Fiercely protective ofits natural resources, heritage and culture, Bhutan, aka the Land of the Thunder Dragon is a country of firsts – it is the world’s only carbon-negative country and the only country which has a Gross National Happiness index (as introduced by the previous King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, known colloquially as ‘K4’) which measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels, not just in GDP growth.
It also practises a strict tourism policy of Low Volume, High Value which obliges foreign visitors to pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day. Although this fee is all-inclusive – accommodation, food, transport and an official guide are provided – this does deter most casual visitors.
Despite this, there are a multitude of reasons to see the breathtaking beauty of this country for yourself – here are nine of them.
K4 had the nous to invite Adrian Zecha, the legendary founder of Aman Resorts, to open a resort in Bhutan in the early 1990s. It was an ideal match, Aman being an experiential-type resort and Bhutan, a magical kingdom – landlocked and covered with forests with no railways and limited transportation. Furthermore, Aman was known for its knack for cultural preservation and building resorts which blended imperceptibly with the local landscape.
Renowned Australian architect Kerry Hill was tasked with this challenge. Using local building materials – stone, wood, soil – Hill championed stabilising earth techniques as protection against the region’s tectonic activities and designed the first lodge in Paro in a deliberately spare style which was then replicated in subsequent lodges.
And so in 2004, Amankora – combining the Sanskrit word for ‘peace’ and the Dzongkha word for ‘circular pilgrimage’ – opened with the idea that visitors would journey from lodge to lodge nestled in five of Bhutan’s most important valleys.
2. Adventure Amongst the Mountains
Trekking is the main activity available in this country and with its rugged, cinematic landscapes that would not look amiss in an episode of Game of Thrones, it’s not hard to see why.
It would be wise to remember when attempting any trek that altitude plays as much a role in your success as your fitness level. The trick is to beprepared. If you’re sensitive to high altitudes, pop a pill before embarking on any physical activity, especially in hilly Bhutan; it goes a long way.
While Bhutan has no traffic lights, malls (building heights are capped at 5 floors) and certainly no 7-Eleven or McDonald’s, Thimphu, being the capital, offers some shopping by way of antiques and souvenirs along Norzin Lam, the main shopping area.
Handicrafts are predictably mostly Buddhist-themed with prayer wheels, Buddha figurines, thangkas, prayer flags and the like although I found the intricately wrought textiles particularly dazzling with their bold patterns brought to life by the Bhutanese’s intuitive sense of colour.
4. Bhutanese Textiles
Textile experts widely consider Bhutanese weaving to be among the most sophisticated and time-consuming in the world with a history dating back to the 1600s.
Over half of Bhutan’s population is involved in weaving during the year, with women playing the role of chief weavers in the household, while Bhutanese men mostly embroider and appliqué fabrics for sacred and ceremonial use.
This is an industry that is still active today as the demand for textiles is strong; locals still wear their traditional dress (kiras for women and ghos for men) daily. In fact, in Bhutan you will see signs refusing entry to dzongs (fortified buildings that incorporate both administrative and monas-tic institutions) for locals who are not appropriately dressed.
Punakha, a sub-tropical valley accessed by the spectacular Dochula Pass which offers views of Bhutan’s snow-capped portion of the Himalayas. On a clear day, it’s possible to feast your eyes on the highest Himalayan peak – Gangkhar Puensum which soars almost 25,000 feet (more than 7,500m) above sea level.
Beyond it awaits Punakha Lodge. Gloriously beautiful, access to the lodge requires a walk across a steel suspension bridge spanning a sparkling blue river and a buggy ride up to a lovingly-preserved farmhouse built by a former Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot).
At Punakha Lodge, guests can enjoy their meals alfresco, and believe it or not, you can get yak rendang at the lodge. Why? Their head chef, Viknesh Victor, is a Malaysian. When we complimented him on how beautifully tender the yak meat was, he said: “Well, we make rendang out of buffalo meat at home, so why not yak?”
Why not indeed, although he also informed us later over after-dinner drinks that because the Buddhist way of life advocates no killing, much of the livestock is sent across the border to India to be slaughtered.
7. Chimi Lhakhang
A temple built over half a millennium ago by Nga-wang Choegyel, the 14th Drukpa hier-arch, it was made famous by an eccentric saint named Drukpa Kunley, known fondly as the Divine Madman, who celebrated the phallus symbol, plenty of sex and in the process made this monastery a pilgrimage for couples who wished to conceive (Gayleg solemnly informed usthat they had a 100% success rate).
Amusingly (and a little shockingly), the Bhutanese depict the phallus symbol on the outside of their homes with a surprising amount of abandonment.
As you walk through the small village nestled among paddy fields to reach the temple, you’ll be treated to graphically detailed male organs – always erect, often ejaculating.
However, this religious symbol is now increasingly becoming a curio to peddle in all sizes and colours tothe growing number of tourists visiting the area.
8. Ema Datshi
The Bhutanese national dish Ema Datshi (ema meaning chilli and datshi, cheese) sees both ingredients stewed with onions and tomatoes. It’s unapologetically spicy but addictively savoury.
It is eaten at every main meal of the day which would explain why a common sight on Bhutan’s hilly roads, are scarlet carpets of red chillies laid out to dry on rooftops or hung on balconies like organic macramé curtains.
9. Tiger’s Nest Monastery
Taktsang Goemba or Tiger’s Nest Monastery lies on a sheer cliff face at a height of 2,950m. According to legend, Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche, the 8th-century Indian Buddhist master who brought Buddhism to Bhutan) flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress from Khenpajong who was also his consort and meditated in the cave around which the monastery is built.
Be prepared for the entire trek to take 4.5 hours, including water stops.
Despite how tough it is, the trek is worth it – the view and site are breathtaking. Trekking down will also give you a chance to reflect on the country.
All at once, Bhutan seems suspended between two impulses: the embrace of modernity and its preservation of traditions. If you ask us, the beauty of it lies in its ability to straddle both.