Bhutan first opened up to tourists in 1974 and the country’s tourism industry subscribes to former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck’s now-famous assertion that Gross National Happiness is more important that Gross National Product. Local people are employed at all levels of the tourist industry, bringing visitors into contact with the Bhutanese at every opportunity, and providing a plethora of jobs for the community, from taxi driver to tour guide. Not here the international mega hotel and the faceless global tour operator; instead you’ll find friendly hotels, resorts and home stays run by the local people, and native guides with abundant knowledge and boundless enthusiasm.
So, what is there to see? The country’s main attraction has to be its pristine natural environment, which ranges from subtropical plains to Himalayan heights. Located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, Bhutan offers numerous opportunities for hiking and there are plenty of different itineraries for those seeking an active break.
Western Bhutan offers the adventurous the chance to see a remote area of rhododendron and magnolia forest, panoramic mountain views and diminutive local villages. Highlights include the 18th-century Tango monastery, one of Bhutan’s most important Buddhist colleges, and the climb to Taksang (aka the Tiger’s Nest) which involves an ascent from the Paro Valley floor some two thousand feet past prayer wheels and shrines to the dramatically sited monastery, perched on the edge of the mountain.
For something a little more challenging, join a small group trek, a highly exclusive tour which caters to only a handful of walkers at once and is likely to see you outnumbered on the paths by nomadic yak herders. Beginning in the idyllic Paro Valley this trek wends its way through atmospheric forests and past abandoned forts (dzongs) to emerge above the tree line. It then continues to Chomolhari Base Camp beneath the magnificent peak of Chomolhari, which straddles the border between Bhutan and Tibet, and takes in the beautiful Tsophu lakes, before crossing the Nyile La and Yale La passes and eventually turning south back to the capital Thimpu.
For those more interested in culture, why not join a cultural tour of Bhutan instead? Beginning in Thimpu, visitors can explore the medieval fortress and monastery of Tashichhodzong, home to the King's throne room. The capital is also home to the Institute of Zorig Chusum where students study traditional arts and crafts; the National Library, which holds an extensive collection of Buddhist texts and manuscripts; and a handicrafts emporium, which displays a variety of intricate handwoven products.
Continuing on to Punakha, the ancient capital, visitors can take in the view at the Dochula pass and explore the 17th-century fortress of Punakha Dzong, an important site in Bhutan’s history. In Paro, the National Museum with its extensive art collection is a must, while the included visit to a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse offers an unrivalled insight into the everyday lives of the country’s people.
To see Bhutan at its very best, consider timing your trip to coincide with a major festival. The Paro festival sees hundreds gather to witness local monks dressed in brightly coloured robes performing ritual dances and culminates with the unfurling of a giant silk painting called a Thangka. Join a tour to this vibrant festival and you’ll also be able to visit the region’s other attractions, including numerous monasteries and forts, as well as the Gangtey Valley, home of the black necked crane.
If choosing just one of these enticing itineraries is just too difficult, you could even put together your own tailor made tour, taking in the capital Thimpu, the valleys, passes and peaks of the Himalayas, and the country’s very best monasteries. You’ll see local culture in the villages and at the markets, soak up the history at the museums and temples and could even end on a real high with a traditional hot stone bath.