Bhutan’s strategy of “low volume, high quality” tourism has made it a highly-regarded destination among discerning travellers. It costs an official USD 250 per day per person to sample the charms of this isolated Himalayan kingdom, an amount that includes land transport, accommodations, food and guide service.
While it’s not quite an arm and a leg, the cost does seem a rather restrictive tariff for some. It is the government’s way of keeping the country from being overrun by mass tourism, while at the same time ensuring its preferred visitors get the most value out of their trips.
So is it really worth the money? These five experiences have convinced us it is.
1. The Bhutanese lifestyle
The word “authentic” is more overused than the word “sorry” in tourism, but Bhutan is a place that can remind us the true meaning of cultural authenticity.
Tourism only got here less than four decades ago. The hermit kingdom has preserved its rich cultural identity throughout years of isolation.
On the streets, traditional dress remains the preferred attire and the local languages Dzongkha and Sharchop can be heard. Native Dzong-style architectural features still grace every building and Buddhism colors just about every aspect of life.
But change is in the air. The arrival of TV and the Internet in 1999 has brought the outside world into Bhutanese homes, with mostly positive reactions from the locals.
“I appreciate the technology and the progressive attitude of the so-called ‘modern world.’ This can help us improve farming techniques or use better medical facilities,” reflects Kinley Tenzing, a car salesman from the capital, Thimphu, “We just need to manage foreign influence so that we do not lose our cultural identity”.
Concerns about the erosion of Bhutanese values have led to a government-imposed dress code for working attire. Only the male gho and female kira dresses are allowed for official duties. There is also a ban on non-traditional forms of architecture.
Despite this, one can occasionally glimpse t-shirts and jeans worn by young Bhutanese on weekends.
And an escalator-equipped shopping mall now stands proudly in the middle of Thimphu.
Thankfully, Starbucks and McDonald’s have yet to appear. They probably won’t open shop anytime soon, but better get here before they do.
2. Buddhist peace: You have got to work for it
Outdoor enthusiast or not, no visitor leaves Bhutan without making the trek to the Taktsang Palphug, aka the Tiger’s Nest.
Situated on the edge of a cliff, some 900 meters above the rice fields of Paro, this 320-years-old monastery is considered one of the kingdom’s most sacred religious sites.
Legend has it Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, meditated for years inside a cave that now lies at the heart of the temple. The Tiger’s Nest is now a revered Buddhist meditation site and a tourist attraction.
To get here, you’ll need to trek 1.5-hours, breathing thin mountain air.
The trail winds through pine forests, past ancient Buddhist shrines adorned with endless lines of prayer flags. Smiling pilgrims and stunning landscape views accompany every step.
No doubt the hike takes quite a bit of effort, but simply walking these revered slopes is enough to induce a meditative mood.
3. Some like it really hot
The Bhutanese aren’t kidding when they say that chillies are their favorite vegetables.
Proof of this is their fondness for emma datshi, an insanely hot delicacy of boiled chillies and native cheese. It’s their de facto national dish, a source of cultural pride and a mainstay in every meal.
The first taste is always fiery, but get past the spice and it becomes easy to appreciate the creamy, salty, somewhat fruity flavor.
Paired with native red rice, emma datshi becomes a satisfying meal.
If you worry this dish will be too hot, fear not: local chefs usually tone it down for foreign diners anyway.
4. Most likely place to cause culture shock
While phallic murals like this one cause non-Bhutanese to blush, they are commonplace sacred images for locals.
The town of Punakha is home to one of the most unusual shrines in Buddhism.
The Chimi Lhakhang is dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, a tantric Buddhist saint known for his rather unconventional approach to religion.
You’ll know what this means when you see the murals and carvings depicting the man’s phallus. Sex was Drukpa Kunley’s way of blessing devotees. It is claimed he made love to over 5,000 women in his lifetime and it is believed the sex act helped devotees on the path to enlightenment.
The Chimi Lhakhang is more than just a village shrine. It is a fertility pilgrimage site for those wishing to bear children.
Households around the shrine hang wooden phalluses to bless the home and promote harmony amongst family members.
5. Nightlife, Bhutan-style
With their challenging phallic murals, we expected an equally challenging nightlife culture in Bhutan.
But evening entertainment is rather tame. What it lacks in variety however, it more than makes up for with its distinctly Bhutanese character.
To see what we mean, visit a drayang in any of the bigger towns and cities. These homegrown nightclubs come complete with disco balls and flickering lights set amidst simple wooden interiors.
The entertainment centers on singing. Patrons choose from a stable of in-house talent and pay them to perform onstage. The going rate is BTN 30 (around USD 0.60) per tune.
Bhutanese performers belt out requests in Dzongkha and Hindi while punters kick back with Red Panda beers. Never mind if the lyrics are undecipherable. The voices are shrill and the moves truly traditional. It’s a fun, fascinating night out unlike anything we’ve experienced.
Recommended is Lha-Yul Drayang in Paro Town, but try not to arrive too late: they close at 11 p.m.