Last fall, I visited Bhutan and had an amazing experience. Bhutan is small landlocked country located in the Himalaya mountains between India and Tibet (China). In addition to Bhutan’s natural scenery and wildlife, the country is steeped in Buddhist traditions and culture, making it a photographer’s dream to visit.
Tourism in Bhutan is highly regulated by the government. Visitors are not free to simply move about the country and you must go with a guided tour (unless you are a guest of a Bhutanese citizen). Bhutan is also more restrictive about photographing Buddhist artifacts than other countries such as Nepal.
Here are some of my tips for visiting and photographing the country:
- Trip planning. As you are planning your trip, let your tour company know up front that you are interested in photography. They can help you plan your itinerary and give you advice as to the best sites for your interests.
- Rely on your guide. I had the good fortune to have a very experienced guide that had previously worked with photographers such as Art Wolfe. Your guide can be an incredible resource and will likely know the best viewpoints and locations to get you the pictures you want (thank you, Pema). They can also help you plan when you may have only one chance to visit a location.
- Time of year. Spring and fall are generally the best times to visit Bhutan. In those seasons the weather is mild and they coincide with many of the major festivals. If you are a bird watcher, the endangered black-necked crane arrives in Bhutan in October and stays until March. Monsoon season is in July and August (which you probably want to avoid).
- Photographing people. Most Bhutanese (especially children) are very friendly and open to having you take their picture so don’t be afraid to ask. However this is changing especially in the bigger cities and you may get a more typical western response.
- Lens selection. On my trip, I used a three lens kit composed of the 17-40mm f/4, 24-105mm f/4, and 70-200mm f/4 zooms on a full frame camera (Canon 5d Mk II). For the vast majority of my shooting, these lenses provided adequate coverage. The only time I could have used more length is at the Thimphu Tsechu, which took place in a large courtyard, making it difficult at times to get close enough to the dancers. If you are going to photograph wildlife, you will obviously want to use longer lenses.
- Know where you can photograph. You can photograph in most Dzongs and Lhakhangs except in the assembly halls or religious temples. You may need to leave your bags outside before entering these areas.
- Photographing Tsechus. For many people, the highlight of their trip to Bhutan is attending the religious Tsechus which are festivals that can last several days with accompanying dances and music. I attended the Thimphu Tsechu, which lasts four days and is attended by thousands of Bhutanese people. In general, the tsechu is very hectic early in the day with photographers jockeying for the best position. In the afternoon, the competition for the best photo spots lessens as many photographers have already gotten their pictures and break for the day. Generally, you can walk around the edge of the courtyard in front of the audience, but try not to block people’s view. Having two bodies really helps (telephoto, mid-range zoom) as sometimes the action moves fast and you won’t have enough time to change lenses.
- Bring high SPF sunscreen. The sun in Bhutan is extremely strong and it is very easy to get sunburned. According to WHO, “at higher altitudes, a thinner atmosphere filters less UV radiation. With every 1000 metres increase in altitude, UV levels increase by 10% to 12%”. Many locations in Bhutan are at seven to 10 thousand feet. Additionally, you are not allowed to wear hats when attending a tsechu, which often takes place in open courtyards with little shade to protect you from the sun.
- Return to sites multiple times. In order to get the best light, it is helpful to return to sites multiple times if you can. For example, my itinerary had me in Thimphu for several days and I went to the National Memorial Chorten three times (once to scout the site, once at sunrise the next morning, and later that same morning). If you are going east from Thimphu, you will probably go through Dochu La Pass twice (outbound and inbound). Unfortunately, both days I was at the pass were extremely hazy and I was not able to get a decent picture of the mountain ranges.
- Pay attention to the sunrise and sunset times. Although you can look this information up online before your trip, the times given may not take into account that your subject is located in a valley and the sun won’t rise above the mountains until an hour later.
- Watch for cobras. Bhutan is home to a number of poisonous snakes, such as cobras, so be careful walking through fields and other rural areas. I discovered this accidentally as I was rushing through a lightly forested hillside trying to get to a good vantage point and ran into a cobra that reared up and hissed at me.
- Hiking. Many of the best photo views involve short to moderately long hikes. Be prepared and in shape especially since you may be at a higher altitude than you are used to. (Thimphu is at 7700′, Phobjikha valley 9600′, and the Tiger’s Nest monastery is at 10200′).
- Weather changes. The weather can change quite rapidly in Bhutan. On the day I hiked up to Taktshang, it was very rainy initially with a heavy overcast and fog occluding the monastery. However, by noon the sky had cleared, allowing sunny shots.