Recently in a travel article, there was listed the ’10 safest destinations that aren’t involved in conflict’. Not a bad list but Bhutan was overlooked (possibly unheard of!) but, in my view, should have been top of the pile. Anyway – it’s a hidden gem and hopefully you will get a feel for one of my favourite countries when you read on.
Once you have experienced the delights of Bhutan, you will want to return time and time again. It’s one of those destinations that if you tell someone that you are off to Bhutan, the comment is: “Where on earth is that?” And this is what makes this astonishing country so fascinating. It’s off the beaten track and is a truly magical, relatively unspoilt destination. You won’t find backpackers here and visitor numbers are strictly controlled.
So – where is Bhutan? It’s a tiny kingdom squeezed in between the eastern Indian state of Assam to the south and China to the north acting as a neutral and natural buffer between two countries that don’t particularly like one another. Intriguingly Bhutan is a democratic constitutional monarchy – a rarity in these times and the locals revere and adore the Royal Family who are very much ‘hands on’ with their subjects. I’ve travelled to Bhutan a couple of times and the one thing that stands out is that there is an intense pride in their king and country. It’s a place that once visited really gets under your skin in the best possible way.
Bhutan is mountainous with the eastern Himalayan chain in the northern part of this lozenge shaped country – you are never far from stunning views. Valleys are deep with rushing rivers and fertile terraced river flats and hillsides. Millet, red rice, other grain crops, chillies and vegetables are the principal crops and there is a thriving dairy industry producing high quality produce including superb cheeses. The mountainsides are heavily forested with conifers and deciduous trees and at altitude there are vast swathes of Rhododendrons. The national tree is Cupressus sempervirens. I’ve seen Luculia growing, species of Tibouchina and in the warmer semi-tropical river-sides, exotic Impatiens and ferns that have 1.5 m long fronds.
Travelling around is by mini coach over a road system that is thankfully being upgraded – it’s not easy in such mountainous terrain! The passes traversed are around 2,500 to 3,500 metres. If you suffer altitude sickness, then there is an easy medical remedy to control this. The hotels are generally traditionally built, usually fairly modest but always comfortable and for those who are desperate to stay in touch, you might even get Wi-Fi! But the appeal of the country is that these 21st century ‘must haves’ are quite limited – quite refreshing! The local beer is excellent and whilst the food won’t win culinary contests it is ample and very acceptable.
What is extraordinary is that Bhutan does not operate on Gross National Product. The 4th king decided that this approach was not to be the focus but instead it would be one of Gross National Happiness. This is not a gimmick and it actually works and the responsibility of the government and the current 5th king will always be to focus first and foremost on maintaining the peace, tranquillity and prosperity of the nation.
The countryside has dramatic Buddhist monasteries called Dzongs situated in stunning locations. These feature massive prayer wheels, sacred Bodhi trees, prayer flags and incredible ornate wooden decorations.
The most important Dzong is at Punakha at the confluence of two rivers and is where all monarchs are crowned. The other really famous monastery is that of Taktsang better known as Tiger’s Nest. It clings to an almost sheer cliff face 900 m above the Paro Valley. The climb up is challenging – I’ve done it once and for the fit or those who like ‘giving things a go’, all the huffing and puffing is worth it.
So that is Bhutan in a nutshell – a gorgeous country of only about 700,000 happy souls. The scenery is magical and who couldn’t fall in love with a country that has the Blue Poppy (Mecanopsis grandis) as its National Flower!
I will be taking a tour to “Bhutan, The Land of The Thunder Dragon with a ‘side dish of India” for Opulent Journeys from 4-22 October 2017. Why don’t you come with me?
[Go to Garden Travel Hub for more information on Bhutan, The Land of The Thunder Dragon with a ‘side dish of India or contact Opulent Journeys: firstname.lastname@example.org]