If you’re searching for a truly spiritual travel experience – with a big dose of luxury thrown in for good measure – put Bhutan at the top of your must-go-to list.
Travellers eager to take in the spiritual surroundings of the Himalayas are increasingly gravitating towards the magical Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan – and with good reason. It is a destination which promises to envelop you in a deep sense of serenity and, thanks to millennia of isolation and a unique take on tourism, it remains one of the world’s most mysterious and alluring wildernesses.
Entry was forbidden to visitors until 1974 and even since then, numbers have been minimal and strictly regulated. This landlocked country has been doubly protected from external influences by the mighty Himalayan peaks which surround it and, as a result, the traditional Buddhist way of life has survived largely intact. It is almost like an exotic Switzerland (possibly even cleaner), with valleys dotted with temples rather than churches. It feels old fashioned but in a good way; the people are gentle and hospitality is gracious in a way long forgotten by the modern world.
Most impressive is its soul-stirring scenery: colossal monasteries, often hanging over precipitous drops wreathed in mist; blankets of evergreen forests which seem to go on forever, and rugged mountain passes filled with fluttering prayer flags that feel like gateways to heaven. You’d be hard pushed to find a more perfect antidote to the stresses of 21st century life, but what is so marvellous about Bhutan is there is no need to rough it in terms of accommodation and service. Tourism has advanced by leaps and bounds here in recent years: the Aman Resorts were the first luxury hotel chain to open here and they now have five gorgeous rammed earth lodges in Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang which make for the perfect circuit through the country.
COMO Hotels followed shortly after with Uma Paro – our favourite hotel in Paro, especially suited to people who are sporty and into wellness and yoga. Though not marketed as a spa, it would give the world’s most esteemed spas a run for their money. After days spent trekking across sacred mountains breathing in fresh forest air nothing beats returning to a gourmet cuisine, sleek understated rooms and a hot stone massage to soothe your achy bones. COMO’s second hotel Uma Punakhaalso opens this year – the hotel site has spectacular elevated views over the valley and it will undoubtedly be a winner. The standard of local hotels has also improved considerably in the last few years and these can be used on their own or combined with more luxurious options to add variety to your trip.
- The Dzongs
As well as places of worship and learning, these large monasteries also act as administrative centres and fortification against the invading Nepalese and Tibetans. Punakha’s dzong is considered to be the most beautiful, though Parodzong is also a favourite and guaranteed to make a huge impression on first time visitors. The interior of the dzongs are fairly similar so be careful to not get too “dzonged out” by seeing them all.
- Takstang, Paro
Also known as “Tiger’s Nest”, this is the most important and spectacular monastery in Bhutan. It was here that Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century AD as, according to legend, the monastery was carried through the air on the back of a flying tigress. Defying gravity, it clings to the cliff-side one thousand meters above Paro valley and is a 2 – 3 hour trek from the starting point. Special access can be granted by prior arrangement.
This is Bhutan’s national sport and a popular pursuit for locals and tourists alike. Most afternoons you can see groups of men competing with each other, aiming at impossibly small targets (roughly the size of a frying pan) about 120 metres away. Rivals taunt and tease each other mercilessly to make them lose their concentration; when they hit the target they sing and dance. A heart-warming and often hilarious spectacle.
- Folk Heritage Museum, Thimpu
This small museum provides a great insight into traditional Bhutanese rural life and takes little more than 20 minutes to visit. The museum itself is a restored three-storey traditional rammed earth and timber house which still to this day is the way many people in the rural communities live.
- Thimpu – Whilst Bhutan’s capital city is worth visiting, this can be done en route from Paro to the other valleys without spending a night there if there is a constraint on time. A rapidly developing and chaotic town, one’s time is better spent elsewhere.
- Big festivals – Known as tsechus, the biggest of these religious festivals depicting the deeds of Guru Rinpoche are the Paro Tsechu held in spring and the Thimpu Tsechu held in late summer/early autumn. While fascinating, the tsechus put a strain on flights and hotels during these periods. One of Bhutans charms is that it is not normally over-run with tourists and you normally have the whole place to yourself, which is not possible during these periods. Smaller festivals, or even rehearsals in the dzongs, tend to take place throughout the year and are just as enjoyable.
- National dress in Bhutan is compulsory for locals -the knee-length wrap-around “gho” for men and the ankle-length dress known as the “kira” for women.
- Bhutan is the world’s first non-smoking country (though behind closed doors people still do).
- The government’s top priority is “Gross National Happiness”, which strives to achieve a balance between the spiritual and the material.
- Traditionally daughters inherit everything leaving sons to fend for themselves!
Best time to visit…
Bhutan can be visited year round, but the most popular season is springtime – the rhododendrons are in bloom and it is the time for trekking. Autumn is equally lovely, but what many people do not know is that winter is also a great time to go: the weather is predominantly dry and bright, views are crystal clear and, though chilly and crisp, there is nothing like warm blankets and wood fires at a luxury property to make you feel snug and content. Perfect for a Christmas with a twist.
Ampersand Travel provides a unique and fresh approach to luxury travel to the Indian Subcontinent & South East Asia and has specialised in trips to Bhutan for over seven years. Contact James Jayasundera at firstname.lastname@example.org, +44 20 7289 6100 for more information about booking a holiday to Bhutan.