You might not have heard of it but Bhutan, the small kingdom nestled between China and India, has some lessons to teach the rest of the world. The first carbon neutral country, it famously uses a Gross National Happiness index and values well-being over economic success. Mountains, rivers and nature are sacred and tourism is controlled and sustainable. Intrigued yet? It might not be the simplest place to travel to, but with this Bhutan travel guide, you’ll see it’s worth every ounce of time, money and effort.
Sustainable Tourism in Bhutan
Bhutan only opened its borders to tourists in 1974 and it remains an exclusive destination. To protect its culture and natural resources tourist numbers are managed, and all foreigners are required to apply for a visa through registered tour operators. The Bhutan people wanted a ‘high value, low volume’ policy when it came to tourism and, since the pandemic, a daily sustainable development fee of $200 has been introduced. This is on top of accommodation, travel and guide fees, making it prohibitively expensive for many. However, the money is used to support free education and healthcare, plant trees, help tourist industry workers and maintain Bhutan’s trails.
Gross National Happiness
How does a country become known as the happiest in the world? It began with a forward-thinking King who believed people’s happiness doesn’t depend on a nation's economic possessions. In what shouldn’t be a radical stance (but hey it’s 2023) no laws are passed in Bhutan if they don’t benefit the wellbeing of its people. Materialism is shunned and Buddhist values mean people appreciate what they do have rather than what is missing. Community, tradition, culture and the natural environment are valued above all else.
Getting to Bhutan
There is only one international airport with departure points in Bangkok, Kathmandu, New Delhi and Kolkata. You can also cross overland from India. Weather can sometimes delay flights so it's important to have a bit of leeway with your travel dates.
Best time of year to visit Bhutan
Most visitors come in autumn or spring, when the weather is dry and views across the mountains are at their best. If you are traveling for a spiritual reset winter is calmer, quieter and allows a more authentic experience of Bhutan and its people. The mountain skies will be clear, cold and fresh.
Places to visit in Bhutan
Thimpu is the beautiful, high altitude capital of Bhutan. Steeped in the culture and tradition of Bhutan, it’s a mix of ancient dzongs (fortified monasteries), modern shopping malls, and weekend markets. It’s a great starting point to a trip and the best place to visit museums such as the National Textile Museum, and experience the food, traditions and warmth of the Bhutanese people. Make sure you try the national dish here, Ema Datshi, a spicy dish of cheese, butter and red hot chillies that you’ll encounter all over the country.
Considered one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan you can visit the Paro dzong, take in the National Museum and do an hour long hike to the Zuri Dzong and incredible views. You can’t miss the most famous sight in Bhutan, Taktshang Goemba, The Tiger’s Nest, a sacred temple on a cliff-face reached by a hair-raising two hour hike.
Punakha is the ancient capital and guess what, there is a beautiful Dzing to visit. This is often described as the country's most stunning and sits by the meeting of two rivers, the male Pho Chhu and female Mo Chhu. Eastern Bhutan is much less visited than the West and there is amazing trekking in the surrounding villages, where you are unlikely to see another tourist.
Trekking in Bhutan
No Bhutan travel guide can miss out trekking. The country has some of the best routes in the world, revealing breathtaking views of monasteries on mountain tops and prayer flags carrying prayers across peaks and valleys. One of the most iconic is the Trans Bhutan Trail, a 403km path that was completely restored during the pandemic. It was once a busy trail for monks and pilgrims visiting shrines and temples but the path had become neglected. Now bridges have been rebuilt, and interactive signposts made of recycled plastic have QR codes to share information about each part of the trail.
Long Story Short...
It isn’t your average vacation destination but a trip to Bhutan has the potential to change your world view. It’s a country based on principles that are so different to those of the western world, and so committed to the sustainability of the natural environment, culture and the wellbeing of its people. We hope this Bhutan travel guide has gone some way to explaining why it sits on so many travel dream lists.
Written by Laura Sedlak