A common perception is that every Bhutan trek is a challenging 10-15 days spent hiking and climbing. Not so. The Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek is a five-day, very off-the-beaten-path affair that runs passed numerous high altitude lakes. The scenery is rich in bird species and flora, and the route – a bit of an insider tip so far – sits largely undisturbed by western travellers.
Tshechus are colourful festivals celebrating the Buddhist culture in Bhutan: the more you attend, the more atonement brownie points you earn. Held at diminutive Prakar, in the courtyard of the White Monkey Monastery (surely the name alone warrants a visit), this particular tshechu is very understated, but very unique. What it lacks in fanfare, it makes up in honesty to its centuries-old roots.
As with the Prakar Tshechu, this celebration is held in the east of Bhutan close to Bumthang, so you could combine the two. Unlike other tshechus that involve a lot of vivid colour and are held during the day, the Mewang (Fire Dance), a frenzied spectacle that builds to its midnight crescendo from about 8pm, is held at night, so the fire itself is the intense and very engaging focal point.
Tso-lham, which literally translates as ‘shoes’, are brilliantly coloured, handmade embroidered leather boots. Only those worn by the King and the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) have a yellow ankle, while the public wears red. The term Tsho-lham also applies to the art of traditional bootmaking, which is something of a vanishing practice, but an artform that’s being revived in places like Thimpu’s Zorig Chusum School.
Both are landlocked and both stretch from subtropical forest to soaring Himalayan peaks: there are similarities between Bhutan and Nepal’s physical makeup, but enough subtle differences to produce a South Asian combo that’s well worth the one-hour flight time between them. Kathmandu’s exotic chaos makes for an intriguing antidote to Bhutan’s equivalent, Thimpu, and Pokhara is a must for adrenalin junkies.
Bhutan is a land of dzongs: very grand fortress architecture seen throughout the kingdom. You wouldn’t want to miss them – Trongsa dzong is a mammoth complex built on a spur overlooking the gorge of the Mangde River, and the dzong at Punakha is approached via an incredible wooden cantilever bridge. Our advice? Preserve your dzong zest by picking the ones you really want to see.
Bhutan’s strong sense of national identity is probably as much to do with isolation and fear of invasion, as it is their greatest legacy: the concept of Gross National Happiness. That said, no other nation has founded such happiness on the basis of simplicity and, together with good governance, a strong environmental commitment, and the preservation of what makes them, well… them, they’re certainly doing something right.
Held on the banks of the Wang Chhu River, this is the largest domestic market for farm produce in Bhutan and is a world away from roadside sacks of chili. Comprising 400 stalls set over two stories, one corner of the market – you’ll smell it when you get there – is reserved for fish, meat, and even the odd yak leg. A sight to behold.
You’ll find ‘5*’ hotels scattered in the higher traffic areas of western central Bhutan, but they’re not 5* in comparison to Europe and they charge an arm and a leg, perpetuating the myth that Bhutan is vastly expensive. Yes, there’s daily traveller fee of $250, but if you couple that with heritage properties, log cabins or homestays run by locals, barely any costs are added and you’ll have a much more authentic experience.
Guaranteed, the words ‘ema datse’ will ring in the ears of any visitor to Bhutan within minutes. The country’s national dish, traditional ema datse is fresh Himalayan yak’s cheese cooked not just with chili, but also with fresh vegetables and potatoes. ‘Classic’ renditions of the dish across urban Bhutan are often made with imported factory-processed cheddar cheese and are not what they’re cracked up to be.
Gho, the national dress for Bhutanese men is a versatile traditional outfit. Some 7 out of 10 western travellers make the gho a compulsory item on their souvenir shopping-list, but most end up buying an off-the-rack import and never wearing it. If you want one, get one made from a local tailor and give something back to the community.
The Bhutanese are a people for whom the ban on TV and internet was only lifted in 1999; there is little point in staying connected there and your empty pleas for ‘phone reception’ will likely be met with confusion. You are in Bhutan: speak to the locals and live for the mysticism that surrounds you - updating your facebook status can wait.