Bhutan Travel Guide
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan holds a tantalising air of mystery for the intrepid traveller. Visitor numbers are strictly controlled to protect the country’s unique culture and pristine environment, and ancient religious traditions are still widely respected throughout the kingdom.
A paradise for trekkers (and anyone in search of a spiritual retreat) Bhutan is often compared to the mythical land of Shangri-La. As it cautiously opens up to the world, this is a country determined to be discovered on its own terms.
Where to travel in Bhutan
A Bhutan holiday typically starts in Paro, where the spectacular Tiger’s Nest monastery, clinging implausibly to a rugged mountainside, is a must-see highlight. From Paro, you travel along the country’s only highway, west to east, with spurs off to destinations including Thimphu, the slightly-more-worldly capital, and Punakha with its impressive dzong.
Delays and road blocks en-route are not uncommon as you travel further east, but can actually be a sociable experience, as people leave their vehicles to chat, share snacks and take in the views. Generally speaking, spring and autumn are the best seasons to visit Bhutan, as monsoons blur the mountain scenery during summer, while the winds and snows of winter can be bitterly cold.
Trekking in Bhutan is naturally a popular activity, and the remote, beautiful Phobjikha Valley is the perfect location for it, especially during the winter months when you can see flocks of Black-Necked Crane. There are many ancient religious sites to discover in the Bumthang region, which is considered the cradle of Bhutanese Buddhism. The isolated community of Haa hosts a well-attended summer festival, where you can watch expert marksmen displaying their archery skills. And then of course there is Chimi Lhakhang in Punakha, the temple of the Divine Madman, surrounded with those rather eye-catching fertility murals...
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'My first visit to Bhutan had a profound impact on me, despite being only ten days long. You can't help but soak up the serene spirituality and positivity of the people, and I returned home a less-stressed and overall calmer person. Long may it last!'
Reasons to love Bhutan
- This is the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the world. The underlying spirituality of Bhutan is your key to understanding its people, history, culture and traditions. Beyond the impressively fortified dzongs, and breathtaking temple complexes such as the Tiger’s Nest in Paro, the country is dotted with ancient monasteries which lend themselves to peaceful contemplation and meditation. Bhutan has wisely rejected the path of mass tourism, and you’ll find the people across the country are wonderfully warm and welcoming to travellers.
- Lively religious and cultural festivals take place throughout the year in Bhutan, and can often be incorporated into your itinerary. Among the highlights of the annual events calendar is the Jambay Lhakhang Fire Festival, which normally takes place in late October. The five-day celebrations at this Bumthang temple culminate with a spectacular ritual, as daring revellers run through a burning structure - naked.
- It should come as no surprise that Bhutan is a highly sought-after destination for trekking holidays. Routes tend to be less-developed than other Himalayan countries, but the reward of that extra challenge is a sense of splendid isolation. The best-known trail is the eight-day Jhomolhari Trek, but for experienced hikers, the 25-day Snowman Trek from Paro to Lunana, traversing the border between Bhutan and Tibet, is packed with adventure. It’s advisable to aim for a spring or autumn departure if you want to make the most of the epic scenery, as the skies are a lot clearer.
Perfect straight ‘off the peg’ or as a source of inspiration allowing us to start with blank canvas. You decide
Gross National Happiness
Even when a periodic traffic jam brings movement to a halt on the main road, there is an intriguing sense of contentment among the locals. And, while it might seem a little stereotypical, most people you encounter in Bhutan come across as very satisfied with their lot in life. This may well be linked to Bhutan’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which prioritises the wellbeing of citizens. GNH is an official government policy, devised by the king, and incorporates conservation of the environment, sustainable socio-economic development, and the promotion and preservation of Bhutanese culture. As you travel around this Himalayan idyll, you may be surprised how easy it is to slip into a Bhutanese state of mind.