Tag - Asia

Bhutan Travel Guide

The iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery is the most popular tourist sight in Bhutan.

Bhutan Travel Guide

This is a Bhutan Travel Guide from taste2travel.

Date Visited: October 2022

Introduction

The magical and mythical Kingdom of Bhutan is no ordinary destination. Known by the Bhutanese as Druk Yul, meaning “Land of the Thunder Dragon“, Bhutan is a modern-day Shangri-La.

A view of Thimphu valley from the hiking trail to Druk Wangditse Lhakhang.

A view of Thimphu valley from the hiking trail to Druk Wangditse Lhakhang.

The Last Shangri-La?

When English author James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933, he portrayed a fictional kingdom, Shangri-La, as a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery, enclosed in the western end of the Kunlun Mountains.

Overlooking Thimphu, the 51.5 metres (169 ft) high Buddha Dordenma statue is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world.

Overlooking Thimphu, the 51.5 metres (169 ft) high Buddha Dordenma statue is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world.

Shangri-La has become synonymous with any earthly paradise, particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia – an enduringly happy land, isolated from the world, a description which wholly fits the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Handwoven fabrics at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Handwoven fabrics at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Tourism Policy

Long closed to the outside world, the Kingdom of Bhutan only started to open its borders in the 1970’s, with the first tourists arriving in 1974.

Bhutan is known as "Druk Yul", meaning "Land of the Thunder Dragon".

Bhutan is known as “Druk Yul”, meaning “Land of the Thunder Dragon”.

Though open to foreigners, the Bhutanese government is acutely aware of the environmental impact tourists can have on Bhutan’s unique and virtually unspoiled landscape and culture.

Built as a memorial, the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens at Dochula Pass are a spectacular sight.

Built as a memorial, the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens at Dochula Pass are a spectacular sight.

Accordingly, the government has restricted the level of tourist activity under a policy known as “high value, low impact”.

Buddhist artwork, in a gift shop in Paro.

Buddhist artwork, in a gift shop in Paro.

As part of this policy, tourists can only travel to Bhutan on a fully-escorted tour, which is organised through a local Bhutanese tour company. It is through the tour company that flights and visas will be arranged.

Houses in Bhutan are wonderfully decorative and often feature ejaculating phalluses.

Houses in Bhutan are wonderfully decorative and often feature ejaculating phalluses.

Independent travel is possible for citizens of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries – India, Maldives and Bangladesh, although they are required to apply for a permit in advance.

The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery in Punakha features a Nepalese-style Chorten (Stupa).

The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery in Punakha features a Nepalese-style Chorten (Stupa).

As part of their high value, low impact policy, the government restricts tourist numbers by charging a mandatory Sustainable Development Fee, a tourist tax, charged at a, post-pandemic, rate of US$200 per person/ per night.

Temple embroidery for sale in the gift shop at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

Temple embroidery for sale in the gift shop at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

On a typical 7D/6N itinerary, this equates to a tax of US$1,200 per person!

Punakha Dzong (fortress) is a highlight of Bhutan.

Punakha Dzong (fortress) is a highlight of Bhutan.

In addition to paying this tax, visitors are required to pay for a tour, airfare and a visa. My one week, all inclusive, trip cost around US$3,600 which included return flights from Singapore.

Prayer flags flutter on Punakha suspension bridge - the longest such bridge in Bhutan.

Prayer flags flutter on Punakha suspension bridge – the longest such bridge in Bhutan.

I travelled with the Dana Bhutan travel company, which I would highly recommend! More details regarding tour costs and Dana Bhutan are included in the ‘Tour Companies‘ section below.

Charming Bhutan

A monk playing football at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

A monk playing football at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

Bhutan is a charming mix of the old and modern! While almost everyone wears traditional dress, which has remained unchanged since the 17th century, their outfits contain a large pocket which is handy for carrying their smartphones.

The entrance to the temple at Punakha Dzong.

The entrance to the temple at Punakha Dzong.

Despite their isolation, the Bhutanese are modern, educated and fully informed about the outside world, with many having studied abroad on government grants. Despite a ban on television and internet only being lifted in 1999, the Bhutanese today are online and tech savvy.

The Bhutanese are always polite, courteous and very welcoming to visitors, going out of their way to provide the best of service.

The beautiful Nepalese-style Stupa at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

The beautiful Nepalese-style Stupa at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

This Himalayan Kingdom offers a pristine environment complete with stunning landscapes of snow-capped peaks, picturesque valleys, majestic, medieval-era fortresses and monasteries, all of which are connected by a network of winding, mountain roads and lots of hiking trails.

Rice paddies in the Punakha Valley.

Rice paddies in the Punakha Valley.

Despite the costs, Bhutan is a once-in-a-lifetime travel destination, a fascinating Himalayan Kingdom which should be experienced by anyone in search of Shangri-La.

Highly recommended!

Prayer wheel in Punakha Valley.

Prayer wheel in Punakha Valley.

Location

Bhutan is a country of south-central Asia, located on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas.

This remote kingdom is located in a geographically strategic position, sandwiched between the Assam-Bengal Plain of India to the south and the Plateau of Tibet of southwestern China to the north.

Due to the towering Himalayas forming an impenetrable barrier along the Bhutan-China border, there are no road connections with China and the border remains closed. There have been territorial disputes in the past which have all been initiated by China! China currently has territorial disputes with both Bhutan and India.

Located on the Bhutan - Tibet border, Jomolhari, as seen from Paro Valley, is Bhutan's second highest mountain with an elevation of 7,326 m / 24,035 ft.

Located on the Bhutan – Tibet border, Jomolhari, as seen from Paro Valley, is Bhutan’s second highest mountain with an elevation of 7,326 m / 24,035 ft.

There are limited road connections with India, which is the major trading partner for Bhutan. Bhutan enjoys a close relationship with India.

The main urbans centres are Thimphu (pop: 114,000) and Paro (pop: 11,400), both of which are located in narrow valleys in the Lesser Himalayan region.

Physically, Bhutan may be divided into three regions from north to south: the Great Himalayas, the Lesser Himalayas, and the Duars Plain.

People

A group of school children from a special needs school at the National Museum of Bhutan.

A group of school children from a special needs school at the National Museum of Bhutan.

With a total population of 780,000 (2021), Bhutan is home to three major ethnic groups: the Bhutia, the Nepalese, and the Sharchop.

The Bhutia are the largest ethnic group and make up about half of the population. They are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who came southward into Bhutan beginning about the 9th century. The Bhutia are dominant in northern, central, and western Bhutan.

They speak a variety of Tibeto-Burman languages, and the most common of these, Dzongkha, is Bhutan’s official language; the written language is identical with Tibetan. The Bhutia dominate Bhutan’s political life.

Young girl in the Paro Valley.

Young girl in the Paro Valley.

The Nepalese, who constitute about 1/3 of Bhutan’s population, are recent arrivals. The growing number of Nepalese prompted the government to ban further immigration from Nepal beginning in 1959 and to prohibit Nepalese settlement in central Bhutan.

The minority Sharchop, occupy eastern Bhutan and are related to the hill tribes from the neighbouring Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

Traditional Dress

One of the most surprising sights in Bhutan is that almost everyone wears traditional dress. While the Bhutanese always look smart and formal, foreigners are always down-dressed by comparison, wearing their casual travelling attire.

Men

Two school boys in Paro wearing their traditional dress school uniforms.

Two school boys in Paro wearing their traditional dress school uniforms.

The men wear the very smart and formal looking gho, which was introduced in the 17th century to give the Bhutanese a more distinctive identity.

The gho is a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the kera. This is complimented by knee-length, black socks and formal black, leather shoes.

Always impeccably dressed, my guide Jamyang (right) with two fellow guides at the Buddha Dordenma temple.

Always impeccably dressed, my guide Jamyang (right) with two fellow guides at the Buddha Dordenma temple.

Under the gho, men wear a tego, a white jacket with long, folded-back cuffs. On festive occasions, the gho is worn with a kabney – a scarf, which is draped over the shoulder

Women

Two women at the Babesa restaurant in Thimphu, wearing traditional dress.

Two women at the Babesa restaurant in Thimphu, wearing traditional dress.

Bhutanese women can normally be seen wearing the traditional kira, an ankle-length dress consisting of a rectangular piece of woven fabric.

A worshiper at the Dordenma Buddha temple complex.

A worshiper at the Dordenma Buddha temple complex.

It is wrapped and folded around the body and is pinned at both shoulders, usually with silver brooches and bound at the waist with a long belt.

Two women at the Buddha Dordenma temple wearing traditional dress.

Two women at the Buddha Dordenma temple wearing traditional dress.

The kira is usually worn with a wonju, a long-sleeved blouse.

Imported from India, these rolls of fabric are used for making Bhutanese traditional clothing.

Imported from India, these rolls of fabric are used for making Bhutanese traditional clothing.

The material for all traditional clothing is imported from India and can be purchased, by the metre, in shops in Paro and Thimphu.

Gross National Happiness Index

A diagram illustrating the nine domains of the GNH Index, which are further supported by 33 indicators.

A diagram illustrating the nine domains of the GNH Index, which are further supported by 33 indicators.
Image Source: https://www.researchgate.net/

Uniquely Bhutanese, the Gross National Happiness Index is a measure of well-being which should serve as an inspiration for other countries!

The Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) is a holistic approach to measure the happiness and wellbeing of the Bhutanese population.

The index, which consists of nine domains and thirty-three indicators was developed by the Bhutanese government who consider the traditional GDP indicator (used by every other country) to be fundamentally flawed.

As per the Bhutanese government, narrow framings of development founded on GDP growth have led to multiple ecological, social and political-economic crises across the world that threaten the survival of humans and socio-ecologies.

Under the GDP system, a country’s success has been based upon its economic success which is usually derived from over-consumption, deep inequality and resource depletion. This has led to a call for ‘de-growth’.

The GNH provides a working, and successful, example of an alternative living measure that challenges GDP metrics. The index places happiness at the centre of human development – not economic gain!

In addition to analysing the happiness and wellbeing of the people, it also guides government development policy.

Having spent a week travelling and meeting the Bhutanese, I can attest that they seem to be genuinely happy.

A Country Without Killing

There are no slaughter houses in Bhutan – life, and nature, are fully protected under the laws of Bhutan! 

As a society which was founded on Buddhist beliefs, the killing of anything is strictly forbidden under Bhutanese law. Cows, pigs, and sheep are never killed, while hunting and fishing is strictly forbidden.

The government does not allow killing of animals for consumption. In fact, you can get arrested and fined if you slaughter an animal.

Being Buddhists, the Bhutanese are largely vegetarian, with the average yearly meat consumption being just 2.5 kg per person (versus 120 kg per person/ per year in the United States). The little meat that is consumed is imported from India.

With all life protected under Bhutanese law, every creature enjoys a happy existence, including the many, ever-present, street dogs!

Environmental Policy

Bhutan boats 75% forest cover and a pristine, litter-free, environment.

Bhutan boats 75% forest cover and a pristine, litter-free, environment.

In order to protect its pristine environment, the government of Bhutan has enacted many strict environmental laws.

One such law bans the felling of trees! If trees are needed for construction, an application is required to be made to the government, who will authorise certain trees for felling.

Golden rice paddies in Paro Valley.

Golden rice paddies in Paro Valley.

Bhutan boasts more than 75% forest cover and has an active tree replanting program.

The country currently holds the Guinness World Record for the largest number of trees planted, with 100 volunteers planting 49,672 trees in one hour on the slopes above Thimphu.

Mining permits are extremely difficult to obtain and any polluting industry is banned! During my travels in Bhutan, I did not see one chimney stack or any real factories.

Strict environmental policies and other government regulations ensures Bhutan remains a clean, safe and pristine environment.

Strict environmental policies and other government regulations ensures Bhutan remains a clean, safe and pristine environment.

Electricity is generated using hydro power and is a major export earner for Bhutan, with electricity exports to India accounting for 63.3% (2020) of total export earnings.

The numerous environmental policies ensures that Bhutan remains a pristine environment!

Flag

The flag of Bhutan features a dragon clutching four jewels in its claws.

The flag of Bhutan features a dragon clutching four jewels in its claws.

The iconic and striking flag of Bhutan is divided diagonally from the lower hoist-side corner, with the upper triangle yellow and the lower triangle orange.

Running along the horizontal divide is a Chinese dragon which alludes to the Dzongkha name of Bhutan – Druk Yul (“Dragon Kingdom”). The dragon is holding a norbu, or jewel, in each of its claws.

The flag of Bhutan features on the livery of the national airline, Druk Air.

The flag of Bhutan features on the livery of the national airline, Druk Air.

The yellow half signifies civil tradition and authority as embodied in the Druk Gyalpo, the Dragon King of Bhutan, whose royal robes traditionally includes a yellow scarf.

The orange half signifies Buddhist spiritual tradition, while the white of the dragon signifies the purity of inner thoughts and deeds that unite all the ethnically and linguistically diverse peoples of Bhutan.

The jewels held in Druk’s claws represent Bhutan’s wealth and the security and protection of its people.

Currency

The official currency of Bhutan is the ngultrum.

The official currency of Bhutan is the ngultrum.

The ngultrum (currency code: BTN) is the official currency of the Kingdom of Bhutan. It can be literally translated as ‘silver’ for ngul and ‘money’ for trum.

A 20-Ngultrum banknote which features Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the 3rd king of Bhutan.

A 20-Ngultrum banknote which features Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the 3rd king of Bhutan.

Ngultrum banknotes, which are produced by the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan, are issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000.

The 5-ngultrum banknote, which features two Bja Tshering, a mythical bird that brings about long life.

The 5-ngultrum banknote, which features two Bja Tshering, a mythical bird that brings about long life.

Exchange Rates (click for current rates):

The ngultrum is currently pegged to the Indian rupee at parity.

Banking Services

A branch of the Bhutan National Bank at the GPO in Thimphu.

A branch of the Bhutan National Bank at the GPO in Thimphu.

Cash can be withdrawn at ATMs in Paro (including at the airport) and in Thimphu.

Money can be exchanged at any bank branch.

The 20-ngultrum banknote features Punakha Dzong.

The 20-ngultrum banknote features Punakha Dzong.

Costs

All travel costs are included in your tour.

The only additional expenses will be any incidentals such as shopping, cafes outings and alcohol.

Shopping

Paro offers the best souvenir shopping in Bhutan.

Paro offers the best souvenir shopping in Bhutan.

Bhutan is home to many traditional cottage industries which produce high quality products. The best shopping is in Paro where the short main street is dominated by souvenir shops.

A shop on the main street of Paro. The shopfront is decorated with strands of red chillies.

A shop on the main street of Paro. The shopfront is decorated with strands of red chillies.

Popular items include hand-woven textiles, hand-made wooden products, artworks, sculptures, hand-made home décor items, colourful wooden masks, Buddhist paintings and much more.

Philately

The main GPO in Thimphu serves as the headquarters of Bhutan Post Office.

The main GPO in Thimphu serves as the headquarters of Bhutan Post Office.

The first postage stamps of Bhutan were issued in 1962 by the Bhutan Post Office. This coincided with the opening of the first motorable road. Before that there was a mail delivery system in place for official mail using mail runners.

The stamps of Bhutan are highly collectable.

The stamps of Bhutan are highly collectable.

A replica of the most famous mail runner, Jaga Tarshi, can be seen in the Postal Museum which is adjacent to the GPO in Thimphu.

The glorious food of Bhutan is just one of many themes which have been featured on stamps.

The glorious food of Bhutan is just one of many themes which have been featured on stamps.

Also known as “Flagpole”, Jaga Tarshi was a giant of a man at 218 cm (7 Feet 2 inches) and was famous for the fact that he could cover a distance of over 200 km in a single day, wearing just a pair of cowhide sandals.

The stamps of Bhutan feature the flora and fauna of Bhutan.

The stamps of Bhutan feature the flora and fauna of Bhutan.

Innovative Stamps

Although Bhutan came late to the philatelic world, it has blazed a trail with many innovative stamp issues – many of which have been world firsts.

In 1973, Bhutan Post Office issued a set of vinyl record stamps - a world first.

In 1973, Bhutan Post Office issued a set of vinyl record stamps – a world first.

  • In 1966, the first ‘world’s first‘ stamps issued by Bhutan Post office were a set of round gold foil stamps. These were issued as a limited release to gauge market reaction. The issue was over-subscribed which led to more innovative stamps being produced.
  • In 1967, Bhutan issued the world’s first 3D stamps which celebrated the Apollo-11 space mission.
  • In 1969, a set of steel stamps were printed on razor-thin 0.001-inch steel foil, a world first.
  • Also in 1969, a set of silk stamps was issued by Bhutan Post.
  • In 1971, Bhutan issued the world’s first plastic stamps which celebrated the history of sculpture. During the production process, the stamps were pressed inside a heated pressure mould which created a bas-relief effect.
  • In 1973, Bhutan issued the world’s first phonogram record stamps – circular vinyl stamps which could be played on a standard record player. The stamps play the Royal Bhutan Anthem, folk-songs and a short history of Bhutan.
  • In 1994, Hologram stamps were issued which celebrated ‘man in space’.
  • In 2008, two CD-ROM stamps were issued which could be played in a CD player and featured a promotional video of Bhutan. Following the success of the first issue, two additional CD-ROM stamps were issued in 2009.
  • The latest innovative stamp issue was released on the 20th of September 2022 and features a set of NFT/ Crypto stamps.
In 2008, Bhutan Post Office released this world-first CD-ROM stamp.

In 2008, Bhutan Post Office released this world-first CD-ROM stamp.

All of these stamps can be seen in the excellent Postal Museum.

The current stamp issues of Bhutan can be purchased from the Bhutan Post Office online stamp shop of from the philately shop at Thimphu GPO.

To commemorate the 60th birth anniversary of the fourth King, Bhutan Post printed this stamp using silver and gold foil.

To commemorate the 60th birth anniversary of the fourth King, Bhutan Post printed this stamp using silver and gold foil.

Bhutan Postal Museum

An entire wall of the Bhutan Postal Museum is decorated with stamps.

An entire wall of the Bhutan Postal Museum is decorated with stamps.

Adjacent to the philatelic department at Thimphu Post Office, the excellent Bhutan Postal Museum outlines the history of postal services in the kingdom, along with displays of the various, unique, stamp issues.

Far from being full of stuffy displays of stamps, the museum includes exhibitions which tells the story of early postal delivery, which was performed by large, athletic men who hiked across the mountainous terrain to deliver the post.

All of the innovative stamp issues mentioned above are on display in the museum. A highlight for me was an entire wall which has been covered in Bhutanese stamps – truly impressive.

Tour Companies

“Happiness is a way of travel – not a destination.” – Quote from Deki Tshering, owner of Dana Bhutan travel company. 

Foreign visitors can only visit Bhutan as part of a package tour. The only exceptions are for passport holders from the SAARC countries – i.e. India, Bangladesh and Maldives.

The Bhutanese government requires all tourists to book their travel through one of 330+ officially approved tour operators.

By law, all are required to charge you the identical daily rate, inclusive of car, driver, translator/guide, hotel, and food. The only costs not covered are incidentals such as souvenirs, tips, alcohol and airfare.

There are four costs associated with a trip to Bhutan – the return airfare, tour fee, visa fee and the government ‘Sustainable Development Fee‘ (SDF), which is simply a tourist tax which is charged at a rate of US$200 per night, per person. Prior to Covid-19, the government charged a tax of US$65 per night!

Dana Bhutan Tour Company 

A few years ago, while attending ITB Asia, the largest trade travel show in Asia, which is held each October in Singapore, I was fortunate to meet the wonderfully energetic and enthusiastic Deki Tshering, who is the owner of Dana Bhutan travel company.

Deki was working on the Bhutan Tourism stand and convinced me that I needed to visit Bhutan – although I needed no convincing!

Deki and I at the Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro.

Deki and I at the Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro.

I knew from the moment we met that I would only travel to Bhutan using her tour company. I was planning a trip to Bhutan in 2020 which of course was cancelled due to Covid-19.

I kept in contact with Deki during Bhutan’s long lockdown period, until she eventually informed me that Bhutan would finally reopen to tourism in September of 2022. I booked my trip to arrive in Bhutan the following month, ahead of the expected surge of tourist arrivals.

I was greeted at Paro airport by Deki and my friendly, and always impeccably dressed, guide (Jamyang) and driver (Thukten).

Deki organised a picnic lunch for me in Paro which included delicious Bhutanese vegetarian dishes which she personally cooked. An amazing lunch!

Deki (2nd left) organised a picnic lunch for me in Paro which included delicious Bhutanese vegetarian dishes which she personally cooked. An amazing lunch!

I spent one amazing week touring Bhutan with Jamyang and Thukten and was even treated to a picnic lunch in Paro by Deki.

For the picnic, Deki, who is known for her cooking skills, prepared a selection of her favourite Bhutanese dishes, all of which were vegetarian and all very tasty.

The tasty selection of dishes served by Deki at our picnic lunch.

The tasty selection of dishes served by Deki at our picnic lunch.

Hospitality and service in Bhutan is on another level and should be experienced by everyone at some stage in life.

The Bhutanese are incredibly friendly, polite and welcoming. Rarely did I carry my (heavy) camera bag as my driver and guide insisted on carrying it for me, including on uphill hikes! Incredible!

My amazing driver (left) and guide (right) - Thukten and Jamyang respectively.

My amazing driver (left) and guide (right) – Thukten and Jamyang respectively.

I would highly recommend using the services of Dana Bhutan travel company for your trip to Bhutan. 

Contact Details: 

Tour Cost

The cost of my one-week, fully inclusive, trip to Bhutan was US$3,468 which was comprised of the following components:

  • Government tourist tax (aka ‘Sustainability Development Fee‘) @ US$200 x 6 nights = US$1,200
  • Cost of return airfare from Singapore to Paro with Druk Air = US$1,198
  • Cost of one-week tour with Dana Bhutan = US$1,030
  • Visa fee = US$40

All costs need to be paid to the Bhutanese tour company in advance via bank transfer. Credit cards are rarely used in Bhutan!

Sightseeing

My trip included drives from Paro to Thimphu to the Punakha Valley and back.

The trip from Thimphu to Punakha is spectacular; 27 km as the crow flies but 85 km (and 2.5 hours) by road over the 3,100 metre (10,170 ft) Dochula Pass.

Rarely in Bhutan did we exceed the maximum speed limit which is set at 50 km/h. Most roads are narrow and winding, climbing up and down towering mountain ranges.

Thimphu

After arriving at Paro International Airport, we drove to Thimphu, the capital and largest city of Bhutan. The 50 km drive is along a slow, mostly winding road with a travel time of 1¼ hours

Buddha Dordenma

One of the world's largest Buddha statues, the Buddha Dordenma is 51.5 metres (169 ft) in height.

One of the world’s largest Buddha statues, the Buddha Dordenma is 51.5 metres (169 ft) in height.

Towering over Thimphu is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. Buddha Dordenma is a massive statue of Shakyamuni which measures in at a height of 51.5 metres (169 ft).

Detail of a temple roof at the Buddha Dordenma temple complex.

Detail of a temple roof at the Buddha Dordenma temple complex.

The statue was built to fulfil an ancient prophecy that stated that once a statue was built on this site, an aura of peace and happiness would spread across the entire world. This clearly hasn’t happened yet!

Sitting atop a huge meditation hall, the Buddha Dordenma exudes peace and tranquillity.

Sitting atop a huge meditation hall, the Buddha Dordenma exudes peace and tranquillity.

The statue is made of bronze and is gilded in gold and was constructed over a period of 9 years at a cost of US$47 million.

An image of serenity, the Buddha Dordenma is located on a mountain slope, overlooking the capital, Thimphu.

An image of serenity, the Buddha Dordenma is located on a mountain slope, overlooking the capital, Thimphu.

No less than 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the Buddha Dordenma statue. Each of these statues have also been cast in bronze and gilded in gold.

A worshipper, circumambulating the Buddha Dordenma.

A worshipper, circumambulating the Buddha Dordenma.

The throne that the Buddha Dordenma sits upon is a large meditation hall which can be visited but photography is strictly forbidden.

Buddha Dordenma, radiating peace and serenity over Thimphu Valley.

Buddha Dordenma, radiating peace and serenity over Thimphu Valley.

The Buddha Dordenma is located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and overlooks the southern entrance to Thimphu Valley.

Worshipers entering the Buddha Dordenma temple.

Worshipers entering the Buddha Dordenma temple.

Kuenselphodrang Nature Park was the setting for a massive tree planting exercise in 2015 which set a world record for the ‘most trees planted in one hour’ with 49,672 trees planted by 100 volunteers.

During my visit to the temple, the religious leader of Bhutan, Je Khenpo, was leading worshippers in a month-long pray.

Worshipers arriving at the Buddha Dordenma temple to hear prays from the religious leader of Bhutan.

Worshipers arriving at the Buddha Dordenma temple to hear prays from the religious leader of Bhutan.

This involved his Holiness reading prays, almost uninterrupted, from sunrise to sunset, 7 days a week, for the entire month of October. Yes – 31 days of continuous pray!

Volunteers at the Buddha Dordenma temple distribute free fruit to worshipers.

Volunteers at the Buddha Dordenma temple distribute free fruit to worshipers.

For the entire month, the temple is crowded with worshippers who travel from around the country to join the pray.

During the month of October, thousands of worshippers gather at Buddha Dordenma to hear prays from the religious leader of Bhutan.

During the month of October, thousands of worshippers gather at Buddha Dordenma to hear prays from the religious leader of Bhutan.

As you can hear in the following video recording, his Holiness hardly stops to catch his breath, although he does take the occasional tea and toilet break. An incredible feat!

Volunteer attendants at the monthly pray meeting are easily identifiable in their orange uniforms.

Volunteer attendants at the monthly pray meeting are easily identifiable in their orange uniforms.


Video: The religious leader of Bhutan, Je Khenpo, reciting prays at the Buddha Dordenma temple in Thimphu during the month of October.


National Institute for Zorig Chusum

Students at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu.

Students at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum in Thimphu.

Located in downtown Thimphu, the National Institute for Zorig Chusum was established by the Government of Bhutan in 1971 to preserve and promote traditional art in contemporary Bhutan.

A woodcarving class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

A woodcarving class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

The words ‘Zorig Chusum’, which literally means “Thirteen Crafts”, refer to the 13 crafts which are taught at the institute.

An art class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

An art class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

These crafts are:

  • Traditional Painting
  • Sculpture
  • Wood Carving
  • Calligraphy
  • Paper making
  • Bronze Casting
  • Embroidery
  • Weaving
  • Carpentry
  • Masonry
  • Bamboo and cane weaving
  • Gold/Silver smithy
  • Black smithy
Sculpture class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

Sculpture class at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

The institute provides 4-6 years of training to each student.

The prayer wheel at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

The prayer wheel at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

During our visit, I was free to enter the different classrooms to view classes in progress and interact with the friendly students who were all keen to tell me about their chosen craft.

Handmade traditional boots for sale at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

Handmade traditional boots for sale at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum.

A large gift shop sells the works from the students at very reasonable prices – a great place to purchase souvenirs.

Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre

A range of exquisite handwoven fabrics, on sale at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

A range of exquisite handwoven fabrics, on sale at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

The Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre is located on the main Thimphu-Paro Road, at the southern end of Thimphu.

Handwoven fabrics at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Handwoven fabrics at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Downstairs, its weavers produce the most exquisite handwoven textiles. A finely embroidered kira can take nine months to make and cost over US$1,200.

A weaver, at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

A weaver, at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Upstairs, a large gift shop is paradise for anyone looking to buy handwoven Bhutanese textiles, with items ranging from a few dollars to a few thousand dollars!

Traditional Bhutanese boots, on sale at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Traditional Bhutanese boots, on sale at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre in Thimphu.

Druk Wangditse Lhakhang

Fully renovated over a period of 5 years, the Druk Wangditse Lhakhang (temple) was reopened in 2020.

Fully renovated over a period of 5 years, the Druk Wangditse Lhakhang (temple) was reopened in 2020.

Druk Wangditse Lhakhang (“Temple of the Peak of Conquest”) is located high on a forested ridge which overlooks the whole of Thimphu valley. This is the best place to get photos of the entire capital, framed by colourful pray flags.

Druk Wangditse Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in Thimphu, and considered an important heritage site of Bhutan.

The temple, which was established in 1715, suffered major damage during an earthquake in 2011. It was reopened in 2020 following a complete renovation.

Doorway at the Druk Wangditse Lhakhang.

Doorway at the Druk Wangditse Lhakhang.

The restored temple contains a large gilt copper image of Shakyamuni Buddha. As with all temples in Bhutan – photography inside the temple is forbidden.

The temple is accessed via a hiking trail with runs along the top of a ridge. The 45-minute hike commences from the Bhutan Broadcasting System Tower.

Dochula Pass

The 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens were installed on a hillock, at Dochula Pass, in 2003 as a memorial to the 108 Bhutanese soldiers who died fighting Indian rebels.

The 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens were installed on a hillock, at Dochula Pass, in 2003 as a memorial to the 108 Bhutanese soldiers who died fighting Indian rebels.

The long and winding highway which connects Thimphu with Punakha slowly climbs its way up to the Dochula Pass which sits at an elevation of 3,100 metres (10,170 ft).

A view of the main Chorten which is surrounded by three rows of smaller Chortens.

A view of the main Chorten which is surrounded by three rows of smaller Chortens.

The pass offers an (apparently) amazing 360-degree panoramic view of the Eastern Himalayas on a clear day.

The Druk Wangyal Chortens are built on a grassy mound which forms a roundabout in the middle of the highway.

The Druk Wangyal Chortens are built on a grassy mound which forms a roundabout in the middle of the highway.

These towering peaks are very shy and often hidden by cloud. Although I made two visits, I never got to see this amazing panorama.

A view of the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens at Dochula Pass, a spectacular memorial located at Dochula Pass.

A view of the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens at Dochula Pass, a spectacular memorial located at Dochula Pass.

Adding to the dramatic setting are 108 memorial chorten (stupas) known as Druk Wangyal Chortens which have been installed on a grassy hillock in the centre of the road.

The Chortens were constructed following a strict religious building process.

The Chortens were constructed following a strict religious building process.

Built in three succeeding rows, the chortens were constructed to honour martyred Bhutanese soldiers who sacrificed their lives in a battle against Indian insurgents in 2003.

I treated my driver and guide to coffee and fresh eclairs at the Druk Wangyel Cafe. Everyone was happy!

I treated my driver and guide to coffee and fresh eclairs at the Druk Wangyel Cafe. Everyone was happy!

Dochula Pass is a popular stop on the journey between Thimphu and Punakha with all tourists stopping to take photos and enjoy the offerings of the Druk Wangyel Cafe. I treated my driver and guide to coffee and freshly made eclairs which were divine.

A Gray Langur monkey, and her infant, at Dochula Pass.

A Gray Langur monkey, and her infant, at Dochula Pass.

While we were at the pass, I spotted a troop of Gray Langur monkeys swinging through the trees.

A very timid and elusive species, most of the monkeys scattered into the forest before I could get any decent photos. One monkey which stuck around for photos was a mother who was nursing an infant. Very special!

The very elusive, Gray Langur monkey, at Dochula Pass.

The very elusive, Gray Langur monkey, at Dochula Pass.

My guide told me that the Bhutanese consider the sighting of Gray Langur monkeys to be very auspicious.

Punakha

Punakha Dzong

Located at the confluence of two rivers, Punakha Dzong is said to be the most beautiful fortress in Bhutan.

Located at the confluence of two rivers, Punakha Dzong is said to be the most beautiful fortress in Bhutan.

Known as the ‘Palace of Great Happiness’, Punakha Dzong is said to be the most beautiful fortress in Bhutan.

The temple complex inside Punakha Dzong.

The temple complex inside Punakha Dzong.

The fortress was built in 1637 at the confluence of two rivers, the Mo Chhu (Female River) and the Po Chhu (Male River), at a location said to have been chosen by the founder of Bhutan.

My guide, Jamyang, entering the temple at Punakha Dzong.

My guide, Jamyang, entering the temple at Punakha Dzong.

The fortress served as the administrative centre and the seat of the Government of Bhutan until 1955 when the capital was moved to Thimphu.

The fortress-monastery lies at the centre of the complex which once served as the capital of Bhutan.

The fortress-monastery lies at the centre of the complex which once served as the capital of Bhutan.

Today, the fortress is divided into two halves, with one half serving as a religious complex and the other half housing the administrative offices of Punakha district.

Artwork on the exterior of the temple at Punakha Dzong.

Artwork on the exterior of the temple at Punakha Dzong.

This fortress, which is accessed via a covered wooden bridge which crosses the Mo Chhu, is the home of Bhutan’s spirituality.

The remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the founder of Bhutan, are preserved inside the Machey Lhakhang (temple). Access to this temple is reserved for the King and the spiritual leader of Bhutan.

Doorway at Punakha Dzong.

Doorway at Punakha Dzong.

It is a Punakha Dzong that Bhutan’s Kings are crowned and the head of the Buddhist clergy anointed.

Prayer wheel at the entrance of Punakha Dzong.

Prayer wheel at the entrance of Punakha Dzong.

Punakha Suspension Bridge

Punakha suspension Bridge is the longest such bridge in Bhutan, measuring 180 metres (590 ft) in length.

Punakha suspension Bridge is the longest such bridge in Bhutan, measuring 180 metres (590 ft) in length.

Bhutan is famous for its numerous suspension bridges, which span its many raging rivers. Punakha suspension bridge is the longest such bridge in Bhutan, measuring 180 metres (590 ft) in length.

The Punakha suspension bridge crosses the fast-flowing Po Chhu River (Male River).

The Punakha suspension bridge crosses the fast-flowing Po Chhu River (Male River).

The bridge, which spans the Po Chhu River (Male River) is decked with many colourful prayer flags which flutter in the brisk breeze which is generated by the raging waters of the river.

A school student, on her way home, crossing the Punakha suspension bridge.

A school student, on her way home, crossing the Punakha suspension bridge.

Although the current bridge is a modern construction, the first bridge was built in 1637 by the great architect and iron bridge builder Thangtong Gyalpo, the same man who built the iron bridge at Paro (see following section).

The bridge is used by local school children whose school is located on the other side of the river.

The bridge is used by local school children whose school is located on the other side of the river.

The bridge connects Punakha Dzong with Punakha town and is used by locals, including school children whose school is located on the opposite side of the river.

Prayer flags on Punakha suspension bridge.

Prayer flags on Punakha suspension bridge.

Chimi Lhakhang

A view of Chimi Lhakhang and its unique black stupa - the only one in Bhutan.

A view of Chimi Lhakhang and its unique black stupa – the only one in Bhutan.

Located near the town of Lobesa, Chimi Lhakhang (temple) is popularly known to be the fertility temple among many and is frequented by childless couples and others alike for blessings.

A prayer wheel at Chimi Lhakhang.

A prayer wheel at Chimi Lhakhang.

The temple was built in the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley, who was popularly known as the ‘Divine Madman’. He was known for his unorthodox teachings and was the saint who advocated the use of phallus symbols as paintings on walls.

A young girl at Chimi Lhakhang.

A young girl at Chimi Lhakhang.

Legend says that Lama Drukpa Kunley killed a demoness, turned her into a dog and buried the hound under the mound.

He then said ‘chi-med’, meaning no dog, and built a black stupa on top of a mound. The temple is unique for being the only temple with a black stupa.

A prayer wheel at Chimi Lhakhang.

A prayer wheel at Chimi Lhakhang.

The temple is the repository of the original wooden symbol of phallus that Kunley brought from Tibet.

A monk, teaching an outdoor class at Chimi Lhakhang.

A monk, teaching an outdoor class at Chimi Lhakhang.

This wooden phallus is used to bless people who visit the monastery on pilgrimage, particularly women seeking blessings to beget children.

As with all temples in Bhutan – photography inside the temple is forbidden! 

An outdoor school at Chimi Lhakhang.

An outdoor school at Chimi Lhakhang.

Phalluses Everywhere! 

Almost all homes in the village of Lobesa feature ejaculating penises on their exterior walls.

Almost all homes in the village of Lobesa feature ejaculating penises on their exterior walls.

Widely seen throughout the Kingdom, the phallus is an occult emblem in Bhutan that represents protection from evil and good fortune.

A shop in Lobesa is adorned with a 'shooting' phallus.

A shop in Lobesa is adorned with a ‘shooting’ phallus.

Bhutanese people have held this notion for generations. They also consider the phallus as a symbol of fertility.

Decorated phalluses for sale in a gift shop in Lobesa.

Decorated phalluses for sale in a gift shop in Lobesa.

The walls of most houses in Lobesa are adorned with large, painted, phalluses, while gift shops in town offer a large range of phallus-themed souvenirs.

Size doesn't matter! Me (190 cm), posing next to a giant phallus in a Lobesa giftshop.

Size doesn’t matter! Me (190 cm), posing next to a giant phallus in a Lobesa giftshop.

Around town, ornate penises can be seen everywhere, flanking household doorways, hanging off rooftops, or used as signage or gimmicks.

Bhutan offers an interesting selection of souvenirs!

Bhutan offers an interesting selection of souvenirs!

Khuruthang Lhakhang 

Khuruthang Lhakhang features a Nepalese-style Chorten (Stupa).

Khuruthang Lhakhang features a Nepalese-style Chorten (Stupa).

Located in the charmless town of Khuruthang, Khuruthang Lhakhang (temple) was constructed in 2005 under the patronage of the Queen Mother.

Prayer wheels at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

Prayer wheels at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

While the temple is located on the main road which leads to the much more famous Punakha Dzong, most tourists seem to give it a miss.

The Stupa at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

The Stupa at Khuruthang Lhakhang.

I asked my guide to make a stop as the light was dazzling. I enjoyed photographing the large white, Nepalese-style, Chorten (Stupa) and also had the opportunity to photograph a couple of monks who were kicking a football around the temple grounds.

Worth the stop!

Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery

A nun, circumambulating the Chorten (Stupa) at the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery.

A nun, circumambulating the Chorten (Stupa) at the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery.

Perched precariously on top of a narrow ridge overlooking Toebesa, Punakha and Wangdue valleys, Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery is a temple and nunnery complex which is supported by the Queen Mother, who lives in a residence next door.

The Stupa was modelled after Kathmandu's Boudhanath stupa.

The Stupa was modelled after Kathmandu’s Boudhanath stupa.

One of the few nunneries in Bhutan, it was built as a Buddhist college for nuns and currently houses about 120 nuns.

The stupa at Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery.

The stupa at Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery.

During my visit, I met one young nun, who had just joined, and planned to remain there for at least 10 years.

This nun planned to spend 10 years at the nunnery.

This nun planned to spend 10 years at the nunnery.

A highlight of the complex is a large white stupa which is modelled on Kathmandu’s Boudhanath stupa.

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten was built to ward off evil spirits and to bring world peace.

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten was built to ward off evil spirits and to bring world peace.

A modern temple, Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten was constructed in 2004, under the patronage of the Queen Mother, to ward off evil spirits in Bhutan and across the world, and to bring peace and harmony to all living things.

A view of the rice paddies in Punakha Valley from the rooftop of Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

A view of the rice paddies in Punakha Valley from the rooftop of Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Despite being a modern construction, the temple looks much older due to the fact that it was built following strict traditional building methods. It took Bhutanese carpenters, painters and sculptors nine years to build the four-story, pagoda-style stupa.

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten is located on a mountain ridge, overlooking the Punakha Valley.

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten is located on a mountain ridge, overlooking the Punakha Valley.

One interesting feature of the temple is the rooftop terrace which offers panoramic views of Punakha Valley and beyond.

Panoramic views of the Punakha Valley from the rooftop terrace.

Panoramic views of the Punakha Valley from the rooftop terrace.

The temple is reached via a 40-minute, uphill, hiking trail which starts from a footbridge in Yepaisa Village. The village is the starting point for rafting trips down the Mo Chhu (Female River).

Paro

Tachog Lhakhang and the Iron Bridge

The Iron Bridge, which spans the Paro River, was constructed in 1433 from hand-forged iron chain links.

The Iron Bridge, which spans the Paro River, was constructed in 1433 from hand-forged iron chain links.

Located on the outskirts of Paro, overlooking the Paro River, Tachog Lhakhang is one of several temples in Paro believed to have been founded by the Tibetan monk, Thangtong Gyalpo (1385-1464).

This new suspension bridge has replaced the defunct Iron Bridge.

This new suspension bridge has replaced the defunct Iron Bridge.

Thangtong Gyalpo is better known as the Iron Bridge Maker for his pioneering engineering works, including chain-link suspension bridges. He was a man ahead of his time!

A view of the Tachog Lhakhang (temple) from across the Paro River.

A view of the Tachog Lhakhang (temple) from across the Paro River.

Prior to the temple being built, an iron bridge was constructed in 1433 under Gyalpo’s direction. Called the Tamchog Chakzam, it was constructed of multiple lengths of handmade iron chains secured by gatehouses at opposite banks of the Paro River.

A view of the Iron Bridge and one of the former guardhouses.

A view of the Iron Bridge and one of the former guardhouses.

Ropes tied between the chains allowed for foot traffic in both directions.

National Museum of Bhutan

The entrance to the National Museum of Bhutan, which is housed in a former watchtower.

The entrance to the National Museum of Bhutan, which is housed in a former watchtower.

Located on a ridge overlooking Paro valley, the National Museum of Bhutan is a cultural museum which boasts over 3,000 works of Bhutanese art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan’s cultural heritage.

The museum, which is perched on a ridge, above Paro Dzong (Paro Fortress), is housed in its former watchtower (ta dzong) which dates from 1649. The watchtower was renovated in 1968 to house the museum but was damaged during the earthquake of 2011.

School children, visiting the National Museum of Bhutan.

School children, visiting the National Museum of Bhutan.

Following renovations, the National Museum was reopened in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was shutting down the entire world.

The museum today is open and receiving visitors who enter at the top of the tower and exit at the bottom. The museum grounds offer panoramic views of Paro Dzong, Paro Airport, Paro, and the Paro valley.

A view of Paro Valley, and the Paro River, from the National Museum of Bhutan.

A view of Paro Valley, and the Paro River, from the National Museum of Bhutan.

As with temples, photography is strictly forbidden inside the museum. All bags and recording devices must be left in a locker at the front entrance.

Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) 

The iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery is the most popular tourist sight in Bhutan.

The iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the most popular tourist sight in Bhutan.

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a small collection of buildings precariously perched on a cliff – 900 metres above the floor of Paro Valley at an altitude of 3,120 metres (10,240 ft).

It is stunning in its beauty and location and is the #1 tourist attraction in Bhutan, with almost every visitor making the trek up the mountain to visit this truly amazing sight.

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is perched on the edge of a cliff, 900 metres above Paro Valley.

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is perched on the edge of a cliff, 900 metres above Paro Valley.

The temple was constructed in 1692, around the cave where Guru Rinpoche first meditated, the event that introduced Buddhism into Bhutan.

According to legend, Guru Rinpoche was carried from Tibet to this location on the back of a tigress, thus giving it the name “Tiger’s Nest.”

This prayer wheel marks the halfway mark of the hike up to the Tiger's Nest Monastery.

This prayer wheel marks the halfway mark of the hike up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

The only way to reach the temple is by hiking up a trail which starts in a car park, which lies at an elevation of 2,600 metres (8,525 ft), which makes for an uphill hike of 520 metres (1,700 ft).

Taktsang Cafeteria serves Barista-made coffee and a buffet lunch.

Taktsang Cafeteria serves Barista-made coffee and a buffet lunch.

The average hiking time up and down is 4 – 5 hours. While the trail is uphill the entire way, it’s not overly steep and there is an option to ride on ponies up to the Taktsang Cafeteria which lies at the halfway mark.

For the experience, I hired this pony to carry me up the first half of the hiking trail.

For the experience, I hired this pony to carry me up the first half of the hiking trail.

Almost everyone makes a stop at the cafe, which was completely renovated during the pandemic lockdown. The cafe is located directly below the temple complex and affords amazing views of the temple from its large outdoor terrace.

The view of the Tiger's Nest Monastery from the terrace of the Taktsang Cafeteria..

The view of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery from the terrace of the Taktsang Cafeteria..

Despite its remote location, the cafe includes a full kitchen which provides a buffet lunch, a fancy coffee machine from which you can purchase excellent barista-made coffee, drinks and meals.

Monks at the Tiger's Nest Monastery.

Monks at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.

While standing on the terrace of the cafe, you can ponder the trail ahead – which is less steep than the 1st half.

Since the pandemic, almost all of the colourful pray flags have been removed from the walking trail so it’s now not possible to get the iconic photo of the temple with pray flags overhead.

The Tiger's Nest Monastery is the #1 tourist attraction in Bhutan.

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the #1 tourist attraction in Bhutan.

Once at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, my guide took me on a tour of the different buildings. As with all temples in Bhutan, photography is strictly forbidden and any recording devices must be left in a locker at a security checkpoint.

Hot Stone Bath

My hot stone bath, which was scalding hot.

My hot stone bath, which was scalding hot.

One evening in Paro, I was treated to a truly unique experience – a hot stone bath, a form of traditional Bhutanese spa therapy where fresh river water is mixed with local Artemisia leaves and heated with fire-roasted river stones.

Hours before the bath, the stones are arranged in a pyramid over the red-hot charcoals of a fire. These are then placed into a container at one end of the bath and heat the water to about scalding point. The water was way too hot for me. I had to add an amount of cold water before I could comfortably sit in the bath.

My driver and guide, relaxing before their hot stone bath.

My driver and guide, relaxing before their hot stone bath.

Artemisia, which is commonly known as wormwood or sweet sagewort, is used in traditional Chinese medicine for fevers, inflammation, headaches, bleeding, and even malaria.

Accommodation

Since most tourists are travelling on organised tours, hotels are pre-arranged by the tour company. During my week in Bhutan, I stayed in three very comfortable hotels.

Service in Bhutanese hotels is always of a high standard with staff going above and beyond to ensure your stay is a pleasant one.

Thimphu

My spacious room at the Osel Hotel in Thimphu.

My spacious room at the Osel Hotel in Thimphu.

While in Thimphu, I was accommodated in the wonderful Osel Hotel, a 4-star hotel which is located a short stroll from the downtown area.

The large, comfortable, spacious rooms offer panoramic views over the capital and of the surrounding mountains, including the large seated Buddha, Buddha Dordenma.

The walls of the hotel have been hand-painted by local artists and feature the usual Bhutanese themes.

The hotel restaurant offers buffet breakfast and an a-la-carte dinner service, all of which was included in the cost of my tour.

An excellent hotel in a central location, Osel Hotel serves as an ideal base for exploring Thimphu.

Punakha

My room at the Drubchhu Resort in Lobesa.

My room at the Drubchhu Resort in Lobesa.

In Punakha, I stayed at the Drubchhu Resort which is located on the slope of a mountain in the village of Lobesa, overlooking Punakha valley.

At the time of my visit, the hotel had only just opened, following the 2.5-year closure of Bhutan due to the pandemic.

Meals included buffet breakfast and dinner with much of the produce coming from the hotel’s own vegetable garden. Water on the property is supplied by a local spring.

Paro

My deluxe room at the Metta Resort in Paro.

My deluxe room at the Metta Resort in Paro.

While in Paro, I stayed at the superb Metta Resort, which is located outside of Paro and offers deluxe, spacious rooms.

As with all other hotels, a buffet breakfast is included.

If you need to get washing done, I can recommend their very reasonably priced laundry service, which includes pressing!

Eating Out

Produce market in Paro.

Produce market in Paro.

Bhutanese cuisine is healthy and simple and is largely vegetarian. You will not find the usual fast-food outlets anywhere in the Kingdom. Restaurants serve home-style cooking and, due to the ‘no-kill’ policy, any meat which is served is imported from India.

The cuisine of Bhutan employs much rice, especially locally grown red rice (like brown rice in texture, but with a nutty taste) – the only variety of rice that grows at high altitudes.

The farmers' market in Paro offers a selection of local and imported produce.

The farmers’ market in Paro offers a selection of local and imported produce.

During my visit in October, a sea of golden rice fields covered most valleys. It was rice harvest time, and farmers were busy harvesting their valuable rice crop.

Another popular item in Bhutanese cuisine are handmade buckwheat noodles – healthy and delicious!

Rice Harvest

Rice fields ready for harvesting in the Punakha Valley.

Rice fields ready for harvesting in the Punakha Valley.

After a year of patiently waiting, Bhutanese farmers finally get to harvest their rice crop in October.

Farmers, hand-thrashing rice against a large stone in the Punakha Valley.

Farmers, hand-thrashing rice against a large stone in the Punakha Valley.


Video: Hand thrashing rice in Bhutan

 


While Bhutan is mostly mountainous, small pockets of land, hidden away inside deep, narrow valleys are almost exclusively given over to the cultivation of rice and corn.

Of the land area of Bhutan, 75% of the country is under forest cover while just 3% is cultivated.

A farmer, machine-thrashing rice in the Punakha Valley.

A farmer, machine-thrashing rice in the Punakha Valley.


Video: Machine thrashing rice in Bhutan.


Rice can only be grown in the lower-altitude valleys of Bhutan with the valleys at Paro and Punakha almost exclusively devoted to the cultivation of rice.

This husband-and-wife team were working together to harvest their rice crop in the Punakha Valley.

This husband-and-wife team were working together to harvest their rice crop in the Punakha Valley.

Rice is indispensable in Bhutanese cuisine and more than 69% of the population is engaged in farming with rice and maize as the main crops.

Rice fields in the Punakha Valley.

Rice fields in the Punakha Valley.

Rice is the most widely consumed cereal in Bhutan, where the locals will tell you ‘Rice is life‘. For the Bhutanese, a meal without rice isn’t a meal!

Rice, ready to harvest in the Punakha Valley.

Rice, ready to harvest in the Punakha Valley.

Domestic rice production meets only about 50% of the total demand, with the deficit made up of rice imports from neighbouring India.

Large stacks of rice stalks indicate those fields which have already been harvested.

Large stacks of rice stalks indicate those fields which have already been harvested.

I arrived in Bhutan at the start of the rice harvest season, when the valleys were covered by a sea of golden rice fields. A truly dazzling sight!

Rice paddies in Punakha Valley.

Rice paddies in Punakha Valley.

Kingdom of Peppers

Chillies, drying on a rooftop in Thimphu.

Chillies, drying on a rooftop in Thimphu.

Bhutan is the Kingdom of peppers with chillies forming an integral part of Bhutanese cuisine. This is a country where chillies aren’t just a seasoning but the main ingredient.

Chillies are served in almost all meals. The Bhutanese will also often ask for a side plate of raw chillies, just to add a little extra spice to their meal.

Everywhere you travel in Bhutan, you’ll see carpets of red chillies drying on the roofs of houses.

On average, a Bhutanese household consumes more than 1 kilo of chilli in a week.

One of the most popular dishes in Bhutan is ‘Ema Datshi‘ a simple, tasty and fiery dish which is made of chillies and yaks’ cheese.

Potatoes Galore

Due to its high altitude, Bhutan is able to grow a variety of crops which cannot be grown on the sweltering tropical plains of neighbouring India.

One such crop, potatoes, are a key export item for Bhutan. As we travelled on the highways of Bhutan, we constantly passed trucks which were laden with potatoes, all destined for India.

The average annual export of Bhutanese potatoes, to India, is around 20,000MT.

Restaurants

As with accommodation, all meals are provided by your tour company who normally reserve restaurants in advance.

Writing this section of my guide has me now salivating as I remember the amazing tastes and flavours of Bhutanese cuisine. It’s a shame the world isn’t full of Bhutanese restaurants. Such a healthy cuisine.

Thimphu

Lunchtime at the Babesa restaurant in Thimphu, with my guide, Jamyang (left) and driver, Thukten.

Lunchtime at the Babesa restaurant in Thimphu, with my guide, Jamyang (left) and driver, Thukten.

During my first day of sightseeing in Thimphu, I was taken to lunch at the very rustic Babesa Village Restaurant.

Interior of the rustic Babesa Village Restaurant in Thimphu.

Interior of the rustic Babesa Village Restaurant in Thimphu.

The restaurant, which serves homely Bhutanese cuisine, is located inside an old heritage home which is around 600 years old.

Jamyang, adding toasted rice to my yak-butter tea at Babesa restaurant in Thimphu.

Jamyang, adding toasted rice to my yak-butter tea at Babesa restaurant in Thimphu.

Before we ate, we were served a cup of traditional yak-butter tea. The Bhutanese make their yak tea a little more interesting with the addition of toasted rice grains.

Meals in Bhutan are always served communal-style, on a low table, with seating on the floor.

Meals in Bhutan are always served communal-style, on a low table, with seating on the floor.

Seating is on the floor, which is typical in Bhutan, with meals served, communal style, on a low table.

My lunch at the Babesa restaurant included a selection of classic Bhutanese dishes.

My lunch at the Babesa restaurant included a selection of classic Bhutanese dishes.

Most of the dishes were vegetarian with a couple of meat dishes. The flavours and freshness of the dishes had me digging in for 2nds and 3rds. Delicious!

I always enjoyed the vegetarian dishes in Bhutan while the meat dishes, which use imported meat from India, were often tough and chewy. I learnt quickly to focus on the vegetarian options.

Punakha

My lunch, which was packing lots of chillies, at the Chimi Lhakhang Organic Cafe in Lobesa.

My lunch, which was packing lots of chillies, at the Chimi Lhakhang Organic Cafe in Lobesa.

Perched on a hill, overlooking the rice fields of Punakha valley, the excellent Chimi Lhakhang Organic Cafe is a popular lunch restaurant. On the day we visited, the restaurant was busy serving numerous tour groups.

Like most other restaurants in Bhutan, meals tend to be tasty vegetarian options which are made from local produce and served with lots of rice and chillies.

After lunch, I walked with my guide through the rice fields, where we were able to observe farmers harvesting their rice crops.

Paro

The owners of Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse in Paro, who prepared the most amazing meal using produce from their farm.

The owners of Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse in Paro, who prepared the most amazing meal using produce from their farm.

One evening in Paro, I was led by my guide and driver along a dark country lane to a farmhouse which was our dinner venue.

The Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse is a typical Bhutanese farmhouse.

The Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse is a typical Bhutanese farmhouse.

The Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse is owned by a young, energetic, couple who grow their own produce which they serve to appreciative visitors in the form of tasty homecooked meals. Truly divine!

Our divine Bhutanese dinner which was served at the Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse.

Our divine Bhutanese dinner which was served at the Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse.

The meals prepared included a range of delicious Bhutanese classic vegetarian dishes, including the most amazing homemade buckwheat noodles.

My dinner at the Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse, which included a delicious pumpkin and ginger soup.

My dinner at the Pema Wangchuk Farmhouse, which included a delicious pumpkin and ginger soup.

After dinner, we were treated to a shot of homemade ara, a traditional alcoholic beverage which is popular in Bhutan and is normally made from fermented rice. A Himalayan version of saké, it was surprisingly smooth.

Cafes

The Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro, which serves excellent coffee.

The Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro, which serves excellent coffee.

A couple of decent cafes can be found in Thimphu and Paro, all of which serve very good, barista-made, coffee.

Paro

The Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro.

The Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro.

My favourite cafe in Paro was the Mountain Cafe and Roastery, which has two branches in downtown Paro.

With the only coffee roasting machine in Bhutan, the Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro serves the freshest and best coffee in the Bhutan.

With the only coffee roasting machine in Bhutan, the Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro serves the freshest and best coffee in the Bhutan.

This is the only cafe in Bhutan with a coffee roaster and, as a result, they serve the best tasting coffee in the entire Kingdom.

A divine coffee, and freshly made cheesecake, at the Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro.

A divine coffee, and freshly made cheesecake, at the Mountain Cafe and Roastery in Paro.

Along with their amazing coffee, they offer freshly baked cakes, cookies and meals.

Thimphu

Located in Thimphu, Smilers Cafe offers very good coffee and delicious international style cooking.

Located in Thimphu, Smilers Cafe offers very good coffee and delicious international style cooking.

Located in downtown Thimphu, the wonderful coffee at Smilers Café left me smiling all day. Apart from great coffee, this funky cafe offers international-style cooking and homemade cakes.

In the evening the cafe serves as a live music venue.

Bars

The very smooth Bhutanese Wheat beer is brewed by the Namgay Artisanal Brewery in Paro.

The very smooth Bhutanese Wheat beer is brewed by the Namgay Artisanal Brewery in Paro.

If you are looking for a roaring pub scene, Bhutan is not your country.

There are a couple of bars/ lounges in Thimphu and alcohol can be purchased at hotels and supermarkets. There are a number of breweries in Bhutan which produce very tasty beer.

Visa Requirements

My Bhutanese visa.

My Bhutanese visa.

Visas are required by all foreigners, and must are obtained, in advance, by your tour company.

You will need to show your visa before you board your flight to Bhutan. Without a valid visa, which will only be valid for the dates of your tour, you will be denied boarding.

The current (2022) visa fee is US$40.

My Bhutanese passport stamps.

My Bhutanese passport stamps.

Nationals from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries – i.e. India, Bangladesh and Maldives – do not require a visa, but must obtain a permit before visiting Bhutan.

You can check your requirements by referring to the Visa Policy of Bhutan.

Getting There

Air

Located in a narrow valley, Paro International Airport is ranked as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

Located in a narrow valley, Paro International Airport is ranked as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

Paro International Airport is the only international airport in Bhutan and, due to its location in a narrow valley, surrounded by towering peaks, is ranked as one of the most dangerous airports in the world.

A view of the terminal at Paro International Airport, with a mural featuring the King and Queen of Bhutan and their son., Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck.

A view of the terminal at Paro International Airport, with a mural featuring the King and Queen of Bhutan and their son., Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck.

Due to the mountainous topography of Bhutan, the only place suitable for constructing a runway, of considerable length, was in Paro Valley.

The narrow valley is located at 2,235 metres (7,333 ft) above sea level and is surrounded on all sides by mountains which soar as high as 4,900 metres (16,100 ft).

A Druk Air flight, on final approach to Paro International Airport, flying over Paro Valley.

A Druk Air flight, on final approach to Paro International Airport, flying over Paro Valley.

On our final approach to Paro Airport, the landing gear was lowered and the pilots started manoeuvring the plane while we were still flying over the summits of the peaks which surround Paro airport. At the end of the valley, the plane performed a sharp right-hand turn to line up with the runway.

On final approach, there is one small hill which needs to be cleared before the pilots can descend to the 2,000 metre (6,000 ft) long runway.

Ready to board my Druk Air flight back to Singapore.

Ready to board my Druk Air flight back to Singapore.

Due to the difficulties, landings can only take place during daylight hours and can only be made by specially trained pilots. The only airlines flying to Bhutan are the two national carriers – Bhutan Airlines and Drukair.

Due to the landing restrictions, the weekly Druk Air flight to Singapore arrives in Singapore on Saturday afternoon and must overnight at the airport, with the return flight departing Changi Airport on Sunday. This is to avoid any night time landings.


Video: An excellent video by Youtuber Sam Chui shows the difficulty of landing at Paro Airport.


Bhutan Airlines is owned by the Tashi Group of Companies, which is the largest privately owned conglomerate in Bhutan. It operates a fleet of two Airbus A319-100.

Drukair operates a fleet of five planes, being three Airbus A319-100, one Airbus A320neo and one ATR 42-600 which is used for its domestic services.

Artwork, inside the arrival's hall at Paro International Airport.

Artwork, inside the arrival’s hall at Paro International Airport.

The following scheduled flights operate to/ from Paro International Airport:

  • Bhutan Airlines – flies to/ from Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi, Delhi, Kathmandu, Kolkata
  • Drukair – flies to/ from Bagdogra, Bangkok–Suvarnabhumi, Delhi, Dhaka, Gelephu, Guwahati, Jakar, Kathmandu, Kolkata, Singapore, Trashigang

Airport Transport

Airport transfers are organised by your tour company who will be waiting for you outside the arrival’s hall.

Land

The border between Bhutan and India is the only land access into Bhutan. The one other land border, shared with China, is completely closed and lies on the other side of the impenetrable barrier which is the Himalayas. An advantage for tiny Bhutan!

The only land crossing point for foreign nationals, and the main crossing for Indian nationals, is between the towns of Jaigaon, in the Indian state of West Bengal and Phuntsholing, in South West Bhutan.

Additionally, Indian passport holders can enter Bhutan through three other land borders – Gelephu, Samdrup Jongkhar and Samtse.

Getting Around

On every main road in Bhutan, road signs reinforce road safety.

On every main road in Bhutan, road signs reinforce road safety.

All transport in Bhutan is provided by your tour company. Public transport is available for locals in the form of buses and shared taxis.

Public Transport

Public buses connect the various towns of Bhutan.

Taxi

Taxis operate within towns, with shared taxis providing transport services between towns.

Rental Car

A Bhutanese car license plate.

A Bhutanese car license plate.

If you’re on an organised tour, you will not need to rent a car.

If you do need a rental car, there are various agents in Paro and Thimphu.


That’s the end of my travel guide for Bhutan.

If you wish to leave feedback, you can do so using the comments form below.

Safe Travels!

Darren


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Iraq Photo Gallery

Al-Ukhaidir Fortress

Iraq Photo Gallery

This is an Iraq Photo Gallery from taste2travel.

To read about this destination, please refer to my Iraq Travel Guide.


All images are copyright! If you wish to purchase any images for commercial use, please contact me via the Contact page.


 

 


About taste2travel!

Hi! My name is Darren McLean, the owner of taste2travel. I’ve been travelling the world for 35 years and, 215 countries and territories, and – seven continents later, I’m still on the road.

Taste2travel offers travel information for destinations around the world, specialising in those that are remote and seldom visited. I hope you enjoy my content!

Ever since I was a child, I have been obsessed with the idea of travel. I started planning my first overseas trip at the age of 19 and departed Australia soon after my 20th birthday. Many years later, I’m still on the road.

In 2016, I decided to document and share my journeys and photography with a wider audience and so, taste2travel.com was born.

My aim is to create useful, usable travel guides/ reports on destinations I have visited. My reports are very comprehensive and detailed as I believe more information is better than less. They are best suited to those planning a journey to a particular destination.

Many of the destinations featured on my website are far off the regular beaten tourist trail. Often, these countries are hidden gems which remain undiscovered, mostly because they are remote and difficult to reach. I enjoy exploring and showcasing these ‘off-the-radar’ destinations, which will, hopefully, inspire others to plan their own adventure to a far-flung corner of the planet.

I’m also a fan of travel trivia and if you are too, you’ll find plenty of travel quizzes on the site.

Photography has always been a passion and all the photos appearing in these galleries were taken by me.

If you have any questions or queries, please contact me via the contact page.

I hope you this gallery and my website.

Safe travels!

Darren


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Iraq Travel Guide

A highlight of Samarra is the iconic Malwiya (Arabic for "twisted") Minaret.

Iraq Travel Guide

This is an Iraq Travel Guide from taste2travel.com

Date Visited: August 2022

Introduction

For the past few decades Iraq has been in the news headlines for all the wrong reasons. From the Iran-Iraq war during the 80’s, the 1st Gulf War during the 90’s, the 2nd Gulf War in the 2000’s, then Al-Qaeda and ISIS in later years, the news cycle has always been negative and shocking!

Worshippers at the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

Worshippers at the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

While things have settled down considerably, Iraq is far from being a mainstream holiday destination. Most government websites which issue travel advisories (always overly cautious) advise against any sort of travel to Iraq.

Detail of the marble, winged-bull Lamassus at the Iraq Museum.

Detail of the marble, winged-bull Lamassus at the Iraq Museum.

The United States government has placed Iraq on its list of banned countries for the purposes of travel using ESTA. This affects non-US passport holders who would normally enter the US using an ESTA. If you visit Iraq, you forfeit your right to enter the US using an ESTA. Instead, you will need to apply for a Tourist Visa from a US Embassy (see the ‘Visa Requirements‘ section below for more details).

A copper shop in the Al-Safafeer souk, Baghdad.

A copper shop in the Al-Safafeer souk, Baghdad.

Up until March of 2021, obtaining a visa to visit Federal Iraq (i.e. the main part of Iraq which is separate to the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan) was very difficult.

Once named one of the most beautiful monuments in the Middle East, Martyrs Monument features a 40-m tall split turquoise dome.

Once named one of the most beautiful monuments in the Middle East, Martyrs Monument features a 40-m tall split turquoise dome.

That changed following a visit to Iraq by His Holiness Pope Francis from the 5th to 8th of March. After visiting several historical sights, the Pope, who was clearly impressed by what he had seen, commented that all of humanity should be free to come to Iraq to view the many splendid sights which can be found within the country.

A highlight of the abandoned Al-Ukhaidir Fortress, near Karbala, are the decorated arches of the former mosque portico.

A highlight of the abandoned Al-Ukhaidir Fortress, near Karbala, are the decorated arches of the former mosque portico.

Just a week later, on the 15th of March 2021, the Iraqi government lifted pre-arrival visa requirements for citizens from 37 countries, allowing citizens from those countries to apply for a visa-on-arrival (VOA) at approved land, sea and air border crossings. More details on the VOA can be found in the ‘Visa Requirements‘ section below.

Al-Askari Shrine is one of many dazzling Shia shrines which can be visited in Iraq.

Al-Askari Shrine is one of many dazzling Shia shrines which can be visited in Iraq.

Despite its recent turmoil, Iraq has an illustrious and glorious history. Modern Iraq started life as the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia, where the world’s earliest civilisation developed. The name comes from a Greek word meaning “between rivers,” referring to the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Al-Ukhaidir Fortress - a photographer's dream.

Al-Ukhaidir Fortress – a photographer’s dream.

The fabled city of Babylon, which was built on the banks of the Euphrates River, lies one hour south of modern Baghdad and is again open to tourists.

Apart from its wealth of ancient history, Iraq is home to the holiest sites for Shi’ite Muslims, with the most ornate and dazzling shrines open for all to visit. The holy shrines are located in the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra and are truly special places to visit.

A shop in Baghdad souk.

A shop in Baghdad souk.

It’s as close to Mecca as a non-Muslim can get. I was always made to feel welcome when visiting these most sacred of places.

Like their brothers in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iraqis of Federal Iraq are some of the kindest, nicest, most welcoming people a traveller could ever hope to meet. Never did I feel threatened or unsafe in Iraq.

Detail of ceiling fresco in the throne room of Saddam's Babylon palace.

Detail of ceiling fresco in the throne room of Saddam’s Babylon palace.

Iraq is a country which has a long way to go before it can be considered a ‘normal’ travel destination. It’s currently dusting itself off after many decades of war.

There is still a heavy military presence in the streets, with heavily armed soldiers everywhere, sitting in their armoured Humvees which are equipped with turrets and mounted machine guns. I was told by Iraqi friends that the security situation is very volatile and that a visible military presence is still required.

During my visit, the Shia cleric, turned politician, the powerful and influential Moqtada al-Sadr announced in a Tweet that he was quitting politics.

Truly opulent! The Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

Truly opulent! The Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

This news outraged his many passionate supporters who took to the streets of Baghdad with machine guns and other heavy weapons. They stormed the secure ‘Green Zone’, overran the Presidential Palace and at the end of the day, there were many fatalities.

The country was placed under a national curfew, I was told not to leave the hotel! The violence only ended the following day after Moqtada al-Sadr called for calm.

A view of Baghdad souk with Shia flags flying overhead.

A view of Baghdad souk with Shia flags flying overhead.

I enjoyed my time in Iraq and look forward to returning again one day to explore further.]

I would recommend Iraq as a travel destination for those who are intrepid. Everywhere I travelled, I had amazing, world-class, sights to myself. Such a privilege!

Location

Iraq is bordered to the north by Turkey, to the east by Iran, to the west by Syria and Jordan, and to the south by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. It is one of the easternmost countries in the Middle East.

The country is almost landlocked, with only 58 km (36 mi) of coastline along the northern end of the Persian Gulf.

History

Ancient History

During ancient times, lands that now constitute Iraq were known as Mesopotamia (“Land Between the Rivers”), a region whose extensive alluvial plains gave rise to some of the world’s earliest civilisations, including those of Sumer, Akkad, Babylon, and Assyria.

Home to many great past civilisations, Iraq has been previously incorporated into the Persian, Greek, Roman and Ottoman empires.

Monarchy

During the colonial period, Iraq was governed by the British, until the country gained formal independence in 1932.

In 1932, the British installed an Iraqi Monarch, who never gained widespread acceptance by the local population.

Short-lived, there were just three Iraqi monarchs:

  • King Faisal I – ruled from 1932 to 1933
  • King Ghazi – ruled from 1933 to 1939
  • King Faisal II – ruled from 1939 to 1958

Political instability on an even greater scale followed the overthrow of the monarch, King Faisal II, in 1958, but the installation of an Arab nationalist and socialist regime, the Baath Party, in a bloodless coup 10 years later brought new stability.

With proven oil reserves second in the world only to those of Saudi Arabia, the regime was able to finance ambitious projects and development plans throughout the 1970s and to build one of the largest and best-equipped armed forces in the Arab world.

Saddam Hussein

The party’s leadership, however, was quickly assumed by Saddam Hussein, a flamboyant and ruthless autocrat who led the country into disastrous military adventures, the Iran-Iraq War (1980–88) and the Persian Gulf War (1990–91).

These conflicts left the country isolated from the international community and financially and socially drained, but, through unprecedented coercion directed at major sections of the population, particularly the Kurdish minority and the Shia majority, Saddam was able to maintain a firm hold on power into the 21st century.

Saddam, and his regime, were toppled in 2003 during the Iraq War.

Iraq Today

Today, Iraq is split into two entities, Federal Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, with Kurdistan being an autonomous region which is home to the Kurdish minority.

Iraqi Kurdistan, which is covered in my Iraqi Kurdistan Travel Guide, is ruled by its own government, has its own parliament, president and immigration procedures.

Iraqi Kurdistan is a much more secure and stable region of Iraq and is a great option for those who wish to visit a part of Iraq which has been open to tourists for many years.

People

A Shia pilgrim at the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

A Shia pilgrim at the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

Modern Iraq, created by combining three separate Ottoman provinces in the aftermath of World War I, is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse societies in the Middle East. Although Iraq’s communities generally coexisted peacefully, fault lines between communities deepened in the 20th century as a succession of authoritarian regimes ruled by exploiting tribal, sectarian, and ethnic divisions.

The ancient Semitic peoples of Iraq, the Babylonians and Assyrians, and the non-Semitic Sumerians were long ago assimilated by successive waves of immigrants. The Arab conquests of the 7th century brought about the Arabization of central and southern Iraq. A mixed population of Kurds and Arabs inhabit a transition zone between those areas and Iraqi Kurdistan in the northeast. Roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s people are Arabs, about one-fourth are Kurds, and the remainder consists of small minority groups.

Copper merchant in Baghdad souk.

Copper merchant in Baghdad souk.

Sunnis / Shias

Many of the issues with have plagued Iraq throughout its history stem from the fact that the population is divided between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

From the inception of the Iraqi state in 1920, until the fall of the government of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the ruling elites consisted mainly, although not exclusively, of minority Sunni Arabs.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, which was dominated by Sunnis, the country clashed with Iran (which is led by a Shi’ite government).

Although Shias constituted the majority of the population, Iraq’s Sunni rulers gave preferential treatment to influential Sunni tribal networks, and Sunnis dominated the military officer corps and civil service.

The Sunni-Shia divide is nearly 1,400 years old, dating back to a dispute over the succession of leadership in the Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE.

Despite periods of open conflict between Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, the two groups are not all that different in terms of religious beliefs and commitment.

In Iraq, for example, both groups express virtually universal belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad, and similar percentages (82% of Shias and 83% of Sunnis) say religion is very important in their lives. More than nine-in-ten Iraqi Shias (93%) and Sunnis (96%) say they fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

The Shias tend to be far more flamboyant about their brand of Islam, with flags seen flying all over Shia neighbourhoods and towns, many bearing images of Ali and other Imams.

At the al-Abbas shrine in Karbala, Shia pilgrims can be seen parading around, and through, the shrine in ritual self-flagellation. The Shias very much wear their religion on their sleeves.

Shias remained politically and economically marginalized until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Since the transition to elective government, Shia factions have wielded significant political power, especially Moqtada al-Sadr, a nationalist cleric who leads one powerful faction. 

Most recently, during my visit to Iraq, tensions flared when al-Sadr announced that he was quitting politics. The ensuing unrest resulted in many deaths and a national curfew being enforced. The unrest ended once al-Sadr called for calm.

Flag

The flag of Iraq.

The flag of Iraq.

The flag of Iraq is based on the Arab Liberation flag, which uses the pan-Arab colours of red, white, and black.

Red symbolises the courage and struggles of the nation, while black represents both the oppression and triumph of the Islamic religion. White symbolises the future of Iraq and the generosity of its people.

Centred in the white band is the Takbir, a phrase that means “God is great”, written in Kufic script. The Takbir is written in green, the colour of Islam.

Currency

My wad of 100, uncirculated, IQD250 banknotes.

My wad of 100, uncirculated, IQD250 banknotes.

The official currency of Iraq is the Iraqi dinar (IQD).

Current bank notes, which are issued by the Central Bank of Iraq, include IQD 250; 500; 1,000; 5,000; 10,000; 25,000 – and the rarely seen 50,000.

Iraqi dinar bank notes.

Iraqi dinar bank notes.

If you’re interested in getting your hands on a brand-new IQD 50,000 note, I often received these from Bank of Baghdad ATMs.

Iraqi IQD 50,000 bank notes.

Iraqi IQD 50,000 bank notes.

The Iraqi dinar isn’t a free-floating currency, with the exchange rate set by the Iraqi government at US$1 = IQD 1,460. This exchange rate is factored into government budgets until at least 2026.

Iraqi IQD 25,000 bank notes.

Iraqi IQD 25,000 bank notes.

Exchange Rates

The current exchange rate of the Iraqi dinar against US $100 and €100 are:

USD $100 = IQD 146,000

EUR €100 = IQD 149,300

Saddam Hussein Dinars

Saddam Hussein dinars make for an interesting souvenir.

Saddam Hussein dinars make for an interesting souvenir.

Prior to the 1st Gulf War in 1990, high quality Iraqi dinar bank notes were printed in the United Kingdom by Thomas De La Rue.

Following the introduction of United Nations sanctions after the war, Iraq was no longer able to place currency orders with Thomas De La Rue.

A new series of bank notes were printed locally, which featured a portrait of Saddam Hussein. Known as “Saddam dinars”, the notes were of inferior quality, compared to the former UK-made bank notes, which then become known as “Swiss dinars”.

Due to prolonged international sanctions on Iraq, along with excessive government currency printing, the Saddam dinar quickly became worthless.

After Saddam Hussein was deposed in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi government printed more Saddam dinar notes as a stopgap measure to maintain the money supply until a new currency could be introduced.

The market had become flooded with worthless Saddam dinars. 

Wads of Saddam Hussein diners at a money exchange in Erbil souk.

Wads of Saddam Hussein diners at a money exchange in Erbil souk.

Between 2003 and 2004, the Coalition Provisional Authority issued new Iraqi dinar notes, which were printed, once again, by Thomas De La Rue in the UK.

Trillions of new dinars were shipped to Iraq and exchanged for the old Saddam dinar notes at par value.

Today, wads of souvenir Saddam Hussein dinar notes can be found at money changers throughout Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. Each note can be purchased for IQD 1,000 (USD$0.68), making them more valuable as a souvenir than what they were when in circulation.

Banking Services

Credit Cards

Iraq is a cash society. Credit cards are accepted almost nowhere, although I was able to settle my bill at my hotel in Baghdad using my credit card.

Generally, all payments in Iraq are to be made using cash!

ATMs

You will never find an ATM on the street in Iraq.

ATMs are only found inside the larger shopping malls and at international airport terminals.

Bank branches are also non-existent, with informal money changers providing money exchange services on the street.

Not all banks are on the international network. The two banks which I found to be most reliable, and whose ATM’s accept international credit cards (i.e. Mastercard and Visa), are the Bank of Baghdad and Cihan Bank.

Iraqi Tourist Guide

My guide Fahad, of Iraq Adventures, on top of the Malwiya minaret, with the Great Mosque of Samarra in the background.

My guide Fahad, of Iraq Adventures, on top of the Malwiya minaret, with the Great Mosque of Samarra in the background.

Due to the unique security situation in Iraq – that is, a large degree of insecurity – it can be best to employ the services of a local guide, even, if like myself, that isn’t the way you would normally roll.

Certain towns, such as Samarra, are controlled by militia groups, who are more like a militarised neighbourhood watch than anything sinister and bad.

Following bombings by Al-Qaeda which destroyed the holy shrine in Samarra, it was clear to locals that security could not be assured by the Iraqi government. The militia protect Samarra and ensure anyone entering is registered first. Due to the presence of the militia, Samarra is much cleaner, safer and much better organised than other towns and cities in Iraq.

When entering Samarra, tourists are required to surrender their passports at a checkpoint, which will be handed back at the time you exit town. The guards speak almost no English and much prefer that foreigners are escorted by a local.

Having a local guide who knows the procedure and can do the talking is very helpful.

Exploring the remote desert fortress of Al-Ukhaidir with Fahad of Iraq Adventures.

Exploring the remote desert fortress of Al-Ukhaidir with Fahad of Iraq Adventures.

Likewise, gaining access to the remote desert fortress of Al-Ukhaidir isn’t always assured since the ticket office isn’t always open. Before we drove 50-km into the desert, Fahad called ahead to ensure the ticket office would be open when we arrived.

Fahad is available for daytrips or multi-day trips.


Fahad, who is available for daytrips, or multi-day trips, can be contacted at: 

Instagram: instagram.com/iraq.adventure

WhatsApp: +964 771 561 7966

Email: iraqadventure1@gmail.com


Sightseeing

Some of the most dazzling sights in Iraq are the Shia holy shrines of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra.

Some of the most dazzling sights in Iraq are the Shia holy shrines of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra.

Being the cradle of civilisation, Iraq is full of hugely important historical sights.

As the home of the most important shrines for Shia Islam, the cities of Karbala, Najaf and Samarra are important pilgrimage destinations, attracting millions of pilgrims each year.

Housed inside intricately decorated mosques, the shrines are truly dazzling sights with an incredible atmosphere.

Beautifully intricate tilework, such as on this shop in Baghdad, can be found throughout Iraq.

Beautifully intricate tilework, such as on this shop in Baghdad, can be found throughout Iraq.


Important Note: When visiting any of the holy shrines in Karbala, Najaf and Samarra, large bags and large (DSLR) cameras are not allowed inside. There are secure baggage rooms where you can store such items free of charge. These rooms are very safe and secure. I used them often.  

Only mobile phones are permitted inside the shrines and can be used to take photos. In the day of the selfie, many Shia pilgrims want to pause to capture the moment with a selfie. Everyone is busy taking photos and photography is, generally, not a problem.

However, in the rooms which house the actually shrines, photography isn’t allowed. Within these rooms, a team of friendly doormen, who are armed with long-handled feather dusters, ensure people keep moving and don’t stop the traffic flow by stopping to take photos.

If you do try to take a photo, you can expect a polite tap on your arm, or head, from a feather duster. Of course, the pilgrims all want photos of themselves in front of the shrines! I did manage to take a few quick photos at each location whenever the doormen were busy berating someone else! :-))


Baghdad

The iconic Martyr's Monument, which was covered in a layer of desert dust at the time of my visit, is a highlight of Baghdad.

The iconic Martyr’s Monument, which was covered in a layer of desert dust at the time of my visit, is a highlight of Baghdad.

Martyr’s Monument 

The iconic Martyr's Monument in Baghdad was originally dedicated to the Iraqi soldiers who died in the Iran–Iraq War.

The iconic Martyr’s Monument in Baghdad was originally dedicated to the Iraqi soldiers who died in the Iran–Iraq War.

The iconic landmark of Bagdad, Martyr’s Monument is a monument designed by Iraqi sculptor Ismail Fatah Al Turk.

A view of the domes - which represent life and death at Martyr's Monument.

A view of the domes – which represent life and death at Martyr’s Monument.

Commissioned by Saddam Hussein, and completed in 1983, the monument was originally dedicated to the Iraqi soldiers who died in the Iran–Iraq War (1980 – 1988), but has since grown to become a memorial of all Iraqi martyrs.

The monument design features a 40-m tall split turquoise dome. The two halves of the split dome are offset, with an eternal flame in the middle.

Detail of Martyr's Monument, Baghdad.

Detail of Martyr’s Monument, Baghdad.

Commenting on the design of the memorial, the architect, Al Turk, commented:

“The idea of life versus death began to form. The two (dome) pieces moving together towards martyrdom and fertility and the life stream. I moved the pieces until I got the interplay I wanted.”. 

The underground museum complex at Martyr's Monument.

The underground museum complex at Martyr’s Monument.

A spiral staircase descends to a subterranean museum complex. At the time of my visit, I was the only visitor at the complex. Museum staff opened the museum so I could visit it.

The interior of the very quiet museum, beneath Martyr's Monument.

The interior of the very quiet museum, beneath Martyr’s Monument.


Access:

The monument is open from 8 am to 3 pm daily. It is a shame you are not able to access the monument during sun set and the magical blue hour. Tickets cost IQD 5,000 for tourists.

While there are two entrances to the memorial, the only entrance open to visitors is the fortified entrance on Omar Bin Al Khatab Street. 


Photos of Iraqi martyrs, at the Martyr's Monument Museum in Baghdad.

Photos of Iraqi martyrs, at the Martyr’s Monument Museum in Baghdad.

Iraq Museum

A highlight of the Iraq Museum, a pair of marble, winged-bull Lamassus which once guarded the entrance to the Assyrian city of Khorsabad.

A highlight of the Iraq Museum, a pair of marble, winged-bull Lamassus which once guarded the entrance to the Assyrian city of Khorsabad.

As a cradle of civilisation, Iraq is very rich in history. It was in Iraq that humanity finally stopped roaming the earth and instead settled in urban areas for the first time.

The rich history of the country can be seen on display at the highly important Iraq Museum in Baghdad. The museum houses precious artefacts from the Mesopotamian, Abbasid and Persian civilisations.

Detail of marble panels from the Assyrian city of Khorsabad.

Detail of marble panels from the Assyrian city of Khorsabad.

A highlight of the museum is a pair of marble, winged-bull Lamassus which once guarded the entrance to the Assyrian city of Khorsabad. The winged bull is a compound mythical creature which consists of a human head, the body of a bull and the wings of an eagle.

Walking lion from the Processional Way, part of the ancient city of Babylon.

Walking lion from the Processional Way, part of the ancient city of Babylon.

During the colonial era, many artefacts from Iraq were illegally removed during archaeological excavations. These artefacts ended up in museums in Europe and America.

One of the more famous thefts occurred while German archaeologists were working at Babylon from 1904 to 1914. During this time, the entire Ishtar gate and sections of the tiled-Processional Way were removed from Babylon and sent to German. The gate was reconstructed inside the Pergamon Museum in Berlin where it can be seen today.

The Iraq Museum has called for all artefacts to be returned to Iraq. In the meantime, the museum includes one lion from the Processional Way at Babylon.

The precious relics housed in the Iraq museum have not been spared from the ravages of recent wars. On April 8, 2003 (during the 2nd Gulf War) museum staff were ordered to leave the museum. Days later, the museum was looted with 15,000 objects being stolen. The steel exterior doors were not forced – it was an inside job. The looting ended once U.S. forces arrived on April 16.

After being closed for many years while being refurbished, and rarely open for public viewing, the museum was officially reopened in February 2015. It is a highlight of Iraq and should not be missed.


Access:

Tickets (predictably) cost IQD5,000 for foreigners!

Opening times are not as indicated on Google – best to call ahead. 


Copper Market (Al-Safafeer Souk)

The copper market at Al-Safafeer souk is a highlight of the bustling Baghdad bizarre.

The copper market at Al-Safafeer souk is a highlight of the bustling Baghdad bizarre.

For more than 300 years, copper merchants at the Al-Safafeer souk in the heart of Baghdad have been selling hand-crafted copperware.

Copper artisan at the al-Safafeer copper market in Baghdad.

Copper artisan at the al-Safafeer copper market in Baghdad.

The name of the souk is derived from ‘safra’  the Arabic word for copper.

A friendly copper merchant at the Al-Safafeer copper market in Baghdad.

A friendly copper merchant at the Al-Safafeer copper market in Baghdad.

The copper market is lined with shops which are stuffed to the rafters with every sort of copperware imaginable. The friendly merchants will do their best to ensure you don’t leave empty-handed!

An Aladdin's Cave of copperware at the Baghdad copper market.

An Aladdin’s Cave of copperware at the Baghdad copper market.

While it can be difficult to locate in the rabbit-warren of chaotic alleyways which comprises the sprawling Baghdad souk, the copper market occupies a 500-metre-long souk which is a short walk from the Madrassa al-Mustansiri­ya and Al-Mutanabi street – the famous street of the book sellers.

An artisan, engraving a copper platter at the Al-Safafeer copper market in Baghdad.

An artisan, engraving a copper platter at the Al-Safafeer copper market in Baghdad.

Mustansiriya Madrasah

A view of the main entrance to the Mustansiriya Madrasah.

A view of the main entrance to the Mustansiriya Madrasah.

A short stroll along the banks of the Tigris River from the copper market, a hidden entrance leads you into another world – a tranquil oasis in the middle of the bustling souk.

The beautiful Mustansiriya Madrasah was established in 1227 CE, on the banks of the Tigris River, as a learning centre.

The courtyard of the 13th-century Mustansiriya Madrasah in central Baghdad.

The courtyard of the 13th-century Mustansiriya Madrasah in central Baghdad.

The Madrasa taught many different subjects, including medicine, math, literature, grammar, philosophy, and Islamic religious studies. However, the major focus of education was Islamic law.

A view of the Mustansiriya Madrasah, a former Islamic centre of learning.

A view of the Mustansiriya Madrasah, a former Islamic centre of learning.

The Madrasah has seen many ups and downs during its history, including being sacked by Genghis Khan during his invasion of Baghdad in 1258.

The Mustansiriya Madrasah, which is slowly being restored, features the most beautiful of Islamic architecture.

The Mustansiriya Madrasah, which is slowly being restored, features the most beautiful of Islamic architecture.

Today, this historic complex is slowly being restored.

At the time of my visit, I had the entire complex to myself – an oasis of calm! A good time to visit is during the call-to-prayer, which rings out over the entire complex from the adjacent mosque.


Access:  Open during daylight hours, the madrasah is located on the banks of the Tigris River, alongside the Al-Shuhada Bridge.

Like everywhere else in Iraq, entrance tickets cost IQD5,000.


Babylon

The very garish Ishtar Gate, the main entrance to ancient Babylon, is a modern reproduction, built under the orders of Saddam Hussein.

The very garish Ishtar Gate, the main entrance to ancient Babylon, is a modern reproduction, built under the orders of Saddam Hussein.

Ancient Babylon

The modern walls of ancient Babylon were constructed in the 1980's under orders from Saddam Hussein.

The modern walls of ancient Babylon were constructed in the 1980’s under orders from Saddam Hussein.

Babylon, or Babel, is one of the most famous cities of antiquity and was considered one of the world’s greatest cities from the 18th to the 6th Century BCE.

Babylon served as the capital of southern Mesopotamia and Assyria (Northern Iraq) from the 2nd millennium to the 1st millennium BCE and later as the capital of the Neo-Babylonian empire in the 7th and 6th Centuries BCE. It was occupied by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE

From the Tower of Babel to the Hanging Gardens, the grandeur and spender of Babylon has provided humanity with plenty of stories and myths.

The walls of Babylon were reconstructed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980's.

The walls of Babylon were reconstructed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s.

The city reached the height of its splendour during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar II, the second king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. He reigned from 605 BC to his death in 562 BC. Historically known as Nebuchadnezzar the Great, he is regarded as the empire’s greatest king.

Nebuchadrezzar’s Babylon was the largest city in the world, covering about 10 square km (4 square miles), the first city in the world to have a population in excess of 200,000 inhabitants.

The Euphrates, which has since shifted its course, once flowed through the centre of the city. In its heyday, Babylon was considered the capital of the known world.

The labyrinth, which Nebuchadnezzar had built around his palace, can be clearly seen here.

The labyrinth, which Nebuchadnezzar had built around his palace, can be clearly seen here.

One interesting aspect of Babylon is the walled labyrinth which Nebuchadnezzar had built around his palace. A very effective security system, which made it impossible for would-be attackers to reach the palace.

A view from inside the labyrinth which surrounds the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II at Babylon.

A view from inside the labyrinth which surrounds the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II at Babylon.

As you walk through the labyrinth, corridors narrow, eventually reaching dead-ends. You then have to find your way back to your starting point which is very difficult. Very clever!

During his rule, Saddam Hussein became obsessed with Nebuchadnezzar, who is notorious for waging bloody wars to seize large swaths of current-day Iran and Israel.

Saddam saw himself as a modern reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar, and to prove it, he spent millions building a massive reconstruction of Babylon – an ill-conceived project which has forever damaged the sight.

The walls of Babylon were reconstructed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980's.

The walls of Babylon were reconstructed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s.

During the 1980’s, while the Iran-Iraq War was being fought, Saddam ordered new, higher walls to be built over the top of the original walls.

In the above image, you can see the original walls which are about 1-2 metres in height, with the newer, neater, walls from the 1980’s built over the top.

The walls of Babylon were reconstructed by Saddam Hussein in the 1980's.

Modern bricks at Babylon which have been stamped with Saddam Hussein’s name.

When archaeologists told Saddam that ancient kings had stamped their names on Babylon’s bricks, Saddam insisted that his own name be stamped on the bricks used in the reconstruction.

Bricks laid during the reconstruction bear Arabic script which translates as:

‘In the reign of the victorious Saddam Hussein, the president of the Republic, may God keep him, the guardian of the great Iraq and the renovator of its renaissance and the builder of its great civilization, the rebuilding of the great city of Babylon was done in 1987.”

As part of the strengthening of the city’s defensive walls, each ruler of Babylon increased the height of the walls. Saddam decided to out-do them all by ordering the new walls to be built to an improbable height of 11.5m (38ft).

An ancient brick at Babylon, which has been stamped with the name of a former ruler.

An ancient brick at Babylon, which has been stamped with the name of a former ruler.

Today, these towering walls overlook empty, dusty courtyards. During my visit the temperature was around 50 degrees Celsius, with the walls at least providing some shady relief from the blistering heat.

Saddam clearly saw Babylon as a personal Disneyland, with the tackiness reaching its zenith with the reconstructed Ishtar Gate, the main access point which is the first stop for all visitors.

A map at Babylon, showing the ancient cities of Iraq.

A map at Babylon, showing the ancient cities of Iraq.

Today, Babylon is open for tourists with one of the government guides being a lifetime resident of the area.

He told me his entire village was evicted from their hilltop location in the 1990’s, when Saddam decided the hill would be the perfect location for his Babylon Palace (see next section).


Access: 

Located on the Euphrates River, 88 km (55 miles) south of Baghdad via a fast highway, Babylon lies on the outskirts of the modern city of Al-Hillah.

If you’re travelling from Baghdad via shared taxi, you should take a taxi to ‘Hillah‘ (IQD???). From Hillah, Babylon is a 10-minute drive.

There are no services (restaurants, shops, cafes etc) at Babylon. In the blistering heat, you should ensure you are carrying lots of water.  

Entrance tickets cost IQD25,000!


Saddam’s Babylon Palace

Built in the style of a Ziggurat, Saddam Hussein’s palace overlooks the ruins of Babylon.

Built in the style of a Ziggurat, Saddam Hussein’s palace overlooks the ruins of Babylon.

During his reign, it’s estimated that Saddam Hussein had 100 palaces constructed throughout Iraq. One of the most important was his palace at Babylon

A view of ancient Babylon from Saddam Hussein's palace complex.

A view of ancient Babylon from Saddam Hussein’s palace complex.

The palace, which is modelled on an ancient Ziggurat (a Mesopotamian, rectangular stepped tower) was built on a hill which lies adjacent to the ancient city.

A view of the Euphrates, and an extensive date palmerie, from the balcony of Saddam Hussein's palace in Babylon.

A view of the Euphrates, and an extensive date palmerie, from the balcony of Saddam Hussein’s palace in Babylon.

As he considered himself to be ‘above’ all other rulers of Iraq – both ancient and modern – he saw it as fitting that his palace should be built on higher ground, so he could look down upon Babylon!

The front of Saddam Hussein's Babylon palace - one of more than 100 palaces he built across Iraq.

The front of Saddam Hussein’s Babylon palace – one of more than 100 palaces he built across Iraq.

The palace, which was built during the economic embargo in the wake of the 1st Gulf War (1991), required the eviction of an entire village.

A palace door lintel features a bust of Saddam Hussein in an ancient, Babylonian, setting.

A palace door lintel features a bust of Saddam Hussein in an ancient, Babylonian, setting.

One of these villagers is currently working as a guide at Babylon and is full of interesting stories from the time of Saddam.

A view of one of the many rooms of the palace, all of which feature marble floors.

A view of one of the many rooms of the palace, all of which feature marble floors.

The many rooms of the palace, which today lay in ruin, feature marble floors, timber panelling and broken chandeliers. Anything that could have been looted was removed years ago.

A former dining hall, with marble-mosaic floors, and walls covered in graffiti, inside Saddam's Babylon Palace.

A former dining hall, with marble-mosaic floors, and walls covered in graffiti, inside Saddam’s Babylon Palace.

During the 2nd Gulf War, from 2003 to 2011, U.S. and Polish forces used the palace as their headquarters and did not allow citizens to visit it.

The former bedroom of Saddam Hussein, who reportedly stayed in the palace on just one occasion.

The former bedroom of Saddam Hussein, who reportedly stayed in the palace on just one occasion.

After 2011, Iraqis were finally given access to the palace, which today is open to the elements and in a state of slow decay.

A former, marble-clad, bathroom is now covered in graffiti.

A former, marble-clad, bathroom is now covered in graffiti.

The graffiti-covered walls bear testament to the many visitors who have passed through the palace since 2003, with English, Polish and Arabic graffiti to be found throughout.

One piece of artwork which remains untouched is a ceiling fresco which lies in the centre of the throne room. This fresco features scenes from Babylon and the other ancient cities of Mesopotamia.

A view of the throne room at Saddam Hussein's Babylon palace.

A view of the throne room at Saddam Hussein’s Babylon palace.

It is rumoured that Saddam Hussein came to the palace, which reportedly took four years to build, only once. A special access road was built for him, which was also used just once!

A view of the former palace swimming pool from the master bedroom.

A view of the former palace swimming pool from the master bedroom.

The exterior walls of the palace feature are engraved with the initials of Saddam Hussein in Arab script.

The arabesque initials of Saddam Hussein line the exterior walls of the palace.

The arabesque initials of Saddam Hussein line the exterior walls of the palace.

Samarra

Located 95 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad, Samarra is an ancient city which is home to a number of important sights, including the Great Mosque of Samarra and the Al-Askari Shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims.

Samarra served as the second capital of the Abbasid Caliphate after Baghdad, ruling over the provinces of the Abbasid Empire which extended from Tunisia to Central Asia.


Despite its close proximity to Baghdad, the journey to/ from Samarra can take more than 2 hours due to the woeful condition of National Highway #1. A poorly maintained highway which is highly congested, improvement works are currently being performed.

I travelled to Samarra, with my guide Fahad, in a shared taxi.

During the journey, a small KIA truck lost two of its rear tyres while travelling, at speed, in the opposite direction.

These rogue, out-of-control, tyres came flying across the highway and slammed into the front of our taxi, completely destroying all of the front panels.

Luckily, there was no damage to the engine and no one was injured. I was sitting in the front passenger seat and watched it all, in what seemed like slow motion.

Our damaged taxi, after it was slammed by two runaway tyres.

Our damaged taxi, after it was slammed by two runaway tyres.

In a country where no one has insurance, the process of compensation is that the driver at fault must make a cash payment to the victim before leaving the scene. The driver of the truck agreed to pay the equivalent of US$150, which was the amount the taxi driver claimed would be required to replace the damaged panels.

The rouge tyres of course didn’t just hit our taxi. Also standing in line, waiting to make their claims, were two other drivers whose cars had been damaged.

Hopefully the truck driver had deep pockets!


Great Mosque of Samarra

A highlight of Samarra is the iconic Malwiya (Arabic for "twisted") Minaret.

A highlight of Samarra is the iconic Malwiya (Arabic for “twisted”) Minaret.

Located close to the banks of the Tigris River, the Great Mosque of Samarra was built in the 9th century, on the orders of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil, who moved to Samarra to escape conflict with the local population in Baghdad.

A view of the former Great Mosque of Samarra, once the largest mosque in the world, from the top of the adjacent minaret.

A view of the former Great Mosque of Samarra, once the largest mosque in the world, from the top of the adjacent minaret.

Al-Mutawakkil remained in Samarra for the next 56 years, where he built many palaces and the largest mosque in all of Islam. The Great Mosque remained the largest mosque in the world for the next 400 years before it was destroyed by the armies of the Mongol ruler Hulagu Khan in 1278 CE.

The Malwiya minaret is featured on the back of the IQD250 banknote.

The Malwiya minaret is featured on the back of the IQD250 banknote.

The outer walls and the imposing 52-metre-high minaret is all that remains of this once ‘Great Mosque’.

The mosque has a rectangular layout encompassed by an outer brick wall, 10 m high and 2.65 m thick, and supported by a total of 44 semi-circular towers.

A group of Iraqi tourists, descending the Malwiya minaret at Samarra.

A group of Iraqi tourists, descending the Malwiya minaret at Samarra.

Adjacent to the mosque stands the Malwiya minaret with its vast spiralling cone 52 m high and 33 m wide at the base.

At the top of the tower rests a round vestibule, which is adorned with eight pointed-arched niches.

It is possible to walk all the way to the top along the spiralling path – a challenge for anyone who suffers from vertigo. The desert winds towards the top of the tower can become fierce and, at times, seem determined to blow you off the tower.

An intrepid Thai traveller, and his Iraqi guide, waving from the Malwiya minaret.

An intrepid Thai traveller, and his Iraqi guide, waving from the Malwiya minaret.

It is rumoured that the caliph, Al-Mutawakkil, liked to ride his donkey to the top of the tower to enjoy the view.

The minaret was partially destroyed in April 2005, when insurgents bombed the tower because US troops had been using it as a lookout position.

The Samarra Archaeological City was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007.

Al-Askari Shrine

A view of the main dome, and shrine, at the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

A view of the main dome, and shrine, at the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

Samarra is also home to the dazzling Al-Askari Shrine, one of the holy shrines for Shia Muslims, who come in their millions each year to pray at the holy shrine.

A view of the main dome, and shrine, at the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

A view of the main dome, and shrine, at the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

The shrine contains the mausoleums of two Imams – Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari, the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams, respectively.

The truly dazzling interior of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

The truly dazzling interior of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

It is also the site from where Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the “Hidden Imam“, reportedly went into the Occultation as per Shia belief.

A view of the main dome, which covers the shrine inside the Al-Askari Shrine.

A view of the main dome, which covers the shrine inside the Al-Askari Shrine.

The Shia believe that Muhammad al-Mahdi will one day re-appear as a messiah and bring salvation to Shiite believers.

An incredible sight, the lavish shrine inside the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

An incredible sight, the lavish shrine inside the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

Due to this, the Al-Askari Shrine is an important pilgrimage centre for Shias, drawing millions of Shia pilgrims each year, especially from Iran and Iraq.

Worshippers, relaxing on the carpeted floor of the air-conditioned Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

Worshippers, relaxing on the carpeted floor of the air-conditioned Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

Aware of its importance to the Shia, in 2006, al-Qaeda bombed the mosque, destroying its resplendent central golden dome.

A panoramic view of the interior of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

A panoramic view of the interior of the Al-Askari Shrine in Samarra.

A year later, ISIS, who were born out of al-Qaeda targeted the mosque again in a 2nd bombing which had the sinister aim of plunging Iraq into a new civil war. Predictably, violence ensued!

Detail of one of the many domes inside the Al-Askari Shrine.

Detail of one of the many domes inside the Al-Askari Shrine.

Today, peace is kept in Samarra by the presence of a local militia, who ensure anyone entering town is registered. All vehicles are inspected to ensure weapons do not enter Samarra.

Shia pilgrims, outside the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, with the newly rebuilt golden dome in the background.

Shia pilgrims, outside the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, with the newly rebuilt golden dome in the background.

Karbala

Imam Hussain Holy Shrine

Each year, millions of Shia pilgrims visit the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

Each year, millions of Shia pilgrims visit the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

One of two holy sites located in the centre of Karbala, the Imam Hussain Shrine is the mosque and burial site of Hussain ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shia Islam.

One of the many entrances to the very crowded Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

One of the many entrances to the very crowded Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

Imam Hussain, who was a grandson of Muhammad, was buried at this location in 680 CE, following the battle of Karbala. The city of Karbala grew around the burial site.

Details of an entrance portal at the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

Details of an entrance portal at the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

The tomb of Hussain is one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, outside of Mecca and Medina, and many make pilgrimages to the site.

Every year, millions of pilgrims visit the city to observe Ashura, which marks the commemoration of Hussain’s death for all Muslims.

A view of the busy mosque at the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

A view of the busy mosque at the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

Security

Due to a number of suicide bombings (2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010), security around the whole centre of Karbala is very tight with everyone required to pass through airport-style security.

Vehicles are excluded from an area of about 1 km in radius around the shrines.

No large cameras or bags of any sort are allowed inside the mosque. There are lockers where such items can be stored. The only thing you can take inside the mosque is a smart phone, which can be used for photography.

Moving through the vast mosque at the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

Moving through the vast mosque at the Imam Hussain Shrine in Karbala.

A 200-metre-long covered walkway links the shrine to the nearby Al Abbas Holy Shrine.

Al Abbas Holy Shrine

Dazzling in its beauty, the mausoleum of Abbas ibn Ali is the centrepiece of the Al-Abbas Shrine in Karbala.

Dazzling in its beauty, the mausoleum of Abbas ibn Ali is the centrepiece of the Al-Abbas Shrine in Karbala.

Located just 200 metres from the Imam Hussain Holy Shrine, the Al-Abbas Shrine is a mosque and mausoleum of Abbas ibn Ali – an especially holy place for Shia Muslims.

Worshippers praying at the shrine of Abbas ibn Ali.

Worshippers praying at the shrine of Abbas ibn Ali.

Abbas was the son of Ali ibn Abi Talib and the half-brother of Imam Hasan and Imam Hussain. In 680 CE, Al-Abbas was buried at this location.

The shrine is revered by Shia Muslims, who visit it in their millions each year.

The Holy Shrine of al-Abbas in Karbala.

The Holy Shrine of al-Abbas in Karbala.

Security

Due to past suicide bombings which occurred in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008, security around the shrines is very tight. The whole of downtown Karbala is locked down behind a security cordon which restricts the entry of unauthorised vehicles and requires all pedestrians to pass through airport-style security screening.

Entering the inner-sanctuary at the al-Abbas shrine in Karbala.

Entering the inner-sanctuary at the al-Abbas shrine in Karbala.

If you’re staying in Karbala, I advise you to book a hotel away from the centre, unless you wish to walk 1-2 km with your luggage. Most taxis are not authorised to enter the security zone. See the ‘Accommodation‘ section below for more details.

Worshippers at the Holy Shrine of al-Abbas in Karbala.

Worshippers at the Holy Shrine of al-Abbas in Karbala.

Photography

You cannot enter the shrines with large cameras or any type of luggage, bags etc. Everything must be placed in a locker.

You are able to carry a mobile phone for recording purposes.

The shrines are full of pilgrims taking selfies.

One of the gold-plated entrances to the Holy Shrine of al-Abbas in Karbala.

One of the gold-plated entrances to the Holy Shrine of al-Abbas in Karbala.


Video: I filmed this video outside the al-Abbas shrine which shows a procession of self-flagellating pilgrims.

 

 

The atmosphere inside and outside the Al-Abbas Shrine is especially charged thanks to the continuous holy processions which first start outside the mosque, then pass through it, before exiting again.


Video: I filmed this video inside the al-Abbas shrine which shows one of the many pilgrim processions which pass through the shrine.

The atmosphere inside the mosque as the noisy, energetic parades pass through has to be experienced first-hand. Truly amazing!

Self-flagellation is a popular way for devotees to show they share the suffering of Ali. Most processions feature loud pray music, lots of flagellation and the waving of Shia flags, some of which bear images of Ali.

 


 

Gold-plated bricks at the entrance to the Holy Shrine of al-Abbas.

Gold-plated bricks at the entrance to the Holy Shrine of al-Abbas.

Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir

The Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir looms large in its remote desert setting, 50 km from Karbala.

The Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir looms large in its remote desert setting, 50 km from Karbala.

Standing in splendid isolation in a remote desert setting, 50 km from Karbala, alongside the highway which links Iraq to Saudi Arabia, is the incredibly imposing Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir.

The outer, 17-metre-high, defensive walls of Al-Ukhaidir Fortress are constructed from limestone slabs.

The outer, 17-metre-high, defensive walls of Al-Ukhaidir Fortress are constructed from limestone slabs.

Featured on the back of the IQD5,000 banknote, the fortress was erected in 775 CE by the Abbasids and is especially notable for its many architectural innovations.

Al-Ukhaidir Fortress is featured on the IQD5,000 banknote.

Al-Ukhaidir Fortress is featured on the IQD5,000 banknote.

Surrounded by a continuous, 17-metre-high limestone wall, the fortress measures 176-metres in length and 146-metres in width.

The centre of Al-Ukhaidir Fortress is occupied by the court of honour (right side).

The centre of Al-Ukhaidir Fortress is occupied by the court of honour (right side).

The fortress was built on an ancient trade route which connected Iraq with the outside world. Contained within the walls are a main hall, court of honour, a mosque, and a large Iwan (i.e. a courtyard surrounded by multi-level, arched, walls).

Views of Al-Ukhaidir Fortress, which showcases Abbasid archaeological innovation.

Views of Al-Ukhaidir Fortress, which showcases Abbasid archaeological innovation.

Along this route, there were many constructions, which were important stations for travellers and caravans. The fortress functioned as a military post and a Caravanserai, being able to accommodate teams of traders and their camels.

An ideal movie set, waiting to be discovered by Hollywood.

An ideal movie set, waiting to be discovered by Hollywood.

The fortress, which is also classed as a palace, is unique in its architectural wealth that incorporates some of the key innovations of the time – innovations that greatly impacted the development of Muslim as well as non-Muslim architecture.

The first of its kind, a fluted-dome at the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir.

The first of its kind, a fluted-dome at the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir.

Because of its wealth of architectural innovation, the fortress has, over the years, attracted much academic interest, particularly from German, French and British archaeologists and architects.

The 'Iwan' at Al-Ukhaidir Fortress.

The ‘Iwan’ at Al-Ukhaidir Fortress.

Excavations at Al-Ukhaidir were first conducted in the early 20th century by English archaeologist, Gertrude Bell, who wrote the first major report on the remains.

The vault of the mosque portico, showing the innovative, flattened, decorative arches.

The vault of the mosque portico, showing the innovative, flattened, decorative arches.

A highlight of the Al-Ukhaidir fortress are the decorated arches of the mosque portico which glow in the afternoon light.

The decorated arches of the mosque portico at Al-Ukhaidir fortress.

The decorated arches of the mosque portico at Al-Ukhaidir fortress.

Oozing loads of desert charm, Al-Ukhaidir fortress is an ideal film set, just waiting to be discovered by a Hollywood director!

With its neutral tones and magical lighting, the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir is a photographer's dream.

With its neutral tones and magical lighting, the Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir is a photographer’s dream.


Access

Getting There: A private taxi from Karbala cost me IQD40,000 for the return trip.

There are no transport options from the fortress so the driver waited for us.

Actually – our driver joined us as we toured the fortress and was very keen to take selfies with me in different locations! It was another wonderful memory of Iraq and the Iraqis. 

Tickets: Entry to the fortress cost IQD25,000 (for foreigners) which is the standard price of admission to most sights in Iraq.


Najaf

Najaf is located 165 km southwest of Baghdad and 77 km southeast of Karbala. It is home to the Imam Ali Shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shia Muslims. The shrine attracts around 8 million pilgrims per year, mainly from Iran.

Najaf is widely considered amongst the holiest cities of Shia Islam and one of its spiritual capitals. A city of 1,000,000 inhabitants, Najaf developed around the Imam Ali Shrine, which lies at its centre and is surrounded by a tight rabbit-warren of laneways which is the Najaf souk.

Selecting material for a new shirt from a tailor in Najaf souk.

Selecting material for a new shirt from a tailor in Najaf souk.

While in Najaf, I had a new shirt made by one of the many tailors inside the souk. Using fine cotton from Turkey, my shirt was made in 24 hours and cost about US$15.


Tip:

If you wish to fly from Iraq to Iran, or vice versa, you’ll find a good choice of airlines providing connections between Najaf and most cities in Iran. Shia pilgrims from Iran arrive in Najaf by the planeload!  

Iraqi VOA’s (Visa-on-Arrival) are available at Najaf airport – please refer to the ‘Visa Requirements‘ and ‘Getting There‘ sections below for more details.


Imam Ali Shrine

The shrine of Imam Ali, contains the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was a cousin of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and later became his son-in-law.

The shrine of Imam Ali, contains the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib. He was a cousin of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and later became his son-in-law.

A truly opulent and dazzling sight – the Imam Ali Shrine, also known as the Mosque of Ali, draws around 8 million Shi’ite pilgrims each year to the city of Najaf.

A view of the opulent interior of the Imam Ali Shrine, a highlight of Najaf.

A view of the opulent interior of the Imam Ali Shrine, a highlight of Najaf.

Shia Muslims believe the shrine contains the tomb of Ali ibn Abi Talib, a cousin of the Islamic prophet Muhammad who later became his son-in-law. The Shias consider Ali as their first Imam.

Pilgrims at the Shrine of Imam Ali.

Pilgrims at the Shrine of Imam Ali.

According to Shi’ite belief, buried next to Ali within this mosque are the remains of Adam and Noah (he of the ark).

The interior of the Imam Ali Shrine features large prayer halls, carpeted with the finest of Iranian silk carpets.

The interior of the Imam Ali Shrine features large prayer halls, carpeted with the finest of Iranian silk carpets.

For all Muslims, including the Shia, the four holiest sites in Islam are Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia, the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

The Shrine of Imam Ali attracts around 8 million pilgrims each year.

The Shrine of Imam Ali attracts around 8 million pilgrims each year.

Of the holy sites accepted by Shia Muslims, the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf is considered the holiest. 

A truly dazzling sight and a photographer's dream.

A truly dazzling sight and a photographer’s dream.

The original shrine to Imam Ali was built on the site in 786 CE and has been enhanced through the ages by a list of who’s who.

The interior of the Imam Ali Shrine is truly opulent.

The interior of the Imam Ali Shrine is truly opulent.

The renown Moroccan traveller and explorer, Ibn Battuta (who travelled more widely than Marco Polo but received much less publicity), visited the shrine in 1326 CE and commented on its opulence in his travel dairies.

Interior view of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf - a spectacular sight.

Interior view of the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf – a spectacular sight.

The famed conqueror Timur (aka Tamerlane), who founded the Timurid Empire in Central Asia, ordered the restoration of the shrine after a fire destroyed it in 1354 CE.

Entering the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

Entering the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf.

Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, offered substantial gifts to the shrine during a visit in 1534.

A view of the golden dome and golden minarets of the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

A view of the golden dome and golden minarets of the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf.

The mosque is famous for its large golden dome, which is covered in 7,777 gold-covered bricks. The dome is flanked by twin 38 m (125 ft) tall minarets, also covered in golden bricks. A truly impressive sight!

The entire front of the Shrine of Iman Ali is covered in gold-plated bricks.

The entire front of the Shrine of Iman Ali is covered in gold-plated bricks.

Wadi Al-Salam Cemetery

The World's largest cemetery, Wadi Al Salam in Najaf, the resting place of 6 million souls.

The World’s largest cemetery, Wadi Al Salam in Najaf, the resting place of 6 million souls.

Wadi-al-Salaam (‘Valley of Peace’) has the distinction of being the largest cemetery in the world, covering 6 km2 (2.32 square miles). It is the final resting place of 6 million bodies and continues to grow each day.

The cemetery is located a short walk from the Imam Ali Holy Shrine, thus, many Shi’ites in Iraq request that they be buried in this cemetery, so that they are close to Ali. It is believed that being close to Ali will aid one’s journey to heaven.

Kufa

Once a town in its own right, Kufa is now another suburb of the much larger, sprawling Najaf. The sights of Kufa can be reached by taxi from downtown Najaf.

Grand Mosque of Kufa

A view of the central dome, and the Shrine of Hani ibn Urwa, at the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

A view of the central dome, and the Shrine of Hani ibn Urwa, at the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

Located on the outskirts of Najaf, in the city of Kufa, the Great Mosque of Kufa is one of the earliest and holiest surviving mosques in the world.

A view of the central courtyard and the two, fully tiled, minarets at the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

A view of the central courtyard and the two, fully tiled, minarets at the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

Built in the 7th century, the mosque was home to Ali ibn Abi Talib, and contains the holy shrine of Muslim Bin Aqeel, his companion Hani ibn Urwa; and the revolutionary, Al-Mukhtar.

The mosque is an important stop for visiting Shia pilgrims, although it’s nowhere near as busy as the headline shrines in Najaf and Karbala.

The holy shrine of Muslim ibn Aqeel at the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

The holy shrine of Muslim ibn Aqeel at the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

There is a legend that says the mosque was built on the site of a temple which was constructed by Adam, while another claims that Adam’s bones were buried on the site, having been carried by Noah on board the Ark.

The site is identified in Shia Islam as the place where Noah built his Ark.

A pilgrim prays at the Shrine of Muslim Bin Aqeel, inside the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

A pilgrim prays at the Shrine of Muslim Bin Aqeel, inside the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

Also housed inside the mosque is the Shrine of Al-Mukhtar, a Saudi-born revolutionary who led a rebellion against the Umayyad Caliphate in 685 and ruled over most of Iraq for eighteen months.

The Shrine of Al-Mukhtar, a revolutionary, inside the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

The Shrine of Al-Mukhtar, a revolutionary, inside the Grand Mosque of Kufa.

Al-Sahlah Mosque

The intricate, tiled, central dome of Al-Sahlah Mosque in Kufa.

The intricate, tiled, central dome of Al-Sahlah Mosque in Kufa.

The Al-Sahlah Mosque is one of the primary mosques in the city of Kufa.

The mosque is of great importance to Shia Muslims, and it is believed that it was initially established in Kufa as a neighbourhood mosque for the followers of Ali, the early members of the Shia.

The main tiled dome at Al-Sahlah Mosque is surrounded by 12 smaller tiled domes, representing the 12th Imam.

The main tiled dome at Al-Sahlah Mosque is surrounded by 12 smaller tiled domes, representing the 12th Imam.

The mosque is also said to be the future home of the 12th Shia Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, known as the “Hidden Imam“, who the Shia believe will return as a messiah and bring salvation to Shiite believers.

Worshippers at Al-Sahlah Mosque in Kufa, Iraq.

Worshippers at Al-Sahlah Mosque in Kufa, Iraq.

The main feature of the mosque are the elaborate tiled domes with one very large, central dome, surrounded by 12, smaller, domes – representing the 12th Imam.

Accommodation

A view of the atrium of the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

A view of the atrium of the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

There are plenty of accommodation options in Iraq, from top-end hotels to budget hostels. Two Online Travel Agents (OTA’s) which operate in Iraq are booking.com, which currently has 102 properties listed on their website, and agoda.com.


Power Outages

One noticeable aspect of life in Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, are the frequent power outages. These occur on an almost hourly basis, but are normally very brief.

Almost all hotels feature lifts which come to a halt during these outages. Riding a lift anywhere in Iraq is made all the more uncertain due to the constant power outages. They do spring back to life once power is recovered. 

A potential nightmare for any visiting claustrophobes! 


Baghdad

My room in the spacious suite at the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

My room in the spacious suite at the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

While in Baghdad, I stayed at the highly recommended Andalus Hotel Suites where a standard room costs US$75 per night, which includes an excellent buffet breakfast, which is served in their rooftop restaurant.

An ideal workspace while in Baghdad - the living room of my suite at the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

An ideal workspace while in Baghdad – the living room of my suite at the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

Slightly discounted rates are offered through booking.com.

During my 10 days at the hotel, I stayed in one of their suites and one of their standard rooms. I have included photos of both room types. The 2-bedroom suites are ideal for families or friends travelling together. Very spacious!

My cosy 'standard' room at the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

My cosy ‘standard’ room at the Andalus Hotel Suites in Baghdad.

While the rooms are super comfortable, the highlight of the hotel is the rooftop restaurant which serves the most amazing Iraqi & Western food with a view over the Tigris River.

It is especially popular with locals who come to dine in the evenings, while enjoying sunset views over the river.

The hotel is managed by the highly capable, professional and welcoming Mr Khaled Allouzi, a Jordanian native who has worked extensively in hotels throughout the Middle East.

Very attentive, Khaled is THE consummate host, ensuring guests are made to feel welcome, and enjoy their stay while at the Andalus Hotel.


Tip: Baghdad can be used as a base for day trips to Samarra, Babylon, Najaf and Karbala, all of which lie about one hour away by shared taxi. 


Karbala

The lobby of the Dur Kassir Alkadhimiya Hotel in Karbala.

The lobby of the Dur Kassir Alkadhimiya Hotel in Karbala.


Note: An important consideration when booking hotels in Karbala is that the entire downtown area is enclosed behind a security cordon and is closed to all, but authorised, traffic.

It’s best not to book hotels in the centre of Karbala since most taxis are not authorised to enter the security zone – even though many hotels are located inside the zone.

The security zone is a circle, which is about 1 km in radius, with the two holy shrines at its centre. With my taxi unable to enter the zone, I had to walk the last 1 km to my hotel in the midday heat, when the mercury was peaking at around 50 degrees Celsius!  

Not recommended if you are lugging all your bags! 


Inside the Security Zone

While in Karbala, I stayed at the centrally located Dur Kassir Alkadhimiya Hotel which is inside the security zone. Comfortable rooms cost around USD$80 per night, which includes a typical Iraqi buffet breakfast. The hotel is located a short walk from the two holy shrines and is the preferred accommodation choice for visiting pilgrims.

There are no tourists in Karbala – but there are thousands of pilgrims. During my stay at the hotel, and in Karbala generally, everyone assumed I was on pilgrimage and as such, I was always referred to as ‘Hajji‘, an honorific title which refers to anyone on pilgrimage.

While the Dur Kassir Alkadhimiya is a comfortable hotel, with friendly staff providing a good level of service, it is much easier, and more convenient, to stay elsewhere, outside the security zone, especially if you like to arrive at your hotel in a taxi.

When departing from Dur Kassir Alkadhimiya, reception staff organised for an authorised taxi driver to collect me directly from the hotel.

Outside the Security Zone

Two hotels which are outside the security zone are the Reyhan Karbalaa Hotel (rooms from USD$80 per night) or the Baron Hotel (rooms from USD$120 per night), both of which can be booked through booking.com

Najaf

My room at the Barada Hotel in Najaf.

My room at the Barada Hotel in Najaf.

Like nearby Karbala, the centre of Najaf, or An-Najaf, is enclosed inside a security zone. However, unlike Karbala, the much smaller security zone includes just the Imam Ali Holy Shrine and the surrounding souk. All hotels in Najaf are outside the zone and hence, can be reached by taxi.

While in Najaf, I chose to stay at the very good Barada Hotel where rooms, which can be booked on booking.com, cost around USD$70 per night. The rate includes the usual, Iraqi-style, buffet breakfast which is served in the rooftop restaurant.

The hotel is located opposite the only mall in town, Najaf City Mall, and next to the excellent Maram café, which serves proper Barista coffee with artisan donuts (see the ‘Eating Out‘ section for more on this cafe).

Eating Out

A vendor at Najaf souk, selling trays of sweet and delicious 'Halva Dehin', a speciality of Najaf.

A vendor at Najaf souk, selling trays of sweet and delicious ‘Halva Dehin’, a speciality of Najaf.

Like Iraqi Kurdistan, the cuisine of Iraq is the same as that found throughout the region – lots of kebabs, and other grilled meats, served with freshly baked Khubz (flatbread), pickled vegetables and salad.

Sharing a typical Iraqi lunch of rice and goat with Fahad and his uncle in a restaurant in Hillah.

Sharing a typical Iraqi lunch of rice and goat with Fahad and his uncle in a restaurant in Hillah.

Lunch is the main meal of the day and, in a typical Iraqi restaurant, families and friends gather around low tables, sitting on the floor, eating from communal plates which feature an abundance of pilaf rice, roasted meats such as goat, chicken, lamb and plenty of khubz.

Iraqis eat, using their right hand, from the same communal plate. For foreigners, a plate with utensils will normally be provided.

A typical Iraqi breakfast.

A typical Iraqi breakfast.

Popular breakfast items include boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, freshly made local yoghurt, goat’s cheese with is always served with freshly baked khubz.


Khubz tannour (flatbread)

What rice is to the Asians, Khubz (flatbread) is to the Iraqis – a staple which is served, always freshly baked, at all meals.

Most bakeries in Iraq bake their Khubz using traditional tandoor ovens, known locally as tannour. The bread spends less than one minute inside the oven before its ready to serve!

The following video was taken in a bakery in Sulaimaniyah, where the baker’s worked non-stop, throughout the day, producing a mountain of Khubz.

The finished bread is always laid out on a table at the front of the bakery and disappears as quickly as it’s produced – snapped up by hungry locals.


Restaurants/ Cafés

Baghdad Restaurants

The covered, air-conditioned, "Restaurant Street" inside Baghdad Mall.

The covered, air-conditioned, “Restaurant Street” inside Baghdad Mall.

Iraqis love to eat, and as such, you’ll find dining options on almost every street corner.

A popular dining venue in Baghdad is the covered “Restaurant Street” which is located inside Baghdad Mall. Fully air-conditioned, this cluster of restaurants, which serve regional cuisine, offer respite from the sweltering heat outside.

Watermelon juice served with flair at the rooftop restaurant at the Andalus hotel.

Watermelon juice served with flair at the rooftop restaurant at the Andalus hotel.

One of my favourite options, was the rooftop restaurant at the Andalus hotel in Baghdad (see the ‘Accommodation‘ section for more on this hotel). It was especially handy since I was staying at the hotel!

Offering views over the Tigris River, this is a favourite dining option for Iraqis who can pay a little more for a finer dining experience. The menu features both local and international cuisine.

Each evening, I would order a juice which was always presented differently but always with lots of flair! Highly recommended!

Baghdad Café

The popular Shabandar café, in Baghdad old town, was once devastated by a car bomb.

The popular Shabandar café, in Baghdad old town, was once devastated by a car bomb.

Located on Al-Mutanabbi Street, the heart and soul of Baghdad’s intellectual and cultural community for centuries, the landmark Shabandar café has been serving the writers and intellectuals of Baghdad, and plenty of thirsty tourists, for more than a century.

While it’s calm today, it hasn’t always been the case. In March of 2007, a huge car-bomb suicide attack destroyed the entire neighbourhood. As the car was parked outside the café, the entire building was destroyed.

The elderly owner, Al-Hajj Muhammad Al-Khashali, who still today, sits behind the counter collecting payments for cups of sweet tea, lost four of his sons the moment the bomb exploded!

While others would have given up, he was determined to rebuild the café and not let the terrorists claim victory!

The story of the rebirth of the Shabandar café is a story of modern Iraq, and the determination of Iraqis to rebuild their country in the aftermath of decades of bloody war and acts of terrorism!

Karbala Restaurant

A popular dining option for locals in Karbala is Khan Mandi restaurant, which serves shared platters of fluffy pilaf rice with your choice of protein.

A local chain of sorts, Khan Mandi operates three branches in Iraq – Baghdad, Hillah and Karbala.

Karbala Café

The wonderfully pleasant Caramel Cafe in Karbala is owned by an Iraqi family who spent many years living in Sydney, Australia.

The wonderfully pleasant Caramel Cafe in Karbala is owned by an Iraqi family who spent many years living in Sydney, Australia.

While looking for a caffeine fix one day in Karbala, I stumbled upon the very modern, clean and pleasant Caramel Café on Sinatra street – the street with all the good restaurants and cafes, which is the located in a fancier part of town.

I was surprised to be greeted by the friendly owner, Jawad, who spoke English with an Australian accent.