Very few tourists have been to this tiny, isolated kingdom cradled high in the Himalaya’s, and most people have never even heard of it. Hardly surprising when this remote realm had purposely cut itself off from the rest of the world until recently. Even now, tourism to Bhutan is limited, but it is well worth the effort and expense according to those who’ve been.
Bordered by Tibet on the north and India on the other three sides, Bhutan is accessible by air from a handful of Asian hubs into Paro International Airport. It’s a notorious descent at the best of times, snaking along a valley between two mountains before landing at Paro’s airstrip, 7000 feet above sea level and frequently beset by bad weather.
You can also arrive by road, but there are only two permitted entry/exit points for foreigners, both from India – one on the southwest side bordering West Bengal and the other to the southeast, bordering Assam.
The Bhutanese landscape is spectacular with peaks piercing the clouds before giving way to fertile valleys far below. Mysterious temples and ancient forts dot the countryside, with virgin forest covering three quarters of the land. The Himalayan air is so fresh that lichens grow unchecked and one species hangs down like a delicate fringe from the trees.
Colourful prayer flags flutter like bunting in the breeze and wooden prayer wheels come in all sizes but are always turned clockwise. “It’s a bit like mass producing prayers!” quips writer Moz Scott, who recently returned from a five-day trek in Bhutan with her friend, Beverley Pasqua.
Here you won’t find the swarms of trekkers that trample neighbouring Nepal though, nor any budget backpackers. Why not? Because only organised tours are allowed in Bhutan and there’s a hefty tourist tax of $250 per day, which helps subsidise the country’s shiny new infrastructure.
Since the fourth generation king took over in 1972, there’s free education for all so literacy rates are high and poverty levels have improved dramatically. And the economy is now thriving with hydro-electricity as the main industry.
Before the 1960s, however, there was no electricity at all – nor any roads, transport, postal services or telephones. More surprisingly, there wasn’t even any TV in the country before 1999! But now that westernisation is slowly creeping in, ancient traditions are gradually being eroded.
Today, educated youngsters prefer white-collar careers over the traditional roles of their ancestors. With English as a second language, kids are now mimicking the latest songs from their pop idols in the USA, which no amount of television censorship can prevent.
Some traditions still remain, however. Friendly Buddhist monks draped in their bright saffron-coloured robes often mingle with the public and are hotshots at darts and the national sport of archery – achieving impressive accuracy over long distances.
Homemade handicrafts are sold at craft markets and three generations often share a simple wooden home on the hillside. Vegetables are all farmed organically.
The Bhutanese traditional dress is still worn by many, with men in knee-length kimono-like robes plus shoes (and long socks in winter) and women wearing sarongs under brocade jackets – similar to smoking jackets.
Everyone loves to dress up and revel in the many festivals for which Bhutan is renowned. Some of these festivals date back to the Middle Ages and attract locals from far and wide. It’s a great opportunity for socialising. Among them are the popular Tshechu festivals (pronounced “ter-shu“) which are joyous celebrations over several days, with colourful costumes and music and dancing – and tourists still very much in the minority.
But no trip to Bhutan is complete without a visit to the famous Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery which clings to a cliff face high above a valley and is only accessible on foot. It’s a strenuous four-hour round trip pilgrimage to this sacred site. The monastery was built in 1692 on the site of a cave where an 8th century Guru Rinpoche ensconced himself and proceeded to meditate for three years, three months and three days, following a flight from Tibet on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon.
Various hiking opportunities are a major attraction for tourists, from one-day treks into the remote valley of Bumthang, to high-altitude treks including the one from Paro to the capital city of Thimpu (pronounced Tim-poo) as undertaken by Moz and Beverley, and there are even longer ones if you wish.
There is also one of the most challenging treks in the world: the month-long Snowman Trek. It is led by experienced Alpine guides and follows the Bhutan-Tibet border over some very remote mountain passes before ending up in central Bhutan. Along the way, you might be lucky enough to spot a snow leopard, some rare blue sheep … or maybe even a Yeti.