Adventure Cycling In Bhutan: The Land Of The Thunder Dragon
If you’re looking for a unique travel experience that will not fail to deliver Bhutan is just what the doctor ordered. Late last year, TravelSafe’s Dr. Wendy Amirault joined the adventure cycling group People Cycling to tangle with the Thunder Dragon. They were among the first foreigners to head to the world’s only Buddhist kingdom after it re-opened following the COVID pandemic. As Wendy explains in this month’s blog, biking across this happy Himalayan shanghai-la is a deeply rewarding trip of a lifetime, but definitely hard work. Especially if you’re on a bike. You need to be physically fit, mentally strong and undaunted when adversity sets in. And when it does, you need to accept that suffering is integral to understanding Bhutan and to understanding yourself. It’s got to do with The Four Noble Truths. More about that later 🙂
Happiness In Bhutan Has Its Own Meaning
Even if you try to imagine unique, different or special Bhutan will defy your expectations. As Wendy says it’s just something you have to give in to and experience. This tiny closed-off country situated between China and India didn’t have a single road until 1960. It wasn’t until 12 years later that tourists were allowed in. Television and the internet arrived in 1999, mobile phone networks came 4 years after that. This reluctance to adopt Western-style modernity has allowed Bhutan to evolve distinct values that shape its national character and who they are as a people. For example, Bhutan measures well-being based on “Gross National Happiness” rather than Gross Domestic Product. The economy is important, but strong emphasis is also placed on how to live a good life and what that means. It explains why 2/3rds of Bhutan’s 700,000 citizens are Buddhist and why it’s carbon-negative. It explains why plastic bags and hunting are banned and why there are no traffic lights. It’s also why they’ve implemented controversial new measures that will likely reduce the number of visitors who can go there. We’ll get Wendy to weigh-in on this move and more in a minute, but first let’s meet Wendy!
Wendy Is A Frequent International Traveler
Wendy is originally from the east coast, Saint John and Halifax, got her MD from prestigious Dalhousie University before moving to Vancouver 40+ years ago because her best friend did. Her friend ended up returning to the Maritimes but Wendy stayed. She set up her own successful medical practice in Richmond, but eventually closed it to follow her passion: travel and travel medicine at Vancouver-based TravelSafe. Wendy is also a very experienced traveller and has been to lots of different international destinations, but Bhutan has been a particular obsession. So when she saw the headline “Bhutan – Bike/Hike Trip” on the People Cycling website it didn’t require much prompting:
“I’ve cycled all across the US and Vietnam, parts of Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Slovenia, Turkey, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and France. I’ve kayaked India, Mexico and Antarctica. I’ve been to the UK and Argentina as well as many countries in Southeast Asia and Asia. But Bhutan has been on my to-do list for years. Twenty years ago when I was in Nepal other travellers said to me if you like Nepal you need to go to Bhutan. It’s like Nepal before they let the backpackers in 🙂 I love Nepal so Bhutan’s been there percolating in the back of my mind.”
Getting To Bhutan Is Half The Fun!
Booking a flight to Bhutan is pretty simple. Just a few clicks on Expedia and you’re done. But actually getting there from Vancouver requires stamina and a certain degree of physical and mental fortitude. The 18 hour flight from YVR to Bangkok is grueling and takes a lot out of you. So Wendy decided to hang out in Bangkok for three days before taking the 3 hour Druk Air flight to Paro International in western Bhutan. The flight into Paro affords spectacular views of the Himalayas, however, the approach is also heart-in-mouth frightening and routinely makes Top 10 lists of the World’s Most Dangerous Places To Land.
“Paro is 7200 ft above sea-level and sits between a pair of towering granite peaks. Specially certified pilots – there’s like less than two dozen in the world – must navigate a long winding valley into a short bumpy runway that’s only visible moments before landing. It’s pretty wild when you think about it.”
What Wendy failed to mention, probably because she was white-knuckling it on the phone, is that Paro airport doesn’t have radar so flesh-and-blood pilots actually land the jet not computers. The pilots look for physical landmarks and must avoid electrical poles and hillside homes on the way in. They can only land during the day and only if visibility is good. Fortunately for Wendy they managed to keep the plane right-side up and the “getting-there” part of her adventure went according to plan … almost.
Suffering Is Central To The Four Noble Truths
What didn’t go according to plan was discovering she’d tested positive for COVID. Feeling a bit unwell, Wendy took a rapid antigen test and immediately reached out to the tour operator We Adventure to tell them the unfortunate news. As it turned out, two other cyclists also tested positive for COVID. We Adventure made arrangements for all of them to stay in nearby cottages where they spent the next three days recovering. Not that it bothered Wendy that much:
“Bhutan is the perfect place if you have COVID! Everyone is really friendly and helpful, the manager of the cottage where I was staying brought a pot of tea with honey every day! He even offered to go hiking with us:). By Day 2 I didn’t feel that sick and because Bhutan had no COVID restrictions I was walking into town and touring around Paro. By Day 3 I’d met lots of locals, hiked up a 1000 feet to a local monastery and was bugging We Adventure to let me get back at it. “
The COVID pandemic is a good example of how a deeply traditional country that seems at odds with modernity can sometimes have significant advantages. During the pandemic Bhutan famously managed to vaccinate 90% of its adult population in a week! When Wendy told me that she laughed and said:
“One of the benefits of having a health-first pro-vaccine Buddhist King is that your national vaccination program has a strong central voice.
On The Way To Gangtey
On Day 4 of her trip, Wendy was able to rejoin the We Adventure group. So she hired a car, drove to the capital Thimphu then on to Punakha via the Dochula Pass, ending up in Gangtey where she met up with the others. Gangtey is a diverse, sacred region situated in the so-called Valley of the Cranes, almost dead centre of the country. It’s home to the Gangtey Monastery that sits atop a small hill overlooking the Phobjikha Valley, as well as migratory black-necked cranes which are both endangered and revered in Bhutan:
“The 17th century monastery is built in the form of a Dzong albeit a lot smaller (a Dzong is like a fort with a temple inside) and was both mystical and fascinating, but the black necked cranes hadn’t arrived yet so we didn’t see any. There were a couple of injured ones recovering at a local wildlife reserve which some people saw but I didn’t. Altogether we spent 2 days in Gangtey. I did a 15km “shake down” ride up the western slope that gets you into the valley to prove my fitness. We also went hiking. We were also there on Hallowe’en night although the Bhutanese don’t mark the occasion. Our guides did make a wonderful salad and sang and danced for us though. The next day we biked up the steep slope I’d done the day before, and then coasted down the other side into Panakha where a bus was waiting for us. Everyone piled in and from there we headed back to Paro.”
Punakha And The Dochula Pass
Because of her illness, Wendy didn’t really get to see Punakha but it’s well worth mentioning this town famous for its rice farms. Panakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955 when it switched to neighboring Thimphu. It’s also home to arguably the most majestic dzong in the country, Pungthang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang which means “the palace of great happiness or bliss.”
To get to Punakha from the west you need to traverse the 10,000 ft Dochula Pass which is an absolute must-see according to Wendy. The bus transporting the We Adventure group stopped at the top on the way back from Gangtey so everyone could enjoy the views and a hot cup of coffee at the mountaintop cafe:
“When you get to the summit there are spectacular vistas of the snow-capped Eastern Himalayas which include Gangkhar Puensum Bhutan’s highest mountain. It’s never been climbed due to its religious significance. Also at the top are 108 miniature stupas that commemorate soldiers killed in a 2003 military operation against Indian rebels. The stupas – also known in Tibetan as chortens – were built by Bhutan’s eldest Queen Mother. The number 108 has spiritual significance in Buddhism. They’re very beautiful structures like much of the architecture in Bhutan.”
The rest of Wendy’s trip pretty much followed the itinerary laid out by We Adventure on their website. You can see the itinerary here. Crossing the country’s highest suspension bridge, cycling the country’s highest motorable road, riding the Dragon’s Neck and drinking red rice beer at a local craft brewery back in Paro are some of the amazing and memorable items that stand out. However, Wendy said the highlight of any trip to Bhutan is the Taktsang Monastery, better known as The Tiger’s Nest.
The Tiger’s Nest
The visit to the Tiger’s Nest came the day before Wendy left and is the last big stop on the We Adventure itinerary. Built in 1692, it clings precariously to the side of a mountain 10,000 ft above sea level and is arguably the country’s most sacred site. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan rode in on a flying tiger and reached enlightenment in the caves carved into its sheer cliff walls. Wendy says you should be acclimated to the altitude and in fairly good shape to attempt the hike:
“The 900m hike up is quite steep in places and can take anywhere from 2-4 hours depending on your fitness level. There are little ponies you can hire, but they only go about halfway up and everyone has to dismount on the way down. Most of the trail is loose dirt and there really aren’t any handrails. I would definitely recommend hiking poles and taking water and a snack although there is a cafeteria about half way up. You pass prayer wheels and colourful flags, before you finally see the red, white and gold monastery in the distance. The views of it from the trail are jaw-dropping. If you are physically able, it is not to be missed.”
Is Altitude Sickness Something To Worry About In Bhutan?
Acute Mountain Sickness (or AMS) is definitely something to think about when you are in the Himalayas. But it depends where. Wendy says elevation starts to become an issue at around 8,000 ft. And there are plenty of places in Bhutan above this threshold. The Tiger’s Nest is one of them. For these excursions it’s better to acclimate to the altitude if you can before heading up. If you don’t there can be some nasty ongoing symptoms that could spoil your trip:
“Acute Mountain Sickness is mainly a problem when you climb up and stay at high altitudes. It feels like a really bad hangover. Typical symptoms are headache, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, insomnia, dizziness and general tiredness but unlike a hangover they can linger for days.”
Wendy says the best way to avoid getting sick is take your time and ascend slowly, and says the decision to take altitude sickness medicine like Diamox needs to be done on a case by case basis.
“If you haven’t spent time at altitude before, you should consider taking it. If you have and had no problem, there may be less of a need. However, if you are going up quickly or staying up high then it will likely make you feel better a bit faster.”
So what did Wendy do??
“I started taking Diamox in Bangkok two days before I flew to Paro, continued for two more days when I got there, then stopped. I felt pretty good, but going from 7200 ft at Paro up to 9800 ft can be tough on the body. You should definitely discuss altitude with a travel clinic before you go somewhere where elevation is a factor.”
Wendy had her own experience with AMS several years back at a Nepalese tea house in Namche Bazaar (11,290ft), a popular stop for climbers en route to the Everest Base Camp. Despite taking Diamox she still felt really terrible, but Wendy being Wendy managed to drag herself up another 1000 feet and slowly hiked around despite the aggravating symptoms.
Bhutan’s New Visitors Tax Skyrockets More Than 300%
Ok last but not least we need to talk about the elephant in the room: The revamp to Bhutan’s tourism industry. Lonely Planet has a great explainer detailing all the new changes here so we won’t do a deep dive in this blog. But perhaps the most concerning change is the exponential increase to the visitor tax – also known as the Sustainable Development Fee. It was the first thing Wendy told me about when I initially asked about her trip. Starting in September 2022, this fee went from $65US/day to $200US/day. That’s right, per day! Wendy fears the increase will price out the average traveller from going to Bhutan:
“I paid $7,700 US to visit Bhutan. That covered the existing $65 US visitors tax, airfares, transfers, all food and accommodation, bike rentals, the mandatory guiding fee, a single room and other charges. It’s fair but a lot. To pay $135 US a day on top would’ve added roughly $1350 US more to the price. That’s more than $9,000 US for a 10 day/11 night visit. It’s a significant increase and frankly Bhutan will likely become an exclusive high-end destination for those who can afford it.”
To be fair, Bhutan has had a “high value, low volume” policy targeting lux travellers for years. The new policy just makes it all the more difficult for anyone other than the rich to go. Some may find it odd that a country founded on the Four Noble Truths is courting wealthy clients not accustomed to suffering. But the Bhutanese argue that protecting the environment, enshrining national values and mitigating the impact outsiders have on their culture are more important. Wendy says it all adds up to a special identity:
“Two thirds of the country are practising Buddhists and you can really feel its strong influence. Money is important, but happiness is measured differently. They care about their environment. There isn’t much pollution or garbage, the rivers are clean and it’s very green. Healthcare is free even for visitors. You feel very safe. Not many people smoke or drink. Nothing feels excessive. There are quaint highway signs that coach drivers and provide tips. There are traditional festivals and gatherings – we saw archers practicing and traditional Bhutanese dancers. There are also other social behaviors and structures that feel like they’re from a bygone age, but it isn’t bygone it’s happening now. It feels unique and they believe in it.“
NOTE: Just to be clear, you do not have to be part of a group like Wendy to go to Bhutan. Until the recent changes, booking accommodation, guides and drivers through a recognized tour operator was mandatory. You also had to be part of a group. Not anymore. If you can pay the $200US/day tax and want to book your own hotels, rental vehicles and go alone you’re allowed. It isn’t recommended for lots of different reasons, but you can do it.
Taming The Thunder Dragon
Western-style modernity is definitely coming to Bhutan. Wendy says tell-tale signs are everywhere. There’s lots of new construction in Paro and a state-of-the-art eye hospital has opened in Thimphu. Jeans and t-shirts are replacing national dress, mobile phones are more common, young people have electric guitars, and not everyone is thriving and happy. In fact a kind of nouveau cynicism about happy Bhutan has popped up in places. Also a lot of older people still miss the good ol’ days when the monarchy was in charge, hair was shorter and good manners were the norm. A sure sign modernity is on the march 🙂
The International Traveller’s Reality Check
In this section I ask my guest to tell me one thing among all the amazingness they experienced that could spoil, taint or otherwise affect/shape someone else’s experience of the holiday destination we are talking about. I think we just covered it, but here’s a final word from Wendy:
“If you’ve got the money Bhutan’s a bucket-list destination. It’s a culture like no other, there are experiences you will have there and nowhere else. I 100% recommend it, but the exorbitant visitor tax really does impact who can go.”
Where To Next Wendy?
“Later this year I’m doing part of a 5 week trip across Spain from Madrid to San Sebastián on the northern coast. I’ll be in New Orleans for Jazzfest on my birthday. I’m leading a bike trip with friends around my home province of Nova Scotia in the autumn, but in the future I really want to bike around South Korea and New Zealand so that’s coming up … hopefully 🙂 ”
Interesting But Not Included In The Story Above
The name Bhutan means the Land of Thunder Dragon and comes from the rollicking thunder and lightning storms that pound its mountain peaks and valleys. You’ll see incarnations of dragons all over Bhutan, it’s on the national flag for instance. The word for dragon in Bhutanese is druk. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is the current king of Bhutan. He and his commoner wife, Queen Jetsun Pema, are universally loved by the Bhutanese and are affectionately known as the Will and Kate of the Himalayas. Most Bhutanese, even children, speak English and phallic symbols painted on houses are done so to ward off evil!
Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths & The Noble Eightfold Path To Enlightenment
The Four Noble Truths:
- The world is full of suffering
- Suffering is caused by desire
- Suffering can be overcome
- Suffering is overcome via the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.
The Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment:
Do the above and you avoid suffering and reach enlightenment. This philosophy underpins the whole of life in Bhutan.
Remind Me How To Book A Cycling Adventure To Bhutan!?
Wendy booked her 11-day Himalayan biking adventure through Irish online travel company We Adventure. We Adventure is very experienced, highly-rated and books group adventure holidays all over the world. The Bike and Hike The Thunder Dragon website page includes a trip description, a ride/trek overview, a detailed daily itinerary, information about their bikes, handy need to know info and things that are and are not included in the price. The 11 day/10 night trip starts at $5,950. There are lots of other companies offering once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences to Bhutan. Wendy just happened to choose We Adventure!
And Finally …
A big thank you to Wendy for taking the time to talk to us about her trip to Bhutan. As always I appreciate the patience people show undergoing my grilling. The “I-Survived-Ian’s-Interview” t-shirt is in the mail 🙂
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