Sandwiched between India and China, Bhutan wasn’t unified until the 17th century and four hundred years passed before the country’s doors were officially opened to tourists in 1974. Even today numbers are closely monitored.
The result of this historical anomaly is that there are millions of little justifications as to why one would want to visit the eccentric, landlocked nation: from the population’s smiley disposition to an absence of chain stores; from its laws (which ban smoking but not alcohol), to its assortment of unusual animals. With so many calling cards, we have selected ten of the greatest reasons to visit Bhutan.
1. Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest)
By far the most popular attraction, Paro Taktsang (also known as the ‘Tiger’s Nest’) was built into a cliff side in 1692. Constructed on the very spot that Guru Rinpoche, a ‘second Buddha’ according to contemporaries, is supposed to have flown to on a flaming tigress and then meditated for three years, this is an important cultural and religious site.
2. Punakha Tsechu Dance
A dance so spectacular the Bhutanese have built a festival out of it, the Punakha Tsechu features hundreds of firecrackers and some very impressive footwork. Held to celebrate Guru Rinpoche bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, it’s also centred on one of the country’s greatest Dzongs (fortresses), Punakha Dzong. Another is Changangkha Lhakhang, a fortress-like temple on a ridge above Thimphu. It’s always busy with pilgrims, not to mention parents who collect auspicious names and blessings for their newborn.
3. Bhutan Peaks
Anybody seeking an adrenaline hit should know that Bhutan contains some of the world’s highest unclimbed mountains, such as Mount Jhomolhari and Jitchu Drake. Be careful to pick the right peak, however, as the government forbids mountaineering on the pinnacles inhabited by certain deities and spirits.
4. Bhutan Greens
There’s something morally and physically invigorating about visiting a country that boasts a farming industry that’s 100 per cent organic and a level of forest coverage (72 per cent) that pumps out oxygen at the same rates the rest of us are emitting carbon dioxide.
5. Bhutanese Cuisine
The food in Bhutan is lip-tinglingly delicious. The rice is red, there are chillies everywhere, and its national dish, Eme Datse, mixes chillies with cheese. In 2006 it got its first brewery, the Red Panda. Founded by a Bhutanese citizen of Swiss origin, Fritz Maurer, it’s a strong beer so be careful as you go, especially given the altitude.
6. Giant Phallic Symbol
There’s fun to be found in every corner of Bhutan. The Bhutanese equivalent of the ‘evil eye’ is a giant phallic symbol. Painted on the inside of doors, the oversized phallus is said to have several protective properties by locals. There’s also its national animal, the takin, which is a strange mix of cow, sheep and goat.
7. Dochula Pass
The Dochula Pass, consisting of 108 chortens, is foggy and chilly for most of the year, but between October and February it offers the most stunning 360° views of the world’s rooftop – the snow-capped Himalayan mountain range.
8. Bhutanese Traditional Dress
In many nations the ‘national dress’ is a historical curiosity, an affectation for tourists and kids. Not in Bhutan. Here men, whether in field or office, wear the knee-length ‘gho’ as a matter of course and women sport the sleeveless, ankle-length ‘kira’. Both add character to a country hardly lacking it.
9. Bhutanese Trails
The trails in Bhutan are some of the best in the world. There are 23 major walks and they take anywhere between 3-25 days to complete. Two of the best are the Zuri Dzong trek (Buddha himself is supposed to have meditated in one of the Zuri Dzong caves) and the Gangtey Valley trek, where lush, dense forest and a monastery await you. And if that weren’t enough, you might spot a range of animals along the way, from snow leopards to Bengal tigers, from oddly coloured pandas to one-horned rhinoceroses.
10. Bhutanese Hospitality
Often associated with “roughing it”, 2015 has been a good year for Bhutan’s luxury sector, with a Taj Hotel, a Six Senses and two Le Meridiens opening. So put your backpack away and get the cucumber slices out, Bhutan is now just as much about glamorous resorts as it is about outdoor pursuits.