Bhutan is not a typical destination spot. It doesn’t have the draw of the famous Indian beaches of Goa or the infamous train travel.
Nor does it have a charismatic and wildly popular spiritual and temporal leader like Tibet.
In fact, tourism is strictly regulated in the Buddhist country of Bhutan – with only about 100,000 visitors in 2012.
Which means that if you’re thinking about a trip to Bhutan, then you’re probably not a typical traveler.
Known as The Thunder Dragon Kingdom, Bhutan is a small country surrounded by China and India. In 2006 it was declared the happiest Asian country (eighth happiest in the world) and those who have been there will jokingly tell you that they don’t measure their Gross National Product, but instead measure their Gross National Happiness.
Known as an innovator and leader of biological conservatism, the diverse plant life fuels their rich medical heritage known as Sowa Rigpa (similar to Tibetan medicine). In a time when small or developing countries are being overtaken by tourism (and the garbage, destruction, and dependence that tourism brings), Bhutan stands on rarefied ground, literally and figuratively, in its governmental push to introduce tourism slowly, smartly, and with an eye to preserving the ecology.
You’ll find many similarities between life in Bhutan and life in India or Tibet. The language of Bhutanese stems from the Tibetan language family, both love and arranged marriages are common, the national dish is known as Ema Datshi, a spicy concoction with cheese and chilies, and the ngultrium, the national currency, is tied to the Indian rupee.
But these are just facts about the mysterious country of Bhutan. This is not what draws the atypical traveler to “The Last Shangri-la.” Similar to Tibet, Bhutan was largely isolated from the world until the 1960′s. This isolation has allowed the country’s history and culture to remain a major and integrated part of modern life.
And what is the core of that culture? Deeply rooted Vajrayana Buddhism, a living knowledge that nature and the environment are the source of life and therefore something to be protected, a strong, beloved, and ecologically forward thinking monarchy, and a belief that true connection with the divine is possible through regular retreat and meditation. This is what those that want off the beaten path are looking for.
Pilgrims seek Bhutan in part to gain a more expansive understanding of Buddhism. Brought to Bhutan in the 7th century, roughly two-thirds of the population practice Buddhism. Ancient fortresses, also known as Dzong’s, are scattered throughout the country and are now centers of religion for these simple people. Among the most famous is Taktsang, or the Tigers Nest.
Impossibly built high up on the sheer edge of a cliff ten kilometers north of the capital city of Paro, Taktsang is one of the most sacred sites in all of Bhutan. Originally it is the site of a cave where Guru Padmasambhave (Guru Rinpoche) is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours.
Guru Padmasambhava first brought Buddhism to Tibet and is considered by many to be the protector saint of Bhutan. Legend has it that he first came to the cave on the back of a flying tigress. In the late 17th century a temple was built around the main cave and since this time many of the most revered yogis, yoginis, and gurus have come to meditate in this holy and powerful place.
Whether you spend your time in the larger towns like Paro, the country’s capital, or trekking to ancient Dzong’s like Taktsang, Punakha or Rinpung, or communing with nature in Black Neck Crane Valley, you will not fail to notice the deep peace that permeates Bhutan.
Bhutanese people regard all sentient life as precious. This stretches beyond humans and animals to include the smallest insects as well as Mother Earth herself. This careful regard and sacred way of being in the world permeates modern life, making Bhutan the destination spot for the spiritual pilgrim.
Interested to experience it firsthand? Check out our upcoming sacred tour to Bhutan for Dec 2014 HERE.