Why visit … known as Land of the Thunder Dragon, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan holds an allure as the destination many regard as the last Shangri-La. The reality is perhaps equal to the myth. Soaring mountains, hidden valleys, sacred monasteries and ancient fortresses dot the landscape of this beautiful and little known nation. Tucked in the Himalayas between China and India, Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist state in the region.
The majority of the population wear national dress, the women’s ‘kira’, a wrap-around skirt and the men’s ‘gho’ with a full front pocket designed to carry a drinking vessel and a dagger ‘…because you never know if you will meet a friend or foe on your journey’, our guide Kemey tells us with a gentle smile. These days, the generous pockets conceal a mobile phone and most likely a charger too.
When … you need an injection of happiness. In 1972, the fourth Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck outlined the Bhutanese policy of Gross National Happiness as a more effective measure of the country’s progress. With emphasis on economic development alongside environmental preservation, cultural preservation and good governance, the pillars also emphasise the importance of time well spent, health and well-being and community vitality. As a result, Bhutan is focused on sustainable and careful development.
Why not ….take the Gangtey nature trail in Phobjikha Valley. During this two hour gentle hike through impossibly beautiful, mist soaked valleys, you will be accompanied by cows and their calves and stray puppies running wild in the Blue Pine forest among primula, cosmos and foxglove. You will end at Gangtey Monastery – remove your shoes and wander in to admire the beautiful wall murals.
A hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery is an absolute must. Said to be the holiest site in Bhutan, it is known as the location where Guru Rinpoche appeared in the eight century to on the back of a flying tigress. Finding shelter in the series of caves, Rinpoche meditated for three years, three months and three days and then set about converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery is set high above Paro Valley and the four hour round-trip trek is worth every minute. At moments I was unsure whether it was the altitude robbing me of my breath, or the scenery.
Stay in …. Bhutanese traditional guesthouses. One of my favourites was Dewachen Hotel. A rustic, Bhutanese lodge in a heart stoppingly beautiful valley, the property is a working farm and boasts a wood burning stove (bukhari) in each room. The electricity was intermittent and the wifi non existent, but this just added to its charm. Fortunately there were plenty of candles.
Eat .... the national dish of chili cheese. Emphasis is very much on the chili which is consumed with each meal. You will be welcomed to Bhutan by the sight of the hot red peppers drying on the roofs of farmhouses at every turn in the road.
Drink … the Dragon Warmer – the signature drink of Dewachen Hotel, it is a potent mix of local rum, apple juice and Bumthang honey. Perfect for cold nights.
Take off … during the Thimphu Festival, the grandest of Bhutan’s festivals, the party features sombre dances performed by monks in masks and costumes, as well as the swaying steps of the local women of the village. Borrow a kira or a goh and join in, it is a wonderful way to experience the ancient living culture of Bhutan.
Beware of … the night hunting. In ancient times, Bhutanese guys would charm the ladies with cheery greetings of ‘see you later’ accompanied by a wink and a wave. Ladies would then leave their window open for the visitor. It was common practice for un-inclined females and indeed their fathers to decorate their windows with nettles to discourage visits. Fortunately ‘night hunting’ is not practiced often nowadays we were told, but the twinkle in his eye suggested otherwise.
Exodus offers an eight night Festivals of Bhutan itinerary. A $65 sustainable tourism Royalty is directed towards the government and goes towards free education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure. See more at Bhutan Tourism