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  • Bhutan is a secluded south Asian kingdom

    with a mythic -- and often misunderstood -- reputation for reclusiveness,
    happiness, and public portrayals of penises.

Bhutan: Photos Of A Mystical and Misunderstood Country

My Bhutan photos are some of the best I’ve ever taken, and I’m so happy to finally publish them.

The Kingdom of Bhutan, also known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is a small, mountainous South Asian country surrounded on three sides by India, and bordered China to the north, that spreads into the easternmost stretch of the Himalayas.

Bhutan is generally seen as a culturally protected and isolationist nation. It has perhaps the best natural conservation program in the world and — having replaced Gross National Product with Gross National Happiness as their national indicator of success — is also often referred to as “The Last Shangri-La”.

Widespread — but undeserved — reputations for difficult-to-obtain visas and prohibitively expensive travel costs, coupled with vast natural wealth, well-preserved religious and cultural institutions, and the prioritization of peoples’ happiness over the accumulation of wealth, have made it both a sought-after gem among travelers and a country cloaked in mystery and misconceptions.

Travel in Bhutan

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>>> Your author hard at work at the Hotel Dewachen in Gangtay (also known as Phobjikha Valley).

Although Bhutan is very high on a lot of travelers’ wish lists, the number of people who visit the country is actually quite low. The main reasons are Bhutan’s reputations for difficult-to-obtain visas for and high travel prices.

Both of these reputations are grossly overstated and the Tourism Council has been working hard to change these misperceptions.

Here is how travel in Bhutan really works.

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>>> Bhutan’s capital city, Thimpu. Population: 80,000. Number of traffic lights: 0.

The Real Cost of Travel in Bhutan

It’s true: Bhutan is not a budget travel destination.

But it’s also not as crazy expensive as a lot of people think it is.

There are a lot of misconceptions about the tourism tariff and other government policies. Many people think you have to pay several hundred dollars per day just for the privilege of being in the country, but they’re wrong.

Here’s how it works. All tourists (with the exception of those from a handful of countries) must:

  • Pay a sustainable tourism tariff of $65 USD per day
  • Stay in a government approved hotel rated three-stars or higher
  • Employ a licensed local guide

The price of tourism packages, which are only sold as all-inclusive deals, and which also include meals and transportation, are as low as $200 USD per day per person — and even a bit less when booked in large groups. Of course, more expensive and luxurious options are also available.

$200 per day per person is certainly not cheap (and that’s the low season price, in high season prices start at $250), especially for budget travelers that are used to pinching pennies in India, Nepal, and Thailand. However, a tour in Bhutan is not significantly more expensive than a comparable all-inclusive tour most nearby countries.

The only difference is that in Bhutan you don’t have any other option.

So, most people’s perception of Bhutan as an overly-expensive out-of-reach destination is based more on misunderstandings of the country’s unusually strict tourism policies than the actual relative cost.

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>>> The lobby of the Terma Linka Hotel in Thimpu, one of Bhutan’s many five-star hotels.
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>>> The exterior of the Terma Linka Hotel is a beautiful example of Bhutanese stonework. All buildings in Bhutan are required by law to be built in the traditional Bhutanese style.

Driving in Bhutan

Overland travel in Bhutan is slow. The country’s main highway is a narrow two-lane mountain road that’s regularly blocked by mudslides during the rainy season. Places where it’s safe to pass the car in front of you are few and far between.

The government is currently working to widen the road, but until they’re finished it’s recommended that you emulate the near-boundless patience of the Bhutanese, and expect to move only as fast as the slowest person on the road.

 

>>> My first Bhutanese traffic jam.

Here’s the story of my first Bhutanese traffic jam. While driving through the countryside we came upon a grey van blocking the road that wouldn’t start. We all hopped out of our vehicles and chatted idly in the road for about 40 minutes, examined the van, and kicked the tires until it looked like one guy was getting anxious to move on. So, we all pushed the van to the side of the road, creating enough space for everyone to get by.

We actually could have done that at any time, but nobody cared because pretty much everybody in Bhutan is up for a little roadside chit-chat with strangers, and basically nobody in Bhutan is ever in a hurry.

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>>> An absurdly large Buddha statue in the hills above Thimpu that was under construction at the time of my visit.

Getting a Visa to Bhutan

Like the cost of travel in Bhutan, the ease of navigating Bhutan’s visa process is widely misunderstood.

Many people think that it’s difficult to get a visa to Bhutan because of a widespread rumor that the government limits the number of visas issued each year.

The rumor is true…kind of.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan website states, “There is no limit on the number of tourists admitted into the country each year.” Despite that, I was told by people in the tourism industry during my trip that the government does have the legal ability to limit tourist visas in any given year after a certain number have been issued.

Those same people told me, though,  that the government is spending a lot of money on education, social programs, and infrastructure development right now, and it’s highly unlikely that they would cut off one of their best revenue sources.

So, if you were ever worried about being rejected for a visa to Bhutan, don’t. The chance that any tourists are going to be turned away is so slim it’s not worth worrying about.

Applying a few months in advance of your trip to ensure ample processing time is recommended.

Bhutanese Food

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>>> An off-the-tour local restaurant in Thimpu that I talked my guide into taking me to.
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>>> The dishes we ate in the above-pictured restaurant. The bowl in focus is a popular dish made of eggs, chili peppers, and cheese. It was awesome. 

The food in Bhutan is very good. Although the country actually doesn’t allow the slaughter of animals because of the strong Buddhist convictions there, imported meat is common and present in most meals. (Eating vegetarian is also very easy there.)

An endemic species of very large, mild red peppers is a part of nearly every meal. They’re not very spicy and add a pleasant flavor to just about anything.

Butter tea is also served everywhere. It’s pretty gross. From what I could tell it was a cup of melted butter that had been flavored with a tea bag.

Butter tea is definitely worth trying because you have try that kind of stuff when you travel, but I found it to be rich beyond the boundaries of reason and, as a person with a low tolerance for lactose, the affects on my gastrointestinal workings reinforced my belief that no good can ever result from drinking a mug of melted butter — especially before a bumpy 5-hour drive through the mountains.

Lactards beware. Cheese is a part of a lot of dishes and mugs of melted butter are ubiquitous. There are definitely enough options that you can eat safely, but you’ll have to keep your guard up.

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>>> A few dishes from one of the best-known restaurants in Thimpu. 
>>> A beautiful restaurant we visited in the Punakha Valley. Not pictured: the five-foot-long wooden penis carving in the bathroom which was so big I was unable to hold it up to my groin and take a selfie that captured the whole thing. Believe me, I tried.

If you haven’t heard, Bhutan is famous for its hilarious oversized representation of penises, but that part of Bhutanese culture has been so widely written about that I chose not to focus on it in this post.

The Bhutanese People

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>>> A young monk in the Rinpung Dzong in Paro.

Bhutan is widely reputed to be the happiest country on Earth. This is due at least in part to the country’s use of its homegrown Gross National Happiness indicator, which is used as its barometer of the country’s well-being (in contrast to the Gross Domestic Product measurement used by most). GNH is measured using the Alkire-Foster method.

Having traveled to Bhutan from Thailand,  a country where people are generally boisterous, outgoing, and hospitable in the extreme, I expected the Bhutanese to be similar.

But they couldn’t have been more different.

Locals rarely struck up conversations with me for idle pleasure. And when I did converse with them their demeanor was straightforward and unenthusiastic. Although the Bhutanese seemed quite stoic, they were were not shy. Once engaged in discussion any random stranger would have no problem continuing the conversation indefinitely to the point where I’d often wonder if they didn’t have something else they needed to be doing.

I find this character hard to describe. It’s similar to that of many people I knew in Canada who worked alone in the bush a for long periods of time. They appeared serious, but were actually quite light hearted. The somber expression of the above monk is the same expression you will receive from many Bhutanese during a pleasant discussion, but behind it you find a good-natured and gentle soul.

I do not think of Bhutanese as happy in my Western conception of the idea. I think they’d be better described as content, which makes sense given the deep roots of Buddhism in the country and the religion’s focus on the acceptance of the world around you.

My experience with the Bhutanese made me question whether contentment may be a more pleasurable emotion than happiness.

I now think it very well may be.

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>>> A young Bhutanese girls spots me taking photos of the Centenary Farmers Market in Thimpu with a zoom lens from about 40 meters away.

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>>> My guide, Thinley (right), and our driver (left), in Gangtay after a leisurely day of trekking

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>>> A textiles vendor in the weekend market in Thimpu.
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>>> My guide, Thinley, who was knowledgable and awesome. If you’re ever looking for a good tour company in Bhutan, just send me a message and I’ll introduce you.

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>>> I met this fella wandering around the weekend market in Thimpu. He was actually flattered I wanted to take his photo, and thanked me afterward.

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>>> The scene at the Memorial Stupa in Thimpu, a spot where crowds of people gather to spin prayer wheels, circle the stupa and socialize.

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>>> A monk walks past a flock of pigeons at the Thimphu Dzong. 

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>>> Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. They’re very, very good at it.

I can’t overstate how amazing Bhutanese are at archery. We watched this local archery competition for a couple of hours one afternoon. The fellow in the middle was aiming at a small target on the ground that was about the size of a kitchen cupboard door over 100 meters away and was surrounded by another group of archers. He was using a simple wooden bow and the arrow was about less than one meter long and little wider than a pencil.

In the game, if you hit the target at all, your team gets a point.

The archers would all stand around and in front of the target, dancing around to distract the archer aiming at the target and move out of the way only at the last moment.

As hard as I tried, I wan’t able to spot an arrow in flight. I’d only see them after they’d pierced the target or the ground. Meanwhile these fellows played chicken with them for fun. I have no idea how the were able to see them coming.

The pictured archer had been limping around all day. He’d been hit in the ankle (very hard by the looks of his limp) before we arrived, but was completely undeterred. He was still the one to stand most directly in front of the target and the last to move out of the way — or simply dodge the arrow by lifting a leg or twisting his body slightly to allow it to pass.

It was a unnerving to watch, but also a testament to the unbelievable skill and honing of the senses that people are able to obtain with years of practice and refinement.

I guess those fellows would probably watch me with similar horror while dropping off a 30-foot cliff on a snowboard that to me feels totally safe, but to the uninitiated would look madly suicidal.

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>>> A young Bhutanese girl I met playing with her friends at Chimi Lhakhang in the Punakha Valley.

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>>> A Bhtanese girl we ran into on her way home walking back to our car in the Punakha Valley.

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>>> Farmer carrying the harvest home in the Punakha Valley.

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>>> We met this woman on the steps to the Rinpung Dzong in Paro, the hometown of my guide Thinley. She wanted a copy of her photo, but she didn’t have email…or a computer…or a smartphone. After chatting for a while (Thinley and I really wanted to find a way to give her the photo), they realized that she was friends with Thinley’s mother, so he promised that he would contact her through his mother bring her over to his house to see the photo on his computer.

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>>> A young boy who was also with the above pictured girl playing in front of Chimi Lhakhang in the Punakha Valley. The group of four children (not all pictured here) were begging me to take their photo while making funny faces and then show them on the photos on my camera’s display.

Landscapes of Bhutan Photos

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>>> Landscape, Gangtay.

Bhutan is one of the most conservationist countries in the world with 42% of its natural areas federally protected, and with many additional areas that have been allotted for use at the discretion of local governments who have also opted for preservation. There are few countries in the world so naturally pristine and — beyond the scope of official policy — generally respectful of the environment.

Also, sitting in the foothills of the Himalayas, it’s visually stunning.

As a photographer I was fortunate to visit at the tail end of the rainy season when the constant mist and low, thick clouds added a dramatic element to landscapes.

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>>> A home in the forest in the hills above Paro.

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>>> The moss hanging from the trees in this spot on the trek to the Tiger’s Nest Dzong was enchanting. The forest was unlike any other I’d seen in the country. 

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>>> A building on a hill in Gangtay.

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>>> A takin on a hill.

The Takin is Bhutan’s national animal. They think of it as a cross between a goat and a cow.

The Bhutanese are generally not fond of enclosing animals for the pleasure of humans. However, they found that so many people received the odd description of the takin’s appearance with disbelief, they felt it necessary to create a place where visitors could see the takin for themselves.

Too say that they’re funny looking is an understatement.

There’s one Takin reserve in the capital, Thimpu. It’s nothing like a zoo. Following the Bhutanese respect for nature, the reserve is sprawling and only contains a small number of animals, which allows them to move and graze quite freely.

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>>> Takin have a lot of character. In some of my other photos they some hilarious faces.

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>>> In Bhutan, roads are minimal. As with any rural undeveloped society, foot trails are the main form of transportation. I had no complaints. Most of them looked like this. 

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>>> Trees in Gangtay.

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>>> Rafting on the Mochu River just upstream from the Punakha Dzong.

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>>> A stream in Gangtay.

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>>> The view of a small community from the trail to the Dragon’s Nest. 

Bhutanese Religion

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>>>  Punakha Dzong.

Bhutan is filled with centuries old Dzongs, which are like temples, or monasteries. They are the countries most prized edifices and are meticulously maintained.

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>>> Prayer flags in the Punakha Valley. Different types of prayer flags have different meanings. These ones serve as tombstones. Prayer flags are considered lucky, and since the wind runs through them and then spreads across the land, they are thought to bless everything the wind touches.

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>>> A stupa with prayer flags in the Punakha Valley. Stupas may only be walked around in a clockwise direction. This old fellow was walking with his cane around the stupa for an hour after I arrived. I have no idea how long he was there before I arrived.

Stupas are found throughout the country. You will often see devout Bhutanese walking clockwise around stupas. The necessity of always moving clockwise around stupas is so ingrained in the society that even when a stupa is placed on the side of the road, a side road will be created around it to enable cars to detour around the structure in a clockwise direction.

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>>> This bodhi tree, located in Punakha Dzong, is a direct descendant from the bodhi tree beneath which Buddha gained enlightenment. The original tree died, but not before a tree in Sri Lanka had been planted from its seeds. This tree was grown from a seed from the tree in Sri Lanka.

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>>> The massive Buddha under construction in the hills above Thimpu. You can still see the scaffolding from the final work being done.

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>>> These are also prayer flags, but of a more general nature than the funeral flags. They are, in the same way, meant the bless all that is touched by the the wind that passes through them.

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>>> The tops of prayer flags against an overcast sky. 

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>>> A monk in Thimpu Dzong.

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>>> The Tiger’s Nest, the most iconic of all Bhutan’s Dzongs.

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>>> Monks dancing in Rinpung Dzong in Paro.

I feel that the above image more than any of my other Bhutan photos captures the strongly spiritual, whimsical, and carefree outlook of the Bhutanese.

They seem to dance softly to the rhythm of the world around them with no ambition other than maintaining harmony with themselves, their surroundings, and each blissful moment.

Do you have any questions about travel in Bhutan?

Want an introduction to my guide, who I highly recommend?

If so, feel free to drop me a line!

23 Responses to Bhutan: Photos Of A Mystical and Misunderstood Country

  1. Tamara (Globe Guide) December 16, 2015 at 7:05 am #

    You’re right- those ARE amazing photos! Bhutan is high on my travel list but sadly quite pricey given our current Canadian exchange rate to US dollars. Someday though, hopefully!

  2. Swati January 2, 2016 at 9:41 am #

    I just got back from Bhutan two days back, and found this post. Could relate to each word and the pictures are amazing. Great work.

    • Ankush January 23, 2017 at 9:47 pm #

      hi swati is this true that one day living cost for per person per day is 200$ ?

      • Matt January 23, 2017 at 10:52 pm #

        The cost of travel (not living) is $200 per day per person or more, yes.

        There is one exception to that. Indians have a different visa to Bhutan, and can visit much more cheaply.

  3. Voyager January 22, 2016 at 10:14 pm #

    Wonderful photos! Well clicked. Looking at them you feel you as though you are standing right there! 🙂 Can you let me know which camera you have used for those panoramic pics?

    • Matt Gibson January 22, 2016 at 10:24 pm #

      Glad you like them! The panoramas were just taken with my phone, which is a OnePlus.

  4. Corinne April 2, 2016 at 4:17 am #

    Matt, What time of year did you visit? Was it a special archery festival, or are they holding them all the time? Bhutan is on our short list, so I probably will be contacting you about a guide as well as some other questions if you don’t mind. I loved reading your thoughts on this mysterious country, and your images are stunning.

    • Matt April 2, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

      I visited in late August/early September. It was the end of the shoulder season, right before high season started, which is an excellent way to save a bit of money but still get the good weather. Archery is the national sport and I saw it several times while I was there. You can be sure that you’ll see plenty of it no matter what time of year you visit.

      Feel free to drop me a line with any other questions you have.

      • Corinne April 6, 2016 at 4:03 am #

        Thank Matt, I will when we get a little closer to the trip.

  5. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie April 16, 2016 at 8:47 am #

    Truly incredible photos and a great detailed guide, Matt. I so enjoy reading about little known countries, like Bhutan. I feel like I’ve traveled along on your journey. Thanks for sharing your work!

  6. Terri April 19, 2016 at 1:49 am #

    Bhutan is an amazing country . I was there in November 2015 during the 4th King’s 60 th birthday. People were out in full force decorating their respective towns n villages… Awesome teamwork becos they love their king! The yearly BLACK CRANE festival was also around that time of the year and people flock to attend the festival…

    You have written all that s to be written .. very candid n complete. Well done. It is one country where people live simply but yet happy… there is hardly greed amongst them n they are very contented with their simplistic lifestyle.Yes I do think the number of tourists per year is limited and during peak period , it s USD 250 per day as opposed to USD200. Therefore you do not see many backpackers but rather conducted tours or small groups of visitors with a local guide .. which is mandatory.

    This is one country I would like to visit again the next few years..the unspoilt nature n ecology …Breathtaking sceneries…

  7. Journeys September 2, 2016 at 10:33 pm #

    Whoah! Awesome pictures… I wish I can go to Bhutan! Thank you so much for your wonderful Photo Essays. I really love them. More power!

  8. Sheri September 8, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

    This is a fantastic post. Well done! We’ll be heading here in December.

  9. Gone with a whim October 21, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    I’m mindblown by the photos. I love how you have captured so many facets of the country and culture in this post and your vibrant photos. I can’t wait to visit. 🙂

  10. Megan | Red Around The World January 8, 2017 at 8:21 am #

    I LOVE the pictures! Bhutan is one of the places that would definitely be worth the cost to visit. It looks amazing.

  11. flights journey January 14, 2017 at 1:01 am #

    Thats amazing photoshoot of bhutan.bhutan is a religous country and have many monuments and destinations for visit .thanks for share these nice images.

  12. Bilyana | OwlOverTheWorld March 4, 2017 at 1:51 am #

    Very informative article! Bhutan is on my wish list of travel destinations as well and I found a lot of helpful information in this post. Great photos either, the one with the boy who sticks his tongue out is so adorable!

  13. TravelGuru July 28, 2017 at 5:52 am #

    Wow, what a great weblog of Bhutan. The happy country. When do you think is the best season to visit Bhutan. I am also planning to visit this magical country. Keep it up

  14. lakshmi August 9, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    Such amazing photographs!! Bhutan has always been on my list, this post just inspired me again to cross it off the list as soon as possible.

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