Young monks, Flickr © Christopher Michel
When you’re surrounded by endless talk of rent, inflation, minimum wage, and all the lofty election talk of fixing the economy, it’s hard to imagine a place where success is officially measured not in money, but in happiness. But that’s just the case in Bhutan, the only country in the world with Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product. And that’s also why you have to see it to believe it.
Bhutan is still a relatively new player in the tourism industry. It didn’t open its doors to outsiders until the 1970s, and much of its history – remarkably devoid of invasions and occupations – remains steeped in mythology and mystery. Having trouble finding it on the map? It’s the tiny Buddhist kingdom tucked between India, Nepal, Tibet, and Bangladesh.
Sprinkled across its magical mountains are stunning monasteries and temples, their views still unspoiled by outside influence. In capital Thimphu, you’ll be enamored by the lavish red and gold tones of Trashi Chhoe Dzong. Built in the seventeenth century to house civil officials when the original Thimphu dzong proved too small and reconstructed several times since, the actual building isn’t as ancient as it seems. But it’s still seen its fair share of history, most recently in 2008 at the current king’s coronation. The dzong is only open to the public for one hour on weekdays, so best to time your visit for a Saturday or Sunday.
While you’re in town for the weekend, browse Thimphu’s Weekend Market. Snack on jackfruit or balls of datse, a soft, homemade cheese as you stroll through rows of vendors who journey from across the region every week. The incense area is particularly intoxicating, but if it’s souvenirs you’re looking for, head across the Kundeyling Baazam footbridge to the west bank’s handicraft market, where you’ll find ample tchotchkes and the occasional diamond in the rough. Printing blocks, mala beads, and prayer wheels are all popular selections.
About an hour from the Bhutanese capital lies Paro, a pedestrian friendly village so remote, its main street was only built in the last 30 years. Thimphu’s dzongs are mere kittens to the Bengal tiger of the Paro Dzong, one of Bhutan’s most famous sights. Open daily, this ‘Fortress on a Heap of Jewels’ is rife with intricate architecture, immense buttressed walls, and hundreds of resident monks. The monastic quarter’s beautiful murals and the complex’s picturesque valley setting keep in-the-know travelers returning year after year.
Don’t limit yourself to the western reaches of the country. Central Bhutan is a hikers’ mecca and home to even older temples and monasteries than you’ll find in the regional gateways of Paro and Thimphu. And in the east, even fewer tourists will be competing with you for a peek at lush textile arts and a taste of the region’s simple, yet satisfying food.
Wherever your wanderings take you, one sight will remain common: the big smiles on the faces of happy locals. While there’s nothing wrong with modernization – and ethnotourism can often bring its own share of problems to the table – it’s refreshing to find a place where pure tradition still thrives.