Our trip to Bhutan was absolutely perfect. Thanks to Mieke and Yonten.
Oct 7 - Oct 13, 2023
Our trip to Bhutan was absolutely perfect. There is a danger of writing too much, so I'll mention a few highlights.
Firstly, I feel lucky to have found KimKim, and luckier still to have had Mieke help to piece together our itinerary and hotel choice. You go out on a limb having someone arrange a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but the service Mieke gave was exceptional. Excellent recommendations, really quick to respond to questions and made tweaks to our itinerary. The communication was excellent, and the document produced for the itinerary was frankly exceptional and really useful! What I particularly like is when Yonten mentioned Mieke had been over, and cycled around with them - so she knows the country, this is not some random guesswork at where to go and what to see.
Meanwhile, when we reached the airport in Paro after a traumatic day in Kolkata (lost luggage, noise, pollution etc), we felt that we were met as absolute VIPs by Yonten the guide, and Dorji the driver. This was from day one until we finally left them (as we decided to extend an additional day to just relax in Paro instead of heading back to India for our flights home).
Well, what is there to say about these two - Yonten and Dorji. Just a sheer delight. Dorji drove very carefully and safely, and Yonten was just such a good guide. Clearly knowledgable, willing to adjust to our needs on the days we felt tired, or the days we felt more energetic. He was patient, thoughtful, and what I hadn't realised is that he was also taking photos of us while we walked around, and some of those candid photos are the best. He sent them to me on Whatsapp and they're now part of my 'permanent collection'!.
I won't talk about individual sights and experiences, as so many other travellers will tell their tales. Except to say that being at the Punakha Dzong - the ACTUAL place you see on the internet - looks even better when you're there, perfect. Then the Tiger's Nest of course, but what made me laugh was Yonten, the guide, trying to beat me down to the bottom by taking a shortcut - that was hilarious.
We chose, with help from Mieke, the higher end of the hotels. Just because you're only there once and it's a trip of a lifetime. The Druk Hotel was lovely, in a central location, and the staff were amazing especially the bartender! But the absolute ABSOLUTE hotel highlight was the Como Uma in Punakha. The views from the room just enticed you to stay there all day looking out from the balcony at the river, valley and distant hills. Khun Tipsuda, the Manager, was so friendly and helpful. And the hotel and its surroundings were literally idyllic.
If we knew we were going to extend an extra day, it would probably have been at the Uma Punakha. However, we then went on to the Uma Paro, and while there, decided it's the right place to stay longer. the GM of the Uma hotels in Bhutan, James, turns out was a friend of a friend - it's a small world! He went out of his way to meet and talk to every guest at the hotel, and it really made the experience even more special.
Yonten (and Windhorse, the local travel company), took care of everything when they realised what we wanted to do. Which primarily included getting our passports to Thimphu for a visa extension. We were lucky that the Uma Paro had space available to accommodate our extra night.
I would totally recommend getting a local SIM card on arrival at Paro (there was not an option for an e-Sim, so be prepared to take a cheap extra phone or if you have dual-sim then, no issue). It meant I could contact Windhorse, taxi drivers, as well as getting A LOT of data for my phone while I was in the country. I paid roughly £50 for way more data than I ended up using, but having a local number really helped.
The only thing I think may be worth knowing, as I don't know whether I understood or whether it wasn't clear, is about food during the day. I don't know why, but we thought we had to fend for ourselves during the day. But no, we were taken for lunch at various places, and the food was local, tasty - when they realised we like it SPICY, Yonten instructed the restaurants to bring us more chillis!
So in summary (too late, I know):
- trust Mieke - if you have doubts or specific requirements, let her know - she will make sure it's done
- get a local SIM card at the airport, it could be useful (and it's cheap) for taxis, data, etc
- the guides are ultimately flexible - tell them what you want, how you're feeling (especially if you have jetlag etc) and they will adapt accordingly
- THINK ABOUT BUILDING IN A DAY WHERE YOU "DO NOTHING"! - our final day in Paro was prefect to relax, reflect, and prepare for the long journey home.
I don't know if I'll get the chance to update this review when I've had even more time to reflect on the trip.... but, my initial thoughts are - TRUST Mieke, and Kimkim. Go for the best you can afford hotel-wise (and the Uma hotels in Paro and Punakha are definitely recommended). Then let everyone involved just take care of you on this amazing trip.
Best location, incredible staff, excellent wine list. Large, comfortable rooms. Do bear in mind there doesn't seem to be a lift/elavator, although if you have mobility issues they also have ground floor rooms - so let them know you preference.
The best hotel experience of the trip - largely due to the stunning views from the rooms. You just feel so special here, not just because of the location, but because of ALL staff, and in particular Khun Tipsuda (the manager).
The ambience of the hotel - perfect. It's classy, the grounds are stunning (visit the vegetable garden! They grow things there which are then part of the menu). The staff - it's like they're your friends from day one. So attentive, so polite, so willing to help you in every way they can. And a special mention to the GM James Low, who seems to be there from early in the morning to late at night, taking time to individually chat with guests and ensure everyone is happy - also has good tips on where to eat in town! Rooms - large, clean, tidy, views. What more do you want.
Somehow ended up here on a festival day. So, while it is absolutely stunning in itself, being there with hundreds of local people on a special day was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
This is one of the things you see on the internet, then you come here and it is so much more. Especially the view from outside. Get your guide to stop on the road on the way to Punakha in the late afternoon when the sun shines bright against the white walls of the Dzong.
Tiger's Nest is stunning from a distance. So don't feel bad if you can't make it past the cafeteria (by horse). You are there, you can see it clinging on to the cliff side. If you can make it there, that's great. But the best experience is from the various viewpoints on the way up.