Visiting Bhutan is like taking a breath of fresh air. The inhale fills with alpine energy and the exhale floats on the valley wind. The landscape is full of mountainous valleys, glacial rivers, and terraced rice fields. It’s a country that has a benevolent monarchy and a newborn democracy. Bhutan is most famous for the “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) in the tourism literature because their national measure of growth and progress based on peace and happiness. It’s reflective of the Buddhist ethos of contentment.
The Western influences are pushing their own Gross Domestic Product – the singular economic measure of progress for most nations – into the country via Indian lorries and massive infrastructure projects. Bhutan holds on to their GNH with environmental conservation, public harvest festivals, celebrations of the monarch’s birthdays, and a strong Buddhist culture. I spent two weeks in Bhutan on a group tour* and got to know the mountainous country . Here are my top 10 highlights that caught my breath.
1. Traditional Bhutanese Buildings
Woodcarvings detail the eaves of these Tudor-esque farmhouses. They dot hillsides as family homesteads. The facades are painted with protective deities and sometimes phallus symbols, which represent fertility. The tin roofs or windows are often covered in drying red chilies, which accompany most meals in Bhutan. Buildings in towns showcase this style, even in the biggest city Thimphu, where glass fronts of shopping malls and car dealerships peak through wooden frames.
2. Fortress-like Dzongs
Dzongs house the administrative and religious centers of a town as well as scores of monks. The Dzongs I visited in Punakha, Trongsa, and Bumthang sat regal over valleys, announcing the power seat of the region. The Dzongs are still in service and when visiting one, you will walk with monks, spin the prayer wheel, and maybe catch a special ceremony like our group did – over 300 monks chanting in prayer in a special service for a visiting Taiwanese Buddhist delegation.
3. Prayer Flags Whipping in the Wind
Hill tops, mountain passes, crevasses and temples all host streams of prayer flags. The streamers are often multi-colored to represent the five elements – air (white), earth (yellow), fire (red), water (blue), and wood (green). Most are consecrated by monks and when hung, negativity of the bearer is released and positive intentions brought in – all carried on the cool wind. Over some hills, there are groups of 108 white flags strung from top to bottom of tree-height poles that memorialize passed loved ones.
4. Festivals and Celebrations
While there, our group was treated to the Jambay Lhakhang festival in Bumthang, which celebrates the arrival of Buddhism in Bhutan at the 8th Century temple. The festival lasts for several days and culminates with a ceremonial burning and costumed dances. Also at this time of year, it is the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s 60th birthday. The Fifth King, his son, is currently on the throne, but the Fourth King is revered for bringing modernization and the GNH to Bhutan during his reign. The big celebration was in Thimphu, but our group joined local delegations celebrating withceremonies at the Wangdu army base. Throughout the year, there are many festivals in Bhutan. These are local festivals and not for tourists, so acting like a guest and kind observer is essential.
5. The Climb to Tiger’s Nest/Taktsang Lhakhang Temple
Just outside the town of Paro, is famous landmark and religious site, Taktsang Lhakhang. This temple is truly nest-like, built on the ledge of a sheer cliff, over 2000 feet above the valley floor. To hike there is a pilgrimage and one I embarked on with other tourists and Bhutanese locals. There is the option to ride a horse up the 3.5 kilometers of switchback trails, but that felt like cheating. The teahouse is half way and once there, I felt there that the only one way to go and that was up. The perch at the summit is small, but the view is akin to seeing other man-made wonders of the world. There’s a feeling that you’re seeing something that really shouldn’t have been possible to build and you can only revere in the divine influence that must have made it possible.
6. Phobjika Valley
The valley is a wide shallow, golden valley in central Bhutan where Black-Necked Cranes fly into after summers in Tibet. On either side of the valley are buildings, small “neighborhoods” with homes, general stores, and family farms. The wind whips fresh through the fields and into the pine forests on either side. Despite the dramatic wind, the feeling was light and tranquil, fresh and crisp in the open curved plain. It was an extremely peaceful place to visit.
7. Village Life
As a tourist in Bhutan, I didn’t experience nor can romanticize the hard work of the agrarian life that many Bhutanese live. I don’t idealize it, but I felt luck to observe something so different than my urban life. Women shook rice into the wind over woven mats, the light husks floating away. It felt like the cars couldn’t go more than 15 miles an hour on the dirt roads, partly due to the road conditions and partly due to the livestock and villagers sharing the roadway. Pairs of kids walked to and from school in their uniforms – the traditional Bhutanese gho and kiras. No one ran, there were no traffic jams (other than those held up by herds of cows), and life seemed to move at a very natural cadence.
It’s not hard to leave any “city” behind in Bhutan, it’s just a matter of finding the trailhead on the outskirts of the small towns and stepping carefully over rice fields and farmer’s paths, sidestepping ruminating cows and families of wild dogs. I was there in November, the time of the rice harvest. Families were out the fields, cutting the rice, stacking it, and shucking it. I did several hikes to temples in Punakha Valley, Trongsa, and Probjhika Valley, usually to a temple or Dzong.
9. Royalty in Daily Life
It’s quite common to see a member of the Bhutanese Royal Family and their entourage along the one main road that goes through the county. On the flight into Paro, the King and Queen sat in business class on the Druk Airways flight from Bangkok. In Paro, we passed one of the Queen Mothers (there are four) and hundreds of Bhutanese walking across Bhutan to raise money for the national nunnery. In various cities, our driver would announce a royal relative’s home not too set off from the highway onto the hillside.
10. Ema Datse!(or Ema Datshi)
I’m not going to call Bhutan a culinary capital. They typically included rice, chicken, mushrooms and sauce, vegetables in butter, and a potato dish. My meals were good, but not remarkable until ema datse showed up on the table. The chili and cheese condiment makes everything spicy and purely Bhutanese.
- Getting There: There is one international airport in Paro, Bhutan with flights to and from many cities in Asia by the two airlines Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines.
- How to Visit: As of 2014, you need to visit Bhutan with a tour operator and there will be a $250/day feel that is applied to hotel and travel costs. See the official Bhutan travel requirements.
- More Bhutan travel articles: Biking in Bhutan via the NYTimes T Magazine and CNN’s article on 5 Reasons Bhutan is Worth the $250/day.
*I went on this trip as a part of my job while working at GeoEx, where I was a contracted as a Marketing Campaign Director between 2013 and 2014. I did not pay for this trip because it was a work trip; however, the views in this post are my own. Bhutan is a wonderful Himalayan country to visit.