Bhutan 2024 Part Two

In Archive, News & Travels, Travels by Fran Bryson

It can be amusing what appears on a tour itinerary, and doesn’t, and what doesn’t appear can often correlate with your favourite bits of a tour.

At the halfway mark of our hour-long hike up to a(nother) dzong was a small gazebo where a delicately-featured local woman sells dripping slices of cucumber upon which you can sprinkle – or heap – salt, chilli flakes and/or Szechwan pepper. The numbing kind. She is very popular with the guides – not least due to her very cute toddler. The guides crowd in to introduce their charges to the delicacy. A taste sensation and very refreshing (once the numbness wore off). Who’da thought? And why doesn’t it feature on every Bhutan tour itinerary or, at least, ours? Then again, the walk itself didn’t appear on the printed itinerary either.

Our guide’s itinerary – it took us a while to work out that it differed quite considerably from the one we were sent – was disappointingly short on people-time. You know, the kind of ‘real’ experiences you get walking around markets and finding a local bar to drink at. We finally insisted on some time for these activities and found it was asparagus season, that chillies are available all year round (but aren’t necessarily on the tourist menus), and that we could have happily lived out our lives having never tried yak cheese.

It became apparent from our first drive to the capital, Thimpu, that it was rhododendron season, and the bougainvillea were also out. The entire country was smattered with vibrant shades of pink and crimson. Matt and I agreed that Dad would have especially loved the bougainvillea. T’was his favourite plant (presumably after the frangipani, his nickname for me).

There are three main types of ‘sites’ in Bhutan and we visited many, many examples of all three. Although they were not necessarily identified by each type in our itinerary. Perhaps to gloss over the fact that the sites might seem a tad repetitive.


Fortresses are forbidding non-military structures that are part-monastery and part government offices.


Dzongs are monasteries,
similarly fortified, but surrounded by stuppas – note: 108 is the correct
number of stuppas to erect around your dzong when you build it.

Six of 108 stuppas around the dzong

And then there are stuppas themselves. They can be parts of fortresses or dzongs, or a feature by itself. Often they seem to be tucked away in the bend of a road or by a river, presumably in case you are caught short in your need to pray. Oh, and there have to be even more prayer flags in Bhutan than there are in Nepal. Truly.

When we did ditch the guide and driver to go to a local bar – the first ‘bar’ the guide agreed to take us to turned out to be a western-style café – the regulars were playing a board game involving skidding discs across a smooth board. While we were in the bar every single person who came in (only a few because our guides grew anxious whenever we managed to ditch them, so we had to hurry back) did a cartoon-like double take. Apparently, they don’t get many tourists drinking beer in their bar. Friendly though, as was this toddler who came to work with her mother.  We gave her a small koala toy.

The highlight of the itinerary – printed or otherwise – would have been the fortress known as the Tiger’s Nest if my legs and altitude sickness hadn’t made me bail at the café at the halfway mark. It’s a monastery with turrets and walls that spout from the side of a cliff like exotic fungi. Gazing up at it I wondered how many blockbuster films it has featured in. My brother Matt made it though, all six or so hours return. Good on him (the show off)!

 If I’d taken photos of every shop-sign that took our fancy, we’d have not had time to do anything else.

We didn’t get to see the arts & crafts centre that was on both ours and our guide’s itineraies because it was closed for some event (this happened three times at different sites during our week) but instead visited the Folk Museum we got to try archery and darts. I won at darts but stank at archery. If you can read the pic of the sign about darts, you will note the skillful use of the word ‘skill’ and its derivatives.

Another thing not on our itinerary was optional rafting and it was a bit of fun. Despite the lack of pictorial record, I was rafting too (as you can see in the late-found group shot). Now you serious rafters out there would think it tame, but the river had a couple of slight rapids (can you have a ‘slight rapid’?) and was followed by a nice water-side lunch. It was a bit windy for the elaborate wedding-style tablecloths and chair coverings and we did notice the caterer was holding one gazebo tent-pole so it didn’t blow away.

We had been wondering why a trip to the Buhtan Post Office Headquarters was itinerary-worthy but turns out you can get stamps printed with your portrait. Yep, ‘Queen for a day”. And yes, they are reputed to be legal tender, but we’ll not know that for sure until our postcards get delivered to our loved ones back home. We even got one set of stamps with the three of us.

We realised the National Museum was something of an afterthought on our guide’s version of the itinerary. That we were unlikely to get there before 5pm closing on the tour’s last day, we asked that it be hiked up the list of importance. Our guide seemed a bit taken aback by this since it meant we might miss a(nother) dzong but we made the call and were glad. Not a lot of non-spiritual history but that’s beautiful — and happy — Bhutan for you.