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 really make the most of everything it has to offer.
Embark on a pilgramage to Taktsang Monastery
Why not 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.
If you think the views from this cliffside ‘tigers lair’ would be spectacular, you’d be correct. The two hour slow climb eases you in through a stunning pine forest, teases you with momentary glimpses of the monastery as you ascend, reminding you to say your prayers as you traverse steep stone steps and finally, you’ll be rewarded with the stunning Buddhist architecture of a monastery that looks like it escaped from the pages of a book.
Offer incense and tie prayer flags, just like the locals do. And be sure to thank 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 in spring when the valleys give birth to blossoming flowers, and in 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 these is the mask dance.
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 before, something also interesting to observe should your schedule not align for the actual festival and give their all to the beating of drums, horns and bells. It really is a sight to behold.
Try your hand at archery
As the national sport of Bhutan, you must try your hand at some archery alongside some locals. Far beyond just trying to hit a target, the Bhutanese make a whole social event of the game, with each teams ‘cheerleaders’ making a raucous song and dance, often to distract rival teams while playing. And what pairs better with shooting sharp arrows at a target than a spot of drinking? Which does makes 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 than that 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 you’re 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 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 more 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 catch a glimpse of the graceful black-necked cranes who 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 and so welcome them with a celebratory festival.
Phobjikha Valley is the largest wetland and crane roosting ground in the country and now also a growing ecotourism destination. To ensure the crane's protection, The Royal Society for the Protection of Nature stopped plans to build power lines to 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 the build of shallow ponds for the cranes to roost in, safer from predators. Conservation efforts have paid off, with crane numbers on the up.
Even if you’re not too interested in birds, this is a heart-warming example of just how successful a country can be when its leaders prioritise environmental conservation.