Lay of the Land
This tiny Himalayan kingdom may be petite as the crow flies, but it is vast in its depth between peaks and valleys. Bhutan’s highest mountain is in the north, at nearly 25,000 feet, with its lowest point in the east at just over 300 feet above sea level. It’s a nation of dramatic landscapes, which requires rough overland travel. The international airport is in Paro, centrally located on the western side of the country.
Visitors typically arrive into Paro and immediately continue on, only to return for a few nights at the end to hike Tiger’s Nest. The capital city of Thimphu is 90 minutes east. Journeys continue to Punakha, which is further north though central. This is the crux of two rivers that flow together, and a lush fertile landscape. To the south is Gangtey, which is at higher elevation and has a more arid climate and slightly more desolate landscape. The furthest point on the path of common visitors is Bumthang, to the north east. Lack of infrastructure and extreme landscapes create isolated communities, and visitors must be prepared for rough roads, long drives and winding switchbacks.
When to Go
There are good times and better times to go to Bhutan. The high seasons are mid-September to mid-November, and mid-March to May. The shoulder seasons are also wonderful. December and January daytime temperatures are brisk but not cold, and during a recent February trip it was sunny and short-sleeve weather several days. However, in wintertime if there is snow and ice, the rough roads can be even more treacherous. Evenings are chilly. Summertime brings the rains, but also the vibrant fauna.
Who Should Go
In comparison to its gigantic neighbors India and China, Bhutan is intrinsically calm and gentle. However, traveling to see many of its most memorable sights requires hikes (from forty minutes to a few hours) as well as taking long drives on very bumpy and windy roads, so you must be in relatively good physical shape to visit. People who love being outside, and exploring with a sense of curiosity and adventure will enjoy Bhutan as will those with an interest in Buddhism. Families with children will be greeted with extra warmth, and kids have a ball with room to roam.
The only way in is via Bhutan’s national carrier, Druk Air or the new Bhutan Airways. Between the two companies, there are only about a dozen pilots who are licensed to make the landing at Paro’s airport, which lies in a valley of high mountains. They have direct flights from Bangkok, Delhi and Singapore. (The arrival into Paro is absolutely thrilling or terrifying, depending on your perspective. Sit on the left side of the plane for the best views; sometimes Everest may be glimpsed.)
Visitors to Bhutan spend a significant amount of time on the winding roads that circumvent the narrow passages and link the remote valleys, so an excellent car and driver are very important. However, even with these, you must be prepared for long drives between regions (between two or three and up to six hours are common for a classic itinerary) and very bumpy, rutted roads with windy turns. There is a domestic airport in Bumthang that offers charter service to Paro, eliminating the 12-hour drive (rates are reasonable and can be organized through hotels). Druk Air plans to offer regular flights during peak seasons.
Bhutan has made a concerted effort to create a tourism industry focused on high-end and low-impact. Visitors from all nations (except India) must obtain a visa, and must spend a minimum of $250 per person, per day ($65 of which goes to the government). You must have a guide—there is no doing Bhutan solo. A great guide becomes so much more in the course of your journey; don’t be surprised if you find yourself exchanging a somber farewell at Paro International Airport.