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Located in Asia’s Eastern Himalayas much closer to Tibet and Nepal than just about anywhere else in the world, Bhutan is one of those remote, global destinations that enchants even the most well-traveled with visions of its Tiger’s Nest Temple—the Taktsang Monastery, which sits perched on a rock cliff––and its breathtaking mountains and valleys, where often the only signs of civilization are a few traditional farm houses and prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
There is an undeniably blissful pace to life here; vehicles patiently share the road with free roaming, grazing and sometimes napping cattle, and the roadsigns between Paro and Thimphu––the country’s busiest thoroughfare, which connects its only international airport with the capital city, population 115,000––encourage drivers to “Respect Everyone’s Safety” and “No Hurry No Worry.”
What Bhutan lacks in high rises and mega infrastructure it makes up for with warmth and kindness, culture, history, and natural splendor. Even the shyest Bhutanese will greet visitors with a nod and a quiet smile, and it’s hard to drive anywhere for more than an hour without the desire to stop for scenic lookouts, to visit temples or impressive ancient fortresses known as dzongs, even short walks to wrought iron suspension bridges.
More than half of the country is national parkland, nature reserves, and wildlife sanctuaries, which affords plenty of opportunities for nature walks, longer hikes, and other activities. Beyond going carbon neutral, Bhutan is the world’s first country to be designated as carbon negative, thanks to its vast forests and hydropower. In short: If you’re thinking about visiting Bhutan, be prepared to get a whole lot of fresh Himalayan air.
Leadership and Luxury
Under King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Bhutan’s 38-year-old leader who studied abroad in the U.S. and U.K. and graduated from the University of Oxford before returning home, this remote Himalayan country is setting the pace globally for environmental stewardship as well as the development of sustainable tourism—and it just so happens to be in the midst of a serious luxury boom.
Six Senses is opening a total of five bespoke lodges and has so far opened locations in Thimphu, Paro, and Punakha valleys, with the remaining lodges slated to open this spring. These are not your typical hotels, but luxury abodes with stunning vantages and as few as six, eight, and 12 rooms. Similarly, Aman and Como Hotels and Resorts each have several locations in Bhutan. Typically, a single booking will combine several nights at two or more locations and will include all transfers and all of the finer details—which, after 30-plus hours of travel, such a seamless experience is appreciated.
The country’s robust portfolio of luxury hotels also includes offerings from Le Méridien and Taj Hotels—the Taj Tashi is located in the heart of Thimphu, instead of the mountains or countryside, while Le Méridien Paro Riverfront is a welcome respite for weary travelers considering it’s just down the road from the airport.
And there are some exceptional independently-owned luxury properties as well, including Gangtey Lodge in Phobjikha Valley, a stunning but remote destination that is now more accessible than ever thanks to the expansion and paving of the country’s East-West Highway. (The road is still quite curvaceous, and the drive takes several hours, but visiting Phobjikha Valley is absolutely worth it.)
To Know When You Go
But before you start envisioning road trip goals of driving to Phobjikha, or anywhere in Bhutan, it’s important to note that traveling here is a bit complicated. Since opening its doors to the outside world in the 1970s, the country has always had notoriously strict rules and guidelines for visiting, which has everything to do with policy and protocol rather than safety. Bhutan has very little crime, English is widely spoken, and its citizens take pride in the thriving tourism industry.
As a starting point, it’s simply not possible to book your travel a la carte. Whether it’s through a hotel property or a verified and vetted booking site, such as TravelLocal.com, which creates fully bespoke travel itineraries with a trusted Bhutanese partner, visiting this Himalayan Kingdom means working with on-the-ground travel professionals to formalize your travel plans. You’ll also have a designated driver and guide, and all necessary tourist visa paperwork will be in order well in advance of landing at Paro Airport, which is known for having one of the world’s most scenic approaches—planes circle Paro Valley, your first glimpse of Bhutan, on their descent.
And then there’s the country’s so-called tourist tax of $250 USD per person, per day.
While the actual rules of how this tax works are a bit complicated––for example, depending on what category of hotel you stay in, it may be offset by how much you’re spending per night on lodging––the tourist tax is integrated into the total overall price of your vacation package. You’ll never arrive at a property to check in and be greeted with an additional bill to pay.
The good news is the funds go towards infrastructure projects such as the East-West Highway––projects that benefit residents and visitors alike—as well as domestic programs that aim to contribute to Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Happiness index. (Bhutan measures GDH, instead of GDP, but that’s another story for another day.) Essentially, funds also goes towards programs for education, healthcare, bringing infrastructure, and services to more remote valleys, and other initiatives for the people.
One of Bhutan’s monikers is the Kingdom of Happiness, which from the outside, feels a bit contrived. But once you arrive, you’ll understand why.