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.
Bhutan holds many surprises. This is a country where the rice is red and where chillies aren’t just a seasoning but the main dish. It’s also a deeply Buddhist land, where monks check their smartphones after performing a divination. Yet while it visibly protects its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a museum. It’s this blending of the ancient and modern that makes Bhutan endlessly fascinating.
Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Taktshang Goemba.
Environmental protection goes hand in hand with cultural preservation in Bhutan. By law, at least 60 per cent of the country must remain forested for all future generations; it currently stands above 70 per cent. 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.
Low Volume, High Value Tourism
The Bhutanese pride themselves on a sustainable approach to tourism in line with the Gross National Happiness philosophy. Foreign visitors famously pay a minimum tariff of US$250 (NZ$357) per day, making it seem one of the world’s more expensive destinations. However, the 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.
The Last Shangri La?
So why spend your money to come here? Firstly, there is the amazing Himalayan landscape, where snow-capped peaks rise above shadowy gorges cloaked in primeval forests. Taking up prime positions in this picture-book landscape are the majestic fortress-like dzongs and monasteries. This unique architecture sets the stage for spectacular tsechus (dance festivals). 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.
BHUTAN’S TOP 10
1. Terrific Tsechus
Most of the dzongs and goembas have annual festivals featuring mesmerising dance dramas. The largest of these festivals is the tsechu – with dances in honour of Guru Rinpoche. The dances are performed by monks and laypeople dressed in colourful costumes and painted masks, and the dancers take on aspects of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons and animals. During the dances, atsara (masked clowns) mimic the dancers and perform comic routines, and even harass the audience for money in exchange for a blessing with the wooden phallus they carry!
2. Taktshang Goemba
Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Taktshang Goemba is one of its most venerated religious sites. Legend says that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon; afterwards he meditated here for three months. This beautiful building clings to the sheer cliffs soaring above a whispering pine forest. The steep walk to the monastery is well worthwhile, providing tantalising glimpses of the monastery, views of the Paro valley and splashes of red-blossom rhododendrons.
3. Mountain Treks
Bhutan’s treks are physically demanding but hugely rewarding. They generally reach high altitudes and remote regions, and several are justifiably renowned in trekking circles, including the Jhomolhari trek and Snowman trek. On all treks you will be expertly guided and your pack will be carried by ponies. Trekking takes you beyond the roads and reach of modernisation. Meeting traditionally dressed locals tending their crops and animals according to century-old traditions will be a highlight of your trip.
4. Punakha Dzong
Superbly situated where two rivers converge, Punakha Dzong is the most dramatic and beautiful example of Bhutanese architecture in the country. Visit in spring to see the famous jacaranda trees splash lilac flowers down the whitewashed walls and red-robed monks wandering on a sea of purple petals. The fortress-thick walls are intimidating and are silent one moment, then warmed with the echoes of giggles in another as a horde of young monks head off for a meal.
5. Paro Dzong & National Museum
Paro’s Rinpung Dzong is a hulking example of the fortress-like dzong architecture that glowers protectively over the valley and town. The colourful Paro tsechu is held here in spring; the festival culminates with the unfurling of a thondrol (a huge religious picture) depicting Guru Rinpoche. Above the dzong is an old, round watchtower, the Ta Dzong, now converted into the excellent National Museum, which has an informative and eclectic collection.
6. Arts & Crafts
Bhutan’s pride in its handicrafts is on show at the schools of Zorig Chusum and many handicraft shops. Many items have a utilitarian or religious use, such as bamboo baskets or the exquisite wooden bowls hand-turned from intricately patterned burlwood. Silk, cotton, wool and even yak hair is spun, dyed, woven and stitched into cloth and garments. Bhutan’s rich painting tradition lives on in the form of intricate thangkas (religious pictures), while Bhutanese stamps are must-haves for collectors.
The valleys comprising Bumthang make up the cultural heartland of Bhutan and are ideal for day hikes to monasteries. Bumthang’s ancient goembas, dzongs and temples figured prominently in Bhutan’s early development as well as in the foundation of the unique aspects of Bhutanese Buddhism. Witness the imprint of Guru Rinpoche, hoist Pema Lingpa’s 25kg chain mail, and stare into the churning waters of Membartsho, where Pema Lingpa uncovered hidden treasures.
8. Traditional Textiles
Hand-woven and embroidered textiles are generally recognised as Bhutan’s premier handicraft. Centuries of tradition have honed the techniques of textile dyeing, weaving and stitching. Most of the weavers are women and it is a rare home in Bhutan that does not ‘clunk’ to the sound of a loom. In addition to the National Textile Museum in Thimphu, there are small shops throughout the country – particularly in Bumthang and in the far east – selling vibrant fabrics that make colourful souvenirs.
Bhutan’s national sport is exhilarating and entertaining to watch, with competitions held throughout the year. There are two classes: one for traditional bamboo bows, and another for carbon-fibre bows that propel arrows at astonishing speeds. Near misses, competitive banter and singing and dancing accompany the whoosh of arrows and hoots of delight as the competition heats up.
10. Trongsa Dzong & the Tower of Trongsa Museum
Sprawling down a ridge towards an ominous gorge, Trongsa Dzong sits in a central position in Bhutan’s geography and in its recent history. Both the first and second kings ruled the country from this strategic position. Inside is a labyrinth of many levels, narrow corridors and courtyards. Overlooking the dzong, the Tower of Trongsa Museum is housed in the two-winged watchtower. This excellent museum is dedicated to the history of the dzong and the royal Wangchuck dynasty and has exhibits ranging from personal effects of the royals to Buddhist statues.
NEED TO KNOW
Currency: Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu)
Visas: Arranged by your tour company and issued on arrival only to those on a prepaid all-inclusive tour.
Money: Tours are prepaid so you’ll only need money for drinks, souvenirs and tips: for this, bring cash. ATMs are reliable in Thimphu only. Credit cards are accepted in some shops.
Mobile Phones: As long as your phone is unlocked you can buy a B-Mobile or TashiCell SIM card for both local and international use and top it up with prepaid cards.
WHEN TO GO?
High Season (Mar–May, Sep–Nov)
– The weather is ideal in spring and autumn. Book flights well in advance; accommodation options can fill up.
– Himalayan views are best in October, while rhododendron blooms peak in March and April.
Shoulder Season (Dec–Feb)
– Bhutan has seasonal tariffs so there’ll be fewer tourists and good savings to be made by travelling outside high season.
– The weather is still pleasant, though it can be cold in December and January.
Low Season (Jun–Aug)
– Monsoon rains and leeches put an end to most treks, although high-altitude flowers are at their peak.
Fixed Daily Rate: US$250
– All tourists must pay US$250 per person per day (US$200 a day from December to February and June to August), with a US$40/30 surcharge per person for those in a group of one/two. This covers accommodation, transport in Bhutan, a guide, food and entry fees.
– Possible extra charges include hot-stone baths, cultural shows, horse riding, rafting, mountain bikes and tips.
– Children under 12 years are exempt from the royalty component (US$65).
This is an edited extract from the 6th edition of Lonely Planet Bhutan by Bradley Mayhew and Lindsay Brown © 2017. Published this month, RRP: NZ$39.99.