The fascinating Kingdom of Bhutan receives only 20,000 visitors a year – about as many as plod through Chiang Mai in four days
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Bhutan is a Himalayan kingdom bordered by Tibet to the north and India to the south
VISITORS PER YEAR About 20,000
DAYTIME TEMPERATURES Jan: 41°F (5°C); Apr: 56°F (14°C); Jul: 61°F (16°C); Oct: 61°F (16°C)
Considered to be a modern-day Shangri-La, Bhutan is tucked below the southern slope of the eastern Himalayas, with Tibet to the north and India to the south, and is one of the most remote and protected lands on the planet. The country is slightly larger than Switzerland with a population of about 2 million people, almost all of whom are connected to the land through agriculture.
From the tops of the 22,960-ft (7,000-m) Himalayan peaks, the land descends into high alpine slopes grazed by yaks and goats, into forests of spruce and oak which cover about 70 percent of the country, and farther down into fertile valleys and a low, subtropical southern strip. Although only 10 percent of the land is arable, the soil is so rich and the climate so favorable it can grow almost any crop. It’s no wonder that the country is completely self-sufficient in its food production.
Bhutan remains preserved as one of the least deforested countries in the world, and hunting is prohibited by law and religion. In this predominantly Buddhist kingdom, traditional culture is rigorously preserved in a society where myth and legend are inseparable from the land and people.
Since tourism is limited and unguided travel is not permitted, you won’t find armies of budget backpackers, banana pancakes in every teahouse, cluttered campgrounds, and legions of bars as in Chiang Mai and other places where trekking is the lifeblood of the economy.
Trekking in Bhutan is decidedly not adventure on a shoestring, but it is an exquisite journey into a diverse natural environment and a captivating culture. Bhutan can cater to a wide range of interests, including mountain scenery, birding, agriculture, and architecture.
But regardless of the itinerary or the duration of the trek, being immersed in the rich cultural heritage of Bhutan is always a highlight. Even extended treks into high mountain regions will see you spend much of the time in the lower-elevation villages, walking through rice terraces, fields of millet and apple orchards before ascending to higher elevations where semi-nomadic yak herders roam the hills.
Dotting the landscape are medieval fortresses known as dzongs and elegant monasteries – the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktshang Goenmba) is the best known – all composed in a unique, almost mystical architectural style.
Wearing colorful traditional dress with knee-length gowns and draping cuffs is common among the locals, as is practising traditional sports, such as archery, tug- of-war, and digor, a kind of shot put.
After the trek, if time permits, spend a few days in Thimphu, perhaps the only capital city in the world with no traffic lights. What Bhutan lacks in modern conveniences and tourist amenities, it more than makes up for with its gracious people, fascinating culture, and diverse scenic appeal.
Getting There and Around
There are only two ways to enter Bhutan. You can either enter from India along a single road that crosses the border, or you can fly into Bhutan’s only airport in Paro, on the country’s flagship airline, Druk Air. Be sure you have made prepaid travel arrangements and have secured a visa in advance.
Independent travel is not permitted in Bhutan.
Where to Eat
Be forewarned – Bhutanese food is spicy hot, but the Bhutan Kitchen in Thimphu offers a pleasing setting with a well-prepared local cuisine that can be tempered to the Western palate.
Where to Stay
With rooms heated by iron stoves and hot-water bags placed in your bed, the Dewachen Hotel in Gangtey is a wonderfully traditional experience. Set in a pine forest, it offers convenient trekking options in the area.
When to Go
Mar–May and Sep–Nov are ideal for trekking.
Budget per Day for Two
Around US$280 including the services of a guide, meals, and accommodations.
FORGET TREKKING IN CHIANG MAI?
Located 435 miles (700 km) north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is the undisputed trekking hub for Thailand’s mountainous northern interior. Trekkers find easy access to lush tropical vegetation, hill-tribe villages, and unspoiled nature. It is also a great place to find handcrafted goods, woodcarvings and jewelry. Other options, from elephant riding to whitewater rafting, also abound.
Over the past 30 years, Chiang Mai has become increasingly modern and more congested, with a crowded city center. It hosts about 2 million tourists annually. Even though it has a more relaxed atmosphere than Bangkok, Chiang Mai has lost much of its appeal to trekkers in search of a remote forest trail.
Chiang Mai can still be an appealing getaway, provided you make a quick exit for the hill country. Look for a reputable local operator – as well as in Chiang Mai, many can be found in nearby communities like Pai.
Opt for a trek that includes different hill-tribe villages so that you become familiar with varied – and sometimes colorful – ethnic groups.
4 MORE TREKKING TRAILS TO RIVAL CHIANG MAI
HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS, MOROCCO
As you hike from one Berber village to the next, you’ll pass grazing sheep, and find rarely visited valleys and remote mountain trails.
THE COORG, KARNATAKA, INDIA
The Western Ghat mountains combine jungle flora and cascading waterfalls with coffee and tobacco plantations. Local festivals, tantalizing food, and historic shrines complete a memorable experience.
SINAI DESERT, EGYPT
Travel through this unforgiving wilderness with a Bedouin guide who will find sinuous canyons and hidden springs in an otherwise barren landscape.
In the evening, share a camp with local Bedouin goat herders.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
The steep tracks and dense jungles make for challenging trekking, and this is one of the last places on earth where you can meet primitive tribes who still maintain stone-age lifestyle and use tools made from bone and stone. Best undertaken with an experienced local operator