iconic building is visible on the drive from both east and west. In the right season blossoms adorn the trees and bushes surrounding the architecture.
Eastern Bhutan has its own charm. Trashigang is the largest district by population and area, but it is spread out and the town of the same name is one of the smallest. Many different cultural and ethnic groups meet in this pleasant centre. The mountains surrounding Trashigang are dotted with villages. .These traditional villages showcase an array of handi-crafts, agricultural pursuits, and are home to numerous small monasteries and temples. One of the most pleasant ways to reach the village retreats are by foot.
Driving to the east dips from the high peaks to low valleys and passes gorges filled with lush vegetation. Monkeys, langurs, and on one trip a herd of Takin (goat antelopes) create much excitement. A stop at Dametsi Monastery, the biggest and most important in Eastern Bhutan should be included, as well as an early morning hike along bird-rich Limenthang Road.
I can honestly say that journeys to Bhutan have been transformative for myself, and our past Tours of Exploration travelers.