A postage stamp sized country that is sandwiched between Chinese controlled Tibet and India, Bhutan was (until recently) one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, but they have recently become one of the world’s youngest democracies, adopting a parliament in recent years. Strongly guided by the Vajrayana brand of Buddhism, Bhutan’s way of doing things has entranced many foreign visitors, noting the harmony that people live with regards to the nature that they live amongst, and with reference to their own modest circumstances.
Indeed, the most recent king of Bhutan is famous for strongly promoting a new measure of success in today’s modern world, which is not based on the level of consumption in a society, but by the collective contentment of its citizens. This metric is referred to as Gross National Happiness (as opposed to Gross National Product), and it has done more than promote a different method by which to guide our daily lives, but it has also served to put the nation of Bhutan into the consciousness of many people throughout the world.
More people than ever have been making trips to this tiny Himalayan nation, despite its restrictive access policy for foreigners, which requires them to be part of a guided tour, and pay upwards of $200/day for the privilege. While independent travel to this country is not possible at the moment, the kind and humble people, along with the dramatic scenery that has enthusiastic promoters calling it “The Last Shangri-la”, make it more than worthwhile, despite the barriers to entry.
Currency: Bhutanese Ngultrum
Languages: Dzongkha, with various dialects that are influenced by Tibet and Nepal
What To Do
The first site that one should take in during their visit to Bhutan is the Taktsang Monastery, which is recognized as one of the world’s most important Buddhist religious shrines. Built into the side of a sheer cliff, it is believed that one of Buddhism’s most revered luminaries of the past, Guru Rinpoche, arrived at this monastery on the back of a winged tiger, granting it the nickname of the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Your approach will be slightly less spectacular, as you will be guided in on horseback if you can part ways with $10 US … otherwise, the hike is quite strenuous on foot, so consider this as a labour-saving investment.
Another temple that you should drop in on is Kurje Lhakhang, built near a famous cave in the area which it is located. Guru Rinpoche was also in this region in the past, as it is said that he left the imprint of his body in a wall within the complex after meditating here upon his arrival in the country, making a very auspicious place for serious Buddhists.
In the capital of Thimphu, the Tashichho Dzong is an ancient fortress where the kingdom of Bhutan was first established in 1216, making it the first of many Dzongs across the country. The structure has a triple tiered golden roof, and it still hosts functions of the Bhutanese government to this day, so don’t be too disruptive as they go about their business!
During your visit to Bhutan, the chances of being able to take in a temple festival are excellent, as Tshechus, as they are known, occur regularly at different times across the country, usually on the tenth day of the lunar calendar, which surprisingly varies from place to place within the country. Often, these celebrations involve dances with masked participants, and at the end, the monks wash your sins away, making it an experience you won’t want to miss.
For those who like to get outdoors and hike amongst the many peaks of a mountainous environment, going on a trek during your visit here will enable you to get in touch with the natural side of Bhutan. Try out the Jumolhari Round Trek if you are limited in time and funds, as it’s widely considered to be the best trekking route in the country, taking you past famed cultural sites, putting you in close touch with the locals in the many rural parts of this country, and of course, hiking alongside many rivers, lakes, cliffs, and beneath some of the most highly regarded mountains in Bhutan!
What To Eat
Renowned for their love of spices, it should be assumed that all foods cooked in Bhutan will be very spicy, so please ensure that you ask for it not to be added to your meal if you don’t want your food to be flaming hot. With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s talk about three of the most common meals that you can find in Bhutan…
Ema Datshi is Bhutan’s national dish, as it is consumed across the country and is well-loved by many citizens for its comforting properties. Once you try this meal, you will quickly understand why, as this red rice meal combines chili peppers and cheese to create an experience that embraces your insides like a warm hug on a cold day (which depending on your destination and the time of your visit, may happen a lot!)
Jasha Maru is a similarly hearty dish, made with kibbled chicken meat (think ground beef, but with chicken instead), tomatoes, potatoes and various other herbs and spices. You will find this dish served in restaurants all over the capital city of Thimpu, and its flavours will captivate you, as its home-cooked, down to earth nature will find its way into the deepest recesses of your heart.
For those craving a good chicken curry, Bhutan’s best entry in this field of cuisine would be Jasha Tshoem, a simple conglomeration of chicken, chicken stock, onions, and green chilies. Well loved by Bhutanese of all ages and status, it will find a special place in your recipe card holder … if you can get somebody to reveal their secrets to you, that is!