The magical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan still resists the lures of the modern world.
Tucked between India and China at the remote end of the Himalayas, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan has long captured the imagination of tourists in search of a spiritual journey. With its astonishing natural beauty, peaceful Buddhist culture, and an enigmatic traditional society that has taken tenuous steps towards modernity, Bhutan may indeed be the last Shangri-la.
When Bhutan first opened its borders to foreigners in 1974, they adopted a “high end, low volume” tourism policy. Visitors now have to famously pay a minimum $250 tariff per diem, which is inclusive of accommodation, food, transport and an official guide. This makes it an expensive place to visit, but also assures that you will not encounter towns overrun with backpackers. Remote luxury resorts are more Bhutan’s style. In 2011, Bhutan welcomed around 64,000 tourists. By contrast, more than 600,000 people visited nearby Nepal in 2010.
Bhutan’s legacy of isolation, the sheer inaccessibility of much of the country and the traditional reverence for nature has guaranteed that the nation remains pristine. It is an ideal place for trekking. The rice fields in the valley are patterned like mosaics. They connect to hills verdant with primeval forests. Further still, on the horizon, are the snowcapped mountains of the Himalayas. Traditional architecture, prayer wheels powered by streams, and strings of colourful prayer flags are ubiquitous along the landscape. Treks often lead to remote cliff-side temples and monasteries. The visuals alone could make converts out of nonbelievers.
It is remarkable that Bhutan has remained untouched in a region that suffers increasingly from overpopulation and reckless overdevelopment. Even its survival into the present century as an independent country is something of a marvel. With Sikkim swallowed by India, and Tibet taken over by China in the 1950s, Bhutan is the only remaining Buddhist state in the region.
Perhaps it is due to this vulnerability that Bhutan has remained gently resistant to modernity. Schoolchildren and office workers are required to wear the gho and kira— the traditional male and female clothing. The country’s only traffic light in Thimphu was taken down days after installation; people complained it was ugly and ineffective. The populace has reluctantly embraced democracy since the peaceful 2008 transition from absolute monarchy to constitutional democratic monarchy.
Bhutan’s most enduring legacy in the collective consciousness is the concept of “Gross National Happines.” A term coined by the King in 1972, who was“not concerned with Gross National Product” but rather a more holistic development indicator, encompassing economic self-reliance, an unspoiled environment, preservation of culture and good governance. GNH has since been embraced by economists and political leaders, earning Bhutan the reputation as “the happiest nation in the world.”
Places to visit
The entry point for most journeys through the Kingdom, the dramatic 8th century Taktsang, or “Tiger’s Nest” monastery, one of the country’s most recognizable sites built on a sheer cliff face at an height of 2,950m.
One of the lowest lying and most fertile valleys in the Kingdom, Punukha rests at the confluence of the Mother (Mo) and Father (Pho) rivers. At the rivers’ junction, the Punakha Dzong is perhaps Bhutan’s most impressive building.
The charming capital is as close as Bhutan gets to urban, though there are still no traffic lights. It’s the best place to witness the juxtaposition of old and new with its many lanes of shops, vegetable and meat markets, and assorted local restaurants.
A town in the glacial Phobjikha Valley is part of the Black Mountains National Park. One of Bhutan’s most important wildlife sanctuaries because the large flock of black necked cranes that winter here.
Where to go
THE UMA PARO
This hillside retreat seamlessly combines traditional Bhutanese architecture with luxury facilities. All rooms have views of the forest, mountains or valley. The COMO Sambhala spa offers traditional Bhutanese stone baths in a private hillside cabin. The Bukhari restaurant is arguably the best in the valley and features a traditional Bhutanese set menu that changes daily.
Paro (+975 8 271597)
While most hotels in Bhutan are exclusive retreats nestled in the countryside, the Taj Group’s hotel opened in January 2008, in the heart of the capital. Designed to resemble Bhutan’s dzongs, the hotel houses 66 bedrooms sleekly furnished in a mix of traditional and contemporary.
Thimphu (+975 2 336699)
THE AMAN RESORTS
The Aman resort chain was the first foreign organization allowed to build a hotel in Bhutan. They now have a series of minimalist but well-appointed lodges across the country. The all-inclusive Amankora Journey lets guests travel between the five lodges over a minimum 7day period.
Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangety and Bumthang
(00 800 2255 2626)