Notes: Navigating Bhutan Before, During + After

A remote nation known as the Last Great Himalayan Kingdom for a reason

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At a Christmas Eve gala dinner in Agra, India (home of the Taj Mahal), I approached an American family that sat nearby. A part of me wanted to hear the familiar accent, another part wanted their take on the atypical holiday extravaganza we were attending. After introductions, we began to talk about our world travels and I explained that I’d just come from Bhutan. “Did you cry when you left?” a mother from the group asked. She’d been to the nation. She’d cried upon departure. She heard others did, too. It was a very appropriate question.

Many who visit the Himalayan Kingdom, which has a history irrevocably intertwined with mythology, struggle to explain their experience. It’s outside the realm of sight-seeing undertaken by most travelers. It’s not just the photogenic nature of, well, everything. It’s hard to place the otherness. It may have something to do with the meditative but eventful pace of the country. And anyone who has visited is quick to mention that a major part of its charm is the people, who are welcoming to say the least. A thorough analysis of travels to the nation, however, doesn’t answer questions so much as contribute to its allure.

It all begins with numerous blockades for entry; though each come with purpose. All tourists are required to have a visa for entry. These are not limited in number, but they are thorough in their advance requirements. Visitors must also partner with a mandatory travel operator (of their choice) and build a finalized itinerary prior to arrival. This isn’t to say the trip can’t be amended later on, but it does solidify what regions of the country you can enter. This is for environmental protection reasons, and is all clearly outlined on the Kingdom of Bhutan’s official travel site.

Then, there’s the infamous minimum daily expenditure of $200-290 (USD) per person per day. This money must be wired into an escrow account with the Bhutanese government when the visa application is submitted. Some $60-65 of this daily fee goes toward sustainability developments in Bhutan; the rest goes to the applicant’s daily experiences, food and hotel (unless one is opting for a five-star destination). All of this is done to limit tourism and deliver “high value, low impact” experiences. The country benefits. Tourists benefit too. And without a doubt, arguably because of this, the nation is breathtakingly clean, especially when compared to its neighboring industrial nations.

With roughly 71,400 international tourists in 2017, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, the remote Himalayan destination is far from overrun (even when accounting for the 183,287 “regional tourists,” predominantly from India). Indians can enter Bhutan by car. International tourists must fly—and there are only two airlines and ten departure points. A flight into the one international airport, Paro, involves banking and carving one’s way through the Himalayas—and if headed from Kathmandu or the destinations in India, flyers get a bird’s eye view of Everest in passing (you’ll want to be on the left-hand side of the plane when headed and the right side when returning). My first steps in the country, from plane to pavement, felt like lucid dreaming.

What does one do then? Acclimate. The kingdom is, on average, over 8,000 feet above sea level. A road trip, however, can mean traveling up above 11,000 feet. Along the way, my drive went from temperate nooks to snow-capped mountains and back down all the way to subtropical valleys. Outdoor time matters most and Bhutan is certainly a trekker’s haven. Guests can venture on an hour-long moderate hike from many hotels or commit to the rigorous 30-day Snowman Trek. Regardless of skill, everyone should walk within the cities and villages. Meander through the woods. Breathe the air.

As every guide is quick to mention, no trip to Bhutan is complete without an ascent to Paro Taktsang, commonly referred to as the Tiger’s Nest—the iconic monastery where the 8th-century Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche flew upon the back of a tigress to expel a demon. Also known as the Second Buddha, and Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche is revered in Bhutan as the bringer of Buddhism. After a two-hour, steep climb up (with a break at an isolated cafe that offers a can’t-miss view), one reaches the cliffside complex. It may be one of the few destinations left around the world that lives up to the anticipation. It’s possible to slink down into the passage and cave where the tigress purportedly meditated. Here’s where I cried. It was an earned experience.

At present the Bhutanese government is improving their road systems. The Bhutan National Highway goes from Paro to the capital city Thimphu and onward out east. It closes during heavy snowstorms in the mountain passes. And, it’s in the process of being widened, guaranteeing two lanes along those cliff-hugging ribbons in the future. Tourists on a budget can fly into Paro, visit the Tiger’s Nest and leave. Even a small dose of the country nourishes. But really, a visit requires many days and multiple destinations along the highway. Tour operators provide drivers and guides (internationals cannot drive in the country). Accept suggestions for stops, and do not forget to visit the penis-oriented Temple of the Divine Mad Man or the sky-high Dochula Pass. Take archery lessons. Cafe hop in the capital city, Thimphu. To miss any magnificent pocket of nature is a disservice to self.

There are many terms used frequently in Bhutan. A dzong (or fortress) houses both the government and religious leaders of each region. Some are simply extraordinary, but all have the same design language. Every guide uses the word “auspicious.” It’s also seen in temple descriptions. For the Bhutanese, favorable circumstances touch their past, present and future. And, of course, there’s Gross National Happiness (GNH). Much has been made of this concept, which appears in the Bhutanese constitution and was first coined by their fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Not only do you hear these words, you see them manifest everywhere. There are children playing with older family members in towns and roadside stops. Men happily wear traditional gho outfits and women dress in kiras, each a requirement for Bhutanese when entering a fortress or other landmark, but are also clearly an act of happiness within one’s culture. GNH is visible in the prayer flags always flapping in one’s line of sight. And it is most evident in the fact that everyone has a story to tell that’s underlined by passion for their king, kingdom and the world as a whole.

Over the next few months we will delve deeper into three hotels across the country, including an entire hospitality group that’s entering the Kingdom with five property openings. COMO Uma Paro, Gangtey Lodge and the Six Senses destinations each represent very different experiences available in Bhutan. One could also do as I did and taste all three destinations—much like I tasted their various libations: a local Druk 1100 beer, a glass of rice wine moonshine known as ara or one of the Scotch whiskies they blend in the country with spirit they’ve purchased from Scotland. The drinks, the hotels, the hikes, they have yet to diminish in memory and I suspect they never will. They’re boldly and happily impressed upon my spirit. I had wanted to visit Bhutan for a decade and upon completion of my trip I did not cry, as I was soaked in awe. But I can understand why many would.

Images by David Graver