Bhutan is a fascinating country and not just because of its immense beauty. Relatively isolated from the world, Bhutan restricts the number of tourists entering the country in order to preserve its environment and its cultural identity and defines success through the happiness of its people, not its economy. This Buddhist kingdom is certainly unique, but to really see this in action, we’ve summed up the best things to see and do in Bhutan to make the most of everything it has to offer.
Embark on a pilgrimage to Taktsang Monastery
Let's start with the most iconic sight of Bhutan. Poised with all the grace of its namesake animal overlooking the gorge below, the Tigers Nest Monastery is seemingly unreachable so high up on the jutting cusp of the rocky promontory.
You'd be correct if you think the views from this cliffside ‘tigers lair’ would be spectacular. The two-hour slow climb eases you through a stunning pine forest and teases you with momentary glimpses of the monastery as you ascend, reminding you to say your prayers as you traverse steep stone steps. You’ll be rewarded with an up-close look at the stunning Buddhist architecture of a monastery that looks like it escaped from the pages of a book.
While you're there, be sure to burn some incense and tie prayer flags, just like the locals do, and, of course, offer your gratitude to the deities for a memory you won’t soon forget.
Watch a masked dance at one of the annual Tsechus (festivals)
The best seasons to visit Bhutan are spring when the valleys give birth to blossoming flowers, and autumn, when the Himalayan peaks frame your blue-sky views. Fortunately, these two seasons coincide with two of the biggest festivals Bhutan has to offer and the absolute highlight of both has to be the mask dances.
From celebrating victory to protecting people from harmful spirits, this tradition is taken very seriously, bringing people together in their finest clothes through spirituality, communal joy and celebration of the passing of the seasons. The dancers practise in the monasteries for weeks beforehand, which is also interesting to observe should your schedule not align with the festival itself. They give their all to the beating of the drums, horns and bells - it really is a sight to behold.
Try your hand at archery
The national sport of Bhutan is archery, so what better way to get into the ‘spirit’ than with the locals who'll be keen to show you how it's done?
Far beyond just trying to hit a target, the Bhutanese make a whole social event of the game, with each team's ‘cheerleaders’ making a raucous song and dance, often to distract rival teams while playing. And what pairs better with shooting sharp arrows than a spot of drinking? Which does make it even more impressive when hitting a bullseye, and hopefully not a person!
The aim of the game is primarily about bringing people together, so it doesn’t really matter if you hit the target, which is double the distance that is used in the Olympics. So, throw yourself into meeting people, having fun and really getting to grips with the social glue that holds the Bhutanese together, and no one will care if your aim is a bit off.
White water rafting on the Mo Cho river
Don’t worry if you’ve never tried this before, you won’t be tested too much by the rapids on the Mo Cho River, but you will be treated to a unique viewpoint in which to take in the magnificent scenery. Abundant green meadows and high mountains surround you as you whoosh down the river, paired with some excellent commentary from your guide about the wildlife, vegetation and any impressive buildings you’ll pass.
Your journey comes to an end at the very majestic Punakha Dzong, known as the Palace of Great Happiness, and you will certainly feel blissed out after all that adrenaline. If you happen to visit in spring, the gorgeous jacaranda trees will be in bloom, showing off their mauve flowers for a truly postcard-perfect end to your excursion.
Viewing vulnerable black-necked cranes in Gangtey
From early November till the end of February, head to Phobjikha Valley to admire the graceful black-necked cranes that circle overhead. Hunted in Bhutan until 1980, the black-necked cranes are now not only a protected species but a symbol of longevity. The people of Bhutan consider it good luck when the cranes circle above their valley so the only way to welcome them is with a celebratory festival, of course!
Phobjikha Valley is the largest wetland and crane roosting ground in the country and is also a growing ecotourism destination. To ensure the cranes' protection, The Royal Society for the Protection of Nature stopped plans to build power lines that would bring electricity to local villages, which would interrupt crane flight paths. Instead, they paid for solar lighting and an underground power grid, expanded wetlands and built shallow ponds for the cranes to roost in, safe from predators. Conservation efforts have paid off, with crane numbers increasing.
It's an incredibly heartwarming example of just how successful a country can be when its leaders prioritise environmental conservation.