“Land of the Thunder Dragon” and the “Last Shangrila”, Bhutan is unique. Stunning natural scenery, a pristine environment and a strong sense of culture and tradition, well-being here is measured by the ‘Gross Happiness Index.’
Most people come here to see the beautiful old dzongs, fortified monasteries that are usually perched on the top of hills. In particular the Tiger’s Nest monastery at Paro is number one ‘must see’. The most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, it is perched up high on the side of a cliff over 900 metres above the valley floor. Guru Rinpoche supposedly flew here on the back of a tigress in the 7th century where he spent three months in a cave meditating. Visited by pilgrims ever since, it is not to be missed.
Throughout the year you can see colourful festivals. Tshechu is the biggest, celebrated throughout the country in the late summer. The highlight of most of these ceremonies is the masked dances by monks, regarded as very auspicious and sanctifying.
Thimphu is the tiny capital city and the only one in the world without any traffic lights. Its lovely little main square has prayer wheels and is a good spot to people-watch. At the stadium, go and see the archery contests, a national sport. The zoo is home to the very unique tarkins, a cross between a deer and a goat!
The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is prime trekking country and you will be off the beaten track in pristine countryside here. Using pack animals to carry your baggage and equipment, nearly all the treks are in areas where there is little human habitation and your nights will be spend in tents.
Nature and bird lovers will be attracted to the Phobhjikha Valley (or Gangtey Valley) where the black-necked crane migrate to in the autumn. Here you can also find the impressive Gangteng Monastery and go for hikes in the area. The three-day Phubja Valley trek is popular as an eco-religious itinerary promoted by the Government of Bhutan and NGOs (non-government organisations).
Getting to Bhutan:
The majority of visitors fly into Paro Airport, Bhutan’s only international airport. Land border-crossings with India can be found at Phuentsholing and Samdrup Jongkhar (allows exit only into Assam). Flights are monopolised by Druk Airways, the national carrier that links Bhutan to airports in Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata and Kathmandu.
Other than Indian tourists (who also don’t need a visa nor have to meet the government-set daily spend of 250USD), tourists normally have to book their tour with a Bhutan travel agent. Tours are all inclusive for a fixed tariff (slight variation depending if you are solo or in a group). Good standard accommodation is available throughout, though trekking is invariably under canvas apart from a few exceptions.
Usually you will be taken by your tour company to hotels but at Paro, for a supplement, try out the luxurious Zhiwa Ling, a lovely eco-friendly place that strives to be number one in running in an environmentally-friendly way; and Uma Paro Hotel.
Best Places to Stay
Amakora is widely regarded as one of the very best resorts in Bhutan, resting deep in the beautiful Himalayan Mountains. There are a number of beautiful suites available at this resort, including a combined lodge and bedroom that is fully furnished with a king size bed, banquette window-seat, and reading chair. Even the bathrooms in these suites are luxurious, offering twin vanities and a large terrazzo-clad bath. If you are looking for an elegant and relaxing place to stay while visiting Bhutan, Amankora is definitely one of the best options you have.
Uma By Como, Paro
Located only 10 minutes from Bhutan’s primary airport, Uma by Como in Paro is perched on a scenic Himalayan mountainside and is surrounded by a thick pine forest with a breathtaking view of Paro town. This is one of the remote kingdom’s best places for visitors to stay and offers some very elegant accommodations as well as delicious food and a luxurious Como Shambhala spa along with a great pool for swimming. Before you decide on a certain place to make reservations at for your trip to Bhutan, you will certainly want to consider what this place has to offer.
Taj Tashi, Thimphu
This hotel is the very definition of luxury, located in Bhutan’s capital and offering some truly peaceful surroundings. The Taj Tashi is a combination of Dzong architecture and modern designs, proudly displaying beautiful Buddhist murals and offering a total of 66 elegant rooms. Each room in this hotel provides guests with a great view of the local geography. If you are looking for a really nice play to stay after a long trek and some exploring or praying, Taj Tashi is should definitely be on your list.
Terma Linca Resort & Spa, Thimphu Highway
This somewhat small 30-room resort, which is located next to the river as well as the scenic Himalayan mountains, is a great place for travelers to rest their wary heads. Thousands of visitors come to Terma Linca each year because of its elegant accommodations and many amenities, including a great restaurant with delicious food as well as a spa for rest and relaxation. You can also hit the bar in this resort for a few drinks before going back to your home for a good night’s sleep.
Druk Hotel Thimphu, Thimphu
While the Druk Hotel Thimphu might not exactly be a 5-star hotel, it is a great place to stay if you are on a budget. The rooms in this hotel are very nice and will provide you with a great place to rest before heading back out to see the sights, pray, and do whatever else it is you have in mind. Whether you have come to Bhutan for business or pleasure, this hotel has a lot to offer in terms of modern accommodations that are a mix of the old and the new, so you get the best of both worlds.
Dining and shopping:
Beware the fiery chillies that are a staple of the Bhutanese diet. Typical meals consist of rice and vegetable or meat dishes cooked with chilli and/or cheese.
There are some very good coffee bars in Thimphu like Karma’s Coffee, set back a little from the main centre but serving a choice of great coffees as well as good continental style light meals and snacks.
There’s a good choice of restaurants in Thimphu and Paro, though the range is much more limited outside and generally you will eat at the hotel where you’re staying.
There are many colourful and interesting souvenirs that you might be tempted by. In particular there are some lovely textiles and the handwoven fabrics are made into beautiful clothes, wall hangings, table clothes, mats and rugs. Woollen woven cloth dyed in natural colours can be found as pieces or made into jackets, bags, rugs and wall hangings. You can also find handmade wooden bowls. The halves of the ‘dappa’ fit together to carry cooked food, like a tiffin box, but they also make useful salad bowls. Similarly ‘bangchung’ are small bamboo woven baskets with two tightly fitting halves.
In Bhutan, most people still wear their beautiful traditional dress. Buddhism is very strong and you see houses everywhere decorated in symbols represent life and fertility. This is a place where you will be surrounded by beautiful landscapes, ancient traditions that are still fiercely protected and a serenity rarely seen elsewhere.