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Transformative Travel: An Incredible Journey Through Bhutan

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The first thing I notice as I drive with my local guide, Kinley, from Paro to Thimphu is the mountains. Heck, you’ll notice them before your flight even lands as the plane weaves between peaks, your fellow passengers gasping and giggling as the wings barely skim the local homes. Your Bhutan adventure has begun.

Though, driving down the quiet highway, you’ll also notice time has slowed down, especially if you’ve just flown from Bangkok and are nursing a hangover from a night of partying on Khao San Road. Despite the hairpin turns and steep cliff drop-offs beside you, your heart beat doesn’t quicken. It remains as calm as the billowing prayer flags tied to the passing trees.

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A view from my window right before landing in Paro, Bhutan

Bhutan wasn’t always welcoming to tourists. It was only in 1974 that the country opened its borders to visitors — under the condition they pay an all-inclusive nightly tariff of $200-$250, plus $40/$30 per night for solo and duo travelers and a $860 round trip flight to-and-from Bangkok (or other hub). This, combined with Bhutan’s remote location and relatively small size at just under 700,000 people, means there hasn’t been a huge interest in big western companies and fast food chains to enact their usual takeover as they have done in so many other places.

What you get is something that actually feels untouched and authentic. I know “authentic” is one of those words that gets so overused it’s essentially lost its meaning, but it’s so fitting when talking about Bhutan. Dressed in the traditional handmade gho, a long belted robe of sorts, Kinley speaks of memories of his grandma trading rice for a cat (Bhutan used bartering up until they got their own currency in 1974). He takes me to see myriad temples, as Buddhism is the major religion of the country, with Buddhas and shrines everywhere.

In #Bhutan I visit myriad Buddhist temples, beautiful Buddhas and shrines everywhere. #travel Share on X
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Kinley in his traditional dress, guiding me around Bhutan

In fact, I’m told most Bhutan locals have their own shrine in their homes, which I see for myself during a homestay in Paro and in Thimphu’s Folk Heritage Museum. While you will still notice the “good old days” alive and well in Bhutan’s outer villages, in places like Thimphu it is becoming a bit more modern. The museum is a 19th century home done in the traditional way with original artifacts that bring it to life for visitors and the younger generations.

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AN AERIAL VIEW OF THIMPHU

Exploring Thimphu

Speaking of Thimphu, it’s my first stop on my 10-day tour, the largest city in Bhutan and located in the western-central part of the country. Kinley and I drive down into the valley to reach it, the mountains growing around us and providing a backdrop that hugs the tall buildings down Norzim Lam (Street), all done in pale rainbow colors with decorative Buddhist-inspired paintings depicting dragons, lotus flowers, tigers and offering vessels. They look like clay trees growing from the slopes, charmingly weathered and enveloped in lush greenery.

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Wandering around the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu

The National Animal

In Thimphu I get my first dose of Bhutanese culture, a day chock-full of museum exploration, artisan visits and even some time at the Motithang Takin Preserve, where they house about 20 takin, the national animal of Bhutan, which appear like adorable cow-goat crossbreeds.

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TAKINS AT THE MOTITHANG TAKIN PRESERVE

The government tried to close the zoo in the 1980s to let the enclosed animals free; however, the now-domesticated takin ended up wandering the city streets confused, and the preserve was re-opened. Interestingly, there’s a legend behind the takin. It’s believed the Divine Madman — a Buddhist Master known for his unusual way of solving problems, as well as his demon-fighting phallus, but more on that later — actually created the takin by joining together the bones of a goat’s head and bones of the cow’s body and, ta da, the animal was born.

One Of The World’s Largest Buddhas

Another place I explore spirituality in Thimphu is Buddha Point, where I come face-to-face — or rather face-to-pedestal — with one of the world’s largest Buddha statues, sitting grand at 169 feet tall (though if you count the gold throne pedestal the structure is over 200 feet).

The placement of the seated Buddha’s fingers pointing down represents the real life Buddha’s posture while in India, when he vowed to the earth and the nagas (serpent gods believed to once own all the world’s land) that he would not get up from his meditation until he’d found enlightenment. Celestial beings making offerings surround the shining Buddha, and inside the pedestal is a temple that, upon completion, will house over 100 Buddha statues. Tip: This is also a great spot to get aerial views of the city, as well as to cycle paths in the adjoining Kuensel Phodrang Nature Park.

I explore spirituality in #Bhutan at #Buddha Point, where I come face-to-pedestal with one of the world’s largest Buddha statues. #travel Share on X
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The giant sitting Buddha at Buddha Point in Thimphu

While visiting the temples around Bhutan and seeing the detailed paintings that tell stories of longevity, Nirvana and harmony, it’s clear this spiritual culture is also dedicated to the arts. And as the country also places importance on preserving traditions — it’s actually one of the four pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index — I’m able to explore a number of traditional artisan crafts.

Traditional Weaving

First, we visit the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre near Thimphu’s city center, where we enter a small room with a low ceiling full of local women working with backstrap looms to weave colorful handmade garments. Kinley explains that most weavers come from the eastern part of Bhutan where weaving is a tradition, and that some garments, especially those of pure silk, can take six-to-seven months to create.

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Images from the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre

After we peruse the upstairs showroom — you can also learn more about local garments in the National Textile Museum in Thimphu — we head into the art gallery next door, where 15-20 local artists showcase paintings mainly depicting culture and Buddhist scenes.

Handmade Paper From High Altitude Trees

We continue the art exploration at the Jungshi Paper Factory, where traditional techniques are employed to turn high altitude Daphne and Dhekap trees into high-quality paper products. Handmade paper is an important tradition in Bhutan, originally crafted for the writing of mantras and prayers at temples. A short walk through the small but able factory takes me on the tree bark’s journey, beginning with it being soaked for 24 hours, then boiled and washed, then spun and mashed into a pulp, and finally mixed with starch and molded using a bamboo net. Kinley notes that this is also when the artisans might put an object between the paper and the bamboo, such as a chili pepper, to imprint a design.

Handmade #paper is an important tradition in #Bhutan, originally crafted for writing #Buddhist mantras and prayers. Share on X
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Scenes from the Jungshi Paper Factory

The wet sheets of fresh paper are pressed to remove excess liquid, and dried either by steam or laid out in the sun.

Onsite, a small gallery sells handmade cards, wall hangings, notebooks and other paper goods for about $2.25+, and I leave with a thick paper envelope full of handmade dragon prints (so much better than a Made In China keychain, by the way).

Spirituality & Penises In Punakha Valley

The next day, the drive from Thimphu to Punakha is a long one, taking about four hours with all of the work being done to widen the East-West Highway; a skinny, dusty, partially-paved road full of pot holes and boulders that’s scenic — albeit a bit scary with its steep mountain drops — as well as culturally immersive. Our vehicle hugs the mountainside, offering constant views of high altitude trees, valleys filled with mud homes and rice fields, and villages with small wooden shops selling snacks and women carrying grass for their cattle in bamboo baskets on their backs.

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While driving through Bhutan, my window was constantly rolled down

My window is continuously rolled down with my camera shutter clicking furiously. We pass Bhutanese buses decked out in Buddhas, lotus flowers and dragons, a flora-filled National Botanical Garden, billowing prayer flags, villages for Tibetan refugees and small huts from which farmers watch over their fields at night.

A Spiritual Drive 

While Thimphu is full of cultural experiences, getting out into the villages is where you’ll find Bhutan heritage is truly preserved (though customs like verbal marriages right after sleeping with someone for the first time and having multiple husbands and wives are dying out). Along this route in particular we also encounter a number of truly jaw-dropping (I mean this very literally) spiritual experiences.

I’m enchanted by the 108 stupas — representing Buddhism’s 108 deities, demons defeated by Buddhist Masters and transformed into Buddhist protectors — at the Dochula Pass.

While Thimphu is full of #culture, heading into the villages is where you’ll find truly preserved #Bhutan heritage. #travel Share on X
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Exploring the stupas of the Dochula Pass

Combined with a view of the Eastern Himalayas, I can’t help but feel moved, a feeling that continues at the Punakha Dzong, a 17th-century fortress serving as the religious and administrative center of the region. It’s a massive complex with multiple buildings, bridges and rivers, not to mention a temple with a giant gold Buddha, a beautiful altar with offerings and colorful ritual cakes, multi-hued weavings done by monks and two golden thrones with enormous images above them, one of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (the unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state) and one of Bhutan’s King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

The Highlight Of The Journey 

The site that really captures my attention, however, is Chimi Lhakhang, or the Temple of the Divine Madman. Sure, the Dzong may be grand, but does it have a surrounding village featuring houses covered from bottom to top with penis paintings and wooden phalluses?

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In Bhutan, you’ll find numerous buildings adorned with penises, meant to ward off evil demons

Let me explain. These do have a spiritual meaning. Buddhist Master Drukpa Kunley was nicknamed the Divine Madman due to his unusual ways of teaching Buddhist lessons, from peeing on someone’s Buddhist wall hanging (thongka) and the urine turning to gold to impregnating a nun to bring her good energy. There was always a good and pure method to his madness, despite his affinity for booze, feasting, sex and boisterousness.

His penis was of particular notoriety, as it had the power to not only pass positive energy, but to enlarge and slay demons. In fact his temple, which sits on a mound often compared to a woman’s breast, is where the body of one such demon was buried.

The Lam's penis was of particular notoriety, as it had the #power to enlarge and slay demons. #bhutan Share on X
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CHIMI LHAKHANG, OF THE DIVINE MADMAN TEMPLE

Before entering the temple I remove my shoes and turn off my camera off, as there are no photos allowed inside Buddhist temples in Bhutan. Kinley does his prostrations, asking forgiveness for his mental, verbal and physical wrongdoings by touching his head, mouth and heart before throwing his body to the ground, touching his head to the floor and repeating the sequence three times. Immediately, a young monk comes over with a vessel (called a bumpha) of Holy water, pouring the clear liquid into our palms to put into our mouths and onto our heads cleanse our sins.

“This also means you might have a baby now!” jokes Kinley.

My eyes get wide, and I say a little prayer of my own to the Divine Madman to please not work his phallus magic on me.

We move aside to let the locals do their prostrations and make their offerings of water, money, wine and candy at the shrine, which also holds larger-than-life statues of the Divine Madman, his older brother and the deity of the valley. There’s also a large wooden phallus — which the Divine Madman is said to have brought with him from his home of Tibet — and some of the Divine Madman’s belongings from the 15th century, including a bow and arrow, and a phallus made from an elephant tusk.

The young monk comes back over to me, grabs the objects and instructs me to bow my head. Gently, he taps the objects to my head, which Kinley tells me is for good luck.

“Make a wish,” Kinley instructs as the phallus tusk rests in my hair.

“I wish I’m not pregnant,” I think to myself.

As we meander the path back to the car, strolling through fields and homes, past villagers and farmers, I can’t help but notice once again the plethora of penis paintings on the house and wooden penises on the roofs, although now I better understand that this is to ward off evil and demons, just like the Divine Madman did with his notorious member.

The Beginning Of Buddhism In Bumthang

By now, you’ve probably realized Bhutan truly is a Buddhist kingdom; which is why visiting Bumthang is important, as it’s where Buddhism started in the country in 746 AD. We drive about eight hours to reach Bumthang, the construction of the one-lane mountainside highway being made to better accommodate the two-way traffic slowing us down a bit. While construction can be annoying, it can also be a blessing, as the 4-star Mountain Lodge I stay in, with its enormous slate shower, strong Wi-Fi and beautiful pine wood build, is also under construction, making it a 3-star hotel for the time being and a place Kinley is able to book me in.

Hiking From Kurji Temple To Thangbi Village

I immerse myself in this local pine on a hike from Kurji Temple to Thangbi Village within the Wangchuck Centennial Park with Kinley. Parking the car in the temple parking lot, we head north on the road by foot, cows, farmhouses and fields of crops and wild marijuana meeting the edge of the mountain slopes. My gaze starts at their feet, moving to the protruding arms of green ground holding billowing prayer flags and hillside homes that, to an outsider, look exotic albeit precariously positioned.

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Cultural encounters on a spiritual hike

Almost immediately the Chamkhar Chu (River) begins rushing to our right, a light yet vibrant turquoise splashing glacial waters over boulders and stretching south into India. Even when we enter the forest, a woodland canopy of Blue pine and oak shading us from the sun, I can still glimpse its waters. I can’t help but notice it smells like home, and despite being in one of the world’s most remote destinations I’m transported to the New York countryside.

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The Chamkhar Chu (River)

We walk along a man-made rock and dirt road littered with pine cones until we eventually reach a fork. The upper path heads toward Tibet and the base camp for Bhutan’s highest mountain, Gangkhar Puensum, reaching 24,836 feet. The lower path, which we take, leads us toward our destination of Thangbi Village. Kinley explains this place isn’t frequented by tourists at all, and I feel even more excited to see it. Sure, there are no grand palaces or elaborate attractions, but I’m amazed by the small homes with their painted wooden frames, pitched roofs and flower-shaped windows looking so natural sounded by farmland and mountains. I see locals chopping wood, children playing on the roadside and more of the colorful prayer flags for good luck as well as white ones in clusters of 108 (for the 108 deities) to liberate the souls of dead loved ones.

I see colorful prayer flags for good luck as well as white ones to liberate the souls of dead loved ones. #bhutan Share on X
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Beautiful homes in Bumthang

Kurji Temple

On the way back we explore Kurji Temple. There are thousands of temples in Bhutan, but this one is extra special, as it’s where Buddhism began in Bhutan.

In the 8th century, a demon known as Shengyen Karpo took the soul of the king at the time, King Sindhuraja. Padmasambhava (the Second Buddha) came all the way from India to help resolve the situation, though upon hearing this the demon turned himself into a white lion and hid inside a cave in the temple, which you can still see today inside the alter of the lower section. Padmasambhava was no fool though, and defeated the demon, turning him into a Buddhist practitioner and deity. This is how Buddhism in Bhutan all began, according to Kinley.

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Kurji Temple

We explore the three public spaces — along with aerial views of the valley from the site. It’s beautifully moving, to say the least. But spirituality isn’t just found within grand temples in Bhutan. In this country, in fact, it’s possible to explore my love of culture and the outdoors combined.

Spiritual Wildlife In The Valley Of The Black-neck Crane

Such as at my next stop.

Like most of the trip, the eight-hour drive from Bumthang makes Bolivia’s Death Road seem like a suburban court, as one awkward movement and we’ll go tumbling down to our deaths. But Kinley has done this plenty of times, and I feel safe knowing I’m in good hands.

And when we start heading up a steep incline, leveling out on the rim of a massive valley full of trees and rolling hills, peaks shrouded in clouds so thick it looks like there was an explosion in the sky, it’s immediately clear this place was worth the journey.

Not only is this valley unique for its endless flat fields of bamboo shrubs, mountains forming the rim of what looks like an invisible swimming pool for the local birds that dive and plunge into it from the sky, but because it is home to the Black-necked Crane, one of the rarest species of crane in the world.

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PHOTOS OF PHOBJIKHA VALLEY’S BLACK-NECKED CRANES TAKEN WITH MY IPHONE 6 THROUGH A TELESCOPE AT THE VISITOR CENTER

It’s not hard to spot them, their bright white bodies contrasting with their black heads and tails, sticking out against the light green and yellow grasses. The birds strut gracefully through wetlands and agricultural fields, others flying like ballerinas in the sky, gliding softly to the ground when it’s time for search for food. Their loud cries like celebratory noisemakers are heard all the way from my hotel room at Gakiling Hotel, at the highest man-made point in Phobjikha Valley Village.

#Birds fly like ballerinas in the sky, gliding softly down to search for food. #bhutan Share on X

Birds Of Heaven

The birds are known as “birds of heaven,” as they’re said to be attracted to holy places. In fact, both Kinley and the NGO representative at the local Black-necked Crane Visitor Center say the birds fly clockwise three times around the local temple — a Buddhist practice that helps rid the body of negative energy — both when they arrive in the fall and before they migrate to Tibet in the early-to-late spring. The Visitor Center is a treat, as along with learning about the bird (did you know it’s the world’s only alpine crane?) I’m able to see them up close using a telescope.

Kinley and I end the night with a sunset walk around the local village, the small wooden homes backed by peaks providing the backdrop and the calls of the Black-necked Crane playing the soundtrack. It’s the perfect way to end the day before our long drive to Paro in the morning.

Working For A Glimpse Of Buddha In Paro

It’s here that I get to experience the highlight of my trip and the excursion I was most excited for when planning my Bhutan getaway: trekking to the Tiger’s Nest, or Taktsang Monastery. For those who have never heard of the Tiger’s Nest, it’s a monastery built into the mountainside in the 17th century, as this was the place where Padmasambhava subdued a local demon, transforming them into the protective deity of the area. The name of the spiritual spot comes from the fact Padmasambhava transformed his consort into a flying tigress, himself taking on the angry-faced Dorje Drolo, one of the Eight Manifestations of the Padmasambhava, to hide himself from the demon. The face — which you’ll see recreated numerous times inside the Tiger’s Nest — also serves the purpose of teaching about one of the three poisons (the others are ignorance and greed) that is in all of us, and that we should work to rid ourselves of to potentially reach Nirvana.

A Challenging Trek

The trek just outside of Paro takes about two hours, almost all uphill, but is so scenic and spiritual along the way. About an hour into the hike we come to a beautiful lookout, giant prayer wheels and colorful payer flags cresting a frame around an opening of trees with the Tiger’s Nest just above and beyond. It’s spectacular.

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Gorgeous views on a Tiger’s Nest hike

And that’s not even the main lookout, at least the main one where photos are allowed, which sits at the top of 600 descending steps followed by 200 ascending steps (and remember this is reversed on the way back!). From here I can see the local villages hugged by mountain slopes, prayer flags billowing in the wind.

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Prayer wheels along the Tiger’s Nest trail

Once inside the Tiger’s Nest, we take off our shoes and step inside of the altar room, where a bronze Padmasambhava sits surrounded by smaller statues of his Eight Manifestations. A local woman does her prostrations and rubs her prayer beads clockwise, with Kinley following suit. My gaze goes to the altar, topped with offerings of water, money and snacks, colorful ritual cakes (the tallest I’ve seen yet), stupa-shaped vessels and burning incense. The caretaker comes over to me with a vessel full of saffron-infused holy water, the herbal liquid meant to wash away my sins as I drink it and wipe some in my hair.

Another room that’s intensely moving for me is the Butter Lamp Room, endless rows of bowl-sized butter lamps glowing to honor lost loved ones. I tear up as I’m handed the burning incense, lighting lamps for lost relatives.

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The Tiger’s Nest. Almost there!

From the Tiger’s Nest it’s also possible to take in the best view of the hike, though no photos are allowed inside the complex. From my high perch of 10,171 feet the houses and trees below look like Monopoly pieces; that is, if the Monopoly board featured a Buddhist kingdom hugged by mountains, more of those beautiful prayer flags billowing their mantras about the landscape.

While I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, it’s here where I reflect on how many beliefs within the philosophy resonate with me. For one, working to rid ourselves of anger, greed and ignorance in order to reach Nirvana. Whether you believe this place exists or not, it would be hard to argue that your real life wouldn’t be more like nirvana on earth if you could rid yourself of these.

Another lesson that’s stuck with me, especially as someone who went against societal norms to follow my dreams of travel, is that to be healthy individuals we should learn to live in the now. In fact, Buddha himself has been quoted as saying, “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.”

Not a bad motto to live by, no matter what religion or philosophy you live by.

While I'm not #Buddhist, I #reflect on how many beliefs within the philosophy resonate with me. #bhutan Share on X

A Paro Homestay Experience

My Bhutan adventure ends with an opportunity for cultural immersion: a homestay in Paro. It’s here where I experience the ultimate bout of relaxation with a traditional hot stone bath. A wooden tub features a partition separating the tub into a larger section where the person sits, and a smaller section where hot stones are placed to heat the water. As I submerge myself into the liquid, the sizzling rocks let out steam offerings health benefits like curing joint ailments, stomach disorders and skin issues.

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Scenes from a Paro homestay

I hold my breath and dunk my head under the water, letting the minerals sink into every pore; letting them purify my skin like this trip has done my soul. From the beautiful Buddhist teachings to the warm people and their traditions to the visionary beliefs of the country’s king, my trip to Bhutan has not only introduced me to a new way of living and thinking, but inspired me to want to be a better person myself. The trip itself may have only been 10 days, but it’s one that has truly made a lasting impression.

Essential Info:

Recommended Tour Operator: I went with Bhutan Tourister and had an unbelievable time. I highly recommend them. Please use this booking form for inquiries.

Booking Your Trip: By law, tourists visiting Bhutan must have a guide and must pay an all-inclusive rate of $200-$250 per night (low vs high season) + airfare + $40 Bhutan visa fee (unless you’re an Indian, Bangladeshis or Maldivian national) + $30-$40 nightly tariff for duo and solo travelers. This includes your private guide, 3-star lodging, three (huge!) meals per day and ground transfers.

Responsible Tourism: Making it more difficult to visit Bhutan limits the amount of tourists entering the country, helping to preserve the landscape and traditional culture. Moreover, 35% of what you pay goes to the government to put toward free education and healthcare, infrastructure and conservation.

Health: Healthcare is free for locals and visitors in Bhutan. I didn’t encounter any hotels with gyms, so if you’re looking to stay in shape I recommend Yoga Download (900+ yoga classes right on your laptop or phone), TheraBands (inexpensive resistance bands that take up virtually no luggage space) and a FitBit wristband (encourages you to be healthy and is stylish).

Paying For Your Trip: As a points-obsessed traveler, it stung not be able to pay for the trip with my credit card. To pay for your trip you’ll need to transfer the funds in US dollars to the tourism board’s bank account. The fee for me personally through Bank of America was $45 for the transfer, though they were kind enough to waive it for me as I’m a preferred client, so that was sweet. You can easily make the transfer online if you do online banking.

Language: Dzongkha & English

Local Currency: Ngultrum (Nu). As of February 2016, 1 Nu= $0.01.

Tipping: I tipped my guide the equivalent of $10/day, as I read $8-$10/day was the norm on numerous forums and travel agency sites.

Internet: Most of the hotels I stayed at had pretty decent Wi-Fi, though there was one that said they had Wi-Fi and it didn’t work. Homestays will likely not have Wi-Fi. If you want to stay connected I recommend getting a local SIM card from TashiCell, which cost about $10 for the SIM and 10 days of credit (depending how much you’ll use it, I had lots of credit left over but I didn’t use mine much), or a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker to affix to your regular SIM for local rates.

Food: If you like heat, you’ll love the chili-laden Bhutanese food, though many hotels cater to tourists with more general meat and veggie dishes. I was never hungry, as portions are huge and heavy, typically featuring a heaping bowl of red rice with pasta, potatoes, fish, cheese-topped chilies, cheese-topped mushrooms, turnip flowers and other meats and veggies. That being said the food won’t be what you write home about; it’ll be the well-preserved culture and heritage as well as the beautiful mountainous, green landscapes, 72% of which are covered in forest, unlike anywhere else.

Booze/Tobacco/Weed: Bhutan is a booze-friendly country (the small capital of Thimphu has 700 bars alone), though note the country is dry on Tuesdays, which is also the day many sites and shops are closed. Despite growing plentifully weed is illegal, and tobacco is illegal to sell. You can bring your own cigarettes purchased from another country, but be prepared to pay a 200% tax on them at customs.

Plugs: The outlets varied at the hotels. In some I was able to plug a standard USA-style plug into the wall, while at others I needed the European two-prong kind. Click here for a visual. It’s recommended to get a TravelMore International Travel Adapter with USB ports so you can charge multiple devices with one gadget.

Dress: While it won’t cause an uproar if you wear a tank top and shorts, it’s a respectful gesture to keep shoulders and knees covered when not in your hotel room. This is mandatory in the local temples (as well as no hats!) which you’ll be visiting a lot of. One travel essential to carry that’s great for this is a scarf shawl — which also works as an airplane blanket!

Essential Gear: Even if you visit in the warmer months it’s essential to bring warm clothes, as the mountains can get chilly all year round. Some items I recommend:

Jessie Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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