Welcome to Shangri-La
A performer takes a moment to prepare before dancing at the Punakha Festival. (Antony Gibin/LPI)
Bhutan, for years closed off from the rest of the world, seems like a little slice of Himalayan heaven.
Here, traffic lights do not exist (there was one set in capital Thimphu, but they were removed for being unfriendly), strict conservation laws mean trees still cover almost 75% of the country, and productivity is measured in Gross National Happiness.
This is a land of awesome mountains – some of the highest in the world – thick-forested valleys and imposing dzong, monastery fortifications often perched on cliffsides. It is a place where landscapes are dotted with blue poppies, snow leopards and innumerable banners of bright flapping prayer flags.
Yes, prayers. Bhutan takes its Buddhism seriously. The religion pervades all levels of life, resulting in peaceful temples, red-robed monks scurrying along the streets, a mind-blowing number of deities and legends, and a widespread belief in practicing kindness and loving to all sentient beings.
Pay by the day
Paradise does not come cheap. In order to maintain the country’s pristine nature and spiritual integrity, the Government charges a hefty minimum fee to enter the country. Currently, visitors in peak season (February to May and August to December) must pay at least $200 per person per night; in the low season (January and June to July) the fee is $165. The government plans to increase the rate to $250 in 2012
This cost covers virtually all your expenses: accommodation, meals, a licensed Bhutanese guide, internal transport and trekking arrangements, should you wish to stretch your legs (the country offers some of the best hiking in the Himalayas).
But accommodation is not all encompassing. There are some super-luxurious properties in Bhutan that will set you back significantly, on top of the fee. But stays under canvas or in more mid-range lodgings should be covered.
Also note, higher fees apply if you do not travel as a group: single travellers pay an extra $40 per night, on top of the minimum day rate; couples an extra $30 per person per night. So you might want to find some like-minded friends...
No going solo
A guide, and likely a separate driver, come as standard in Bhutan. Independent travel is forbidden.
If there is something you particularly want to experience – a certain tsechu (festival) or maybe an archery lesson (the national sport) – you can tailor-make a trip with the help of a specialist tour operator. But all itineraries must be approved by Bhutan’s Tourism Council, and accompanied by a local guide.
Your tour operator will also arrange your transport to Bhutan – you cannot book flights independently. Bhutan has just one international airport, at Paro (a scenic, if white-knuckle, landing amid the mountains); flights on national carrier Druk Air fly in from Nepal, India and Thailand. It is also possible to enter overland, but you will still need your travel plans – itinerary, visa, etc – arranged in advance by a tour operator.
Is it worth it?
Nepal is just over the mountains and India is down south. Both have snow-capped Himalaya, both have fascinating religions, and both are cheap as chips. Is it worth spending all that money on a trip to Bhutan?
Mostly, yes. If you just want a pretty trek in pretty mountains, on a limited budget, spend your rupees elsewhere. But Bhutan is unique. And who knows for how much longer. In 2008 the country switched from being a kingdom to a democracy, a decision taken by the much-loved King himself. There is a desire to attract more tourists; three regional airports are being built and new areas are opening up, such as Merak Sakten, in the east.
With increased development, and tourist footfall, will this singular, spectacular nation be able to maintain its spiritual and natural allure? Who knows. So visit now – some things are just priceless.