Explore 6 not-to-miss sights in the magical Buddhist kingdom on the edge of the Himalayas with this Bhutan travel guide. Written by Elizabeth Williams for Quest Magazine
Bhutan Travel Guide
Shortly after I returned home from Bhutan, I connected with an American construction consultant who has traveled to the country for 20 years, building luxury hotels for tourists and log cabins for the royal family. “I was lucky enough to experience Bhutan prior to the introduction of the Internet and TV,” he recalled. “To have seen it then and traveled extensively during this period was truly stepping back in time.” Although he saw the effects of progress and modernization just two years later, he says, even now there are large areas of the country that seem “timeless and unchanging.”
Bhutan feels like a place out of time, an innocent, peaceful — and famously happy — kingdom that still lives up to its reputation as the last Shangri-La. While the mountains are majestic, the air is crisp and clean, and the colorful temples are glorious, it’s that intangible quality of being innocent and untouched that accounts for a lot of the country’s allure.
People still wear traditional clothing, put on their finest to visit the combination religious-civic halls called dzongs in every town, drink butter tea and eat prodigious amounts of chili, and observantly practice an especially altruistic form of Buddhism. The biggest city, Thimphu, is the only world capital without a single stoplight; a white-gloved guard directs traffic instead.
Hotel projects are sprouting all over, and a wider national road is nearing completion, which will make more parts of the country more accessible. For now, people who visit explore a circuit through the country’s center and west, with stops in five or six villages and towns. Here are the Bhutan travel highlights.
Bumthang: Hiking through valleys and over passes
The name Bumthang translates as “beautiful valley,” and there are, in fact, four of them in the region. Several important, centuries-old temples and monasteries reside here. Notably, Kurje Lhakhang contains three temples and 108 stupas, and Tamshing Lhakhang, founded in 1501 by one of the country’s most revered teachers. As moving as it was to see the monuments, my spirit was more touched by the scenery as I explored slowly on foot, descending into a valley or cresting a hill to find fields of flapping prayer flags, put up to honor the dead or to send pilgrims well wishes as they make their way across rugged terrain. Even without knowing the context, the sight is stunningly beautiful.
Trongsa: Royal Heritage Museum
One of the country’s larger, more impressive medieval dzongs is here. It’s worth a visit. Yet more engaging is this museum, which collects centuries worth of spiritual art and offers an excellent crash course in Bhutanese history and cosmology. Even with only a rudimentary understanding, Himalayan and Tantric Buddhism are fascinating and moving.
Phobjikha: Gangtey Monastery
There are more monasteries than yaks in Bhutan. This one, from the 17th century, is especially beautiful and moving. The details on the prayer wheels and painted pillars are spectacular. The extensive complex includes a central monastery, meditation hall, sleeping quarters, school and courtyard, which hosts the annual black-necked crane festival, in honor of one of the region’s most majestic species. You’ll probably see some of the birds in the fields around the monastery or your hotel. Or you can visit the crane center, which is focused on conservation and home to a good-size population.
Punakha: Phallus central
Here’s another instance where Bhutanese spirituality gets tricky to talk about. As in many traditional cultures, fertility (of people and of land) is paramount, and this village is the center of the country’s celebration of the powerful phallus. Most homes and businesses have large specimens painted on their exterior walls, and the main temple was built in honor of a divine madman who 500 years ago took an unorthodox approach to teaching, using his own to subdue evil forces and convert demons into guardians. When I visited, a priest was offering blessings to female visitors — many of whom make special trips when they’re hoping to conceive — and I let him tap me on the head with a wooden model and an archery bow.
Thimphu: National Textile Museum
This new, modern building houses exquisite specimens of weaving in the traditional styles from throughout the country. I loved admiring them but was captivated by the videos of Bhutanese people dressing in ghos (men’s robe-like garments) and kiras (the long, tight wrap skirts worn by women). For both genders, it’s a time-consuming process — one I appreciated even more when my hotel sent staff to dress my friends and me in kiras. After 15 minutes of professional tucking and tying, I looked glamorous, but walking and sitting in the outfit made me grateful to have been born in the West.
Paro: Tiger’s Nest
If you get one photo from Bhutan, this should be it — provided you’re up for the trek. It’s generally the last stop on tours of the country for good reason: It’s a two-hour hike, from 8,500 feet to more than 10,000, and it’s helpful to be acclimatized to the country’s high altitudes before you attempt it. (There are companies that let you ride a horse halfway up, but my impression was the horses aren’t treated well.) It’s a slog, but the journey made me appreciate the accomplishment of building it back in the 8th century, when it was home to the guiding force of Himalayan Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, believed to be the second incarnation of the Buddha. It’s also the site where all the history, belief systems and legends that I’d heard for two weeks in Bhutan came together.
Essential Bhutan Travel Tips
Best Time to Go: It rains much of the year in Bhutan, with monsoon season lasting, roughly, June to August. Spring and Autumn boast lush vegetation, crisp air and blue skies.
Stay: With a focus on harmony and wellness, Amankora offers ultraluxe accommodations in 5 modern minimalist lodges that make the surroundings —glacial river valleys, the towering Himalayas and dense forests—the star of the show. On the far western end of a deep-green valley overlooking the Mo Chu River, COMO Uma Punakha, Bhutan is a great launching point for cultural exploration. Tucked into the trees, 29-room COMO Uma Paro, Bhutan — a royal family fave — stands a stones’ throw from important landmarks.
Know: The Bhutanese have a legendary sense of humor and fun. I’d been warned that my guides would expect their guests to tell jokes and sing songs with them, and sure enough, they took breaks from their own joking and good-natured teasing to ask their American charges for jokes and songs. Come prepared with a few entertaining bits. And if you’re invited to karaoke, go. Belting out 1980s American music in their kiras and ghos is a national pastime.