There’s a hidden kingdom that few people are aware of, and even fewer have seen in person. Though it may have come up in high school geography class, it’s rarely discussed and almost never in the news. It’s relatively small, landlocked, filled to the brim with tradition and veiled in an aura of mystery and spirituality.
Welcome to Bhutan.
Bhutan?!? Where the heck is that?
Nestled within the Himalayas to the east of Nepal and sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan is the world’s last remaining stronghold of Mahayana Buddhism. Bhutanese culture celebrates a traditional way of life, deeply intertwined with religious practices, where happiness is considered a national priority. In fact, as an alternative to measuring success by financial means, Bhutan invented its own means of measuring societal well-being by implementing a Gross National Happiness index. Its leaders literally create policy based on what would make its citizens the happiest.
The kingdom’s commitment to preserving its rich cultural heritage is evident in its strict tourism policies. Until 1974, outsiders were forbidden from travelling to Bhutan. Today, the Bhutanese welcome “high value, low impact” visitors and require a daily surcharge. On top of that, tourists cannot simply purchase a plane ticket and travel to Bhutan; they must visit as part of a licensed travel company.
Touring Bhutan is like gaining entry to the newest, most exclusive dayclub. And we mean dayclub because Bhutan has almost no nightlife, making it the perfect getaway for those who are usually counting sheep by 10pm. It’s quiet, peaceful, and among the cleanest countries one could visit. And due to Bhutan’s cultural affinity for nature, it offers an unspoiled glimpse into a world that seems frozen in time.
Paro – Thimphu
Only a handful of pilots are qualified to make the approach into Paro, Bhutan’s sole international airport, which requires a delicate descent into a winding, narrow valley surrounded by towering mountain peaks. Upon landing, visitors will notice the traditional Bhutanese architecture. Even the terminal looks like a monastery!
After a 1-hour transfer to Bhutan’s capital Thimphu (pronounced tim-poo), visitors will begin to realize why this kingdom is so well hidden; the majestic, soaring peaks of the Himalayan mountains have them surrounded. They’re valley gurls now.
In Thimphu, the fusion of modernity with traditional architecture gives the capital a distinct vibe. While touring this colorful city, visitors will notice there isn’t a single traffic light. That’s right, this is possibly the world’s only capital city that doesn’t have a traffic light. Is this because roundabouts result in happier citizens? It’s a great question to ask. At one point, Thimphu did have a single traffic light, but it was removed because people thought it to be too modern.
A full day in Thimphu will be busy but never hurried – hurrying is simply not part of the culture here. Start out with a tour of Trashichhoe Dzong, the centre of government and the site of the monarch’s throne room. A dzong is a distinctive type of fortified monastery and visitors will be treated to many of them during their stay. Afterwards, climb the hill to Memorial Chorten, a towering statue of Buddha Dordenma that overlooks the Thimphu valley.
Bhutanese traditional dress is known for its vibrant colors. Browse the National Textile Museum for a glimpse of all the fierce lewks this nation is serving up. Traditionally, men wear a multi-colored belted robe called a Gho.
After the fashion show wraps up, tour the newly opened Postal Museum and the Jungshi Handmade Paper factory, which produces traditional Bhutanese paper from the Daphne bush. How interesting!
Arriving at the next must-see requires a scenic 2-hour transfer up winding switchbacks through the mountains. Halfway to Punakha, visitors will find one of the highlights – Dochula Pass. Sitting at 3,050m (10,006ft), this enchanting stop offers panoramic views of the snow-capped peaks above and lush valleys below.
Aside from its natural beauty, Dochula Pass is known for the 108 memorial chortens, or stupas, built to honor Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives in a military operation. Adorned with fluttering prayer flags, the pristine white chortens create a serene atmosphere that allows visitors a moment of quiet reflection and reverence amidst the breathtaking backdrop.
Upon arriving in Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan, visitors will notice a more temperate climate due to the lower altitude of this valley. Here sits one of the most impressive and significant fortresses, Punakha Dzong, situated at the confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. The dzong’s intricate architecture and golden spires stand as a testament to Bhutanese craftsmanship.
After visiting the dzong, consider a guided hike through the terraced rice fields and charming villages toward the ornate monastery Khamsum Chorten and the 300-year old hilltop temple Giligang, which has been taken care of by the same family for generations.
A second day in Punakha calls for a short hike to Chimi Lhakhang, known as the temple of fertility and dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenley, the “Divine Madman.” This temple holds a plethora of kama sutra-like imagery and visitors have the opportunity to be blessed by a sacred wooden phallus.
From Punakha, it’s merely a 2-hour transfer through the mountains to Gangtey in the lush Phobjika Valley, where travellers will realize they’ve completely escaped the hustle and bustle of modern life. This tranquil valley is a designated conservation area known for its diverse flora and fauna, notably the endangered Black-necked Crane.
Once settled, visit the Gangtey Gonpa, a monastery that serves as a centre for Buddhist learning and meditation. After gaining insight into the rich spiritual traditions, explore the valley, interact with locals, and visit the Black-necked Crane Center to marvel at the rare and highly-revered Himalayan birds.
On the second day here, begin at the Gangtey Gonpa again for a 2-hour trek along the Gangtey Nature Trail, a verdant and winding natural path through a bamboo and pine forest to Khewa Lhakhang. Nature enthusiasts and landscape photographers will be rewarded as this hike is considered one of the most picturesque in the entire country. Hikers will pass through remote villages that offer a cultural close-up and meet friendly locals who may inquire about their culture as well. This is the best day to dedicate to true immersion into the Bhutanese way of life.
Visitors inevitably must retrace their steps back to Paro. Along the way, take a 1.5-hour bike tour through lush paddy fields, old-growth forests, and traditional villages. In Paro, check in to your resort and relax before heading to a local farmhouse for a special dinner in traditional Bhutanese outfits. To put a cherry on top of the evening, indulge in a hot stone bath. Ah, bliss!
The Tiger’s Nest
For the grand finale of any trip to Bhutan, embark upon a challenging yet rewarding 5-hour hike to the country’s most iconic and sacred site, Paro Taktseng, a.k.a. The Tiger’s Nest. Perched dramatically on the edge of a cliff, this legendary monastery is not only a marvel of architecture but also a spiritual beacon for the Bhutanese people. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, meditated in a cave at this location before bringing Buddhism to Bhutan.
Upon reaching the monastery, you’ll be greeted with breathtaking views of the Paro Valley below. The final stretch involves navigating stone steps to arrive at the entrance, where visitors will be allowed in to see the revered cave and appreciate the intricate architectural details of this awe-inspiring cynosure. The tranquility and profound sense of serenity at this sacred site offer travellers an opportunity to reflect and find inner peace, making the pilgrimage to The Tiger’s Nest a deeply enriching and unforgettable experience.
As the ethereal journey concludes, visitors will be left with the lasting impression of ancient traditions coexisting harmoniously with pristine landscapes in this hidden kingdom. Perhaps a lesson to take home is that happiness is not about rushing through life or purchasing the newest smartphone or buying a nicer car than your neighbor; happiness, the Bhutanese way, is about feeling content with what daily life brings us and spending time with the people we love the most.
If visiting the last Shangri-la sounds like your kind of adventure, check out the full itinerary for Bhutan: The Kingdom Of Happiness.
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