- Kingdom in the clouds
- Country life
- Happy, healthy and holistic
The world's last surviving Buddhist monarchy may be modernising (slowly), but if you're looking for a palpable sense of history in a jaw-plummeting mountain landscape, Bhutan is hard to beat.
Cradled by the snow-hatted Himalayas between India and Tibet, the remote and, until recently, almost inaccessible Kingdom of Bhutan has fiercely guarded its secrets, maintaining limited flights and hefty tourist fees in order to preserve its ancient Buddhist cultural traditions. The advantage to those lucky enough to set foot on its mountain soil is the lack of queues, crowds or any of the other tourist trappings that have tainted its neighbours - when it comes to getting away from the tribulations of the modern world, there's no better destination. Unspoilt forests clamber up the plunging valleys, monasteries, temples and fortresses perch precariously over mountain passes, and, throughout the year, colourful masked dance festivals fill the streets of the capital, Thimphu.
Until recently, Bhutanese citizens were legally obliged to don national dress when appearing outdoors. Over the last few years, the law has been relaxed so that national costume is only required at official functions or when performing certain jobs. Despite laxer laws, many people still choose to wear their kira (for women) and gho (for men) every day. The kira is a large piece of woven cloth wrapped around the body and over a blouse, usually fashioned with a brooch at the shoulders. A gho is a long, kimono-like robe that reaches below the knee.
- Given that Bhutan's government assigns every visitor a car, it's unlikely you'll need a cab. Nevertheless, taxis of all kinds – vans, minivans, jeeps and sedans pootle along Bhutan's roads and passes, serving the local population.
- Tipping culture
- Service charges are usually included in hotel and restaurant bills. However, tips of around 10 per cent are always very welcome.
- Siesta and fiesta
- Shops and businesses open and close at different times depending on the seasons. In warmer months, work starts around 8.30am and ends around 7-8pm. Hours are reduced in winter, with many businesses closing around 6pm. Bars tend to open around 1pm, but remain closed on Tuesdays, when no alcohol is served.
- Packing tips
- Himalayan highlands are hell on the heels, so a pair of ankle-bolstering walking shoes are a must. Parts of Bhutan enjoy subtropical heat, other areas are chillier; sunscreen and sunglasses should share suitcase space with cosy jumpers.
- Recommended reads
- Quirky, astute and surprising, Beyond the Sky and the Earth tells of Canadian Jamie Zeppa's relocation to Bhutan, and her nine years living as a teacher there. The first novel by a Bhutanese woman, Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, is a simple but evocative tale of growing up in the country, brimming with cultural detail.
- Bhutanese cuisine is simple, rustic food, powerfully flavoured with chillies and a hefty scattering of salt. The national dish is emadatse, a feisty-flavoured curry made with cheese and chilli peppers. Yak meat is a staple, whether in curries or dried and dipped in a chilli paste. Dried yak cheese is frequently eaten as a snack (be warned though: it is served rock hard and takes hours of sucking to soften). Momos – steamed dumplings filled with cheese, pork or cabbage – are also popular.
- The Ngultrum (Nu); US$1 is equivalent to roughly 48Nu.
- Time zone
- GMT +6.
- Dialling codes
- Country code: 975.
- Do go/don't go
- Schedule your visit to coincide with one of the many festivals held at various temples across Bhutan from March to December (most are held in October).
Don't go home without...
Watching a practice session at the Chamlinithang Archery Ground in Thimphu, held most mornings. Archery is Bhutan’s characteristically mediaeval national sport, and you can see the country’s best bowmen nailing targets around 145 metres away, while the women ‘cheerlead’ from the side. You'll spot local games in Paro, too.