"This must be the last Shangri-la...with dog shit", I muttered to myself as I stepped over yet another pile on my way up to Drukgyel Dzong, a former Buddhist monastery perched on a ridge in the upper Paro valley in Bhutan. Passing verdant rice fields, I trudged upwards, lugging my camera to capture the mammoth of mountains around. Local kids passed me, laughing as they raced to the top — the high altitude didn't seem to faze them one bit. As I reached the top of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, panting, I stopped to take a breath as the cool breeze whipped my hair into disarray. There was a lot to take in — tiny villages, large prayer wheels, steep drops, prayer flags, and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Pinch me.
It doesn't take a lot to get here. After a five-hour flight from Singapore and an hour's drive from the airport, I was already at the top of a 15th-century ruin — not too shabby for a Sunday. Travelling to Bhutan isn't that far-fetched of an idea, and the country's more accessible than you think. Touted as the last Shangri-la on Earth, Bhutan's a great escape if you've been everywhere else. Get your calendars out and make your bookings. Here's how.
When to go
Spring's the best time to go, but frankly, any time's a good time. Flowers are in full bloom from March till May. Peak seasons tend to be around March, April, May, September, October, and November; so plan early if you wish to travel then.
Visa & currency
Contrary to popular belief, it's really not that hard to obtain a visa, nor is there a tourist limit. You can't apply for it yourself though; so book a tour package with a licensed travel agent who'll apply on your behalf. The approval process takes about one to two weeks. It costs US$250 per day during high season, and US$200 otherwise. The fee includes a guide, transport, three-star accommodation and food. If you wish to stay at a luxury hotel, you'd have to top up accordingly. The Bhutanese ngultrum equals the Indian rupee in currency, so it's best to change to the latter as they're also used in the country, and easier to convert from when you return.
Drukair Royal Bhutan Airlines serve the Singapore to Paro route four times per week. Return tickets start from US$1,000. At 2,500 metres above sea level and surrounded by mountains, Paro Airport's considered to be one of the most dangerous landings in the world. The view, however, is nothing short of epic. When you check in, request to sit on the left side of the plane for a view of the Himalayas, including Mount Everest.
If you want to be in the heart of the capital, stay at Le Meridien Thimphu, which opened last December. This modern, design-led hotel is close to modern conveniences such as shops, restaurants, banks and convenience stores, and still within an hour's drive to places of interest. Guests who book through their website will also be directed to their tour agent, Keys to Bhutan, a reputable agency that can assist in the visa process.
Bhutanese cuisine will surprise you with contrasting yet complementary flavours in each bite. Ema datse is a dish of thick cuts of red chili cooked in a creamy cheese sauce which the locals have at every meal. For breakfast, we suggest dunking some buckwheat pancakes, khur-le, into this fiery staple. Have yours at Babesa Village Restaurant, where you'll dine sitting on the floor in a conserved heritage home. Another option is Paday Bistro, housed in a contemporary cottage-like home with the most moreish cheese momos you can get your hands on, dipped in a tangy chili paste.
Another must-try is butter tea, kha ja, where butter and salt are added to brewed Bhutanese tea. The locals, both men and women, also enjoy chewing on betel nuts, which reportedly keeps them warm.
If there are two places you must go, head to Tango Monastery and Tiger's Nest. The 45-minute hike to Tango Monastery is relatively easy with slopes and a steady ascend. You'll pass by friendly monks and locals, and a smattering of tourists. Have some pills and lots of water on hand in case the altitude gets to your head.
There are two ways to see Tiger's Nest — from its base, or up close via a three-hour hike, both of which are equally breathtaking. The latter literally takes your breath away, as the hike is a toughie with steep stairs up and down. From the base of Taktsang, pack a picnic lunch by the river where you can still enjoy magnificent views of the historic monastery, nestled at the edge of a cliff.
Catch the sunrise at Dochula Pass, a mountain road that overlooks the Himalayas. While beautiful sights abound in Bhutan, the panoramic views here trump all, dramatised by the 108 chortens (stupas), which stand in memory of perished Bhutanese soldiers.
While the Buddha Dordenma Statue isn't fully completed yet, it's still worth a visit. Made of bronze and gilded in gold, it stands at a massive height of 62 metres in the forested Kuenselphodrang Nature Park.
Pick up books from the National Textile Museum's retail shop. Authentic Bhutanese Cookbook by Punap Ugyen Wangchuk is recommended, with useful step-by-step recipes to replicate local dishes. There's even a title or two with insights on Bhutan's fascination with phallic symbols. Yes, erect phalluses are painted throughout Bhutan as a symbol to ward off evil and aid in fertility.
You're better off picking up textiles and handicrafts at the Arts and Crafts market in the centre of Thimphu, where the variety is endless and prices are negotiable. Held every Tuesday and Wednesday, here's where you'll haggle for a kira or gho — the traditional Bhutanese dress for women and men respectively — or some handmade paper and bookmarks. There are also phallic key chains, which you can save as bachelorette party favours.
Another great way to bring Bhutan home with you is to make stamps with your own photo, which you can do at Thimphu's post office.