TOP 7 REASONS TO VISIT BHUTAN
Bhutan has been a place of many names throughout history. Some Tibetans called us the Southern Land of Darkness, some called us the Southern Land of Medicines, the Last Shangri-La, the Happiest Country on Earth, and so on. Whatever name you call it, this is a special place of many special things and people. Bhutan’s culture and history run deep, and stand as a novelty in the current age of a global cultural homogeneity.
It is these special things that have made Bhutan a favourite tourist destination for travellers from around the world. In this list, I would like to give you 7 reasons you should visit Bhutan for. This is not a normal listicle because it has very few specifics. I do not tell you to try the coffee at this cafe or the Ema Datsi at that one. I’m presenting to you my perspective as a Bhutanese. These are the 7 reasons Bhutan is so special to me.
It may be difficult to imagine now, since Bhutan lies between the two most populous nations on Earth and has a very small economy, but a few centuries ago, Bhutan was a powerful player in the region. In 1765, for example, when the infant king of Cooch Bihar, Devendra Narayan, was killed in a court plot, the murderer was brought to justice by Bhutan’s leaders in Punakha, the old capital.
A few years after the incident, in 1773, Bhutan had installed its own candidate to the throne of Cooch Bihar by removing the incumbent. Rival candidates for this throne went to battle, one side sought military support from the British East-India Company and the other from Bhutan. This shows the high regards given to Bhutan’s power in the region at the time.
This power over its neighbors may be gone now, but the history is still here. In fact, Bhutan is such a small, crowded country that there is a history in every valley and hilltop. As a visitor, you may only see and read about the more popular destinations, but if you ask someone, they will tell you why each place is special.
What makes Bhutan’s history even more special is that it is so rarely told. The Himalayas in the north and the swampy sub-tropics of the south helped isolate Bhutan and create a culture and history that is truly unique.
If you are a lover of history – academic or just in passing – or if you are someone whose enjoyment of a thing is increased by knowing its story, then Bhutan’s history will add a whole new dimension to your experience in Bhutan.
Here’s a fun example that most Bhutanese will relate to. The lateral highway goes from Thimphu to Trashigang. You pass through several districts, and each district is separated from its neighbour by a “La” (a mountain pass). To get to Trongsa from Wangdue, you will pass through Pelela and drive across a long valley. Every time you travel this stretch with a group of friends, someone in the group will start talking about the story of the Nyala Duem (Demoness of Nyala).
The story inevitably begins with a warning: “you must not talk about her while you’re in the area.” Everyone pays attention to that. Even those who were trying to sleep pay attention.
“She was a demoness who terrorised the people here.” The legend of Garp Lungi Khorlo (the attendant with the wheels of wind), who could travel hundreds of kilometres in a day, ends when he comes across a woman washing intestines and organs. He asks her if it is an animal’s, to which she does not reply. He walks away from her and immediately dies. “The intestines and organs were his. He just did not know it yet.”
Nyala Duem’s story is much longer and complicated, and you’ll need to ask your guide for more. The point of it is that telling stories like that adds to the travel experience. When you can point to objects in the landscape and say, “this is how it fits into this story,” (like how there is a citadel of Nyala Duem and a temple at a crossroads where she was subdued), the story becomes even better.
The final thing that makes Bhutan’s history special is that it is still here. Unlike most other countries, Bhutan’s history is still alive and part of our everyday lives. Bhutanese do not think of history and culture as some distant things that are cared for because of nostalgia. We think of them as our life, and as a tourist, you are welcome to partake in that experience.
The isolation that Bhutan enjoyed thanks to its geography made it unique in many ways. One way is the food. Bhutanese food is unlike any other in the region, and therefore, even if you claim to have eaten authentic Indian, Nepali, Tibetan, or Chinese food, you would not have gotten close to tasting Bhutanese food.
You may have already read about what kind of food to expect when you are in Bhutan. And they would have all told you it’s spicy and full of cheese. And in a way, they are right. But they are only right in the same way as it is right to describe a hamburger as cheesy and full of meat, or to describe a pizza as cheesy and chewy.
An accurate description of Bhutanese food is hard to give, because there is so many variations of it. The mountains of Bhutan did not only isolate it from its neighbors, it also isolated its people from each other. To this day, there are local cuisines that come as a surprise to Bhutanese. One of my personal favorites is a spicy, leafy vegetable called “Namna.” My family makes it with dry-aged cheese and spicy chillies. I grew up with that as my favourite dish, and so it is still a surprise to me when my Bhutanese-born-and-bred friends claim they have never tasted it.
I have lived and travelled in a few countries abroad, and wherever I have gone, I have tried to recreate Bhutanese food and tried Bhutanese restaurants, but none have tasted quite the same. It must be something in the water. In other words, to taste Bhutan’s unique, found-nowhere-else food, you must taste it here!
The New Normal
The last time this magazine was published, the last time it was read in an aeroplane seat was well over two years ago. The world has changed in a variety of ways in that time, and Bhutan is no different. However, I think most travellers will be positively surprised by the changes that Bhutan eventually ended up with. Much like in other countries, Bhutan’s tourism sector suffered greatly. Overnight, thousands were out of a job. Tour operators, guides, and the hospitality industry found themselves in uncharted, unwanted territory. But after the initial shock was over, the industry began to rebound. Domestic tourism boomed over the last two years.
Bhutan may have always been a favorite for foreign tourists, but it had never had a strong domestic market. Even with all the sacred sites in the country, Bhutanese had preferred pilgrimages outside. The pandemic changed that. In 2020, domestic tourism picked up. Slowly at first, then very rapidly. So much so that by the end of 2021, it was difficult to get reservations at popular weekend getaways.
All of that domestic revenue means that Bhutan’s itinerary of great tourism spots is bigger now than before. There are new trekking routes that weren’t here before the pandemic. There are new historical and cultural sites. There are new cafes to drink coffee at. And many new people to meet.
Trans Bhutan Trail
Of all the new additions to Bhutan’s travel portfolio, perhaps one that has excited the imaginations of many all over the world is the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT).
The trail is a rejuvenation of an old route that cuts across the center of Bhutan. The route is said to be over 500 years old. It was the primary path across the various districts of central Bhutan, and so, holds an important place in the geographical history of the country. After Bhutan’s modern development began in the 1960s, the route fell into disuse, and eventually many forgot about it. The well-beaten paths that had connected people for centuries were now covered in vegetation.
TBT is a partnership between the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Bhutan Canada Foundation, and a few local partners. The trail is set to be 403km long from Haa in the west to Trashigang in the east. The trail is nearly ready, and should probably be available by the time you are making your Bhutan travel plans.
The truth is that Bhutanese are a metropolitan people. There are no metropolises in the country, and there’s only one city with more than 100,000 people. And yet, Bhutanese love large communities. We love diversity, and we love new experiences.
What made Bhutan a great tourist destination before the pandemic wasn’t just the history and culture of the country, but its people. Tourists and visitors who have been here before or who have known us would tell you that Bhutanese are among the friendliest, most cordial of any group in the world. It isn’t a stereotype or a generalisation. It is our culture to speak well of visitors and treat them well. To offer them the first servings of food and drink.
My mother always says, “Goem myin midrey mi,” (if you don’t entertain guests, you’re not part of society). Her attitude of hospitality is not anything special amongst Bhutanese. As a rule, we love to entertain guests. So, as you can imagine, life without guests the last few years was very different.
His Majesty The King
Bhutan’s Covid-19 journey has been touted as a success by many. Most Bhutanese you will meet are at least tripled-vaxxed and some have even received four doses. There was no economic collapse. And when the government asked the people to comply with Covid-19 protocol, everyone diligently accepted. Anyone that was asked to take up a role in the fight against the pandemic did so with gusto and energy.
All of this. All the success stories. All the happiness on people’s faces despite there still being a global pandemic is the result of the compassion of His Majesty the King. His Majesty started a contingency fund alongside his regular Kidu fund. These funds provided relief for loan repayments and unemployment benefits for those that had lost their jobs to the pandemic. Without this much needed fiscal intervention, the livelihoods of Bhutanese would have been threatened, and there would have been no success in the Covid-19 fight.
It wasn’t just resource mobilisation either. For the past two years, His Majesty has always been in the field, constantly visiting remote villages all over the country, ensuring that no part of Bhutan would suffer from the pandemic. Without this active, compassionate leadership at the forefront by His Majesty, the Bhutan you would have come to might have looked very different than how you left it when you saw us last.
Happiness is Still This Place!
Bhutan is popularly associated with happiness. For many years now, it has been called the happiest country in the world. The association is so well-known that the Tourism Council of Bhutan picked the slogan “Happiness is a Place.”
At a meeting in the 1970s, His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck had proudly claimed, “GNH is more important than GNP.” This was the first public statement of his philosophy, which would eventually become Bhutan’s development philosophy.
GNH – Gross National Happiness – is an interesting concept. You measure GDP by taking all the economic activities that took place within a country’s borders that year and adding them up. Measuring growth by only counting this economic output, however, is a very shallow outlook. You are diminishing the lives of everyone in the country to just a number.
GNH, on the other hand, is not a metric like GDP at all. Sure, there has been a formula for GNH developed that tries to measure the overall happiness of people in the country, but unlike GDP, it is not just a number.
GNH is the idea that a few things must absolutely exist in order to ensure long-term happiness in people. These things are broadly classified as environmental, sociocultural, socioeconomic, and governmental factors. Any policy that the Bhutanese government or parliament tries to initiate must be measured against these factors. Above all, any initiative must answer the question, “does this make people happy?”
Although the pandemic has tested the resolve and commitment of the country to these principles, the philosophy is still the only guiding philosophy of Bhutan. Happiness is still the most important consideration for the Bhutanese government and parliament. And therefore, the people are still the happiest in the world, and Happiness is still a place. A place you can visit.
If this list tried to include, in minutia, every part of Bhutan that would entice you to visit us, then the list would be very long. That may sound like a cliche, but I believe in it 100%. As I thought about writing this article, I thought about how the last two years have really been for Bhutan and its people.
In a way, I feel nostalgia for it already. It was terrible how isolated and cut-off from the world we felt at times. Or how powerless and scared we felt when we saw the news of Covid-19 in our immediate community. But it also brought the country together in a way that would not have happened in times of absolute bliss.
I still remember the first spring of Covid-19, when everyone prepared for the long haul. It was an extraordinarily green spring. Everyone grew a garden and everyone’s garden was in full bloom. In a way, that green spring foreshadowed life under Covid-19. We had to change. We had to become self-reliant. But the result of all of it would be a bountiful harvest.
The Bhutan that you’re coming to in 2022 is a little different than before. But it is different in the best ways possible. Over the last two years of the pandemic, Bhutanese have come to learn to love Bhutan in newer ways than before. In so doing, we have rejuvenated a part of Bhutan that only shows when it is fully and truly loved.
All of that is right here. And we are so incredibly excited to share every part of it with you. Welcome to Bhutan!