Land of the Thunder Dragon

70 comments
Asia, Bhutan, South

Welcome to Bhutan

It was probably in the early 2010s when the small Himalayan country of Bhutan caught my attention. I remember being fascinated when I learned about what the Bhutanese government has done to preserve its unique culture while at the same time opening up to the world – Bhutan was mostly closed to international visitors until the 1970s when it let in just a few hundred tourists per year. A rather steep levy is imposed on those who wish to explore this relatively unknown nation, a deliberate policy to keep backpackers away for this group of travelers are often perceived (and in many cases rightly so) as shameless young people who travel halfway across the globe only to get drunk and disrespect the local cultures.

For some time, Bhutan was a destination I could only dream of visiting one day in the distant future, until I read stories from this landlocked kingdom written by a fellow blogger, Kelly, in 2012. Not only did her accounts evoke a curiosity I don’t always feel toward a place I’ve never been, but her photos were so beautiful they encouraged me to make that dream come true sooner rather than later. Also in the same year when I started working at a smaller company, the owner showed me an article about how a journalist compared the values of the firm with those of Bhutan’s, emphasizing its people’s happiness rather than material wealth.

Many travels came in my way, though, including the six-month trip I did back in 2015, which required me to change my lifestyle to be more frugal, and several short vacations to some of the places I had dreamed of going to since I was little, like Japan. Meanwhile, Bhutan seemed to be gaining popularity with the likes of The New York Times and Lonely Planet consistently including the South Asian country in their lists of best travel destinations. However, the Bhutanese government’s commitment to keep mass tourism at bay means that annual international arrival numbers to the country are maintained at a supposedly sustainable level.

Earlier this year I decided to actually make a plan to visit Bhutan by contacting the same travel company called Bridge to Bhutan that Kelly used six years ago (independent travel is not possible for most visitors). At first, to keep the cost ‘low’, a four-day, three-night trip was my preferred choice, until I realized that due to the limited flight schedules of Drukair (Bhutan’s national airline) to Singapore (the closest city from Jakarta where the airline flies) the trip wouldn’t be practical. A few months later I contacted the company again, this time thinking of doing the seven-day, six-night trip focusing on the highlights of western Bhutan. Then in October, six years after I read Kelly’s posts, I finally set foot in the Land of the Thunder Dragon: another poetic name for Bhutan in Dzongkha, the national language.

My week-long trip to Bhutan ended just yesterday, and not only did the Himalayan nation live up to my expectations, but it has now become one of the most memorable travel destinations for me. In that short span of time, I got to see why people rave about the country, and saw through the misconceptions of some others when it comes to Gross National Happiness (GNH), a concept of measuring progress that was introduced by the fourth king of Bhutan. This Buddhist kingdom provides a unique example of how embracing modernity, maintaining rich traditions, and preserving the environment can go hand in hand. But it is still an underdeveloped country, a fact the outgoing prime minister Tshering Tobgay mentioned in his talk at the 2016 TED conference. In the upcoming weeks, I will be publishing stories from my recent trip to Bhutan on this blog, from the small and picturesque capital of Thimphu, to the verdant valleys and beautiful fortress of Punakha, and the impressive Tiger’s Nest, perched on a steep cliff just outside Paro. Bhutan is a country that needs to be understood well, so the world can learn the right lessons from it, and although one week is far too short to come to grips with any nation, I hope my observations of Bhutan reflect its true nature.

A land where rich traditions are alive and well

An afternoon rush at Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu

One side of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, viewed from above

The magnificent Punakha Dzong, built in the 17th century

The country’s biggest Buddha statue overlooking the capital

Pilgrims in traditional dress

Low clouds at Dochula Pass

Harvest season at the village of Sobsokha

Valley of abundance

Misty, mysterious Tiger’s Nest

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

70 thoughts on “Land of the Thunder Dragon”

  1. Whoaaaaaa….. mas Bama sudah menapak Bhutan!!.. Envy bangetttt… duh mana dollar lg selangit. Itu foto2nya bikin ngiler.. seharusnya aku mengecilakn diri terus masuk ke backpacknya mas Bama aja ya hahaha.. ditunggu cerita2 Bhutan ya… bareng mas James juga kah?

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    • Jujur waktu saya di sana beberapa kali saya teringat Mbak Riyanti, soalnya Mba Riyanti kan suka dengan negeri di kaki Himalaya sana. Untungnya pas saya bayar biaya untuk trip ini dolar masih belum kayak sekarang, jadi meskipun berasa lumayan kaget uang tabungan tiba-tiba terkuras tapi gak berat-berat amat dibandingkan kalau harus pakai kurs sekarang. Iya betul mbak, saya traveling bareng James lagi yang pasti seleranya sama (nyobain makanan lokal, hiking, foto-foto, dll).

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Cornelia. Bhutan was such a photogenic and tranquil place. I loved every single moment of my trip there.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I visited Bhutan in 2012. It was probably one of the best trips of my life. Your photos really reminded me of how tranquil the place is.

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    • I wonder how much (or little) has changed since your visit six years ago. Did you get the chance to explore the central region (Bumthang, Phobjikha Valley and Trongsa) as well?

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      • Our tour was for 7 days and covered Thimphu, Paro, Gangtey Valley and Punakha. At that time, the large Buddha in Thimphu was still under construction. I saw a lot of houses being built in Thimphu and Paro. I guess it should be more crowded this time in the 2 cities. But things should still remain roughly the same. Their buildings have to follow strict traditional designs.

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      • I didn’t make it to Gangtey, so that’s something to look forward to in the future. While the giant Buddha statue has already been completed, the main steps have not. My guide told me that Thimphu is indeed seeing more and more buildings constructed. But he said in the next few decades Paro will probably see even more constructions. I hope the Bhutanese will always keep their cultural uniqueness in mind, and in doing so preserving nature as well.

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  3. Very much looking forward to this, Bama! I’m in two minds with regards to Bhutan, in a sense. On one side it’s a place I’d really love to visit; on the other, the fact of having (as I understand it) to have a tour, with a guide, with scheduled stops and so on and so forth feels a bit like a limitation. What if I don’t want to see *that* temple but, instead, want to hike through that village? Or go see that festival and not this one? Looking forward to read what your thoughts are!

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    • As you know, I also prefer to travel independently as opposed to having my schedule fixed. However, I was glad to come across Bridge to Bhutan (from Kelly’s post), and I don’t usually promote anything on my blog. Not only did I stay at local hotels and have real Bhutanese meals at modest restaurants where the locals go, they were also very flexible with the schedule. They did give me a suggested itinerary, but only as an illustration. Our guide Kinga knew that we love photography, so he customized the schedule based on the weather. If you do plan to book a trip with them, you can request for Kinga to be your guide (you can also mention my name to Lotay and Fin, the two brothers who run the small company).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. stunning set of pictures. BTW, Indians don’t have to pay per day visa cost that other nationalities have to!

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  5. Rather than Nepal, I have more interest to Bhutan (and Mongolia). Few weeks ago, a Facebook account named Rabsel Nima Bhutan added me as a friend, then followed me on Instagram. I checked his account, and turned out that he’s a tour organizer from Bhutan. He has a partner in Indonesia, and that makes many Indonesian tourists joined his tour.

    I’ll looking forward for your stories about Bhutan, mas Bama.

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    • Nepal is also beautiful and enchanting, Nug — just never say no. 🙂 For some reason, both Bhutan and Nepal are among my favorite countries so far. Maybe it’s because of the Himalayas, maybe the altitude in general, or the intricate wood carvings and magnificent temples, or even the food. This made me think whether I should plan a trip to Tibet, Ladakh, Sikkim, or Arunachal Pradesh in the future. It’s interesting to know about that person who added you; maybe it’s a sign that you should go to Bhutan.

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      • Nah! Tibet is also my dream. I think a train ride from Chengdu to Tibet will be an epic experience once in a lifetime.

        Hahaha, maybe it is a call from the universe 😀

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      • Seeing Potala Palace has been my dream since I was in elementary school. But maybe you’ll get there first, then write about it, so I can follow in your footsteps.

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  6. I’m so glad you managed to go there. It’s one of my favourite countries, although I’ve only been there twice, and that too ten years ago. I would like to go back for a long road trip, spending a couple of days in each valley.

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    • Each valley is indeed different with its own distinctive charm. You’re so lucky to have been to Bhutan twice. I would love to go back one day, but that means I need to start saving up again from now. 🙂

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  7. Wow! It’s beautiful there! You don’t hear much about Bhutan in the news and there aren’t many travel documentaries about it compared to those about Thailand for example. Maybe it’s for the best to not promote it and keep it as a beautiful secret.

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    • Its relatively small population and the government’s policy to maintain peace with its neighbors probably contribute to the lack of news coverage on Bhutan, which is probably good. Compared to Thailand with tens of millions of tourists coming to the country each year, Bhutan certainly was bliss. During my stay there were foreign tourists, but not in an overwhelmingly large number.

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  8. hcyip says:

    That’s cool you visited Bhutan. I look forward to your posts and photos of Bhutan. I think at the end of it, you will be very glad you spent a week rather than just four days, even though your wallet took a bigger hit (I guess the high daily spending limit is still in place for tourists right).

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    • I looked up again the suggested itinerary for four days, and had I taken it instead of the one I booked I would have missed some places which turned out to be among the highlights of this trip. I did end up spending a lot more money though, but it was really worth it.

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    • Thanks Hariom. There’s something magical about the world’s tallest mountain range (which was beneath the sea surface millions of years ago), and each community living on its slopes seem to develop unique cultures which can vary greatly from one place to another.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Heide says:

    Thank you for this gorgeous virtual visit of Bhutan, Bama! Your narrative is wonderful — and your photos are flat-out incredible.

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    • The pleasure is mine, Heide. Thanks for your kind words! Bhutan was such a photogenic country — everywhere I looked there was beauty.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Bama, I’m so excited that you are doing a series on Bhutan! This country has fascinated me since reading a newspaper article several years back on Gross National Happiness. Your beautiful photos have whet my appetite for more. So cool that you were inspired by a fellow blogger.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gross National Happiness is a brilliant idea to measure progress because as we often read now some countries who had in the past been only focusing on numbers are bearing the consequences: high stress level which can lead to suicide, and environmental destruction to name some. However, pursuing growth through GNH perspective is no means feat, and Bhutan clearly faces some challenges (I will write more about this).

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Like you I first heard of Bhutan sometime around 2010 and was immediately captivated by what I read. I still haven’t found my way there but reading your post and its stunning photos just made it climb up on the list of places to go to…. Maybe I’ll fin a way to squeeze it in on my next trip to Asia… p.s. Seriously amazing photos!

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    • Thanks! The good thing is since Bhutan is not as obsessed with mass tourism as other Asian countries, chances are when you go one day many aspects of its culture and its beautiful nature will remain intact.

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  12. Bama, your efficiency and speed when it comes to writing posts and choosing/uploading photos is second to none! I know it will take me at least a few weeks to get around to posting material from Bhutan, as I still have thousands of pictures to sort through.

    It’s just surreal to think that we were exploring Thimphu and breathing in the fresh Himalayan air this time last week. I miss it more than most other countries/places we’ve been to and I really hope we get the chance to revisit Bhutan in the next couple of years.

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    • Well, quality is still more important than speed, and for the former you surely are a lot better than me. Moreover, compared to you I probably only took half as much photos. 🙂 Walking back from work today reminded me how precious fresh air is, something Bhutan should keep for many generations to come. There are corners around Indonesia where you can get fresh air, but I often came across people who puffed cigarettes nonstop at such places rather than enjoying the clean air. Fortunately tobacco is outlawed in Bhutan.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Can’t wait to read about your trip! I know these are just some intro-photos, but they look pretty amazing.
    P.S: If I remember correctly, I recommended Bhutan as a destination in your 30-countries list. You finally made it 😛

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    • What a sharp memory you have! I just checked your old comments and yes, back in 2016 you did recommend Bhutan to me. I guess I should do the same to others more often so their travel dreams can come true sooner than later.

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  14. Beautiful photos. So glad to hear they are controlling the influx of tourists. It has been on my radar for a while, your pictures made me move it up my list. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • You won’t regret spending more money than usual to go to Bhutan, Marie. The scenery, fortresses, temples were so beautiful they’re among the prettiest I’ve ever seen. The food was great and the people so friendly.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. ivanantonywilliams says:

    Lost Horizonof Shangri-La is a 1933 novel by English writer James Hilton, a fictional utopian lamasery located high in the mountains of Tibet. The book was turned into a movie, also called Lost Horizon. I first read the book in early school days (later purchased a video of the movie) The recollection of its peaceful environment remains forever etched in my mind. The beautiful pic you have posted is reminiscent of its beauty. Thanks.

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    • Potala Palace in Lhasa was the first image of any Himalayan cultural sights that really caught my attention, and that was back in the early 1990s. In 2015 I finally made it to Nepal, the first country in this region which I ended up loving so much. Three years later I went to Bhutan, which I adore. I wonder if I should plan some trips in the future to explore this high-altitude part of the world for its unique cultures and inspiring landscape.

      Liked by 1 person

      • ivanantonywilliams says:

        no doubt you have found something in Potala-Lhasa(Shangri-La) synonomous with peace the ultimate gift for mankind. thanks for sharing.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. I can’t wait to read more! Right now I am booked on a big hike in Bhutan in April, but I have to wait and see if others sign up. I’ve been wanting to go since I made two trips to Tibet in ’09 and ’11. I well remember Kelly’s posts also, and I’m happy to hear her tour company worked out for you as well. If my trek falls through, maybe I’ll look at your group, too. Your photos are making me drool in anticipation!

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    • On our last day when James and I were having lunch after hiking to Tiger’s Nest we were actually discussing about which of our blogging friends would love Bhutan as much as we did, and your name came up. “I think Lex would enjoy hiking in Bhutan,” I said to him. “Absolutely!” he replied. I really hope you’ll make it next April!

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Tamanna says:

    I’ve had Bhutan on my mind for a very very long time! You’re blog posts makes me want to fulfill that dream even more now! Kudos on an extremely well written and informative post.

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    • Hope you make it Bhutan in the near future, Tamanna. It’s a very fascinating and beautiful country — and very relaxing too as there’s only less than a million people in this Himalayan kingdom.

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Bama, I am so excited to read about your travel experience in Bhutan! I’ve been interested in Bhutan for a long time too, and as a Nepali, it is really a shame that we are not exempt from the visa and tour rules that don’t apply to Indians, Bangladeshis and Maldivians. I’ve met a few Bhutanese monks in Kathmandu and I was surprised how they spoke Nepali. There’s a big Nepali speaking population there as you might know, although the topic of expelling of the Nepali speakers by the pro one-culture Bhutanese government and the resulting refugee crisis is controversial. To me as a Nepalese it’s especially interesting as Bhutan and India are the only other countries where Nepali is spoken by some of the population. I’d really love to visit one day, as Bhutan is the country I imagine Nepal to have become if it weren’t for the mismanagement, chaos and political upheavals. The photos are stunning as always!

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    • Maybe one day Nepalese and other citizens of SAARC countries will be able to visit Bhutan without a visa. It took a while for ASEAN countries to implement this — when I went to Cambodia in 2011 and Myanmar in 2012 I still had to get a visa, but now Indonesians can go to both countries without a visa.

      Our driver in Bhutan who is ethnic Bhutanese is actually married to an ethnic Nepalese, which was quite surprising to me especially after reading about the expulsion of the Nepali-speaking community in the past.

      Hope you’ll visit Bhutan in the not-too-distant future, Pooja!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. dansontheroad says:

    When other countries grapple with overtourism, Bhutan had the foresight to cap the number of visitors to their country knowing that too many tourists would lead to unhappy locals – which will be against their Happiness Index. Can’t wait to read about your adventures!

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    • Honestly I think some places in Indonesia should implement the same policy; I think last year a cruise ship crashed into the coral reefs of Raja Ampat, one of the world’s most raved about underwater wonders. Then of course Bali’s Kuta Beach which I always avoid now — fortunately the further away you go from the south of the island, the more you find the real Bali with its distinctively rich culture.

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  20. I’m looking forward to reading your stories! I’ve been contemplating going but that daily fee is very steep, as you say. Great photos in this post for our appetizer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Jeff. At least the flight ticket from Bangkok must be significantly cheaper than what I paid for flying from Singapore. If you need more convincing, you’ll have to wait for the next few weeks/months for me to publish my stories. 🙂

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    • It is among the most picturesque and intriguing countries I’ve ever visited. Those interested in culture, architecture and traditional art would find Bhutan very fascinating.

      Liked by 1 person

  21. What can one say about a country that has no army, navy or air force and has actually legislated happiness? It is not really concerned with its borders, even to the north though no one really knows or even cares where it is. I’m not really excited about tourists going there because the history of tourism is so imperialistic, capitalistic, possessive and destructive. And tourism can bring disease, filth and crime. (name me one exception, please). I do not know why the U.N. has not declared Bhutan an “International Heritage Site”, if there is such a thing. But you know as well as I that there are those in power that are so sociopathic, greedy and lustful that they will do to Bhutan what they have proven time and again throughout history they have done to other countries and destroy them for their own ends without an empathic bone in their bodies or minds. Look at what they’ve done to places like Iceland. Now that I’ve said my peace I’ll just shut up. Thank you all for your attention.

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    • How I see it is tourism is like a double-edged sword. You attract the wrong people, sooner or later you’ll find your own backyard overcrowded with people who wouldn’t hesitate to disrespect you and your culture. But if you attract the right folks, it will encourage genuine cultural exchanges which in return will be a boon to making the world a better place to live. Truth is tourism has become a big business now; which market you’re interested in attracting will determine where your place/country will head in the future.

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