In January, I set my foot on one of my top bucket list items: visiting the happiest country on earth, the remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. I’m typically attracted to a destination by three things, the promise of delicious food, the knowledge I’ll be able to stretch my dollar far and the possibility of adrenaline-pumping adventure; however, that wasn’t why I wanted to go to Bhutan. Below is 10 Reasons Why You Should Visit Bhutan.
I longed to explore a less-considered destination that still retained much of its traditional heritage and natural landscapes that, by the way, are incredibly epic.
1. Experience The Beauty Of Buddhism
No matter what religion or belief system you follow, it’s hard not to appreciate the values of Buddhism. During my 9-day trip, my Bhutanese guide, Tenzin Tshangkhap, told me much about Buddhism that really rocked my world. For one, the idea that we are all born with three poisons — hatred, greed and ignorance — and that we should work to rid ourselves of these to reach enlightenment and potentially reach Nirvana. Or that instead of clinging to expectations and material things we should accept that disappointment and suffering are part of life, and try to practice non-attachment to those things. Or that nothing is permanent, and thus we should enjoy our positive memories and know that our suffering shall pass. Or that our suffering and joy are all controlled by our minds — meaning we have control over these emotions.
To go along with this, the temples and spiritual centers are magnificent, typically featuring Dzong-style architecture with massive fortress-like designs, giant iron and wood entryways, flared roofs and interior courtyards with lots of intricate detailing.
2. Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product
The government of Bhutan measures economic prosperity on a Gross National Happiness Index focusing on good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation, instead of measuring it on wealth. In fact, right in Bhutan’s constitution it mandates the country be at least 70% coverage by forest. Moreover, no matter where you go you will be able to see traditional arts and crafts, like weaving at the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre and paper-making at the Jungshi Paper Factory, both in Thimphu. To show you just what a visionary government Bhutan has, in 2003, the 3rd King Jigme Singye Wangchuk actually led his troops into battle — as opposed to sitting by and watching the war from his throne — against rebels from the Indian state of Assam.
3. For Amazing Wildlife
Phobjikha Valley in Gangtey or, as I like to call it, the Valley of the Black-necked Crane, is an amazing place to visit for those interested in bird-watching and nature. Not only is this place unique for its endless flat fields of bamboo shrubs and inspiring mountains, but because it is home to the Black-necked Crane, one of the rarest species of crane in the world.
It’s not hard to spot them, their bright white bodies contrasting with their black heads and tails, sticking out against the light green and yellow grasses. The birds strut and glide gracefully, and are truly mesmerizing to watch. Interestingly they’re known as “birds of heaven” and are said to be attracted to holy places. In fact, at the local Black-necked Crane Visitor Center I learn the birds fly clockwise three times around the local Gangteng Monastery — a Buddhist practice that helps rid the body of negative energy — both when they arrive in the fall and before they migrate to Tibet in the early-to-late spring.
4. The Bhutanese People Love Chilis
Every time I asked Tenzin if a particular dish was local, he’d reply, “Only if it has chilies in it.” Bhutanese like it hot, which in turn makes me love Bhutan. Chilies in Bhutan are called “Ema.” They are eaten by the fork-full (or spoon-full, I suppose) by the Bhutanese. And without the need for a quick glass of water just after one bite! Ema are introduced very early in life, even to toddlers, because not only are chilies a big part of Bhutanese cuisine, they are also a big part of Bhutanese culture, tradition, and life. It is possible that Ema might have become this way because the Bhutanese live in a cold climate, in the Himalayas, and when people eat hot food, such as chili, it warms them up!
5. No Starbucks, no McDonald's in Bhutan
And the rumors are true. There is no Starbucks in Bhutan. No McDonald’s. No chain stores or franchises of any kind. On your tour of Bhutan, you certainly will not be able to find every one of the familiar things you are used to “back home.” But you may find local versions of “comfort foods” along with culinary traditions as unique as the rest of Bhutanese culture.
6. To Slow Down
Driving down winding dirt roads that hug mountainsides, colorful prayer flags billowing in the wind, 73% lush forest and giant gilded gold Buddhas looking over the valleys, it’s impossible not to feel at peace. Even the traditional dress — handmade knee-length robes tied at the waist for men (a Gho) and the ankle-length dresses with light outer jackets (Kira and Tego), so beautiful yet so comfortable — make me feel relaxed (and wanting to get out of my tight-from-too-much-cheesey-chilis jeans and into one).
Bhutan only got TV and the internet in 1999, and only received their currency over bartering in 1974, so their addiction to being constantly connected and stressing over work emails and Tweets isn’t as palpable as in other places of the world (ie my home of NYC). In fact, in certain countryside stops I was completely without Wi-Fi, (happily) forcing me to grab my journal, a good book and some walking shoes and just enjoy the present.
7. Travel Responsibly
While Bhutan’s $200-$250/night all-inclusive tourist fee + $40 visa + $30/$40 tariff for duo and solo travelers + $790 round trip Druk Airlines flights via Bangkok + round-trip flights to-and-from Bangkok and your home may seem steep, you will be getting your money’s worth in a number of ways, one of which is the chance to truly travel responsibly.
Because of the destination’s remote location and the expenses to get there it hasn’t been flooded with tourists, leading to a well-preserved culture and landscape. And because you’re mandated to have a guide it’s ensured you won’t take part in any irresponsible or illegal activities, like mountaineering and skiing, which are believed to disturb the spirits that reside on the hillsides. It’s also worth noting that 35% of what you pay goes toward governmental programs like free educational and healthcare, infrastructure and nature conservation, helping you give back to the community you’re visiting.
8. Experience The Preservation Of Cultural Heritage
As stated above, one of the four pillars of the Gross National Happiness Index is the preservation of heritage, which you’ll experience over and over again on your trip. Even in Thimphu, the capital and largest city in Bhutan, I visited places like the Folk Heritage Museum to explore a traditional 19th-century house, the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre to see local women weaving garments using a backstrap loom, and the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory to see the traditional art of paper making.
9. Get An Alternative Look At Religion
In Lobesa, a village in the District of Punakha, I visit a very spiritual albeit quirky place, at least to me as a westerner and non-Buddhist. Here you’ll find Chimi Lhakhang, also known as the Temple of the Divine Madman. Despite the fact the Divine Madman, a Buddhist Master, cursed in his preachings, had sex with and impregnated myriad women (including a nun), drank and ate copiously, danced jubilee through the hillsides, he did everything with his heart, with a goal to spread positive energy and liberate people from strict societal conventions and mundane religious cultures.
He was especially known for his phallus, which had the ability to enlarge and fight demons. In fact, you’ll see homes all over the country with big cartoonish penises painted on the facades, as well as wooden phalluses on the roofs and above the doors to keep demons at bay. Inside the temple itself, it’s possible to be blessed with a phallus made from an elephant tusk that once belonged to the Divine Madman himself in the 15th century.
10. Experience Something You Can’t Anywhere Else
The reason you pay so much money to visit Bhutan isn’t for the world’s most delicious food or the best hotels of your life. It’s to explore a place unlike any other, from their visionary Gross National Happiness Index to the locals still sporting their traditional dress to the many things that make the destination quite quirky, at least in the eyes of westerners. It’s a place where people love their king, where leaders go into battle with their troops when necessary and where the traditions of the good old days are still present, from the capital of Thimphu to, even more so, the outer villages. I’ve been to 40+ countries, and to me this was unlike any place I’ve been to before.