A country that measures success in smiles versus income, Bhutan is rich in natural treasures, ancient temples, and a gracious culture.
BY IGNACIO MAZA
CLOSED TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD FOR CENTURIES, Bhutan, aka Land of the Thunder Dragon, is the most authentic surviving Himalayan kingdom. Because of this rare isolation, Bhutan has meticulously preserved its culture, religion, and traditions far better than neighboring states such as Nepal, Sikkim, and Ladakh. During a recent visit to this enchanting land, I discovered a country primed for 2019 journeys.
Believe it or not, the first foreign visitors arrived here only in 1974. What’s more, television began broadcasting just 20 years ago. Recently discovered by curious adventurers, word-of-mouth has quickly hailed Bhutan’s many national treasures. This
Of top note, however, are the people—warm, welcoming, and unassuming—of this storied land. Chances are, when you’re hiking in the countryside, farmers and children will stop what they’re doing to greet you. Bhutan’s government strives to focus on the “Gross National Happiness” of its people, not the typical GNP, as is the case elsewhere. Though life in Bhutan isn’t perfect, the government has made great progress in improving the lives of its citizens. Health care and education are free; over 60 percent of Bhutan is made up of nature reserves; smoking is forbidden; the country is clean; there is very little crime; the poverty level is lower than other South Asia countries. In a nutshell, why wouldn’t you visit?
GO WEST: PARO> THIMPHU> PUNAKHA
Seeing as most visitors stay for five to seven days, I recommend visiting the Western part of Bhutan. Here, you’ll discover Paro, Thimphu, and Punakha. While roads are improving, expect sections to be bumpy and unpaved; getting from A to B may take longer than anticipated. Start and end your visit in Paro, where the main airport is located. Don’t miss Paro Dzong, the massive fortress-monastery in the heart of the valley and a great example of Bhutanese architecture. Spend time in the inner courtyard to view paintings and experience the site. From Paro, it’s roughly an hour’s drive to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. Highlights here include the weekend market—the largest in the country—known for its food and artisan vendors, as well as the colossal statue of the Buddha Dordenma, which towers over the city and sets a dramatic mood. If time allows, visit the National Institute for Zorig Chusum and witness how Bhutan is preserving centuries-old traditions via arts and crafts. From Thimphu, drive east over the Dochula Pass (more than 10,000 feet above sea level) to reach Punakha. The country’s former capital until the 1950s, it hugs a lush river valley. The most celebrated landmark here is Punakha Dzong, a massive fortress-monastery located at the confluence of two rivers. If you only see one Dzong (a distinctive style of fortress architecture found mainly in Bhutan and Tibetan areas of China), make it this one, originally built in 1644 and still in use. The Punakha river valley also includes hikes to sacred shrines, river rafting, and mountain climbing.
BEYOND PUNAKHA: THE ROADS LESS TRAVELED
Ask your travel advisor to arrange hiking the Jomolhari Trek. This is one of the most celebrated routes in the country, with a spectacular view of the 24,000-foot-high Jomolhari, a beautiful Himalayan peak. Alternatively, visit the sacred sites and cultural riches of Bumthang. If you favor off-the-beaten-path adventures, navigate the remote and unspoiled Khotokha glacial valley, hike to sacred sites and holy water springs, and stay in village farmhouses or tented camps with an expert guide and crew. Your travel advisor can create a tailor-made journey that fits your needs and interests, including unique, only-in-Bhutan adventures, from biking and helicopter flights to a personal blessing from a monk.
THE ULTIMATE EXPERIENCE
No visit to Bhutan is complete without seeing the country’s best-known landmark, Taktshang Goemba, or “Tiger’s Nest.” Located a few miles outside Paro, this famous monastery was built on the edge of a cliff and is Bhutan’s most venerated religious site. Be prepared: The hike to the monastery is tough, as you trek from 7,000 to over 9,000 feet above sea level on a steep trail. Your reward? Breathtaking views from the top, worth every ounce of effort. My advice is to plan the hike to Tiger’s Nest toward the end of your vacation. It will end your Bhutan journey on a high note—an unforgettable exclamation point to a country that will leave you dreaming of a return trip.
Ignacio’s Insider Tips
WHEN TO GO. Peak season is spring (March to May) and fall (late September to November), when the largest festivals take place.
WEATHER. Monsoon season runs from July to early September, with rainfall usually in the afternoons.
HOW TO BOOK. Your advisor first needs to make the ground arrangements and hotel reservations, followed by a request for air reservations to and from Paro. The visa arrives via email, usually two weeks prior to your arrival.
ELEVATION. Paro is located 7,000 feet above sea level, and there are mountain passes that exceed 10,000 feet. Stay hydrated and try to make lunch your big meal of the day.
CURRENCY. The local currency is the Ngultrum, pegged to the Indian Rupee. I recommend paying with US Dollars or Indian Rupees when you need to use cash.
WHERE TO STAY?
These two hotel companies pioneered upscale hospitality in Bhutan and have been welcoming sophisticated travelers to the kingdom for more than 12 years.
COMO HOTELS AND RESORTS
COMO has two lodges, one in Paro and the other in Punakha. The Paro lodge is built on a hill, overlooking Paro valley and convenient to the main airport. Its calling card includes bright rooms and spacious villas, a pool, spa (don’t miss COMO lodges’ hot stone baths), terraces, and serene public spaces. The lodge was built in Bhutanese style and offers guests a choice of local, Indian-vegetarian, and Western menus. The atmosphere is Zen, informal, and low-key. The lodge in Punakha, built only five years ago, is more intimate, with only 11 guest rooms and two villas. It’s nestled along a high ridge, with amazing views of the valley and Himalayas.
Amankora, the collective name of AMAN’s Bhutan lodges, offers five resorts spread throughout Bhutan, including Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Gangtey, and Bumthang. Because Aman offers more locations, you can delve deep into the country and create seven- to 12-day journeys, moving from lodge to lodge with a host guide for your entire stay. Aman lodges are secluded and exclusive, with an average of six to 16 stylish suites.
Land of Plenty
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