Best time to visit Bhutan
Although it can be wet from March to May, this is still a good time to visit Bhutan as there are plenty of birds around and the wildflowers are out in bloom. September to November is also a great time to visit as rainfall is lower and views are clear. Although it rains all year round, monsoonal weather can be expected in Bhutan between June and August. From December to February snowfalls may result in road closures and delays. Nevertheless, winter can be a good time to visit as the days are generally sunny (although cold) and the blanket of snow makes for picturesque panoramas.
Things to try in Bhutan
1. Red Rice
The people of Bhutan eat loads of rice and one thing you’ll notice here is that the rice is of a reddish colour. Grown in the fertile Paro Valley soil, this quick cooking rice has a nutty flavour and is typically paired with mushrooms and chilli.
Although a Tibetan dish, momo is also very popular and widely available in Bhutan. Essentially a dumpling, fillings usually range from cheese to pork or other meats, and are served in batches as a savoury snack.
3. Red Panda Beer
This locally brewed beer is made using a natural fermentation process and often bottled in recycled (pre-loved) beer bottles. Often touted as one of Asia’s best beers, Red Panda is a pleasant surprise - try it for yourself.
Geography and environment
This landlocked kingdom may occupy a small space on the world globe but there’s nothing small about the mountains that lie within! Sharing borders with China and India, Bhutan is known as 'The Switzerland of Asia' for its mountainous topography and similarity to Swiss landscapes. Bhutan has largely resisted overdevelopment, which has left much of its natural environment intact. As a result of this, Bhutan is one of the most species-rich countries in the world – with hundreds of species of mammals, birds and plants calling the Bhutanese valleys, mountains and meadows home. Endangered red pandas and snow leopards can be found in Bhutan as well as a huge variety of wild flowers and birds. Most Bhutanese people live simple lives with much less access to modern technology and infrastructure than others in neighbouring countries. There are still many villages that operate without running water and electricity; however, these facilities are widely available in the larger cities. Although Bhutan’s larger cities like Paro and Thimphu do have more access to technology, the pace of life is still slow and most traditional buildings have been preserved, as has the way of life.
History and government
As one of the few countries in the world to have never been conquered or occupied by another, Bhutan has a long history of independent governance. Although its early history is shrouded in mystery, Bhutan is thought to have been inhabited from as early as 2000BC. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced into the region sometime around the 9th century, when many Tibetans fled neighbouring Tibet to seek refuge in Bhutan. The leadership and governance of Bhutan has always been linked to its religion, and this continues in today’s political, legal and religious leadership of the country. The 16th and 17th centuries saw some conflict with Tibet, although Bhutan was never officially taken over by its neighbour. External threats from the British presented themselves in the 18th and 19th centuries; however, once again Bhutan was never officially controlled or governed by an external power.
In the last 40 years, Bhutan has had many ‘firsts’. Bhutan introduced a new monetary system and currency in 1974, and also opened up its borders to welcome foreign tourists in the same year. By 2000, Bhutan had its first television set and internet cafe, and by 2004 Bhutan became the first country in the world to ban the sale of tobacco products. Bhutan’s first constitution was drawn up in 2005, and its first democratic multi-party election was held in 2008, when the constitution was finally ratified. Today, Bhutan’s economy relies mainly on tourism, agriculture and forestry, although ‘Gross National Happiness’ continues to be valued more than economic abundance or growth in domestic product.
Top 10 Happiness-Inducing Experiences of Bhutan
1. Magic Monastery
Visiting the unbelievable ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Monastery (Taktshang), precariously perched atop a cliff face, is one of life’s rare pleasures. Surrounded by breathtaking panoramas, it’s easy to feel deep peace and contentment at the Tiger’s Nest.
2. Tough Trekking
There’s nothing quite like testing your physical limits out among the green hills and valleys of the Himalaya. The combination of fresh mountain air, majestic scenery and physical exertion makes for happy days.
3. Fiery Flavours
Wake up your taste buds and make them happy with a dose of Bhutanese cuisine. Local curries, stews and soups are often packed with zingy chilli – a smile-inducing prospect for those who love a little heat in their food.
4. Lovely Locals
Surrender to the warm and happy Bhutanese way of life when meeting and mingling with locals. Visitors have been charmed and touched by the humble happiness displayed by Bhutan’s residents, cultivated from a life of family, purpose and spiritual connection.
5. Cultured Craftsmanship
Traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts are beautiful mementos and a precious link to the past. The museums, galleries and workshops of Bhutan all display wonderful examples of fine weaving and delicate embroidery – perusing these age-old crafts is a cultural delight.
6. Perfect Panoramas
Simply sitting back in stillness and pondering the profound beauty of the Himalayan landscapes is an experience not to be overlooked while in Bhutan. Take the time to step away from distractions and appreciate Mother Nature's truly amazing canvas.
7. Charming City
Experience moments of bliss while walking down the character-filled streets of peaceful Paro. It’s hard not to smile at the colourful buildings, houses without front doors and locals dressed in traditional clothing.
8. Mystical Moments
Witnessing pilgrims and monks perform century-old Buddhist rituals is a moving and transcendental experience. Be carried away by the stirring chants and moved by the displays of devotion.
9. Yak Attack
Your first glimpse of a group of yaks grazing in the green meadows of Bhutan is definitely smile-worthy. Nomadic yak herders can be found all over the countryside – be captivated by this organic, uncomplicated lifestyle.
10. Tea Time
Yak butter tea may be an acquired taste but there’s something strangely satisfying about downing a cup of this warming traditional drink loved by the Bhutanese.
If you’re after top quality handicrafts and colourful art, then Bhutan will delight. While Bhutan isn’t known as a top shopping destination, there are many talented artisans creating good quality souvenirs to buy here.It's a good idea to check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to bring certain items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand generally have strict quarantine laws.
Things to buy in Bhutan
1. Hand-Woven Fabric
Traditional weaving is at its very best in Bhutan. Choose from colourful rugs, clothing, blankets and accessories when visiting one of the many textile stores and boutiques in Bhutan’s cities.
2. Traditional Music
Why not pick up a CD of Bhutanese harmonies, or chanting monks, as a melodic stress-buster for when you’re back at home and in work mode.
3. Spiritual Souvenirs
Vibrant prayer flags, fragrant incense and prayer beads make meaningful gifts for friends and family back home.
Festivals and Events in Bhutan
Paro Spring Festival (Paro Tshechu)
The people of Paro welcome the start of spring with five days of cultural and spiritual celebration. Locals shake off the winter blues by indulging in sword dancing, drumming and feasting. Expect to see stirring rituals, colourful clothing and touching displays of faith if you’re lucky enough to travel during this time.
Thimphu Festival (Thimphu Tschechu)
This three-day festival is meant to be highly auspicious to all who attend. Bhutanese people travel from all over to attend this spiritual celebration that features prayers and rituals to invoke the gods as well as traditional dance, costume and theatre. This highly joyous time gives travellers an important insight into Bhutan’s culture and the chance to mingle with locals.