The predominantly Buddhist country of Bhutan holds happiness as the most important way of measuring progress. While the rest of the world looks to the Gross Domestic Product as the scale to live by, where material wealth is prioritised, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness instead focuses on prosperity, joy and wellbeing. Although one of the smallest countries in the world, the astoundingly rich diversity within Bhutan’s culture will both amaze and inspire. The cheerful array of beautifully patterned traditional dress worn here is much the same today as it looked thousands of years ago, with men wearing knee-length robes, women donning ankle-length dresses with jackets, and both genders wearing embroidered silk scarves to indicate their social rank. Each village has its own festival, and as a country, numerous religious festivals are marked throughout the year - all times of lively and colourful celebration. With more than 19 regional dialects, Bhutan has several national symbols unifying its population, including the cypress tree (representing bravery), the raven (representing the guardian deity Gonpo Jarodongchen), the takin (a kind of goat-antelope), and the blue poppy. Archery is the national sport and th2 Bhutanese also have 13 distinct traditional arts and crafts that are fundamental to their cultural heritage, including: Tsha-zo (weaving bamboo and cane), Lha-zo (painting landscapes), Tshem-zo (embroidery), and Par-zo (carving slate, wood and stone).
With its ancient culture and the Himalayas as a backdrop, mountainous Nepal is a wealth of centuries-old stupas and temples. Bhutan, with the happiest citizens on earth, is an oasis of tranquillity. On this trip you will enjoy VIP treatment at a traditional mask dance and cultural show, explore the bustling streets of Thamel by rickshaw and flex your culinary skills preparing some Bhutanese delicacies.
As the modern capital of Bhutan, Thimphu is the centre of government, religion and commerce for this small mountain kingdom. Home to both civil servants and monks, Thimphu is an eclectic mix of tradition and modernity. A visit to the National Library is an opportunity to see a vast collection of ancient Buddhist texts and manuscripts. In walking distance from the library, the Textile and Folk Heritage Museum and the Institute for Zorig Chusum (the School for the Arts), demonstrate, exhibit and educate in all matters concerning the 13 traditional arts of Bhutan. As a standout piece of Buddhist architecture in Thimpu, the National Memorial Chorten was built in 1974 as a monument to world peace, and those of faith will circumambulate its exterior. Exploring inside must be done in a clock-wise direction; walking anti-clockwise in any religious structure is believed to generate bad karma. Tashichhodzong, the 'fortress of the glorious religion' is another striking piece of architecture, where the King’s throne room and offices are located, together with some of Bhutan’s government offices. The weekend market is the Bhutanese equivalent to a typical farmers market found in western culture. In the absence of any large supermarkets, this market is frequented by locals buying essential produce. Until 1955, Punakha Dzong was the capital of Bhutan. In winter, this is where the community of Bhutanese monks resides. When in Punakha, visit Chimi Lhakhang, a sacred destination for Buddhists. Built in the 15th century, this temple boasts spectacular views. Another location to head to is Ta Dzong in Paro, originally built in the 17th century and now serving as Bhutan's National Museum. Rinpung Dzong (officially Rinchen Pung Dzong), is known as the ‘fortress of the heap of jewels', a centre for both the monks and government officials. A short distance from Paro is the beautiful Kyichu Lakhang, one of the oldest and most sacred shrines in the kingdom, and Drukgyel Dzong, which was built to commemorate the 1646 victory over Tibetan invaders. Paro Taktsang typically known as ‘Tiger's Nest’ is Paro Valley’s sacred Buddhist temple complex. The trek to this remarkable site is well worth it as it offers the reward of unbelievable views from the balconies within the complex.
Truly hot, spicy flavours are a given in Bhutan, where the national dish is ema datshi (a cheese and hot chili mix, with the addition of potatoes, mushrooms, green beans and ferns, if desired). Red chilies are also essential to the phaksha paa recipe – a pork dish that sometimes has radishes or spinach added too. If you prefer chicken, then jasha maru consists of minced chicken with tomatoes, among other ingredients, and is typically served with rice. Tripe also ticks the box in the spicy stakes, where chilies and chili powder are both added to create a dish called goep. Other popular savoury dishes include red rice (like brown rice but a gentle pink colour, with a slightly sticky texture) and momos (dumplings with a pork, cabbage or cheese filling). Beef, pork, chicken, fish and yak are the main meats eaten. If you are not a fan of spicy food, you needn’t worry as many chefs will cater to varying tastes, and it is possible to find continental, Chinese, Indian and Tibetan cuisine as well as the traditional Butanese dishes. To counteract the heat of the main dishes, desserts are usually refreshing fruits such as mango and melon. In the city, sweets and various cakes are becoming increasingly popular.
Well-loved teas available throughout Bhutan are ngaja (a sweet milk tea) and suja (aslo know as po cha - a salty butter tea). Choose mineral water and avoid drinking tap water here, unless you know it has been boiled. Red Panda is brewed locally and a variety of beer that must be tried by any beer fan, as is chang rice beer. Arra is a popular spirit that can be distilled from wheat, barley, maize or rice.
Landscape and wildlife
Located in the Himalayas, Bhutan is landlocked by India and China. Primarily, the relief of country is mountainous, although valleys, highlands, lakes, rivers, glaciers, and sub-tropical forest areas feature too. Wildlife has specially adapted to Bhutan’s climate and geography, and includes: black bears, deer, red pandas, takins, otters, tigers, snow leopards, water buffalos and hundreds of species of bird, such as hornbills, eagles and herons. Frogs, toads, cobras, vipers and lizards generally reside in the tropical zone. Yaks live in the higher altitudes, while elephants live in the tall forests of the southern plains and foothills. Many of Bhutan’s animals are endangered so the National Parks and protected areas play a crucial role in sustaining the country’s unique biodiversity and ecosystems.