Header image courtesy of Scott Dunn
Bhutan (འབྲུག་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་) is one of the last true unspoiled countries on earth. It is a Himalayan kingdom packed with stunning natural beauty, from lush-green rice paddies running alongside fast-flowing glacial rivers to endless forested-mountains and snow-capped peaks beyond. A luxury vacation to Bhutan offers time-old Buddhist culture, stunning architecture, and luxury boutique hotels throughout. A highlight of any holiday in Bhutan is definitely the activities. Asia travel expert, Jack, got a lifetime’s worth of adventures on his trip there—here are the best things to do in Bhutan for thrill-seeking nature lovers.
Bhutan has been on Jack’s bucket list for many years. Maybe it was because of tales of its beauty that his colleagues brought back, or maybe it was the mysterious, magical reputation it has that intrigued him. He was primed about the amazing temples there, like the elusive Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and was told that the people were very welcoming. After all, they have been marked as the happiest on the planet (as the Bhutanese measure the country’s well-being using GNH—or Gross National Happiness).
And magical it was, as Jack was blown away. To him, Bhutan is a completely different ball game, a country in a league of its own—“like a fairy-tale country.” From the moment he landed in the beautiful Paro Airport—even the airport itself was beautiful—to the time he sadly said goodbye, he felt as though he was transported to another planet. Transported to a place that maintained all of its natural and cultural beauty from the past, but at the same time proved to be forward-thinking with regards to its tourism.
There were no Starbucks, McDonald’s, or Walmarts. In fact, Jack didn’t see a recognisable chain in the whole country. It is a place still void of Western influence, where everyone smiles, and the worries of the outside world don’t apply. The hotels were luxurious and there was so much for everybody to see and do. If you’re looking to get an active, off-the-beaten-track experience, there’s no better place than Bhutan.
This is the hike for the adventurous, and for those looking for something different. The accommodations are pretty basic, but regular beds are still provided for trekkers to enjoy after a challenging ascent to the camp. It is a two-day, one-night hike which has you camping at 3,800 metres altitude, on a site which boasts spectacular views down into the valley and across to the mountains beyond.
The beauty of this hike is how it has you descending to Tiger’s Nest the second day, not walking upwards like most of the touring crowds. Jack started his morning early to enjoy the sunrise, had a light breakfast, then made his way down to Tiger’s Nest before anyone else. He had the place completely to himself, which was an incredibly special experience.
The experience starts at Chele La Pass, a viewing point between Paro and the Haa Valley. From here, you’ll hike down to the Kila Nunnery. The path is littered with prayer flags, and the views of Mount Jhomolhari (7,326 metres) are spectacular. Jack started this trip by heading towards a sky burial spot point, then descended through meadows and forests towards the Kila Nunnery. Perched like the Tiger’s Nest along a cliffside, it is the home of around thirty nuns.
The entire hike should take about two to three hours (depending on your fitness level). He then emerged outside a road where mountain bikes were waiting. He hopped on and coasted down the windy road toward Paro—a tip is to keep an eye out for the brilliant Bhutanese road signs! The road for cycling through is all downhill and will take riders through beautiful forests on both sides, featuring a variety of different flora and fauna. The cycling route is about 35 kilometres and should take about two hours.
As soon as he found out he was in Bhutan during the in-season for white water rafting, Jack made sure it was a part of his itinerary. He had only tried the sport on a handful of occasions before the trip, and he absolutely loved it. Rafters are dropped off upstream of the Pho Chu Father River. The expedition is led by experienced guides who are there to help everyone enjoy this experience safely.
The rafting expedition usually lasts for about an hour, covering about 16 kilometres of challenging but exhilarating river stream. The scenery is simply stunning. By being on the valley floor, rafters benefit from having a good spot to take in breath-taking views of alpine scenery from a different perspective. At some points, the rapids were quite aggressive, and Jack did get soaked to the bone, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable experience which he would do again in a heartbeat. Near the end of the trip, rafters can finally rest and calmly float past Punakha Dzong, Bhutan’s best known Dzong. To Jack, it was amazing seeing it from his uninterrupted angle.
This is a simple one, but well worth doing for those who want to see one of the best views in Asia. Jack fought the urge to stay in bed and headed to the lovely iron bridge to start his trek. He walked through villages, paddy fields, and forests until he reached the beautiful Yulley Namgyal Chorten. From there, he found a checkpoint to enjoy the temple and 360-degree views of the Punakha valley from the temple’s roof terrace. This was Jack’s favourite spot in all of Bhutan, because of the incredible views of the winding Mo Chhu river. After all that exercise, it was time for him to enjoy breakfast in the serene setting before heading down to the valley floor.
As a cycling enthusiast, Jack tries to get out on a bike in every country he visits. Out of all his experiences on two wheels across the globe, Bhutan was his favourite. Having stayed in the incredible Gangtey Lodge, the lodge manager Mark—who is also a very keen cyclist and who had just completed Bhutan’s Tour of the Dragon—asked if he would like to join him for a “quick cycle.” Without thinking Jack obliged. Thirty minutes later, he found himself halfway up a four-kilometre ascent, questioning what on earth had he gotten himself into.
A further twenty minutes went past and it began to all make sense. Once they had reached the top of the pass, Jack’s heart was racing but his eyes were enjoying the incredible views down either side of the valley. What followed was what Jack felt like one of the best 15 minutes of his life. Free-wheeling from top to bottom, taking in the surroundings with the wind brushing through his hair—it was amazing. For those who want to follow in his tracks but aren’t as confident about their riding skills, there are also many other more peaceful, easier cycling routes to enjoy in the valley.