One of the first things you'll notice upon arriving in the Kingdom of Bhutan is the fresh air, followed by the lush mountain scenery and extremely contented people. Residents here have embraced sustainable lifestyles and settled into a peaceful coexistence with nature.
The Bhutanese place a high value on Gross National Happiness over development and economic growth. In fact, satisfaction is tied to peaceful coexistence with nature. Jungles in the south are connected to alpine forests in the north so that hundreds of species, including the endangered Bengal tiger, are free to roam the wilderness. Even the capital city of Thimpu prefers a traffic cop to a stoplight; you won't find any fast-food restaurants around.
Tourism is strictly regulated to protect this way of life. Most foreigners are charged a mandatory daily tariff, but trips are booked through all-inclusive tour companies. A percentage of proceeds funds social services and helps preserve the national identity.
Most of the Bhutanese landscape is mountainous, and with the Himalayas guarding the northern border, only a few roads lead into the country from the south. Flying into Paro International Airport is an intriguing alternative for travelers who enjoy the thrill of getting there. The descent is quite challenging, navigating through deep mountain valleys. Only a select few pilots are certified to land at the airport. Book your flight into Paro from Kathmandu for a majestic view of the Himalayan Mountain Peaks from your window seat.
The Tiger's Nest, a Buddhist monastery and sacred site, is elegantly perched on the sheer cliffs overlooking Paro Valley. Classic architecture and a stunning location have made this temple complex the most popular destination in the country, yet not all travelers make the journey. Before booking your tour package into Bhutan, make sure that the itinerary includes a hike to Tiger's Nest. You'll want a fully charged camera for the scenery and temple architecture, though you may only enter the temple's interior with yourself.
Tradition reigns in the capital city of Thimpu despite small signs of modernization; traffic cops direct cars passing through town. Locals go about their daily business underneath the watchful eye of the Buddha Dordenma. According to legend, this statue was prophesied by a renowned 20th-century mystic, who claimed it would bestow peace and happiness upon the world. The prayer halls and temples inside the throne house over 100,000 miniature bronze and gold Buddha statues. Take your time exploring this impressive structure, then enjoy the blessings and tranquil view of Thimpu valley from the viewing platform.
While the Bhutanese are known for their dislike of violence, archery is considered a martial art that requires intelligence and concentration. It was declared the national sport in 1971, and ever since, the practice has become a symbol of manhood and prosperous relations between people. Matches often become heated as teammates cheer each other on and taunt their opponents with literary skill. Keep an eye out for tournaments at local festivals, or look for archery performances included in cultural tour packages.
Chele La Pass is one of the highest drivable roads in Bhutan, and from here, a hike through the dense forest will take you to the oldest nunnery in Bhutan: Kila Goemba. By Bhutanese standards, the one to two-hour journey up is nothing to fret about, but it makes a great acclimatization hike if you're planning more adventurous treks later in your trip. The ninth-century structure was originally a meditation site; now, it is home to a small group of Buddhist nuns.
The Druk Path Trek is arguably one of the most popular hikes in Bhutan, spanning from Paro to Thimpu over several days. Along the way, you'll hike through rhododendron forests and steep mountain passes. If weather permits, you'll have stunning views of sacred Mount Jomolhari and Mount Gangkar Puensum, the tallest peak in Bhutan. The descent into Thimpu is the longest part of the journey, but fortunately, a cozy hotel room and a hot shower will await your arrival.
On the road to Punakha from Thimpu, you'll find yourself traveling the Dochula Pass through the snow-covered Himalayas. Most tours will stop at the 108 memorial stupas and temple, but make sure you have time for a hike to Chimi Lhakhang as well. This 15th-century temple honors the Divine Madman, a Buddhist monk infamous for his outrageous behavior and sexually suggestive humor. Visitors can appreciate the spiritually protective powers of the phallus-themed decor, and childless couples may ask for a blessing of fertility by the presiding Lama.
Over four centuries ago, the Father of Bhutan instituted a national dress code to unite the citizens and preserve cultural identity. That code still exists today, and during special events and festivals, men's belted ghos and women's ankle-length kiras are more colorful and vibrant than ever. If you plan on being in Bhutan during the festival season, ask your tour guide to recommend a neighborhood shop that sells or rents affordable ghos and kiras.
In the easternmost region of Bhutan, the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary exists to protect the pristine, Himalayan ecosystems and their native species. The yeti is one of the park's most famous inhabitants, according to locals, although science has yet to prove their existence. Book a tour that crosses through Merak, where the nomadic Brokpa people have claimed sightings of the folkloric creature. These friendly souls may not venture into the forest to help you find him, but they may share some of their delicious yak cheese and butter tea to keep you warm.
Dzongs are the massive, walled fortresses found in every district. Constructed in the distinct Bhutanese architectural style, these dzongs guarded their communities against potential invasion and natural predators, and the fortress at Trongsa is the largest of them all. Situated against the Black Mountains and overlooking the Mangde River, it is an ideal spot for meditation and photography. Wander the maze of corridors and courtyards that spans this multilevel structure, and relish the view enjoyed by the first two kings of Bhutan when they ruled from Trongsa.
The Bhumtang district in central Bhutan is the spiritual heartland of the kingdom, boasting several historic landmarks and sacred sites within its boundaries. The region is also known for yathra, the brightly colored, vegetable-dyed wool that the village woman hand-weave into beautiful textiles. Dealers flock to these villages to purchase inventory for resale, but some weavers prefer to barter or sell their merchandise to tourists and commuters along the bypass road.
Mount Everest may be the world's most famous Himalayan venture, but the Snowman Trek through northern Bhutan is the most demanding in the world. This route crosses through high mountain terrain, and trekkers often camp on snow. While variations of this tour can last anywhere from 10 to 30 days, the altitude and distance are a dealbreaker for most hikers. If you can handle this physical and mental challenge, your rewards will be encounters with nomadic highlanders, exotic animal viewing, and unparalleled vistas of untouched landscapes.