This sleeping beauty is emerging as a must-see destination for soul-searching experiences. Here’s why a visit will change you.
BY JEN MURPHY — Spring 2019
ven before I step foot in the tiny Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan takes my breath away. The sole international airport sits in a serpentine river valley in Paro surrounded by towering 18,000-foot peaks. So perilous is the runway, only a handful of pilots in the world are certified to land here. I normally love stomach-dropping thrills but tense up as our 118-passenger plane dives between mountains and rooftops, throwing itself into a steep drop before jolting to an abrupt, miraculous stop.
When I finally open my eyes, the storybooklike scene outside again makes me gasp. The terminal resembles a temple, with a flared roof and painted frescoes, surrounded by a sea of pines. It’s easy to imagine Bhutan, closed off to tourism since 1974, as a sleeping beauty of sorts. After all, television was not introduced in Bhutan until 1999, which explains why half of the passengers on my flight are transporting flat-screen TVs.
Starbucks and McDonald’s have yet to invade and traffic lights still don’t exist. Even in Thimphu, the capital, a white-gloved traffic officer directs cars from a quaint booth in an intersection. But change is afoot in this isolated kingdom hemmed between China and India. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of annual visitors increased nearly 25 percent, up to 54,600. Luxury hotels are upping their game with over-the-top offerings such as helicopter itineraries and glamping experiences, and a half-dozen new hotels from heavyweight brands including andBeyond and Six Senses will open their doors by the end of this year.
Bhutan has thus far avoided the fate of other fragile cultures (Bali, Thailand) thanks to its somewhat befuddling high-value, low-impact tourism model. The government all but forbids independent travel, a rule that gives independent travelers like me pause. I avoid prepackaged tours, but in Bhutan I’m required to travel with a driver and guide who will shepherd me around a cookie-cutter tourist circuit of temples and treks.
The hefty daily package rate ($250 per day during the high season, March to May and September to November; $200 all other months) is also daunting, until you read the fine print and understand it’s a minimum spending requirement that includes meals, three-star accommodations, and your driver and guide. Each day rate includes a sustainable development fee that helps fund education, health care projects, and infrastructure for the Bhutanese. By the end of my trip, I’m convinced Bhutan may be one of the world’s best all-inclusive deals.
For a country in its tourism infancy, the service is surprisingly excellent. Most Bhutanese speak English fluently, and they radiate genuine hospitality and offer up laugh-out-loud humor. “We would like to welcome you to Bhutan with a car massage courtesy of your driver, Indra,” chuckles my guide, Tshering, as we bump along a potholed dirt road en route to COMO Uma Paro hotel. Just 4 miles from the airport, the 29-room Uma Paro feels like a hideaway tucked up in the forest — a private kingdom for Western wellness seekers with its signature healthy Shambhala cuisine and traditional bathhouse.
At any other hotel, staffers greet guests with a hotel spiel. At the Uma Paro, dapper general manager James Low, a Malaysian who fell in love with Bhutan when he came to help open the hotel in 2004, welcomes me to his “home” over a cup of tea and tells me Bhutan is different. As we sit in the circular dining room, warmed by a wood-burning stove called a bukhari, he catches me gazing out the large picture windows, mesmerized by the distant snowcapped peaks, and gives me sage advice: “Look beyond Bhutan’s natural beauty.” He takes my hand, and with tears in his eyes, recounts how Bhutan has changed him and how it will change me, too, if I open my heart to the goodness of the place. “The people here don’t have a lot for themselves, but they have a lot to share,” he says.
ow, I assume, is referring to Bhutan’s unique concept of Gross National Happiness, famously enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1972 as a governmental goal deemed more important than gross domestic product. I had always viewed Bhutan’s self-proclaimed cheeriest place on the planet status as a brilliant marketing ploy, but over my 10 days in the kingdom, I start to believe that maybe this place is as close to a utopia as I’ll find in modern times.
Bhutan isn’t just carbon neutral, it’s carbon negative. Forests cover more than 70 percent of the Switzerland-size nation. Those mountains I’ve been admiring are off-limits to climbers, assuring that Gangkhar Puensum, Bhutan’s highest peak at almost 25,000 feet, never becomes the next Everest, and Bhutan won’t fall to the same fate as nearby Nepal, a cautionary tale, Low tells me, of overtourism.
The government has decreed tobacco and smoking illegal in public areas, banned chemical pesticides, and forbids hunting and the slaughter of animals (meat for consumption must be imported). But Bhutan is far from perfect nor is it a bastion of Puritanism. On my daily treks with Tshering, bottles litter trails, evidence that even Bhutan hasn’t evaded the world’s plastic problem, and winged phalluses hang from the eaves of homes to ward off evil spirits. When we reach the mountaintop monasteries, I don’t find robed monks chanting or meditating; rather, to my surprise, they’re streaming the latest episodes of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones on their smartphones. Selfie sticks are plentiful at famous sites, such as the Buddha Dordenma, a 170-foot golden Buddha sitting atop a gilded meditation hall in Thimphu, and the iconic Tiger’s Nest temple, perched precariously atop a mountain cliff.
I thought vegetarianism would reign supreme in this predominantly Buddhist kingdom but yak burgers are ubiquitous on menus, and the royal family is known to make stops at COMO’s sister property in Punakha to indulge in its spectacular wagyu burger. Ara, Bhutanese moonshine rice wine, fuels weekend archery tournaments, but I prefer the kingdom’s smooth, peaty whiskeys, produced by the Army Welfare Project.
I quickly bond with Yashoda, my intuitive butler at Uma Paro, who shares that dating is just as difficult in Bhutan as anywhere else in the world. But I find it refreshing that without Tinder and Bumble, people still meet at cafés, nightclubs, or over red rice beer and live music at Paro’s hip new microbrewery.
y fear of a tightly scheduled, by-the-books itinerary eases on my third day when Tshering deems me worthy of a more difficult trek. He goes off schedule and takes me on his favorite hike near Paro, a remote, vertical climb to the temple of the flying goddess, Dorje Phagmo. This is the Bhutan I had envisioned, a land of prayer-flag draped bridges spread over gin-clear water, lazing yaks, and tourist-free trails so silent you can hear the swoosh of rock doves flying up above.
Having Tshering as my companion is like having a personal tutor in Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche brought the religion here from Tibet, he explains, and visited the very caves we’re passing. Every few feet Tshering points out a holy place I would have unknowingly walked past. “This is Guru Rinpoche’s shawl,” he says, nodding toward what looks like a rock, “and he bathed in those waterfalls.” When we reach the temple, we remove our shoes and Tshering performs prostrations, which I decide must have been the original burpee.
My days don’t feel packaged at all. Instead, they’re filled with unexpected adventures. Our visit to the lush valley of Punakha, a winding, three-and-a-half-hour drive from Paro, coincides with a rare gathering that occurs once a year near the dzong, or fortress. I ask if we can detour and Tshering agrees. The scene could be mistaken for Glastonbury or Burning Man — endless fields of pop-up tents and colorful flags. People from around the kingdom camp here for a month to be blessed by the chief abbot. Nomadic people in the north, distinct in their heavy wool clothes, hiked two to three days to reach the ceremony.
Wanting more exercise before our drive to Gangtey Valley, we again go off script and rise at sunrise one morning to hike from the intimate COMO Punakha hotel, a 10-room property set on a hillside overlooking a bend in the Mo Chhu River, to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, an intricate temple built by the queen mother. The hourlong hike is steep, the air brisk, but the resulting view rewards our efforts. A gate opens to reveal manicured gardens of avocado and mango trees. I spin the giant prayer wheel clockwise, just like Tshering taught me. It turns out, the queen mother herself is visiting today but the abbot grants us one hour before her arrival to tour the temple, a magnificent three-story structure filled with colorful statues of deities. Inside, the abbot performs his morning purification ceremony. As Tshering does his prostrations, I wander up to the temple’s roof and take in sweeping views of the surrounding rice paddies. I think of Low’s advice, close my eyes, and start to feel, as he described, the goodness of this place.
nless you can splurge on a helicopter, take note: Exploring Bhutan requires a lot of time in a car. The country only has one east-to-west road that has been much improved in recent years. The journey from Punakha to the Gangtey Valley used to take seven hours; now it takes two but is no less curvy. Most people time their visits to Bhutan around the kingdom’s famous tshechu, spectacular religious festivals held mainly in the spring and fall with traditional mask dances. But I’ve chosen the off-season, winter. The monks at the local shedra (monk school) are all away on vacation — pilgrimages to India or Nepal — but about 300 rare black-necked cranes descend in Gangtey Valley this time of year.
Gangtey Lodge, my base for the final few days, is a lesson in sustainable tourism, a concept of giving back more to both the people and the land. Seeing what owners Khin Omar Win and her husband, Brett Melzer, have created gives me hope that as Bhutan continues to open up to travelers, it will be that rare place where tourism does more good than harm. Aman and COMO paved the way for luxury tourism when they both opened their first hotels here in 2004. Rather than copy the pampered wellness concept, Gangtey embraced a model of cultural immersion way before experiential travel was a buzzword.
It took the couple three years to build their passion project. When they started construction in 2010, the valley had no electricity and little in terms of infrastructure. Due to the poor roads, nearly a quarter of the glass for the enormous lobby windows broke en route from India. Bhutan’s strict environmental codes added to the challenge. The government suspended timber permits countrywide for a year during the project, and workers could only collect sand for the foundations at certain times of the year when the river levels were low enough. Traditional Bhutanese farmhouses inspired the 12-room lodge, a nod to the kingdom’s agricultural roots, and the couple spared no expense getting the feel just right. They imported fireplaces from Switzerland and soaking tubs from England. The attention to detail is evident the moment guests arrive, greeted in song by the 45-person staff.
Win worked just as hard developing community relationships. “The valley was facing a loss of youth to cities,” she explains over a snack of momos, addictive dumplings served throughout Bhutan. “We created training and employment, enabling families to stay together.” The hotel supports local structures such as the nearby monastery and shedra, home to nearly 250 monk students, by offering guest experiences ranging from a spiritual cleansing by a senior monk to lighting butter candles during a morning blessing. Guests have the chance to be immersed in rural Bhutan, says Win, and portions of the fees and donations generated go back to the community.
My three days in Gangtey are all about serendipity. During breakfast at the Gangtey Goenpa monastery, I have the rare opportunity to witness monks practicing a masked dance. I’m invited to a humble farmhouse where apples and turnips are laid out to dry atop the roof and Bodhi, the 85-year-old patriarch, pours me a cup of Himalayan tea called suja. As luck has it, his neighbor has monks visiting to prepare a puja, which includes making the colorful, ornate prayer cakes I have been admiring in the temples.
Over meals, I quickly learn that the Bhutanese consider chili a vegetable, not a spice. Chef Adrian Broadhead, who recently arrived at Gangtey from Sydney, schools me in the national dish, emma dashi, a fiery chili cheese stew. Before I take a bite, I remember Yashoda’s endearing saying before every meal at Uma Paro, “Enjoy slowly.”
I ask Win on my final night if she worries more hotels and more tourists will change Bhutan. Without missing a beat, she replies the country is ready. As travelers, it’s selfish for us to wish places such as Bhutan might stay preserved. As Gangtey has shown me, Bhutan has certainly benefited from tourism, but not at the expense of its own citizens. During my time here, life goes on around me, not for me. In an era when most people travel only to discover how closely countries on the opposite end of the world resemble their own, Bhutan is that unusual journey that proves there remains a land not quite trapped in time but refreshingly unique.
Experts’ Travel Tips
Tourism is still relatively new to Bhutan, with independent travel not allowed. Visitors must book through a government-licensed tour operator (it obtains your $40 visa). Here, two travel advisers with their fingers on the pulse of travel in the country offer tips for a smooth journey.
Stay hydrated. “Paro Airport is about 7,200 feet above sea level with mountain passes and trekking heights ranging from 11,000 feet to more than 16,000 feet. In addition to the normal altitude acclimatization protocol (drink lots of water and limit alcohol), avoid hot baths or showers for the first day as heat expands the capillaries and veins, and expedites oxygen loss in the blood supply, which can often lead to altitude sickness,” says Timothy Krenzien, president of Paul Klein Travel, a Virtuoso-affiliated agency in Chicago. (312-782-5343; paulklein.com)
Book early. “Only two airlines fly into Bhutan: Bhutan Airlines and Drukair. Generally, there’s only one flight per day from each major gateway city including Bangkok, Delhi, and Kathmandu, and two flights a week from Singapore, so flights sell out in peak season,” says Neubauer.
Cash up. “Credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Bhutan; cash is king. Especially in smaller towns, have ngultrum, the Bhutanese currency, with you. Main towns will have ATMs and major hotels will convert U.S. currency for a fee,” says Timothy Krenzien.
Pack layers. “Bhutan is the same latitude as Florida, but you need to factor in altitude. The sun is strong and you’ll want sunscreen, lip protection, quality sunglasses, and a hat. Nights are cool to cold. Plan to pack comfortable washable clothing, including cotton pants, long-sleeve shirts, fleeces, a lightweight down jacket or vest, and sturdy shoes,” suggests Krenzien.
Mind your hands and feet.“When visiting a Bhutanese home, if you sit down with your legs crossed, don’t point your hanging foot at anyone; it’s considered offensive. Never touch a person’s head; the head is considered a sacred part of the body,” says Krenzien.