Visiting Bhutan is like being transported to another world. This tiny nation tucked between India and China was cut off from modernity for years – television and the internet were banned until as recently as 1999. But Bhutan is now cautiously opening the door to tourism, taking steps to ensure that it doesn’t end up destroying the environment and way of life for the locals, which has been the case for other popular tourist destinations such as Venice and Iceland. If you are wondering why and how to travel to Bhutan, this is for you.
As a result of its efforts, Bhutan is turning itself into a model of sustainable travel – the country’s focus on low-impact tourism means that travelers are required to book through an approved tour guide and spend a certain amount of money each day. These policies are designed to help Bhutan avoid the perils of over-tourism.
Many places (such as Amsterdam, for example) are now trying to reduce the number of tourists they receive after their tourism campaigns worked a little too well. Bhutan is trying to shut the stable door before the horse has bolted, and so far it seems to be working well.
But if you do travel to Bhutan, what can you do there? Everyone knows about the many monasteries, and it would be a waste to travel to Bhutan and not visit at least once. However, there are so many other things to do – dance at a festival, learn some archery, or maybe hike through ancient forests. You certainly won’t be bored.
Bhutan is perhaps most famous for its (very deserved) reputation for peacefulness. It has a strong Buddhist tradition, which lays the foundation for its peaceful outlook, and the Buddhist beliefs about respect for all forms of life are embedded into cultural attitudes, individual behavior, and the society at large.
Unusually, Bhutan doesn’t measure its prosperity on purely economic factors alone but considers the happiness of its citizens as the best way to measure progress. The Gross National Happiness (GNH) is measured as well as the GDP.
This philosophy also affects the legal framework – the four GNH principles are sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservations, good governance, and the preservation and promotion of culture.
Laws and policies are filtered through these standards and this results in the protectionist policies that they have in place today. For example, schools are required to teach children about agricultural methods and the importance of protecting the environment, so Bhutan is already taking steps to protect its future as well as its present.
Up until now, Bhutan hasn’t had much attention on the world stage, but people are starting to wake up to the fact this incredibly beautiful and peaceful country should be high on travelers’ bucket lists. Rough Guides has even included Bhutan in its 20 Best Places to travel in 2020 list.
Conservation and Sustainability – How to Travel to Bhutan
Visit Bhutan and you will see that the country takes conservation very seriously – little wonder then at least sixty percent is covered by forest. The country is already carbon negative and one of the reasons it’s been tipped by Rough Guides as one of the top countries to visit in 2020 is because it’s set to become the world’s first fully organic nation by next year.
Sustainable travel is built into the tourist economy here, with the rule that visitors are only allowed to visit using a tour operator and must spend a minimum of $250 per day (including accommodation and transport).
This money is used to support the healthcare and education system for citizens, so visitors to Bhutan can be sure that their visit is serving to enhance rather than damage the local environment and social system.
The requirement to travel with an approved tour operator means you won’t be able to book an independent trip, so have a look around and find a reputable tour operator to get you there. Rough Guides is one of the many tour operators that can be used to book a trip to Bhutan.
Is it responsible to encourage travel to Bhutan?
Travel is often seen as the bad guy with regards to sustainability, with many people criticizing the high carbon dioxide emissions that travel generates. Therefore, can it be a good thing to recommend that people travel to a country that is carbon negative? A contentious issue, but if more people can see for themselves that carbon negativity is a reachable goal for a nation, then maybe so.
The money that tourism brings to the country allows Bhutan to support its infrastructure so, by accepting tourists, it can continue to be an example to other nations of how a country can put citizens and the environment above the acquisition of monetary wealth and still be a success.
What to do in Bhutan
You’ve made it to Bhutan, so what do you do whilst you’re there? Read on to find out possible things to do in Bhutan.
The fourth edition of Rough Guides’ book ‘Make the Most of Your Time on Earth’, which was published in September 2019 is a book of 1,000 travel experiences and recommends that travelers visit Punakha, the old Bhutan capital.
It is the closest you can get the time travel – locals still wear traditional dress, nomadic yak herders still use bows and arrows, and more cows wander about than people. The place is completely isolated, and you might be there for days without seeing another soul.
Visit Chimi Lhakhang
The Chimi Lhakang was built in 1499 and is known as the ‘fertility temple’. It is a beautiful Buddhist monastery located in the Punakha district and is somewhat of a pilgrimage for couples across the Himalayas. Why?
Well, it’s decorated with a large number of phalluses, which represent hope and good fortune for those who want to conceive.
Dance at a traditional festival
The tshechu are annual Bhutanese festivals held in each on the tenth day of a month of the lunar Tibetan calendar. The month it’s held is different in each district, so when you go will depend on whereabouts in the country you are. If you have the chance to go to one of these festivals then it’s worth it.
There’ll be colorful costumes, lively music, and plenty of dancing. You can just go along for the atmosphere and to watch the spectacle or do some dancing of your own. It’s an experience not to be missed.
Watch or learn archery
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan and was traditionally a way of Bhutan’s rural communities to get together. It’s not unusual for it to be an alcohol-fuelled affair and it’s customary for there to be lots of dancing, loud jeering, and even singing.
Most religious events and festivals will have archery tournaments, so you will probably come across the sport at least once during your visit to Bhutan. Nowadays, as well as being an integral part of religious and community events, archery is also a major tourist draw and it’s worth checking with your tour operator where you can have a lesson and try it out for yourself.
Related read: 20 Awesome Things to Do in Asia
Visit Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
A little younger than the aforementioned Chimi Lhakhang and not as beautiful, but the Namgyal Chorten is nevertheless worth a visit.
It was built in 2004 by HM the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, to symbolize prosperity and wellbeing for Bhutan. It’s located on a tall hill and to get to it, you need to climb 40-feet over rickety bridges and woodlands. But once you’ve reached the Namgyal Chorten you’ll be rewarded by incredible views of rice fields and the Himalayas.
Enter the Tiger’s Nest
You’ve probably seen photos of Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) – the ornate building clings to a sheer cliff face, 900 meters above the Paro Valley. You can visit it but getting there is no mean feat. It can only be reached by foot, so you’ll face a long, steep trek up a rocky track. But once you’re there you can indulge in some quiet contemplation and admire the extraordinary views across the valley.
It’s one of the most famous places in Bhutan, but thanks to the country’s strict tourism policies, it’s not inundated with other travelers.
A trip to Bhutan will take some planning, but those who are looking for a different kind of travel experience will be rewarded in spades. Travelers to this enchanting country will leave with a genuine appreciation of Bhutan’s natural splendor and unique culture and traditions.