The Kingdom of Bhutan perches on the southern slopes of the Himalayas on a tiny aerie of land about 180 miles by 100 miles. Buddhism came to Bhutan about 1,200 years ago and has defined the culture ever since. Altars, prayer flags, prayer wheels and temples are everywhere.
Just about any journey to Bhutan is a pilgrimage because of its rich Buddhist heritage which began when Guru Rinpoche, a national icon, brought Vajrayana Buddhism in the 8th century. Jakar’s Kurjey Lhakhang and the Taktshang Monastery in Paro, which is literally embedded into the side of a cliff, are two sites associated with him and are must-see attractions for those who travel to the country. The most popular stops on tours of Bhutan are Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, and Jakar, as well as any of a number of national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
It’s only been about a decade since Bhutan opened itself up to travelers. That opening has been gradual as the country closely monitors the numbers of travelers they allow in. This Buddhist kingdom in the clouds knows how fragile both its culture and its high Himalayan environment is, which ascends as high as 25,000 feet, and they’re determined to protect it. Almost three quarters of Bhutan is covered with forest making it a high altitude heaven for hikers. In Thimphu, visitors admire the traditional architecture and the Arts and Crafts School, where such traditional arts as woodcarving, pottery, weaving and painting are taught.
The towering elevation of the Himalayas makes much of Bhutan, especially where it borders with Tibet in the north, a perpetual winter wonderland covered with snow. Other parts of the country feature a more temperate climate with winter lasting from November to March, though the in the south on the Indian border the country is sub-tropical. It’s best to visit Bhutan during spring and autumn. Monsoon season comes between June and August. Every spring, the festival of the Punakha Domchoe, sees monks in warrior costumes re-enacting important battles the Bhutanese had with the Tibetans.
Paved straight roads in Bhutan are few and so most travelers return with harrowing tales of narrow paths and sharp turns on the edge of very deep drops. And at those altitudes hiking is for the stalwart. Still the multitude of prayer flags and prayer spinning prayer wheels set against the back drop of the very top of the world is an inspiration for all who visit.
The only airline that flies into Bhutan is Druk Air, which uses British Aerospace jets, BAe 146s that are designed specifically for high altitudes. The flight is among the most breathtaking in the world. Druk Air flies from Bangkok, Kathmandu and Calcutta.