Bhutan is often celebrated as the happiest country in the world, due to its distinctive focus on the Gross National Happiness (GNH), over conventional economic metrics.

However, what most of us don’t realise is Bhutan is also a captivating destination for one-of-a-kind adventures where the fusion of tradition and exhilaration conjures an experience unlike anything else. 

Engage in high-altitude marathons that challenge your endurance, explore mountain treks that bring you through some stunning sceneries, or indulge in the luxurious glamping accommodations that provide a perfect blend of comfort and nature. Whether you are a trailblazer or a cultural enthusiast, Bhutan has something for everyone!

1. Take a breathtaking trek

Trekking in Bhutan is a doorway to both natural wonders and cultural riches. Bhutan’s rugged mountain terrains offer some of the most exceptional trekking routes in the world, where travellers get to witness spectacular vistas at every step. 

Bhutan’s diverse topography spans from the gentle 200m southern foothills to the towering greater Himalayas in the North, reaching over 7,000m. 

Along these paths, travellers will find themselves passing through ancient trails, hidden monasteries, lush green forests and valleys adorned with flowers where the natural serenity is only disrupted by the fluttering of prayer flags in the breeze.

For those who are less familiar with trekking, they may wish to embark on a day trip at Lungchutse. This is ideal for travellers en route from Thimphu to Punakha as they can start hiking at Trashigang Goenpa, an elaborately designed monastery built in 1768 and standing 3300m above sea level.

The entire journey, mostly ascending, takes travellers through carpets of hemlock and rhododendron flowers, especially during their blooming seasons between April and May. 

The path also brings you along the Dochula Pass which houses some of the iconic religious landmarks like the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens (108 memorial stupas) and Druk Wangyal Lhakhang Temple. At the end of which, travellers will be rewarded with a panoramic Himalayan view.  

For the more adventurous, they may go on the adrenaline-pumping Soi Yaksa Trek (also known as the Jumolhari Loop). 

This trek is popular as it offers a unique chance to view the magnificent Mount Jumolhari and Jichu Drake without the strenuous climb and extreme altitudes. Nonetheless, this accessible option does elevate beyond 4,000 m where altitude sickness is possible for some. 

Along the trek, travellers can unveil the enchanting realms of the Soi Yaksa and Haa valleys, cradled amidst the mountain range, where it is serene and uninterrupted due to a low tourist numbers. They can also submerge in the cool air and natural beauty of Jangothang and Tsho Phu lakes. 

Late September to the end-May marks the best period to trek in Bhutan. Winter treks are suitable only at lower altitudes, while spring and autumn are prime seasons to venture into the mountains for unparalleled sights of the majestic Himalayan peaks.

2. Witness a festival on the highlands

The Royal Highland Festival provides insight into Bhutan's nomadic culture and its endeavour to transform the highlands into a dynamic and booming economy.  

Inaugurated in 2016 and a brainchild of the fifth king of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the festival aims to present the highlands as a source of national pride by uniting highlanders across Bhutan. 

It features the highlanders’ innovations and promotes the exchange of knowledge, skills, and best practices related to the highlands and yak farming. More importantly, the festival supports sustainable livelihoods for the highlanders and ensures that the country’s northern mountainous regions are well represented in its festival calendar. 

The Royal Highland Festival takes place over two days every October in the town of Laya, in the Northwestern district of Gasa. Laya is one of the highest and most remote settlements in Bhutan, residing near 4000m above sea level. Lacking road access, the only way to get to the festival is via trekking. 

During the festival, attendees will get to observe the traditional Buelwa (gift offering) with Auley (reciting traditional poems/songs) that symbolises loyalty and respect. They will also watch performances by Layaps (indigenous people residing in Laya) as well as wrestling, horse racing, and seemingly endless songs and dances. 

Stalls selling local yak products, medicinal herbs, textiles, ornaments, and other produce are set up, contributing to the festival's vibrant atmosphere. If you are lucky, you may even meet with the Bhutanese royalty who greet and speak with locals and tourists. 

Be prepared for cold weather. Due to its high altitude, the temperature at Laya may drop to below zero at night. Nevertheless, festival volunteers will come by occasionally with pots of hot tea and baskets of fried biscuits to warm the crowd up. So, do bring along a cup or a bowl like what the locals do to put your free refreshments. 

Yes, don’t be surprised by the crowd (and the yaks). While it takes a bit of effort to get to Laya, the festival remains highly received in the country and is a treat not to be missed.

3. Experience white water rafting through the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers

Bhutan has six beautiful rivers, all flowing from the glacial melt of the Eastern Himalayas. They are regarded as some of the kingdom's most treasured natural assets. At the same time, their undisrupted surroundings and diverse trajectories offer an exceptional avenue for travellers to delve into the country’s wilderness. 

Yes, these wild, untamed rivers are a haven for adventure enthusiasts. The range of currents and meanders ensure an exhilarating experience for those who love the thrill of water sports. 

For experienced rafters, a multi-day water expedition opens doors to explore some of Bhutan’s most mesmerising landscapes. Alternatively, one may embrace a combination of rafting and trekking, crafting an itinerary that promises both excitement and appreciation of the captivating nature. 

The optimal rafting seasons in Bhutan span from March to April and November to December. Amongst the rivers, Mo Chhu (also known as female river) and Pho Chhu (also known as male river) in Punakha are the most popular. 

Pho Chhu, stretching 16km, features 15 rapids ranked from class 2 to 4 (lower class indicating higher safety). Mo Chhu spans 10km with 10 rapids rated class 2 and 3. 

On the Pho Chhu route, rafters will catch a breathtaking sight of the Punakha Valley as well as Punakha Dzong—the administrative heart and scenic gem of the region. 

For experienced rafters, the upper streams below Wangthangkha village offer the swiftest currents on Pho Chhu. 

The less experienced may prefer Mo Chhu, where there are opportunities to spot rare birds like White-Bellied Herons and Kingfishers. Rafting at Mo Chhu is suitable even for children above 7 and it takes about an hour or two to complete.

4. A taste of the toughest race on Earth

An assembly of 22 international runners joined forces with eight local Bhutanese runners in the inaugural Snowman Race in October this year – an ultra-marathon set on the arduous Snowman Trek. 

This ultimate challenge stretches more than 200km, bypassing demanding terrains, majestic landscapes, and slippery glaciers. Notably, specific segments ascend beyond 5,000m above sea level.

To put in perspective, an untrained individual would require 20 days to cover this distance on foot. As such, to ensure the safety of all participants, a real-time GPS Live tracking system, an offline GPS app, and strategically placed route markers will be employed. 

Beyond the physical test, the overarching aim of this race was to raise awareness about the alarming impacts of climate change. The race was initially scheduled in 2020 following a trial run in 2019, but it was temporarily suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

While the race may be tailored for elite athletes, that doesn't mean individuals can't experience it independently, at their own leisurely pace. Yes, it’s possible for travellers to trek through the route undertaken by the Snowman Race. It takes on the average 28 days and 27 nights to complete the Snowman Trek.

Along the way, one will pass by 12 mountains leading through Laya and Lunana, two of Bhutan's most secluded domains inhabited by semi-nomadic tribes. 

At the same time, they will also get to catch a phenomenal sight of different mountains and may have the privilege of encountering some of the world's rarest creatures, including snow leopards.

5. Glamping under the stars

Glamping is a combination of glamorous living and camping that has gained lots of popularity in recent years. In Bhutan, glamping emerges as an exceptional avenue to relish nature while embracing a touch of the contemporary. 

Selected glamping retreats often feature some luxuriously designed tents set up within a scenic villa complete with dining facilities and other avenues for relaxation. Who needs a hotel when you’ve got the great outdoors? 

A mix of hiking and glamping is perhaps the best introduction to the beauty of Bhutan. An ideal itinerary often unfolds with glamping in a valley near Paro. Naturally, Paro is the starting point for many tourists as it houses the only international airport in the country. 

The Paro Valley also has a rich heritage, adorned with ancient monasteries, temples, and the imposing Mount Chomolhari (7,300m) overseeing its northern edge, infusing the river below with glacier water. 

After which, travellers can embark on a day excursion to Thimphu, where they can explore the National Memorial Chorten or engage with the living museum called Simply Bhutan to learn more about Bhutanese customs. 

Alternatively, those seeking more action can journey to Punakha for some white water rafting adventures or even set out on a road trip to more distant destinations.

In short, glamping in Bhutan is appealing as it renders travellers the flexibility to explore various parts of the Kingdom without losing touch with its wilderness and authenticity.

 

Many may find Bhutan, the landlocked Kingdom in the eastern Himalayas of South Asia, mysterious. Yet, beneath this façade lies a land of many excellent adventures, birthing an unparalleled experience that’s hard to come by elsewhere. So, stop hesitating and step into this enigmatic realm, where happiness extends beyond measures and adventures paint unforgettable memories. It’s now a destination that is highly sought-after, and travelling to the Land of the Thunder Dragon is easier than ever with help from professional Bhutan travel agencies and constant flights to the Kingdom.

Drukair (Bhutan’s national carrier) flights connect from Singapore Changi Airport to Paro International Airport (via Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport in Guwahati, India) twice a week. 

International tourists have to pay a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of USD 100 (S$135) per night. The fee goes towards initiatives such as environmental and cultural conservation, education, and healthcare. The SDF was halved from USD 200 to USD 100, starting from September 2023, to boost tourism in the country. If the high SDF was halting your adventure plans to Bhutan, it is time to plan for your next vacation and experience all that Bhutan has to offer. Travellers can get additional SDF-free nights until December 31, 2024 thanks to a government incentive designed to encourage slower and more immersive travel. 

Are you ready to gear up for an extraordinary journey and immerse yourself in the heart-pounding beauty of Bhutan's unforgettable adventures? The memories you make will last a lifetime.

This story is written in partnership with Druk Asia.

 

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