Aside from the awe-inspiring scenery, when arriving in Bhutan the thing that strikes you is the most extraordinary sense of peace and tranquillity.
Perhaps this is not surprising in a country whose success is measured not by GDP but by Gross National Happiness. And this is mandated. The Bhutanese seem wonderfully content, with a shy sense of humour and an embracing warmness. You see the pride in their country as they regale you with stories of tradition and culture and the country’s uniqueness.
And unique Bhutan truly is. In keeping with Buddhist values, the people live in harmony with nature and Bhutan is one of the top ten biodiversity hot spots of the world. Unlike much of Asia there is not a cigarette or plastic bag to be found; they are illegal. The landscape actually appears virginal and picture postcard like with the freshest and cleanest air you will ever encounter.
The scenery is wonderfully diverse. Those after the majestic grandeur of snow-capped mountains will love the views of the Eastern Himalayas in the North. Those who appreciate something gentler will fall in love with the rich and fertile Paro Valley.
In Spring the countryside is a riot of colour with wild flowers in abundance. It is also a gardener’s delight – where else can you get 50 species of Rhododendrons? There is enough to keep even the most ardent bird twitcher happy – 770 species of bird await discovery and identification. Other lateral pursuits include amazing altitude trekking – both long and shorter routes are available.
The culturally inclined will enjoy the Buddhist festivals. Yearly festivals are celebrated in each district and are a feast for the eyes; amazing masks, costumes and dancing in the stunning setting of a Dzong. If all this sounds too energetic, you can simply indulge and soak in the extraordinary scenery. Known to only a few there are five Aman resorts dotted around Bhutan.
Another must visit on any itinerary is the stunning Punakha Dzong. Said by many to be the most beautiful Dzong in the country, it is perfectly situated at the confluence of the Mo (mother) Chhu River and the Pho (father) Chhu River.
Unless arriving by road from India, you will fly into Paro in Western Bhutan. The tiny airstrip is deliciously uncommercial, nestled between pine-covered slopes. This leads onto a pretty little valley filled with rice paddies and orchards. Only a couple of hours drive is the must visit destination on every itinerary – The Tiger’s Nest Monastery otherwise known as the Taktshang Goemba. Perched 900 metres above the valley floor, the Monastery seems to simply hang against the rock face. A trek to get there, but the views really do make up for it. Feeling like something less strenuous, it is possible to take a horse most of the way up.
Another must visit on any itinerary is the stunning Punakha Dzong. Said by many to be the most beautiful Dzong in the country, it is perfectly situated at the confluence of the Mo (mother) Chhu River and the Pho (father) Chhu River. It is only as you wander around the inside that you really appreciate its sheer size and scale. This contrasts with the fertile and gentle valley which is said to be the garden of the country.
Thimphu is the nation’s capital and definitely worth a visit. A couple of days wandering around here, you can do some shopping and visit the National Textile Museum and the Folk Heritage Museum. A more lateral sight is the Thimphu roundabout and its clock tower. Once upon a time it had traffic lights, but man is now the preferred option. Arrive in time for the annual Thimphu Festival. It is the largest in the country and not only will you be delighted by the costumes and masks but equally you will enjoy watching the local Bhutanese dancing, feasting and socialising.
Heading further east, continue onto the Phobjikha Valley. Remote and isolated, this stunning, u-shaped glacial valley is home to one of Bhutan’s most important wildlife sanctuaries – the Black Mountains National Park. It is most famous for the black necked cranes, who gather in the autumn/winter months. Other wildlife abounds and there are some wonderful and easy treks that can be done locally.
Another stunning valley is the Bumthang Valley. Here the fields are filled with buckwheat, millet and potatoes. Whilst not a country known for its gastronomic delights, the Bumthang Valley is famous for its butter and local versions of Gouda and Emmenthal cheese.
The majesty of the landscape is not the only thing that will catch your eye, the small detail is equally captivating. Don’t rush and just allow your eyes to gaze and your senses to appreciate the small things. Where else in the world will you find giant sized penis paintings on the side of houses? Marvel at how your guide seems to remain immaculate in his traditional, woven Gho on the ascent to The Tigers Nest. Sit in the square in Thimpu and wait for a teenager to come and slowly and shyly start speaking English. Relax and relish the traditions of a Bhutanese stone bath. Appreciate the multi-coloured prayer flags along mountain ridges fluttering in the breeze or just watch the world go by. Our advice to really appreciate Bhutan is to throw away the Blackberry, turn off the mobile phone and envelope yourself in the sense of peace and calm of Bhutan.