Bhutan is the last remaining Kingdom in the world’s most breathtaking mountain chain, the Himalayas. The country is an insanely beautiful Shangri-La, offering a staggering variety of mountain scenery and natural landscapes. Mysterious and shrouded in myth, Bhutan also boasts an extraordinary cultural heritage, from the striking architecture of its mountain forts and monasteries to the images of Buddhist religious figures painted or carved onto the craggy cliffs. To help you plan your Bhutan holiday, I have compiled a list of 10 must see sights and must-do experiences in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
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10. CLEANSE YOUR MIND AND SOUL ON A SPIRITUAL JOURNEY
Whether it’s a session of peaceful, contemplative meditation, a relaxing soak in a mineral hot spring bath or the all-natural remedies of traditional medicine, Bhutan has just what you need to revive and rejuvenate your body and spirit. Some travel itineraries include serious meditation programs that last for days while others offer solitary retreats for a few hours in the high hills and temples where the serenity and beauty of nature can be appreciated in undisturbed silence. As one of the last strongholds of Vajrayana Buddhism, meditation and mediation retreats are a common practice amongst monks and Buddhist practitioners. Small retreat centers and hermitages are located all over the country, usually next to temples, monasteries and monastic schools, and should not be missed on a Bhutan holiday.
9. DANCE WITH MONKS AT A COLORFUL BHUTANESE FESTIVAL
The Tshechu is a religious event held on the 10th day of each month to celebrate the birthday of Guru Rimpoche (an 8th-century Buddhist master). Tshechus are grand events where entire communities come together to witness colorful Bhutanese dances, receive blessings and socialize. It is believed that everyone in Bhutan must attend a Tshechu at least once to in order to receive blessings and wash away their sins. In monasteries, the mask dances are performed by monks and in remote villages, they are performed jointly by monks and village men. The Paro and Thimphu Tshechus are the most popular ones in the country in terms of participation and audience. Besides the locals, many tourists from across the world are attracted to these unique, colorful and exciting displays of traditional culture.
8. DRIVE THE ICONIC DOCHULA PASS
Dochula Pass is an incredible Bhutanese mountain pass that towers at 3,140 m (10302 ft) above sea level. The pass, which links the capital Thimpu with the verdant valley of Punakha, offers exceptional views of the Himalayan mountain range along its long road. The view is especially scenic on clear, winter days with snowcapped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of 108 memorial stupas gracing the mountain pass. These stupas stand in honor of Bhutanese soldiers slain in the war against rebels from India. The Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, sanctioned the shrine in 2003 after King Jigme Singye Wangchuck overcame the insurgents. It is common to see families and groups of friends seated amongst the stupas, enjoying a packed lunch and hot tea.
7. MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO THE TEMPLE OF FERTILITY
Chimi Lhakhang, known as the ‘fertility temple’, is a hilltop Buddhist monastery near the town of Punakha. The stupa (or meditation hall) was built over half a millennium ago by the Drukpa Kunley, a tantric Buddhist saint known for his unconventional approach to religion. Kunley is rumored to have made love to more than 5,000 women, preaching that sex would help devotees on the path to enlightenment. Today, the monastery is renowned throughout Bhutan as a fertility inducing magnet, pledging that all who wish to conceive will find guidance at the temple. Phalluses are painted on the walls of local homes around the temple in honor of Kunley, who referred to his penis as the ‘divine thunderbolt’ in an attempt to bless households and promote harmony among family members.
6. SPOT INCREDIBLY RARE BLACK NECKED CRANES IN THE WILD
Blessed with an extraordinary range of natural habitats, from subtropical valleys to alpine peaks, Bhutan is home to some exceptional wildlife including black necked cranes. A flock of 300 of these endangered majestic birds migrate from Tibet to Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley in late autumn each year, foreshadowing the close of harvesting season and the onset of farmer relocations to the warmer, lower valleys. The birds are always welcomed in fine Bhutanese fashion, with local songs, dramas, and masked dances. Traditional stories tell the tale of a pair of cranes that choose to stay behind each year, offering themselves to the valley in thankfulness for the fare and wellbeing of their kin. Apart from its black necked cranes, the valley is also famous for its trekking opportunities and nature walks.
5. LAND AT THE WORLD’S MOST CHALLENGING AIRPORT
Paro is Bhutan’s sole international airport and the main getaway to the country. The tiny airport is nestled in a deep valley and surrounded by sharp peaks of up to 5,500 m (18,000 ft) tall. Considered the most challenging airport in the world, flights are only allowed during daytime and under visual meteorological conditions in which pilots make their judgements by eye rather than relying on aircraft instruments. The dramatic airport approach offers incredible views for those passengers seated along the windows, although it can be a slightly stressful experience as the plane maneuvers between mountains, often at a 45-degree angle. Only a limited number of pilots are authorized to land at Paro.
4. INDULGE IN LUXURY AT EXCLUSIVE LODGES
Although five-star luxury may not be the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of Bhutan, the country’s policy of “low volume, high quality” tourism has effectively made it a highly regarded destination among discerning travelers. ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’ offers a selection of high-end lodges, strategically placed around the Kingdom, with a level of sophistication and elegance of accommodation that is unrivaled in the Himalayas. Aman, the world’s most exclusive hotel brand, was the first company to enter Bhutan’s tourism market in 2003 and manages five serene lodges in the country, all operated under the Amankora name. This year, Six Senses followed in Aman’s footsteps, with the opening of five incredible lodges, offering an ultraluxe journey through the mythical country.
3. TREK THROUGH SPECTACULAR MOUNTAIN SCENERY
Whether you are looking for a day hike or a grueling multi-day trekking, Bhutan has it all. Pristine wilderness, imposing glaciers and some of the world’s most endangered species await you in the mountainous amphitheater of the Himalayas. One of the most scenic day hikes in Bhutan is the trail to the quaint nunnery Kila Goemba, offering awe-inspiring view of the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (8,586 m (28,170 ft). Bhutan is also home to ‘Snowman’, regarded as the most difficult but also most scenic long walk on the planet, which crosses 11 passes over 4,800 m (16,000 ft) in 25-day and tops out at 5300 m (17,388 ft) on Rinchen Zoe La Pass. Barely half of the people who start the Snowman end up finishing.
2. VISIT THE ANCIENT FORTRESS OF PUNAKHA DZONG
Also known as the Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong, the Punakha Dzong literally translates to the ‘palace of great happiness or bliss.’ The massive building is gloriously surrounded by lush green pine forests and lilac-hued jacaranda trees. Regarded as the most artistic and aesthetically pleasing dzong in Bhutan, the nearly 400 year old fortress boasts a stunning six story central tower, whitewashed walls below intricately carved wood-line accents, and timber window panes. The dzong was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Tibetan Buddhist lama and the uniter of Bhutan as a Kingdom. The complex is celebrated as the fortress where every Bhutanese king has been crowned, as well as the winter residence of the official monk body of the Kingdom.
1. HIKE THE SACRED PATH TO TIGER’S NEST
Taktsang Lhakhang – which translates to “Tiger’s Nest” – is Bhutan’s most iconic landmark. This temple is one of the most holy sites in the kingdom and clings impossibly to a sheer cliff face 900 m (2 955 ft) above the valley floor. The temple is cloaked in myth, illustrating the sacred tales of Guru Padmasambhava, the source of Buddhism in Bhutan. Legend has it that the Guru flew from Tibet on the back of a mystical tigress and landed on the steep cliff to meditate in a cave. In the late 17th century, the monastery was constructed around the cave by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye, who was universally believed to be the reincarnation of the Guru. The complex is open to visitors and can be reached by a four hour scenic hike through a beautiful, shady pine forest.