For years regarded as an unobtainable travel dream for many, the mighty Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan is emerging from its life of self-imposed isolation and revealing a cultural and historical Alpine wonderland that’s hard for the curious to resist. The Land of the Thunder Dragon, believed to have been inhabited for almost 4000 years, is one of the few countries on earth that’s never been conquered or occupied and its inherent segregation has preserved not only its deep Buddhist cultural identity but also its incredibly pristine wilderness.
Revered for its astounding collection of monasteries and temples, for its vertiginous Himalayan peaks, its colourful festivals, its deep religious credence and its endearingly traditional people, Bhutan is a most fascinating place, one that seems to still exist in a world all its own.
Overview of travel to Bhutan
Unfairly considered an expensive destination by many, Bhutan is as revered for its mystique as it is for its well-known commitment to not let the modern world just barge in and change it, irreversibly. The Bhutanese government is letting modernity in but in carefully monitored drips and drabs. Bhutan’s capital has not a single traffic light, internet and TV were introduced merely a decade ago and even mod-cons like electricity and telephones, only introduced since the 1960s, are not available to everyone. To say that travel to Bhutan is time-travelling would not be an exaggeration. There are aspects of this country that bogle the modern mind and you’ll surely be left wondering how a country that can seem encased in a time-warp can also seem so incredibly avant-garde.
Bhutan is the only nation on earth that absorbs more CO2 than it emits (carbon negative) and the protection of the unspoilt natural environment is written in law. Every citizen is legally obliged to be environmentally conscientious and the killing of an endangered species carries a punishment of life imprisonment. By law, at least 60% of Bhutan must remain forested (although over 70% actually is) and protected at all times. So sacred is nature here, that Bhutan’s highest peak, the 7570m-high Mt Gangkhar Puensum, remains off limits to mountaineers. It is, still today, the highest unclimbed mountain on earth. Rather than basing its economic index on the GDP, like the rest of the world, Bhutan measures its success by things like its sustainable development as well as its cultural and environmental preservation. Local architecture strictly adheres to this principle and that’s just one of the factors makes Bhutan such a mesmerizing place to visit.
Bhutan’s Best Experiences
Astonishing monasteries, opulent palaces, glistening stupas, endless hiking trails and some of the most breathtaking Himalayan valleys of all: for the lover of the exotic, the foreign, the ancient, the magnificent and the unforgettable, Bhutan offers a mind-boggling collection of experiences. A trekker’s paradise, this is a country that elicits energy and enthusiasm, so expect a lot of options for day or half-day hikes at every stop in your itinerary. Our only tip? Tackle as many as you can.
Here are a few of Bhutan’s best experiences:
Hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktshcang Goemba)
Tiger’s Nest Monastery is the Bhutan of postcards, the one iconic vision that perfectly embodies the stunning nature and culture of this country. Considered the legendary birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan, Taktsang is a spectacle in all respects: in its startling location, its beautiful architecture, in what it represents and even in the arduous (and only) way it can be visited. Precariously perched atop a sheer cliff at over 3000m in altitude, Tiger’s Nest overlooks a pristine verdant forest and can only be reached via a hiking trail that meanders past an enchanting chapel filled with yak butter lanterns, a lovely waterfall at the Snow Lion Cave (a local meditation centre where it’s believed Guru Rinpoche meditated for 3 years, 3 months and 3 weeks before ascending the cliff and building the monastery) and finishes with a narrow staircase that leads to what seems like the edge of the clouds. Part nature, part religion and definitely part awe-inspired adrenalin, this 4-5 hour hike up is a must-do.
Witness the flag-changing ceremony at Tashichho Dozng
The pulsating heart and soul of the country, the fascinating capital of Thimphu is more village than metropolis yet boasts enough attractions to rival those of world capitals ten times the size. Revered for its glorious array of Buddhist sites, as well as its seemingly fervent desire to modernize, Thimphu is synonymous with the grandiose Tashichho Dzong. This 400-year-old fortified monastery, now headquarters of the country’s civil government, is one of the largest dzongs in Bhutan and lends the city a most ceremonial feel. Site of the yearly tshechu (religious) festivities, Tashichho showcases the splendid Bhutanese traditional architecture that’s revered the world over and is both an awe-inspiring and immensely photographic place to visit. The monastery is open to the public from 4.30pm and the entrancing and very regal flag-changing ceremony starts at 5pm. Make sure you find a glorious viewpoint out to the fortress after sunset, however, as the lighted spectacle of Tashichho at night is formidable.
Take the scenic drive over the Dochula Pass
Spectacular 360-degree vistas across the snow-capped Himalayas are what await you on the Dochula Pass, a startling 3100m pass on the way from Thimphu to Punakha. The site of a bloody conflict between local soldiers and Indian insurgents in 2003, the peak of Dochula is adorned with 108 memorial stupas, in honour of the fallen. On a crystal clear day, the all-encompassing views cross the Roof of the World are just sensational (you can see Gangkhar Puensum from here!) so find out the weather forecast ahead of time and you’ll have, without a doubt, one of the best photo ops of your entire tip.
Pay homage to the ancient kingdoms at Punakha Dzong
The second largest and second oldest but arguably most majestic dzong in all of Bhutan, Punakha Dzong might not have the capital standing of its Thimphu counterpart but take just one look and you’ll know: it matters not. The fortress’ unique location, on an island between the Po Chu and Mo Chu Rivers and connected to the mainland via a picturesque wooden bridge, is the stuff of fairy tales. Once the capital of the kingdom, Punakha Dzong is impressive both in aesthetics and content. Within its halls and temples, you’ll find a vast collection of prized relics from hundreds of years of royal rule. It was here that the current King married his beloved, in 2011, in a local ceremony that made headline news all over the world. The deep Punakha Valley enjoys a temperate climate as evident by its luscious forested surroundings. Head here in Spring and you’ll see this monastery surrounded by blankets of blooming jacaranda trees. One of the most beautiful views of the palace is actually as you approach Punakha, coming from the Dochula Pass.
Attend a spectacular Bhutanese festival
Colourful and flamboyant cultural and religious festivals are part and parcel of Bhutanese life and attending one, as a spectator, is a truly unforgettable experience. Music, dancing, intricate costumes and sensational food are just some of the treats in store for visitors, with local knowledgeable guides doing their utmost to detail and explain the meaning of the festival and what’s to be expected. For culture aficionados, we offer specialised tours which are carefully planned around one of the country’s most enthralling festivals. If you wish to attend a festival during your trip to Bhutan, plan to travel here between September and March and do let us know in advance so we can secure your spot. Check out our Simply Bhutan Festivals page for more detailed info.
Want to know more about what traveling to Bhutan is like? Read this inspiring detailed review, where you’ll find out more about the everyday travel experience and discover how the Government tourist fee is actually incorporated in your tour. Plus, the stunning photos are enough to elicit instant wanderlust!
When you’re ready to be overawed, amazed and ready to explore this mystical land of dragons and fortresses, peruse our itinerary ideas and give us a call. We’ll do all the organizing so all you have to do is pack your bags, head on over and have a most unforgettable Bhutan travel experience.
Author: Laura Pattara
“After spending years taking short vacations in Asia, Laura finally managed her dream, travelling extensively through Central Asia, China and Southeast Asia on a 3-year-long overlanding adventure that she describes as “SIMPLY EPIC”. Following in the footsteps of ancient traders, Laura meandered along the famed Silk Road through the Stans, delighted her tastebuds for 8000km across China (no mean feat) visited an insane number of temples in Southeast Asia, all the while snorkelling, diving and beach-bumming along the way. Tickled pink by history and culture, Laura loves off-the-beaten-path destinations in Asia and anything that isn’t gift-wrapped for tourists”