Bucket List Destination - The Land of the Thunder Dragon
Nestled in the South East Himalayas rather uncomfortably between China to the North and India to the South lies a Kingdom relatively untouched by modern society.
With a population estimated at just over 750,000, Bhutan occupies a land area of around 47,000 sq km, not much larger than Switzerland.
A Buddhist Monarchy was established in 1907 by unanimous agreement. The first King of Bhutan, Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, was a statesman and military strategist that brought peace and stability to a country that had witnessed numerous civil wars since the 17th Century.
The Kingdom is currently ruled by 36-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth King of Bhutan, who ascended the throne in 2006 following the abdication of his father.
I was honoured to have been able to witness preparations and rehearsals for the 2008 Coronation which marked 100 years of monarchy.
As you approach Paro airport by air, be prepared to catch your breath as you take in the majestic views of the valley nestled amongst some of the tallest peaks in the world. If you suffer from anxiety, take an aisle seat, as the approach can be somewhat scary, and according to Popular Mechanics, only 25 pilots are qualified to land at the airport in an approach regularly ranked as one of the most dangerous in the World.
Bhutan offers an incredibly diverse array of activities from trekking, white water rafting, and mountain biking to perhaps my favourite pastimes, visiting the Dzongs or checking out the local markets. It is worth bringing a digital SLR on your trip as the majesty of these Dzongs, and the monastic life within, are far too worthy to be captured on an iPhone.
I could easily spend whole days in the Dzongs of Bhutan - watching the apprentice monks during prayer time, or as they innocently play hopscotch in the courtyard. One lazy afternoon in these majestic and spiritual sanctuaries will invigorate the soul and purify your body from decades of hedonistic city life.
The highlight of your visit will absolutely be a hike to Taktsang Goemba, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. If you do undertake this hike, be sure you are relatively healthy and do not suffer from acrophobia as the stairs to the Monastery can be quite tricky given that they are built into the cliff. Also bear in mind, the Monastery sits 3,000 ft above the Paro valley floor and 10,000 ft above sea level, so hiking at that height requires stamina - be sure to eat lots of carbohydrates and keep hydrated.
Bhutan is truly a country that I feel honoured to visit. It is almost the same feeling I had when a dolphin showed me his underbelly and then proceeded to urinate on me – warm yellow liquid in a cold unforgiving ocean. Now clearly that is not a fetish of mine, but it was a rare moment of connection and an instance of trust between two species that sticks in my mind to this day.
A blog will inevitably fail to describe the beauty that is Druk Yul – The Land of the Thunder Dragon. Not only is Bhutan a Kingdom of incredible landscapes, majestic Dzongs, and crystal clear rivers, what makes the country special are the people, and most especially the children. If ever you are fortunate enough to find yourself here, take some time off your planned itinerary to visit a school, any school, unannounced. Before your trip, prepare some boxes of stationary. I like to take boxes of those ball point pens with the three colours. For children in lesser-developed countries, these pens are novel and useful, and make a nice small gift to the teachers to distribute.
If you are fortunate to be able to escape the Paro Valley in a tour guided 4-wheel drive, be prepared for a relatively bumpy ride across mountain and valley passes. The scenery and wildlife is spectacular, and I encourage you to cross as much of the country as you can. Ask your guide to prepare a picnic – he will no doubt know some fantastic spot atop a valley. If you have a choice between a Western style picnic or Bhutanese, take both. Bhutanese food does take some getting used to. Red rice is popular, and is usually served with chicken or yak meat stews often made with yak butter milk and large green chillies.
One common element I have witnessed in speaking to a number of visitors to Bhutan is that no matter what their motivation was to visit the Kingdom, they usually all return as if from a spiritual journey. It is as if you have encountered something far bigger than the universe you live in. This is one small country brimming with humanity where heaven and earth radiates through the eyes of a child.
A bucket list destination for sure.
Dean Owen is the Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment.
Visitors to the Kingdom are required to secure a tourist visa through their tour operator in advance, and although there is no official quota, it is advisable to organize your trip, book flights, and apply for visas well in advance since flights in and out of Bhutan are limited, allowing for a paltry 30,000 or so tourists to enter the country each year. Visas on arrival are only issued to Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian nationals. Note there is a minimum daily package of $200 or $250 per day, a portion of which goes towards education healthcare and poverty alleviation and infrastructure projects. This is to be paid to your tour operator in advance, and covers minimum 3-star accommodation, food, guide, and transportation within Bhutan.
Many of the global hotel chains fortunately have yet to make their mark on this tiny Kingdom. But no matter your budget, hotels and lodges around the country are clean, accommodating, and often a myriad of simpler times. At the top end, the world’s most exclusive hotel chain, Aman Resorts, opened 5 lodges in Bhutan in 2004. Prices at Aman usually start from $1,000 per person per night.
I leave you with some more pictures of Druk Yul - The Land of the Thunder Dragon
I turned towards my buddy. He made a twisting moti ...
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