Hint: They're not the ones listed by Lonely Planet when they voted Bhutan their #1 travel destination for the coming year.
When one of the world’s largest guidebook publishers named Bhutan their top travel choice for 2020, it caused a stir among the more experienced Bhutan travel guides (we've been leading our journeys in Bhutan since 1999). On closer reading of the announcement, however, we saw the reasons they gave were the familiar ones we've heard before: the beautiful landscape, the balance of old and new, the fact that Bhutan is carbon-negative. So here, in no particular order, is our own insider's list of why we think it's always a good time to visit Bhutan, whether in 2020 or beyond.
1. An opportunity to discover unique foods and flavors
Magical matsutake or mystical cordyceps anyone? The highly prized mushroom which grows in Bhutan during a tiny window of the year and the near-miraculous (so it is said) health-bestowing high-altitude plant that’s harvested only after it fuses with the remnants of a caterpillar are merely two of the more exotic items you can try on a Bhutanese menu! The first is usually eaten in traditional stews while cordyceps is consumed dried and whole or imbibed after being steeped in teas and alcoholic brews. Bhutanese food wasn't notable for a long time after the kingdom first opened its doors to visitors, mainly because we tried to mimic what we thought was "continental" cuisine borrowed from India, but today a convergence of local organic produce and the revival of interest in the diverse food traditions of the kingdom is fueling a culinary renaissance that is catching fire. In fact, the late well-known host of the wildly popular travel and food show Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain, visited Bhutan for just that reason (and filmed an episode in the kingdom that later aired after his sad demise). Based on “the primary ‘nine grains’ of Bhutan,” Bhutanese food includes many unique flavors and ingredients such as wild foraged bitter cane (with reportedly blood-purifying properties) as well as a range of fermented and preserved foods believed to have powerful “good-for-the-gut” (no pun intended) properties.
2. The people are nice. Like, really nice...
The good people of Bhutan are kind and honest to a fault. You may not realize how exhausting it is to live in societies where everything is a transaction until you arrive in Bhutan. Once you relax and begin trusting your local Bhutanese hosts (which is not difficult; in fact we guarantee it), it allows the natural good humor of the people, their decency, and their honesty to rise to the fore. Here, you can appreciate just how truly amazing it is to have people approach you without motives other than to share an experience of genuine human curiosity or serendipity. With one of the lowest crime rates in the world, honesty is, in fact, a national attribute. Lost ATM cards in the kingdom are commonly found carefully taped to the walls next to ATM machines with helpful handwritten notes and reminders to their owners.
3.No advertisement billboards, Starbucks or McDonald's
There are no giant billboards pushing the consumer lifestyle here. The only large signs you will see are the ones announcing important public health messages and those celebrating the cutest first family in the world: the handsome thirty-something king; the winsome, and even younger, queen; and their adorable, dimple-cheeked, three-year-old son, the Gyalsay (Crown Prince), who has already won hearts and minds across the kingdom and beyond. Not here the ubiquitous Starbucks, the omnipresent Golden Arches or the scarlet Pizza Huts you will see in other neighboring countries, and it will probably remain so, by royal decree.
4. Local inns and lodges with traditional character
In the same way that we—speaking as Bhutanese people—believe this world offers the perfect balance of suffering and joy optimal for the motivation to seek enlightenment, Bhutan offers the right balance of adventure and comfort for rejuvenating the spirit. Each local lodge, inn or hotel, while not necessarily updated to the latest modern standards, offers its own unique blend of traditional culture and convenience. Worried about central heating? Check out the kingdom’s spin on an iron wood stove, or bukhari, which lends rustic charm to any hotel interior while giving you the benefits of warming your feet. Even though a small handful of hotels in the country are now being built with outside investment, most accommodations in the country are still local affairs, which means there’s none of the sameness here of international chains that often flatten your travel experiences no matter where you are in the world. Thus, the rugged Himalayan landscape offers ample opportunities for staying active outdoors while the cozy accommodations offer the likelihood you'll strike up a friendship with the Bhutanese owners of the establishment.
5. Here you can truly get away from it all!
In Bhutan, you probably have the best chance anywhere of truly getting away from it all! Remote valleys with a pristine environment (and great weather in the spring and the fall) means that you can go deep into the country if you choose. Once you leave the hustle and bustle of the capital and the three or four major towns, the true heart of Bhutan begins to reveal itself. You can still find many places in Bhutan where there are no landlines, no television sets or radios, or even newspapers. But if you truly seek escape from the world, you’ll have to take the ultimate plunge: unplug your cellphone. Because the local network coverage is excellent, you’ll likely pick up a connection in most places in the country, even the more remote valleys.
6. Bhutan invites you to explore the deeper meaning of our lives
From taking a longer and more cosmic view of things to a deeper inquiry into the true nature of existence and, ultimately, to seeking the path toward peace, an encounter with the Bhutanese culture encourages us to ask the bigger questions of life that we may not have time for in busier societies with more materialistically-defined ideas about success and happiness.
7. Bhutan offers an opportunity for personal transformation
This is not a tall claim. For those who find it at the right time in their lives, Bhutan can be a catalyst for personal transformation. The 17th century Japanese Haiku poet Basho believed that travel can be a process of spiritual rebirth. He wrote that when you visit sacred sites and explore sacred landscapes, you enter a liminal space of the heart and the mind, where your old habitual self dies, and you enter an in-between state in which a new awareness arises. He believed that, in this elevated form of travel, we undertake such journeys seeking to be reborn in a higher state of consciousness by encountering all the sublime influences in the places that we experience. The multitude of spiritually significant landmarks in Bhutan makes it a place where you’re likely to have just such an awakening.
8. Here you can take an inner and an outer journey
Like the best places to visit in the world, you can take both an inner and an outer journey in Bhutan. There's the physical journey through the history, the temples, the monasteries, the ancient landscape, the valleys and gorges, the rushing waterfalls, the aquamarine rivers roaring down from the snow-capped peaks. Then there's the inner journey in which the visitor can travel in their own hearts and their minds over some of the paths that the Bhutanese people follow in their own learning and study, their beliefs, their spiritual practices and their way of life. In this way you can travel simultaneously on two planes and connect with the hearts and minds of the people to get an understanding of where their culture comes from, their version of reality and their perspective on the nature of existence. Along the way you're invited to immerse yourself in a way of seeing the world differently, which is one of the greatest gifts of travel.
9. You can bring home the practical lessons for your own life
The stated national goal of Bhutan is perfecting a formula for happiness. Ask for a meeting with a high lama whose job it is to daily contemplate the ways of finding mental peace or talk to a government official whose responsibilities include protecting the four main pillars of Gross National Happiness: cultural preservation, environmental well-being, equitable socioeconomic development and good governance. Bhutanese people are wonderful at sharing their stories and their perspectives which means that, if you're willing to listen, you will likely find more than a few practical gems you can bring home to enhance your own life.
10. We are all connected
The ultimate lesson of Bhutanese culture is that we are all warmed by the same spiritual fire, that we are all, each of us, Buddhas in the rough. To break down the delusions that separate us and to understand the interconnected nature of all things are the true goals of Buddhism. When an entire country believes that we have all been each other’s mothers in our previous lives, it makes that country much more open to visitors. As Bhutanese people we are also universalists at heart. By sharing our perspectives, which are grounded in the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), Bhutanese people are not expressing their belief that there is some higher quality to our culture that makes us better than others. Instead, we are sharing our belief that a close examination of our own minds can vastly improve the quality of our lives spiritually and practically no matter where we come from. And that, ultimately, is what makes Bhutan a truly worthy destination whether in 2020 or beyond.
KARMA SINGYE DORJI
Travel Programs Coordinator
Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions
Karma has been leading close and intimate journeys to Bhutan since 1999. He is the author of Dreaming of Prayer Flags: Stories and Images from Bhutan. A print version of this post appears in the year-end issue of Tashi Delek, the inflight magazine of Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines, the national airline of Bhutan.