The country that invented the quotient of Gross National Happiness wants you to experience its beguiling charms, but only on its terms. Closed off from the world for decades, Bhutan has only allowed tourism since 1974. Those willing to go the extra mile to come here are rewarded with a traditional Buddhist society that has also embraced modern conveniences. Visit the Taktsang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery), perched on a perilous cliff, or the Jigme Dorji National Park to see the Takin, Bhutan’s national animal, which resembles a goat crossed with a horse. Only two airlines are allowed to fly here, so the country remains difficult to reach, although that exclusivity is part of its allure.
Completely independent travel to Bhutan is not allowed. You must have a guide and go on a government-approved itinerary. There’s also a minimum cost of $200 to $250 per day if you stay in the country’s most basic three-star hotels. Happily, this price includes your guide, meals, and transportation (except flights). Spring and fall are optimum times to visit for lush greenery and popular regional festivals.
Here are the top 10 Bhutan experiences for you:
1. Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang Goemba)
Bhutan’s most famous monastery, Tiger’s Nest is one of its most venerated religious sites. Legend says that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on the back of a tigress to subdue a local demon; afterward, he meditated here for three months. This beautiful building clings to the sheer cliffs soaring above a whispering pine forest. Steep walk to the monastery is well worthwhile, providing tantalizing glimpses of the monastery, views of the Paro valley and splashes of red-blossom rhododendrons.
2. Tsechus- A colorful affair
Festivals or ‘tsechus’ are a major part of Bhutanese life and offer a unique cultural insight into this Himalayan Kingdom. Most of the dzongs and goembas have annual festivals featuring mesmerizing dance dramas. The largest of these festivals is the tsechu-with dances in honor of Guru Rinpoche. They are colorful affairs with lots of masked dancing and bright costumes where the dances take on aspects of wrathful and compassionate deities, heroes, demons, and animals.
3. Punakha Dzong
Superbly situated where two rivers converge, Punakha Dzong is postcard perfect and serenely monastic. Punakha Dzong symbolizes Bhutanese architecture where dzongs were built without iron nails. Built in between 1637-1638, it is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan constructed strategically to serve as the religious and administrative center of the region.
4. Mountain treks
Trekking in Bhutan reveals a spectacular, unspoiled country steeped in ancient traditions – and with a ‘history’ that is as tall as the Himalayas. Apart from the spectacular cultural tours of the spectacular dzongs, monasteries, temples, and festivals, the best way to escape and experience more of the real Bhutan is on a trek. Explore what truly sets Bhutan apart from anywhere else and traverse the picturesque landscapes on one of the most remote kingdoms on earth on one of these wondrous mountain treks.
The valleys comprising Bumthang make up the cultural heartland of Bhutan and are ideal for day hikes to monasteries. Bumthang’s ancient monasteries and temples figure prominently in Bhutan’s early development as well as in the foundation of the unique aspects of Bhutanese Buddhism.
6. Thirteen unique arts and crafts of Bhutan
The arts and crafts of Bhutan that represents the exclusive “spirit and identity of the Himalayan kingdom’ are defined as the art of Zorig Chosum, which means the “thirteen arts and crafts of Bhutan”. The thirteen crafts are carpentry, painting, papermaking, blacksmithery, weaving, sculpting and more. The Institute of Zorig Chosum in Thimphu is the premier institution of traditional arts and crafts set up by the Government of Bhutan. These art forms and handicrafts make perfect souvenirs for you that reflect rich culture and tradition of Bhutan.
7. Thimphu Valley
Thimphu delights with its museums and cultural attractions including the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which celebrates its popular tsechu in autumn. The relatively broad valley of Bhutan’s capital also provides many out-of-town sights and worthwhile distractions. There are several good walks not far from the capital, taking in a handful of perfectly positioned monasteries with excellent views down the valley.
8. Barkhor Bazaar
Barkhor Bazaar showcases cultural highlights of Tibetan people. It comprises a series of circular streets that encompass the Jokhang temple along with numerous merchants and vendors offering a wide variety of local Tibetan arts, crafts, and cuisines. The Barkhor bazaar if seen from the perspectives of the vast combination of Tibetan culture represents a window of Tibet. In addition, the market is constantly thriving with the countless activities from the vendors and shops.
9. Kyichu Lhakhang
Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan’s oldest, most venerated and most beautiful temples and it sits just a short distance from the town of Paro. The oldest temple in this twin-temple complex is believed to have been built by King Songtsen Gampto of Tibet.
10. Rinpung Dzong & National Museum
Paro’s Rinpung Dzong is a hulking example of the fortresslike dzong architecture that glowers protectively over the valley and town. Above the dzong is an old, round watchtower, the Ta Dzong, now converted into the excellent National Museum, which has an informative and eclectic collection.