Bhutan: The Ecotourist’s Shangri-La
So, you’ve never heard of Bhutan? Well, if you fancy ecotourism, it’s about time you did.
This tiny land-locked kingdom perched high among the southern slopes of the Himalayas, enclaved by the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China in the north and India in the south, is one of the least visited places on the planet, and is listed as one of the top 10 global biodiversity hot spots.
It is a remote, mysterious, exhilarating place to visit, made all the more special by the initiatives taken by the government to keep tourism in the country sustainable and ethical, as well as the regulations put in place to help prevent outside influence from corrupting the local culture.
It is the world’s last remaining Buddhist Kingdom, and due to its pristine natural beauty and strong sense of culture and tradition (television and the internet were only introduced here in 1999!), it has been called “The Last Shangri-La.”
It is also the only country in the world to measure its progress through the happiness of its people, via the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), invented by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s as a more holistic approach to development. The four pillars of GNH are: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of tradition and cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and the establishment of good governance.
Bhutan is the ecological gem of the Eastern Himalayas. Nearly the entire country has ecotourism potential, and the development of this potential is guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness and sustainability.
72% of Bhutan is forest cover, and 60% of that must be maintained for all time through a recent law passed by government. About a third of the country is made of protected national parks in which live more than 770 species of birds and some 5500 species of vascular plants, 750 of which are endemic to the Eastern Himalayas and more than 50 to Bhutan itself. Bhutan also has some unique animals. 165 species of mammals have been identified, including the snow leopard, tiger, blue sheep, musk deer, takin, red panda, the greater one-horned rhino, and the golden langur, a primate found almost nowhere else on earth.
Much of this diverse flora and fauna can be experienced first-hand on guided treks and safaris to Bhutan’s protected parks and wildlife sanctuaries, including Jigme Dorji National Park, the largest protected area in the country, which encompasses an area of 4329 sq km and is home to several endangered species, including the snow leopard, blue sheep, tiger, musk deer, red panda, Himalayan black bear and serow. Birdwatching is also an extremely popular, and Bhutan offers some of the finest in all of the Himalayas.
With its snow-capped peaks and fertile valleys, clean crisp air, large tracts of virgin forests, colorful festivals, abundant wildlife, ancient Buddhist monasteries and friendly locals, Bhutan is, indeed, a unique world.
Luckily the Bhutanese government is dedicated to preserving this uniqueness by putting 26% of the country’s land under protection, and by encouraging a number of ecotourism projects, such as establishing home-stay programs designed to stem the region’s rural-urban migration and distribute tourist-related funds amongst the rural population.
These home-stays, which are arranged via your tour operator, offer tourists the chance to stay in traditional Bhutanese homes, as well as provide homeowners with the opportunity to benefit from the tourist industry. You will be provided your own space, but will be treated as an extended member of your host family, with a chance to participate in daily activities and explore small villages in ways that are impossible in more commercial accommodation. Most of these home stays are quite rustic, with squat toilets and outdoor taps, but the package often includes traditional, local food prepared by your host family, and opportunities to enjoy a hot stone bath or try your hand at archery.
Home-stays are just one of many ecotourism programs being pursued by the government to ensure the survival of Bhutanese village culture. Other programs include limiting the number of tourists who are allowed to attend annual religious festivals, education programs for tourists in the ecology and traditions of small villages, and encouraging the development of local crafts, which are often taught and controlled by young monks and sold to support their monastic institutions.
If you decide to come to Bhutan, the best way to explore its beauty and diversity is through an organized trek. The Druk path from Paro to Thimphu is the most popular trek, as it is easily accessible, lasts 11 days, takes in major sites such as the Taktsang Monastery and requires no experience. It is ideal for those interested in experiencing Bhutan’s rich culture and stunning Himalayan vistas without committing to one of the more strenuous treks. The Jomolhari and Laya Gasa treks are also worth the sweat, as is the Snowman Trek, which takes you to Lunana, a remote region of the Eastern Himalaya. It is said to be one of the toughest treks in the world, taking approximately 30 days, covering 356 km and crossing eight Himalayan mountain passes.
Other Major Attractions
Another huge draw for tourists to Bhutan is its colorful festivals. They are held throughout the year in various temples and dzongs (ancient fortresses). Tsechu, the largest of the these festivals, is celebrated in the late summer and fall, on the tenth day of a month in the lunar calendar corresponding to the birth day of Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. Tsechu are large social gatherings where people from various villages come together to enjoy Bhutanese dances and other entertainment. The biggest festivities take place in Thimphu, the nation’s capital.
The highlight of these Tsechu are the dances put on by masked monks. These dances are deeply symbolic, and each has a meaning or a story behind it, often based on incidents from the life of Guru Padmasambhava. Witnessing them is considered an auspicious and sanctifying experience. It is said that every Bhutanese must attend one at least once in their lives to receive blessings from the lamas and wash away their sins.
The majority of tour operators will also organize “cultural tours”, which will take you to important destinations such as Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue and Jakar. Wherever else you go depends on the amount of time you have, and your personal preferences. Many of these tours are arranged to coincide with some of the main Tsechus, and you should plan accordingly. If you have the time, try to sign up for one that takes in the beautiful Bumthang valley, which is called the “Switzerland of Bhutan”. It is considered to be the spiritual home of the Bhutanese people and contains some of the oldest historical monuments and Nyes (sacred places) in the country, some of which are more than 1200 years old.
Essential to any Bhutan itinerary, however, is a visit to at least one of the hundreds of monasteries and dzongs that dot the landscape throughout the country. Perhaps the most beautiful is the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery near Paro, a temple built on the lip of a 1200-meter cliff in 1692. It was here that Guru Rinpoche visited on his second visit to Bhutan in the 8th century. It is the most widely-recognized and visited monument in the country, and one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world.
The dzongs, meanwhile, are massive fortresses, with towering exterior walls that surround complexes of temples, courtyards and monks’ accommodation, some of which date back to the 12th century. These dzongs were once used as monasteries, but also came to serve as defense structures and centers of religious and cultural activity. Their unique architecture is found throughout the present and former Himalayan Buddhist kingdoms of Bhutan and Tibet.
How to visit
Bhutan is an unusual destination, and as such it has a few unusual rules. Tourism in the country has been strictly limited in order to preserve and nurture Bhutan’s traditional culture. Because of this, the number of tourists visiting the country is kept to an environmentally manageable level. This is done by setting a steep minimum tariff.
Unfortunately for the budget traveler, this tariff is $200-$250 per night.
This does, however, ensure your experience will be unique, and afterwords you may be the only person you’ll ever meet who’s actually been there.
So, here’s the lowdown:
Unless you’re a citizen of India, Bangladesh or the Maldives, you must obtain a visa before arrival. You must book your trip online through a local licensed tour operator (or international partner), and your holiday must be paid in full, via a wire transfer, to the Tourism Council of Bhutan account before your tourist visa is issued (this is taken care of through the tour operator).
The minimum tariff is (for a group of 3 people or more) is $250 per night from March to May and September to November, and $200 per night the rest of the year.
This daily tariff covers a minimum of 3-star accommodation, all meals, a licensed, English-speaking Bhutanese guide, all internal transport (excluding flights), camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours, and all internal taxes and charges. If you’re traveling alone or in a group of less than three you’ll have to also pay a surcharge of $30-$40 per night.
There is no charge for children younger than five, and children aged 6-12 years accompanied by guardians are given a 50% discount on daily rates. Full-time students younger than 25 will also be given a 25% discount on daily rates.
The only way to visit the country without paying this enormous tariff is to receive an invitation by a Bhutanese citizen, or through a NGO.
Bhutan is a rather isolated place, so getting there is not so easy. Paro International Airport, located in the southwest of the country is the only entry point by air. The sole airline is Druk Air, the nation’s flag carrier, which has regular flights to a number of cities in India, and as well as Singapore; Bangkok, Thailand; and Kathmandu, Nepal.
If coming overland, the only option is via India, with three land-border crossings along the southern border. However, it is mandatory to travel at least one way using Druk Air, unless flights are full, in which case both entry and exit are permitted by land.