Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon, lies in the eastern Himalayas, surrounded by tall, snow-covered mountains. This tiny Himalayan nation is very different from its South Asian neighbors. First, the country has a monarch. Second, the country's growth and development are measured by the Gross Happiness Index instead of GDP. Third, the country produces more oxygen than carbon dioxide; and fourth, independent travel by foreigners is restricted. It is the only country in South Asia where seventy percent of the total land area is covered by forests and is carbon-neutral. Bhutan is also one of the few countries that believes in low-volume and high-value tourism (which explains the ban on independent travel).
Is it worth visiting Bhutan? Well, reputed travel journals like Lonely Planet and Conde Nast Traveller seem to think so. Bhutan has been pegged as a must-visit destination by popular travel land destination guides. This tiny Himalayan nation makes it to the list of ‘must-visit destinations in the world, and this year too, it has been picked by Lonely Planet and Reader's Digest for their Best in Travel 2023 list.
If you are wondering why you should travel to Bhutan, here are some reasons why you should include this country on your bucket list.
Bhutan is the only country in the world where the government has a Gross National Happiness Index instead of a GDP growth rate. It measures the growth of the country not by material value but through the overall happiness and contentment of its citizens. The government eases the burden on its citizens by offering free education and free health care. The government also helps in other areas to make the lives of its citizens less burdensome. The daily sustainable development Fee that a tourist in Bhutan has to pay goes to support the country’s environment, infrastructure, and social projects
In a world where modern technology is taking over at a fast pace and traditional values and customs are being forgotten, Bhutan has held fast to its ancient cultures and traditions. Here, you will find people living in harmony with nature, following a traditional lifestyle. They wear their traditional attire, and they do it with pride. The festivals and religious events are celebrated with gusto, with people from all sections of society taking part in the festivities. The Buddhist monks are revered figures, and people look up to them for spiritual guidance. For entertainment people indulge in community games like archery and dart.
The trekking trails in Bhutan are some of the best in the Himalayas. The trails traverse virgin forests that have been untouched by humans. The pristine nature coupled with amazing views of the Himalayan mountains makes for an outstanding trekking experience. Another good thing about trekking in Bhutan is that you will get to experience the old style of trekking, which involves camping out in the open. As there are no villages or lodges en route, you will have to rely on a fully organized camping trek in Bhutan.
The agency you book your adventure with will make all the arrangements. There will be a guide, a kitchen crew (to cook and serve your meals), and mules and horses to carry the luggage and the ration up the mountains. You will be sleeping in tents under the open sky, which will make your trip an unforgettable experience. There are amazing trails for short-day hikes as well as long, multi-day hikes. The treks are graded from easy to challenging. Depending on your skill and experience, you can select any of the day hikes or treks.
The Tiger's Nest Hike is the most popular day hike in Bhutan. Almost all the tourists who visit Bhutan add this hike to their itinerary. Chelela Pass to Haa Valley Hike, Lungchutse Lakhang Hike, Khansum Chorten Hike, Gangtey Nature Trail Hike, etc. are some of the other day hikes that are popular among hikers. Some of the best known multi-day treks in Bhutan are the Druk Path Trek, the Snowman Trek, the Jomolhari Trek, the Dagala Thousand Lakes, and the Laya Gasa Trek.
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With more than seventy percent of its total land mass covered by forests, Bhutan has a rich forest cover. There's so much greenery around, even in urban hubs like Thimphu and Paro, that you will never lack fresh, clean air. The entire country is covered by unending stretches of green forests, and one feels the inner peace and tranquility that nature evokes as soon as one lands in Bhutan.
The soothing and calm environment is ideal for meditation and to detox oneself from the stress of modern life. There are spa retreats and resorts that offer meditation, yoga, and wellness packages. You can also connect with nature by exploring the pristine trails. Bhutan is, at best, a great destination for self-contemplation, inner peace, and soulful travel. Surrounded by nature, you can detox from modern technology and find inner harmony.
Bhutan is a country of vibrant festivals. This tiny Himalayan country celebrates a festival every month of the year. Being a Buddhist country, most of the festivals are dedicated to Lord Buddha, Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, Drukpa Kuenley (also known as the divine Madman), and other Buddhist saints. An interesting fact about Bhutan is that every city has its own festival, or Tsechhu, which is celebrated at different times of the year. The Tsechhus are celebrated at the monasteries with the full attendance of the monastic community, royal family, government officials, and the general public. The festivities stretch for several days, with religious rituals, masked dances, and skits making the celebrations.
The Buddhist festivals are colorful and offer a wonderful cultural experience for tourists. Some of the grandest Tsecchus are held in Paro, Punakha, Thimphu, and Gangtey. Apart from Tsecchus, other notable festivals celebrated in Bhutan are the Blake Neck Crane Festival, Mushroom Festival, HaaSummer Festival, and the Royal Highland Festival. All these festivals offer a glimpse of Bhutan’s rich culture and are definitely worth attending.
Bhutan has a very low crime rate. It will probably be the only country where you will feel completely safe from scammers and thugs who prey on tourists. The government regulates the prices and costs of most commodities and items on sale. Further, a tourist is always accompanied by a local guide, which will make the travel experience in Bhutan safer. For female travelers, Bhutan is one of the safest destinations in the world.
Those are probably some of the reasons tourists love Bhutan. But let's hear about the not-so-exciting reasons that make travelers skip this beautiful country.
Tourists have to shell out USD 100 per night in order to explore this country. While some tourists debate that they do not get value for the exorbitant sum they shell out, many are okay with it as about 70 percent of the fee goes to fund the health, education, and other developmental programs run by the government. Earlier, tourists had to pay a Sustainable Development Fee of USD 200 per night(USD 250 during peak seasons), but the government slashed the price in September 2023 to encourage more tourist arrivals in Bhutan.
Now tourists have to pay USD 100 only. This fee will be applicable for four years (till 2027). But do note that the new daily fee won't cover the cost of accommodation, food, transportation, entry fees, or guide fees, as it did earlier. Tourists from India are levied a fee of INR 1200 per day.
Tourists are not allowed to travel independently. They have to book a guided tour or trek in order to explore the country. A registered guide must accompany them wherever they go in Bhutan. This lack of freedom to explore the country has been a cause for many tourists to skip this country for destinations with less strict rules.
If you have already made up your mind to visit the country, here's how you should go about it. Remember, you can travel to Bhutan only by booking a tour with a government-recognized travel agency. So the first thing you should do is get a visa and find a reliable tour company.
You can apply for your visa online or have it arranged by the tour company you book your tour with. The online visa costs USD 40, and it's non-refundable.
Bhutan has only one international airport, and that's in Paro. You can fly to Paro from any one of these destinations: Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Singapore, and Nepal. Only two airlines operate international flights to Bhutan, and both of these are from Bhutan-Drukair and Bhutan Airlines. Since the airport in Paro is surrounded by jagged mountains and high hills, the pilots are given special training to fly into Paro.
You can also access the country by road from any of the Indo-Bhutan land border points. The overland border entry points are Phuentsholing, Gelephu, and Samdrup Jongkhar. Since independent travel is not allowed, you should have your guide waiting for you at the border to enter Bhutan. The most popular overland entry point is the one at Jaigaon-Phuentsholing, bordering the Indian state of West Bengal
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Here are some unique experiences that you can enjoy in Bhutan.
The last surviving nomads of Bhutan can be found in Laya Gewog, in Gasa District. This remote northwestern town of Bhutan is the winter settlement of the Layaps, a nomadic yak-herding tribe. They spend the summers in the high mountains, herding their yaks in alpine pastures close to Tibet.
As winter approaches they make their way down to Laya. The customs and attire of the Layaps are very unique from other Bhutanese, and meeting and spending time with them is an amazing experience. The annual Royal Highland Festival, which is held in October, presents you with a great opportunity to observe the rich culture and traditions of these nomadic tribe.
The hike to Tiger's Nest, or Taktsang Monastery in Paro, is probably one of the most amazing hikes in the whole of Bhutan. The hike takes you to a monastery clinging onto a rocky cliff about 900 meters from the valley floor. This is a sacred pilgrimage walk for Buddhists who visit the monastery to meditate and pay their respects to Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, the saint who introduced Buddhism in Tibet and Bhutan.
The monastery is said to be the meditation cave of Padmasambhava, who flew to this hill from Tibet on the back of a flying tigress. The trail offers astounding views of the Paro Valley and the Himalayan mountains.
Locals believe Yeti or Migoi still exist in the deep woods of Trashigangin eastern Bhutan. The SaktengWildlife Sanctuary is home to several endangered species of Himalayan flora and fauna, as well as the abominable ape Migoi, or Yeti, if the locals are to be believed. The wildlife sanctuary is covered with blue pine forests and rare rhododendron shrubs. The sanctuary includes villages of the Brokpas, an indigenous semi-nomadic tribe.
If you want to practice meditation and learn how to gain mastery over your inner self, Bhutan is the right destination. With more than seventy percent of the country covered by forests, you will be surrounded by a natural and organic environment that is conducive to meditation. Spa resorts, as well as some monasteries, offer meditation courses that are led by expert meditation masters.
While in Punakha, Bhutan's second-biggest city, you can try rafting in the Mo Chhu (female) River or the Po Chhu (male) River. The rafting course passes by the picturesque Punakha Dzong and its cantilever bridge. Late autumn and winter are the best times to try this adventure, as the water level goes down and the river remains calm and easy. Even inexperienced people can try this adventure during this time. This delightful adventure lasts for one or two hours and takes you past the paddy fields and the majestic Punakha Dzong.
The Bhutan Postal Museum offers people a unique opportunity to create their own personalized postage stamps. These personalized stamps are totally legit and can be used to post letters and postcards. One can use one's own photo or select one of Bhutan's famous landmarks for the background image on the postage stamp.
Bhutan is well known for its traditional handmade papers. Known as ‘Dhesoo’, the traditional papers are made from the bark of dhenap (Daphne) and dhekap(Edgeworthis) trees. The Bhutanese handmade papers are exported to European as well as Asian countries. Some artisanal paper-making factories let tourists design their own paper for a fee. You can try your hand at traditional paper-making at one of the paper-making factories in Thimphu or Paro.
Since Bhutan has a cold climate, the Bhutanese people enjoy having hot stone baths. Huge slabs of stone are brought from the riverside and heated on a fire. After the stones get heated, they are dumped in a tub filled with water and traditional herbs that are good for the skin. The heated stones keep the water warm as well as release minerals that are beneficial for health. Hot stone baths can be enjoyed at spa resorts or village homestays.
The village of Sopsokha lies close to Punakha. The main attraction of this village is the Fertility Temple, or Chimi Lakhang, blessed by the patron saint of Bhutan, Drukpa Kuenley. He is also known as the Divine Madman for his unusual methods of imparting wisdom. Those who visit the Chimi Lakhang Temple are blessed with a giant wooden phallus by the monk. The blessing is said to keep people fertile, and many devotees to this temple include married couples. A walk around the village of Sopsokha will take you through streets and houses painted with giant phalluses (male genitalia). The locals believe that these images ward off evil spirits and usher infertility and prosperity.
Bhutan has an agrarian economy, which means most Bhutanese are involved in farming. Staying with a local family in a village will offer you an insight into the traditional Bhutanese lifestyle and culture. Spending time with a local family and helping them with their chores will allow you to see the world through their lens. People in rural areas stay in traditional wooden houses, which are painted and decorated in rich colors and motifs.
The hot spring at Koma village, which is situated close to the city of Punakha, is known for its healing properties. You can visit the village and enjoy a relaxing dip at the Koma HotSpring. Doing this after a strenuous trek can work wonders for your tired joints and muscles.
Bhutan offers a unique experience to travelers. People, in this remote country have preserved their ancient culture and traditions. This is not your run-of-the-mill tourist destination with the usual man-made or plastic attractions. Here, life flows at a much slower pace, and nature and Buddhist spirituality abound everywhere. Traveling to Bhutan will help you slow down and appreciate the world in its natural glory.
This is a destination that will help you detox from the chaos of modern life and help you find harmony and balance. This is a destination where you can reevaluate your life choices and transform your life. And for this alone, the experience of traveling to Bhutan is worthwhile.