Bhutan culture travel guide

BHUTAN CULTURAL HOLIDAYS TRAVEL GUIDE


2 MINUTE SUMMARY

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness ethos extends to cultural travellers wishing to expand horizons en route to precariously positioned dzongs (forts) and enclosed monastic courtyards. Spring and autumn are tsechu (festival) time, culminating in a kaleidoscope of costumes, masks and dramatic dancing. Local guides extol the virtues of simple pleasures but encourage awareness of etiquette related to monks, deities and home stays which will invariably unearth encounters around prayer wheels or charred cooking pots. Cultural treasures are everywhere you turn with the cities of Paro and Thimphu offering illumination in the midst of memorials and museums dedicated to folklore heritage, the Dragon King and the teachings of Padmasambhava and Tibetan Buddhism. Preserving cultural heritage is just as important to Bhutan as protecting the natural environment and although responsible tourists are more than welcome, the daily price tag and the lack of obvious overland access may well keep things under wraps for many more years to come.

Find out more in our Bhutan cultural holidays travel guide.

THINGS TO DO ON A BHUTAN CULTURAL HOLIDAY


CULTURAL ACTIVITIES IN BHUTAN

Stay in a family home


Conversations spark much more gamely whilst chopping chillies, washing up or even taking a hot stone bath, and it's no coincidence that a homestay in Bhutan will also initiate a memory bank full of indelible images to treasure once you've returned home. Outside of Thimphu and Paro you'll discover a world revolving around agriculture, livestock, prayer, singing and dancing, with villages spread across valleys, such as Chokor-Toe, Gangtey and Punakha, offering responsible travellers real insight into the day-to-day routines of local Bhutanese living off the land.

Attend a festival


Visiting Bhutan in the spring or autumn invites an opportunity to experience the wonderful whirl of colour, customs and spiritual symbolism associated with Buddhist tshechus (festivals) where carefully choreographed masked costume Cham dances promise blessings for participants and audiences alike. The Domkhar tshechu in the spring and Jambay Lakhang tshechu in the autumn are just a couple of lesser-attended festivals to keep an eye out for with larger gatherings in Paro and Thimpu verging on Glastonbury size although, thankfully, without the threat of Coldplay. Check out our article on Bhutanese festivals for more details.

Museums, monks & monasteries


Discovering the culture of Bhutan will no doubt feature visits to any number of the country's dzongs, temples and monasteries where burgundy and gold robed monks meditate, pray and carry out daily chores unimpeded by the influence of the outside world, bar the odd mobile phone call. Treks to Taktsang Monastery, just outside Paro, and Tango Monastery, just north of Thimphu, provide a chance to understand the customs and rituals associated with Bhutanese Buddhism and combine really well with visits to handicraft, textile and folk heritage museums located in the city. Visiting a monastery, museum or finding out more about the life of monks in Bhutan is always best appreciated with a local guide who will be more than happy to explain etiquette and cultural customs as well as giving you a greater depth of knowledge when it comes to Buddhism and the history of Bhutan.

History & Happiness


Ever since Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the third King of Bhutan, implemented the philosophy that his subjects’ “Gross National Happiness” was more important than gross national finances, sustaining cultural values and conserving the natural environment have been cornerstones of Bhutanese society. Of course, not every person you meet in Bhutan is going to be beaming from ear to ear but at least the country is going in the right direction with a more harmonious and sustainable outlook than in most other countries. Learning about the cultural history of Bhutan can be as simple as chatting to your guide or visiting the national museum in Paro and if you're looking for happiness then explore with a smile and see where it leads.
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Hiking in the himalayas


Flowering forests of rhododendrons burst from Himalayan foothills like explosions of powder paint juxtaposed against sweeping alpine meadows and water colour blue skies. Hiking trips in Bhutan can lead you past waterfalls, lakes and curious herds of yaks before you bed down for the night in locations such as Thangthangka, Jangothang, Lingshi or Barshong Gewog – all above 3,250m. Bumthang Valley is another spectacular setting for hiking in Bhutan with gentle gradients allowing for relaxed point-to-point high altitude trekking ascending to Tamshing Monastery, Ngang Lhakhang temple and Takung village, just beyond the Phephe La Pass.

Best time to go on a cultural holiday in Bhutan


Festivals & floral scenes

Avoiding the Jun-Aug monsoon is a good idea as not only will you experience slippery conditions, but cultural events are all but wiped out. Spring is the best time to go to Bhutan with tsechus in Gasa, Zhemgang, Punakha, Trashigang and Paro occurring during March. Thimphu’s festival to celebrate flowering rhododendrons is popular in April, with the May humidity leading to fewer visitors and better prices on accommodation. Autumn sees low rainfall and blue skies, perfect for hiking to Paro Taktsang and supping mugs of hot tea. Sep is a busy time for monks and dancers preparing for peak festival season in Oct-Nov, with Thimphu and Gangtey very popular tsechus alongside the black neck crane festival in Wangdue Phodrang in Nov.

Looking for more info related to festivals in Bhutan? Read this: Five of the Best Bhutan Festivals
Photo credits: [Topbox: Jean-Marie Hullot] [Stay in local homestay: Zachary Collier] [Museums, monks & Monasteries: avinash singh] [Hiking in the himalayas: Inga Vitola] [Best time to go: Nagarjun Kandukuru] [Helpdesk: Christopher Michel]

Written by: Chris Owen
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