With traditions that date back to before its birth as a nation, The Kingdom of Bhutan is a beautiful contrast between its cultural heritage, natural wonder and the growing influence brought on by the country’s second largest industry, tourism.
Since opening to western tourism in 1974, Bhutan is only now experiencing a cultural tipping point, as the traditional countryside villages see their populations dwindle and cities like the capital, Thimpu swell faster than they are designed to handle.
As with any developing nation, the defining characteristics of Bhutan are being tested as modernity sweeps through these once completely pastoral valleys. Monks on cell phones and an influx of foreign workers to help expand roads are clear signs that Bhutan as a country is already quickly changing.
But it’s not just the cultural evolution that creates interesting contrasts in this country of approximately 750,000 people, it’s the juxtaposition of rugged beauty and refined luxury that makes the country so unique.
Our trip through the land of the thunder dragon began as many do, with a flight into one of the most remote airports on earth, Paro international. Nestled snugly between two towering mountain ranges, the airport is only serviced by Druk Air, the kingdom’s national airline via Bangkok, so we recommend taking the luxurious flights offered by Qatar Airways from the States via Doha to Bangkok or Singapore.
The immediate first impressions of Bhutan were the unbelievably ornate detail on the façade of almost every building we pass as well as the prevalence and celebration of phallus’ that serve as good omens for fertility, luck and protection. Made up of 20 distinct districts, Bhutan is roughly the size of Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined, but with mountains that dwarf those found in the northeast United States.
Bhutan is a land of mystery that combines centuries old traditions like the Ura Yhakchoe festival, which we were dressed in our finest Kiras and Ghos to experience. To learn more about the history of the festival we spoke with Dr. Karma a Bhutanese historian and “son of the Ura Valley” to learn more, click here to watch our interview.
In sharp contrast to the home-made grog called “ara” we had at the festival, we were treated to a true Bhutanese dinner when we returned to our hotel which featured several portions of local, spicy delectables like eggplant, cauliflower, peppers with melted cheese and yak meet.
While there are plenty of delicious westernized options for food at the hotels we stayed, we wanted to try a truly authentic Bhutanese experience, which took us to a Bumthang farm house with two adorable local woman who fed us excessively...and then tried to get us drunk.
During our drive from Bumthang to Punjikha we got to see just how breathtaking, Bhutan is, as the road through the foothills to the Himalayans had our hearts pumping before we were treated to the full glory of this quaint valley.
Aside fro the mountains, one of the defining features of Bhutan is that it is the only surviving all-Buddhist nation in the Himalayan region (and as such, there are monuments, monasteries and temples everywhere.) Because of their importance within the Kingdom, the vast majority of them have perfect, unobstructed views of the surrounding valleys which make them perfect places to meditate as well as sightsee. Top ones to check-out are the Dzong in Punakha, the 108 stuphas of Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten and of course Tigers Nest in Paro.
Cultural sensitivity is one thing tourists need to pay close attention to while traveling throughout Bhutan. While many Bhutanese speak at least some English, there are local customs that must be observed, like covering your arms and legs when entering most holy sites, no photography within the alters and temples...and in the spirit of Buddha, all sentient creatures are supposed to be respected. So try your best to resist squashing the flies and insects that may dive bomb you while on your treks through the woods.
With all the spectacular natural wonders Bhutan has to offer, getting outside and being active is certainly one of the things that should be high on your list. With world-renowned trekking, trail hiking, biking and rafting there are plenty of interesting ways to take in Bhutan’s beauty. We even spent an afternoon enjoying the favorite local sport, archery.
Adventure activities, natural beauty and delicious food aside, it’s connecting with the people of Bhutan that make for a truly transformative experience. During the reign of the previous king his majesty?was once asked about Bhutan’s GDP and he was famously quoted as saying, ““We do not believe in Gross National Product, because Gross National Happiness is more important.”His son, the fifth in the monarchy’s 100-year existence is fully committed to carrying out his father’s vision.
By implementing sustainable development, taking care of the less fortunate and ultimately increasing the authentic smiles on his 750,000 citizens faces, the fifth king has?achieved what few head’s of state ever could ever hope for an 100% approval rating.
Check out our video interview with the Prime Minister of Bhutan.
The policies of the country even extend to the businesses who attract international travelers, which happens to be Bhutan’s second largest?revenue producer. We caught up with the Regional Director of Aman Resorts, John Reed to hear how his company works to support?the communities in which they operate. Click here to watch our interview with Aman Resorts.
Most Bhuddists, believe the actions in one life influence the one in the next, and unfortunately in the recent past people with disabilities were often shunned or looked down upon, even in this peaceful country. Once a difficult conversation to discuss, organizations like The Bhutan Foundation are working to help the disabled achieve their full potential in life.
We also visited the Big Bakery, a local shop that employs the deaf who happen to make the most delicious pastries in Thimpu.
Bhutan is still very much a nation caught between time. With cultural pressures starting to drive massive changes in the younger generation, juxtaposed with the unspoiled landscape and traditional way of life still followed in the villages, Bhutan is certainly a trip you should be prioritizing at the top of your long haul destinations, sooner rather than later.