Explore six not-to-miss sights in the magical Buddhist kingdom on the edge of the Himalayas. By Elizabeth Williams
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 in 2017 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 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 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 highlights.
Paro | Tiger’s Nest
If you get one photo from Bhutan, this should be it—provided you are up for the trek. It is generally the last stop on tours of the country for good reason: It is a two-hour hike, from 8,500 feet to more than 10,000, and it is helpful to be acclimatized to the country’s high altitudes before you attempt it. It is a slog, but the journey made me appreciate the accomplishment of building it back in the eighth century, when it was home to the guiding force of Himalayan Buddhism, Guru Rinpoche, believed to be the second incarnation of the Buddha. Paro is also the site where all the history, belief systems, and legends that I had heard for two weeks in Bhutan came together.
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.
Trongsa | Royal Heritage Museum
One of the country’s larger, more impressive medieval dzongs is located here. It is 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, Tantric Buddhism as practiced in the Himalayas, is deeply fascinating and moving.
Phobjikha | Gangtey Monastery
There are more monasteries than yaks in Bhutan. This one from the 17th century is especially beautiful. 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 will 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 of these graceful birds.
Thimphu | National Textile Museum
This new, modern building in the capital of Bhutan houses exquisite specimens of weaving in the traditional styles from throughout the country. I loved admiring them, but I 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 is a time-consuming process—one I appreciated even more when my hotel sent staff to dress my friends and I 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.
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.
Essential Travel Tips
When 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.
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The Bhutanese have a legendary sense of humor and fun. I had 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 are invited to karaoke, go. Belting out 1980s American music in their kiras and ghos is a national pastime.