The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is the final bastion of the ‘Shangri-La’ visitor destinations and is the last independent Buddhist kingdom on earth. It’s slightly larger than Switzerland and home to a population of just over 700,000, the vast majority of whom live in its capital, Thimphu. The landlocked country lies between the Tibetan Autonomous Region and northern India at an elevation ranging from 2,000 ft in the eastern Himalayan foothills to a magnificent 23,000 ft, with its diverse climate patterns giving rise to an outstanding range of ecosystems and biodiversity.
The contrast between Bhutan’s capital’s cultural confusion of East and West, and the remote traditional enclaves in the rural areas is equally outstanding, but doesn’t bother the inhabitants at all. Laptops, mobile phones, cars, and satellite dishes are found inside old-style, gaily-painted buildings in Thimphu, all being used by people wearing the elegant traditional dress of the region. The negative effects of mass tourism are rigidly controlled here, with two-thirds of the country a forested haven for ecotourists, hikers, trekkers, and those searching for an escape from the modern world.
The Bhutanese peoples are incredibly friendly and welcoming, and all the towns are accessible via paved roads offer accommodation, although the quality varies considerably. The capital and other tourist areas offer the best selection, including several five-star hotels, and daily room rates are set by the government. Potential visitors to this unique country should note that they can only be admitted as part of a pre-arranged, all-inclusive tour and that has a high daily charge placed on all tourists. Bhutanese cuisine involves hot chillies and cheese, stews with dumplings, and other warming dishes. International foods are rare outside Thimphu and the majority of eateries in the capital serve standard Indian or Chinese dishes.
Half a dozen or so tour companies offer trips around the country, taking in all its amazing sights, temples and monasteries, textile and folk heritage museums, festivals, nature reserves, ancient fortresses, markets, traditional towns and villages, and fertile valleys overlooked by stunning snow-covered peaks. Bhutan is a haven for trekkers, hikers, and ecotourists, and wilderness backpacking is the best way to glimpse all the glories of Bhutan and the lives of its gentle people. The little country was only opened to tourism some 30 years ago, and is at present free of commercialization which blights many other popular Asian destinations.
Travel on and off the beaten path can be done by driver via your chosen tour operator, with the cost included in the package. Outside the capital, travel permits processed in advance must be carried at all times. Checkpoints are found on the main roads heading north and east from Thimphu, and onward travel is forbidden if a permit is not produced. In the mountainous areas, steep inclines, hairpin bends, and poor road conditions are normal. From June through August, rock falls and landslides frequently block the mountain tracks and roads, especially in the Thrumshingla Pass area, the highest road in Bhutan at almost 13,000ft.
- Eastern Bhutan, recently opened to visitors, is an unspoiled haven of natural wonders
- Zhemgang, mostly unexplored is a breathtaking location for wildlife
- Taktsang Monastery clings to a sheer cliff and is one of the world’s holiest Buddhist sites
- Thimphu is the seat of the royal family, with temples, monasteries, and palaces
- Jakar, in lovely Choekor Valley, was the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism
- Thrumshingla National Park is magnificent, home to red pandas, tigers, and snow leopards