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Every nation is unique, but Bhutan is entirely unlike any place else you’ve been. It’s easy to miss on a map, perched high in the Himalayas, a dot between the sprawling expanses of China and India. Still, to those canny voyagers who have opted to eschew the more-popular Nepal or to stretch their trekking tour down a path less taken, Bhutan is completely unforgettable. It has been only a few brief decades since the kingdom opened itself to tourism, admitting wide-eyed visitors into a pristine Eden untouched by Western languages, foreign culture, or even conventional notions of time. Bhutan has been called “the last Shangri-La,” and with good reason. Long centuries of isolation and tourism restrictions have kept it fully authentic.

Bhutan is the only Buddhist kingdom in the world. Appropriately for a place so distinguished, the nation holds a peculiar, wonderful measure of success: Gross National Happiness, which it counts as more important than the GNP! The focus on living life well and correctly is intricately connected to the faith of the people. From Buddhism, also, do the Bhutanese contextualize daily life: hills become the rounded backs of mythical beasts, a whole village worships a lustful fertility god, and the monarch’s official title is the Dragon King. All tourists in Bhutan must organize and plan their trip through the government’s official tourism board, which administers a daily tariff for international guests. In this way, the Bhutanese administrators keep the growth of tourism slow and controlled, and the country retains its indefinable, unadulterated charm. Visitors get a healthy taste of the myth and magic that epitomize Bhutan, from mountaintop monasteries and quaint yak-herder homesteads to the bazaars and festivals of Paro, through which every new arrival must pass.

Bhutan Top Attractions

Paro

All overseas visitors to Bhutan get their first sight of the kingdom in Paro, the site of the only international airport. It’s a lovely sight, too!. Named for the lush, green Paro Valley in which it is situated, this is a place full of historical and sacred significance. The biggest draw here is the Tiger’s Nest monastery (Taktsang), a gorgeous old treasure situated precipitously on the edge of a cliff. A vertiginous ascent on horseback is required to get to the Nest, but the trip is abundantly worth it. The National Museum is also here, along with scores of fantastic dzong, each with its own story to tell.

Thimphu

Bhutan’s capital and largest city is an excellent starting place to become acquainted with the rhythm of daily life here. Many parks and botanical gardens make the best use of the lovely valley landscape, enriching the abundant natural beauty all around. A number of gompa, or monasteries, dot the landscape. Some of the country’s most precious treasures and oldest extant artwork adorn these sacred places, making them well worth a visit. Stretch your legs with a climb up Kuensel Phodrang hill for an up-close visit with the enormous Sakyamuni Buddha statue. If you time it just right, you can have a picnic dinner as you savor a perfect, unobstructed view of the sun setting over Thimphu Valley. This is also the site of Trashi Chhoe Dzong, a significant fortress in Bhutanese history.

Punakha

The old capital city retains an air of decided majesty, even though it was supplanted by Thimphu half a century ago. The Punakha Dzong is one of the country’s most iconic structures, and is always popular with visitors’ cameras! One of Punakha’s great claims to fame - albeit not one to share with the prudish - is Chimi Lhakhang, a shrine dedicated to an eccentric Tantric Buddhist saint loving nicknamed the Divine Madman. Drupka Kunley was noted for helping untold hundreds of women reach greater enlightenment through the act of physical love, and today the town surrounding his shrine is famed as a pilgrimage site for those with fertility issues. Large, effusive phalluses are painted, carved, and otherwise depicted all over town!

Jakar

Called “Little Switzerland” for its breathtaking valley scenery and verdant greenery, Jakar (along with Paro and Punakha) is one of the points of Bhutan’s “Golden Triangle.” Its fortress, the Jakar Dzong, was named for the white bird that circled that skies when 17th century settlers were seeking a site for new fortifications, and today it is replete with sacred landmarks. Jakar is revered as the birthplace of Bhutanese Buddhism. The Wangdicholing Palace was the home of the first and second kings of Bhutan, and open for tours - another significant attraction in Jakar, along with some of the country’s most sacred monasteries.

Himalayan Trekking

Trekking Bhutan is a bit wilder than doing so in neighboring Nepal, thanks to a less-established route. Those intrepid travelers who undertake this adventure, however, are rewarded with a scenic, thrilling experience unlike anything they’ve imagined. The Chomolhari trek is a major route, bringing voyagers through a gorgeous variety of ecosystems - juniper, spruce, and rhodendron forests! rivers and waterfalls! yak pastures and open valleys! - as they explore Bhutan’s best by foot. There’s no better way to feel the pulse of the land as one interacts with its people, wildlife, and flora at a slow and measured pace wending across the landscape.

Quick Facts

Capital: Thimphu
Primary Airports: Paro Airport (PBH)
Government: Constitutional monarchy
Currency: Ngultrum (BTN)
Population: 741,800 (2012 est.)
Language: Dzongkha
Electricity: 230V/50Hz (Indian plug)
Time Zone: UTC + 6
Bhutan
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