Bhutan is no ordinary place. It is the last great Himalayan kingdom, enshrouded in mystery and magic, where a traditional Buddhist culture carefully embraces global developments.
Bhutan holds many surprises. This is a country where the rice is red and where chillies aren’t just a seasoning but the main dish. It’s also a deeply Buddhist land, where monks check their smartphones after performing a divination, and where giant protective penises are painted beside the entrance to many houses. Yet while it visibly protects its Buddhist traditions, Bhutan is not a museum. You will find the Bhutanese well educated, fun loving and well informed about the world around them. It’s this blending of the ancient and modern that makes Bhutan endlessly fascinating.
Low Volume, High Value Tourism
The Bhutanese pride themselves on a sustainable approach to tourism in line with the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Foreign visitors famously pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day, making it appear as one of the world’s more expensive destinations. However, this fee is all-inclusive – accommodation, food, transport and an official guide are all provided, so it’s not a bad deal. You don’t have to travel in a large group and you can arrange your own itinerary. What you won’t find is budget backpacker-style travel.
Environmental protection goes hand in hand with cultural preservation in Bhutan. By law, at least 60% of the country must remain forested for all future generations; it currently stands above 70%. Not only is Bhutan carbon neutral, but it actually absorbs more carbon than it emits! For the visitor, this translates into lovely forest hikes and superb birding across a chain of national parks. Whether you are spotting takins or blue poppies, trekking beneath 7000m peaks or strolling across hillsides ablaze with spring rhododendron blooms, Bhutan offers one of the last pristine pockets in the entire Himalaya.
The Last Shangri La?
So why spend your money to come here? Firstly, there is the amazing Himalayan landscape, where snow-capped peaks rise above shadowy gorges cloaked in primeval forests. Taking up prime positions in this picture-book landscape are the majestic fortress-like dzongs and monasteries. This unique architecture sets the stage for spectacular tsechus (dance festivals) attended by an almost medieval-looking audience. Then there are the textiles and handicrafts, outrageous archery competitions, high-altitude trekking trails, and stunning flora and fauna. If it’s not ‘Shangri La’, it’s as close as it gets.Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is no ordinary place. This is a country where buying cigarettes is illegal, where the rice is red and where chillies aren’t just a seasoning but the entire dish. It’s also a deeply Buddhist land, where men wear a tunic to work, where giant protective penises are painted on the walls of most houses, and where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than Gross National Product. Tourism in Bhutan is also unique. Visitors famously have to pay a minimum of US$200 per day, making it one of the world’s most expensive countries to visit, but this fee is all-inclusive, you don’t have to travel in a group and you can arrange your own itinerary. What you won’t find in Bhutan is backpacker-style independent travel. This is Nepal for the jet set.
First off there are the early Buddhist sites in the cultural heartland of Bumthang Dzongkhag and the undisturbed traditional Tibetan-style culture that sets Bhutan aside as the last remaining great Himalayan kingdom. Then there are the textiles, outrageous trekking as well as the stunning flora and fauna of Phobjika Valley. Trashigang is an interesting town and also useful for launching into a trip in Eastern Bhutan.
It is also a country of surprises. This is not just a nation of saintly, other-worldly hermits. Bhutan is straddling the ancient and modern world and these days you’ll find monks transcribing ancient Buddhist texts into computers as traditionally dressed noblemen chat on their mobile phones. If you do visit Bhutan, you will become one of the few who have experienced the charm and magic of one of the world’s most enigmatic countries – the ‘last Shangri La’ – and you’ll be playing your part in this medieval kingdom’s efforts to join the modern world, while steadfastly maintaining its distinct and amazing cultural identity. So why spend all your money to come here? Because most of all, Bhutan offers an opportunity to glimpse another way of living, an alternative vision of what is truly important in life.
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