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Touring Bhutan with Women

Bhutan prayer flags.
Prayers flags in Bhutan.

Bhutan Basics

We were 17 strong. There was me, my group of 14 women, and two local female guides. Making our way into each hotel, restaurant and dzong (monastery), we received plenty of attention, in the best possible way. We were on a 12-day journey through Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan Kingdom nestled between Northeast India and Tibet. While small groups of women and large co-ed groups are not uncommon, our large group was an unusual sight for the locals.

We didn’t care. We were literally on top of the world.

A relatively small number of people travel to Bhutan and only a slightly higher number know where the country is located. Those who do are as smitten with the idea of traveling there as I was when I first considered leading a group of women through the country.

It is a misnomer that Bhutan’s government limits the number of people who can visit the country in any given year. But, you can only go if you have pre-arranged a tour guide and driver and are willing to pay a daily tariff of no less than $200/day per person, which covers transportation, accommodation and food. Technically, they want you there, but only in small numbers and only if you have money. Backpackers and those with long term plans need not apply. So deterring is this high tariff that in 2008, there were only about 25,000 people who visited Bhutan, about half the number of those who traveled to Antarctica.

With so few tourists, it is a rare sight to see a large group comprised solely of women and even rarer to be accompanied by female guides.

Guided Travel

Though you can travel as a single or couple, the daily tariff is higher (Editor's note: now $100/day). I met numerous individuals who were there on their own because they could not find a traveling companion or group. They were disappointed to not have someone with whom they could share their experiences. Margaret, a solo traveler whom I met on the flight to Delhi from Bhutan said, “My guide and driver had seen everything a million times. For me it was all new and I wanted to share it with someone.”

Bhutanese guides are required to be licensed by the government and will surely ply you with all the usual facts and figures about the mountains, elevation, population, and religious history. The vast majority of guides are men, and most are good-humored and speak English quite well.

But having female guides on our tour provided us with the opportunity to discover a different perspective of the country. While the local newspaper, the Kuensel, is filled with stories of politics, religious festivals, and the effects of weather on the crops, it usually lacks a female point of view. Specifically, there is little information about the hardships and determination that permeates a culture of women responsible for raising their family and overseeing their home and farm.

Our guide, Sonam (not her real name), shared the story of her life. As a young girl, her family split their time between a rural farm and their home in the country’s capital, Thimphu. At age nine, Sonam knew that she wanted more from life than to spend it in agriculture. Instead, she chose to live most of the year alone in the family’s city home, where she went to school during the day and spent evenings by herself, crying for the company of others. She visited neighbors during dinnertime when the loneliness was too much to bear.

She successfully graduated from school in Bhutan, went on to travel to Thailand and India, learning about the tourism business along the way. Today she is a successful tour guide, excellent English speaker, savvy traveler, wife and mother of two beautiful (and independent) girls.

Sonam’s is a unique story and an example of the changing times and opportunities available to women in Bhutan. And, while she was determined at an early age to pursue her own brand of happiness, the government was focused on promoting it on a larger scale.

Gross National Happiness

In 1972, Bhutan’s fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term Gross National Happiness in an attempt to preserve Bhutan’s culture, deeply rooted in Buddhism, while the country’s economy and infrastructure developed.

GNH is based on increasing the quality of life for the Bhutanese by focusing on sustainable development, preservation of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and good governance.

Today, you won’t find a gentler, kinder culture in the world. Whether this is due to their adherence of these pillars of GNH, their rootedness in Buddhism, their lack of influence from the outside world, their strong sense of alignment with the King, or a combination of all of these factors, it’s difficult to tell.

What is for certain is that as satellite dishes continue to crop up, Hindi soap operas blare from homes, internet cafés proliferate, and cell phones leapfrog landlines, changes are happening more quickly for Bhutan than one might have expected even a couple of years ago.

The greatest example can be found in Thimphu, where the population is exploding and development seems unstoppable. I could tell the increase in traffic and pollution in just six short months between visits.

While the government’s goal is to double tourism in the coming years, it is difficult to imagine the country being able to sustain such an increase without dramatic shifts in their culture. All is not lost to the first-time visitor however. There is still plenty of authentic Bhutan to experience.

Scratching the Surface

Bhutan ’s lack of infrastructure is the biggest limiting factor in terms of where you can go within the country. There is one main road that crosses from Paro in the west (where the country’s only international airport is located) to the easternmost region. There are only a handful of cities (really, villages) where you can find accommodation. And even then, your in-country tour operator has to be well-connected in order to secure reservations with the better hotels.

Most meals are served at your hotel as there are few (and in some areas, no) stand-alone restaurants located outside of Thimphu and Paro. Food is basic but delicious fare: freshly cooked vegetables, rice, and some meat.

But just because the infrastructure is not yet developed does not prevent you from experiencing the culture beyond the basics. Our group of 15 women had impromptu meetings with a lama, whom we met on the flight into Bhutan, had prayer flags blessed by a monk at Tiger’s Nest, spent a morning at an elementary school where the children sang songs from the Wizard of Oz, and spent an afternoon in a kitchen learning the finer points of cooking traditional Bhutanese food. Some of these experiences were not even on the itinerary but we enthusiastically embraced these serendipitous occasions.

Joining a group that employs a guide who is experienced enough to read the individuals and to alter plans-based on everyone’s interests — will ensure a more fulfilling trip. This will help you find the perfect balance of getting to know the culture, learning about the religion, joining in on the hikes, and enjoying a group dynamic that may help you find your very own Gross National Happiness.

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