Bhutan- A Dream Destination for All Photographers!

Bhutan offers many options for photography, mainly Monuments, Buildings, Monasteries, Dzongs, Towns, Streets, Markets, People, Houses, Mountains, Landscapes, Birds and Wildlife. As a photographer, you need to plan your trip well. Primarily, it depends on your liking and the genre of photography you shoot. Most of us like to engage in our photography as it comes on a daily basis whenever we are on a tour, in whatever form. For this, Bhutan is rich with precious culture and diversity. There are many celebrations that are held here from time to time. Every single village in this country has its own celebrations, and can be a good opportunity for photography!

I heard that Tshulthrim would be our bird guide there. I checked his profile and looked at the images he posted, his background, types of habitats and terrains. Accordingly, I started preparing, a lot of shots were pre-visualised, especially with the snow in the background. I did some study on the internet about Bhutan, its traditions, religions, places we were supposed to visit, etc. and saw some YouTube videos too. Being March, it was not going to be too cold. Winters would be on the way out and good weather would be in the offing.

Normally I pack a small bag and never carry luggage beyond 9 kg. I have my standard check list of what to carry for outside trips and what to avoid. We were traveling and visiting places which were above 7000 ft. In fact, when you land at Paro, the height is 7200 feet above MSL. Chelela Pass is at 13000 ft and Pelela Pass at almost 12000 plus ft. So, most of the places were at where we were going for birding were at significant heights and we were expecting cold weather over there along with less oxygen. My baggage had a set of thermals and warm clothes, no shorts and half-sleeves T-shirts. These places at great heights also meant that I needed light camera gear and tripod, in case some walking was involved.

The next thing I did was to visit the Primes and Zooms office. I had tested the Canon 300mm f/2.8 lens and I had decided in my mind to carry that. I added a Canon 2X Tele-Converter to that so that I could get 600 mm reach. I was carrying a 7D Mark II body, which meant I got a 960 mm effective reach with very light weight gear. I always carry one extra camera body with me – so, I added the Canon 6D and Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens for landscapes. I rented a carbon fibre light weight tripod for this trip from Primes and Zooms too because my Benro is quite heavy. This one was very light and it fitted inside my bag too.

That’s all! I was ready to head to my dream destination! One problem was that during that time both Pune and Kolkata were reeling under a heat wave but I decided to keep my jacket in hand to reduce the weight of my bag as I was carrying my Camera bag too. After my last visit to Tanzania, I learnt a lesson and bought a Camera bag with 4 wheels! This helps in moving long distances on Airports, Railway stations and different city parts. All my gear was stuffed in.

We went via Kolkata Airport to Paro Airport. It is around one hour’s journey and the terrains and scenery you see below is just amazing! It proves that you are arriving in God’s own country! The last 10 mins of the flight journey is a real thrill! You enter into Paro between two huge ranges of mountains. One side has 14000 ft mountains and the other has 17000 ft plus. The plane plunges between these two and it is a sudden drop in altitude. Paro airstrip is very small and has a river on the other side. The landing in such a small distance – just less than 4000 ft of airstrip! – is done very skilfully although you may skip one or two heartbeats here! When we landed it was cold, temperatures were at 7 degrees. Colder than we thought. Later on, we realised that we had under-estimated the cold over there. We faced minus 3 to minus 7 degrees at various passes and at Tharpling Monastery. We even saw snow at many places and encountered snow fall too! We were moving with 4 layers of clothes!

I will write about my experiences of birding over there and also about the people and culture in my upcoming blog. Here are a few things you must do when you are on such a birding or wildlife trip:

  1. Study the place where you are going in advance. Pre-visualise the frames you want.
  2. Carry less baggage, less weight as you are moving from one location to another.
  3. Carry the needed photography gear but see that you are carrying light weight gear.
  4. Carry a list of photography gear with description, serial numbers, models and approx. price for each. Carry at least 2 copies. These are needed for customs declaration. If you miss this, there is a chance of facing lots of queries when you come back.
  5. Carry your own medicines and never forget to carry a medical prescription as most places they do not sell medicines without prescriptions, most importantly they may not have medical shops everywhere.
  6. Buy local prepaid mobile Sim cards with enough talk time and data, these turn out to be cheaper.
  7. Carry a afew copies of your passport and photo. These are needed at the airport and shops where you want to buy Sim cards.
  8. Carry enough cash on you, many places do not have ATMs or Banks and many shops do not accept plastic money, i.e. cards.
  9. Carry, International standard plug adapter and extension box with 3 to 4 charging points. You need to charge your phones, camera batteries, etc every night.
  10. Always carry extra batteries, CF & SD Cards with you. Also, Laptop and portable hard-disk for backups.
  11. Learn few phrases and words from the local language which help you to connect well with the local population.

-Dr Sudhir Hasamnis,