How the Tiny Nation of Bhutan Embraced Tourism Without Sacrificing Its Environment and Culture

Welcome to the "Land of the Thunder Dragon."

An hour into an eight-hour hike to the top of a rain-swept peak, we pass by a monastery perched on the edge of a wooded mountainside and temporarily adopt 13 dogs. Or to put it more aptly, the pups adopt us, as they promptly abandon their monastic home to serve as our yipping, joyful guides.

We’re headed to the summit of Talakha, a 14,000-foot-high mountain above Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu. Yet it couldn’t feel more remote: The land is shrouded by thick eddies of mist. The fog flitting through the pine trees and bamboo is eerie—we can barely see. Earlier we spotted tracks of a Himalayan black bear in the mud, and our Bhutanese guide tells us, earnestly, that easily angered Buddhist deities live in these woods as well. But now, with the canine horde barking happily as we wend along a narrow trail, the mood lightens. The dogs live at the monastery and, according to local Buddhist beliefs, are just one level below humans in the karmic scale of reincarnation. They certainly are helpful navigators, prodding us to the correct path whenever the trail forks.

We’ve come to Bhutan expecting something different, special. But our journey into the fog drives the point home. Bhutan feels like a world apart. It is a land of mountains and spirits and dogs and lots of laughter.

Bhutan, you say? Even well-travelled friends looked quizzical when I told them I’d be heading to the Himalayan kingdom for two weeks. The size of Switzerland, this “Land of the Thunder Dragon” is the tiny country scrunched between Tibet to the north and India to the south. Barely accessible and never colonised, it has fewer than a million people. English is widely spoken, and the government is a constitutional monarchy, with a king and queen and a democratic parliament.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

Dogs tagging along with driver Yeshay Sherpa. Ben Draper

And, traditionally, it’s been tourist-averse. For decades the country severely limited the number of visitors, insisting on guided tours by government-licensed guides. Foreigners were discouraged from wandering around towns or the countryside by themselves. The result was a tired route consisting of only a few shabby hotels and bland food. Even so, the stories of a wondrous land came down from those lucky enough to have visited.

Much has changed. A licensed guide and driver are still required and are included in the price of upscale packages. But the tourist quota has been replaced by a visa system requiring travellers to spend aa certain sum of money (around £210) —a concept of “high value, low impact” tourism that helps ensure that the small population and pristine land are not overrun. (The quota is based on two travellers; solo travellers must spend around £220 daily, and groups of three or more around £190 each.)

Savvy travellers now also have luxury options. The Six Senses resort has opened four properties within the last year. All of the new, small hotels ( just over 80 rooms in total) are located in the more populous valleys that run west to east in the country’s centre. They are Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Gangtey. Guests fly into Paro but typically begin their stay in Thimphu before being driven to the properties farther eastward.

A day earlier my friend and fine-art photographer Ben Draper and I had arrived at the international airport in Paro and been picked up by our guide, Tshering, and driver, Yeshay Sherpa. The two will be our constant companions for the entire trip. They whisked us by Toyota Land Cruiser an hour away to Six Senses Thimphu, which sits at 8,500 feet with views of a 170-foot-high gold-and-bronze Buddha statue on the side of an adjacent mountain.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

Perfect hills for a morning hike in Bumdra. Ben Draper

These days the itineraries are no longer controlled by the government: Ours was put together by Six Senses and included a mix of outdoor pursuits such as hiking and biking, as well as visits to monasteries, historical forts and other cultural sites. The hotel suggested a 45-minute acclimatisation hike to the Talakha monastery on our second full day.

But I wanted off-the-piste Bhutan. The real Bhutan. I pressed for something higher and harder. “Well, there’s an eight-hour hike to the mountains that begins at the monastery,” Tshering said. I looked at Ben, who shrugged. Why not?

Now, as we climb ever higher, the dogs roust a massive yak foraging on grass. He’s the size of an SUV, with intimidating hooked horns. We give him a wide berth, and eventually take a coffee break in a meadow above the tree line, at 13,000 feet. (Yes, our guides carry hot coffee for us, and it’s wonderful.)

And then we make the last, hard ascent up a spire of jumbled boulders until, slow footfall over footfall, we reach the top, 14,000 feet. The dogs mill happily. I look out onto the vista—it’s a whiteout. On a clear day, I’m told, you can see Bhutan’s highest mountain at 24,000 feet, peaks in Nepal and India, and even Everest. Today we’ve won the mountain but lost the views.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

The Great Buddha Dordenma statue, viewed from Six Senses, Thimphu Ben Draper

In a locale like Bhutan, almost everything you do will be influenced by your interactions with your guide and driver. At the outset, Tshering tells us that we four will become a family—we might even have conflicts like a family, he says, but we should speak up and we’ll work through it like a family, too. At the time I thought it a nice, if somewhat canned, speech.

We hear of guides who insist the planned itinerary must be followed at all costs. I tell Tshering that Ben and I are colour-outside-the-lines kind of guests. My ideas of luxury travel include getting muddy and lost. Post-hike massages and fancy food are mere bonuses. He nods. He gets it.

Six Senses is known for its keen attention, and the Bhutan properties excel at details. All of the properties are high on hills, allowing for spectacular views. Most rooms have balconies with outdoor sofas and a lavish number of pillows comfortable enough to actually sleep on. Both Ben and I do exactly that, several nights each, enjoying the fresh night air. Our hiking boots are whisked away after every muddy trek, reappearing looking brand-new. The food is good, too. We’re served upscale renditions of local fare such as the umami spice bomb that is ema datshi (chili peppers and cheese—definitely not bland).

Time and time again we leave the beaten track, blasting apart the itinerary. Our second property is Punakha, a region that feels primal, with its spiky, forest-furred mountains. Even as we arrive at the resort, I spy a road heading into the jagged peaks and ask if we can see where it leads. So after a quick lunch we jump back in the Toyota and follow it to a national park. Along the way, the rutted lane hugs a gushing river boiling with mineral-white waters, the result of the monsoon rains. I’m enthralled: This is the raw energy of the Himalayas, the lifeblood tributaries that feed all the way down into India.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

Six Senses, Gangtey Ben Draper

Ben is more taken with the local wildlife. “Look,” he shouts. “Monkeys!” Indeed, small brown monkeys scamper in the trees. I didn’t even know Bhutan had monkeys. (It has snow leopards, tigers and one-horned rhinos, too.) The country’s commitment to the environment goes well beyond protecting biodiversity. This is the only carbon-negative country in the world, a result of aggressive environmental policies. (No other nation is even carbon-neutral.) Bhutan harnesses its rivers for hydroelectricity, and 70 percent of the land is covered by forest; the Constitution mandates a minimum 60 percent.

One misty morning we leave the property early, hiking through rice fields for an impromptu visit to a local school, where Tshering himself went as a child. We’re awed by the tidy classrooms with life-affirming quotes from writers and philosophers painted on the walls, and the kids in traditional garb who politely chirp, “Good morning!” Even with the rain, it is a cheery setting.

We continue clambering up the mountain slope to the 16th-century Chorten Ningpo monastery, where 30 young monks live and learn. We have breakfast with the disciples and their principal, Lama Nado. We eat outside, and the food is delicious: red rice, chilies and eggs. I ask the lama about Buddhism and its connection to environmentalism. “Our beliefs are actually quite similar to science,” he replies. “Disturb the deities who live in nature and you disturb the balance. We must protect nature.”

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

Six Senses, Gangtey Ben Draper

Lama Nado’s steady gaze reveals something fundamental about the Bhutanese—an inherent warmth and a willingness to really look you in the eyes. I’ve noticed something else: The sound of laughter is constant here. The Bhutanese love to joke. I learn a couple dozen words in the official language, Dzongkha, and try to string them together into silly jests worthy of a four-year-old. Trotting out my phrases to villagers and staff members, I’m continually rewarded with easy, quicksilver laughter for my fumbling efforts.

The next day, our final in Punakha, falls over a holiday called Blessed Rainy Day, signaling the end of the monsoon season. After this, we’re told, we’ll get nothing but sunny vistas. And it does clear up, somewhat, allowing light to seep through the clouds. To celebrate, families gather to feast and shoot archery. Since this is Tshering’s hometown, we stop at his family residence. Soon we’re holding his two-month-old son, and then his sister is cooking for us, and we’re tippling his mom’s homemade moonshine. I look up at Ben and grin. Turns out the “we are family” speech wasn’t so canned after all.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

Tshering, the trip’s guide, shows the way into a classroom at Chorten Ningpo monastery. Ben Draper

Bhutan is beautiful, but not for the fainthearted. We’re on our way to the just-opened Six Senses Gangtey property, a drive of two hours. We’ll be the first guests. But the main road—a “highway” in local parlance—is a thin ribbon carved out of a steep mountainside. And it’s beset by landslides.

At one point the road is almost entirely blocked by boulders as large as our truck. A policeman arrives just as we do and tells us the slide occurred only hours earlier. There’s exactly enough clearance for us to wriggle between the debris and the edge of a cliff. There are no guardrails, just a drop of several thousand feet into another whitewater river. I get out and kick a stone off the edge, watching it disappear into the gorge. If you were unlucky, the consequences would be dire.

Gangtey itself reminds me of Wyoming, with gently rolling plains framed by mountains. The lodge is built of local stone and exposed wood that elegantly blend into the hillside setting. Each of the properties has its own feel. Thimphu wows with a decorative infinity pool, and Punakha’s high perch has the best views of the surrounding mountains. But Gangtey’s mountain-lodge ambiance is the homiest.

We explore the area by mountain bike and get both muddy and lost, at one point seeking help from a rosy-faced potato farmer. She gives us directions that include hauling our bikes on our shoulders and clambering over fences. I couldn’t be more pleased.

But the rain, Blessed Rainy Day be damned, does not magically stop. Every single hike or bike is a wet one, and any time we get over 10,000 feet, we are denied the endless vistas. We finally retrace our route by SUV all the way back to the town where we first landed: Paro. We’ll close out the trip with a hike and an overnight in the mountains at a semipermanent campsite. I devoutly hope for clear skies.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

The precariously built Tiger’s Nest monastery. Ben Draper

This time we start the trek at around 9,000 feet, heading to a place called Bumdra. We’ll spend the night at the 13,000-foot Thousand Fairies wilderness camp, a glamping-style site with sturdy tents and comforter-topped beds. The trail itself sees only 10 or so hikers a month. The ascent is cold and damp; we take lunch inside an open horse stable warmed by a small campfire. Eventually we reach our camp, a pristine spot among high meadows. Sleep comes early, with rain thrumming on the tent.

I’m up at dawn and walk outside to find myself in a mystical land. There are clouds, but they are below us. We are so high that the skies around are clear, and for the first time I can see the tops of the mountains, proud noses skimmed in white snow and poking into the mantle of a sharp, blue sky. I wake up Ben, and we head to a better vantage spot.

Ben leaves his camera behind, taking a moment just for himself. The vaporous clouds hanging over the Paro Valley go pink as the sun rises overhead. It is ethereal, one of the most beautiful vistas I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if I should shout out loud or break into tears—it’s nearly too much. And then the mist rises from the valley below, cloaking the very ground around my boots and shutting out the views entirely.

Twenty perfect minutes. It is enough.

The tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan

The Phobjikha, or Gangteng, Valley Ben Draper

We take breakfast and our beloved coffee outside—it’s dry!—and then the four of us hike down another ridgeline. We’re headed to Bhutan’s single famous tourist site, the Tiger’s Nest monastery, which is tucked, impossibly, into a bank of sheer cliffs. Google “Bhutan” and it is the one image that will always come up. Somewhere far, far below us are tourist buses and a crowded parking lot, the closest thing Bhutan has to a tourist scrum. Everyone hikes up a muddy path and takes the same photo from the underside, looking up.

But we are approaching it from the back side, from above. Fittingly, almost unsurprisingly, we’re joined by a dog as we descend, a gentle, black-furred female with limpid eyes. She pads alongside, waiting whenever we pause in the trail to take photos.

The path lets out onto the edge of sheer rock cliffs, where we find two other monasteries perched on adjacent precipices—above Tiger’s Nest. An outermost wall offers unparalleled views to that famed monastery below.

But there is a finger of rock extending even farther out into the abyss, with uneven ground and without safety rails. We simply must go out onto it. One step to eternity. Ben and I make our way to the edge and sit down, and as soon as we do, the pup pads out and lies down alongside, snout pointed over the precipice. The three of us—Ben, the dog and I—stare out over the Tiger’s Nest and the Paro Valley and the mountains beyond.

It’s so very Bhutan: singular, soulful, with dogs and mountains and spirits and lots and lots of laughter.

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