Bhutan is no ordinary place. It is the last great Himalayan kingdom, shrouded in mystery and magic, where a traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces global developments.
Low Volume, High Value Tourism
The Bhutanese pride themselves on a sustainable approach to tourism in line with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Foreign visitors famously pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day, making it seem one of the world's more expensive destinations. However, this fee is all-inclusive – accommodation, food, transport and an official guide are all provided, so it's not a bad deal. You don't have to travel in a large group and you can arrange your own itinerary. What you won't find is budget independent travel.
Bhutan is like nowhere else. This is a country where the rice is red and where chillies aren't just a seasoning but the main ingredient. It's also a deeply Buddhist land, where monks check their smartphones after performing a divination, and where giant protective penises are painted at the entrance to many houses. Yet while it proudly prioritises its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a land frozen in time. You will find the Bhutanese well educated, fun loving and very well informed about the world around them. It's this blending of the ancient and modern that makes Bhutan endlessly fascinating.
The Last Shangri-La?
So why spend your hard-earned money to come here? Firstly, there is the pristine eastern Himalayan landscape, where snow-capped peaks rise above primeval forests and beautiful traditional villages. To this picture-book landscape add majestic fortress-like dzongs and monasteries, many of which act as a stage for spectacular tsechus (dance festivals) attended by an almost medieval-looking audience. Then there are the textiles and handicrafts, outrageous archery competitions, high-altitude trekking trails, and stunning flora and fauna. If it's not 'Shangri-La', it's as close as it gets.
An Environmental Model
Environmental protection goes hand in hand with cultural preservation in Bhutan. By law, at least 60% of the country must remain forested for all future generations; it currently stands above 70%. Not only is Bhutan carbon neutral, but it actually absorbs more carbon than it emits! For the visitor, this translates into lovely forest hikes and superb birding across a chain of national parks. Whether you are spotting takins or blue poppies, trekking beneath 7000m peaks or strolling across hillsides ablaze with spring rhododendron blooms, Bhutan offers one of the last pristine pockets in the entire Himalaya.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bhutan.
Punakha Dzong is arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country, especially in spring when the lilac-coloured jacaranda trees bring a lush sensuality to the dzong's characteristically towering whitewashed walls. This dzong was the second to be built in Bhutan and it served as the capital and seat of government until the mid-1950s. All of Bhutan's kings have been crowned here. The dzong is still the winter residence of the dratshang (official monk body).
This splendid dzong, north of the city on the west bank of the Wang Chhu, dominates the valley, looking out over a cascade of terraced fields. It's Thimphu's grandest building by far, and served as the official seat of the Druk Desi, the head of the secular government that shared power with the religious authorities, from the 18th to the 19th centuries. The dzong was the site of the lavish formal coronation of the fifth king in 2008.
The 'Tiger's Nest Monastery' is one of the Himalaya's most incredible sights, miraculously perched on the side of a sheer cliff 900m above the floor of the Paro valley. Visiting is the goal of most visitors to Bhutan and while getting there involves a bit of uphill legwork, it's well worth the effort. The monastery is a sacred site, so act with respect, removing your shoes and hat before entering any chapels.
This commanding dzong, high above the roaring Mangde Chhu, is perhaps the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan, with a sheer drop to the south that often just disappears into cloud and mist. The rambling assemblage of buildings that comprises the dzong trails down the ridge and is connected by a succession of alley-like corridors, wide stone stairs and beautiful paved courtyards. The southernmost part of the dzong, Chorten Lhakhang, is the location of the first hermitage, built in 1543.
Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan's oldest and most beautiful temples. The main chapel has roots as far back as the 7th century, with additional buildings and a golden roof added in 1839 by the penlop (governor) of Paro and the 25th Je Khenpo. Elderly pilgrims constantly shuffle around the temple spinning its many prayer wheels, making this one of the most charming spots in the Paro valley. Entry is free to foreign tourists since they are paying their daily tariff.
This traditional Bhutanese temple perched like a fortress on a ridge above central Thimphu hums with pilgrim activity. It was established in the 12th century on a site chosen by Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, originally from Ralung in Tibet. Parents come here to get auspicious names for their newborns or blessings for their young children from the protector deity Tamdrin (to the left in the grilled inner sanctum). Children are blessed by a phurba (ritual dagger) and given a sacred thread.
Thimphu's best museum is part of the Royal Textile Academy. It features a stunning display of ancient and modern textiles, and explores the rich traditions of Bhutan's national arts of thagzo (weaving) and tshemzo (embroidery). The ground floor focuses on royal gho s, including the wedding clothes worn by the fourth king and his four wives. The upper floor introduces the major weaving techniques, styles of local dress and types of textiles made by women and men. No photography is allowed.
Paro Dzong ranks as a high point of Bhutanese architecture. The massive buttressed walls that tower over the town are visible throughout the valley, especially when floodlit at night. It was formerly the meeting hall for the National Assembly and now, like most dzongs, houses both the monastic body and district government offices, including the local courts. Most of the chapels are closed to tourists but it's worth a visit for its stunning architecture and views.
An extraordinarily picturesque temple, Gom Kora is located 13km north of Chazam. The lush green fields, the monks' red robes and the temple's yellow roof combine with colourful Buddhist carvings and the rushing river to create an idyllic scene. The correct name for the site is Gomphu Kora. Gomphu denotes a sacred meditation site of Guru Rinpoche and kora means 'circumambulation'. The Guru meditated here and left a body impression on a rock, similar to that in Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang.
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