It took me more than a year of planning to help my religious teacher Ven Kaiding to lead a group of 16 devotees to visit Bhutan from 12 to 19 July 2015. As travelling to Bhutan is not cheap with government’s official tariff of USD200 per day per person during low season and USD250 during high season which includes transportation, 3 meals plus complimentary coffee/tea and snacks, standard 3-star hotels, guide and driver but not visa fee. As long as you have a big group, you can always work your way out to negotiate with your tour company who would usually give some concessions.
The first mail started on 01 July 2014 by writing to about 10 travel agencies for quotations. Some replied within a day, some took few days and some did not reply.
After shortlisting the tour agencies by going through their testimonials, reviews in Tripadvisor forum and the type of hotels they gave and finally I picked Heavenly Bhutan Travels because of the superfast reply, the pricing and flexibility in the itinerary and allowing us to pick the hotels and restaurants of our preference as well as practical advice by its CEO and founder Mr Raju.
Our trip was almost aborted by the severe earthquake in Kathmandu when AirAsia canceled our flight to Kathmandu from Kuala Lumpur scheduled on 11 July 2015 and we were unable to connect our booked Kathmandu to Paro flight and the flight from Kathamndu to Paro for the next few days were fully booked. We had no choice then but to cancel our trip despite deposit had been paid. It's the terms and conditions of all travel agencies to impose a penalty for cancelling the booking and by then, more than 100 emails had been exchanged over the period. It's the magnanimity of Mr Raju who promised to keep the cancellation fee for us to make the trip in a future date. At last we managed to change our route by having our transit in Kolkata with all flight tickets available for the same period.
It was indeed a marvelous, wonderful and unforgettable trip arranged by Heavenly Bhutan Tours by providing us with a very good eloquence in English, helpful, humble and highly knowledgeable guide in many fields, Mr Sajan and a very skillful, careful and helpful young driver Mr Ngawang.
Our group members were received by the company's top management Mdm Subba, the finance manager, Mr Shiva, the general manager and Ms Menuka, the operation manager upon our arrival at Paro airport. Mr Raju, was so apologetic when he could not come personally to receive us as he was having a business convention in India but later he caught us up in a dinner at Paro. We were garlanded by Khadar and ushered to a cafeteria at the airport where welcoming drinks were served. After which, we started our 7-day trip.
Unlike tour guides in Asian countries where tour guides used to hurry their guests when visiting a place but put a lot of time for shopping. In Bhutan, you never see this, the guide would never take you to any souvenir shops unless and until you requested. So we had plenty of times visiting the magnificent and charming Dzongs in Bhutan.
To make the story short, we visited most of the famous Dzongs in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Phobjikha. Among the Dzongs that impressed us most was the Punakha Dzong, which was huge and magnificent. We stayed at Norbuling Hotel in Thimphu, Punatsangchu Cottages in Wangdue and Dewachen Hotel in Phobjikha and Gantey Palace Hotel in Paro. Gantey Palace Hotel was the best hotel we stayed in Bhutan because of its beautiful environment, well kept garden, wonderful view overlooking the Paro valley and its charming rooms. Norbuling Hotel is pretty good with free strong wifi in the room, firm bed and well located. Punatsangchu Cottages has a beautiful surrounding as it is located besides the river. The environment would be more pleasing if the overgrown grass had been trimmed or cut. We were quite disappointed that wifi was not working when we checked in and only available in the next morning when we were about to leave. We had not chance to appreciate the beautiful pine tress at Dewachen Hotel as we arrived that late evening and had to leave very early in the morning to avoid road closure. We were quite disappointed too as four of our rooms were without hot water supply throughout our stay and none of the staff could do anything to tackle the problem.
As far as food was concerned, most of the restaurants served decent food in buffet style but the foods at Gantey Palace Hotel was still the best. We patronized Yue Ling Restaurant and Bhutan Kitchen in Thimphu, Kuenphen Restaurant and restaurant in Hotel Lobesa in Wangdue, Lhayabling Restaurant, Phuensum Gakhil Restaurant and Charo and Doro Restaurant in Paro.
On the last day of the tour, Heavenly Bhutan Travels arranged a cultural performance cum dinner at Charo and Doro Restaurant and the CEO, Mr Raju together with the senior staff of the company came along and had a good conversation with us and our tour leader, Ven Kaiding.
The restaurant at Hotel Lobesa in Wangdue where we took our breakfast on the way from Dewachen Hotel to Paro commanded a magnificent view of the field and rolling mountains, the manager and staff were very courteous and helpful. The restaurant was equipped with wifi and food was delicious and I would recommend my friends to stay in this hotel if they come to Bhutan in future.
Road condition: The road condition after Thimphu was quite bad, bumpy and winding in the sense that most travelers have to endure this inconvenience for now as the government was upgrading the road and road works were carried out along the way. Certain stretch of the roads had to be closed for hours for works to be carried out. We had a scenario where we had to leave Hotel Dewachen as early as 4.30am in order to beat the road block and there was a minor landslide where a tree fell down across the road and we stuck for an hour.
Highlights 1: Hiking up Tiger’s Nest or Takshang Lhakhang was the highlight of our whole Bhutan trip and it’s a must for most travelers when coming to Bhutan. We were in a big group with the oldest 74 years old and a handful more in the sixties. We were advised to start our hike early when the weather was not so hot. We were fortunate to have a very helpful guide, Mr Sajan, to look after us. It’s really not easy for Mr Sajan alone to take care of a group of 17 with different pace hiking up the monastery. To make sure everyone is kept on the right track, I could see Mr Sajan running up and down the hill several times. It took us four solid hours to hike up to the famed monastery from the car park at the foothill with a 30 minutes tea break at the cafeteria situated half way up. After almost an hour hike from the cafeteria, we reached a tall religious flag pole, the view of the monastery was just stunning, magnificent and breathtaking with temples perching on such a steep cliff and wondered how those people built it in the olden days. After that flag pole started the 400 over stairs downwards and 200 over stairs upwards, in between there was a magnificent waterfall with water plunging down from few hundred meters, the sacred monastery was right in front of us. Security check was strict at the entrance where no cameras and backpacks were allowed to be brought into the monastery.
We stayed at the monastery for quite a while as on the day, a particular meditation cave used by the Guru Rinpoche was open to the public on that particular day of the year.
We had a simple yet delicious vegetarian lunch on the way back and it took us about two hours to get down to the car park at the foothill. It was raining and the trek was slippery when we went down, the driver Mr Ngawang who also hiked up together with us helped two elderly members to get down to the car park.
Highlights 2: Gantey Nature Trail. It was one of the most beautiful trails we have ever walked in our past travels. Due to the road work from Wangdue to Phobjikha, we managed to reach the starting point of this beautiful 4km trail at 4pm where we had to forgo Gantey Gompa and Black Neck Crane observatory station. It was really worthwhile to take the trail. At the beginning of the trail, we were attracted and absorbed by the view on the slope with pine trees overlooking the valley with dotted houses here and there. It’s was like Switzerland. The guide told us that this place also called “Little Switzerland”. There was a lookout point along the way where we could see a vast flat wetland in the valley. The view was really beautiful and the air was so fresh. It is a very easy trail with flat and downhill path. It took us about two hours to finish the trail with very slow leisure walk and taking time to take great pictures. Don’t miss this attractive place when you are in Phobjikha.
Conclusion: It’s always very much cheaper to book through the tour companies in Bhutan than through the local ones at home but one must be cautious to pick the right and responsible, good service as well as reputable companies as there are more than one thousand travel companies in Bhutan. So going through the reviews and trip reports in various travel forums is a must. Email at least 10 travel agencies for quotations and shortlist them after few email correspondence. Don’t feel shy to ask questions and the way they answer also serves a clue for final selection. Some tour companies in their website stated that if you have a group of 16 people, the 17th pax will enjoy totally free tour fare including visa fee. If you have a group of more than 10, you can always negotiate for better deal. I hope this trip report helps those who intend to travel to Bhutan without going through their local agents in their homeland. Happy and safe travel.