Follow this travel expert as she discovers Bhutan one monastery at a time.
Rachel Rudwall is one of those travelers that’s always exploring some very cool, very far off land that you’ve maybe heard about, but didn’t know much more than the name. Rudwall digs into the essentials of a place. What makes it great? Who lives there? What is their daily life like? And she photographs and films it all. And she does it well. She’s a travel tastemaker and storyteller, tried and true. Which is why you might recognize her from her shows on Travel Channel and HLN, and her regular TV appearances on shows like ABC’s FABLife.
And while Rudwall is always somewhere interesting, one of her latest explorations caught my eye – Bhutan. Bhutan is one of those places that makes the bucket lists of the very well-traveled, but not the new or occasional traveler. In fact, those travelers probably don’t even know about Bhutan. And that’s probably because there are a lot of factors for traveling there. This isn’t one of those hop on a plane in a stay in an all-inclusive resort destinations. This is about as far from that as it gets. And that’s exactly what makes it so intriguing.
So, I decided to catch up with Rachel following her trip with some questions of my own about traveling to this mysterious and eye-opening destination. Here’s what she had to say. And what you should know about traveling to the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and what you typically look for in a destination?
“My name is Rachel, and I’m a travel storyteller. Chances are you love travel, too, which is why you’re here! I’ve been exploring professionally for over a decade, producing and hosting TV shows from around the world, writing and shooting photography for travel magazines and brands, and public speaking at events like TEDx. I’ve visited all seven continents, as well as nearly 70 countries, and somehow the Dream Travel list continues growing—not shrinking.
As far as what I look for in destinations: I’m drawn to places with wide open landscapes, warm people, and a sense that locals actually live there rather than it being just inhabited by tourists.”
What made you want to travel to Bhutan specifically?
“Bhutan and the Himalayan Mountains have been at the top of my Dream Travel list for a long time. Because the Himalayas boast a lot of the world’s highest peaks—including Mount Everest—the region is known to be a playground for anyone who likes the outdoors (which includes me). What drew me specifically to Bhutan was the concept of Gross National Happiness: a measurement the Bhutanese government employs instead of Gross National Product to discern whether its country is succeeding. If the people say they’re happy, the government believes the country’s doing well. Pretty darn quaint, if you ask me.”
Watch Rudwall’s stunning postcard from Bhutan.
Where is Bhutan and how do you get there?
“Bhutan is a tiny mountain kingdom nestled in the remote southeastern reach of the Himalayas, surrounded by much larger and better-known global players like China and India. Since Bhutan is just barely larger than the U.S. state of Maryland, it’s pretty common to hear people say, “Wait… Bhutan? That’s a place?”
Due to its small population (less than 800,000 people), Bhutan doesn’t offer a whole lot of international transit options. What that means for a traveler is: there’s only one airline to get into and out of the country—DrukAir. DrukAir, which stands for “Dragon Air,” can fly a traveler into and out of Bhutan via a handful of countries, including Thailand, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Singapore.”
Why is now the time to go?
“Bhutan is such a remote destination that it feels relatively untouched by outside forces. Sure, people have cell phones and Facebook accounts; however, they also still go about their daily lives in intricate traditional robes, buying from farmers markets instead of supermarkets, and eating at local eateries instead of chain restaurants. In a world that’s continuing to grow ever more globalized, Bhutan remains a remote land characterized by tradition and relative isolation.”
Is it expensive to travel there? Is it expensive once you’re there?
“I had heard that it was wildly expensive to travel to Bhutan, so I never considered traveling there during my shoestring days. Now that I know more about how their tourism system works, however, I think the expense makes sense. Ready for a run down?
In high season (March-May and September-November), each traveler is required to spend $250 USD per day while traveling Bhutan. In low season (December-February and June-August), that cost drops to $200. While both of those price points may seem like a lot, the breakdown is as follows:
– $65 automatically goes to the Bhutanese government for a sustainable development fee, which, according to Bhutan Tourism’s website, goes toward “free healthcare, poverty alleviation, and [infrastructure development]”.
– The remaining $135-$185, depending on which season you’re there, covers all remaining in-country costs, including accommodation, licensed guides, transportation, meals, entrance fees for sites and activities visited, and camping equipment and haulage if you do a trek.
When you break down the costs like that, Bhutan suddenly looks a whole lot more reasonable. Think about it: how much are you spending daily to travel in a country like France or Italy? The costs add up fast, as you’ve got accommodations, meals, museums, guides, transit, and any other extracurriculars to consider. Plus: there’s definitely no guarantee those funds provide education or healthcare for the general population, which they do in Bhutan.
It’s important to note that if you’re traveling solo or in a pair, you will be required to pay an additional $30-$40 per person per day, the majority of which covers private guides and transport, and the remainder of which goes toward the sustainable development fee. Visa fees will run you $40 USD no matter whether you travel solo or with a group.”
You travel solo a lot–did you travel solo to and around Bhutan?
“No one is ever truly traveling solo in Bhutan since tourists are required to travel with a guide in-country. That means that, although I arrived in Bhutan alone, I spent my journey exploring with Breathe Bhutan, a wonderful family-owned company that provides small group travel.”
Tell us about the mountaintop monasteries–how do you get there? What is it like to visit them?
“Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, sharing its religious roots with Tibet and northern India, and the signs of its piety are everywhere. I’m told that there are over 4,000 temples in this country of just 798,000 people, which comes out to about one temple per 200 people. A great number of these temples are housed within remote mountaintop monasteries—religious complexes where young monks live and study.
Not only is Bhutan religious; it’s also very environmentally-minded. In order to protect the environment surrounding said mountaintop monasteries, dirt paths lead their way up the hillsides, where visitors and locals alike must ascend on foot. Very few sacred sites have roads leading up to them; you’ve got to earn your dinner by hiking there instead.”
What are stupas and prayer wheels?
“While there are lots of temples and monasteries, there are even more stupas and prayer wheels. Stupas (called “chortens” in Bhutan) are spires that dot roadways, highways, and village paths, providing sites for locals to make offerings or offer prayers between temple visits. Equally popular are prayer wheels: cylindrical wheels marked in Sanskrit mantras, believed to provide purification when you spin them (three times counter-clockwise if you want to look like a pro).”
What are some of the rules for entering the temples?
“As the Bhutanese say, temple rules are “simple to learn, but difficult to follow”: No shoes, and no photography. That means that YES – you will get kicked out if you surreptitiously try to sneak photos with your cell phone. And YES – you will offend the gods by sneaking selfies.”
What surprised you the most about visiting Bhutan?
“While I expected Bhutan to be off-the-beaten-track, I was amazed by how pristine it felt. Mountains extend in every direction as far as the eye can see, Buddhist chants echo from the valleys, and smiling people go about their lives in ornately-woven garb as though brands like Wal-Mart and Amazon haven’t begun to take over the globe.”
What was your favorite mountaintop monastery? Are there any that can be skipped?
“You know how parents always say, “I couldn’t possibly have a favorite child! I love all my children equally!” That’s kind of how I felt about the cultural sites in Bhutan. They’re all breathtakingly beautiful, and each one of them left me pretty well dumbstruck. I particularly enjoyed the scale of Punakha Dzong (“dzong” meaning fortress), the views from Khamsum Yuenlley Temple in Punakha, and the young monks’ smiling faces at Gangteng Monastery in the Phobjikha Valley.”
Watch Rudwall’s video for more on Bhutan’s Mountaintop Monasteries.
How in shape do you have to be to hike to the mountaintop monasteries?
“You don’t need to be a mountaineer to visit the majority of Bhutan’s religious sites, but you should anticipate getting a bit of cardio since you’ll be at altitude. Bhutan is in the Himalayas, which means that everything you visit is at a reasonably high elevation. As a result, your heart will be pumping more than usual, you’ll need to hydrate more frequently, and you’ll be especially grateful for a good night of sleep each evening. If you want to do a multi-day trek, I recommend you train beforehand so that you actually enjoy yourself on the trail.”
Is the 6-mile roundtrip hike to Tiger’s Nest worth it?
“A visit to Tiger’s Nest is VERY worth it. Whether or not you’re into hiking, Tiger’s Nest is easily one of the most impressive religious sites I’ve ever visited, and I’ve checked off lots of the “must-do” sites around the world. Tiger’s Nest is a multi-tiered, dazzlingly-painted monastery first built in 1692 that clings to a cliff face over 10,000 feet above the Paro Valley below. If all that’s not enough to tempt you, there are also a waterfall, a cave complex, and a bunch of jolly monks.
Pro tip: Don’t attempt to do this hike too late in the day. You’ll need plenty of time to complete the hike since it’s at altitude, and you’ll likely be sucking wind as you chug up the hillside and temple stairs. Give yourself time for a relaxing jaunt versus a rushed monastery mission.”
What’s one piece of advice you have for someone booking a trip there?
“Don’t worry too much about the visa process. I had feared it would be tough since the country seemed like a selective destination, but I came to find those fears were unfounded. Once you’ve booked your tour and paid the fees in full, your tour company will arrange the visa for you. Easy peasy.”