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Bhutan October 2008

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Bhutan Oct 6th –Oct 18th 2008

First of all an apology that I am not good at this trip report writing stuff! There is no way I am come up to the standards set by so many people here. But I will give you my thoughts on our trip to Bhutan this October & happily answer any questions or provide any more info that any of you may want.

We had an amazing time. For both of us our overwhelming impression of Bhutan is serenity, calmness & wonderful people.

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    ORGANIZATION; We arranged our trip through Blue Poppy. I was in the early stages for doing this when I asked Dogster that fateful question “Dogster, ?Bhutan??” which resulted in an amazing report of his trip to Bhutan using Blue Poppy (BP). As many of you will know the Dogs trip was not a good one for him and as you can well imagine it gave me cause to pause & think about we wanted to handle our trip. Once again I must say THANK YOU Dogster. Your report made me re-visit the idea of using BP. I was already in contact with one other agency & since we had not made any commitments to BP I got in touch with a couple of other agencies one that came very highly recommended here. Well to cut a long story short I decided to stay with BP. I know many of you will think “why” well it just felt right. It turned out to be a great choice. Now one again I must give Dogster credit for reminding me that forewarned is forearmed. I was very careful to make sure BP new exactly what we wanted & everything worked out very very well. Our driver & guide were two lovely people eager to share their culture with us but also realizing we don’t like to be constantly talked at if you know what I mean. They caught on very quickly that we like to wander through towns so would offer to stop as we entered a village and drive the car through & meet us at the other end. Our guide would sometimes wander with us or just be in the area or just leave us to wander. We also got in to the habit as we got to the top of passes on the roads that we would stop & them we would head off walking and tell them to stay another 30 mins or so and then follow us so we could once again just wander. Our guide was always careful to fill us in on the history etc of places. On such a long trip we found ourselves in lots of tiny temples in tiny villages that he would have to go off to find the caretaker to let us in. Then he would quiz the caretaker about the place and fill us in. We got to meet both owners on BP at different times in Thimphu & they were lovely people intent on us having a good time in Bhutan. I will tell you that we had one of BP’s permanent guides & drivers. Upon quizzing them & a couple of guides we met along the way from other companies it was very much confirmed that a huge portion of the guides are freelance. The companies have such high swings between high/low seasons that they all only keep on a small number of permanent guides. Caveat….a permanent guide doesn’t mean they are the best and there is no reason a freelance can’t be the perfect guide for you it all just depends on how your personalities work together.

    Don’t worry about the though that Bhutan says you have to have a guide & an organized tour. We certainly saw many people who went on organized tours in groups from 1 – 15 and were content to do what ever they were scheduled to do each day. But, we also saw lots like us how definitely had set things in the itin we didn’t want to miss but also “winged” it or talked to the guide about different options we had. We totally rearranged 2 of the days we had in Bumthang when our guide gave us some more options that appealed more to us. They turned out to be great days.

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    ITINERARY: Briefly,
    Paro 4 nights
    Thinphu 2 nights
    Punakha, 1 night
    Trongsa, 1 night
    Bumthang, 4 nights
    Gantey, 2 nights
    Wangdi, 1 night
    Thimphu, 3 nights
    Paro, 2 nights (Haa Valley)

    Paro; Hotel Jor-Yang’z . Family run. Very friendly. Quite. Lovely gardens. Had a 2 room suite with a great view across the valley to the Dzong.
    Thimphu; Hotel Jomlhari. Most western style place we stayed in. Very nice people although they were a little slow in the restaurant. Good Indian food though. Great location in center of town for wandering around.
    Punakha; Zangto Pelri. BP warned us that a lot of people really don’t like this place but we had no real problems. Our room was clean & everything worked. We had a balcony & the area around the hotel was filled with lovely rice paddies another good opportunity to go for walks.
    Bumthang: Mountain Lodge. Wood lined rooms felt like a mountain cabin. In room wood burning heaters which were needed to keep the chill away! We had a 2 room set up with a lung room area & bedroom. We liked the food here best of all the hotel food we had.
    Gangtey (Phobjika Valley) ; Dewachen Lodge. Our favorite! Initially BP had only been able to secure one night here & the second at the guest house next door. Our guide asked if we would like to try to see if we could stay there for both nights & he then kept calling until there was a cancellation & so we got 2 nights. This is great for multiple reasons, no time wasted moving next door for the 2night & it was a lovely place. Great views across the valley & the in room heater was get burning so it was lovely & warm.
    Wangdi; Kichu Resort. Lovely location next to the river. We actually spent the afternoon just relaxing/ reading on the balcony listening to the river.
    Thimphu; Hotel Jomolhari
    Paro; Gangtey Palace. Old palace with lots of original features, sloping creaking floors . Lots of atmosphere. Again we had a sitting area separate to the bedroom, which had big windows to let in the afternoon sun.

    We were supposed to have a farm stay in Paro the second last night we were there. But, it had been getting progressively colder while we were there esp at night and I began to think as the farmhouse as something we just would get through for that night! I usually love this kind of thing & had been looking forward. I think it should have been something we did at the beginning of the trip. A couple of days before we were due to do the farm stay I asked our guide if he thought there would be a chance that we could change it to a hotel. He made a call to the BP office & the next day they had us moved so we had 2 nights in Gangtey Palace, which was great.

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    TRAVEL: We had a Kia Santa Fe for the 2 of us which was fine. Everything you have heard about some of the roads being steep & super winding is right! Sometimes the shear drop is breathtaking in more ways than one! Our driver was good & careful. Travel is slow. If you do plan on covering a lot of miles have plenty of time to do it & time to enjoy where you are & not feel like you have driven all day everyday. We met one couple in Bumthang who got there the same day as us & late in the afternoon had one day & then had an 8 hour drive back the next day. We were putting in the same mileage in Bhutan but we were doing it in twice the time which was much more relaxing. You only have the time you have but do think carefully about squeezing too much in & spending too much time in the car rather than exploring.

    FOOD: Food was not a highlight of travel in Bhutan. There was always plenty of it but just not something we missed when we left, we were looking forward to our fist meal in Bangkok though! Do try the national dish of chilies & cheese. Make sure your first taste is small though!! We ate in the hotels but whenever we were in a town that had a restaurant our guide would always ask if we would prefer to eat at the hotel or in a restaurant & we did a combination of both. Sometimes the hotel restaurant got rated as the best in town in our guide book so we would at least eat there one night!

    FESTIVALS: We timed our trip to attend at least 2 festivals & really think these are a highlight of Bhutan & travelers should get to one if possible. Our first was in Thimphu. This was huge. I have no idea how many people. Lots of tourists but there were still many many more locals than tourists! These are such important events for the locals it is great to sit amongst them & just feel the fun & excitement. If you are traveling with a group I would recommend breaking away & finding a spot where locals surround you. The other festival we went to was much smaller. It was near Bumthang in Tangbi Mani monastery. This had more of a country town feel than the Thimphu festival & was a lot more intimate. At this festival they also had this fire blessing where they set 2 huge haystacks on fire & people ran though them to be cleansed of their sins! Crazy & a little scary to a westerner if you thought about where the nearest medical help was if someone fell.

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    HIGHLIGHTS: There are a lot. The Tigers Nest is incredible. Take your time on the hike & enjoy it. Lots of beautiful Dzongs. Punhaka Dzong is impressive but so are a lot of others for their incredible locations. We spent a day walking in small villages near Bumthang, Ura & Shrinkgar. This was great. Not another tourist to be seen. Spent time sitting on the steps of the small temples watching village life go on. I will not go through each of the temples, Dzongs & villages we saw. Each had some unique aspect. We like the Bhutanese architecture. Definite highlights were all the small encounters with people & places. One day in Thimphu an old man spotted us from across the road & immediately made his way over to us. When he got there he just shook my hubbies hand and gave me a deep bow all the time grinning from ear to ear & then went on his way waving. Leaving us standing in the middle of the street grinning at him! I had some great moments sitting in quite corners of temples just watching the monks go about their business. Phobjika valley is beautiful & we had a lovely day just wandering from village to village. With hindsight we would have taken one of our last night in Thimphu & spent another night in the valley but that is just something we like to do so 3 nights there would not be for everyone. We were in Bhutan as the preparations were being made for the coronation of the King. The people love & respect their king so much that this was a very big deal. Actually when we were on the road to Punakha there was a police stop & as we passed by our guide said it was because the king was coming. He then asked shyly if we would like to stop & see the king. We were on a small country road, the only vehicle & our guide & driver stood by the side, few seconds later a vehicle came by our guide & driver bowed deeply & the vehicle slowed as the king waved to us. The guide & driver were so excited to have seen the king in person it was a thrill to see their excitement.

    OK this is getting long & I am not sure I have given a lot of solid info but as I said I am happy to answer questions or add more detail as you ask. I am sure I have forgotten to mention something I really wanted to tell you about! We had a great trip to Bhutan & with the help of BP & our driver & guide we were really able to make it a trip that suited us very well. Once again this is such a beautiful, clam serine place.

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    Jules, thanks so much. Your report is really helpful. Bhutan has long been on our list of places we want to visit. This report will help us plan it.

    You and dogster are so right that "forewarned is forearmed." Your planning paid off!

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    This is a fabulous report. We are really unsure whether we want to go to Bhutan some day but after reading this, I am leaning towards going. I don't think we would be able to take as much time as you did. From your itinerary, it appears that you had about 3 weeks - is that correct?

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    Thanks Kathie & Craig. Yes Craig we flew into Paro on day 1 & out on Day 20. We went from LAX & overnighted in BKK to get the 6am flight to Paro the next morning. We also had a couple of nights in BKK on the way back. We certainly had plenty of time. But if we had to we could have cut a couple of days & not felt cheated but we would have just had less time to head out wandering on our own etc. but would have still felt fine with it. We just used all the time we had.
    Happy travels

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    Kathie one thing I did forget which I think is of interezt to you is the textiles & fabrics. Some of them are stunning. I did go to some local weaving places & to the National school. It was interesting to see the work in progress. Things are expensive to buy in Bhutan. When I say things I mean the sort of things westeners be looking to purchase. I was very surprised at the cost of fabrics & thought that these must be greatly inflated for tourist purchase but the more I enquired the more I realised that I was not totally correct. The locals esp the women can pay a lot of more for the fabric for thier kias depending on the silk content tightness of the weave etc. There is some lovely stuff around though.

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    Hey Jules - Finally! Great to see your report. It's perfectly well written and very interesting. But it just made me feel angry - NOT because of anything you wrote, I hasten to add - but I realise I'm still pissed off at those guys who screwed Bhutan up for me. I think they betrayed me, betrayed their company and they betrayed Bhutan. Not fair.

    So, the more I read of how much you loved it, the worse I feel. LOL.

    I need to get over this. I thought I had. heh. I'm a bitter old dog, I think.

    I'd like to think that dogster's misadventures gave you a better trip, jules. I'll bet that Blue Poppy made an effort not to screw over another Fodorite, now they've realised we can bite back.

    As for costings, Kathie. Prices in Bhutan are not just inflated for tourists - it's a hot-air balloon of greed. Think about that stuff you saw endlessly in KTM. Go to Bhutan. You'll see exactly the same stuff at 5, 6 times the price.

    As for the textiles. Think in the $ thousands.

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    Dogster I definately think that your misadventures helped me. Sorry if I am again dragging up the anger for you.

    Kathie Dogster is right in that the prices can def be in the 10000's. One thing I remember fairly well is a woman buying a sash that is used by the local women on their nat dress. The piece was about 10cm/6inches wide and about as long as the woman was tall. It was silk embroidered on silk and beautiful work. The price she ended up paying was around US$300. This was a new piece not antique. I thought the work was beautiful.

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    Thanks, Jules and dogster for the info on textile prices. I bought some textiles in Nepal that were made in an area close to Bhutan... $10 each! I had heard that the prices in Bhutan were very high, I just wanted to know how high!

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