A Trip to Bhutan

All text and photos by Patrick Smith.

April 30, 2018

“Bhutan? Never heard of it.” This I heard over and over again during the weeks leading up to the trip. So, presuming you need an introduction, Bhutan is a small Himalayan kingdom nestled between Tibet and India. “It’s near Nepal,” is how I explained it most of the time. This is true, though it doesn’t actually border that country, a small sliver of India rising up to separate the two.

Our route to Bhutan, encompassing just over 29 hours of flying, went like this: Boston-San Francisco-Dubai-Bangkok-Paro. It was Emirates to Bangkok, and then the little-known Drukair onward to Bhutan. (If you’re traveling to this part of the world, Bangkok, Southeast Asia’s megahub, is the best jumping off point.)

Boston to Bangkok:

You’ll notice some backtracking in that itinerary on the front end, between Boston and San Francisco. This was done for no other reason than to maximize the flight time with Emirates. I had a bucket full of miles to cash in, and the Emirates flight from SFO to Dubai was the longest flight from the U.S. with upgrade seats available. If flying six hours in the wrong direction, with an overnight stay at the SFO Marriott, sounds insane, you’ve probably never flown first class on the Emirates A380: the onboard showers, the fully enclosed suites with your own private closet, the two onboard bars, the caviar and Dom Perignon. And so on.

I’m not claiming that Emirates competes on a level playing field with other carriers. We’ll save that controversy for later. In the meantime, if like me your favorite guilty pleasure in life is sampling the world’s luxury airline cabins, the experience is tough to beat.

An unusually quiet moment in the aft lounge.

Bangkok to Paro:

We airline geeks have lists; airlines that we hope to someday fly on. Drukair, the government-run carrier of Bhutan, was on my list for years, so it was especially exciting to finally be walking up the airstairs and onto a Drukair A319 at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. The carrier also goes by the name Royal Bhutan Airlines, but the local name has more character. The “Druk” (dragon) prefix is a popular trade name in Bhutan, and you’ll see it on banks, hotels, restaurants — and the national airline.

Drukair’s network, centered at Paro airport in the western part of Bhutan, extends to Bangkok, Singapore, Delhi and Mumbai. For years the company was operating the four-engine British Aerospace 146, but has since upgraded to the more modern Airbus A319. The Airbus has good high-altitude, short-runway performance, which is important when your hub airport sits at 7,300 feet with a stubby, 6,400-foot runway. It’s pretty unusual when an airport’s elevation exceeds the length of its longest runway!

I’d splurged for business class, which on Drukair is a four-abreast, four-row cabin. The seats are the old-fashioned, semi-recliner types; a bit blandly upholstered and perhaps not cleaned as often as they should be. I was appalled when I lifted the center armrest console and discovered a verifiable dune of peanut crumbs and dust. That aside, the experience was perfectly pleasant. The food was tasty and the cabin crew attentive. The menus, stitched with a Bhutanese cloth design, were simple but very pretty.

This was a one-stop flight, with a half-hour layover in Gauhati (Guwahati), India. This was the first time in my life that I boarded an international flight headed to a city that, prior to showing up at the airport, I had never heard of before. I’m very good at geography, which made it all the more mystifying. I stared up at the check-in monitor for a few seconds — Gauhati? — wondering vaguely where I was and where I might be going. I’d later discover that Gauhati has a population of almost a million people. I guess that’s India for you.

Drukair business class menu.

Drukair business class breakfast, fruit course.

Sometimes it’s the little things. Like this lavatory display.

Not your typical airport topography.

During the descent into Paro they played traditional Bhutanese music over the PA. This was an evocative touch, adding a certain exotic-ness to the arrival, especially once the mountains came into view. The initial descent had been through a heavy overcast, occluding that view of Everest I’d been dying to catch, but suddenly the rainclouds gave way to an almost fairy tale panorama of jutting emerald peaks. The lower we got, the more exhilarating it got. The landing gear clunked down at what felt like 15,000 feet, and suddenly we were doing hairpin turns in sheer mountain valleys, with 17,000-foot summits on three sides.

Yeah, I’d read about the arrival into Paro and watched a couple of videos, but that doesn’t prepare you for the visceral thrill of it. Especially that last, very low-altitude turn toward the numbers of runway 33. The expressway visual at LaGuardia has nothing on the landing at Paro. This was the closest I’ve ever come to being truly white-knuckled on a commercial airplane.

Himalayan High. Arrival into Paro.

The expressway visual this ain’t.

Drukair has four A319s in its fleet.

Only two scheduled carriers operate into Paro — Drukair’s privately owned competitor, the unexcitedly (and confusingly) named Bhutan Airlines is the other — and only a few dozen pilots are qualified to fly there. Frankly, this is how it should be. I’d be quite uncomfortable flying into Paro with any crew that wasn’t intimately familiar with the local terrain and its complex arrival and departure patterns.

(So, to be clear, there’s Drukair, a.k.a Royal Bhutan Airlines, and the privately held Bhutan Airlines. If the names aren’t confusing enough, they both fly A319s, in similar paint schemes, on overlapping routes.)

Only two airlines have scheduled service to Paro. Bhutan Airlines is Drukair’s competitor.

Part airport at dusk. Nearby peaks approach 17,000 feet, and Mt. Everest is only a short hop away.

In addition to the dirty seat consoles, two more gripes against Drukair: First, the carrier’s business class lounge in Paro is located outside security and immigration. I imagine this is due to space constraints; the airport is very small. Just the same, nobody wants to relax in a lounge, then have to get their passport stamped and stand in a security line.

And speaking of lines, during check-in, the queue for business class was extraordinarily slow, to the point where virtually all of the economy passengers were able to check in ahead of us. When I attempted to use the economy line, which by that point was empty, I was rudely sent back to the business line and forced to wait another fifteen minutes. Several agents on the economy side now sat behind their podiums with nothing to do, yet refused to check us in.

Paro’s arrival and departure halls are crowded and noisy (departure in particular), but they’re charming in that way of certain small airports. The architecture is in the style of a traditional Bhutanese home, and the decor riffs heavily on the artwork and ornate craftsmanship seen in the country’s many temples, monasteries and dzongs (fortresses).

The terminal at Paro, with mural of the beloved royal family.

Arrivals hall, Bhutan style.

In country:

“Life is suffering.” That’s the first of the Four Pillars of Buddhism, which is somewhat ironic when you discover that Bhutan, in addition to being perhaps the most intensely Buddhist country on earth (prayer flags cover the Bhutan landscape from end to end, like a sort of heavenly confetti), is also one of the most content. This is the country that invented the Gross National Happiness index, and which frequently tops those “world’s happiest countries” lists.

And for a poor nation in an isolated area, little Bhutan seems to have its act together in ways that few developing nations ever do. As Lonely Planet puts it: “Bhutan is one of the few places on earth where compassion is favored over capitalism. Issues of sustainable development, education and health care, and environmental and cultural preservation…are at the forefront of policy making.” The people of Bhutan are happy and comparatively well educated; healthcare is decent and universal. The roads are in good condition, mobile phone service is everywhere, and 98 percent of citizens, even in remote locations, have clean drinking water — an astonishing statistic, as anyone who has traveled in the developing world will acknowledge.

Granted, these things are comparatively easy for a country with fewer than a million people. An honest, uncorrupt government and a Buddhism-based sense of civic responsibility doesn’t hurt.

The Bhutanese government is also acutely concerned about the effects of climate change. The swelling and potential bursting of glacial lakes, for one, threatens to destroy some of the country’s most historic sites. Doing its part, Bhutan currently the only carbon-negative country in the world. It has banned the of chemical fertilizers and no longer imports food that was grown with them. Thus almost all of the country’s produce is organic.

In nearly a week in the country, I never saw a person smoking. Turns out the import or public use of tobacco products is against the law. As are western-style commercial billboards and advertising. There are, for now, no global consumer chains anywhere in Bhutan. No Starbucks, no KFC, no Ikea.

And bring your Tums, or your Prilosec. Pretty much all Bhutanese food, even breakfast, is centered on the chili pepper.

It was all the more surprising, meanwhile, once in the country, after so many friends and acquaintances of mine seemed to have no idea what or where Bhutan was, to encounter so many Americans. Only India, which shares the country’s southern and western borders, sends more tourists. Americans accents were everywhere: in the temples, dzongs, hotels and restaurants. In an age when many Americans seem aggressively incurious, this was encouraging.

Short of turning this into a full-on travelogue, here are a few of the better pictures from the trip. Sightseeing highlights were the beautiful Punakha Valley, and, it hardly needs saying, the thousand-foot climb to the breathtaking Taktshang Goemba — the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

Prayer wheels at the 7th-century Kyichu Lhakhang temple.

Taktshang Goemga: the Tiger’s Nest.

Pagodas at the Duchu La mountain pass.

Monks climbing the stairs at the Punakha Dzong.

Sunset over Punakha Valley

At the temple in Thimpu.

Prayer flags mark the countryside like a heavenly confetti.

At the Punakha Dzong.


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19 Responses to “A Trip to Bhutan”
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  1. Clark says:

    Great photos, Patrick! I was there with the family at New Year’s, and like you, I was probably more drawn to the airline-geek experience (having also gotten a ride on Nepal Airlines to Delhi) than I was the sightseeing in Bhutan, which I knew very little about. On the Drukair leg from Kathmandu we secured left-hand side (coach) seats and got a phenomenal view and photos of the black hulk of Everest on the flight in. Our descent into Paro was completely cloudless and nary a bump, but it was disconcerting seeing that left wing tucked into the mountains with what looked like 50 yards to spare against the trees.

    The good news about going in early January was that we had clear skies every day, and virtually no tourists, American or otherwise. The bad news was that although daytime temperatures were in the 50s, once the sun went below the mountains it quickly dipped below freezing. Which would not ordinarily be a problem, except that the midrange hotels we were put in by our tour agency lacked much in the way of heat for the rooms, other than a small, underpowered space heater. We froze our asses off at night in the hotels, restaurants, etc. The Bhutanese are hardy people who don’t need toasty lodgings, apparently.

    The food was better than I expected, as long as you were careful to extract most of the incredibly hot chilis, and the Tiger’s Nest and Punakha dzong were two of the most impressive sights I’ve seen anywhere in the world.

  2. Pranesh says:

    Patrick, do visit Leh sometime. The airport is beautiful. As it is a rain-shadow region, the Himalayan mountains here are brown and barren.

  3. Tashi says:

    Dear Patrick,

    The photos are amazing and the descriptions too. We are happy to know you and Julia had a wonderful holiday in Bhutan.

    Take care and keep in touch.

    Warm regards.

  4. Dave says:

    “Pagodas at the Duchu La mountain pass”: very nice. Pagodas, trees, mountains, clouds.

  5. Ted says:

    Patrick- So glad that you made the trip to Bhutan. I’ve traveled extensively and Bhutan was one my absolute favorite trips.

    At the time they were purchased, each of Druk Air’s fleet were easily the single largest expenditure in the history of the country. Or so I was told… seems logical.

    It is quite difficult to find, but there was a great documentary short ‘Lost in Democracy’ about Bhutan’s change in governmental structure. Watch it if you can locate it.

  6. Deb Michaud says:

    You have an interesting life, I enjoy your travels.

  7. JamesP says:

    “It’s pretty unusual when an airport’s elevation exceeds the length of its longest runway!”

    That approach looks like a lot of fun and the country looks like a very beautiful place. But for some reason, that little fact about the runway stood out – even amongst all the beauty of the country. I’m just a hopeless nerd, I guess lol.

    That would make a great trivia question – all the airports where that is the case. I could find a few:

    Daocheng Yading Airport, China: Elevation 4,411 meters, Runway 4,000 meters. (highest airport in the world)
    Kangding Airport, China: 4,280/4,000
    El Alto International Airport, Bolivia: 4,062/4,000
    Yushu Batang Airport, China: 3,890/3,800
    Jiuzhai Huanglong Airport, China: 3,448/3,400
    And of course, Paro International Airport, Kingdom of Bhutan: 2,235/1,964

    Of those, only 2 are international – El Alto and Paro.

    • not an anon says:

      You missed a couple (although they aren’t airline served):

      Telluride Regional, USA: 2,764/2,167
      Lake County Regional, USA: 3,027/1,951
      Bryce Canyon, USA: 2,313/2,254
      Los Alamos, USA: 2,185/1,829

  8. Chaz Lief says:

    Thank you very much for this wonderful travelogue and photos! The descent into Paro looks and sounds troubling, but worthwhile. One of these years… {sigh}

  9. Julianne Adamik says:

    You very accurately captured the beauty and delight of Buhtan. Did you get to any of their festivals? If not, you need to return someday for the Timpu festival. Magnificent!

  10. Art Knight says:

    Amazing! I’ll never be able to afford it, but I feel like I was there!

  11. MikeO says:

    Nice report. I have wanted to go to Bhutan since 2008 when Bhutan was part of the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival. SCUBA trips have always gotten in the way. Interestingly, the building that was brought over from Bhutan for the Festival was reconstructed at UTEP. There is surprising (at least to me) history between UTEP and Bhutan.

  12. Rod says:

    As a perpetual economy passenger, I charitably refused to laugh about your slow-moving check-in line, though a floating rib or two did come under considerable strain. Ouch!

    On the serious side of things, Bhutan’s progressiveness can’t be wholly unrelated to the fact that its population barely exceeds 800,000. (Compare with Bangladesh to the south.) One can usually live marvellously well if one doesn’t have kajillions of people to be fed and housed (and exploited).
    Anyway, good on the Bhutanese!

    Very nice pics.

    • Bruce says:

      The whole “Gross National Happiness” and “progressiveness” discussions about Bhutan do tend to at best gloss over (and more commonly, totally ignore) the ethnic cleansing that went on through the 1990s and 2000s and whose effects continue today.

      A large proportion of the sizeable ethnically-Nepalese Lhotshampa was expelled from the country in the 1990s, and those who have been able to stay face severe discrimination. By 2008, more than 100,000 Lhotshampa lived in refugee camps in Nepal and India.

      A significant part of the whole “gross national happiness” policy, which is reported as a sweet and lovely thing by the international press, is the “One nation, one people” policy of ethnic purity.

      I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to Bhutan: I’ve been to more ethically-dodgy countries myself. But it is very much something worth bearing in mind when reporting on Bhutan: the high levels of education and good healthcare are great if you’re ethnically Bhutanese, but if you’re not, they’re not for you. I do find it peculiar that in the time that this has been happening, ethnic cleansing in other countries, from the former Yugoslav republics through to Myanmar, has been condemned but Bhutan has successfully sold itself as a quaint and happy Shangri-la.

      • Rod says:

        Thanks, Bruce. The words “Shangri-La” crossed my mind too while reading this.

        I know zero about Bhutan’s history, and I guess it’s true that one should be skeptical of anything that looks too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, all good-looking countries have skeletons in their closets. Still, plenty of countries with closets a-bustin’ are perfectly miserable places to live.

        One might say that ethnic cleansing is as human as walking down the street, or forest path — it has Always been a part of Everybody’s history. That the ex-Yugoslavs, Hutus, Burmans, whoever, get caught red-handed in the internet age when it happens to be against international law is their bad luck, to put it cynically. Our ancestors did it all the time, and had it done to them all the time.

        Which isn’t to say I condone it. Only that we are homo sapiens. We’re evolved to live in wee hunter-gatherer tribes and to be mighty suspicious of, if not outright hostile toward, all comers. We’re definitely not evolved to get along along on a global scale. Alas.

        At all events, Bhutan deserves that the truth be told.

        • Bruce says:

          Thanks for a very thoughtful reply, Rod.

          There’s one bit which is kind of my point. You said “That the ex-Yugoslavs, Hutus, Burmans, whoever, get caught red-handed in the internet age when it happens to be against international law is their bad luck, to put it cynically. Our ancestors did it all the time, and had it done to them all the time.” That’s true, but the Bhutan stuff was happening at the same time as, or later than, the Rwandan and Yugoslav stuff. They just managed to get the media to focus on the “Gross National Happiness” thing and ignore the ethnic cleansing, and I’ve always thought that this was remarkably poor work by the media.

          But yes, it’s not surprising that it happened, and it is part of human nature. A couple of years ago, during the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, I was getting a taxi in Sydney. The driver had on the local Vietnamese-language radio station. I can’t speak Vietnamese, but I got enough from the broadcast and the context to know that they were talking about the riots (if you speak Cantonese, Mandarin and French, you can take a reasonable guess at what’s being said in Vietnamese, as long as they’re speaking slowly and clearly). I said, “These riots are terrible,” and the driver said, “Yes, they’re really terrible. They’ve not killed enough Chinese people.” It was a profoundly depressing thing to witness: he’d moved to Australia many years before, but he still carried the ethnic hatred with him.

  13. Carey says:

    In your description of the Drukair A319, one paragraph includes the following: “I was appalled when I lifted the center armrest console and discovered a verifiable dune of peanut crumbs and dust. The food was tasty, however, and the cabin crew attentive.” You should probably point out that the two sentences are not connected…

    I always look forward to your articles. Thanks.

  14. Speed says:

    Nice report as always.

    Your photo skills have improved immeasurably.

  15. Carol says:

    Did you take an organized tour? Where did you stay?