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Craig and Jeane Visit the Last Shangri La: Bhutan 2012

Craig and Jeane Visit the Last Shangri La: Bhutan 2012

Nov 11th, 2012, 11:01 AM
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Craig and Jeane Visit the Last Shangri La: Bhutan 2012

FIRST, SOME BACKGROUND:

Jeane and I are in our mid to late 50’s and have travelled extensively, concentrating on Asia since our first visit to Thailand in the year 2000. Since then we have visited India, Bali, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

We had considered Bhutan as a travel destination on several occasions but were hesitant to commit on account of the mandatory daily minimum cost, the requirement that visitors be accompanied by a guide and the perception that the accommodations in Bhutan were somewhat lacking in quality. A little over a year ago, Jeane and I were debating about where to go next. I remembered that “Robbietravels” had written a very positive trip report on her 2007 journey to Bhutan, India and Thailand. I searched for it on this forum and reread it. In her report, Robbie raved about Snow White Tours and how Kencho, the owner would explain things in detail, go out of her way to accommodate any special requests and make a concerted effort to reserve the best hotel rooms available. I had spent some time with Robbie and her husband, Fred a few years ago at a Fodor’s GTG in Pasadena, California. From that experience, I knew we had similar travel styles and that I did not have to look any further for an agent.

I talked it over with Jeane and she gave me the go-ahead to start my research. I sent an e-mail to Kencho inquiring about an itinerary in late October/early November that would include at least one festival. We went back and forth with some questions and settled on an 11-night cultural tour itinerary which would include some day hikes and 2 festivals. Kencho also informed me that the daily minimum would rise in 2012 to $250 per person per day plus a surcharge of $30 per person per day for a private tour. Airfare from Delhi or Bangkok on Druk Air, the national airline would be extra.

Before making a final commitment to Kencho, we had to secure our flights in business class using miles. Jeane thought it might be nice to say that we had flown around the world so our plan was to fly east to Delhi, continue to Paro, Bhutan for our tour and then depart Paro for Bangkok, continuing east to Hartford. We ended up booking two separate itineraries, both “saver” fares through United using both 330-day windows for advance flight reservations. Our plan was to rent a car, drive to JFK and take Lufthansa to Delhi via Frankfort, spending 2 nights in Delhi before continuing on to Paro. On the return, the plan was to fly Paro to Bangkok, spend the night in Bangkok, then fly to Beijing, Washington Dulles and Hartford, taking a taxi home.

With our overseas flights in place, we were ready to reserve our Druk Air flights with Kencho. We had to wait a while for the flight schedules to be released but once they were, Kencho booked seats in business class for us. As each leg became available, we wired funds to her for payment. The cost for Delhi-Paro was $478 per person and the cost for Paro-Bangkok was $490 per person, a slight premium over the cost of economy class. About 3 months prior to our tour, Kencho sent us an invoice for the full cost of the tour along with a form to fill out so that we could receive our Visa Letter. We wired the funds for the tour and received our Visa Letter via e-mail about a month later. Wiring funds to Bhutan was easy. Kencho provided all of the necessary bank info and confirmed receipt within a day or two of the transfers.
Craig is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 11:26 AM
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SO OFF WE GO...

Our Lufthansa flight was scheduled to depart at 9:50 PM so we left Avon, Connecticut in our rented Toyota Land Cruiser at 4 PM, giving us more than an hour of wiggle room if we hit traffic along the way. We needed every bit of it. While the most direct way to JFK from the north is taking the Van Wyck Expressway across Long Island, we usually take the Cross Island Parkway to the Belt Parkway instead to avoid the traffic. This time it was a big mistake. Due to an accident, the Cross Island was completely shut down and we were rerouted to the Van Wyck via the Grand Central Parkway. Traffic was a mess from the time we arrived on Long Island until we arrived at National to drop off our vehicle. From National we had an easy train ride to our terminal. After all of that, we arrived at the Lufthansa check-in almost exactly 2 hours before our flight time.

After a smooth check-in and a bit of a wait at security, we proceeded to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge. The lounge was small but pleasant with a decent selection of snacks and drinks. While I had already enjoyed a big sandwich before the drive from Connecticut, it was nice to relax with a couple of glasses of white wine before our flight. The JFK leg to Frankfurt was on a 747-400 with business class downstairs only. The seats were lie-flat but angled at 170 degrees - not ideal but comfortable enough that we slept through most of the 7-hour flight. We spent our layover in Frankfurt in the business class lounge. I expected it to be crowded but it was reasonably comfortable and our time there passed quickly. Our flight to Delhi was on a brand new 747-8i, the world’s longest passenger aircraft. We were in business class upstairs. On this aircraft, the seats were completely lie-flat and, unlike United 747’s, there is overhead storage upstairs. This flight was also 7 hours but our departure was delayed due to a passenger with a medical problem - we slept a bit more, read our books and enjoyed the food and beverage service.

On our last two stops in Delhi we had gone through the old international terminal and the domestic terminal. This time we arrived at the sparkling new international terminal. Immigration and baggage claim went smoothly. We were met by our hotel driver and were whisked off to the Courtyard Gurgaon, about a 20 minute drive from the airport. Check-in to the hotel was quick but by the time we settled into bed it was 4 AM. We awoke in time to enjoy the big breakfast buffet in the main restaurant. While not as extensive as some of the breakfast buffets we have experienced in Asia, it was certainly adequate. Because we were staying on the executive floor, breakfast was complimentary, as were the airport transfers.

Jeane wanted to do some shopping while in Delhi so we arranged for a hotel driver. When we were here in 2005, Jeane had purchased jewelry at 2 stores in the Hyatt and Oberoi hotel arcades. She had also purchased some garments at the Santushti Complex. Our plan was to have the driver take us to all 3 places. The 2 arcades were a disappointment: Regency Jewelers at the Hyatt was not open and Ravissant was no longer located at the Oberoi. The fully enclosed Santushti Complex is located near the diplomatic enclave in Delhi and is a really nice collection of boutiques. I had brought my Kindle with me so I just sat in a chair outside and read while Jeane perused the shops. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon with temperatures starting to climb into the 80’s. Jeane spent about an hour there but came up empty-handed.

We had one more stop before returning to the hotel. Jeane needed an adjustment to her sunglasses. Our driver recommended Khan Market where we found an optician to help us. While the technician there worked on Jeane’s glasses, we wandered in and out of the various shops. Jeane found some cards that she liked and purchased several boxes. When we returned to the optician, Jeane’s glasses were ready - no charge for the adjustment. Our driver returned us to the hotel. We had been out about 4 or 5 hours. The cost for the car and driver was about $78, including taxes for up to 8 hours.

Jeane and I relaxed in the room for a while and then headed to the executive lounge for drinks and hearty hors d'oeuvres which satisfied our need for dinner that evening. We slept unevenly that night as our bodies still had not adjusted to the time difference. The bed in our 2-room suite was quite comfortable, however.

Our flight to Bhutan was scheduled to depart at 10:50 AM so we headed to the airport at 8 AM. In spite of our early arrival (Druk Air check-in was not yet open), there were 2 groups ahead of us in the queue for business class. Once check-in started, it was a slow process. Passports, e-tickets and Visa Letters had to be examined. Passengers are limited to 1 carry-on each, even in business class. We managed to carry on 3 bags between us because of Jeane’s camera equipment. We wanted to sit on the left side of the aircraft for the better views but the groups ahead of us made that impossible. After a ridiculously intrusive bag search at security, we finally made it to the ITC contract lounge where we were told it was a 10-minute walk to the gate.

Now I am somewhat embarrassed to say that we lingered a while too long in the lounge and boarding had already begun when we set out for the gate. If we had walked all the way, it would have been a LOT more than 10 minutes - this is a huge airport and the gate was almost at the end of the terminal. Fortunately, the driver of one of those carts that transports disabled people offered us an unsolicited lift to our gate. Now I am even more embarrassed, but I did not refuse and I am glad we didn’t. It was a looooong way to the gate.

We finally boarded the aircraft. Business class was more like United Economy Plus: 3-3 seating with extra legroom and an empty middle seat. The food and wine were plentiful, however and it was only a 2-1/2 hour flight. We were able to see Mt. Everest just before we landed but it was impossible to take a photo since we were on the “wrong” side of the plane. The views of the Himalayas were absolutely spectacular.

Next: Arriving in Bhutan
Craig is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 11:47 AM
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I've been looking forward to your report, Craig. Great start!
Kathie is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 11:51 AM
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Fab start Craig.
Smeagol is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 02:31 PM
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The hard part was knowing which impressive peak was Everest. I thought they all were but a mountain climber near me kept giving the correct names. They were all great.
Craig...what about that landing!! Row/ridge after row/ridge of high peaks to fly over and then find the pass into the airport. VEry exciting! I will never see the movie "Flight".
Elainee is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 03:37 PM
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Good start Craig. Look forward to more and your pictures!
Hanuman is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 05:27 PM
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How exciting to see Mt. Everest! Can't wait to hear more...
Florida1 is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 05:29 PM
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Nice and prompt after a comprehensive live report - Gpanda would have been so proud.

Bhutan has long been on my radar because some friends went in the 80s and met the king (father of the current king). My friends ended up hosting a party here in LA for assorted royalty plus the archery team, who were in town for the Olympics. The whole entourage did seem like the happiest people on earth and I'm sorry I didn't take them up on their invitation to visit then, when it was a mere $80 a day.

So is everyone as happy as they say there are? Are there still no traffic lights in the entire country? And...should we go there next? Looking forward to your report.
crosscheck is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 06:22 PM
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Waiting for more!
Marija is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 10:08 PM
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i can't seem to find your trip report??
rhkkmk is offline  
Nov 11th, 2012, 11:01 PM
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Looking forward to more as Bhutan is on my radar also.
moremiles is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 01:36 AM
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dumb me, i thought i was posting above on your original thread.

great start. great comprehensive info as usual.. relax and give us every tid-bit.... and is it worth $300 ea per day+++
rhkkmk is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 02:03 AM
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Yes agree it's a nice fact filled start. It may just be me but I don't sense the excitement you had before leaving. Anxious to read how it all went and have the same question as Bob if Bhutan was worth the expense. Guess we will just have to wait to find out.

Aloha!
hawaiiantraveler is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 07:08 AM
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crosscheck - I will address happiness, and in particular "Gross National Happiness" shortly. There are no traffic lights anywhere in the country.

Bob - it is $280 per person per day and includes hotels, transportation, entrance fees, guide, driver and meals. 35% of the tariff goes to the government for the betterment of the people. The only thing that is not included are beverages at meal times. Beverage prices are pretty uniform throughout the country: fruit juice or bottled water $1, soft drinks $2, beer $3 and wine $7. At the breakfast buffets there is usually one type of juice offered (different each day: orange, mango, apple etc.) We always had complimentary bottled water in our vehicle and in our hotel rooms. Sometimes we had to buy extra at mealtime for coffee and brushing teeth.

Bob and HT - Was it worth it? You might have to shift your paradigm a bit but yes, I think it was worth it...
Craig is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 07:25 AM
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FIRST DAY IN BHUTAN: PARO TO THIMPHU

While many have commented on the harrowing landing at Paro Airport, I didn’t really notice much besides the aircraft banking a couple times before we touched down on the single landing strip. As we deplaned, it was obvious that the airport is in a valley - mountains all around plus clear blue skies with temps in the high 60’s. The flight lasted 2½ hours and with Bhutan ½ hour ahead of Delhi, we arrived about 2 in the afternoon. Needless to say, there is no jetway here, so we simply walked to the small terminal. I snapped a photo of the aircraft before we went inside. Immigration was a breeze since our entry into Bhutan had been preapproved months ago. We were asked if we were importing any cigarettes (no) since they are subject to duty for foreigners (and illegal for locals).

We passed by the duty-free shop, having enjoyed a much better selection in Delhi. Our bags came quickly and we headed to the foreign exchange window. I changed $200, knowing that I would eventually need more. Jeane changed $60, which turned out to be way too little for her. US$100 notes receive a preferred rate. The going rate is the same as for the Indian Rupee, about 50 Ngultrum (nu) per US Dollar. The exchange process was very informal. We were not asked for our passports nor were we provided with receipts.

We exited the terminal and were immediately greeted by our guide, Sonam who lead us to the Toyota Land Cruiser Prado SUV (similar to the Lexus GX series marketed in the US) that would be our primary mode of transportation for the next 11 days. He introduced us to our driver Dorji, who helped him load our bags into our vehicle.

Our first stop that afternoon was the National Museum. Originally housed in the watch tower for Paro Dzong (fort), it was damaged in the 2009 earthquake and now is located behind the watch tower in an attractive new structure. The museum serves as a good introduction to Bhutan with displays of ancient armour, textiles and Thangka paintings. Sonam enhanced our visit by pointing out the most significant artifacts. His English was clear and easy to understand. From the museum grounds we enjoyed a good view of the Paro valley and the river that runs through it.

Afterwards we set out for Thimphu, the nation's capitol, a 2-hour drive from Paro. The road between the two towns is good, and by good I mean that it is fully paved with a lane in each direction. As we headed further east in Bhutan we found that this was usually not the norm - more on this later. The drive gave us our first taste of the Bhutanese countryside. One of the first things we noticed was the red chilies drying on the metal roofs of people’s homes. Chilies are one of the two primary ingredients in Bhutanese “cuisine”, the other being cheese.

We arrived at our hotel, Peaceful Resort after passing through the main part of Thimphu and driving upward from town for about 15 minutes. Formerly located in a quiet area (hence the name “Peaceful”), it is now surrounded by new construction, the result of recent population growth in Thimphu. Sonam handled our check-in to the hotel. Afterwards, he and Dorji carried our bags to our bright and spacious room (#8) on the 2nd floor. We were pleased that the room had a king bed, a balcony and plenty of places to store our belongings for the next 2 nights. Sonam informed us that dinner would be served from 7 to 9 PM and that breakfast would be served from 7 to 9 AM. With a couple of exceptions, this was the schedule at every place we stayed. Sonam also told us that Kencho would be joining us for dinner that evening and that he would meet us the next day at 9 AM to show us around Thimphu.

At 7 we were notified that Kencho had arrived, so we headed downstairs to what would be the first of many buffet dinners. As was typical for most of the places we stayed, there was a big table set up for a tour group plus smaller ones for individuals, couples, etc. Most of our buffet meals were not memorable - usually a chicken or pork dish (bad cuts), a mixed veggie dish (potatoes, green beans, carrots, cauliflower etc.), a rice dish and the national staple - chilies and cheese. A dessert of fruit or ice cream was usually served after the main meal. A server comes by and takes orders for beverages - juice, soft drinks or beer. Most places also offered a limited selection of cocktails and/or wines.

Our first meeting with Kencho was wonderful, in spite of the lackluster food. She comes from a prominent local family. Her father is in the construction business. She is single (mid to late 30’s?) and lives with her parents. She has a brother (black sheep of the family) who lives and works in New York City and a sister who is the equivalent of a senator in the Bhutanese government. The sister and her family also live with the parents but in a separate part of their home. We talked about the travel industry in Bhutan and about the changes that were taking place in the country. The time went by very quickly and we agreed to meet again for lunch the next day.

Jeane and I were extremely tired as our jet lag had not completely gone away. We hit the sack right after dinner. I had about 4 solid hours of sleep before waking to the sound of dogs barking. We were warned this might happen and I came prepared with ear plugs. They didn’t help much. Jeane and I both tossed and turned but I think we managed a full night’s sleep, in spite of the noise. Thimphu was the only place where barking dogs were a problem.

Next: Our day in Thimphu
Craig is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 07:45 AM
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I'm laughing about the chilies and cheese. Glad the barking dogs didn't follow you all over Bhutan! Enjoyed reading this latest installment.
Florida1 is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 09:39 AM
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How interesting! Looking forward to more....
Mara is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 10:08 AM
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Enjoying all the details! I've found a sleep machine app for my phone that is more helpful than earplugs. Barking dogs can be annoying!
moremiles is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 11:45 AM
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I'm taking a break from packing to catch up with your report.

Was your hotel room heated? I seem to remember reports of very cold rooms in Bhutan.

It sounds like the food in Bhutan has not improved... Is the food that the locals eat spicy? Is it only tourist food that is bland?
Kathie is offline  
Nov 12th, 2012, 12:50 PM
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Really enjoying your trip report!
Looking forward to more.
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