Trekking in Bhutan – From Dream to Reality

Trekking in Bhutan 1
View of Haa Valley, not long after we started our trek.

By Mary Lyons

Bhutan had been a dream destination of mine for a long time, since before I moved overseas. Fifteen years ago I saw a quick blurb about it on television and thought, “I have to go there.” Just a couple of years ago, I finally went. Bhutan is more accessible than many people realize, even though it only has two airlines that fly into the country. The government does limit tourism numbers, but they have never reached their yearly limit since tourism began there in 1974. That year, 287 tourists visited Bhutan.

A lot more tourists do visit these days, but you’ll probably never see a crowd the entire time you’re there. What draws people to this beautiful Asian country? Trekking. Bhutan offers numerous trekking options, but all will be a bit challenging because of the altitude, although I did not experience headaches or altitude sickness like I did on Kilimanjaro. The highest point on our trek was 14000 feet, but we didn’t sleep at that altitude.

Trekking in Bhutan 6
One of many spectacular views on the second day of our trek.

My friend Alan decided to join me for this trip, and I was pretty surprised since he lives in Boston. I lived in Kuwait at the time, so the flight was much shorter for me. We decided to see some cultural sights, do some day treks to popular monasteries like Tiger’s Nest, and do a three-day trek. The three-day trek began in the Haa Valley and included two nights camping, three days trekking, and unimaginable views every day.

Trekking in Bhutan
Tiger’s Nest Monastery is amazing and not treacherous, but parts of it are steep. So worth it.

Walking the Walk in Bhutan

We started near the small (tiny?) town of Haa Valley where we walked through some farm land and gradually climbed throughout the day. After a leisurely picnic lunch at 12000 feet, we continued on for about an hour and camped at Saga La at 11,800 feet. We arrived at camp around 2:00 I think, and I fell asleep in my tent just as rain started to fall. We had tea and snacks around 3:30 and dinner at 6:00. Lots of time to rest, read, write, and chat. Our guide never stopped talking, but fortunately for me, he shared some fascinating information about Bhutan and seemed willing to answer any question I asked, even if the subject was a bit sensitive.

Trekking in Bhutan 5
Cook, me, Alan, horseman, and in front the helper and our guide, Sonam. Sonam is not shy, but the others sure were.

The next day we started out around 8:00AM and had about five hours trekking, but with frequent rest breaks that we didn’t really feel we needed. It wasn’t actually that strenuous, even though we were trekking between 13000 and 13800 feet nearly all day. We had amazing views of Chomolhari on this day. We arrived at camp just as a hail storm and rain hit, but our guide, Sonam, and the other members of the staff set up our camp and managed to dry our tents on the inside so we could wait out the rain. On this night, we camped at Ningula above 13000 feet where we were surrounded by rhododendrons and had an incredible Chomolhari view the next morning before the clouds moved in. I’m glad I was prepared for the cold at that elevation.

Trekking in Bhutan 8
View of Cholmolhari from our campsite. This photo is unedited.

On day three we started around 7:00AM so we could finish before the afternoon rains, but not to worry! It didn’t rain at all on this day! We ascended to the highest peak of the trek, Kung Karpo, at 13500 feet where there is a small temple highly revered by Buddhists. From there we walked down to Chelela Pass through the thousands of prayer flags where we met our driver. Day three had a couple of steep climbs, but wasn’t nearly as difficult as I thought it would be. The steep climbs were fairly short and had switchbacks.

Trekking in Bhutan 3
Kunk Karpo Temple at the highest point of our trek at 14000 feet.

We arrived at camp in the early afternoon both days and had plenty of time to read, write in a journal, have tea and snacks, and talk to our guide who has some interesting insights into Bhutanese culture and how it has changed in last 15 years. If you do decide to book a trek in Bhutan, take some time to talk to your guide and learn about the country and the culture. Be prepared for some surprising answers.

Trekking in Bhutan 4
Me at the highest point of our trek at 14000 feet.

Our views were mostly of Chomolhari and the mountains on the border of Bhutan and Tibet. With such stunning scenery, we didn’t miss technology at all. Trekking in Bhutan shouldn’t be taken lightly though, because of the elevation and rain, which when combined with cool temps can be dangerous. My trekking company, Snow Leopard Treks, sent me everything I needed to know before arriving so that I could be prepared.

Preparing for Your Haa Valley Trek Bhutan

Or any trek in Bhutan really…

Preparing to trek in Bhutan is not difficult because the tour operator will provide nearly everything you need. Mine did at least. If your tour operator doesn’t specify what they provide and what you should bring, ask them. Don’t arrive unprepared because, oddly enough, you cannot buy any gear in Bhutan. It’s not like Kathmandu where you can arrive with nothing and buy whatever is needed for trekking, although I don’t recommend that. There are no shops selling gear or even trekking clothes in Thimpu or Paro.

Trekking in Bhutan 9
Welcome to the tiny town of Haa, where nary a decent cup of coffee can be found.

Most likely, tour companies will provide the tent and either a foam or air mattress. Snow Leopard Trekking provided a wonderful foam mattress and even a pillow! But you will need to bring your own sleeping bag, trekking poles, headlamp, and clothes. Although, for my Haa Valley trek, I didn’t even use my poles. I carried them for three days and never once used them. The downhills weren’t that steep and I preferred to use my hands for balance on the brief steep, rocky downhills. Our packs were light, so I didn’t feel the need to use poles.

Trekking in Bhutan 10
Small prayer wheel at the start of our trek. These were a common site at lower elevations.

We left anything we didn’t need for our trek with our driver, who took our belongings to the hotel where we would stay after finishing our trek. While we were not worried about anything being stolen, we didn’t leave any valuables or paperwork behind. Carry these things with you.

Trekking in Bhutan 11
Cholmolhari in the distance, but this was our view, not our destination.

Specific tips for preparing for a trek in Bhutan

1) Shoes are very important and a personal choice. I wore hiking boots, but for the Haa Valley trek, hiking shoes would work just as well. Because trekkers only carry a day pack with the essentials for that day’s trek, the support of a boot isn’t really necessary. The terrain isn’t particularly rocky either. In my opinion, based on my backpacking experience in a variety of terrains, I think trainers, hiking shoes, or hiking boots are all suitable for this trek. I think it depends on what you are comfortable in and the level of support you need.

2) Socks are also important. It’s cold at these higher elevations. Wear wool! Wool socks help prevent blisters and naturally repel water. They keep your feet warm and dry and offer additional padding. I’m a big fan of Smartwool socks. A sock liner can also help keep your feet warm and prevent blisters.

Trekking in Bhutan
Smartwool socks on display on a chilly afternoon before tea time at camp.

3) I recommend a sleeping bag with a 0 degree rating or lower. It’s cold at higher elevations, no matter what time of year it is. If you get hot, you can always stick your leg out.

Trekking in Bhutan 13
Our trust steeds and porters on our Haa Valley Trek.

4) It rains all year round in Bhutan, even when it’s not the rainy season. You’ll need a rain jacket and pants, and a pack cover for your day pack. You should carry both with you while hiking. Horses will carry your sleeping bag, clothing, and anything you need at camp, but you’ll need to carry your rain gear, camera, etc. You’ll need to bring a backpack or duffel bag to use for anything you want the horse to carry. Your backpack will be carried inside a waterproof duffel.

5) A headlamp comes in handy in camp for getting around, making a midnight toilet run, or reading in your tent. We had a toilet tent, so as the only female in my group, I was thankful for the privacy, even though it was basically a portable toilet over a hole in the ground. It was fully stocked with TP, too.

6) Other things you might want to bring include a hat, pack towel, bandana, sunscreen, lip balm, and wet wipes for washing your face. The sun can be relentless when you’re at that elevation.

On being the only female…

I would like to add a note here about being the only female on my trek in Bhutan. The guide, horseman, cook, and helper were all male, and they probably will be when you do your trek as well. Women in Bhutan don’t often do these jobs. But not once did I feel outnumbered, threatened, or fearful. People in Bhutan are some of the kindest I have met during my travels. Everyone on my trek, except for my guide, was actually quite shy and reserved, but it could have been because they didn’t speak English. It was a wonderful experience and until I had to use the toilet, I hadn’t given a second thought to being the only female on the trek. But I was very thankful for the toilet tent.

Trekking in Bhutan 12
My friend Alan and me at the end of our Haa Valley trek with helpers and two dogs that trekked with us the entire three days.
Trekking in Bhutan 14
Another view of Haa Valley.

 

Trekking in Bhutan 15
Lunchtime on our trek. This is our cook. He was amazing.

 

Trekking In Bhutan 16
Our handsome horseman preparing our porters, I mean, horses.

 

Trekking in Bhutan 17
This lovely Bhutanese man was a prayer wheel in his village at the start of our trek.

 

Trekking in Bhutan 18
Prayer flags are a common sight in Bhutan. These were near the end of our Haa Valley Trek.

 

Trekking in Bhutan 19
My guide, Sonam, on our last part of the trek, carrying flowers home to his wife.

 

Trekking in Bhutan 20
Another unedited view of Cholmolhari using a zoom lens.

 

Be Sociable, Share!

48 thoughts on “Trekking in Bhutan – From Dream to Reality

  • October 30, 2017 at 12:57 pm
    Permalink

    Seeing your guide bring flowers to his wife, ugh that’s so sweet! What an amazing trek you had climbing something you’ve always wanted to do. That Monastery on the side of the mountain is just beautiful. Great shoes and socks are key for making this hike way more fun and enjoyable! The whole cooking set up looks so authentic and yummy!

    Reply
    • October 31, 2017 at 2:19 pm
      Permalink

      Yes, Tatum, my guide talked about his wife a lot, but when he started picking rhododendrons and said they were for her to plant in the yard, I thought that was so sweet. Tiger’s Nest is one of the most photogenic sites I have ever visited, and it is not precarious to hike up there, even though it is perched on the side of that mountain. Some women were walking up there in sandals.

      Reply
  • October 26, 2017 at 5:14 pm
    Permalink

    Great info and really helpful tips! I love that you say shoes are important and a personal choice – so true. Everyone is so different and shoes even when not on a trek are one of the most important pieces of travel because if your feet hurt you are so disabled! Also love that you saw this place on tv, decided you wanted to go, and made it happen 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • October 31, 2017 at 2:21 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks, Christie. Glad you enjoyed reading and found it helpful. In my experience, making it happen is the only way it will happen, but it sure helps to have good advice and resources.

      Reply
  • October 24, 2017 at 1:13 pm
    Permalink

    I am a huge hiking fan and I am definitely going to be adding the trekking in Bhutan especially I really want to see the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. It is a dream to see it and like you said it looks amazing in the pictures that I have seen of it. It is also good to know that they were kind and you had nothing to worry about being the only woman.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 10:43 pm
    Permalink

    Wow this looks like an amazing experience! It’s not somewhere I ever thought of going, but I think I will defiantly put it on my to-do list! Great read 🙂

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:48 am
      Permalink

      Thanks, Michelle! I hope you make it there one day. It’s a truly unique destination.

      Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 9:40 pm
    Permalink

    What a beautiful view of the mountains and down. You took a lot of great pictures.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:49 am
      Permalink

      Thanks, Luci! I’m glad you enjoyed them. It’s hard to take a bad picture in Bhutan.

      Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 7:57 pm
    Permalink

    This sounds like an amazing trek! I would love to visit Bhutan one day, but I dont know if I’d be able to handle the high altititude hikes. Good to know that you felt safe at all times as the only female.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:50 am
      Permalink

      Ivy, there are options that don’t involve such high altitudes. You can also do a cultural tour which means lower altitudes.

      Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 7:52 pm
    Permalink

    This must have been one of the most amazing experiences for a travel blogger. Bhutan is a unique place and largely not fully explored by many.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 7:36 pm
    Permalink

    I totally wish some countries or even regions would be doing what Bhutan is doing. This sounds like an incredible bucket list experience I would love to trek.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 7:33 pm
    Permalink

    Sounds like your hike in Bhutan was a blast. Thanks for sharing your tip for trekking up there, it does look chilly. It seems like your hiking party were really chilled guys as well. The views up there looks amazing.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:52 am
      Permalink

      It was definitely chilly, but not too bad, actually. As long as you stay dry, and dress properly, you’ll be warm.

      Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 4:55 pm
    Permalink

    Bhutan has been in my bucket list for a long time. Knowing that it has so many varied options for trekking too makes me even more excited to visit it soon. The Tiger’s nest must have offered you an amazing view. Loved your photographs. I am glad to know that you were the only female trekker. You go girl – good luck with your future trekking plans.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:54 am
      Permalink

      Thank you! Tiger’s Nest was definitely top on my list of places to visit in Bhutan. It’s the reason I wanted to go there. I found out about all the other great sights in Bhutan after I learned about Tiger’s Nest.

      Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 1:26 pm
    Permalink

    Every one of them looks like me ;-). Bhutan is a very nice place to visit. I am planning to visit again for the third time ;-).

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 7:13 am
    Permalink

    I have been to Bhutan twice. It is such a lovely country. I have trekked only to Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan though. In Bhutan, AMS will never happen. The mountains are not that high in Bhutan. Tiger’s Nest monastery was one of my best experiences.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 2:54 am
    Permalink

    What a wonderful blessing to have had this amazing and wonderful experience!

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 1:39 am
    Permalink

    What an amazing experience! It looks like such a beautiful place full of culture. All your pictures are breathtaking.

    Reply
  • October 23, 2017 at 12:54 am
    Permalink

    This reminds me of the pictures that my friend took when he went to Tibet. The monasteries out there look just too incredible. how they put them up there amongst the hills is just genius in architecture. So amazing.

    Reply
    • October 31, 2017 at 2:25 pm
      Permalink

      Yes, David, Bhutan is very photogenic, like Tibet. It’s not stark and harsh like the landscape in Tibet, but there are definitely beautiful photo opportunities everywhere.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 10:09 pm
    Permalink

    I never read a post before about Bhutan. It seems like a mystical and mysterious kind of place. The trek to the top must have felt very uplifting when you finally reached your destination. I’m so impressed by your description of the kindness of the locals.

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:55 am
      Permalink

      Kathryn, Bhutan is mystical. I never really thought about it, but you’re right. It does have a certain mystical quality about it.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 8:40 pm
    Permalink

    Trekking in Bhutan sounds quite straight forward. I guess with the altitude you could get sickness but it seems you guys were OK. Also you can’t control the weather! You managed to take some beautiful pictures during the trek – the guides sound like they want you to enjoy their country!

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 1:58 am
      Permalink

      James, our highest altitude was 14000 feet, but only briefly. I don’t remember if we slept above 12000 feet. I don’t think so. I had issues with altitude sickness in Tanzania above 12000 feet, but not in Bhutan. Maybe because we weren’t above 12000 feet overnight.

      The guides and all Bhutanese people seem to want tourists to enjoy their country. It’s one of the best things about it.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 5:50 pm
    Permalink

    I love this! I had no idea about Bhutan and trekking there. I really liked seeing the photos and reading your stories. What an interesting, remote, beautiful place!

    Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 12:26 pm
    Permalink

    Wow. What an amazing experience! It is rare that you get to hear anything about Bhutan in the news. Now that I have seen your pictures, I would love to get to Bhutan too. It sure looks like a trekker/hiker’s paradise! Lovely views!

    Reply
    • October 24, 2017 at 2:01 am
      Permalink

      Kristine, I’m not sure how newsworthy Bhutan is, but as far as tourism, it is definitely worthy. It was an amazing experience.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 6:34 am
    Permalink

    This all looks amazing! My mom really wants to go to Bhutan to trek and I’m sure I’ll end up going with her, so this will come in handy for tips. Great destination choice. I wish more countries limited numbers of tourists.

    Reply
    • October 22, 2017 at 9:36 pm
      Permalink

      Jessica, I also wish some countries would limit tourism numbers, for the same reasons Bhutan does. Preservation of a culture and the environment aren’t as important in many countries as it is in Bhutan.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 6:16 am
    Permalink

    The view is incredible. It is so nice to see you share the experience as well as tips so as to help others prepare for the place. I always wanted to go remote camping and this place looks like an ideal one. Also, appreciate the fact that they are kind and made you feel comfortable being the only woman in the group.

    Reply
    • October 22, 2017 at 9:39 pm
      Permalink

      There are so many amazing views on this trek, and really on all treks in Bhutan. And it is definitely remote.

      Reply
  • October 22, 2017 at 4:19 am
    Permalink

    My version of a hike is one in Torrey Pines in San Diego, or a short hike in Crystal Cove Newport Beach. Though I don’t think I could ever hike like you do, I love reading your experience and looking at all of the pictures! It sounded amazing!

    Reply
    • October 22, 2017 at 9:43 pm
      Permalink

      Thanks, Nina! So glad you enjoyed reading about it. Don’t discount Torrey Pines or any short hikes. Sometimes a short one is just what you need, both mentally and physically.

      Reply
  • October 21, 2017 at 10:48 pm
    Permalink

    I’ve never been to Bhutan but seeing this makes me want to go. Your tips are really useful for hikers, especially about being prepared with your hiking gear! So nice to read they were kind and you had nothing to worry about being the only woman.

    Reply
    • October 22, 2017 at 9:50 pm
      Permalink

      Everyone in Bhutan was so kind. I expected that before going, but experiencing it firsthand was the best.

      Reply
  • October 21, 2017 at 8:27 pm
    Permalink

    Wow all the photos look beautiful, especially the monastery and view from campsite! I would love to visit there someday.

    Reply
  • October 21, 2017 at 8:19 pm
    Permalink

    This looks like a beautiful and amazing experience! I would love to do this once my kids get a little older.

    Reply
    • October 31, 2017 at 2:27 pm
      Permalink

      Meagan, we saw some families traveling with kids, about age 10 to 12 and older. They seemed to be enjoying themselves and it is definitely doable with kids. The Bhutanese love kids and will do whatever they can to accommodate them.

      Reply
  • October 21, 2017 at 7:07 am
    Permalink

    Bhutan looks amazing! This will go definitely on my bucket list. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  • October 21, 2017 at 6:28 am
    Permalink

    One of the few visa free destinations for us Indians, Bhutan has been on my list for way too long. Your pics are probably the inspiration I need to book those tickets! Loved the view of Cholmolhari too!

    Reply
    • October 22, 2017 at 10:09 pm
      Permalink

      Yes, Sreekar, you should definitely move it to the top of your bucket list!

      Reply
  • October 20, 2017 at 11:25 pm
    Permalink

    That looks so beautiful! Makes me want to travel the world!

    Reply
  • October 20, 2017 at 9:59 pm
    Permalink

    Wow wow what an amazing place by sounds of it. Looks like you had a great trip and definitely once in lifetime experience. So want to go and am going to add this to my bucket list.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *