When you think of your next adventure, where do you picture yourself going? Are you exploring the bustling city of Barcelona, Spain? Are you taking in the sites of London on the Millennium Wheel? Are you skiing in the Alps of Switzerland? I could be wrong, but I doubt your top five imagined travel destinations have you eating Momos and admiring dzongs in the country of Bhutan.
Referred to as the last Shangri-La, Bhutan is a small Buddhist kingdom positioned between India and China. With a population of just under 800,000 and a limited number of tourists, this country is a gem for adventurous travellers who want to avoid the crowds.
Though it may not be at the top of everyone’s travel bucket list, we’d like to add our two cents to the mix and explain why Bhutan is one of the coolest countries to experience!
It’s off the beaten path
Bhutan may not be everyone’s go-to travel destination, and we selfishly hope it stays that way! Foreign access to Bhutan is limited by the Bhutanese government, and travelers are required to have processed visas on hand before they can even purchase flights into the country.
This, on top of Bhutan’s underrated popularity, can often deter the mass hordes of tourists you may see in destinations such as Paris or the beaches of Mexico. This lack of tourists makes the small Buddhist country an optimal place to travel if you would prefer local experiences as opposed to kitschy tourist traps.
Travelers get the opportunity to truly immerse themselves in the culture while the actual locals aren’t bombarded and overshadowed by tourists. For those who take the time to get through the visa process, it’s entirely worth it!
The culture is unique
Bhutanese culture is heavily influenced by Buddhist teachings. Its identity is intertwined with religion which influences the daily lives of citizens while also having a strong pull on the government. The general theme of Bhutan is to seek and achieve happiness, and the government follows the philosophy of “Gross National Happiness”.
This philosophy includes an index to measure the collective happiness and well-being of the Bhutanese population.
There are several ethnic groups that make up the country, but the Ngalops (a group that migrated from the Tibetan plains) is credited for bringing Buddhism to present-day Bhutan.
The food is delicious
Bloggers and food magazine journalists may not consider Bhutanese food to be a top cuisine, but what could possibly beat the taste of Momos (dumplings filled with pork, beef, cabbage, or cheese mixed with garlic and spices) or Phaksha Paa (pork shoulder stew simmered with radish, ginger, bok choy, and chili powder)?
Bhutan’s food scene is diverse and mimics the ethnic diversity of Bhutanese citizens. Nutritious comfort dishes are centric to meal-time which is an important characteristic to consider when living at altitude!
As you travel around you will notice the Chinese and Indian influence on local cuisine. A staple for many Bhutanese is Ema Datshi, a spicy cheese sauce with chilis served over a bed of rice.
Located just on the eastern edge of the Himalayas (you know…only the tallest mountains in the world), it’s no shock that outdoor recreation is a big draw to this typically overlooked country.
Trekking is a great activity for anyone who is interested in the views offered by high-altitude adventure.
There are plenty of unpaved roads throughout the country that offer opportunities for mountain biking.
The country has 13 routes for rock climbing across the kingdom with varying degrees of difficulty. Whatever your outdoor activity of choice is, Bhutan has you covered!
For a bonus activity, archery is the national sport of Bhutan! Archery competitions are a major hit at festivals, and they welcome both professional athletes and local amateurs to join in on the games.
Okay, okay! We know this should probably fit under the “outdoor recreation” section, but this is something we happen to know a lot about!
Whitewater rafting and kayaking have quickly become two of the more popular adventure sports in Bhutan. The four main rivers that can be commercially rafted are the Mo Chhu, Pho Chhu, Thimphu Chhu, and Paro Chhu.
These rivers offer Class II to Class III+ rapids and take rafters past scenic landscapes and cultural and historical landmarks such as Dzongs, the old capital city, and the former royal residence.
While taking buses or hiking to cultural hotspots is necessary at times, we believe that rafting offers one of the best perspectives of the landscape.
In Bhutan, keeping traditions alive through art is taken very seriously.
There is even a handicraft school in Thimphu that trains students in Bhutan’s thirteen traditional arts. This hands-on academic program mimics the apprenticeship system of the 17th century where pupils would be mentored by professional artists.
Working with clay, paint, weaving materials, and a variety of other mediums, students are able to hone their craft. Eventually, they will have the opportunity to move on with their work and create thangkas, murals, statues for dzongs, or fabrics for the Textile Museum. These artistic teachings are apparent throughout Bhutan.
While walking through any neighborhood, you will notice almost every building decorated with Buddhist symbols or murals.
You will also notice the traditional building styles influence the newer buildings as cities and towns grow.
As a pro-tip, take a closer look at all of the art you see. Small details matter to Bhutanese artists, so take the time to check out the textures or characteristics that may amplify a theme or message
The kindest people
Though the Bhutanese government does limit travel to their country, they are far from being “anti-travel.” At the end of the day, they are thoughtfully integrating into more modern society while holding on to strong Bhutanese traditions.
In our experience, the people of Bhutan are actually quite eager to show off their country and what it has to offer.
When we travel to the mountain country for commercial rafting trips, we are greeted at the airport with smiling faces.
Locals are thrilled to share their cuisine while monks welcome all who wish to explore and learn more about dzongs and monasteries.
As long as you are respectful and actively try to avoid any faux pas related to cultural rules (such as how you dress in spiritual places), the people of Bhutan will be happy to show off their home!
Northwest Rafting Company is a professional family of guides dedicated to leading trips down some of the most beautiful rivers in the world. Whether you’re a first-time camper or seasoned river veteran, our guides and staff are there to make sure you have the trip of a lifetime.