Bhutan is a country famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world, but for a country to measure its kind of GDP by a happiness index, there certainly is something magical going on.
Bhutan was my 220th country, depending on how you count, but one I’ve been longing to go to, and perhaps I was saving the best for last. Its population is only 750,000, a kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between China and eastern India, and 75% of Bhutanese people are Buddhist. Those kinds of statistics already create such an unknown, a magical fairytale place only Tibet could challenge, but since I’ve never been to Tibet either, I didn’t know what to expect.
Getting into Bhutan isn’t hard, but it isn’t cheap either. With the daily rate per tourist set at $200-250 per day, you have do dish out a thousand dollars for a short visit. The set up was reminiscent of North Korea, not in a negative way, but in the sense that our tour guide was with us nearly 24/7, driving and guiding us the whole time without any real free time or ability to roam independently. The difference was that he was trying to show us his best hospitality, not control our thoughts or experience, and we loved Phurba.
We visited multiple temples, monasteries and dzongs (forts and palaces), while staying in hotels filled with Indian tourists until we got to homestay in Punakha with a local family. We had some issues taking out and exchanging money, since a country rich in happiness doesn’t take a lot of visa or debit cards. Few people had much to do with dollars or euros so buying ngultrum (which I still cant pronounce) wasn’t easy, and they were always mixed up with Inidan rupees since they’re equivalent in value.
The highlight of the week was river rafting down the Mochu river, under an old iron bridge and the rice fields in Punakha valley. Bonding with our guide Phurba and partying with his friends was a perfect complement to having a professional host and well-trained hiking leader, and overlapping at Tiger’s Nest with a Backroads trip was a funny contrast to the kind of travel we were all experiencing, but in oh such different ways. I look forward to going back to Bhutan and trying yet another way, perhaps a horse back ride to Tibet. Apparently the locals do it regularily!