Westerners have been transfixed by the notion of Shangri-La since James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, describing a mysterious Buddhist utopia hidden deep in the Himalayas. And while Bhutan is nowhere near as isolated from the mainstream of South Asian life as it used to be, the country certainly comes closer to the myth than any other.
Buttressed on three sides by high peaks, and with its borders guarded by a monarchy as obstinately conservative as any on the planet, this small mountain kingdom has maintained its traditional way of life to a degree that’s unique in the eastern Himalayas – and in a style that’s fabulously idiosyncratic.
Where else in the world are men obliged by law to wear Argyll socks and knee-length, cross-buttoned tunics, or can claim as its national symbol an animal that looks like a cross between a cow and a goat (the ‘takin’)? And which other country has archery as its national sport, has banned foreign television and tobacco, and measures its success not merely in terms of economic growth, but GNH – ‘Gross National Happiness’ – a scale on which Bhutan scores very highly.
For while money may not be pouring in (per capita income is around $2,000) quality of life is high. Most of the population resides in substantial, detached, Tibetan-style houses set amid idyllic farmland and mountains. The Buddhist faith still thrives, most visibly in a constellation of spectacular fortress-monasteries, or dzongs, dating from the 17th century. Since then, the country has remained harmonious under its successive monarchs, the most recent of whom – a young, Oxford-educated Elvis fan named Jigme Wangchuk – ascended to the throne only in 2006.
Anyone wishing to experience Bhutan’s distinctive Himalayan culture, however, has to pay for the privilege. The government levies a daily minimum spend of $200–250 on all foreign visitors. The result of the policy has been to minimize to a remarkable degree the impact of tourism on the country, ensuring that rather than crowds and commercialism, your enduring memories of the place will be pristine landscapes, exquisite traditional architecture and people who are genuinely friendly and hospitable.
Our tours to Bhutan string together all the country’s main cultural and scenic highlights, from the splendour central of Paro and Thimphu’s dzongs to the natural beauty of the Phobjikha Valley. Travel here is never less than comfortable. Hotels are few and far between, but of a high standard, and the main roads are well kept. For anyone wishing to extend their tour into less travelled corners of Bhutan, TransIndus can also arrange treks of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty.
Area: 47,000 sq km (a fifth of UK’s area).
Population: 672,425 (2005 official census) although other estimates put it at around 2 million.
Religion: Lamaistic Buddhist 75%, Indian- and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 25%
Languages: Dzongkha, Tibetan and Nepalese dialects
Time: GMT + 6hrs
When to go
Bhutan's climate ranges from tropical in the south, to temperate in the centre of the country, to cold in the north. Mid December to early January can be a beautifully clear and dry time in western Bhutan. Late December through mid February is the period of heaviest snowfall in the higher elevations. The autumn season, late September through November, is usually mild and the sky is at its clearest affording magnificent views of the Himalaya.
Bhutan’s international airport is at Paro. No direct flights are available to Paro from the UK. Some of the best options are via Delhi or Kolkata (India), Kathmandu (Nepal) and Bangkok (Thailand). There are two possibilities for entry by road. The first is into Phuntsholing from Sikkim and West Bengal (India). The less popular option is to enter into Samdrup Jongkhar via Assam (India).