Bhutan, the last Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom
Set like a ramp between the plains north of Bangladesh and the white peaks of the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan is the last Himalayan Buddhist kingdom. Known to locals as Druk Yul, “land of the thunder dragon”, Bhutan is also stubbornly reclusive. This was the last country in the world to get television, in 1999, and possibly the only one without a single traffic light. Plastic bags are banned as is smoking in public. Unless he is hiking, riding a bike or ploughing a field, every adult male is required to wear national dress, which consists of a dark, loose, knee-length robe cinched at the waist, with knee-length socks. Visitors are thin on the ground.
For those who come, Bhutan is one of the connoisseur experiences of travel, a high, misty, sequestered world of chanting monks and monasteries perched among sub-Himalayan mountains. Its landscape is a postcard procession of peaks and troughs guttered by fast flowing rivers. Forests still cover much of Bhutan, a rarity in the foothills of the Himalayas, where population pressures have led to their wholesale destruction in Nepal and northern India.
Animating that landscape is Buddhism with an underlay of animism. In the depths of the river valleys, where most of the population lives, the villages are dominated by dzongs, the white-walled, fortified strongholds that serve as temples, town halls, castles and monasteries. Buddhist chortens crown the ridgelines and no landscape is complete without a thicket of white prayer flags, fluttering cosmic energy with every breath of wind.
Bhutan saves its real treasures for those who are prepared to put on boots. There are any number of walking trails that take you through the orchards and barley fields in the river valleys where the altitude rarely rises above 2,500 metres. For those who like their walks whiskery and long, the Chomolhari Trek takes you from the deep valleys of western Bhutan to Jangothang Base Camp, at the foot of Mount Chomolhari, along a route once taken by traders travelling from the plains of Bengal through Tremo La, the pass into Tibet’s Phari Valley.
What Bhutan has is unique, seductive and also fragile, and it does not come cheap. Recognising that cultural integrity and pristine forests and rivers do not ride easily with mass tourism, Bhutan pursues a policy of high value, low volume visitation that requires a minimum daily spend from every visitor, and effectively locks out budget travellers.
It’s worth it. Despite the cost, the breath-sapping, thigh-burning climbs, despite the bone-jarring journeys and the occasional misstep in the catering department – and even when it shows you a vision of wonder and snatches it away – Bhutan will steal your heart.
Where to Stay
A stylish fusion of location and luxury, Uma Paro offers rooms and suites located inside the main lodge building and one-bedroom villas scattered around the grounds. Inside each villa is a separate lounge room, a mini kitchen, a spunky bathroom with a huge dressing room attached and a private massage room.
Rooms at Gangtey Palace Hotel are simple but the hotel’s charm comes from its history and the family that runs it.
What to wear
Good walking shoes are a must, and a wide-brimmed hat. Cover up for visiting dzongs – no shorts or bare arms.