Bhutan: the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan is no ordinary place. It is a Himalayan kingdom replete with myths and legends, where the best of traditional culture thrives and the latest global developments are enthusiastically embraced.

Bhutan holds many surprises. This is a country where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than Gross National Product. And while it visibly maintains its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a museum nor is it a nation of otherwordly ascetics shunning the rest of the world. You will find the Bhutanese well-educated, fun loving and vibrant.

Tourism in Bhutan is unique and the Bhutanese pride themselves on a sustainable, eco-friendly approach in line with the country’s popular philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Firstly, to bust a myth: there is no limit to the number of tourists. Visitors famously have to pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day, making it appear as one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit. However, this fee is all-inclusive – accommodation, food, transport and an official guide are all provided. Not only that, but your local guide will reveal the country’s amazing landscape and Buddhist heritage, and will also introduce you to the everyday charms of the Bhutanese. You don’t have to travel in a large group and you can arrange your own itinerary. What you won’t find in Bhutan is crowded backpacker-style independent travel. This is Nepal for the jet set.

So why spend your money to come here? First off, there is the amazing mountainous landscape, where snowcapped peaks rise out of primeval forests in every shade of green. Taking up prime positions in this landscape are the fantastic monasteries and incredible fortress-like dzongs. The unique Buddhist architecture embodies the traditional Buddhist culture ands sets the scene for spectacular religious dance festivals. Then there are the textiles and handicrafts, outrageous archery competitions, spectacular trekking trails and stunning flora and fauna. All this sets Bhutan aside as the last remaining great Himalayan kingdom.

When you do visit Bhutan, you will become one of the few who have experienced the charm and magic of one of the world’s most enigmatic countries – the ‘last Shangri-La’- and you’ll be playing your part in this medieval kingdom’s efforts to join the modern world, while steadfastly maintaining its distinct and remarkable cultural identity.

Top Reasons to Visit Bhutan

Jhomolhari Trek, Bhutan

MOUNTAIN TREKS

The best way to experience Bhutan is without doubt on foot, especially if you can combine a trek with a festival and the highlights of Paro and Thimpu. Come in October and November for mountain views and March for rhododendron blooms.

Being a country where nearly three-quarters of the terrain still thrives as virgin wilderness, the real charm of Bhutan lies in its remote backwoods. Composed of a smattering of rugged mountain folds, snow passes, icy summits, pristine forests, turquoise lakes, rolling meadows, remote villages and a healthy sprinkling of exotic wildlife, this is perhaps one of the world’s best preserved landscapes. And the best way to experience the untamed natural beauty of this wonderland is by walking one of the many treks that cut into its magical depths. Trekking takes you beyond the roads and the reach of many aspects of modernisation, and meeting traditionally dressed locals will be a highlight of the experience. Set aside a few days for a walk in these wilds, and you are bound to return home a happier person.

Not-to-be missed treks in Bhutan:

  • Druk Path
  • Jhomolhari Trek
  • Laya to Gasa
  • Bumthang Cultural Trek
  • Snowman Trek

ARCHITECTURAL WONDERS & SACRED SITES

While Bhutan’s big shows are its dzongs and festivals, don’t overlook the charm of the country’s smaller, less visited monasteries and temples.

  • Taktsang Goemba, Bhutan
  • Gom Kora Temple, Bhutan

Bhutanese architecture is one of the most striking features of the country. Massive dzongs (fort-monasteries), remote goembas (monasteries) and lhakhangs (temples), as well as traditional houses all subscribe to a characteristic Buddhist style. These pilgrim spots are imbued with sacred significance and hold a key to understanding how Bhutanese see their world.

Must visit religious sites:

  • Taktshang (Tiger’s Nest) Goemba
  • Gom Kora
  • Changangkha Lhakhang, Thimpu
  • Membartsho
  • Juneydrak, Haa
  • Kila Nunnery
  • Dumtse Lhakhang, Paro
  • Tago Lhakhang, Bondey
Paro Tsechu Festival, Bhutan

CULTURAL EXPERIENCES

Bhutanese culture is very accepting of visitors, especially if you make the effort to fit in. When visiting a monastery or festival don’t just watch, join in!

Many people time their entire trip around one of Bhutan’s colourful tsechus, or dance festivals. Most of the dzongs and goembas have annual festivals featuring mesmerising dance dramas. Expect swirling mask dances, playful clowns, spectacular costumes, and superb photo opportunities. Bhutan also specialises in arts and crafts which vary from sacred murals to bamboo bows. For high religious art visit the dzongs and monasteries but for handicrafts try the fascinating workshops.

Best cultural attractions to visit:

  • Paro Tsechu Festival (April)
  • Ura Yakchoe Festival (May)
  • National Institute for Zorig Chusum
  • Textile Academy
  • Khoma Village, Lhuentse

WILDLIFE & SANCTUARIES

Bhutan is a paradise for botanists and birders, with some of the loveliest and best-protected forests in the Himalaya.

Bhutan wildlife

Bhutan features a tremendous diversity of plants and animals living in a range of ecosystems from subtropical jungle barely above sea level to snowbound mountains above 7500m. The country’s various habitats are believed to contain close to 200 species of mammals and over 600 species of birds. Mountain goats and langur are easily spotted; Red Pandas are more commonly seen in their bottled form.

Best national parks & sanctuaries to visit:

  • Phobjikha Valley
  • Dochu La
  • Motithang Takin Preserve, Thimpu
  • Merak & Sakten
Bhutan shopping

SHOPPING

Shopping for handicrafts and textiles in Thimpu and throughout the country should be on your list of things to do in Bhutan.

Hand-woven and embroidered textiles are generally recognised as Bhutan’s premier handicraft. Centuries of tradition have honed the techniques of textile dyeing, weaving and stitching. Bhutan’s pride in its handicrafts is on show at the schools of Zorig Chusum (Thirteen Arts) and the numerous handicrafts shops. In addition to the Textile Museum in Thimpu, there are small shops throughout the country – particularly in Bumthang and in the far east – selling vibrant fabrics that make a colourful souvenir.

Best shopping outlets:

  • Thimpu
  • Bumthang
  • Yathra workshops, Zungney
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Best Time to Visit Bhutan

Best Time to Visit Bhutan

While selecting a suitable itinerary for your visit to Bhutan, there are two other factors that will probably influence your decision: the weather conditions and the festival season.

Autumn (late September-November) is the best season for mountain panoramas, photography and trekking. Spring (March-May) is somewhat dustier and more overcast, but ideal for botanists and birdwatchers. The extraordinary diversity of Bhutanese flora is best appreciated at this time. Winter (December-February) is fine for visits to the Paro-Thimpu area of Western Bhutan, although passes leading to Central and Eastern Bhutan can be closed by snow. The days can be warm and sunny, and the light is superb, but the nights are very cold, so warm clothing will be essential for any winter visitors. Summer (June-early September) is the rainy season.

Although it can rain in Bhutan at any time of the year and you should always carry an umbrella, the monsoon deluge in summertime obscures mountains and valleys, flooding the narrow roads and sometimes causing landslides. The areas of Eastern Bhutan bordering Assam have some of the highest levels of rainfall in the world, and the countryside is infested with leeches. Nonetheless, the cultivated fields and forests are more verdant at this time than in any other season.

Where is Bhutan located?

Slightly larger than Switzerland and only one-third the size of Nepal, the small kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country located in South Asia at the eastern end of the Himalayas. It is bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by India.

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