Traveller's Guide: Bhutan
This dramatic Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas offers culture, adventure and majestic scenery out of all proportion to its modest size, says Aoife O'Riordain
Saturday 07 December 2013
Bhutan stirs a misty-eyed yearning in even the most seasoned travellers. Roughly the size of Switzerland, this diminutive mountain kingdom is wedged between China and India, sloping from heights of 7,000m on its northern border with Tibet to the relatively low-lying altitudes of its border with India. It's a remote Buddhist stronghold of soaring, Himalayan peaks; tranquil countryside dotted with traditional farmhouses, monasteries and temples, claret-robed monks, fluttering prayer flags; and fast flowing slate-coloured rivers. The Bhutanese call it Druk Yul or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" in their native tongue, Dzongkha.
The majority of Bhutan's population of just under 700,000 adheres to the Drukpa Kagyu school of tantric, or Mahayana Buddhism. Spirituality permeates all levels of life and there are more than 10,000 religious monuments, known as stupas or chortens, and more than 2,000 monasteries scattered across the country.
Most visitors' first glimpse of the country are of the majestic Paro valley in western Bhutan. This wide, fertile valley sits in the shadow of Mount Jhomolhari, the county's highest peak that is regarded as a divine power.
Just beyond Paro lies Taktsang Lhakhang or the Tiger's Nest temple, one of the country's most sacred pilgrimage sites. All dimly lit rooms and flickering butter lamps, it is perched at a staggering 3,000m on a sheer cliff face, reached by an arduous hike up the mountainside. Legend has it is that this is where the Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, arrived from Tibet on the back of a tigress.
From Paro, visitors usually travel east to the sleepy Bhutanese capital Thimphu, with its celebrated Changangkha temple and handful of sights such as the National Museum (00 975 8271 511; nationalmuseum.gov.bt), housed in the 17th-century Ta-Dzong building, and the Royal Textile Academy (00 975 2336 460; royaltextileacademy.org). The latter highlights the country's rich, living tradition of delicately hand-woven and naturally dyed cloth, with several examples available for sale.
Further west is the fertile, sub-tropical Punakha Valley, where the capital was located until 1955. Its arresting dzong (fort), on the confluence of Mo and Pho rivers, is one of the country's finest examples of 17th-century architecture. The nearby Phobjikha Valley is the winter home of the black-necked crane and the 17th-century Gangtey Goenpa monastery.
Central Bhutan is home to Bumthang, notable for its cheese production. It's a bucolic picture of orchards, farmhouses, monasteries and temples such as the historic Jakar Dzong. Eastern Bhutan is one of the least-visited parts of the country, home to the Sharchop ethnic group and the imposing Trashigang Dzong.
Bhutan was a feudal society with many different ethnic groups until the 17th century when it was organised into 20 districts run by a dual system of religious and secular authorities. The country's current hereditary monarchy was established in 1907 and its monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who took over from his father in 2006, enjoys widespread popularity. His father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was responsible for opening up this kingdom to curious visitors 40 years ago next year. Under his guidance, the Bhutanese authorities have been keen to protect the traditional values of the world's only remaining Buddhist kingdom. National dress has been compulsory since 1989, archery is the national pastime and most farming is still manual.
Visitor numbers are controlled and mountaineering is forbidden – the high-value, low-impact strategy means that daily tariffs of between US$200-$250 including transport, guiding and accommodation are imposed on tourists. Several UK-based tour operators offer trips to Bhutan that include these fees.
Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com) has a new 17-day "Cultural Cycling Tour of Bhutan" that threads from Paro to Bumthang for £3,465pp with flights. Transindus (0844 879 3960; transindus.co.uk) has an 11-day "Essential Bhutan" group tour for £2,525pp with flights. Other companies include Bales (0844 488 1182; balesworldwide.com), Wendy Wu Tours (0844 288 5396; wendywutours.co.uk), Cox & Kings (0845 287 9926; coxandkings.co.uk) and Steppes (01285 880 980; steppestravel.co.uk).
For more information see tourism.gov.bt
Best foot forward
Trekking is one of Bhutan's most alluring draws, with gasp-inducing views of the Himalayas and the chance to observe local life as you pass through valleys chiming with yak bells and villages that still only see a trickle of visitors.
There are 23 official treks across the country. They vary greatly in degrees of difficulty, but even the shortest walk offers something impressive to see.
The Snowman Trek, in a remote corner near the Tibetan border, is considered to be one of the hardest in the world and is only tackled by a handful of trekkers eachyear. World Expeditions (0800 074 4135; worldexpeditions.com) offers a 27-day "Snowman Trek" trip that includes traversing 11 high passes over 4,000m and trails used by yak herders and isolated communities cut off for months of the year. The trip departs on 15 September, 2014.
The price of £5,190pp includes most meals, provision of guides and transfers. It excludes international flights.
Into the wild
Bhutan is one of the last unspoilt corners of Asia. Almost 70 per cent of the country is blanketed in thick forest and there are high plateaux filled with wildflowers. It supports a number of elusive species of flora and fauna such as blue poppies, black-necked cranes and snow leopards that prowl the high slopes of the Himalayas. Half the world's population of white-bellied herons live in Bhutan.
Naturetrek (01962 733 051; naturetrek.co.uk) offers an 18-day botanical tour, departing on 29 April, that includes a six-day trek through the forests of central Bhutan. The price of £4,695pp includes flights, accommodation, most meals, transport and guides.
Land of the yeti
To feel like you are really breaking away from the tourist trail, the far east of Bhutan is one of the least-visited of all the country's regions. The Sakteng and Merak districts were off-limits to visitors until recently. Blanketed in blue pine forest and rhododendron trees, Sakteng is home to the semi-nomadic, yak-herding Brokpa people, as well as the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which locals believe is inhabited by a yeti-like creature.
KE Adventures (01768 773 996; keadventure.com) offers a 15-day "Trekking in Bhutan's Hidden Valleys of Sakteng" trip departing on 2 May and 10 October, for £3,375pp – including flights, accommodation, meals, guides and porters.
Bhutan's religious festivals, which mostly take place in spring and autumn, offer a fascinating glimpse of the country. Held in honour of Guru Rinpoche, tsechus, which means 10th day, are held in monasteries, temples and dzongs all over the country on auspicious days and months in the Bhutanese calendar. Lasting between one and four days, these involve prayers, celebration and elaborate dances usually performed by monks. Paro and Thimphu are two of the most colourful, taking place on 11 April and 29 September 2014 respectively, but tsechus are held everywhere.
Cazenove + Loyd (020-7384 2332; cazloyd.com) has a 10-night escorted trip, in the company of the respected Lama Neten, to discover the spiritual side of Bhutanese life. It includes special access to the Gangtey Festival and a stay at the new Gangtey Goenpa Lodge. The trip departs on 17 September, costs £5,755pp and includes flights, full board, transfers, guiding and entrance fees.
Where to stay
Hotels in Bhutan are geared towards higher spenders. Two of the early luxury pioneers are Como (comohotels.com) and Amanresorts (amanresorts.com) – the latter has five lodges in Bhutan. Como's Uma Paro (00 975 827 1597) offers rustic luxury overlooking the Paro Valley. Its sister lodge, Uma Punakha, opened in the valley of the same name last year. A Himalayan Explorer trip that spends three nights in Paro and two in Punakha costs £3,535 for two, including meals, transfers and activities.
Gangtey Goenpa Lodge (00 975 234 0943; easternsafaris.com), a luxurious 12-room retreat, opened last month at the 17th-century Gangtey Monastery. Doubles start at US$650 (£430), B&B.
Thimphu's Druk Hotel (00 975 771 98819; drukhotels.com) has doubles from BTN8,160 (£80) room only, while the Tiger's Nest Resort (00 975 8 271 310; tigernest.com), just outside Paro, has views of the monastery of the same name. Doubles from BTN17,400 (£170), B&B.
Six Senses also plans five new hotels by 2016.
All travellers to Bhutan need to book a package with either an international or local tour operator. British passport-holders require a visa to visit Bhutan, which is issued upon arrival – applications are submitted in advance by the tour operator.
Most visitors fly to Delhi with a connection to Paro with Druk Air (00 975 8 271 856; drukair.com.bt). UK citizens transiting via Delhi also need to obtain a double entry Indian visa (in.vfsglobal.co.uk).
Another option is to fly to Bangkok, which does not have the same onerous visa rules. Bhutan Airlines (00 975 2 334 052 ; bhutan-airlines.com) and Druk Air fly between Bangkok and Paro.
Druk Air operates internal flights from Paro to Bumthang as well as Yongphulla in the east of the country.
Most tourists travel internally by road and, while distances on the map look deceptively short, don't expect to get anywhere fast.
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