Visiting Bhutan is like travelling back in time. Since opening its doors to tourists this formerly isolated country has carefully managed tourism with a $250 daily travellers’ fee, preserving its unique traditional culture and feeding back into the country’s wider philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan’s largely Buddhist population is peace-loving and god-fearing and its landscapes – subtropical plains in the south to sub-alpine Himalayan heights in the north – are undeniably beautiful. Leave your modern life behind and enjoy an experience that’s becoming harder to find anywhere else in the world. Find out more in our Bhutan travel guide.
Our top Bhutan holidays
Best time to go to Bhutan
Bhutan’s weather varies dramatically depending on the elevation. It rains all year, but monsoon season (June to August) is really wet and probably best avoided. Spring (March to May) can also be wet, but the birds are in song and the wildflowers are out, which makes for incredible hiking. Autumn (September to November) is also one of the best times to visit Bhutan, with less rainfall and clear skies. Winter (December to February) is a photographer's dream with thick blankets of snow, but road closures are common and temperatures can drop well below zero at night.
Map & highlightsBhutan holidays usually move steadily eastwards, starting in Paro, home to Bhutan’s only airport (the descent through Himalayan peaks is mind-blowing). The Tiger’s Nest monastery here is a must-visit but requires a bit of puff for the climb. Thimphu, the capital, has trappings of modernity yet retains an air of deep spirituality, while the winter capital, Punakha, boasts one of the country’s finest dzongs. Continuing on, you reach the Phobjikha Valley, famed for the black-necked cranes that arrive in winter, and the spectacular passes at Trongsa. Finally, in the Bumthang district you’ll find many of Bhutan’s oldest, most significant temples, monasteries and landmarks.
A major producer of apples, Bumthang offers a bit more of a cultural bite than its quieter neighbour, Ura. Shrouded in religious legend of mystery illness and miracle cures, Bumthang is home to some of the country’s oldest temples, monasteries and landmarks. The ‘Burning Lake’ is a sacred site of pilgrimage where it’s said the sin-free amongst us are able to distinguish an extraordinary sight.
Home of red rice, the National Museum and the country’s only airport, Paro is ideal to explore on foot. It’s biggest draw? The Rinpung Dzong, a distinctive fortress characterised by huge buttressed walls that peer over the town and are visible throughout the valley. Paro’s ‘high street’ was only built in 1985 and is a concrete-free blend of brightly decorated independent restaurants and shops… for now.
Phobjikha, known also as Gangtey, is a glacial valley that’s snowbound during the winter months when most of its residents up sticks and head to warmer Wangdue. In their place come hundreds of black-necked cranes that, if you’re lucky, come so close that they circle you in the sky. The whole area is a hugely important wildlife preserve, home to muntjacs, wild boar, sambar, Himalayan black bears and leopards, too.
Bhutan’s winter capital, Punakha is lower and warmer than Thimpu and is marked proudly by Punakha Dzong, the second largest, but doubtless most impressive dzong in the country. The dzong sits at the confluence of the Pho Chuu and Mo Chuu rivers and is testament to Bhutan’s commitment to traditional skills having been rebuilt sympathetically after much of it was destroyed by fire in 1998.
Thimphu is a contradiction: it upholds Bhutan’s overriding sense of purity – it’s the only world capital without traffic lights, a modern trapping removed because residents thought them impersonal – but it also has a challenging exuberance that’s seen a few nightclubs spring up. Temples, dzongs, museums and parks – Thimphu has it all, a vibrant introduction to the most advanced and the most remote parts of the kingdom.
The Trongsa passes are reached via an ancient route along which monks and mules once trod their weary way through conifer forests. Its central location meant Trongsa served as a strategic stronghold for warfare and trade in centuries past, and the red-roofed dzong here was formerly the ancestral home of the ruling Wangchuk dynasty. Trongsa is easily walkable, and if travelling between Thimphu and Jakar you will more than likely stop here for lunch.
Like nowhere else
Thimphu is the only capital city in the world without traffic lights – they were replaced by humans signalling because local people considered them too impersonal. Bhutan was the first country to begin using Gross National Happiness as a measure of progress, and to ban the sale of tobacco entirely. And while it wields no military or economic power, Bhutan’s spectacular Himalayan landscapes and unique culture put it right at the top of many adventurous travellers’ bucket lists. Remote and mysterious yet always welcoming to open-minded visitors, Bhutan is like nowhere else.
Festivals in Bhutan
Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche introduced Buddhism to Bhutan, flying in from Tibet on the back of a tiger. Commemorating the arrival of Buddhism, every Bhutanese district hosts colourful annual festivals (tshechus) with monks praying and meditating for weeks beforehand. Villagers descend from the hills in all their finery to dance, feast and meet friends. Events of note include the Paro Festival in March that sees the unrolling of a gigantic scroll said to enlighten anyone that sets eyes on it. The Thangbi Mani Festival in Bumthang is also popular, with an exciting fire-leaping purification ceremony.
Walking in Bhutan
Walking holidays in Bhutan must be guided, and for long-distance trekking routes you’ll need a lot of support as paths are little used, and you’ll need to bring your own tents and food. Luckily, your holiday company will match you up with porters and ponies. The best walks in Bhutan include the Druk Path between Paro and Thimphu, encompassing some of the country’s most spectacular wilderness scenes. The Snowman Trek is an ambitious, demanding route for experienced high-altitude trekkers only, taking a month to cross 11 steep mountain passes. But while snow-capped Himalayan peaks are always in view, there are also many more easy-going walks at lower levels.
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More about Bhutan
Buddhism is the bedrock of Bhutan, woven throughout the fabric of society. This is a deeply religious country, and shaven-headed monks in robes of deep burgundy and gold are seen everywhere. Even if you’re not coming to learn more about Buddhism in Bhutan, you will doubtless visit several dzongs (fortified monasteries), so it pays to learn a little about Buddhist etiquette so as not to accidentally cause any offence. And while attending one of the many annual tshechus is a fantastic way to explore Bhutanese religion, the one must-do on any holiday is trekking to the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro.
Combining Bhutan with other countries
Despite its isolation, Bhutan is often visited at the same time as Tibet and Nepal. All three are deeply spiritual, sit at the very roof of the world, and have an aura of mystery about them as intoxicating as a yak butter candle. Combining Bhutan with other countries like this makes a lot of sense. Only short flights between them are needed (try to get a window seat), and it’s a great way to compare and contrast their traditions and landscapes. Well-planned routes ensure that you see Mount Everest, but also many other world-renowned landmarks in this region.
Types of holidays
You can’t travel independently in Bhutan, but both tailor made and small group tours are available. The latter follow fixed itineraries on set dates, and see you exploring alongside like-minded travellers. While there are exceptions, such as cycling trips, most Bhutan holidays are either cultural tours or walking holidays. On trips with a cultural focus you’ll see the country through the eyes of local people and learn how Buddhism informs almost every aspect of their lives. Walking in the Land of the Thunder Dragon is an unforgettable experience, as you trek between remote communities in unspoilt wildernesses against a backdrop of Himalayan peaks.
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