On the approach to the runway in Paro, one first notices the abundance of trees blanketing the slopes. When disembarking from the airplane, you are engulfed with the invigorating scent of blue pine, spruce, and cypress, and the feeling that you are steeped in centuries of feudal history and Buddhist tradition.
There are a myriad answers to the question, "What then, or where is Bhutan?" Geographically, Bhutan is a kingdom secluded in the Eastern Himalayas. It is roughly the size of Switzerland and land-locked by Tibet to the north, and the Indian states of Assam, West Bengal, and Sikkim to the south, east, and west, respectively.
But travelers discover their own Bhutan, perhaps in the lakhangs (temples) and the sixteenth century dzongs, imposing structures that once served as fortresses and continue to house government administrative offices and monastic schools.
Bhutan may be in the rough roads traversing valleys that lead to Punakha and Bumthang, important seats of cultural heritage, spiritual practice, and political history. Or, perhaps, Bhutan is in the quiet expanse of Phobjikha valley, three-thousand meters above sea level, where one sleeps soundly beside a woodstove in a traditional farmhouse converted into an inn.
The more mundane signs of development in Bhutan are equally palpable—from the car you ride, the Wi-Fi in your hotel, to the satellite dishes attached to farmhouses, most of which dot a landscape dominated by forest. (Bhutan's constitution requires that 60 percent of its land must remain under forest cover.) You hear it in the stories told by your guide and smell it in the occasional stench of urban sewers. It's clear that Bhutan has one foot firmly planted in the ancient past while the other foot tentatively tests the waters of modern transformation.
In the eighth century, spiritual leader Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, is said to have flown on the back of a tigress to Taktsang or Tiger's Nest, a temple complex perched on cliffs high above Paro valley. Taktsang and other lakhangs around the country are bustling, living monuments to the kingdom's spirituality.
Thimphu, the capital, is about a two-hour's drive, or a five-day trek, from Paro. Although the main mode of travel is by car, the best way to explore each stop on the itinerary is by foot. You'll walk through uncrowded town streets—always clockwise around lakhangs and chortens (stupas)—and hike through peaceful forest trails, sometimes apace with pilgrims from around the Buddhist world.
The School of Traditional Arts, the National Textile Museum, and the government emporium for traditional crafts are located in the capital. The school gives one a peek into the creation of the intricate woodcarvings and paintings adorning the walls of lakhangs and dzongs. The National Textile Museum and the emporium are testaments to the nation's efforts to keep Bhutan's handwoven textiles alive. Junction Bookshop carries a comprehensive collection of titles on Bhutan, as well as an impeccable selection of fiction and bestsellers.
Although the daily pace of Bhutan and its people is slow and meditative, change can be swift, irrevocable, and sometimes merciless. To visit Bhutan now and observe its new democracy unfold, a constitutional monarchy established only in 2008, is to witness what it means to dance new steps to an ancient rhythm, and to do so in a state of unequaled grace.
For the first-time visitor, below is a guide to Bhutan heritage trail stops:
1. Paro. A small, riverside town where the international airport is located. Here, one must visit Taktsang or the Tiger's Nest temple complex, the Paro Dzong, and the national museum.
2. Thimphu. The capital city, where Bhutan's distinctive mix of ancient and modern is most striking.
3. Punakha. Where the second, sixteenth-century dzong was built, at the confluence of the Mo Chhu (mother river) and the Pho Chhu (father river). In the summer, the jacaranda trees surrounding the dzong are in full bloom.
4. Wangdue. Phodrang A small town on a promontory overlooking the Punak Chu, which will soon be moved to make way for a national highway.
5. Phobjikha. An expansive, high altitude valley where yak and horses graze, and where flocks of black-necked cranes spend the winter. Local folk say that when the cranes arrive from Tibet, they fly clockwise three times around the Gangtey temple before they alight.
6. Dochula. Looking out from this mountain pass on a clear dawn, you can take in breathtaking views of snow-capped Himalayan peaks glistening in the sun.
7. Haa Valley. Only recently opened to tourists, the Haa Valley is protected by three adjacent mountains believed to be the gods of compassion, knowledge, and wisdom.
WHEN TO GO: In October and November when the skies are at their clearest for scintillating views of the Himalayas, and in March and April, in time for the Paro Tsechu, a Buddhist festival of blessings.
NECESSARY INFORMATION: Flights cannot be booked without a visa. Tourists traveling in groups of three or more pay a minimum daily tariff per day during the high season, which covers a licensed guide, transportation, lodging, and meals. For treks, this also includes equipment and haulage.
HOW TO BOOK: The government of Bhutan requires that all bookings be made through international or Bhutanese travel agencies. Visas for Bhutan can be processed by local travel agencies or by international agencies working through local companies. This can be accomplished through a simple exchange of emails with your local contact, containing scanned copies of passports and personal details. The best to contact is Bhutan Kuenphen Tour and Treks (email firstname.lastname@example.org). Uma Paro also offers a fivenight exclusive package that includes accommodations, tours, English-speaking guides, airport transfers, and visa processing (email email@example.com).
This story's original form appeared in Vault Issue 2, 2011