As a travel junkie, I'm always looking for the next it destination, hoping to discover the place before everyone else does. And my latest obsession is just too good to keep to myself. Bhutan, a small country in the Eastern Himalayas, is officially my wellness destination of 2018, and you need to know everything about it, stat. (Spilling the beans always follows the same inner battle for me. The journalist inside me pulls at the other part that wants to keep my dream destination du jour unspoiled by popularity. But I digress.)
"Bhutan is certainly a bucket-list destination for wellness-oriented and active travelers," agrees Meghan Verbeek, destination manager for India Himalaya and Sri Lanka at Intrepid Travel. "Visitors can get their adrenaline pumping while climbing through the green hills and valleys of the Himalayas, and find their inner Zen among the country’s many traditional monasteries."
As you've likely surmised, Bhutanese travel is wellness-oriented because of the environment: much of the activity takes place outdoors, and fitness is incorporated organically via Himalayan hikes. What's more, some of the country's marque resort properties, such as the Amankora and the soon-to-launch Six Senses, also offer (or are planning to offer) wellness-centric experiences.
"Throughout your trip, you'll want to stay in different valleys as each offers something completely different, and there's a fair amount of travel involved between them," says Jack Mace, team leader of India, Arabia, and Asia for luxury travel company Scott Dunn. So, come prepared to bounce around. "Our average itinerary is between 8 to 10 days, but if you want to see all 5 valleys, you probably want to plan to stay for 2 weeks." Or, maybe forever?
Scroll down to find out everything you need to know about this magical place in the Himalayan Mountains.
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Bhutan prioritizes happiness and preservation
In Bhutan, much value is placed on what's called the Gross National Happiness indicator, which is kind of like Gross Domestic Product (what we have in the US) except for one small difference: It prioritizes the emotional wellbeing of humans over economic concerns. Cool, right?
"Within the Kingdom of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a way of life, not just a theory, and our wellness concept will be to introduce GNH and the nine domains of happiness: psychological wellbeing, health, education, cultural diversity and resilience, time use, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and standard of living," says Six Senses Bhutan's general manager Mark Swinton.
"It's Asia hundreds of years ago, with no impact from Western culture."
In 2011, the UN General Assembly loved the idea so much it urged other nations to follow suit. While GNH is more of a philosophy than a strategy, it speaks to the spirit of the Bhutanese people.
Also critical to understanding the character of Bhutan: The country was closed to tourists until 1974, and the government still limits the number of foreigners who can visit each year by requiring that all travel be booked through tour operators and by assessing relatively hefty mandatory fees for visitors on a per diem basis.
"I've been to quite a lot of places where people have said, 'Oh, we stay here because it's off the beaten path,' but Bhutan is the next level [in this regard]," says Mace. "It's as Asia would have been hundreds of years ago, with no impact from Western culture."
Some Western ideals have managed to infiltrate daily life, however; In 2005, the former Bhutanese King abdicated the throne to his son and, in 2007, the country was made a constitutional monarchy/parliamentary democracy, much like the UK.
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Adventuring opportunities abound
This small country, Verbeek says, is "a breath of fresh air, literally." Sixty percent of the land is protected national forest, and the country as a whole absorbs more carbon than it uses. This healthy environment is critically important because, according to Mace, extensive hiking is required in order to reach the temples and dzongs (Bhutanese fortresses) when traveling in the country.
The most notable of these attractions is called the Tiger's Nest Monastery, which is a sacred Buddhist site located on a cliff's edge, 3,000 feet above the ground. Trips to this stunning property take about a day and require quite a bit (around four hours) of hiking. If this sounds like just a too much, Mace says itineraries can be adjusted for all types of travelers. "Instead of walking up to Tiger's Nest in the morning, I actually spent an evening in a place called the Bumdra High Camp, which took about five hours to trek up to," he says of his next-level itinerary alteration. "You spend an evening right atop the mountain, 12,000-feet up, where you get incredible views." This alternate route offers an added benefit, too. "I actually walked down onto Tiger's Nest at sunrise and beat everyone there," Mace shares. "It was the most-special experience."
Sixty percent of the land is protected national forest, and the country as a whole absorbs more carbon than it uses.
The Tiger's Nest trek is only one of many available to Bhutanese travelers, Verbeek adds, the most extreme of which is called the Snowman's Trek. "It crosses 11 high passes through the Himalayas in the most remote region of Bhutan," she says, noting that hikes to the Khamsum Yulley and Cheri Dorji Dhen monasteries are bucket-list-worthy activities, too.
In addition to trekking, other outdoor activities abound. "I did amazing cycling in Gangtey Valley, and most of the valleys can offer such rides," says Mace. "When I was in Punakha Valley, we actually went white-water rafting, too.
Archery is also big here—it's the national sport, in fact—and many of the country's accommodations, e.g. the Gangtey Lodge and the Amankora, include opportunities to practice it. Some tours/resorts include horseback riding as an active option, too.
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Spirituality is central to Bhutanese life
"It would be hard to not feel closer to enlightenment in Bhutan, nestled between the two spiritual hubs of Tibet and India," Verbeek says. Residents here practice a form of Buddhism called Vajrayama, which includes a few customs that may seem strange to foreigners.
Fertility-specific spirituality is important here, as evidenced by phallus-imagery that adorns many Bhutanese temples and homes. While these may make Westerners giggle, there's a reason for their ubiquity. "The phallic symbol in Bhutan is used to ward off demons, evil spirits, and even nasty gossip," says Verbeek. "They're an ode to a monk known as the 'Divine Madman'." (He's also known as "The Saint of 5,000 women.") This revered monk built a fertility temple called the Chimi Lhakhang in 1499. "The site is traditionally visited by childless women [or couples] seeking blessings from the saint," Verbeek says, though she notes that it's also open to tourists.
Another Bhutanese spiritual tradition is also the law of the land—no animals can be slaughtered within its borders.
Another unique Bhutanese spiritual tradition is also the law of the land—no animals can be slaughtered within its borders. "While it is legal in the country to consume imported meat, the only time it's acceptable to butcher an animal is when it has died of natural causes," Verbeek says. "This means travelers can find delicious and varied vegetarian dishes during every meal." (Though Mace also notes one of the most-common foods in Bhutan is a chili cheese dish called ema datschi.)
On the wellness front, the Bhutanese have, like many cultures around the world, developed a medicinal bath. Known as the Dotcho, Mace says it's one of the most-popular things to do in the country. "River water is heated solely by using fire-roasted river stones in a wooden bathtub," Verbeek explains. "Often, fresh artemisia (more commonly known as mugwort) leaves are added, and while the stones crack and release minerals into the water, the herbs release their essential oils." The Dotsho, she says, is used to relieve jet lag, as well as muscle and joint pain. The country also boasts a few hot springs, including the Gasa Tshachu, Chubu Tshachu, and Dur Tschachu.
Those interested in holistic remedies can further explore Bhutanese-specific cures at the Institute of Traditional Medicine, where hundreds of herbs and minerals are used to bring good health. Meanwhile, astrology-lovers can take a deep dive into the celestial arts at Pangri Zampa Lhakhang, a school founded in the 16th century.
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