Hidden in the Eastern Himalayas, between India and China, lies a holy land of mountains, monasteries, and magic! The last great Himalayan kingdom, where the traditional Buddhist culture is carefully preserved as it is – Bhutan! A divine land of peace and harmony. A place, where everyone is happy, satisfied and warm to travelers.
Bhutan is a truly amazing place with spectacular Himalayan scenery, colorful festivals, historic monasteries, and a population that is more concerned with Gross Domestic Happiness than Gross Domestic Product. The four main pillars of Gross National Happiness include equitable and equal socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural and spiritual heritage, conservation of environment, and consistent good governance. Gross National Happiness as a development paradigm has made it possible for Bhutan to meet the needs of even its most isolated villagers, reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, while promoting sustainable growth.
Tourism to Bhutan began in 1974, after the Bhutanese government agreed to open its formerly restricted territory to outside visitors. In 1991, Bhutan’s policy of a daily tourist fee was introduced, allowing visits only on organized trips, arranged through local agencies to protect Bhutan’s traditional culture from outside influencers. The Kingdom of Bhutan operates a “High Value with Low Impact” model of tourism, considered by many as the answer to sustainable travel. The slow increase of tourism in the country has allowed infrastructure to grow accordingly without destroying the environment – it’s pristine, clean, and unpolluted.
Bhutan is a treasure of biological diversity with an unparalleled richness of flora and fauna, due to the varied altitude and climatic conditions in the country. It is a paradise for enthusiastic horticulturalists, boasting some 46 species of rhododendrons, and over 300 types of medicinal plants. The kingdom is also home to a wide variety of animals. At higher altitudes, you will come across snow leopards, blue sheep, red pandas, takin, marmots, and musk deer. The tropical forests in the south are a haven for clouded leopards, elephants, one-horned rhinoceros, water buffalos, horn bills, and many more.
There is no better way to experience Bhutan’s stunning mountain scenery than to see it as the locals do, on foot, on the walking trails that criss-cross through the hills and peaks. The ‘Snowman Trek’ is the most famous and also the longest route (25 days), leading through most remote areas into high altitudes of the Bhutanese Himalayas. For those with limited time, a short trek into the unspoiled countryside is a must. The ‘Druk Path’, between Paro and Thimphu (Bhutan’s capital), is an old trading route that winds through quiet forestry trails and yak pastures. On route you will discover some beautiful lakes, and from the tree-line you can admire stunning views into the high Himalaya. The ‘Druk Path’ trek is a six day tour, and the most popular in the country.
Bhutan is a premier destination for adventure sports and activities. The rugged mountainous landscape of Bhutan is perfect for on-road or off-road mountain biking. The crystal clear rivers of Bhutan are one of the kingdom’s best kept open secrets. Fed by the glacial melt of the Eastern Himalayas, six major rivers – Wang Chhu, Sunkosh, Puna, Tsang Chhu, Mangde Chhu, Kuri Chhu, and Dangme Chhu – have been scouted for kayaking and rafting.
Many visitors stay in the Western part of the country, close to Paro and Thimphu, the capital of this intriguing destination. Thimphu combines a natural small-town feel with a new commercial exuberance that constantly challenges the country’s natural conservatism and Shangri La image. Vehicle traffic, unheard of a handful of years ago, now crawls through the center of town during an equally new phenomenon – rush hour. However, the contrasts of old and new remain part of Thimphu’s charm. Crimson-robed monks, government ministers clad in traditional dress and camera-wielding tourists all share pavements lined with shops selling SIM cards and Buddhist accessories.
It’s worth roaming further afield to Trongsa Central Bhutan, where the nation’s largest monastery creates an impressive profile against the surrounding hills. Trongsa Dzong was the seat of power over Central and Eastern Bhutan, the ancestral home of the Royal Family, with nearly two dozen separate chapels, and a fascinating museum housed in the watch house on the hillside above. In addition, Trongsa is the gateway to beautiful Bumthang, where four sacred valleys hide a string of ancient monasteries and captivating country towns.
October to December is the ideal time to visit Bhutan as the air is clear and fresh with sunny skies. January and February are colder, but from then until April the climate remains dry and pleasant and in late spring the famous rhododendrons bloom spectacularly, flooding the valleys with color. Heat and humidity increase from May, and from June to September the monsoon rains cover the mountains.
Bhutan is a unique place to visit, and tourism is the government’s highest priority. Every visitor – whether alone or in a group – must make all their travel arrangements through a Bhutanese tour operator, or associated group, and pay a fixed daily fee of US$200 – 250, which covers all meals, accommodations, transportation, and guides.