Travelling to Bhutan: How to go on a spiritual pilgrimage in the happiest place on Earth
Top of the world
Known as the "Land of the Thunder Dragon", Bhutan is a country like none other. With its majestic natural landscapes, numerous traditional festivals, and many of its significant historical landmarks dating as far back as the 1700s still intact, Bhutan's cultural authenticity is unsurpassed. To maintain its unspoiled terrain and social cohesiveness, Bhutan has put in place a reputed sustainable tourism strategy that focuses on high value and low-impact tourism. All visitors — except those from India, Bangladesh, and Mauritius — have to pay a daily tourist tariff of US$250, which can be offset by hotel accommodation and the fees for the compulsory guide that all tourist groups must travel with while in the country.
There are a few things that you need to be aware of if you're planning to visit more than just Paro, where the main airport is located, and the Kingdom's capital Thimphu an hour away (I highly recommend you do as Bumthang is where the bulk of Bhutan's sacred sites are and is absolutely a must-see). Expect a considerable amount of travel time, most of which will be spent driving along windy roads at altitudes within the average range of 8000 feet above sea level — cue taking altitude and motion sickness pills if you're susceptible. There is an option to fly from Paro to Bumthang, but as most tour companies arrange land transport with overnight stays along the way, you'll most likely be going the distance in minivans.
Bhutan is one of the few places in the world that requires all bookings to go through travel agents and for the trip to be fully chaperoned by a guide. That's why going with a reputable tour agent is vital. If you're travelling from Singapore or Malaysia, that would be Druk Asia, the longest running agency and the only travel expert to focus on Bhutan alone. As the appointed general sales agent for the royal Bhutan Airlines, Drukair, since 2012, you can fly from Singapore direct to Bhutan with a half-hour stopover in Guwahati, India staying seated on the plane versus spending a night in Thailand in an airport hotel to make the flight to Bhutan from there. A good tour provider will arrange the right tour for you, whether you're interested in adventure, trekking, the festivals or like myself, going on a neykor — a spiritual pilgrimage and immersion.
On the food front, as most tour companies will have you eating in hotels and well-known tourist establishments, expect a more watered down version of Bhutanese food. If possible, ask your guide to bring you to where the locals eat, or choose to stay in a homestay. Our groups best meal was while doing lessons in mindfulness and leadership at the Sangchen Ogyen Tsuklag monastery, where we got to try the full flavours and spice that makes Bhutanese fresh produce and food so tasty.
Here's my round-up of five reasons to visit Bhutan.
The last Shangri-la
If there's anywhere on Earth that could live up to James Hilton's depiction of Shangri-la — the remote imaginary paradise from his 1933 novel Lost Horizon — it is Bhutan. Landlocked and guarded by mountainous peaks, the Himalayan kingdom has maintained its independence through the centuries, never once being colonised. The ancient nation has kept the purity of its land, culture, and national identity intact, one guided by Buddhist Vajrayana wisdom, which permeates through its governance, social structures, and way of life.
Diverse wildlife and landscapes that traverse lush subtropical plains in the South to the sub-alpine Himalayan mountains in the North, Bhutan's untouched nature is not only awe-inspiring, it is the only country in the world to be carbon negative, absorbing more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits.
Happiness for everyone — animals included
Since 2008, the Bhutanese government has focused on the collective happiness and well-being of the population by using a philosophy coined "Gross National Happiness" (GNH) over Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the measure of the country's economic and moral progress. GNH takes into account quality of life factors such as sustainable development and the promotion of culture and environmental conservation to name a few.
Combined with the Buddhist teachings of compassion and respect for all sentient beings, this has resulted in the slaughter of animals being forbidden in Bhutan. You will see animals roaming free everywhere: dogs, cows, yaks, and chickens bask in the sunshine and even on highways. This doesn't mean you'll have to be vegetarian though; most eateries have meat on the menu, all imported in mainly from India.
Being the only country in the world with 100 per cent organic farming means that Bhutan's produce is fresh and healthy, and it comes through in its cuisine. Most hotel restaurants cater to tourists' palettes. However, if you eat where the locals eat, which I recommend, food is much tastier and spicier. The national dish, ema datshi, is fresh or dried red and green chillies fried together with cheese and is served with every meal as a legitimate course, not a garnish. Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds. Deep fried battered vegetables such as plantains, aubergine, and pumpkin are another thing the Bhutanese do amazingly well and are even served at breakfast. I found myself not missing meat at all throughout the week I was there.
Sacred Buddhist Sites
The "Land of the Thunder Dragon" is home to many sacred sites that hold deep spiritual significance to Buddhism practitioners, especially from the Vajrayana traditions. The most famous and photographed is Paro Taktshang, better known at Tiger's Nest, a temple complex monastery cut into the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. Built in 1692, it is where the great yogic master credited for establishing Bhuddism in Bhutan, Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche, is said to have been drawn to the mountains to meditate in the 8th century.
Besides Takstshang, there are many other blessed places to visit, particularly in Bumthang that boasts the most number of ancient temples like the Kurje Lhakhang monastery, where Guru Rimpoche left an imprint of his body in the rock and The Burning Lake (Mebar Tso, pictured below), one of the most peaceful places I've ever visited in my life, where legend says Terton Pema Lingpa, one of Bhutan's most important religious figures, was guided by his dreams to find holy treasures hidden in the water by Guru Rimpoche in the late 1400s.
Nowhere else in the world like it
Where culture, tradition, values, and governance are so aligned; where every high peak has prayer flags planted by individuals to carry blessings far and wide; where the environment is so respected that 60% of the land will always be designated green; and where the majority of the population still wear their traditional dress.
I am also quite sure that Bhutan is also the only country in the world with no traffic lights in its capital city. In its place, it has a traffic controller with moves that could rock any dancefloor. Did I mention their policemen get around on bicycles too?