Welcome to Bhutan, a country where Gross national Happiness (GnH) is the primary focus of governance and not Gross domestic Product (GdP).
Bhutan is a small kingdom in the eastern Himalayas and lies sandwiched between the two Asian giants — India and China. It pledges to remain carbon neutral and focus on cultural preservation, sustainable socio-economic development and environmental conservationthussetting high governance standards. While travelling in this mystic land, let the delightful collage of dense forests, surreal mountain ranges, colourful prayer flags, giant golden statues of Buddha and the smiling faces of the locals help you rejuvenate your hectic city-soul.
It remains as one of the most untapped destinations among quintessential travellers from around the world and thus the country is able to retain much of its traditional heritage and natural landscapes. “Bhutan for centuries has been led by our enlightened Kings who have worked tirelessly to improve the livelihood of its citizens through selfless welfare, and balanced development by following the middle path of the Buddhist philosophy and protecting the environment, while coining the developmental philosophy of Gross National Happiness(GNH),” Karma Lotey –Owner of Yangphel, an Adventure-Travel company, said. “We are the only country that has instituted a Ministry of Happiness. The positivity of the community vitality ensures happiness by default to its citizens,” he added.
Lotey is very positive about the importance of Indian tourists for Bhutan. “India is a close friend and a brother to Bhutan. Bhutan need not look at tourists from far off nations as the most lucrative market is just nextdoor. The pristine environment, the snow peaks, the gorgeous fast flowing rivers and the rich culture & tradition appeal to Indians,”Lotey said.
The Kingdom of Bhutan serves as an epitome of peace and tranquillity. A traveller can well appreciate the Buddhist values and curtailed materialistic lifestyle here. Life moves at a slower pace in Bhutan with no traffic lights on the roads. The country rather showcases spiritual centres typically featuring Dzong-style architecture.
Paro: Bhutan’s only international airport
A flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only international airport is famous for its challenging runway. Be prepared for an adrenalin rush while descending! As you leave the airport behind, a wide verdant Paro Valley, encapsulated in a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of legends greets you with open arms. The Paro Valley is home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples & monasteries and is known as one of the most fertile valleys that produce bulk of the famous red rice on its terraced fields.
Paro Valley is a choice among tourists for the Rinpung Dzong- a fortress monastery, built at the beginning of the 10th century with stones instead of clay. The Rinpung Dzong monastery houses great collection of sacred masks and costumes dating back several centuries. For adventure travellers, Paro also offers great trekking activities at the well-known Taktsang Monastery or “Tiger’s Nest”, precariously perched on the edge of a 1,200m cliff.
“Bhutan is a year round destination,” Lotey explains while adjusting his Gho (a traditional dress for the men in Bhutan) during our drive from Paro to the capital, Thimphu. “We have four distinct seasons and every season comes with unique attractions. Summer promises to be a real treat with mist & clouds hugging the mountains and there is greenery everywhere that the visitors enjoy. The winters have clear blue skies and plenty of sunshine revealing the surrounding snow peaks of the Eastern Himalaya. In spring, one can witness flowers such as Rhododendrons & Magnolias along with many others. It becomes a paradise for bird watching, botanical trips and trekking. The autumn season attracts trekkers & those that love cultural festivals.”
A walk in the capital
The capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu is a unique assortment of modern development and ancient traditions. A walk along the streets of the city will easily unveil how the city serves as the centre of government, religion and commerce proffering as the haven of civil servants, expatriates and monk bodies. Travellers choose Thimphu as their base camp when they plan a trip to experience Bhutan as the city offers urban facilities such as cafes, bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
The thriving city offers a glimpse of the most important political buildings in Bhutan such as the National Assembly and Official Residence of the King. Apart from this, Thimphu boasts a number of sites with historical significance, number of parks and museums dedicated to exquisite Bhutanese textiles and artefacts reflecting the rural life of Bhutan. Places such as the Folk Heritage Museum, a traditional 19th-century house, the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre and the Jungshi Handmade Paper Factory depict how sincerely the country aims to preserve heritage as one of the four pillars of their development policy.
Some of the charming walks around Thimphu would include places such as the Simtokha Dzong, Memorial Chorten, Traditional Medicine Institute, the National Textile Museum, Trashichhoedzong (a fortress of the glorious religion), Tango Goemba, the Zangthopelri Lhakhang and the weekend market and handicrafts shops.
The unseen Bhutan
“Some of the least visited places are in Eastern Bhutan since it still remains as ‘The Wild East’ that is least explored,” Lotey, a specialist in Bhutan’s unseen destinations, said. The cultural diversity there is yet to be explored. It is a destination for those who love adventure. “Another area is the district of Trongsa that you can explore both in the North to the source of roaring Mangdechu River that flows down from Gangkar Puensum Mountain (7,570m), the highest unclimbed peak in the world and in the south to the land of the Monpas (the original indigenous inhabitants of the country),” he added. You can go beyond these places only if you have a knack for adventure as the areas in the northern region are only accessible through trekking. Hiking and camping are encouraged profusely in these areas.
Authentic and responsible
Bhutan is probably one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world, with pristine natural environment. No wonder Bhutan is the only country whose largest export is renewable energy. Environmental sustainability is taken as the main objective with around 72pc of land still of lush and dense forest. The government has a pledge to maintain at least 60pc of its forest cover for all time.
As a traveller you might be a smart spender, but it is also worth noting that 35pc of what you pay in Bhutan goes in favour of governmental programme such as free educational and healthcare, alleviating poverty, and infrastructure and nature conservation. This really dishes up a unique way to indulge in the happiness and also returning back the reason for happiness to the local community.
As far as food is concerned, locals like to cook their food with a lot of green chillies and authentic Bhutanese spices offering a ride to your taste buds. Adding something else to the food theme, here is a warning, you will not find a single McDonald’s or Pizza Hut in Bhutan. But the local cafes, restaurants and bars will treat you with authentic delicacies significantly featuring a heaping bowl of red rice with pasta, potatoes, fish, cheesetopped chillies, cheese-topped mushrooms, turnip flowers and other meats and veggies.
We all know we can’t buy happiness, but we can definitely buy an air ticket to a country whose success is measured in terms of happiness. Bhutan’s happiness policy isn’t targeted at tourists, though tourism is its second largest industry after hydro-electric power, a significant portion of which is exported to India. The country takes care of tourism in a way to mitigate the impact that visitors have on the local lives. This makes for a warm and welcoming population offering plenty of opportunity for visitors to experience what travellers actually seek, authenticity!
How to reach
There are direct flights from Kolkata and Delhi to Paro (Bhutan). Hence, you will have more options from Kolkata to reach Bhutan. Druk air is the national carrier of Bhutan that operates and run all flights to Bhutan.
Where to stay
There are plenty of options in Thimphu and Paro ranging from five star properties to 3-star accommodation. Budget hotels are also available with modern facilities such as internet, bars and in-room services.
Travel decrees for tourists visiting Bhutan involves that you must have a guide and pay an all-inclusive rate of $200-$250 per night depending on the high or low season. This includes your private guide, three-star lodging, three meals per day and ground transfers. The rest is all pleasure for you as the country waits to greet one and all to a land that still manages to maintain happiness as a national priority.
India and Bhutan share cordial entry rules and you won’t require a visa to visit Bhutan. You will require either a Passport or Voter’s ID to enter Bhutan. The Indian immigration office at Paro will assist you further to acquire the permit.