"Land of the Thunder Dragon" - Bhutan


This dramatic Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas offers culture, adventure and majestic scenery out of all proportion to its modest size. Photo - Shutterstock
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Bhutan stirs a misty-eyed yearning in even the most seasoned travellers. Roughly the size of Switzerland, this diminutive mountain kingdom is wedged between China and India, sloping from heights of 7,000m on its northern border with Tibet to the relatively low-lying altitudes of its border with India. It's a remote Buddhist stronghold of soaring, Himalayan peaks; tranquil countryside dotted with traditional farmhouses, monasteries and temples, claret-robed monks, fluttering prayer flags; and fast flowing slate-coloured rivers. The Bhutanese call it Druk Yul or "Land of the Thunder Dragon" in their native tongue, Dzongkha.

The majority of Bhutan's population of just under 700,000 adheres to the Drukpa Kagyu school of tantric, or Mahayana Buddhism. Spirituality permeates all levels of life and there are more than 10,000 religious monuments, known as stupas or chortens, and more than 2,000 monasteries scattered across the country.

Most visitors' first glimpse of the country are of the majestic Paro valley in western Bhutan. This wide, fertile valley sits in the shadow of Mount Jhomolhari, the county's highest peak that is regarded as a
divine power.

Just beyond Paro lies Taktsang Lhakhang or the Tiger's Nest temple, one of the country's most sacred pilgrimage sites. All dimly lit rooms and flickering butter lamps, it is perched at a staggering 3,000m on a sheer cliff face, reached by an arduous hike up the mountainside. Legend has it is that this is where the Guru Rinpoche, who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Bhutan, arrived from Tibet on the back of a tigress.

From Paro, visitors usually travel east to the sleepy Bhutanese capital Thimphu, with its celebrated Changangkha temple and handful of sights such as the National Museum (nationalmuseum.gov.bt), housed in the 17th-century Ta-Dzong building, and the Royal Textile Academy (royaltextileacademy.org). The latter highlights the country's rich, living tradition of delicately hand-woven and naturally dyed cloth, with several examples available for sale.

Further west is the fertile, sub-tropical Punakha Valley, where the capital was located until 1955. Its arresting dzong (fort), on the confluence of Mo and Pho rivers, is one of the country's finest examples of 17th-century architecture. The nearby Phobjikha Valley is the winter home of the black-necked crane and the 17th-century Gangtey Goenpa monastery.

Central Bhutan is home to Bumthang, notable for its cheese production. It's a bucolic picture of orchards, farmhouses, monasteries and temples such as the historic Jakar Dzong. Eastern Bhutan is one of the least-visited parts of the country, home to the Sharchop ethnic group and the imposing Trashigang Dzong.

Bhutan was a feudal society with many different ethnic groups until the 17th century when it was organised into 20 districts run by a dual system of religious and secular authorities. The country's current hereditary monarchy was established in 1907 and its monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who took over from his father in 2006, enjoys widespread popularity. His father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was responsible for opening up this kingdom to curious visitors 40 years ago next year. Under his guidance, the Bhutanese authorities have been keen to protect the traditional values of the world's only remaining Buddhist kingdom. National dress has been compulsory since 1989, archery is the national pastime and most farming is still manual. Visitor numbers are controlled and mountaineering is forbidden – the high-value, low-impact strategy means that daily tariffs of between US$200-$250 including transport, guiding and accommodation are imposed on tourists.

Best foot forward
Trekking is one of Bhutan's most alluring draws, with gasp-inducing views of the Himalayas and the chance to observe local life as you pass through valleys chiming with yak bells and villages that still only see a trickle of visitors.

There are 23 official treks across the country. They vary greatly in degrees of difficulty, but even the shortest walk offers something impressive to see.

The Snowman Trek, in a remote corner near the Tibetan border, is considered to be one of the hardest in the world and is only tackled by a handful of trekkers each year. World Expeditions offers a 27-day "Snowman Trek" trip that includes traversing 11 high passes over 4,000m and trails used by yak herders and isolated communities cut off for months of the year.

Into the wild
Bhutan is one of the last unspoilt corners of Asia. Almost 70 per cent of the country is blanketed in thick forest and there are high plateaux filled with wildflowers. It supports a number of elusive species of flora and fauna such as blue poppies, black-necked cranes and snow leopards that prowl the high slopes of the Himalayas. Half the world's population of white-bellied herons live in Bhutan.

Land of the yeti
To feel like you are really breaking away from the tourist trail, the far east of Bhutan is one of the least-visited of all the country's regions. The Sakteng and Merak districts were off-limits to visitors until recently. Blanketed in blue pine forest and rhododendron trees, Sakteng is home to the semi-nomadic, yak-herding Brokpa people, as well as the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which locals believe is inhabited by a yeti-like creature.

Spiritual highs
Bhutan's religious festivals, which mostly take place in spring and autumn, offer a fascinating glimpse of the country. Held in honour of Guru Rinpoche, tsechus, which means 10th day, are held in monasteries, temples and dzongs all over the country on auspicious days and months in the Bhutanese calendar. Lasting between one and four days, these involve prayers, celebration and elaborate dances usually performed by monks. Paro and Thimphu are two of the most colourful, taking place on 11 April and 29 September 2014 respectively, but tsechus are held everywhere.

Where to stay
Hotels in Bhutan are geared towards higher spenders. Two of the early luxury pioneers are Como (comohotels.com) and Amanresorts (amanresorts.com) – the latter has five lodges in Bhutan. Como's Uma Paro offers rustic luxury overlooking the Paro Valley. Its sister lodge, Uma Punakha, opened in the valley of the same name last year. A Himalayan Explorer trip that spends three nights in Paro and two in Punakha costs £3,535 for two, including meals, transfers and activities. Gangtey Goenpa Lodge (easternsafaris.com), a luxurious 12-room retreat, opened last month at the 17th-century Gangtey Monastery. Doubles start at US$650 (£430), B&B. Thimphu's Druk Hotel (drukhotels.com) has doubles from BTN8,160 (£80) room only, while the Tiger's Nest Resort (tigernest.com), just outside Paro, has views of the monastery of the same name. Doubles from BTN17,400 (£170), B&B. Six Senses also plans five new hotels by 2016.

Travel essentials
All travellers to Bhutan need to book a package with either an international or local tour operator. British passport-holders require a visa to visit Bhutan, which is issued upon arrival – applications are submitted in advance by the tour operator.

Most visitors fly to Delhi with a connection to Paro with Druk Air (drukair.com.bt). Most tourists travel internally by road and, while distances on the map look deceptively short, don't expect to get anywhere fast.

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