This is not a beach holiday. Nor is it a city escape, a shopping weekend or a spa vacation. You can’t just show up on a whim. It needs to be approached with some reverence, gratitude and a touch of childlike marvel because this place is like no other in the world. This is Bhutan.
Tucked between Nepal and India, this tiny constitutional monarchy capped by the soaring Himalayas is one of the happiest nations in the world. Partly due to Buddhist principles, it also has a lot to do with the previous King’s belief that GNH (Gross National Happiness) is more important than GNP (Gross National Product). However, the Bhutanese concept of happiness is a far cry from Western ideals. Achieving contentment is a personal and spiritual journey towards needing less rather than wanting more. Tourism is highly controlled in order to protect the culture and environment from the ravages of Western influence (television was only legalised here in 1999) and the result is an exquisite natural beauty and an openhearted welcoming population.
How to go
All trips must be booked via a Government approved travel agency. There is a tariff of US$250 per day, per person. This fee includes a guide, three-star accommodations (anything beyond three stars requires an additional payment), meals, internal transportation and trekking equipment. It’s possible to join a prearranged group tour or to go solo with a personal guide. Your tour operator arranges all the necessary paperwork and creates a bespoke itinerary to suit your timeframe and interests.
While the daily tariff includes three-star accommodations astute travellers should take advantage of the several luxury hotels that have popped up around the country.
Each of Amankora’s five gorgeous lodges are designed along the principles of traditional architecture. Elegant and simple each lodge is a sanctuary immersed in the beautiful landscape and ancient traditions.
Zhiwa Ling Hotel, Paro Valley
Bhutan’s only locally owned luxury hotel is set in the stunning Paro Valley. Zhiwa Ling faces the impressive rocky cliffs that are home to the famous Tiger’s Nest Temple.
Uma by COMO, Paro and Punakha
The two COMO hotels in Bhutan are simply divine. Classically contemporary design is matched with breathtaking views and outstanding service.
Google and your guide are well-versed in all the top sights in so here is a list of things that may be a little off radar to most visitors.
- Sit on the left side of the plane; you’ll get an awesome view of Mount Everest.
- Learn to meditate. Your tour operator can arrange a retreat or classes.
- Forgo the usual restaurants and eat seasonal, traditional dishes at a farmhouse with local families.
- Be respectfully amused by the Bhutanese spiritual obsession with the phallus.
- Read The History of Bhutan By Karma Phuntsho and The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. A bit of pre-existing knowledge helps coax deeper conversations with locals.
- Talk to your guide every evening to arrange the next day’s activities to take advantage of unanticipated moments.
Bhutan is very safe but there are a few local customs you should try your best to observe.
- Avoid discussing the ‘The Nepali Problem’ (in the 90s over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese were exiled).
- Smoking is banned in Bhutan. If you must partake, bring your own and ask your guide to show you a discrete smoking area.
- Avoid handing out gifts to children. The best way to help is by visiting a local school or clinic to ask about what they need.
- Don’t freak out about the state of the very winding mountain roads. Try your best to be Zen about it.
- Remove hats and cover up when entering religious buildings.
- Don’t pat street dogs – whatever the appearance, they’re renowned to be vicious.