Spotlight - BHUTAN: THE WORLD’S LAST MAGIC KINGDOM

In this day and age, any country which measures and protects the collective happiness and wellbeing of its population in terms of its Gross National Happiness must surely be on the bucket list of every happy-go-lucky globetrotter. Add to this royal tigers, soaring mountains, ancient traditions and tales of dragons, and the Himalayan destination of BHUTAN seems like nowhere else on earth. The Cultured Traveller takes a look.

Despite being sandwiched between the rapidly developing powerhouses of India and China, the mere mention of Bhutan conjures up an intense air of magic and mystery. The Land of the Thunder Dragon. Lho Mon Kha Zhi – the country of four approaches. The Last Shangri-La. Throughout its long history, Bhutan has been known by many names, each adding to its reputation as an almost legendary, mythical land.

Today, this tiny remote Himalayan kingdom’s sense of unrushed timeliness is at odds with the internet-fuelled frenzy of contemporary 21st century western life. Bhutan is a land of awe-inspiring peaks and glaciers; of pristine mountain lakes and fast-flowing rivers fed by monsoons and melting snow; of dense ancient forests; of tigers and leopards, bears and antelope.

Magnificent centuries-old fortresses (or dzongs) rise from cliff faces and valley floors; time-honoured stories of gods and kings, heroes and demons swirl in the clouds; and traditional dancers mesmerise the senses in a whirl of brightly-coloured silk and richly decorated masks.

Isolated from the rest of the world for hundreds of years, Bhutan wasn’t opened to travellers until 1974, at which stage local people had never met a tourist. Even as recently as five years ago, most locals hadn’t had any contact with the outside world, since tourists just visited the country’s temples and fortresses. Unsurprisingly, the government had to tread very carefully to both preserve the pristine environment and unique cultural heritage.

You won’t see a backpacker in Bhutan. A ban on independent travel to deter budget travellers and insisting that every international visitor spends a minimum of USD250 per day in high season and USD200 in low season, has positioned Bhutan as a pioneer of high-value low-impact tourism, pre-empted the risk of over-tourism and protects the population of 800,000 and their way of life. As a result, those who visit Bhutan are generally seasoned tourists who do their research before arriving, and are thus engaged with the country and respectful of its traditions when travelling around the Buddhist kingdom.

International travellers must sign-up with a registered Bhutanese tour agency before arriving in the country. The minimum spend includes money spent on food, transport, guides and accommodation, so in reality it’s more like an inclusive holiday than a tourist tax. Moreover, USD65 of the USD200-250 goes to the government, which reinvests the money to provide free education and healthcare for its people.

Landing in Bhutan is an experience in itself and only a handful of pilots are sufficiently skilled to approach tiny Paro International Airport, nestled among the Himalayas at 2.5 kilometres above sea level. Even Boeing has said that Paro is ‘one of the world’s most difficult for take-offs and landings’. A runway of just 2 kilometres long, a surrounding landscape of 5,000 metre peaks and an abundance of mountain foliage mean that pilots need to weave their planes through dozens of houses scattered across the mountainside, often coming within a few metres of clipping roofs. Despite the perilous conditions, the views as you come in to land – over Paro River’s clear blue waters and the lush green foliage of the Himalayas – are breathtaking, and provide a tantalising amuse-bouche of what’s to come.

The Bhutanese believe that true advancement of human society only takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side. So, conserving the kingdom’s environment as tourism gradually grows, as well as preserving Bhutan’s cultural and spiritual heritage, are paramount to the government. This is evident in a variety of measures designed to minimise the impact of the increasing numbers of travellers visiting Bhutan.

The constitution stipulates that at least 60 percent of Bhutan will always remain under forest cover (the current level is 72 percent) and so much of this terrain is swathed with national parks and nature reserves. Biologically, Bhutan straddles an area with incredibly high biodiversity richness – the Eastern Himalayas – and protected land is connected via a network of ‘biological corridors’, so animals are free to roam throughout vast tracts of the countryside. This remarkable system has boosted Bhutan as both a world biodiversity hotspot and a haven for endangered species, where Royal Bengal tigers, clouded leopards, Himalayan black bears, antelopes and red pandas can be seen in their natural habitat. Bhutan is the only place on Earth where leopards and tigers share the same habitat.

The Royal Bengal tiger has been a Bhutanese symbol of religious power for centuries. In fact, the nation’s most famous monastery, Paro Taktsang, is colloquially known as the Tiger’s Nest after the legend that renowned Indian tantric master Padmasambhava flew to the rocky outcrop on the back of a supernatural tigress. Unsurprisingly therefore, Bhutan’s elusive mountain tigers are revered and treasured, and they roam wild in the rugged mountains of Bhutan, not just in lowland jungle areas such as Royal Manas National Park, but also high in the foothills of the Himalayas and Jigme Dorji National Park that extends to the Tibetan border. Hence, all over the kingdom, you will see tigers painted in brilliant colours on the walls of houses, monasteries and palaces.

Free from the tourist hordes that constantly descend upon Nepal, trekking in Bhutan is an altogether more pleasurable experience and a must for any visitor who is even vaguely energetic, to experience its unspoiled culture and stunning nature. From gentle treks through ancient rhododendron forests to challenging hikes that traverse the country, Bhutan offers something for walkers and trekkers of all levels. The Jhomolhari Trek is perhaps Bhutan’s most popular and follows an ancient trade route, through Jigme Dorji National Park to fantastic views of sacred Jhomolhari peak, more than 7,000 metres up, on the Tibetan border.

A number of world-class physical challenges also appeal to the more adventurous, including the one-day Tour of the Dragon bike race (allegedly the toughest one-day race in the world) and the notorious 28-day Snowman Trek. And for thrill-seekers, Bhutan offers white-water rafting in six major crystal-clear rivers fed by the glacial-melt of the Eastern Himalayas, varying in classes and adrenaline-generating speeds.

If kicking off your shoes and relaxing is more your thing, an abundance of luxury wellness retreats provides an opportunity to rejuvenate your body and mind via yoga, guided meditation, natural medicines and spiritual day tours to ancient temples and monasteries.

Bhutan’s Machu Picchu and hugging the side of a rocky cliff 3,000 feet above Paro valley, it is 1,000 steps and a four-hour roundtrip to hike to ‘The Tiger’s Nest’ of Paro Taktsang which was built in 1692. But the going is manageable if taken slowly, for the path is well built, regularly maintained and the mountain air is refreshing. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to pause en route to catch one’s breath and admire the incredible views.

Also worth visiting is Punakha Dzong, one of the most majestic and famous structures in the country (built without the use of nails, not even one) and widely considered to be the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan.

At just over 51 metres tall, gilded bronze Buddha Dordenma near Thimphu is one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world. Located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, it also offers visitors panoramic views of Bhutan’s capital and surrounding mountains.

Despite being a relative newcomer to the tourism industry, Bhutan offers a variety of places to rest one’s head, ranging from small hotels and homestays to five-star resorts and luxury retreats.

In a country like Bhutan, a homestay offers infinitely more contact and an immersive alternative to a luxury hotel which more often than not could be anywhere. Wild Frontiers arranges small group tours and tailor-made holidays to Bhutan, including homestays. (wildfrontierstravel.com)

At the other end of the hospitality scale, COMO Uma Paro is one of Bhutan’s most exclusive retreats, hosting international travellers who want to both immerse themselves in the local culture and enjoy first-class hospitality. Perched on a verdant hilltop overlooking the town of Paro, the resort features nine beautifully appointed private villas and 20 luxury rooms, all of which combine contemporary design with Bhutanese artisanship. (www.comohotels.com/umaparo)

Six Senses Bhutan quite possibly provides the most complete five-star hospitality experience is the country, via a collection of five boutique lodges located in different parts of the kingdom, three of which have already opened (in Thimphu, Punakha and Paro Valley). The last two lodges (in Gangtey and Bumthang) will open this year. The Thimphu lodge (the largest in the collection), is known as a “Palace in the Sky” since its design is inspired by the architectural elements of a dzong (fortress) and the clouds. All lodges boast over-sized decks, floor-to-ceiling windows offering uninterrupted views, and a spa and wellness center with facilities and treatments reflecting the valley in which they are set. (www.sixsenses.com/resorts/bhutan/destination)

Wherever you stay in Bhutan, one thing is certain: you are destined to experience a sense of wonder in this unique part of the world. From the dizzying mountain peaks to the verdant valleys, Bhutan will undoubtedly charm and captivate all of your senses. And, if you are fortunate, you may experience the age-old magic at the heart of the kingdom’s primeval forests, when time stands still, even if only just for a moment.