Bhutan is often known as the “World’s Happiest Nation”, but there’s so much more to this country than meets the eye.
Although Bhutan has long been on my travel bucket list, I didn’t know all that much about this tiny landlocked country except its commitment to Gross National Happiness – where they build an economy around Buddhist spiritual values versus Western material development. During a recent visit, I found myself constantly being surprised by this beautiful country and its people. The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive in Bhutan is just how quiet it is. With just 750, 000 inhabitants spread out across 38, 394 square km of mountainous regions, you’re practically surrounded by peace and serenity. If there’s one place to unwind from the stress of city living, it’s Bhutan.
So, why else should you plan your next holiday to Bhutan?
No traffic lights
Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan, feels more like a holiday resort town than a capital city. There are no traffic lights – instead, there is a policeman directing traffic from a booth at a roundabout. In any other country, this would be unheard of. However, in Bhutan, drivers chug along peaceably without much fuss. Here, you won’t get anyone tailgating you or trying to overtake you. After all, the speed limit for cars is only 45km/h, and 35km/h for trucks.
… but Wi-Fi everywhere
However, if you think Bhutan is a backwater nation, perish that thought. They may be a small country and value harmony above all else, but they’re no Luddites. Almost everyone in Bhutan (or at least, the younger generation) speaks fluent English, carries a smartphone, and is up to date with the latest in Hollywood and Bollywood entertainment. Wi-Fi is readily available, and according to our local guide, most young people in Bhutan meet potential partners via social media like Facebook or Instagram!
Another thing you’ll notice when you visit Bhutan is the proliferation of stray dogs … they’re everywhere! Because they’re committed to a culture of non-violence, strays are not regarded as a nuisance and are left pretty much alone to roam. While the locals do grumble about the dogs’ barking and howling in the night, our furry pals are obviously still king of the road. I mean that literally. Even in the city, you will see many dogs sprawled out along the road, sleeping (or, as our guide likes to say, “in deep meditation”).
Apart from the many adorable dogs, animal lovers will also be amazed by the incredible variety of wildlife in Bhutan. There are several national parks in the country, where you’ll be able to spot animals such as the snow leopard, Bengal tiger, and Bhutan’s national animal – the takin. Takin is a peculiar looking animal that looks like a cross between an ox and a sheep. Also, from late October to mid-February, if you visit the Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan, you’ll also be able to witness the beautiful black-necked cranes that visit every winter from the Tibetan Plateau.
If you’re the sort that prefers to rough it out, Bhutan has no shortage of guesthouses or farmhouses where you can arrange for a home-stay. However, if you’re like Go Away editor Debs who prefers her creature comforts, there is also a wide selection of luxury hotels available. Uma, located in the city of Paro, is the beautiful 29-room resort where Hong Kong celebrity couple Tony Leung and Carina Lau had their wedding. If you prefer something more woodsy, Amankora has a series of elegant lodges dotted across five valleys in Bhutan. The rates are steep, but if you’re looking to really pamper yourself, these luxurious accommodation will definitely satisfy.
Being surrounded by mountains, the Bhutanese diet consists mostly of fresh mountain vegetables (usually cooked in a stew or curry, or with soya sauce) and cheese made from local cows’ milk. One of my favourite dishes is the chilli cheese, which is fresh chilli cooked with tomatoes, a dash of onions, and local cheese. The gooey goodness of cheese is elevated by the punch of spicy flavours, and is especially yummy when eaten with the local brown rice.
Great for spiritual nomads …
If you’re looking to do an Eat, Pray, Love sort of spiritual journey, Bhutan is a great place to visit. The spirituality of the place is clearly evident, with temples and monasteries spread out across the country, and prayer flags dotting the landscape. You can book yourself into a dedicated meditation retreat, but I found that just being around so much nature was a calming, soul-cleansing experience. Anyway, on certain treks, you’ll be treated to wise quotes along your route. During our trek up to Tango Monastery, we saw signboards tacked to trees, with thought-provoking quotes such as, “In the practice towards tolerance, one’s enemy is the best teacher.” #DeepStuff
... and adventure seekers!
Of course, if temples and meditation are not your thing, Bhutan also offers a plethora of activities for outdoor lovers. While there are many treks and hikes available, an absolute must is the climb up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Paro. According to the locals, one’s journey to Bhutan is incomplete without a visit to this sacred site located 3, 100m above sea level. Or, if you prefer something a little more hardcore, the most challenging trek in Bhutan is the Snowman Trek. Spread out across 26 days, this trek crosses 11 high passes over heights of 4, 500m, and takes you from one end of Bhutan to the other. Are you game?