Bhutan, for years closed off from the rest of the world, seems like a little slice of Himalayan heaven.
Here, traffic lights donʼt exist (there was one set in capital Thimphu, but they were removed for being unfriendly), strict conservation laws mean trees still cover almost 75% of the country, and productivity is measured in Gross National Happiness.
This is a land of awesome mountains – some of the highest in the world – thick-forested valleys and imposing dzong, monastery fortifications often perched up on cliffsides. Itʼs a place where landscapes are dotted with blue poppies, snow leopards and innumerable banners of bright flapping prayer flags.
Yes, prayers. Bhutan takes its Buddhism seriously. The religion pervades all levels of life, resulting in peaceful temples, red-robed monks scurrying along the streets, a mind-blowing number of deities and legends, and a widespread belief in practising kindness and loving to all sentient beings – what could be better than that?
Pay by the day
Paradise doesnʼt come cheap. In order to maintain the countryʼs pristine nature and spiritual integrity, the government charges a hefty minimum fee to enter the country. Currently, visitors in peak season (February-May and August-December) must pay at least US$200 per person per night; in the low season (January and June-July) the fee is US$165. The government plans to increase the rate to US$250 in 2012.
This cost does cover virtually all your expenses: accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese guide, internal transport and trekking arrangements, should you wish to stretch your legs (the country offers some of the best hiking in the Himalaya).
One caveat: 'accommodation' isnʼt all encompassing. There are some super-luxurious properties in Bhutan that will set you back significantly more on top of the fee. But stay under canvas or in more mid-range lodgings and youʼre covered.
Also note, higher fees apply if you don't travel as a group: single travellers pay an extra US$40 per night, on top of the minimum day rate; couples an extra US$30 per person per night. You might want to find some like-minded friends...
No going solo
A guide, and likely a separate driver, come as standard in Bhutan: independent travel is forbidden.
If thereʼs something you particularly want to experience – a certain tsechu (festival) or maybe an archery lesson (the national sport) – you can tailor-make a trip with the help of a specialist tour operator. But all itineraries must be approved by Bhutanʼs Tourism Council, and accompanied by a local guide.
Your tour operator will also arrange your transport to Bhutan – you cannot book flights independently. Bhutan has just one international airport, at Paro (a scenic, if white-knuckle, landing amid the mountains); flights on national carrier Druk Air fly in from Nepal, India and Thailand. It is also possible to enter overland, but you will still need your travel plans – itinerary, visa etc – arranged in advance by a tour operator.
Is it worth it?
Nepalʼs just over the mountains, and Indiaʼs down south. Both have snow-capped Himalaya and fascinating religions; both are cheap as Cheerios. Is it worth spending all that money on a trip to Bhutan?
Mostly, yes. If you just want a pretty trek in pretty mountains, on a limited budget, spend your rupees elsewhere.
But Bhutan is unique. And who knows for how much longer. In 2008 the country switched from being a kingdom to a democracy, a decision taken by the much-loved King himself. There is a desire to attract more tourists; three regional airports are being built and new areas are opening up, such as Merak Sakten, in the east.
With increased development, and tourist footfall, will this singular, spectacular nation be able to maintain its spiritual and natural allure? Who knows. So visit now – some things are just priceless.