Is Bhutan, the ‘World’s Last Shangri-La’, Worth the Hype?

Sergi Reboredo
Sergi Reboredo

They say nothing worth having comes easy, and that’s certainly the case with Bhutan. The tiny Himalayan kingdom that only opened to the world in the 1970s and only recently reopened post-COVID in September, is a place where nearly everything is pretty, almost postcard picturesque. It’s a land of still-unclimbed mountains, roaming tigers, and centuries-old Buddhist fortresses. Even its poorest farmhouses hanging on the steep valley mountainsides create the most romantic of scenes.

But to get here, to get around while here, or even to spend day after day in its high altitude villages, is not for the faint of heart–or pocketbook. Plus, there’s the whole putting chilis in everything.

One might be tempted to say a journey to Bhutan begins with the long flight to Asia, but more than most destinations, a trip to Bhutan begins at home. Since you cannot go around the country alone, you must determine which guide you’re going to use or go through a tour operator. You need to apply in advance for a visa, obtain travel insurance, and figure out the logistics of getting there as you typically fly first to Bangkok or Singapore, have a couple days of layover, and then to Bhutan. (There are also flights from India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, but a layover in those places is more complicated.) and while every destination requires you to grapple with what you want to see in the time you have available, with Bhutan the stakes are higher–$200 a day higher, to be precise. That’s because in addition to what you spend on hotels, guides, food, and shopping, Bhutan charges a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of $200 a day as part of its approach to limit mass tourism and attract a certain type of traveler.

Getting to Bhutan from the U.S. adds a certain weight to the word journey. I had a 13-hour flight to Doha, 2-hour layover, and then a 7-hour flight to Bangkok. Since there weren’t daily flights on Drukair, Bhutan’s flagship airline, I spent a couple of days in Bangkok luxuriating at the riverfront Art Deco wonder, The Siam.

Then you head to the airport again and wait in a queue to get your physical boarding pass. Here it becomes rapidly apparent that nearly everybody else going is, well, old–which makes sense given the amount of money involved. The flight to Paro from Bangkok is 3 hours and involves one of the more dramatic approaches in aviation as you glide down into the valley, hemmed in by and seemingly perilously close to the mountains before the plane rapidly does an about face and immediately hits the runway. Unless you have the world’s smallest bladder, you’ll want a window seat.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>An aerial view of Thimphu, the Capital of Bhutan, and its surrounding area.</p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Sergi Reboredo</div>

An aerial view of Thimphu, the Capital of Bhutan, and its surrounding area.

Sergi Reboredo

The airport in Paro is your first taste of the beauty of the built environment here, where tightly regulated architecture means the airport terminal looks like one of the country’s beautiful monastery fortresses. If you’re going to change money here (most places take credit cards), bring 50 and 100s as they get a better exchange rate from the guy operating out of a suitcase behind the official counter.

The drive from the airport to the capital of Thimphu is only a little more than 40 kilometers but will take more than an hour as the maximum speed in this country of narrow and potentially dangerous roads is 50 kph (30 mph). It’s one of the country’s features that can make a visit both relaxing and arduous–you can enjoy the scenery at a leisurely pace, but sometimes that pace can feel like a crawl. It’s a different sort of travel as you know roughly how long it will take from point A to B but you have no service and you just kind of mosey your way over on winding roads. (That isn’t to say they should go faster. Just when I thought to myself, “Alright, buddy, you can step on it a little bit,” we rounded a bend to the sight of a truck that had plummeted off the road and was being hauled up.) One respite from the pace are the road signs cautioning drivers to go slow with cutesy phrases like “Driving faster causes disaster” or “No hurry, No worry.”

Thimphu has the new and dustily metastasizing feel of a purpose-built capital city like Ankara or Brasilia–albeit at a fraction of the scale–which makes sense since it was transformed from a clutch of villages into the capital city in the middle of the 20th century. Here you can visit the Tashichho Dzong, which is the monastery-fortress that houses the administration of Bhutan’s government and shop for Bhutanese crafts like hand-woven silk textiles, carved masks, paintings, and traditional paper (I wish I had bought more of the traditional paper with dried flower petals sprinkled in the mix.)

My home in Thimphu was the Taj Tashi, a palatial ocre-colored hotel from the Taj Hotels group, which also operates the famed Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, and Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.

Rising early is no issue in Bhutan, as any even somewhat urban area here has roving packs of stray dogs that start going at it during the witching hour and keep it up until sunrise. The cavernous rooms at the Taj Tashi were some of the quietest I’ve ever experienced, so slumbering past wake-up time might have been an issue if I wasn’t so jetlagged and excited to get going. From Thimphu we drove about 45 minutes to the Dochula Pass where, on a clear day, one can see the snow capped peaks of Bhutan’s tallest mountains, including Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world which the government has made clear will remain off limits.

Many tourists will be content to just stop here and take photos of the mountains on the horizon, but for the more active, there’s a nice hike here to Lungchusey shrine at just shy of 12,000 feet above sea level. In November it’s an ethereal walk, as the lush, rainforest-like landscape is wreathed in burning-off mist. These huge moss-covered trees are rhododendrons, so in spring they bloom, covering the mountains in red, white, purple, and pink flowers. Eventually the rhododendrons give way to juniper, silver fir, spruce, and my personal favorite, hemlock, which look like they have a crown at the top. Upon summiting, you’re likely to be greeted by a skeptical but fluffy Himalayan mastiff before you reach the platform and see the square-shaped shrine framed by the peaks in the distance. As with all temples in Bhutan, no photos are allowed inside and shoes should be removed.

One of the nice things about Bhutan is that it’s not really a checklist destination—there is no list of museums and wonders you need to race to and from so you feel like you did everything. Much of being here is just being here. That said, there are two man-made attractions that you simply must not miss. One is Tiger’s Nest, the gravity-defying shrine clinging to a granite mountainside. The second, though, is the startingly resplendent Punakha Dzong.

<div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>
William O'Connor

A dzong is a palatial complex that houses both government and monastic centers, a setup that makes sense given the dual system in Bhutan wherein worldly affairs were overseen by the king and the spiritual by the chief abbot (Je Khenpo). For centuries, the center of Bhutan’s civic world was here where two gushing glacial rivers meet in the Punakha Valley on a strip of land beneath a hill resembling an elephant in repose.

The walls of the dzong stretch nearly 600 feet along the river, its lime white facade accented by a band of red punctured by the same carved wooden bays of arched windows found on the homes of subsistence farmers, except here they’re elaborately decorated with gold. Three rectangular towers shoot from within, the classic oversized eaves of the middle tower painted gold. The inside of the dzong, built in 1637 by the unifier of Bhutan, Ngawang Namgyal, is as jaw-dropping as the exterior. (It has been damaged and rebuilt a few times since then). The wall paintings, whether you understand them or not, are enthralling. The tapering towers splashed here and there with profusions of ornate carvings are a feast, and the columned hall where the kings are still crowned is a wonder.

Follow an interminable number of switchbacks above the dzong, and you will find Dhumra Farm, one of my favorite stays of the whole trip. Built as an ecofarm resort, the property is made up of only eight rooms spread between a couple of elegant farm houses overlooking the dzong. The rooms are large and simple, and the beds are ludicrously comfortable. Best of all is the mountain hospitality, which means not only kindness but filling good food. Bhutan isn’t exactly a culinary destination, but that doesn’t mean you won’t eat well. T. Sangay Wangchuk, one of the owners, has turned this farm into an open-air lab for the Himalayas, growing everything from banana to lemon to guava to millet. All of which means that alongside your lentil soup, momos, and tender chicken with a chili paste, you might just find some surprising foods. Oh, and their pancakes are so fluffy they could even teach luxury hotels a thing or two.

<div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>
William O'Connor

In the morning, you walk out and the whole place seems to be floating as the dense mist starts at the edge of the property and blankets the valley below. As the sun and breeze worked their way through breaking it all up, you soak in a silk screen brought to life, replete with the sort of clouds that look stretched like cotton being carded.

After the mist clears, you can do the suspension bridge across the river. On approach you’ll see how it’s steel and well secured, which is a good thing but certainly less exciting. Much more exciting, especially for those who don’t do research before coming, are the penises blanketing the nearby town of Teoprongchu. Between the tchotchke shops selling thousands of carved phalluses or the flying ones painted on houses, hairy balls and all, you’re surrounded by it.

<div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>
William O'Connor

The penises, at least here, serve a purpose. They are symbols of the guru Drukpa Kunley, a.k.a. The Divine Madman, whose shrine is just up the path from the town. The Divine Madman was, let’s say, unconventional. He drank a lot, ate a lot, hunted, and slept with lots of women. The tale of his defeating evil spirits plaguing the region, according to my guide, involved him using his penis that was not only aflame but so engorged it required two hands to hold and direct. He was famed for helping beautiful women become more open to Buddhist teaching by sleeping with them. The charitable among us might see this all as a good thing for sex positivity, others might see the guy as having one hell of a scheme going. Nonetheless, the temple is now an important pilgrimage for those with fertility issues. Inside it, next to the giant phallus that women attempting to solve infertility carry around the complex three times, is a table with the Divine Madman as the stand, member at full salute, and his balls hanging over a glass collection bowl of cash.

Don’t make the mistake I made, a mistake that a number of travelers I talked to felt like they made as well, which was failing to set aside a couple days to just relax and savor being somewhere so special. It was a sentiment made salient by a stay at one of the most exceptional hotels I’ve ever experienced, Gangtey Lodge.

<div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>
William O'Connor

While travelers to Bhutan tend to be well-heeled, there is a particularly well-heeled set drawn to the country because of its number of luxury hotels, be they Aman, Six Senses, or COMO. But talk to folks on the ground and everybody always gushes about Gangtey Lodge as something different, something apart.

It doesn’t look like much when you pull up—maybe the outbuildings of a farm or something—but don’t be deceived. You step inside and immediately are drawn past murals painted by local artists to the hall with floor to ceiling ceiling windows looking out over the Gangtey Valley. Rooms start in the $600s, but there are only 12 and all of them look out through a triple window over the wetland valley and mountains where tigers and leopards roam. Add in the deep bathtub set underneath the sill, heated hand-cut stone floors, wood fireplace, and carved wood furnishings–cozy simplicity rarely looks this chic.

The experience overseen here by Ania Zok, the general manager, is possibly the most chill a luxury hotel can achieve. No pretension, but nothing lacking–after all, one of the first things they greet you with is a neck massage. The lodge is ecologically conscious, but in a way that doesn’t feel like a cost-cutting measure. The hot stone baths, in which a wooden tub is heated by dropping in scalding stones that have been sitting in a fire, are done in a separate outbuilding and the water is enhanced with cuttings of artemisia and wormwood.

Strolling at sunrise to see the black-necked cranes that migrate to this valley or sitting by the lodge’s fireplace, my conversations with guests inevitably came back to what advice they would give other travelers. All agreed that what you don’t realize before coming is just how tiring it can be. Add in stupa after dzong after shrine, and it can feel overwhelming. Too often, guests will arrive from the Punakha Valley and depart the next morning for Thimphu, missing out on an experience that could have been restorative. My advice? When planning, stress to your guides that you want to relax. Spend more than a night here. Or, if you can only do a night, arrive early and depart late.

The drive to Thimphu is four and a half hours, broken up by a stop for lunch at one of the cafeterias the guides take most tourists to. It’s not a drive you want to do in the dark. My next two days were spent in Thimphu, learning about traditional crafts, shopping, and visiting local sights like the National Memorial Chhorten, a giant white stupa that has become the place for older Bhutanese to catch up and chit chat while circling it clockwise. Visiting the schools and observing students en masse copying the same historic designs over and over, you wonder whether they’re allowed any originality or if this is all about preservation. But in a shop that specializes in high quality crafts and antiques, alongside the typical masks of deities and so on that I’d seen a dozen times, there was one where the nose had been transfigured into an erect penis penetrating the torso that served as a hat, replete with an open, hairy butthole staring at you where one might find a third eye. Creative and spicy, indeed.

<div class="inline-image__credit">William O'Connor</div>
William O'Connor

Paro Valley, home to the airport, the historic town of Paro, and Tiger’s Nest, was to be my final stop. I was staying at the Hotel Olathang, the oldest hotel in the country (it opened in 1974). The hotel is somewhat dated, but the cabins overlook the valley, which is a setup only the truly jaded could fail to enjoy. For those seeking something more luxurious, one of the Aman properties is here, or there is COMO Uma Paro, housed in a former nobleman’s mansion on a promontory commanding views out over the valley. Even if you can’t afford to stay, try to arrange lunch, as its circular restaurant of glass and wood not only serves a top-notch meal, but your meal will have a backdrop of the dazzling array of rice fields in the valley below (especially dazzling, I’m told, when they’re flooded in spring).

The National Museum of Bhutan is located in an old watch tower in the Paro Valley. Visitors hoping to get a coherent overview or deep-dive into Bhutan’s history will be disappointed, so I’d place it in the go-if-you-have-time-but-not-necessary category.

What is necessary though, is Tiger’s Nest, and for that I got up early on my final day.

No alarm is required here in Bhutan, as the countless stray dogs provide this service free of charge. It might be the unceasing barks of one determined canine or a cacophony of dogs that will ricochet up, across, down, and around the valley to get you up before dawn. You first see Tiger’s Nest as you inch across the bailey bridge crossing the river, mere boxes of white against the granite facade up in the clouds. As you wind your way closer it disappears and reappears, your neck craning to capture an anticipatory view even though, very soon, you’ll be up there. They give you about an hour and a half to two hours to get up there, but if you’re fit it will take about 45 minutes. There’s a significant benefit to being first, as this is the one spot in Bhutan that feels crowded, and as you pass the legions of tourists on your way down you’ll be glad you got an early start. That’s because the multiple shrines at the top are small and intimate and not a space you’d want to share with a crowd, or hear multiple tour guides telling their version of the history. At the risk of sounding like I’m overly fascinated with how much sexual content there is in Bhutan, I’d also say it’s nicer to ogle the titular deities having sex, “in wrathful form to subdue the negative forces using the combination of compassion and wisdom,” as my guide eloquently put it.

Tiger’s Nest alone is probably why a fair amount of people put Bhutan on their wishlist, and hiking to it is as remarkable as one could hope. But that’s Bhutan, a place where the average is leagues more beautiful than the best in a lot of the world. It’s impressive that the natural beauty has been maintained and the amount of history and culture packed into what is a relative speck of a country with a mere three-quarters of a million people.

Now, I’m a little skeptical and nervous about the increase of the SDF to $200 a day. It’s an awfully small needle to thread to get enough money from a small number of tourists without choking it entirely, nevermind what even fewer tourists do to tour guides or hotels. (Or, people trying to cram more into fewer days because of the cost.) But the up side is getting to travel without having to share every inch of every experience with innumerable strangers. You get so used to experiencing stuff alone that merely one other group at a dzong will feel like a crowd.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get the Daily Beast's biggest scoops and scandals delivered right to your inbox. Sign up now.

Stay informed and gain unlimited access to the Daily Beast's unmatched reporting. Subscribe now.