By Colin Hastings
ASK a seasoned Thai traveler for his or her bucket list of to-do destinations, and Bhutan will definitely rate high amongst their choices. They may not be able to pinpoint Bhutan on a map or tell you much about its history, but this isolated Himalayan kingdom has certainly captured their imagination as well as a good number of hearts ever since Bhutan’s handsome Crown Prince visited Thailand in 2006.
Dubbed ‘Prince Charming’ by the Thai press for his good looks and elegant manners, the Crown Prince has gone on to become King of Bhutan in 2008 and three years later married his beautiful 21-year-old Bhutanese bride.
While the colorful traditions of Bhutan’s monarchy represent an interesting link to Thailand’s own Royal Family, the country has revealed numerous other facets of its unique character, and today it is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s most fascinating destinations.
t’s also an ancient land with a fiercely guarded culture and deep spirituality that its Buddhist visitors from Thailand instantly identify with.
Its natural beauty is awesome. Sandwiched between China and India, its northern regions are rugged and mountainous, with peaks that exceed 7,000 metres (23,000 ft), including the highest unclimbed mountain in the world – Mount Gangkar Puensum. Rivers run through the endless valleys, where crops are grown, and the pretty capital Thimpu and the airport of Paro by necessity are located. At times you’d be forgiven thinking you were in Switzerland.
Monasteries known as dzongs are the pride of Bhutan, and none is more spectacular than Tiger’s Nest, which is perched on a vertical cliff at a height of some 3,000m. The hike through forests takes two to three hours, and those who reach this holy site are rewarded with one of the world’s most breathtaking spectacles.
For the really adventurous, though, the famed 28-day ‘Snowman’ trek in Bhutan’s mountains is surely the ultimate challenge.
Some 120,000 people visit Bhutan every year. The government plans to increase this figure to 180,000 in the next few years, but is aware of the problems that can come with mass tourism, as experienced in some Asian nations. “We’ve seen their mistakes and don’t want to repeat them here,” explained a spokesman for the Tourism Council.
Higher numbers are unlikely anyway because of the modest size and location of the main airport, which can only handle small aircraft.
Hotel accommodation and service are surprisingly good, while the local food is wholesome if a little limited in variety. Visitors are required to spend US$200 or US$250 a night, depending on the season, which covers taxes, visa, tours, standard hotel room, all meals, transportation, tour guide and entrance fees.
Bangkok is served by Bhutan Airlines and Drukair. Flying time is about four hours.
What Bhutan DOESN’T have
• Traffic lights (because there is so little traffic)
• Advertising billboards
• Chain stores
• Fast food restaurants
• High-rise buildings
• Smoking in public
• Imported vehicles during the past four years
What Bhutan DOES have
• Clean mountain air and spectacular mountain scenery
• Only traditional architecture permitted
• World’s highest unclimbed mountain
• More tigers than China
• Almost as many bird species as the 925 species found in the US and Canada combined
• Archery as the national sport
• Specially trained pilots to land and take-off from the world’s scariest airportere to edit.