June 04, 2023
With the chime of distant bells and high altitudes, the Kingdom of Bhutan is a landlocked country perched high above sea level on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas. The last buddhist kingdom in the world, Bhutan is steeped in rich history and culture, with majestic buddhist monasteries and dzong architecture set against picturesque deep forests, ravines and mountainous landscapes.
Due to its rather remote location, Bhutan was pretty isolated until the latter half of the twentieth century. Partly due to this isolation, Bhutan has managed to preserve many cultural norms and customs that date back thousands of years among its multiple ethnic groups, including eastern Sherpas.
In this blog, we’re going to explore what Bhutan has to offer and how you can make that Bhutan trip extra special when diving deep into a region so full of new adventure and culturally rich splendor.
In a kingdom sitting atop the highest mountain range on Earth, it’s no surprise that you can give yourself a hiking experience like no other. Bhutan has an endless number of hiking trails that really do give you some absolutely amazing and majestic sights of the mountains as well as architecture to behold.
Until recently all tourists, aside from those from countries like India, Bangladesh and Maldives, were required to have Bhutanese guide and driver while touring Bhutan unless they had an international driving permit. However, this rule has recently been relaxed, meaning you can solo travel in the country more easily, although arguably still having a guide who can tell you about the culture and history of the region is always an enriching experience.
The Dochula to Lungchutse Lhakhang Hike is a popular route for both beginners and experts alike with some extremely beautiful sights of several majestic mountain peaks. Starting at the Buddhist shrine at Dochula and ending at the Lungchutse monastery, the trail breathes the history, nature and culture of Bhutan. Alternatively, the Gangtey Nature trail offers some excellent downhill hiking in Bhutan with great views of the Phobjikha glacial valley. This trail is perfect for communing with nature, with meadows, wildflowers and forests and vibrant animals grazing.
Another world-class favorite, the Taktsang Goenba Hike has beautiful sights of the Paro Valley and ends with the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery sitting 10,000ft above sea level. What makes the Tiger’s Nest Bhutan’s most famous tourist location is that the monastery and area are deeply tied to the culturally rich Buddhist history and folklore of Bhutan. In Buddhist folklore, the Guru Rinpoche, an 8th-century Indian Buddhist master, was carried up the mountain on a female disciple’s back, a disciple who later transformed herself into a tigress. Despite its English name, the Bhutanese name, Taktsang, actually translates more accurately to Tigress’ Lair.
How long is the hike to Tiger’s Nest? Well, after a 20 minute taxi ride from north of Paro to the start of the trail at the monastery car park, you have a four/five hour hike up ahead of you. This means that it’s important you wear sturdy hiking boots, use hiking poles for knee support on the incline and keep hydrated.
An important aspect of Bhutan is that it really is the last Buddhist kingdom on the planet, under the dynasty of Wangchuck and with many monasteries and dzongs. While Bhutan had an absolute monarchy for most of the twentieth century under the Dragon King, the Druk Gyalpo, as of 2008 the country has become a constitutional monarchy. In the past, regions have also been ruled by the secular Druk Desi and an appointed senior religious leader called the Je Khenpo.
Bhutan is an extremely spiritualist place, being a real buddhist heartland in the Himalayas. Dzongs, which are a fortified monastery, are quite plentiful in Bhutan and highly distinct, being magnificently enormous in style with towering exterior walls and intricate complexes of courtyards, temples, administrative offices, and monk accommodations. Dzongs are a crucial part of Bhutan’s history, like with the Trongsa Dzong, a strategically important fortified monastery that was key to controlling Bhutan in olden times.
Other popular dzongs include the Lhuentse Dzong, an ancestral home for the royal family located in Eastern Bhutan and originally constructed in 1543, as well as the Jakar Dzong in Bumthang, Central Bhutan, constructed in 1549 and once the seat of the first Bhutanese king. Like many dzongs, these were constructed as Bhutanese monasteries first before being fortified in the 1600s.
What should you wear in dzongs? Due to the sacredness of dzongs, it’s important that you treat them with respect and cultural sensitivity. While you don’t have to wear traditional Bhutanese dress, you should wear sensible footwear and clothing that covers your arms and legs. Do not wear t-shirts, shorts or short skirts, flip-flops or hats.
The Bhutanese people and the natural wonders of the Himalayas are fantastic, but what about the food? Thankfully, Bhutan offers a wide range of tasty and spicy dishes that will leave you spoiled for choice. Bhutan’s national dish is ema datshi, a hearty, spicy chilly soup with tasty yak cheese traditionally with red rice. Another famous soup dish to try is Kewa datshi, made up of chilies, sliced potatoes and cheese. Aside from delicious Bhutanese soup, we also recommend tasty yak cheese curry. Tired of the cheese? Try shakam paa, a dried beef dish cooked with chilies and radish.
And, if you love dumplings, Bhutan and momos are practically synonyms, available at many restaurants and street stalls. They’re available in a variety of options, such as fried or steamed inside flour dough, and often come with meat, cheese or vegetable fillings as well as chili sauce.
Starting off with another national favorite, one of the most popular drinks in Bhutan is Ara, or Arag – a tasty and hot, alcoholic treat like no other. This local drink is made from fermented, high-altitude grain and whiskey. It has a creamy look and is typically served in a giant mug, and it’s a delicious beverage that’s rather warming in the high-altitude breeze with next level flavor on tongue. Ara is quite common at religious festivals, including Bhutanese archery tournaments.
There are a wide range of Bhutanese homegrown and craft alcoholic drinks available in Bhutan, from Druk to Red Rice Lager, and it’s always a special treat to visit places like Namgay Artisanal Brewery and Bumthang Brewery where all the magic happens. Aside from alcoholic beverages, other drinks popular in Bhutan include Suju tea, a buttery tea that’s a staple of the Losar New Year celebrations.