The whole process of booking and arranging my personalised trip to Bhutan was very efficient and enabled me to include visits I was personally interested in. My guide, Tshering Dhendup, was very knowledgeable about the history and places we visited and if he didn’t know any answer to my innumerable questions, he soon found out from other staff members. He particularly went out of his way to source a book highlighting the Arts and Crafts of Bhutan for me and arranging a visit to a school where his cousin was a teacher. He was happy to rearrange a day’s programme in order for us to make a 5 hour trek down the Haa valley when he realised that I was particularly wishing to make longer walks. Our young driver, Sonam, was wonderful – very courteous and kind, really looking after me and an excellent driver on the difficult, windy roads. Highlights definitely were: The Black Crane Festival, and seeing and hearing these amazng birds; camping on the Bumdra trek and approaching Tiger Nest from behind; the beauty and silence of the forests; the friendly courteous people; the hot stone bath!; the school visit; joining the women packing the incense sticks in the incense factory, Thimpu; the stay in Chimi and cooking with Doka; the excellent National and Textile Museums; buying a kira from the woman who had woven it and wearing it at the Crane festival and when we attended a Buddhist wedding ceremony of a young couple arranged for them by their guide –a wonderful, unforgettable experience!
Although I really enjoyed my visit to Bhutan, there were a few arrangements I was disappointed with. I realise I am probably an unusual tourist in that the plush 4* hotels are not my cup of tea although I realise they were chosen to show the best the country can offer. Being on my own, I found the large restaurants impersonal and with most other guests in large groups, eating there was an isolating experience. I should have thought at the beginning that my 3 nights’ stay in Paro would be in a similar hotel and ask if it was possible to alter my booking to a smaller guest house or home stay. Outside of Thimpu and Paro, however, it was easier to chat to other travellers and share experiences.
I had asked for ‘homestay’ during the rest of my trip in order to experience Bhutanese life and meet the people. However, only the Chimi Lankhakhang Farmhouse at Punakha met my expectations. Here the owner Doga was a delight and we shared harvesting vegetables and helping in the kitchen to prepare them and making momos and chilli paste! Although beautifully preserved, her farmhouse was still typical and I loved my stay there. The other two although, originally a traditional farmhouse were more like guest houses with a larger number of guests and one didn’t feel as though you were sharing in the family’s lives in the same way.
Most places where we stayed or stopped for lunch tended to serve ‘Western’ style food – (yuk! Cornflakes and fried eggs for breakfast!) and I often tried to ask for Bhutanese food and always chose it at the buffet meals. This often meant that Sonam and Tshering did not share their meal with me as they did not like tasteless vegetables!!! As with the large hotels this meant eating on my own (a factor, unfortunately, I had not considered when arranging my holiday). I did note that many other guides did share their meals and often stayed with their guests at the end of the day rather than leaving them as mine did – sometimes as early as 4p.m. It led to a very long evening. Sometimes they didn’t even stay at the same place (e.g at Chimi) and it was with another guest’s guide and driver that we spent the time in the kitchen and all ate together.
I was very lucky to visit a school as there is a new ruling that permission now has to be obtained beforehand from the District Education Officer. It was only as we were in Tshering’s village visiting his home and family, that as he was known and his cousin taught in the village school, I was able to do so. N.B. This should be considered in the future for any other request for a school visit.
One of my main reasons for my trip was to trek in the forests and mountains. It was only just before leaving and the full itinerary sent in large print, (rather than as the previous e-mails) and I was preparing my folder for each day, that I realised there was more sight-seeing and a great deal of driving than I had expected. This was my own short-sightedness. We were able to organise an extra day’s trek in the Haa valley which helped but on my return, I discovered there were in fact many other lower-lying treks in the valleys we visited that could have been included. I know I agreed to the itinerary which had been altered to include some of the visits I wished to make but it might be advisable to initially ascertain more accurately guests’ expectations. I remember Baz asking whether I was happy for so many days homestay and agreeing that on my last trekking holiday in Nepal, I had stayed for almost a week in people’s homes where the facilities were really basic and a true reflection of how the Gurung people really lived. I was expecting a similar experience.
I hope these reflections will be helpful in your future planning.