The Himalayas’ Most Captivating Kingdom
Ever since tourists were first allowed into Bhutan in 1974, the government has continued to limit the number of people granted access, inherently casting an aura of mystique over this intensely spiritual Buddhist kingdom in the beautiful Himalayas. Independent travel is strictly forbidden, so even if tour groups make your skin crawl, you’ll have to get used to the idea if you want to get a foot in the door here.
Bhutan isn’t a cheap or easy destination, but it’s a real utopia for adventure lovers who love trekking through the world’s most remote mountains and lush valleys, learning about ancient cultures, and meeting friendly locals. After touring the top sights in Paro, Thimphu, and Punahka—including a hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a stroll through weekend markets, and visits to important temples—a 2-day hike through Gangtey is a must. This gorgeous region of snow-capped peaks; primeval forests carpeted with bamboo, magnolia, and rhododendrons; and secluded monasteries is the essence of Bhutan. The valley is home to the country’s largest monastery for Nyingmapa Buddhists, and legends about it abound in the monks’ storytelling of its history. If time allows, you can also arrange to do more trekking, try fly-fishing, visit local farmhouses, or even meet with local monks and politicians.
For a longer trek, don’t miss the 7-day hike to Chomolhari, Bhutan’s most sacred peak, rising 7,308m (23,977 ft.) along its border with Tibet. If you come here in the spring, you’ll walk through tiny remote villages, valleys with pear and apple trees, and forests covered in blooming azaleas and wildflowers. In the fall, you’ll see yak herders bringing their animals down from summer pastures, and ice paddies ripening to a golden brown.
If your feet are itching for more movement, take the 10-day trek to the world’s highest unclimbed mountain, Gangkhar Puensum, reaching 7,540m (24,735 ft.). The Bhutanese have declared its peak off limits out of respect to its holy character, but you’re permitted to hike to the base. On your way, you’ll pass through dense evergreen forests, up a green and gold tundra valley, across Thole La, and along the Chamkar River to the mountain’s icy beginnings. This is the only place in the world where snow leopards and Bengal tigers cohabitate.
The small kingdom of Bhutan, which was never colonized by Western powers, remains an independent and peaceful haven in Asia. The government’s travel restrictions have helped protect much of the country’s natural environment and traditional culture, making it one of the planet’s most entrancing destinations. The newest king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, recently vowed to maintain Bhutan’s distinctive Gross National Happiness measure, which gauges the country’s progress by placing a high value on spiritual development.
Even here, though, things are beginning to modernize. The country held its first parliamentary elections in March 2008, making it the world’s youngest democracy. And, as modern technology, such as cellphones and the Internet, continue seeping in—along with higher-end hotels like the Aman Resorts chain that now operates here—Bhutan is likely to undergo more palpable changes. Don’t wait too long to wander through this captivating kingdom for yourself.
Tourism Council of Bhutan, Thimphu ( 975/2-323-251; www.tourism.gov.bt).
Tour: Geographic Expeditions, 1008 General Kennedy Ave., San Francisco, CA ( 800/777-8183; www.geoex.com). Artisans of Leisure, 18 East 16th St., New York, NY ( 800/214-8144; www.artisansofleisure.com). Mt. Travel Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville, CA ( 510/594-6000; www.mtsobek.com).
When to Go: Spring and fall.
Work with your tour operator to make arrangements for hotels, guesthouses, or camping.