Travel in Bhutan
The Land of the Thunder Dragon
Article & Photos By Martin Li
“Taktshang Goemba,” or “Tiger's Nest Monastery.”
Aware of the environmental scarring that high tourism levels have inflicted on its neighbor Nepal, Bhutan imposes stiff tariffs on visitors and controls their activities. These measures, and a responsible attitude toward tourism are helping to successfully preserve this last untouched Himalayan culture.
Bhutan, the "Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon," is no ordinary place. About the size of Switzerland, Bhutan is a remote land of peace and natural beauty. Almost all the country is mountainous, with furious rivers sourced from the high Himalaya, and over two-thirds is densely forested. The country’s commitment to conservation is exemplified in a 1995 law that requires at least 60 percent of its land to remain forested. The dramatic landscape is colored by mighty dzongs (fortified monasteries), towering poles of fluttering Buddhist prayer flags, and lonely chortens (stone monuments containing religious relics and sometimes prayer wheels).
Flying from Kathmandu to Bhutan’s only airport in Paro is literally a breath of fresh air. The contrast between the frenetic, choked capital of Nepal and the quietly civilized pace of life in Bhutan is as staggering as the view of Mt. Everest during the short flight.
Despite lacking any peaks over 8,000 meters, many of Bhutan’s summits are eyed longingly by climbers. Jomolhari (7,314 meters), Bhutan’s most sacred summit, was a famous landmark on early Everest expeditions. Yet Bhutan has opted not to sell its mountains to climbing expeditions. Fearful of areas ending up as high altitude rubbish dumps, like certain camps on Everest and other popular climbs, and out of respect for the religious sensitivities of its mountain populations, the Bhutanese are resisting the lure of the lucrative climbing gravy train. At 7,541 meters, Gangkhar Puensum remains the world’s highest unclimbed summit. Many other lofty peaks remain unmapped let alone explored.
Trekking in Bhutan is permitted but only on around a dozen recognized trails. Given the rugged terrain, walking is the best, and often the only, way to reach isolated settlements and experience the real soul of this little-explored land. Even Bhutan’s king walks. While I was on a trek with Nature Tourism-Bhutan (see “For More Info”) to Jomolhari, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck strode in my footsteps as he traveled to meet subjects in remote settlements.
Bhutanese treks have a unique feel quite different from those in other parts of the Himalaya. Horses, and at high altitudes, yaks, are used instead of porters to carry loads. We encountered few villages and even fewer other trekkers, although we met a gregarious group of doctors collecting medicinal herbs only found in Bhutan’s high meadows. There are no hotels or teahouses; a Bhutanese trek is a true wilderness experience, and camping is essential.
A caravan of packhorses descending into the Paro valley of Bhutan.
Camping Bhutanese-style involves little hardship. Our crew conjured up delicious meals that got better the higher and more remote we climbed. Such luxury has its disadvantages though: sitting in a comfortable dining tent and tucking into a delicious feast with dishes that barely fit on our table, it’s all too easy to forget we’re in the middle of nowhere, at some 4,000 meters in the Himalayas.
Throughout Bhutan’s lush, high valleys are simple stone and earth huts sunken into the ground to provide cozy shelters for yak herders. Their animals share these elevated pastures with blue sheep and plump marmots. Large trout are temptingly visible in the clear still waters of mountain lakes. Bright alpine flowers speckle color over high passes.
Despite manageable visitor numbers, our Bhutanese tour operator remained conscious of the need to protect the landscape. Paper was burned during the trek. Human waste was buried. Tin cans were crushed and carried back to the trailhead. We didn’t cut down trees to build nightly campfires; instead dead wood was collected with little effort. Our cook even carried a solar panel to recharge our camp light. And on our final morning on the trail we collected litter with the help of a group of local children.
Bhutan is cautiously opening its doors to discerning visitors. Wilderness trekking and cultural tours of dzongs (particularly during their colorful Tsechu festivals) are understandably the country’s most noted highlights, although for me, the gentle, unaffected charm of its people was at least as alluring.
A festive dance at the Wangdue Phodrang tsechu.
Fortunately, with Bhutan’s circumspect attitude to cashing in on the tourism dollar, there is little danger of reversing its conservation policy in the near future. It’s refreshing to be able to recommend this Himalayan gem wholeheartedly without having to add: "See it while you can."
Travel Rules in the Land of Gross National Happiness
The concept of Gross National Happiness guides all aspects of life in Bhutan, as opposed to notions of Gross Domestic Product, and therefore the way the government controls travel to preserve its land, culture, and government follows.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan run by the Bhutanese government requires that visitors travel to the country only on pre-paid, pre-planned itineraries booked through a Bhutanese tour company. Visitors to Bhutan are required to spend between $200-$250 per person per night in a minimum group of three in order to diminish the ravages backpackers and other tourists have brought to adjacent and nearby countries. Individual guides and tour companies are readily available.
For More Info
Basic Etiquette: Complex traditions based on culture and religion survive in Bhutan. Foreign visitors aren’t expected to know all the customs, although you should observe the major ones:
• Respect the Buddhist religion and dress modestly (but not too informally if visiting a dzong or government offices).
• Only enter temples and monasteries if you have permission.
• Remove shoes before entering important rooms in temples; leave cameras outside.
• Use your right hand or both hands to give or receive.
• Use a palm up open hand rather than your finger when pointing.
• Don’t point your feet at anyone; cross your legs or kneel when sitting.
• Pass clockwise all chortens and mani walls (elongated chortens inscribed with mantras).
• Don’t wash, swim or throw objects into lakes, many of which are considered sacred.