The Best of Bhutan
The Best of Bhutan
Bhutan is a pretty quiet place. Things happen there at their own pace – which is kind of slowly.
But don't let the peace deceive you. The people of this small, isolated country in the Himalaya know exactly who they are and what they are doing. There is a magic here. It's nestled in the heart of the people, in the spirituality of place and the beauty of the mountains.
Here's just about everything you need to know if you are considering a trip to the Dragon Kingdom: a bit of background, Bhutan's travel highlights and tips on travelling in Bhutan.
A bit of Bhutan background
Where is it?
Bhutan is a small landlocked country in Asia, set in the Himalaya. Situated on the old Silk Road, it is bordered by China to the north and India to the south.
Interesting things about the culture of Bhutan
·Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan in the 7th century AD and it has shaped the national identity.
·The country is presided over by a king, known as the Dragon King.
·It has one of the smallest economies in the world. The main export is hydroelectricity and the country itself is entirely powered by sustainable hydro power.
·The country has a zero carbon footprint and progressive environmental policies that are held up as international examples.
·Archery is the most popular sport and it is practiced across the country with great enthusiasm.
·Bhutan was the first country in the world to ban smoking.
Gross National Happiness
We've all heard of Bhutan's commitment to the poetic concept of Gross National Happiness. But this isn't just idle chat. They take happiness seriously.
Bhutan has been recognised as the least corrupt country in south Asia, as a place that is easy to live in and easy to do business in. It's also one of the least developed countries. 'Undeveloped' and 'uncorrupt' are not found together too often, but in this land, fairness, spirituality, the environment and good governance are all regarded more highly than wealth. This spirit of equality and happiness injects every part of Bhutanese life.
Bhutan's travel highlights
Tigers Nest Monastery
Taktsang, known as the Tigers Nest Monastery, is Bhutan's best-known sight. It might well be one of the world's best known monasteries. Its spectacular location, perched 900 metres off the valley floor, clinging to a narrow ledge on a cliff face, is, well... kind of crazy.
The local history tells of Guru Rinpoche who arrived at the high cave on the back of a winged tigress. He meditated in the holy cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours. A temple complex was established around the cave in 1692.
The bit about the flying tiger actually seems like a pretty likely story when you see the location of this incredible building. You can do a half day hike to gain breathtaking views of the isolated monastery.
The capital of Bhutan is quiet city – with only around 100,000 residents it's one of the smaller capital cities of the world. And there are no traffic lights. The story goes that one traffic light was installed, but it was quickly removed because it was considered too impersonal. Instead, police people direct traffic by hand.
That should give you some idea of what to expect from Thimpu. Visit the giant gold buddha that looks down over the town and call in at the beautiful Tashichho monastery. If you're even slightly into textiles, a a visit to the Textile Museum, with its stunning array of hand woven traditional fabrics, will be a highlight.
Paro is a quiet town that is the location of the country's only international airport – so you'll definitely be visiting Paro at some point in your journey. Paro Dzong is the highlight of this town. It's a monastery, administrative centre and fortress built at the confluence of two major rivers. It's an incredibly scenic location and a beautiful building built on the site of an old monastery founded by Guru Rinpoche.
A culturally rich area, the Haa Valley is accessed by a spectacular drive across high passes, through larch forests and surrounded by towering Himalayan peaks. It's a remote and sacred area that is all but cut off from the rest of the world. In the valley you can relax in the picturesque town and visit the two important temples of the area.
Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1966 and several important buildings are located here, including Punakha Dzong, one of the largest dzongs in the country. While in Punakha, it's also worth visiting nearby Chimi Lhakhang, the fertility temple. Traditionally, women with no children visit this hilltop temple to receive a blessing and there is no shortage of phallic symbols here to reinforce the message.
This is the Himalaya, so of course trekking is on the travel menu. Trekking in Bhutan takes you away from areas accessed by roads, into remote communities, beautiful landscapes and isolated monasteries. This remarkable Himalayan kingdom has some top trekking – such as the trek to Phajoding Monastery, one of the most sacred sites in Bhutan.
Set in high the black mountain ranges, Gangtey is a spectacular place. It is best known as home to Gangtey Gompa, but there is another reason to visit – the birdlife. Twitchers will delight in the array of birdlife that can be spotted on a hike along the Shasila Trail. The avian highlight of the area is the flocks of black-necked cranes that arrive in the valley each November after spending summer in Tibet.
The Bhutanese love a festival – you are bound to see a festival somewhere along your travels. Tshechu is the most important one – it celebrates the birth of Guru Rinpoche and features masked dancers and much socialising. There are mountain festivals, festivals celebrating historical events and the stunning festival of the migrating black-necked cranes at Gangtey Monastery.
Bhutan: facts for travellers
While there are a number of languages spoken in Bhutan, many people speak English well, particularly in the cities.
Bhutanese food is all about chilis, so be prepared for spiciness. Rice is the staple and it's usually served with vegetable dishes including the local favourite, Ema Datshi. It's a delicious mix of chilis and local cheese – some form of this national dish will accompany just about every meal. You'll also find momos (Tibetan-style dumplings), delicious spiced pork and chicken dishes and no shortage of tripe.
There are plenty of beautiful handcrafts to be found in Bhutan – baskets, bowls and hand woven textiles are highlights.
As many excursions in Bhutan will be to monasteries, you'll need a good supply of modest long sleeves and long pants or skirts. And remember to remove your hat before entering a monastery.
Don't plan on being in a hurry as the roads are narrow and often poor quality (but luckily the scenery is sublime).
Psyching for your trip
Watch the 1993 Bernardo Bertolucci film 'Little Buddha' starring Keanu Reeves. It's a story set in Bhutan and parts of it were shot on location in Bhutan, including at the Paro Dzong.
The travel tariff
Bhutan has implemented strict rules about travel designed to support the economy and protect the culture and environment. There is a travel tariff in place dictating a minimum daily cost to travel and a large portion of this fee goes towards the Bhutan's free education and healthcare system. All travel to Bhutan must be organised through an approved tour agency and flights in and out of Bhutan must tie in with tour dates.
Plan and book ahead
Because of all of these rules regarding travel, you'll need to plan and book well in advance to secure your place.
Bhutan is a special country with a clear vision for its way of life and the future of the Bhutanese people. Visiting Bhutan is like looking through a window at an alternate society – a different way of way of being in a pristine environment. It's a privilege to visit. You will be changed by the magic of Bhutan.