Like most of the 10-day Bhutan trip, the eight-hour drive from Bumthang to the Phobjikha Valley makes Bolivia’s Death Road seem like a suburban court, as one awkward movement and we’ll go tumbling over the highway cliff side to our deaths.
But Kinley, my guide, has done this plenty of times, and I feel safe knowing I’m in good hands.
And when we start heading up a steep incline, leveling out on the rim of a massive valley full of trees and rolling hills, peaks shrouded in clouds so thick it looks like there was an explosion in the sky, it’s immediately clear that Phobjikha Valley, or as I like to call it the Valley of the Black-necked Crane, was worth the journey.
This place is unique in Bhutan for its endless flat fields of bamboo shrubs, mountains forming the rim of a waterless swimming pool for the local birds that dive and plunge into it from the sky.
Moreover, it’s home to the Black-necked Crane, one of the rarest species of crane in the world.
One quick tip before we dive into the experience:
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Bhutan Is Unique
Before we get into this must-visit Bhutan destination, I’ve got a video for you:
Watch it for an overview of what makes Bhutan unlike any other place in the world.
The Black-necked Crane is just one of the country’s one-of-a-kind facets.
Plus, you’ll see some of my favorite Bhutan trip photos.
If you’d like in-depth explanations of each point made in the video, click here.
The Beautiful Black-necked Crane
It’s not hard to spot them, their bright white bodies contrasting with their black heads and tails, sticking out against the light green and yellow grasses.
Some of the birds strut gracefully through wetlands and crop fields, while others fly like ballerinas in the sky, gliding softly to the ground when it’s time to search for food.
Their loud cries like celebratory noisemakers are heard all the way from my hotel room at Gakiling Guest House, at the highest man-made point in the Phobjikha Village.
The birds are known as “birds of heaven,” as they’re said to be attracted to holy places.
In fact, both Kinley and the NGO representative from the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) at the local Black-necked Crane Visitor Center say the birds fly clockwise three times around the local Gangteng Monastery — a Buddhist practice that helps rid the body of negative energy — both when they arrive in the fall and before they migrate to Tibet in the early to late spring.
[bctt tweet=”The #birds are known as “birds of #heaven,” as they’re said to be attracted to holy places. #bhutan”]
An Essential Photo-Taking Hack
The Visitor Center is a treat, as along with learning about the bird — did you know it’s the world’s only alpine crane? — I’m able to see them up close using a telescope.
I also see night camera photos of other animals like leopards, which hunt the Black-necked Crane, and wild pigs approaching the shallow pond where the birds sleep on one leg.
As someone who gets scared of the dark even in a warm bed with a dead-bolted door, I fear I would have a heart attack before making it one night as a Black-necked Crane.
Kinley and I end the night with a sunset walk around the local village, the small wooden homes backed by peaks providing the backdrop and the calls of the Black-necked Crane playing the soundtrack.
It’s the perfect way to end the day before our long drive to Paro in the morning.
Bonus Bhutan Travel Resources:
Have you visited Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley?
Essential Bhutan Travel Info:
Stay: Gakiling Guest House. This simple and rustic lodge doesn’t have Wi-Fi, but it’s cozy and offers beautiful views of the valley at the highest point in the village, not to mention a hospitable staff and tasty restaurant.
Recommended Tour Operator: I went with Bhutan Tourister and had an unbelievable time. I highly recommend them. Please use this booking form for inquiries.
Booking Your Trip: By law, tourists visiting Bhutan must have a guide and must pay an all-inclusive rate of $200-$250 per night (low vs high season) + airfare + $40 Bhutan visa fee (unless you’re an Indian, Bangladeshis or Maldivian national) + $30-$40 nightly tariff for duo and solo travelers. This includes your private guide, 3-star lodging, three (huge!) meals per day and ground transfers.
Responsible Tourism: Making it more difficult to visit Bhutan limits the amount of tourists entering the country, helping to preserve the landscape and traditional culture. Moreover, 35% of what you pay goes to the government to put toward free education and healthcare, infrastructure and conservation.
Health: Healthcare is free for locals and visitors in Bhutan. I didn’t encounter any hotels with gyms, so if you’re looking to stay in shape I recommend Yoga Download (900+ yoga classes right on your laptop or phone), TheraBands (inexpensive resistance bands that take up virtually no luggage space) and a FitBit wristband (encourages you to be healthy and is stylish).
Paying For Your Trip: As a points-obsessed traveler, it stung not be able to pay for the trip with my credit card. To pay for your trip you’ll need to transfer the funds in US dollars to the tourism board’s bank account. The fee for me personally through Bank of America was $45 for the transfer, though they were kind enough to waive it for me as I’m a preferred client, so that was sweet. You can easily make the transfer online if you do online banking.
Language: Dzongkha & English
Local Currency: Ngultrum (Nu). As of February 2016, 1 Nu= $0.01.
Tipping: I tipped my guide the equivalent of $10/day, as I read $8-$10/day was the norm on numerous forums and travel agency sites.
Internet: Most of the hotels I stayed at had pretty decent Wi-Fi, though there was one that said they had Wi-Fi and it didn’t work. Homestays will likely not have Wi-Fi. If you want to stay connected I recommend getting a local SIM card from TashiCell, which cost about $10 for the SIM and 10 days of credit (depending how much you’ll use it, I had lots of credit left over but I didn’t use mine much), or a KnowRoaming Global SIM Sticker to affix to your regular SIM for local rates.
Food: If you like heat, you’ll love the chili-laden Bhutanese food, though many hotels cater to tourists with more general meat and veggie dishes. I was never hungry, as portions are huge and heavy, typically featuring a heaping bowl of red rice with pasta, potatoes, fish, cheese-topped chilies, cheese-topped mushrooms, turnip flowers and other meats and veggies. That being said the food won’t be what you write home about; it’ll be the well-preserved culture and heritage as well as the beautiful mountainous, green landscapes, 72% of which are covered in forest, unlike anywhere else.
Booze/Tobacco/Weed: Bhutan is a booze-friendly country (the small capital of Thimphu has 700 bars alone), though note the country is dry on Tuesdays, which is also the day many sites and shops are closed. Despite growing plentifully weed is illegal, and tobacco is illegal to sell. You can bring your own cigarettes purchased from another country, but be prepared to pay a 200% tax on them at customs.
Plugs: The outlets varied at the hotels. In some I was able to plug a standard USA-style plug into the wall, while at others I needed the European two-prong kind. Click here for a visual. It’s recommended to get a TravelMore International Travel Adapter with USB ports so you can charge multiple devices with one gadget.
Dress: While it won’t cause an uproar if you wear a tank top and shorts, it’s a respectful gesture to keep shoulders and knees covered when not in your hotel room. This is mandatory in the local temples (as well as no hats!) which you’ll be visiting a lot of. One travel essential to carry that’s great for this is a scarf shawl — which also works as an airplane blanket!
Essential Gear: Even if you visit in the warmer months it’s essential to bring warm clothes, as the mountains can get chilly all year round. Some items I recommend:
- Smartwool socks
- Stonewear Breathe Pants
- Moisture-wicking tops
- Columbia Women’s Snow Eclipse Mid Jacket
- Classic BUFF
- BUFF hat and neck warmer set
- ExOfficio Vona Gloves
- Ahnu Montara II Waterproof Hiking Shoes
- SteriPEN (The tap water is NOT drinkable in Bhutan, though your guide and hotel should supply it. I drink a lot so I also used my SteriPEN)
- XT driFILL Women’s Goose Down Waterproof Hooded Jacket
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