8 must-dos in Bhutan
Bhutan is one of my favorite destinations. Not only are the pristine landscapes breathtaking, but the rich Buddhist culture and glorious temples are unforgettable. As the government requires that most visitors travel with a guide, Bhutanese guides are incredibly well trained, speak impeccable English, and are enthusiastic about sharing their heritage and country with guests. I can tell you with certainly that while there are countless wonderful experiences to be had in Bhutan, these eight are the ones you shouldn’t leave without having.
Hike to Tiger’s Nest
Let’s start with the obvious. If you’ve only seen one photo of Bhutan or know just one landmark there, chances are it’s the Tiger’s Nest complex perched on a cliff above the Paro Valley. This site is considered the most sacred in the country and consists of 13 temples and living quarters for the monks. It’s called Tiger’s Nest because the Bhutanese believe that the Second Buddha flew on the back of a tigress to this spot where he meditated for 3 year, 3 months, and 3 days, thus bringing Buddhism to the country. You needn’t be a marathoner to do this hike, but if you are somewhat active in your daily life, it will be more enjoyable. There are three parts of the hike: a steady incline on a well worn dirt path for 45-60 minutes, a flat section to a wonderful lookout for about 20 minutes, and then about 700 steps to the entrance of the complex. It’s well worth the effort.
Try ema dhatse
Ema dhatse is the national dish of Bhutan. It’s traditionally made with yak’s cheese and chili peppers. It’s almost like a mac n’ cheese. Sometimes the cheese sauce is thick, sometimes it’s thin, sometimes it has onions or potatoes. Each cook makes it slightly differently. Chilies are ubiquitous in the country’s cuisine, and walking around in the fall, you’re sure to spot the bright red varieties drying on rooftops or stone walls. Enjoy ema dhatse over rice or with buckwheat pancakes when in the Bumthang Valley. While you’re trying new foods, taste Bhutan’s peach wine, butter tea, or ara – rice vodka.
Meditation is an ancient practice and as Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, where red-robbed monks stroll down the street and temple decorations hold numerous symbolic meanings, it’s something many people do regularly. It takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if it’s hard to focus the first few times you try. But meditation can be different things to different people. Just sitting quietly for 5 minutes with your eyes closed and no digital distractions as you focus on the sounds around you can be beneficial.
Watch an archery tournament
Archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and there are matches and tournaments frequently. While many Bhutanese use high-tech compound bows, there are plenty that use more traditional wooden ones. It’s quite amazing to watch how far they can shoot—and hit—a tiny target. Opposing teams tease and try to distract the archer, and when there’s a win, teammates dance and sing together to celebrate.
Spin a prayer wheel
Feel the wooden handle at the base of the wheel. It’s smooth and worn down in places by the thousands of hands who have come before yours. Prayer wheels are covered with the words to a mantra oft repeated by Buddhists to counter-act evil spirits and bring good karma. Even if you aren’t into the religious aspect, spin the wheel with the awareness that you’re connecting with the hopes and dreams of others who have stood in that spot.
Chat with monks
Visiting and chatting with young monks at a Buddhist college is often tied for our guests’ favorite experience. These young monks, often teenagers, are eager though shy to practice their English. Both the questions they ask and the answers they give offer interesting insight into their values and lives, which are so different from ours. We feel strongly that cultural engagement is paramount to peace and mutual understanding.
Sit on the correct side of the plane
A view of Mt. Everest is possible on a clear day when flying from Bangkok to Paro airport – the only international airport in the country. But you must make sure you are sitting on the left side of the plane. The captain will announce when it’s visible. If you can’t snag a left-side seat going there, try requesting a right-side seat on the return. Same view!
Have an astrology reading
In Buddhism, astrology is hugely important. The Bhutanese consult astrologers for everything from what days to hold festivals to what name is the best to give your baby based on what day they were born. A reading will tell you things like who you were in a past life, what your good and bad colors and days are, and what characteristics you have—all based on your birthday. You can then ask questions like “will I find success with a new health treatment or business idea.” The astrology will consult his antique charts and booklets, maybe roll a couple of dice, and provide you an answer. It’s fascinating.
Matt Holmes is the Founder & President of Boundless Journeys. Boundless Journeys is an award-winning tour operator that goes off the beaten path for immersive and authentic travel experiences.