Whether you are a couple seeking a relaxing sojourn immersed in mindfulness, culture, nature and spirituality, or an active family looking to spend time hiking, trekking, cycling, rafting, birdwatching, and practicing archery, this mysterious Buddhist kingdom offers something special for everyone!
Cut off from the rest of the world until 1974, Bhutan has retained its mystical allure and remains largely untouched by modern development and external influences, preserving its age-old cultural traditions, Buddhist way of life and abundant natural wealth.
Its easy eccentricity is so compelling – a comfortable, unfussy uniqueness that pervades every aspect of life, from the traditional “gho” and “kira” attires, to the architecture, scenery, and food! It is a beguiling place where progress is defined by the “Gross National Happiness” rather than the GDP; where there are no traffic lights; where foreign television and tobacco are banned; where killing of any living organism is prohibited, and where natural forests, rivers and mountains are protected under the country’s constitution.
It is therefore not surprising that Bhutan is regarded as one of the happiest places on earth and is currently the only carbon-negative country.
If serenity, scenery, culture, and mountains draw you, and if you wish to step back in time and discover the fabled ‘Shangri-La’, then a holiday in Bhutan will leave you enthralled well beyond the ordinary.
Where is Bhutan located and how to get there?
Nestled between India and China, the landlocked kingdom of Bhutan is located on the southern slopes of the Himalayan range in South Asia. Paro is the country’s only international airport and although there aren’t any direct flights from the UK or US, Paro is well connected with many regional hubs including Kathmandu in Nepal, New Delhi and Kolkata in India, Singapore, as well as Bangkok in Thailand.
Flying into Paro is a thrilling experience, as the descent into Paro Valley involves flying over the majestic Himalayan peaks. Paro is located at an altitude of 2,225 metres above sea level and is surrounded by mountains as high as 4,876 metres.
Of all the routes, the flight between Paro and Kathmandu is perhaps the most exciting one, as the route goes over four of the world’s five highest mountains. On a clear day, you would enjoy awe-inspiring views of Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Kangchenjunga.
It is also possible to enter Bhutan by road from India. Phuentsholing in south-west, Gelephu in south- central and Samdrup Jongkhar in south-east are the three land borders open to foreign tourists.
For the more adventurous travellers, especially those who wish to explore the remote parts of Eastern Bhutan, the journey from Samdrup Jongkhar to Thimphu taking in places like Trashigang, Mongar, Bumthang and Trongsa offers the most extraordinary glimpse of rural Bhutan and its untouched culture.
Where are Bhutan’s top places and experiences?
Bhutan is often compared to Switzerland, not only because their sizes are similar, but also because many parts of Bhutan look like the Swiss Alps. It is an extraordinary place, unreservedly protective of its ancient culture and natural habitat, but at the same time having a refreshingly progressive and modern outlook.
A holiday in Bhutan is not only a fabulous adventure, but also a real eye-opening experience in terms of sustainable and mindful living in complete harmony with nature.
The vast majority of Bhutan’s cultural and natural wealth lies in the five valleys of Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Phobjikha (Gangtey) and Bumthang. People are incredibly easy to mingle with and are usually extremely curious about life outside their country. So far, Bhutan’s conscious strategy of high-value low-impact tourism has largely been focused on this broad region, which has resulted in an excellent range of luxury accommodations and other tourism related facilities and infrastructure.
Beyond these five valleys, eastern Bhutan offers a more local and rustic experience for those who are prepared to cope with very basic facilities, simple food and bumpier road journeys.
However, the real charm of the country lies well beyond the towns and villages in Bhutan’s lush wilderness, and the best way to experience it is on foot, trekking with your own private guide and camping in the most pristine and secluded locations.
- Thimphu - The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu is the largest and most developed city in the country. Although it is much more built-up compared to other towns, it has a refreshing and contemporary vibe with excellent restaurants, bars, markets, and art galleries. It is also home to some of the most important institutions in the country including the Institute of Traditional Medicine, National Library, National Institute for the Thirteen Arts and the Royal Botanical Garden. There are also excellent museums such as the Textile Museum and Folk Heritage Museum.
- Paro - Located on the banks of the Paro Chhu River and home to Bhutan’s only international airport, this charming town is adorned with over 150 temples and monasteries including the imposing Paro Dzong. The surrounding valley is known as the rice bowl of Bhutan and is home to the country’s most sacred and iconic site – Paro Taktsang, also known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Perched on a steep cliff-side overlooking densely forested hills and valleys, visiting the monastery involves a splendid adventure! Although it can be a bit challenging for some, the monastery’s serene atmosphere coupled with awe-inspiring views make it totally worth the effort. Beyond Taktsang, there are many other trails in Paro Valley that offer excellent hiking and trekking opportunities to both novice and experienced walkers.
- Punakha - Home to arguably the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan – the 17th century Punakha Dzong, Bhutan’s former capital offers an incredible variety of experiences from white-water rafting on Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers, and hikes and bicycle rides through the lush valley to a fun cooking demonstration at a local farmhouse, and immersive cultural experiences at temples including the unique fertility temple known as Chimi Lakhang. Owing to its relatively low altitude, Punakha enjoys a temperate climate that is ideal for a wide range of crops and boasts beautiful farmlands and fruit orchards.
- Phobjikha Valley - The glacial valley of Phobjikha is regarded as one of the most beautiful valleys in the kingdom. Part of the Black Mountains National Park, this valley is renowned for its well-maintained nature trails that offer stunning views along with a chance to spot rare birds. The most famous highlight of this region is the large flock of rare, Himalayan, Black-necked Cranes that migrates to this valley every year between late October and mid-February from the Tibetan Plateau. At the heart of the valley lies the quaint and peaceful village of Gangtey, which makes for idyllic rural experiences, leisurely strolls, and a place where you can sample sumptuous local food influenced by Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese cuisines. The hikes along the Gangtey Nature Trail and up to the hilltop Gangtey Monastery are particularly good.
- Bumthang - Boasting some of the most historic monasteries and sacred temples, Bumthang has remained blissfully untouched. Only accessible by horse or on foot until the 1970s, this region is renowned for its apples, wheat and honey production and is home to Bhutan’s oldest microbrewery – the Red Panda Brewery. A hiker’s paradise, the four valleys surrounding Bumthang offer excellent trekking routes and Bumthang’s other highlights include the mighty Jakar Dzong – the largest fortress in Bhutan, and Wangdicholing Palace – the former residence of the royal family.
- Trekking - The scenery in Bhutan is some of the most breath-taking you will ever see, encapsulating the Himalayan mountain range, and the best way to fully immerse yourself in nature and local life is by exploring the scenery on foot. You can go on a gentle stroll for just a day or embark on a longer and more challenging trek taking three to five or more days to complete. If you are a keen walker, instead of driving along the highway, you can walk from one region to another, such as walking from Paro to Thimphu, or from Thimphu to Punakha, or Punakha to Gangtey. Druk Path Trek between Paro and Thimphu is one of the most popular routes. For the more adventurous and seasoned trekkers, there are more challenging options such as the 8-day Jhomolhari Trek and 25-day Snowman Trek. The Snowman Trek is considered to be one of the most difficult trekking routes in the world. There is also a lovely short trail around Bumthang, which offers a wonderful glimpse of rural Bhutan. These walks and treks are exclusive, accompanied by expert Bhutanese guides, camp staff and horsemen to carry your equipment.
When is the best time to visit Bhutan?
The best time to visit Bhutan is in the spring, between March and May, or in the autumn between September and November. During these months, the weather is typically dry and pleasant. If you are keen on longer treks, warmer months of April and October are ideal.
How can you help preserve Bhutan’s cultural heritage?
The government of Bhutan takes a uniquely long-term and holistic view in its decision-making relating to its land and people. More than 70 percent of the country is under forest cover, and it is the only carbon negative country in the world. However, it is under threat from climate change and economic pressures.
The Cultural Sanctuaries Foundation – led by Chris Rainier, a National Geographic explorer and documentary photographer, and Olivia McKendrick, a corporate lawyer with 25 years of experience, has created Bhutan’s first cultural sanctuary in the remote village of Rukha where visitors are now invited to stay in the homestay built by the villagers with the support of the Foundation.
The aim is to shine a spotlight on the Bhutanese approach and show how it is possible to maintain forest and culture while embracing modernity and technology through an innovative ecotourism concept. The village of Rukha is home to the Olep, the oldest indigenous people of Bhutan and it remains one of the least visited places in the country.