Bhutan is everything wonderful you may have heard about the landlocked country that celebrates its “Gross National Happiness.” It also is a bit less.
What’s I mean by “less” relates to
construction along the full-length of its serpentine east-west road all at the same time in the name of improvement. It makes for a tortured journey with sheer drops on one side, the danger of rock falls on the other, mud that can sink a vehicle up to its axles, riding at a rate of rarely more than 10 km (22 miles) per hour, and ceaseless jostling and jarring. There is no hope of completion by its target date in 2018.
For travelers prone to carsickness, the “corduroy” dirt road’s endless switchbacks suggest that taking a car is not an option. Although domestic flights make access to a couple of cities easily accessible, there is a price to be paid beyond air fare: Having only an avian view of scenery that literary took my breath away. Literally.
Aside from the scenery, including occasional views of snow-covered Himalayan peaks when the clouds sometimes cooperate, the country benefits from the cleanest air imaginable. There also are humble hamlets occupied by Bhutanese who evince not a soupçon of resentment of well-heeled tourists and who adhere at the same time to the country’s traditions, including reverence for a unique sort of Buddhism and a fondness for old-style dress.
Bhutan offers numerous opportunities to witness authentic religious festivals with costumed monks who twirl like Dervishes as in the photo below. Among other highlights elaborate temples and fortresses as well as wildlife such as black-necked cranes during their annual migration. The influences of neighboring India and especially Tibet are inescapable and add to the exoticism of the country, which has a population of 700,000 or 750,000. (I’ve heard both numbers.)
Even more arresting may be the ambiance of the nation, which struck me as enduringly soothing. I may have detected a car horn once and witnessed not a single argument.
Opened to tourists only since 1974 and determinedly opposed to the corruption of its values, Bhutan discourages casual visits via a requirement to book with one of numerous tour companies, which seem more or less equally competent.
Unless you pay an upcharge, you will not celebrate the quality of the hotels. The one supposedly five-star hotel in which we were booked at no extra cost was delightful with wi-fi that worked only near the dining room. (I couldn’t get online for two days, and I have to say that was a benefit.) I would happily have stayed in it or one like it the whole time.
In a country where the national dish is a watery concoction of chilis boiled with a bit of cheese, the cuisine is not memorable. Nor is it terrible, and vegetarians will find plenty of options.
The tours are truly all-inclusive–the hotels, meals, admissions, and a guide and driver in your own vehicle. I had converted $100 into Indian rupees, which are as acceptable there as is Bhutan currency, and couldn’t spend it all on beer or incidentals.
There are, of course, plenty of other tourists, as is evident below, but I didn’t find their number to be either excessive or harmful to my experience of the country.
You may be wondering about the cost, but the truth is that I have been avoiding that number. Let me confess only that the trip was an extravagance. It happily is not nearly equal to the cost of a cruise to Antarctica, but it was well worth having put it on my bucket list. If at all possible, I cannot too highly recommend putting it on yours too.