Bhutan’s plunging valleys and mountainous peaks are dotted with ancient monasteries and temples. Small villages cluster around them, farmers tend their fields, and monks rise before dawn for morning prayers.
Entry visas are strictly limited in pursuit of low-impact, high-value tourism, to the extent that even the capital, Thimphu, has an otherworldly aspect to it, despite the occasional nod to ‘progress’. Once you step behind the veil, however, it becomes obvious that Bhutan welcomes strangers with open arms - and armfuls of Buddhist blessings.
Paro (a short drive from Thimphu over the majestic Dochula Pass) is the main point of entry to Bhutan, with the country’s only international airport. Paro's sacred Tiger’s Nest temple rewards trekkers with stunning panoramas over the valley and a sense of spiritual serenity. Central Bhutan, thick with tropical forest, is the cultural heartland; some of the country’s oldest and most significant religious sites are found here in the valleys of Bumthang, along with a slightly incongruous Swiss cheese factory.
In Punakha, the former capital, rice paddies and bountiful orchards make for blissful wandering, while the marshy terrain of the Phobjikha Valley draws hundreds of rare Black-Necked Crane every winter, prompting country-wide celebrations. Eastern Bhutan is almost completely undeveloped, and rarely visited, offering an authentic experience for adventurous travellers who make it that far. But the domestic airport has recently reopened in Trashigang, and plans are afoot to improve the main road, so the east may not be so remote for long.
The world’s highest unclimbed peak can be found in Bhutan - the sacred mountain of Gangkhar Puensum - so it should come as no surprise that mountain trekking is a popular activity, and the best way to really take in the genuinely epic scenery of the Eastern Himalayas. The Jhomolhari Trek is among the best-known routes, while the Snowman Trek, at 25 days, is reckoned to be among the most challenging in the world. Whatever your ability level, there are no end of satisfying treks available countrywide. Multi day journeys are accompanied by specialist guides, camp staff and horsemen to carry your equipment, leaving you to soak up the views.
A highlight of many Bhutan holidays is to mix with the locals at a tshechu. These religious festivals take place throughout the year, with masked dancers performing elaborate dances. The Paro and Punakha tshechus in particular, held in courtyards outside the dzongs, draw huge crowds, while those in more remote areas have a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.
Things to love in Bhutan
What to do in Bhutan: Discover more with our hand-picked experiences & highlights
Bhutan is famous for its flamboyant festivals, known locally as Tsechus, which are typically held in honour of Guru Rinpoche, the most important Buddhist figure in Bhutanese history. Each plays a crucial part in preserving the kingdom’s rich culture and traditions. The festivals are understandably a big draw and influence Bhutan's high season dates.
From late October to the end of February, flocks of migrating Black-Necked Cranes swoop down at sunset to roost in the sheltered Phobjikha Valley, a swish of beating wings announcing their arrival as they land. From a sheltered position near the RSPN visitor centre, you can take time to observe these elegant birds strut confidently across the untamed wetland landscape.
The national sport and at times perhaps closer to an obsession, archery in Bhutan is to be enjoyed for its purity. You won't hear talk of transfer markets or foul play.
The precision, elegance and heritage of archery takes on renewed energy in Bhutan, where this ancient pursuit has become a symbol of culture and community.
Undoubtedly Bhutan's most iconic image, Taktsang Monastery, is known by most as Tiger's Nest Monastery and is worthy of all its fame. Despite being a fixture on most first visit itineraries, you do have to earn your prize, making a one or two day trek along mountain trails to reach the gleaming pearl clinging to the mountainside above the Paro Valley.
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Responsible Travel in Bhutan
Bhutan is the only country in the world to be carbon negative, absorbing three times the carbon it produces. Its focus on low number of visitors helps the tourism industry keep to good sustainable practices, thus protecting its environment and communities.
Bhutan's hotels all have an impeccable record when it comes to sustainability. From the luxurious Amankora and culturally immersive Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary to modest home stays by using local materials for their buildings, sourcing local ingredients for its dishes or using little to no plastic.
Bhutan has made happiness official business with its Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is prioritised over GDP
Tiger’s Nest temple
Clinging implausibly to a Paro cliffside, the 17th century Paro Taktsang temple rewards determined pilgrims with spectacular views
This form of Tantric Buddhism was spread through Bhutan by the Divine Madman, an unorthodox 15th century saint
There’s no getting around them! Many of Bhutan’s rural buildings are painted with cheerily graphic fertility symbols, said to ward against the evil eye
These towering fortresses act as administrative & social centres as well as housing for monks
Forget carbon-neutral - Bhutan absorbs three times its own carbon output
For the Bhutanese, spiritual activities are closely woven into everyday life
These elegant birds are greatly revered throughout Bhutan, enjoying protected status and their own annual festival
Chilli-cheese (ema datshi, the national dish) appears with every meal, and chillis are eaten as vegetable as well as a spice
Bhutan was the first country to ban smoking in public places, and has already banned the sale of tobacco and plastic bags
Annual Buddhist festivals held in each district, tshechus are a chance for remote communities to socialise and enjoy elaborate masked dances