Bhutan. For some of us, this country is not a household word, and that’s a good thing. There are whispers that this remote Himalayan country was the inspiration for James Hilton’s 1930s book, Lost Horizons and the subsequent movie, Shangri-La. The tale is fanciful but contains a kernel of truth. This lovely, friendly country, paused in time, is a mesmerizing aggregation of history, stories and images.
The fall weather holds crisp and sunny days and cold nights. The harvest of rice, buckwheat and apples is underway; weekly the landscape changes dramatically. We schedule our trips to overlap with special events so that every year there is some festival to enjoy. Throughout our stay, we’ll interact with the warm and friendly people of Bhutan.
The Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than the Gross National Product in this deeply Buddhist country. We value the way the Bhutanese culture defines happiness. For these people, “having and getting” have little to do with being happy. On the contrary, they believe that desiring and wanting often cause suffering. This principle is an underlying motivator of behavior in the country. The result is an open, loving, curious and accepting culture. They just soak us up and take us in!
Half the size of Indiana, Bhutan is situated on the southeast slope of the Himalayas. This benevolent, Buddhist country is surrounded on three sides by India, with Tibet to the north. Population estimates are at 600,000 or so. The landscape consists of a succession of lofty and rugged mountains and deep valleys. In the north, the highest mountain, Kula Kangri reaches a height of over 24,000 ft (7553 m).
From the beginning, government and religion in Bhutan have been intertwined. In the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche is credited with spreading Mahayana Buddhism throughout the entire Himalaya region. In 1616, Shabdrung established himself as the unifier and religious leader of Bhutan and built the first Dzongs, fortresses housing both the monastic body and the administrative facilities. Today, religious Mask Dances are performed by both monks and lay people in brilliant costumes, re-enacting legendary events. Accompanied by blaring horns, booming drums, and clashing cymbals, the dancers whirl and leap around the ancient old courtyard of a Dzong.
The Bhutanese refer to their country as Druk Yul, which translates to Land of the Thunder Dragon. There are a couple theories to its origin; one is that it is a reference to the dominant branch of Tibetan Buddhism that is still practiced in the Himalayan kingdom. The other is that the name is due to violent storms from the Himalayas that cause frequent landslides during the rainy season.
Few visitors ever make it into Bhutan and so the Bhutanese are often as curious about outsiders as tourists are about them. It is not uncommon to be engaged in a discussion by a passerby, or to be invited in for lunch by a Bhutanese family.
Thanks to its isolation, small population, mountainous terrain, and the national religion of Buddhism, which stresses the sanctity of all life, Bhutan has protected its forests and wildlife. As a result, this tiny kingdom, in contrast to all of its neighbors, possesses the last truly intact, large-scale ecosystem in the Himalayas.
I am partnering with Phil and Mary DeRiemer of DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking. These longtime friends and world travelers have been traveling to Bhutan for the last eight years, know the country well and have a great relationship with a Bhutan tour company. (We are REQUIRED to use a local tour company.) This trip differs from their previous adventures in that it is photo-oriented rather than kayaking-oriented. Phil, as you can see by the photos on this page, is a superb photographer, so you’ll have the benefit of two photo instructors plus two additional guides.
All photos on the Bhutan section of this website are copyright © Phil DeRiemer, used with his permission.
How much is the trip and what does that include? These 13-day trips include the domestic flight from Bumthang to Paro, lodging, ground transportation, Bhutanese cultural guide, and all lodging and meals from lunch Day 1 through the last day’s breakfast.
How do I make my reservation and what are your cancellation policies? Please use the reservation tab on this page. A $500 non-refundable deposit is required with your reservation. Full payment is due 6 months before the trip date. Cancellations prior to 6 months before trip date results in a full refund less the $500 deposit. No refund will be given for cancellations after the 6 month deadline and as such we strongly recommend travel insurance. Written cancellation is required, call to verify. We will notify you 3 months in advance and give full refund if we cancel the trip.
Tell me about travel and airfares. – Your flight from the US to Asia and from Asia into Bhutan are not included in the trip cost. At the time of this writing there were several Asian gateway cities from which to fly into Bhutan; Bangkok, Calcutta, Singapore, Dheli and Kathmandu. You will need to purchase a roundtrip to one of these destinations.
Call Himalayan Treasures & Travels at (800) 223-1813 and ask for Govind. Let him know you are going on a DeRiemerSederquist trip. We found that it was very beneficial in adjusting to the time change to arrive a few days early, before flying on to Bhutan. Last year our flight to Paro required us to be at the Bangkok airport to check in at 4:30 am. Your return can be scheduled late evening the last day of the trip. We will advise you of further details as time goes on.
Your visa for Bhutan is included in your airfare from Bangkok to Paro. We will assist you in making those reservations. Your passport must be valid for 6 months from date of travel.
Do you recommend travel insurance? – We sure do! No refund will be made for cancellations inside the 6 month deadline. We regret that we cannot make exceptions for personal emergencies or health problem. Once your reservation is confirmed, we lose the potential to sell that spot to someone else. Because of this, we advise trip cancellation insurance. You can compare on the Internet through:http://www.travelinsurancereview.net/travel-insurance-101/.
The main health concerns in Bhutan are similar to those in other south Asian destinations: there is a relatively high risk of acquiring traveler’s diarrhea, a respiratory infection, or a more exotic infection. The infectious diseases can interrupt your trip and make you feel miserable, but they are rarely fatal. If you go trekking, there are also risks associated with accidents and altitude sickness. Falling off trails, or having a rock fall on you as you trek, is rare but can happen.
The following advice is a general guide only and does not replace the advice of a doctor trained in travel medicine. In California, if you have Kaiser insurance, they maintain an excellent travel department and are well versed in preparing you for travel to exotic destinations.
Before You Go
Pack medications in their original, clearly labeled containers. A signed and dated letter from your physician describing your medical conditions and medications, including generic names, is also a good idea. If carrying syringes or needles, be sure to have a physician’s letter documenting their medical necessity. If you have a heart condition, bring a copy of your ECG taken just prior to traveling.
If you take any regular medication, bring double your needs in case of loss or theft. You can’t rely on many medications being available from pharmacies in Bhutan.
Even if you are fit and healthy, don’t travel without health insurance – accidents do happen. Declare any existing medical conditions you have – the insurance company will check if your problem is pre-existing and will not cover you if it is undeclared.
Find out in advance if your insurance plan will make payments directly to providers or reimburse you later for overseas health expenditures. (In many countries, doctors expect payment in cash.) You may prefer a policy that pays doctors or hospitals directly rather than you having to pay on the spot and claim later. If you have to claim later, make sure you keep all documentation. Some insurance companies ask you to call them (they suggest reversing the charges, an impossibility from Bhutan) at a centre in your home country, where an immediate assessment of your problem is made.
Specialized travel-medicine clinics are your best source of information; they stock all available vaccines and will be able to give specific recommendations for you and your trip. Most vaccines don’t produce immunity until at least two weeks after they’re given, so visit a doctor four to eight weeks before departure. Ask your doctor for an International Certificate of Vaccination, which will list all the vaccinations you’ve received.
The World Health Organization recommends the following vaccinations for travelers to Bhutan (as well as being up to date with measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations):
- Diphtheria and tetanus (for adults) Single booster recommended if none in the previous 10 years. Side effects include sore arm and fever.
- Hepatitis A Provides almost 100% protection for up to a year; a booster after 12 months provides at least another 20 years’ protection. Mild side effects such as headache and sore arm occur in 5% to 10% of people.
- Hepatitis B Now considered routine for most travelers, it is given as three shots over six months. A rapid schedule is also available, as is a combined vaccination with Hepatitis A. Side effects are mild and uncommon, usually headache and sore arm. Lifetime protection occurs in 95% of people.
- Polio Bhutan’s last case of polio was reported in 1986, but it has been reported more recently in nearby Nepal and India. Only one booster is required as an adult for lifetime protection. Inactivated polio vaccine is safe during pregnancy.
- Typhoid The vaccine offers around 70% protection, lasts for two to three years and comes as a single shot. Tablets are also available; however, the injection is usually recommended as it has fewer side effects. Sore arm and fever may occur.
- Varicella If you haven’t had chickenpox, discuss this vaccination with your doctor.
The only vaccine required by international regulations is yellow fever. Proof of vaccination will only be required if you have visited a country in the yellow-fever zone within the six days prior to entering Bhutan.
Altitude sickness should not be a big problem unless you’re doing a lot of trekking, and extensive hiking is not part of our itinerary. Mostly we’ll be below 3000m, and the maximum elevation you can reach by road is around 3800m. One of our overnight accommodations is at about 3,000m. You should get information on preventing, recognizing and treating Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). AMS is a notoriously fickle affliction and can also affect trekkers and walkers accustomed to walking at high altitudes. AMS has been fatal at 3000m, although 3500m to 4500m is the usual range.
Mild symptoms of AMS are very common in travelers visiting high altitudes, and usually develop during the first 24 hours at altitude. These will generally disappear through acclimatization in several hours to several days.
Symptoms tend to be worse at night and include headache, dizziness, lethargy, loss of appetite, nausea, breathlessness and irritability. Difficulty sleeping is another common symptom.
The symptoms of AMS, however mild, are a warning – be sure to take them seriously! Trekkers should keep an eye on each other as those experiencing symptoms, especially severe symptoms, may not be in a position to recognize them. One thing to note is that while the symptoms of mild AMS often precede those of severe AMS, this is not always the case. Severe AMS can strike with little or no warning.
With an increase in altitude, the human body needs time to develop physiological mechanisms to cope with the decreased oxygen. This process of acclimatization is still not fully understood, but is known to involve modifications in breathing patterns and heart rate, and an increase in the blood’s oxygen-carrying capabilities. These compensatory mechanisms usually take about one to three days to develop at a particular altitude. Once you are acclimatized to a given height you are unlikely to get AMS at that height, but you can still get ill when you travel higher. If the ascent is too high and too fast, these compensatory reactions may not kick into gear fast enough.
From the western United States, we generally fly Korean Airlines to Seoul and from there to Bangkok. In Bangkok we spend a few days to rest from the long flight and to acclimate to the new time zones. Then it’s a three-hour flight to Paro. In Bhutan itself we will be traveling in a comfortable small bus and staying in three- and four-star hotels.
DeRiemer Adventure Kayaking
Photo Tour with Betty Sederquist
October 3- 15, 2017
Thank you for your interest in joining us in Bhutan. 2017 represents our 9th year into this enchanted Himalayan, Buddhist Kingdom. Each visit feels like a gift. Our aim for you is that you are exposed to as much of the culture, people and surrounding countryside as is possible. We want you to experience the magic of Bhutan and the kindness of these people that we have come to know and appreciate.
We are very excited about this itinerary as our dates coincide with two festivals! These festivals are held at two of the oldest monasteries in Bhutan. Our adventurous journey is designed to take full advantage of each day, while still being open to the special moments that always present themselves in this unique land.
We know your vacation time is precious. Rest assured that your journey to the other side of the world, where you step back in time, is well worth the effort. We look forward to sharing with you this country that we find so special.
Betty Sederquist, Phil and Mary DeRiemer
Day 1, Oct 3, Tuesday:
Fly into Paro
Flying into the beautiful valley of Paro, you glide over the tops of snow and pine covered ridges that are dotted with remote monasteries. Located in western Bhutan, this valley is a patchwork of rice fields. The harvest techniques used haven’t changed for hundreds of years! We meet you at the airport and, depending on your arrival time, go to lunch. The rest of the day we wander town to shoot and shop, and visit Paro’s majestic Dzong (fortress). At the end of the day we settle into our hotel.
Day 2, Oct 4, Wednesday:
Fly to Chamkhar
Attend Thangbi Mani Festival
We board an early morning flight into Chamkhar (also called Jakar) located in the Bumtang district in the center of the country. This short yet scenic flight parallels the Himalaya Mountains separating Bhutan and Tibet. We have timed our arrival to coincide with the Thangbi Mani festival taking place further up the Chamkhar valley. We will split our time in the area with visiting the festival as well as taking in the many interesting sights found in the valley. The festival will be a great opportunity to photograph traditional dance and other ceremonies. Locals who attend these festivals can be seen in their finest Bhutanese dress.
Day 3, Oct 5, Thursday:
Attend Thangbi Mani Festival
Another opportunity to attend the Thangbi Mani Festival. Afterwards we will use the time to photograph and visit sights around the valley.
Day 4, Oct 6, Friday:
Travel to Trongsa
Leaving Chamkhar our drive takes us over the Yotong La (11,234 ft.). Once the center of government, Trongsa plays an important role in Bhutan’s history. While there we will visit the Trongsa watchtower museum and the spectacular Dzong built high upon a ridge overlooking the Mangde Chu River.
Day 5, Oct 7, Saturday:
Travel to Phobjikha
We’ll leave Trongsa in the morning and travel to Phobjikha, a side valley located near the Pele La (11,220 ft). This quaint and beautiful high valley is a gathering area for the black-necked cranes that migrate here from the north. Upon arrival we can walk the length of the valley in search of photographic opportunities. It is also home to the Gantey Gompa, a privately owned Monastery that sits at one end of the valley with the small town of Phobjikha leading up to its entryway. There is no guarantee the cranes will have arrived, but the valley is spectacular and well worth the time there.
Day 6, Oct 8, Sunday:
Travel to Punakha
After spending part of the morning in the Phobjikha valley we will drop down along the Dang Chu River toward it’s confluence with the Puna Tsang Chu, one of Bhutan’s largest rivers. Near the town of Wangdue Phodrang we will enter the Punakha Valley. The photographic opportunities abound here between the majestic Punakha Dzong located at the confluence of the Mo (mother) and Po (father river), timing of the local rice harvest, the hilltop temple of Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten which overlooks the Mo Chu River. It is also home to Chimi Lhakhang (small temple) in honor of Drukpa Kunley, the divine madman.
Day 7, Oct 9, Monday:
Raft Mo Chu
This day has a rafting option on the Mo Chu. Before putting on the river we will do the hike to hilltop temple with stunning views up and down the Mo Chu valley. The run finishes up floating past the Punakha Dzong at the confluence with the Po Chu. Upon taking out we have a picnic lunch with a view of the Dzong then tour this impressive 16th century structure, once the center of government.
Day 8, Oct 10 Tuesday:
Raft Po Chu Punakha
Today we raft the Pho Chu (Father river). We start with a walk in the countryside that takes us over the longest footbridge span in Bhutan. We cross the lower Po Chu onto a country road through rice fields in mid-harvest, allowing us to interact with the locals working the fields. Our vehicle meets us along the way and we drive to the put-in. The run finishes up floating past the Punakha Dzong at the confluence with the Mo Chu.
Day 9, Oct. 11, Wednesday:
Travel to Thimphu
This day we travel over the pass at Dochu La (10,302). If it’s clear we may be treated to views of the Himalaya to the north. We’ll spend some time walking amongst the 108 chortens that are located there and can visit the small Druk Wangyal Lhakhang temple as well. Afterwards we will drive on to Thimphu, the capital. Once there we can tour the town and all that it has to offer.
Day 10 Oct 12, Thursday:
There’s an optional pre-breakfast trip to (one of) the largest sitting Buddhas in the world.
A short drive allows us to experience sunrise over Thimphu and the surrounding
mountains from the vantage point of the sitting Buddha. On our return for breakfast we can also visit the Memorial Chorten built to honor the 3rd King. Each morning locals gather here to pray reciting mantras while walking clockwise circles around the base of the chorten. While in Thimphu we can visit the Textile Museum, the School of Traditional Arts, Takin Reserve (Bhutan’s national animal) and do some shopping.
Day 11 Oct 13, Friday:
Travel to Paro
We’ll leave Thimphu for our final destination of Paro. There are many options of sites to visit: Dzong, a variety of Lhakhangs (small temples) and we might be able to catch an archery match if we haven’t witnessed one yet. Once in Paro we spend the rest of the day around town and relax a bit in preparation for our hike to the Tigers Nest the following day.
Day 12 Oct 14, Saturday:
Hike Tigers Nest
An early start to the day sees us at the trailhead for the most famous monastery in the country, Takstang, known as “the tigers’ nest.” After the hike, our late lunch is followed by one last chance to wander Paro and do last minute shopping. We finish off the evening with a farewell dinner.
Day 13, Oct 15, Sunday:
Today we take you to the airport for your early morning departure and farewell to the Land of the Thunder Dragon!
Cost for RT flight BKK-PBH-BKK: $975
Single Room Supplement for those wanting single rooms: US $495
Trip includes the in-country flight from Paro to Bumthang