Hiking trips are an awesome way to introduce your children to the wonders of the world. Hiking brings you face to face with nature and the untamed environment. Many kids now have limited world views, framed by the television and smart technologies.
The urban lifestyle only gives us a glimpse of the world from the comfort of a couch. Most people only visit new places by watching them on screen. It is like watching the view from a small window. Even the largest TV screens are dismal compared to the limitless panoramic views nature offers you when hiking.
Hiking experience is accentuated with the fragrance of the flowers, songs of the birds and joy of the local people. Instead of looking at people smiling in pictures, you will hear them laughing. If you enjoy bountiful landscapes, epic architecture or rich cultural experiences you should plan a hiking trip to Bhutan. The experience will be engraved in your kids’ minds for the rest of their lives.
Welcome to The Kingdom of Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan is home to about 741,700 people. It is found in South Asia and spans 38,394 km2. Located on the ancient silk road of China, this landlocked country boasts a unique culture developed over centuries of trade. Bhutan’s history can be traced as far back as 2,000 BC.
Bhutan is regionally referred to as Druk Yul or the Land of the Thunder Dragon. It is also called the land of the Dragon People and its king is known as the Dragon King. Though located on the border of two culture-rich countries, China and India, Bhutan has maintained its unique identity throughout history.
Buddism is a strong element of the Bhutanese culture. This is probably influenced by its immediate proximity to the Tibet Autonomous Region in the north. Buddhism has influenced the architecture and cultural norms in the country, forming it into a special tourist destination.
How To Prepare Your Kids For Bhutan
Preparing your kids for a hiking trip is one thing; yet, getting them ready for Bhutan is another. Everyone knows that the secret to any trip with kids is ample planning. When planning the practical details of your trip, don’t overlook the mental aspects. A big part of hiking with kids is getting them mentally ready for the environment. Here are some tips on how to prepare your kids for a trip to for a Bhutan.
1. Obtaining Your Tourist Visa
The most critical aspect of any foreign trip is securing permission to travel freely. Unless you are from India, the Maldives, or Bangladesh you need to organize to get a visa well in advance of visiting Bhutan. You will also need to organize a prepaid, guided tour package. This is the best option when traveling with kids. The tour company can take care of all the local logistics and let you focus on enjoying Bhutan.
You can apply and pay for your visas through the tour company. Local tour operators submit visa applications to the Tourism Council of Bhutan through a special online system. Once approved, you will receive a visa clearance letter. You will need to present this letter on arrival in the country for an immigration officer to stamp the visa into your passport. It is best to begin this process about 90 days in advance of your trip.
2. Review The Culture
Before visiting Bhutan, you should read up on the country’s culture. It’s important to understand the unique elements of the Bhutanese culture. You are the best person to teach your kids about how the local culture varies from yours.
New cultures often take people by surprise especially if it is their first trip. Kids tend to ask strange and often embarrassing questions in public. You should learn the sensitive aspects of Bhutan and address them with your children in advance. If your kids are familiar with the local customs, they will be more comfortable during your trip.
3. Analyze Your Travel Options
Direct Flights are the fastest and most efficient way to get into Bhutan. Drukair and Bhutan Airlines are the only two airlines with direct flights into Bhutan. The country has one international airport at Paro. However, flights into Bhutan often experience delays due to bad weather. You should prepare your kids mentally for these cases. After a shaky flight into Bhutan, your kids may be uneasy for the rest of your journey. However, if you prepare them in advance, they will know what to expect.
Alternatively, you can choose to take the scenic route and travel by rail or road. Bhutan only has open borders into India. There are no official border crossings into Bhutan from China in the north. While it may take longer to travel by rail or road, you will get a closer view of the scenery.
Road Transport is the most common way to travel into Bhutan. The main border crossing into the land of the Thunder Dragon is at Jaigon – Phuentsholing. Budget travelers often take a flight to Bagdogra International Airport in West Bengal then hire cabs to Phuentsholing for about INR 2500.
Railway Transport is the most affordable way to travel to Bhutan. However, you still need to hire a cab to the border. The closest railway station to the Phuentsholing Indo-Bhutan border crossing is 17 Km away at Hasimara. If you are traveling through India, you can travel directly to Hasimara by rail from Delhi, Ranchi, Kanpur, or Kolkata.
Features Kids Can Enjoy in Bhutan
Hiking in Bhutan is a life-changing experience, more so for kids. It will educate them on a wide variety of life’s elements. Experiencing a culture that is so different from your own can open up your mind to limitless possibilities.
1. Epic Views
Bhutan is located on the southern slopes of the Eastern Himalayas Mountains. This automatically means that you should brace yourself for epic views of breathtaking landscapes.
Bhutan is also one of the few countries in South Asia that have maintained their traditional tranquility through time. Though the country has embraced modern technology and systems, they have maintained their culture, way of life, and built environment for centuries.
When hiking with your kids, it is advisable to select low difficulty trails and tours. This will allow you to enjoy the scenery without getting too exhausted. Bhutan’s hiking trails vary in themes, difficulty levels, and durations.
If your kids are small, you should stick to the easier day trips ranging from 30 minutes to a few hours. They may particularly enjoy the picturesque two-hour Gangtey Nature trail. This hike is on fairly flat terrain and cuts through the captivating Phobjikha Valley.
The Bumdra Trek is a popular 3 day guided tour that highlights the views of Bhutan Valleys and mountaintops. The tour includes a cook, an assistant, and horses to carry your luggage. You will get to spend a night in the hypnotic Cave of a Thousand Prayers. Yet, if your trip is longer, you can choose the Soi Yaksa Trek, which is a comprehensive 12-day tour of the Bhutan Kingdom.
Bhutan Epic View
2. Ancient Temples
With its strong Buddhist culture, Bhutan has its fair share of Buddhist temples. Bhutan, Tibet, and parts of India have some of the most captivating Buddhist temples in South Asia.
One of the most captivating sites you can ever visit is the Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest Temple in Paro. It has been described as the most spiritual place in the country. This temple was built in honor of the ancient saint, Guru Rinpoche, who was said to have been brought there on the back of a flying tigress.
Your guide should be able to brief you on temple etiquette if you plan to visit some during your trip. You generally need to dress modestly and cover up your shoulders and knees. You should also avoid pointing or trying to touch the monks. All-in-all, the idea is to remain respectful because the locals actively use the temples as places of worship.
Tiger’s Nest Temple
3. Impenetrable Dzongs
A Dzong is a unique feature of Bhutanese architecture. It is a type of fortress-monastery that usually doubles up as an administrative building. The local community gathers at the Dzongs for festivals and other cultural events. Dzongs showcase the architectural prowess of ancient Bhutan. They were built as fortified structures on hilltops with defensive advantages.
One of the most popular Dzongs to visit is the Punakha Dzong, which was built in 1637. It is the second oldest Dzong in the country. It was originally named Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong meaning “the place of bliss or great happiness”. It is the largest and most visited Dzong in the country and is used as the administrative center of the Punakha District. There are many other elegantly designed Dzongs that you can visit and take memorable photos to share with friends and family back home.
4. Traditional Festivals
Bhutan’s rich history is a wonder for both adults and kids from all over the world. Many tourists plan their trips to coincide with Bhutan’s famous Tsechus or religious festivals. Tsechus are held on special days in every district in Bhutan and can run for up to four days.
During the Tsechu, the usually tranquil Bhutanese towns light up in a frenzy of color and dance. The monks perform a series of masked dances and rituals. These are held in honor of saints like Guru Rinpoche and Guru Padmasambhava. Guru Rinpoche introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th Century.
Tsechus are also used to communicate Bhutan’s traditions, myths, values and spiritual beliefs from one generation to the next. These festivals are part of the country’s oral history tradition. Several Bhutanese people come out in their best clothing to participate in these carnival-like festivals.
The Paro and Thimphu Tsechus, held in spring and autumn respectively are the most popular festivals in Bhutan. They consistently attract more than 3,000 tourists a year. This is because the towns are about an hour’s drive from the airport and can be accessed in short tour visits. These festivals are also held in the best seasons to visit the region.
Bhutanese men on their costume during the festival
Bhutan has intentionally been able to preserve its unique identity and protect its culture from dilution. While it is an attractive tourist destination, the government has systematically restricted the number of tourists that can visit.
Bhutan’s principle is to offer high value rather than high volume tourism. To achieve this, the government has set a premium “Minimum Daily Package” for all tourists visiting the country. The current minimum rate per person per day is $250 in the high season and $200 in the low for groups of three people and above. The rates increase if you travel alone. These daily rates are in addition to your one-time $40 entry visa.
To be fair, the daily rate covers a wide range of your expenses. These include three meals, 3 Star accommodation, local transportation, guides, porters, and entry fees for cultural events. For sustainability, a portion of your daily fees is channeled back to providing free education and health care for Bhutanese citizens.
The Bhutanese culture is so rich that a hike in the land of the Dragon People is a cultural tour. In light of the wondrous experiences, you may not realize how many miles you will have hiked by the end of your trip.