This fairytale kingdom is a world away from modern living. Giant stones hold down local rooftops, the most common form of transport is walking, the scenery is breathtaking and, until quite recently, the country had no traffic lights. All excellent reasons to visit Bhutan with kids; a little part of yesteryear whose quaintness is about to disappear.
Bhutan is brilliant and absolutely unique. Tourists are very few, the air is pristine, the people are small underdeveloped country-friendly and the landscape on the treks astounding. To go there is to fall in love which means it is undoubtedly one of the best family adventure holidays in the world. And that is no exaggeration.
A trip to Bhutan is all about hiking. Whether you choose to camp or stay in a hotel, the daily walks are the highlight and will take you across the country where you can breathe in the air and enjoy nature. There is really only one conventional tourist site – The Tiger’s Nest Monastry or Paro Taktsang – but even that can only be seen if you trek there. There is very little else to do in the way of tourist fodder in Bhutan – no shopping, no nightlife, no gourmet dining, no attractions. You come here for the simple life. Watching monks-in-training kicking a soccer ball down the road, catching a local streetside archery contest, stopping to soak in the greenery all around you.
A basic itinerary typically involves a day of hiking, a day of visiting local monasteries or palaces, then another day of driving to reach the next destination. The roads are windy, sometimes very poorly sealed and prone to accidents and landslides (and the accompanying traffic jams). But the views out the windows are some of the best you will see anywhere.
You overall schedule is typically assigned by the guide who takes you out daily and who is usually employed by your accommodation. Depending on how often you are moving hotels, they will usually plan around the major royal or religious building in the area with a tour inside and then a long trek before or afterwards.
As difficult as this all sounds, it is absolutely worthwhile. If you have the time, do not miss visiting Phobjikha Valley near Gangtey. The locals have deliberately kept the area free of electricity lines and connections so as not to disturb the annual endangered black-necked crane migration.
There is no "dining scene" in Bhutan, nor is the country known for its culinary excellence. In fact, many tourists complain that the national dish (called chilli cheese) is inedible to a foreign palate. In general food for tourists will be catered wherever you are staying so if you plan to opt for guesthouses with kids rather than large Western-style hotels, remember they will need a strong stomach and a poker face. [For tips on introducing kids to foreign foods, see the suitcases&strollers interview with celebrity chef Emmanuel Stroobant here.]
If you're after a restaurant outside the hotel to sample some local fare, try Bhutan Kitchen (Gatoen Lam St., Thimpu, Bhutan, +975 2 331919) which has a warm and unpretentious environment and a menu full of Bhutanese favourites.
If you can afford it, Amankora is the most comprehensive way to view the whole country. The luxury hotel has five properties and will coordinate your entire itinerary for you so that you seamlessly transfer from one to the next with the same private guide, driver and vehicle.
Once you are back from a muddy walk in the rain, there is something rather nice about their free flow wine policy, a super quick laundry service and being spoilt with a beautiful hotel. The restaurants are generally very good at Westernising the local delicacies so that you and the kids can safely try a modified version of what the Bhutanese are eating.
If you are after somewhere a little more affordable, Uma Paro is a very chic boutique hotel also offering a Western-style restaurant and a nice gift shop where you can buy some more stylish souvenirs.
The reason more people don’t visit is mainly because of the prohibitive costs. There is a daily tariff for visitors at up to US$250 per night on top of the visa cost. Tourism is highly regulated so you must be accompanied by a guide at all times when you are trekking and they will usually require you to submit your entire trip itinerary in advance – including exactly where you will be staying and when. But when you see the country, you’ll understand why they want to preserve its quietness and lack of commercialisation.
Paro and its airport are at roughly 2,200 metres elevation which is why the surrounding mountains are so spectacular. This means minor altitude sickness can become an issue. For adults this may manifest merely as breathlessness and severe loss of appetite, but it is not something you should risk with young children. The country is so remote that in a medical emergency you will probably need to be evacuated (and you could potentially be several hours drive away from the airport). This combination means Bhutan is not a destination to take children under the age of 10.
When taking older kids, consider how they will cope with being outdoors, long hikes, and long car trips. If your kids are prone to car sickness, the mountainous drives will definitely require a plastic bag and a lot of patience.
Getting back to nature means sacrifices. Extremely poor internet connections, no mobile reception, no restaurant scene. This also means you should invest in all your hiking gear before you leave home. Get proper hiking boots, quick dry hiking pants, waterproof shell jackets and all the accompanying hats, backpacks and gear for all weather conditions. When it’s sunny, it can get warm, but when it’s raining or snowing it can also be freezing.
A slightly less serious word of warning: the Bhutanese seem to have an obsession with phallic symbols. There are quite graphic illustrations, carvings and images of penises everywhere – on front doors, dangling from rooftops. It can be a little disconcerting (and amusing), depending on how you want to look at it. (And you’ll definitely be looking – there is no way of avoiding them!)
For more tips on visiting developing countries with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.