Bhutan, tucked between China and India, is often touted as the happiest country in the world. While most countries use Gross National Product (GNP) as an indicator of progress, Bhutan uses another form of measurement – Gross National Happiness.
To find out what exactly makes this landlocked country one of the most elusive, yet most sought-after travel destinations, you have to try out these 21 things in Bhutan for yourself:
1. Meet the King of Bhutan
How often do you get to meet the leader of a country? As it turns out, the answer in Bhutan is ‘often’.
The current king, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is well-known for being a humble royal that enjoys going around the country and visiting his subjects. According to the Bhutanese, you will have a chance to see him during national events like National Day and Royal Wedding Anniversary celebration.
If you are truly lucky, you may even get to meet up him close. Some tourists have recounted meeting the king while cycling, and even had a chance to speak with him (he was educated overseas, and can speak fluent English)!
2. Go whitewater rafting
Most people would expect to go trekking in Bhutan, but there’s another exciting way to traverse the beautiful landscape: whitewater rafting!
Don’t worry if you have little, or even no experience. Experienced rafters at the helm will expertly guide you through a fun day of rafting through the scenic views that only Bhutan has but through an entirely different point of view as rare birds and animals can be seen or heard.
3. Visit Chimi Lhakhang Temple
Chimi Lhakhang Temple is arguably one of the most well-known temples in Bhutan, but did you know that it is actually famous for the carving of phalluses on all walls of the temple, as well as its ancient Thai-themed architecture?
Also known as the “Fertility Temple”, Chimi Lhakang is mostly visited by childless couples. Women who come to the monastery seeking blessings of children will get hit on the head by the presiding Lama with a 10-inch ivory, wood and bone phallus as well as the bow and arrow supposedly used by the Divine Madman – Drukpa Kuenley himself hundreds of years ago.
Be sure to see this unique temple for yourself!
4. Try archery at Changlimithang Stadium and Archery Ground
Archery is not only the most beloved pastime of Bhutan, but also the country’s national sport. It is said that Bhutanese men would never say no when asked to compete in a round of archery, and that most of them own a set of expensive bow and arrows.
Watching the locals compete in archery tournaments is a very exciting affair, as these tournaments are often accompanied by howls, chanting, encouragement and jokes.
If you are up for it, you can also try your hand at archery. But don’t worry – the Bhutanese are very hospitable, so they won’t laugh and jeer at you even if you aren’t the best archer!
5. Relax in a natural hot spring
In Bhutan, hot springs are known as Tshachu, the mineral water as Drubchu and the medicinal water as Smenchu. The people believe that the these are blessings of the Buddha and so, the hot springs are generally found in sacred sites in the country.
Water from the hot springs is also used for hot spring therapy in Bhutan. Don’t be surprised if you see camps at various hot springs during winter: the Bhutanese take their healing therapies very seriously!
One of the most famous hot springs is the Gasa Tshachu. It is popular with the locals for its healing powers, as the water is believed to cure arthritis, skin diseases, ulcers, rheumatism, indigestion, tuberculosis, and different other ailments.
6. Party in Thimphu’s ‘Drayangs’
It’s not all about tradition and nature in this country: the nightlife scene in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is actually as lively as any other metropolitan city.
Drayangs are venues for live performances by Bhutanese ladies. Traditional attire and cultural Bhutanese dances will be presented all evening with song requests made by visitors in exchange of tips. As compared to the usual bars and clubs, drayangs are harder to find. However, if you are lucky enough to find one, you can relax inside with a drink in hand and experience Bhutanese culture, music, dance, and food.
7. Do birdwatching
Thanks to the country’s efforts to preserve much of its natural habitat, Bhutan is a paradise for bird lovers and ornithologists. Over 670 species of birds have been recorded, and it is estimated that the country harbours more than 16 vulnerable species, including the extremely rare Imperial Heron and Black-Necked Crane.
You can spot many of these birds on your treks, but if you are interested in travelling with like-minded bird lovers and finding the best places to birdwatch, it is recommended that you sign up for a birding or birdwatching tour.
8. Go biking in Bhutan
If you thought Bhutan’s terrain was only good for trekking and cycling, think again. The country’s mountainous roads, which reach heights of up to 4000m, are actually very well-maintained. Most terrains are manageable, although it can get challenging at parts, so even amateur bikers can travel through Bhutan easily.
Most motorbike tours go on routes that offer awe-inspiring sights of the Himalayan ranges while you hit winding mountain roads, off-road trails, and scenic stretches through some of the most pristine forests. It’s hard to get bored when you get to enjoy such diverse scenery throughout your biking journey!
9. Get personalised stamps at Philatelic Bureau
Most people would not think of a post office as a must-visit, but Thimphu’s main post office is actually the location for one of Bhutan’s most unique gifts.
Bring a favourite digital photo on a USB stick or have a portrait taken on the spot, and staff will print you a sheet of personalised stamps with your photo on them. The process costs Nu 200 (the actual cost of the stamps), and takes just a couple of minutes. You can even buy a postcard, stick your personalized stamp on it, and send it back home to your family and friends!
10. Watch monks dance at a Tsechu festival
Attending festivals is arguably one of the best ways to understand and experience a country’s ancient practices and culture, and Bhutan has no lack of festivals as well. A Tsechu is a Buddhist festival in honour of Guru Rimpoche, the saint who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.
Tsechu festivals are held every autumn in every district of Bhutan. The dates of the celebration vary from district to district and year to year, but the one in Thimphu is the grandest, featuring dances performed by trained monks and laymen in amazing masks and costumes.
It is believed that just by attending the Tsechu and being in the crowd, you will gain merit. Religious tones aside, the Tsechu is also a yearly social gathering where the people from neighbouring districts gather to rejoice and celebrate in their best clothes.
11. Shop at Thimphu’s weekend market
As the name suggests, this weekend market is around only on the weekends: vendors from throughout the region start arriving on Friday afternoon, and remain until Sunday night.
You will find village people jostling with well-heeled Thimphu residents for the best – and cheapest – vegetables and foodstuffs. This is also the only time that fresh produce is easily available and the shopping is enhanced by the opportunity to catch up on the week’s gossip.
At the northern end of the market is a collection of stalls called “the indigenous goods and handicrafts section”, where they sell locally produced goods such as religious objects, cloth, baskets and strange hats from various minority groups. They are more than happy to sell these to tourists, but it’s mostly intended for the locals.
12. Visit Jigme Dorji National Park
Located in the northwestern part of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji National Park borders with Tibetan China in the north and is home to some 6,500 local tribespeople who have been living there before the establishment of the park.
The park provides sanctuary for 37 known species of mammals, including several endangered, threatened or vulnerable species. It is also the only park in Bhutan where the national animal (takin), flower (blue poppy), bird (raven) and tree (cypress) exist together.
More than being a natural haven, Jigme Dorji National Park contains sites of cultural and economic significance: you will find Mount Jomolhari and Mount Jitchu Drake, which are worshipped as homes of the local deity.
13. See the takin
Takin is a vulnerable species of goat-antelope, native to Bhutan, India, China and Tibet. The story of how it came to Bhutan’s national animal is as strange as the animal itself: it is said that the Divine Madman took the head of a roasted goat, attached it to a cow’s skeleton, clapped his hands, and the skeleton grew a full body to become the takin.
You can spot this creature in the Bhutanese wilderness, but if you are not lucky enough, you will have to settle with seeing them at the national rescue centre on the outskirts of Thimphu.
14. Spot endangered animals
Besides the takin, you can also see other endangered species in Bhutan’s wildlife sanctuaries and parks. These include the Himalayan Bear, Himalayan Blue Sheep, Dhole (Indian wild dog), and snow leopards.
Take a trek through any of the 15 small and big national parks in Bhutan to catch a glimpse of these rare mammals, because some of these are so rare that you probably won’t find them anywhere else!
15. Visit Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong was the second to be built in Bhutan, and it served as the capital and seat of government until the mid-1950s.
It is recognised as one of the most important dzongs in Bhutan, as all of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned here. Today, it is the official winter residence of the dratshang (official monk body). Most of Bhutan’s national treasures are also kept inside this dzong, but only two people are allowed inside the treasury: the king and the Je Khenpo (The Head of Bhutan Buddhism).
This dzong is also impressive for the fact that it was built without the use of nails, not even one!
16. Do horse riding
Horses are traditionally used as pack and riding animals for crossing mountain passes, and now horseback riding is also available as a way for travellers to explore Bhutan.
Travelling on horseback is a great alternative to hiking if you want to explore areas that were previously deemed inaccessible, as many small villages in Bhutan are still located very far from the nearest road. You can also sign up for horse riding lessons if you register with a tour group.
17. Try Bhutanese craft beer
In Bhutan, beer culture is rapidly growing, and Bhutanese are trying to create a taste for ingenious craft beers, thanks to its farming traditions where barley, wheat, and other cereals are common.
Be sure to try out Druk 11000 — an 8 percent ABV brew sometimes described as malt liquor — which is produced by Bhutan Brewery, and is the nation’s most popular beer. Sin Chang and Bang Chang are also true farmhouse brews, made from locally available grains, but unfortunately these are reserved for special occasions like the Tsechu festival, and cannot be sold commercially.
18. Have a taste of Ema Datshi
Just like how Singaporeans love chili, the Bhutanese also love their chili peppers, even though this is not indigenous to the country.
It is little wonder then, that Bhutan’s national dish is a chili cheese stew called Ema Datshi. It is probably the only cuisine in the world where chilies are considered a vegetable, rather than as a spice or condiment. The spiciness is balanced out with tomatoes, butter and cheese, then typically served over a bed of red rice (another Bhutanese staple food).
However, be warned: the Bhutanese are really into eating spicy foods, so you may find yourself constantly having to reach for water.
19. Go rock climbing
If trekking, biking, and horseback riding are still not exciting enough for you, how about rock climbing in Bhutan?
The Vertical Bhutan Climbing Club, a young group of rock-climbing enthusiasts in Thimphu, organize weekly climbing sessions and and events, and you are more than welcome to join them. Be sure to conquer ‘The Nose’, a climbing rock near Thimphu that offers thirteen exciting climbing routes for all levels.
20. Cross Punakha Suspension Bridge
For the true adrenaline junkie, one of the most heart-pumping activities in Bhutan is… crossing a suspension bridge?!
One of the oldest suspension bridges in the world, Punakha Suspension Bridge in Bhutan was believed to be built by the Buddhist Monk, Thangtong Gyalpo. The 160m long bridge links the villages to Punakha Dzong, where the kings used to reside.
Made from iron links, this bridge perched high above the swift river of Po Chhu can sway rather violently from side-to-side when there are strong winds, and become even wobblier when more people are walking on the bridge – definitely not for the faint-hearted!
21. See Mount Everest
The Bhutanese kingdom is home to some of the highest unclimbed mountains in the world, as the locals consider the mountains to be the sacred abode of the gods and spirits, and hence the government imposed a blanket ban on climbing any mountain in Bhutan.
Even if you can’t climb any mountains, it’s still an interesting experience to see the snow-capped peaks, including Mount Everest. You can catch a breathtaking view of the tallest mountain in the world on your flight, provided you pick the right seat: if you are flying to Paro from Kathmandu, ask for a window seat on the left side of the plane on the flight in, and on the right side on the way back!