In the age when not even a secretive communist state is spared from the Internet, Bhutan remains one of the most mysterious lands in the world.
The world largely knows the majority Buddhist country for its stunning, cliff-side Taktshang Lhakhang temple and unique Gross National Happiness index.
“Economists the world over have argued that the key to happiness is obtaining and enjoying material development,” says the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “Bhutan, however, adheres to a very different belief and advocates that amassing material wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness.
“Bhutan is now trying to measure progress not by the popular idea of Gross Domestic Product but by through Gross National Happiness.”
Beyond these famous facts, few outsiders can tell you much about the country.
Can you name the capital city?
It’s Thimphu (population 100,000), the economic, religious and government center of the country, residence of the Royal family and, according to the Bhutanese government, the only capital city in the world with no traffic lights.
It’s served by Paro Airport, the only international airport in the country.
The Himalayan kingdom (population 750,000) has largely been able to safeguard its distinct traditions – its beliefs, language and royal family – with a unique and stringent visitor policy (see “Entry” section below) overseen by the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
But there’s an incredible amount of scenery and culture spread across every corner of the 38,000-kilometer-square country (just smaller than Switzerland, just larger than Taiwan).
Here’s how to see all of this spectacular ancient land with a very forward minded take on tourism.
Bhutan officially targets “high value, low impact” tourism.
“The Royal Government of Bhutan recognizes that tourism is a worldwide phenomenon and an important means of achieving socioeconomic development particularly for a developing country like Bhutan,” reads the country’s national Tourism Policy.
“Toward achieving this objective, the Royal Government, has adopted a very cautious approach to growth and development of the tourism industry in Bhutan.”
This means the first step in planning any trip to Bhutan is to visit the Tourism Council of Bhutan website for a list of regulations required of all visitors and a breakdown of the important Minimum Daily Package fees.
The fees include all accommodations, daily meals, transportation, services of licensed guides and porters and cultural programs where and when available, according to the Tourism Council.
The 2016 daily tariff is $200 per person, per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August and December; and $250 per person, per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October and November.
However, the rate can fluctuate and visitors should check with the Tourism Council of Bhutan when planning a trip.
Most visitors are required to arrange a tour through a designated agency in order to begin the application for a tourist visa.
Locally famous in Thimphu, Kalden is an ultimate no-frills Bhutanese restaurant.
The menu includes pretty much all the standard Bhutanese dishes – ema datshi (cheese and chiles), shamu datshi (mushrooms and chiles), sikam paa (dried pork belly with dry chiles), shakam paa (dried beef and dry chiles) and cheese egg fry.
All of these are eaten with Himalayan red rice.
Dishes are exceedingly flavorful, heavy on cheese, butter and, in case you weren’t paying attention, chiles.
For a true local food experience, Kalden is not to be missed.
Kalden Restaurant, Chang Lam Road, Thimphu; open for lunch and dinner daily; +975 1766 7576
Although momos (dumplings) are technically Tibetan, they’re a big favorite in Bhutan, easily the most common fast food meal or snack.
The momo wrapper is like a thick noodle. It’s stuffed with filling, wrapped like a dumpling, then steamed.
Among Thimphu’s longest standing momo restaurants is Zombala, a laid back, family-run establishment that serves steaming hot plates of momos.
Varieties include minced beef and vegetarian, which include cheese and cabbage.
The house-made chili sauce, fragrant with dried chiles and garlic, is the preferred momo condiment.
Occupying the second floor of a building in the heart of Thimphu, Bhutan Kitchen is a quiet, family-style Bhutanese restaurant.
It’s spacious and laid back, with low tables and benches wrapped in wool blankets.
On arrival, visitors are offered home-brewed ara, a Bhutanese alcohol, which is served in small wooden bowls.
The dishes are also served in traditional wooden bowls, and you can eat with provided utensils or with your fingers.
The kewa datshi (cheese with potatoes) has a wonderful smoky cheese flavor.
The Jasha tshoem (chicken curry) has an unforgettable, ginger-infused flavor.
Wangchen Momo Corner
Mention momos to anyone from Thimphu, and the first restaurant they’ll likely mention will be Momo Corner, possibly the city’s most popular restaurant.
Always bustling, it serves both vegetarian and beef momos, plus a short menu of Tibetan-influenced dishes like thukpa (noodle soup) and fried noodles.
The restaurant is located on the corner of the weekend Centenary Farmers Market, making it a good place to stop in the middle of exploring the market.
Wangchen Momo Corner, Sabji Bazaar, Thimphu; open Wednesday-Monday for lunch and dinner; +975 1760 4617
Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant