Bhutan is becoming one of the worst-kept travel secrets in the world. Once closed to tourism and to outside influences, Bhutan is now open for travel and for modern development. Its days of isolation are over and travelers can now reap the benefits of this unique and exotic place.
Unspoiled natural wonders are among Bhutan’s chief attractions. Bhutan is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet and official government policy aims to keep it that way. Bhutan is justly famous for its rich plant and animal life. Thimphu is home to a herd of takin, one of Bhutan’s most unique creatures, whose seemingly mismatched bodies are said to have been assembled from parts leftover from other animals. Bhutan is also known for its rhododendron (“etho metho”) and brightly-colored, towering stands of the flower cover the mountainsides in the springtime. Huge flocks of the threatened black-necked crane spend the winter in valleys throughout Bhutan, especially in Phojibka, home of the popular Crane Festival.
Bhutan’s long isolation helped to preserve its unique culture along with its environment. Traditional dress is widely worn on all occasions – not just for formal or “tourist” events. Gho (for men) and kira (for women) are often brightly colored and lavishly patterned. Visitors can delight in the everyday sight of crowds of Bhutanese in traditional dress, a riot of color and pattern.
The 13 traditional arts of Bhutan are another well-preserved aspect of the country’s cultural heritage. These arts (“zorig chusum”) include weaving, papermaking, woodworking and painting. The fruits of these artistic practices are visible throughout the country. The rich woven textiles are used to make gho and kira.
These arts are also exemplified in the dzongs, ancient fortresses that, in modern times, serve a mix of secular and monastic needs. Every district has its own dzong, each a unique example of traditional Bhutanese architecture. Exteriors feature massive whitewashed walls; interiors, rich and colorfully painted murals depicting Buddhist symbols and histories. A tour of the spectacular Punakha dzong, the site of the coronations and weddings of Bhutan’s kings, is a can’t-miss for any visitor.
Bhutan is a paradise of options for the adventurous traveler. Many come for trekking as Bhutan is home to ruggedly beautiful terrain – and to friendly and knowledgeable guides who can lead travelers over mountain passes, through remote villages and past alpine lakes. Shorter or day hikes are equally possible, including the hike to the popular “Tiger’s Nest” (“Taktsang”). This sacred monastery appears to hang precariously off the side of a cliff overlooking the Paro valley. Prayer flags, strung along the path to the top, flutter in the wind and frame the memorable and photogenic views.
Cycling is another great way to enjoy the mountains and landscapes of Bhutan. Mountain bike tours, some crossing the country, are becoming increasingly popular. Residents are also picking up the cycling habit. The Fourth and Fifth Kings are even rumored to enjoy it – if you are very lucky, you might catch a quick glimpse of one of them speeding by!
Less active visitors will also find much to enjoy in Bhutan. A tour by bus or car offers spectacular views of the snow-capped Himalayas at every turn of the road. Ponies are available to help those who want to enjoy the beautiful path to Taktsang but do not relish the prospect of a steep hike at altitude.
A leisurely afternoon could be spent watching archery (the national sport) or a game of khuru (a uniquely Bhutanese game vaguely similar to lawn darts). This won’t be as quiet a pastime as you might expect. When an archer hits a target, his teammates cheer him with song and dance. Jeering the opposition during a match is also completely appropriate. Trash talking, it seems, is not contrary to the friendly and affable Bhutanese nature!
Few travel destinations are more exotic or more unique than Bhutan. Lovers of nature, admirers of culture, seekers of adventure, all will find something special in a tour of this legendary “Shangri-La,” once a forbidden outpost and now a welcoming and desirable travel stop.