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EXPLORE Bhutan, the ‘world’s happiest country’ and Lonely Planet’s ‘best place to visit in 2020’ – which only opened to tourists in 1974

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I touch down in Bhutan, the remote country Lonely Planet says is the best place to visit in 2020 and which touts on being the ‘happiest place on earth’, and I admit I’m feeling rather jolly.

At this point, it’s solely for the reason that I’ve survived landing at the country’s international airport, which is notoriously treacherous given that it’s surrounded by sharp peaks up to 18,000ft tall.

Hopping off the plane with a sense of relief I find the airport, styled after a traditional Buddhist temple, is eerily quiet, which I kind of expect given Bhutan’s strict restrictions on tourism.

Sadie visits the Tiger's Nest monastery (pictured). She says: 'I’ve seen countless photographs of the lofty 17th-century monastery and it certainly lives up to expectations'
Sadie visits the Tiger’s Nest monastery (pictured). She says: ‘I’ve seen countless photographs of the lofty 17th-century monastery and it certainly lives up to expectations’
Lofty: The Tiger's Nest monastery sits at an altitude of over 10,000ft
Lofty: The Tiger’s Nest monastery sits at an altitude of over 10,000ft

The Buddhist kingdom, referred to as the ‘Switzerland of Asia’ given its comparative size and landscape, only opened its doors to tourists in 1974.

Today, to preserve the country’s natural beauty (72 per cent of the place is under forest cover) and keep out the Starbucks-guzzling masses there is a tourism tax of $250 (£193) a day.

The fee includes meals, transport, accommodation and a local guide who must accompany visitors at all times to ensure they stick to designated areas.

There are only a handful of international flights in and out of Bhutan each day and flight prices are pretty exorbitant for non-residents.

Mine is just over $900 (£700) for a three-hour return trip from Bangkok to Paro International Airport.

I sign up for an 11-day trip with adventure tour company G Adventures, with tourism taxes and a local guide sorted as part of the package.

There are 13 of us in total, with some from the UK, several from the U.S, a lady from Germany, a man from the Netherlands and a few women who have made the long journey from Australia.

Our chirpy guide tells us to call him ‘How Long’ as most can’t pronounce his Bhutanese name, Lhawang.

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The trip centres around our group completing the Druk Path, an ancient trade route running through the jagged mountains from Paro to the surprisingly buzzing capital city of Thimphu.

We venture into the mountains over bumpy roads in a van to the start of the trail with a sturdy band of horses carting crockery and camping gear.

Our hike leads us past lonely monasteries where red-cloaked monks hover around and chant as they go.

Mist rises from rhododendron bushes carpeting the craggy mountainsides and mirror-like pools of water surface here and there.

At points, the rain-filled clouds clear revealing vast valleys running below.

Sadie's trip centres around completing the Druk Path, an ancient trade route running through jagged mountains from Paro to the surprisingly buzzing capital city of Thimphu (pictured)
Sadie’s trip centres around completing the Druk Path, an ancient trade route running through jagged mountains from Paro to the surprisingly buzzing capital city of Thimphu (pictured)

As we make our way over one sky-high pass we spot the snowy crags of Gangkhar Puensum, which at 7,570 metres (24,835ft) is the highest mountain in Bhutan.

The gaping landscape makes us feel tiny as we stop to pose for pictures.

‘I’ve never camped at a more beautiful spot!’ Max from London exclaims as we arrive at our final camping spot nestled in a valley next to a twinkling lake.

We have yet another delicious dinner around an open fire, with pans of aubergine, cabbage, spinach, beef and red rice doing the rounds.

I try to avoid dishes containing chilli, which the Bhutanese appear to love. The fiery peppers, however, reduce me to tears.

Wilderness: Intrepid Sadie is enveloped by the stunning Druk Path landscape
Wilderness: Intrepid Sadie is enveloped by the stunning Druk Path landscape
Sadie takes a break on the Tiger's Nest trek
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An amazing nunnery near Paro
Sadie takes a break on the Tiger’s Nest trek (left). Pictured right is a nunnery near Paro, perched on a steep mountainsideRoyals Kate and William hike up to remote monastery in BhutanLoaded: 0%Progress: 0%0:00PreviousPlaySkipMuteCurrent Time0:00/Duration Time0:43FullscreenNeed Text

After four days of undulating terrain we make it to the end of the Druk Path and head to Thimphu, whizzing past a plethora of high-rise hotels, half-finished structures clad in bamboo scaffolding and modern car showrooms.

We celebrate our hiking adventure by hitting a nightclub that evening and we are the only westerners there.

It’s quite a surreal experience as I dance next to youngsters who have swapped their conservative national dress (men wear a knee-length robe called a ‘gho’ tied at the waist, while women wear an ankle-length dress known as a ‘kira’) for the latest western fashions. We bop away to a mix of Bhutanese pop tracks.

More peacefully, we head to a fertility temple a few days later, with the 15th-century structure set amid rolling rice fields.

However, I’m somewhat distracted as we wander through the neighbouring village of Lobesa where there are phalluses every which way we turn. I’d spotted them in Paro and Thimphu, but not to this extent.

The gift shops are full of them, the houses are adorned with paintings of them and in the fertility temple we see a woman carrying a 20-inch penis carved out of wood. Women, we learn, in fact carry an erect wooden penis around the temple, circumnavigating it three times for good luck.

‘How Long’ tells us that in Bhutan, phalluses are also used to ward off evil people and bad spirits. 

Phalluses are used to ward off evil people and bad spirits in Bhutan, Sadie learns
Phalluses are used to ward off evil people and bad spirits in Bhutan, Sadie learns
An eye-catching mural
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Interesting shop signage in Lobesa
Sadie snaps an eye-catching mural (left). Pictured right – interesting shop signage in Lobesa

We round out our Bhutanese adventure with a sweaty two-hour hike to one of the country’s most iconic structures, the Tiger’s Nest.

I’ve seen countless photographs of the lofty 17th-century monastery and it certainly lives up to expectations.

Plumes of incense waft through the myriad buildings precariously perched 10,240 feet high, monks silently pass by and I climb down a very rickety ladder into a cave where the guru who inspired the monastery was said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours during the 8th century.

I’m there for less than three minutes and already I feel I’ve had enough of the dark and dank hidey-hole.

I clamber around for the ladder to make my way out as another tourist eagerly climbs in, reciting a religious scripture as she goes.

Paro International Airport in Bhutan is notoriously challenging to land at - it's surrounded by 18,000ft peaks
Paro International Airport in Bhutan is notoriously challenging to land at – it’s surrounded by 18,000ft peaks

Leaving Bhutan, I can’t help but think about how other countries could learn from its tourism model – low-volume, high quality.

I ask How Long what he values most about his country, and he replies: ‘Living a positive life, the preservation of nature and keeping things simple.

‘It seems to be so hard to have this in many other countries where money and greed gets in the way.’

Feeling somewhat uplifted by How Long’s sunny attitude, I bid the land of happiness a goodbye, only to feel my smile wane slightly at the thought of navigating one of the world’s scariest airports once again.

Sadie Whitelocks was a guest of G Adventures on the company’s Druk Path tour. Prices start from £1,724 excluding flights.

BA runs flights from London to Bangkok, with connections on to Bhutan with either Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines.

The Peninsula Bangkok offers Health and Harmony hotel packages for post-trekking or to make long airport transfers more comfortable. You can check into lounge areas with Priority Pass standard plus membership, which starts at £189 for ten free visits. 

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1 reply »

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