Bhutan is a hiker’s par­adise that’s slowly open­ing up to the out­side world

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Lane Nieset

As a way to pro­tect its tra­di­tions and cul­ture (fa­mously re­ferred to as “Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness”), Bhutan only started wel­com­ing for­eign­ers in 1974. The coun­try, be­tween In­dia and Ti­bet in the East­ern Hi­malayas, con­trols the in­flux of tourists crowd­ing tem­ples by re­quir­ing vis­i­tors to pay a min­i­mum daily rate of $250 dur­ing high sea­son (March to May, Septem­ber to Novem­ber) and book through a tour op­er­a­tor.

But now the tiny Hi­malayan Bud­dhist king­dom — the last left on the globe — is re­lax­ing its bor­ders in or­der to re­vi­tal­ize the econ­omy. It’s un­der­go­ing a wealth of devel­op­ment as a few big-name brands move lodges into the five main val­leys (join­ing haute neigh­bors like-Aman and COMO Ho­tels), po­si­tion­ing Bhutan as one of de­vel­op­ing Asia’s fastest­grow­ing economies. In Novem­ber, Six Senses is open­ing 82 vil­las and suites scat­tered across five lodges in each of the val­leys (with pri­vate plunge pool vil­las in Pu­nakha) and part­ner­ing with Paro’s lo­cal farm­ers to cre­ate a 17-acre sus­tain­able farm­ing vil­lage.

Thim­phu — one of only two cap­i­tals in the world sans traffic lights — will soon fun­nel tourists to one of the lesser-vis­ited lo­cales, the half-moon-shaped Phob­jikha (Gangtey) Val­ley, once work wraps up on a new road, which will re­place the cur­rent seven-hour, pot­hole-rid­den ride. One of the val­ley’s hid­den trea­sures is the farm­house-style, 12-suite Gangtey Lodge — which took three years to con­struct, com­plete with hand-carved stone floors sourced from lo­cal quar­ries, English stand­ing tubs, and in­room, wood-burn­ing stoves. In Fe­bru­ary, Gangtey Lodge will also bring glamp­ing to the val­ley, launch­ing two lux­ury tents only ac­ces­si­ble via a 30-minute hike. One must-try dish While you’re there, you’ll have plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to sam­ple the na­tional dish, ema dat­shi, a curry-like stew that con­sists of chili (ema) and yak cheese (dat­shi). The can’t-miss at­trac­tion The Bhutanese have turned to tshachus, or hot springs, for cen­turies as a way to cure body aches and ail­ments. One of the coun­try’s most pop­u­lar is Gasa Tshachu in west­ern Bhutan, also home to some of the Hi­malayas’ most chal­leng­ing treks. Rare an­i­mal sight­ings En­dan­gered, black-necked cranes mi­grate from Ti­bet each win­ter, and, with­out fail, loop over the 17th-cen­tury Gangtey Goempa monastery a to­tal of three times af­ter ar­riv­ing in the Phob­jikha Val­ley. The val­ley is one of the best spots for bird watch­ing and home to the an­nual black-necked crane fes­ti­val each Novem­ber.

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