Luxury Buys: Bhutan’s exceptional textiles 

Bhutan’s best kept not-so-secret secret are its textiles. Take a moment to appreciate them, and your Bhutan visit will be wrapped in the rich, luxurious, magnificence of Bhutan’s magical weave and weft. 

Like much of Bhutan’s cultural heritage, Bhutanese textiles are not ancient artifacts displayed in museums (although there is a splendid textile museum you may wish to visit), but alive, worn by men and women on the streets, spread over walls, furniture and floors, transmuted into bags and accessories.

Traditional textiles are valued by the Bhutanese, who will pass on an exquisite heirloom Kira to daughters, carefully curate coarse Yatha rugs, and proudly sport delicately embroidered bags and purses created over long hours by a talented weaver. 

Weaving is of the 13 traditional arts of Bhutan, and Bhutanese weaving produces a diverse but unique class of exceptionally beautiful, quality textiles. 

The most common use for Bhutanese textiles is clothing. You will be delighted to find streets filled with Bhutanese wearing their traditional outfits. The gho – a knee-length, loose fitting robe cinched at the waist for men and Kira – a large piece of fabric wrapped to form a straight-skirted dress, worn with a silk blouse and jacket, for women, are Bhutan’s daily formals. Of course, the more elaborate the patterns, the more special the occasion. 

Weaving is a huge cottage industry in Bhutan, with different regions of the country famous for its own special style of fabric. Traditionally and more commonly, it is the women who weave, using household looms at home. Weaving is laborious and slow work- the most intricate and valuable pieces take up to a year of daily weaving.

Cotton, wool, and silk yarns are used, and while much of it is now important, there is still a vibrant tradition of processing and dyeing, using traditional mineral and plant pigments. A number of high-end boutiques and designers pride themselves on using only local materials, but even when the materials are imported, there is nothing that matches Bhutanese weaving. There is enough in the world of motifs and patterns to make it an immersive subject of study. 

To pick out a few of the greatest hits- there is the fabulous Kishuthara- motifs in colours supremely pleasing to the eye against a background of white, woven by the women of Lhuntshi district in Bhutan. Kishuthara are the ultimate in luxury textiles, and worn only for special ocassions- a festival perhaps, and of course weddings. 

Then, there are Yathas from Bumthang valley. Yatha, or fabric woven from yak wool, is thick and coarse. The finer varieties are used for jackets and bags, while the coarser ones make exceptional rugs. The Bhutan Yarn and Yatha House in Thimphu is a speciality boutique that carries some of the best specimens of Yatha products, but there is a consistency to the quality of Bhutanese textiles that makes any purchase worthwhile. 

So, don’t forget to luxuriate in Bhutanese textiles on your Bhutan holiday. You can’t find them anywhere else! 

Beyond Ema Datshi: Foods to try in Bhutan 

Practically every article about Bhutan will tell you about Ema Datshi, the fiery chili and cheese concoction that Bhutanese consume with gusto. But have you heard of stir fried orchid buds, banana leaves, river seaweed soup, and fiddlehead ferns cooked in cheesy sauce?

But these are the exotics. What about dried pork cooked in turnip greens, or dried beef with juicy slices of radish, a hearty bowl of nutty red rice, buckwheat noodles tingling with a generous dash of Szechwan pepper, perfect dumplings filled with turnip greens cooked in butter and perilla. 

Bhutanese cuisine is made up of well-balanced meals comprising of a smorgasbord of filling, hearty and delicious dishes. There is a lot to explore- your Bhutan holiday is going to be a lot richer if you dive right in. 

For a small country, Bhutan has a stunning topographical diversity. The country largely lies on the southern face of the Himalayas, with the highest mountain peaks forming a natural and near-impenetrable barrier to the north. The high-north is the land of peaks and glaciers, where winters and long and harsh, and the vegetation is scrub, bushes, and not much else. But the slopes give way to large swathes of cool temperate pine forests and valleys, and then flattens out in the south to hot tropics. This has allowed Bhutanese farmers to grow all kinds of food depending on where they are, and Bhutanese cuisine has likewise been shaped by the land to be multifaceted and varied. 

The coldest parts of the country have given Bhutan a strong culinary tradition of dried and fermented foods. These parts also feature more of diary and meat in their diets than the rest of the country. From the coldest parts of Bhutan, we get the hearty butter tea, dried meats, fermented cheese, and dried vegetables. The staples are cold weather cereals- buckwheat and barley, and special alcoholic brews. 

One stereotype is true- a lot of Bhutanese cuisine is fiery hot. Chili is a national favorite, especially the large local type, consumed fresh and green, red, dried, or blanched and dried white. Cheese is another favorite, not just for the Ema Datshi, but generously added to all manner of meat and vegetable dishes, in various stages of fermentation and ripeness, from fluffy fresh to oozing and strong. Cheese is dried and hardened as a type of rock candy without the sugar, or at an in-between stage of preservation, a soft but sturdy version is a popular addition to hearty rice porridges. 

Elsewhere in the country, rice is the staple. Bhutanese valleys are rice bowls, and the famous red rice variety of Bhutan is a flavorful, special treat, perfect for meals with meat and vegetables cooked in cheeses or stewed with a generous sprinkle of Szechwan pepper. 

A rich traditional meal has rice at its centre, and is accompanied by meats- although Bhutanese are not the biggest meat eaters in the world, there are meat dishes traditional held to be special. These can be minced in soups rich with herbs, the many Paa dishes- large pieces of meat cooked well with a root vegetable or squash, or dried varieties cooked in flavorful cheese sauces. Vegetables receive similar treatment. Bhutanese cooking does not used a lot of aromatic spices, other than the favorite Szechwan pepper and various types chili peppers, the flavor of the meat or vegetable used is allowed to shine through, but much of it is rich, hearty, and enriching. 

While much of the cooking styles are simple and natural, much like the land itself, the variety of crops keeps the experience from becoming monotonous.

What to try: Our advice is to ask for some seasonal choices. Fiddlestick ferns are a unique flavor, something you can only enjoy for a short window of time in spring. In early autumn, the markets are filled with golden chanterelle mushrooms, rich with umami mushroomy goodness. Butter is liberally used, often to balance out the heat of chillies, so that you can enjoy the capsaicin flavors without burning up. But don’t be afraid of the chilli- if you’re not a fan of the heat, adjustments will always be made.

Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot for vegans, and even more for vegetarians to enjoy. A good number of Bhutanese are vegetarian for various reasons, including religious ones. Butter can always be substituted with vegetable oil, including Bhutan- made cooking oils, mainly mustard. There is a lot of milk and cheese, but an equal number vegetable dishes that focus on the vegetable and do not add cheeses, and a variety of lentil soups from southern cuisines. 

Restaurants have burgeoned in Bhutan, especially in Thimphu, and you can easily find burgers and pizzas, as well as Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, and a host of other cuisines. There is a growing culture of eating out, and restaurants have grown rapidly in the last decade or two to offer some very good food. 

But traditional Bhutanese food still has a lot to offer. Traditional Bhutanese food is natural and unprocessed, delicious and nourishing, and a special experience. 

Discovering Shangri-La

If you have read James Hilton’s famous book, the Lost Horizon, or even if you haven’t, the word Shangri-La conjures up a very specific type of utopia. A lost world hidden away in the folds of the mighty Himalayas, full of ancient magic and wisdom, but also a place surprisingly in touch with the modern world- comfortable, technologically advanced, a veritable fount of civilization. 

Many Bhutanese you meet today would be rather uncomfortable with this starry-eyed vision which has too often been latched on to the last Kingdom of the Himalayas- Bhutan. There are bars, hotels, tourism agencies, and consumer goods named Shangri-La in Bhutan, and it’s easy to let the utopian ideal help market Bhutan, a place also known for “Happiness.” 

So it seems like stating the obvious to say that Bhutan is not Shangri-La. There is a rising consciousness among Bhutanese to move away from this one-dimensional view of a country which is complex and multifaceted, reflected even in the change of the national brand, which has done away with the old tagline “Happiness is a place.”

Still, old associations are hard to shrug away so easily, especially for Bhutan, which, like it or not, is the closest any place in the world can come to being described as “Shangri-La.” 

But we reject the monochrome utopia dreamed up by an early 20th century novelist. If Bhutan is Shangri-La, you will have to change your mind about what Shangri-La really means. 

Understanding the history and culture of Bhutan gives you an appreciation of the richness and uniqueness of this special Himalayan Kingdom, and we hope, a different perspective to what Shangri-La means in the modern day. 

Bhutan is a Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas. Ensconced in the folds of the great mountain range, with sweeping tropical forests along its south, it has always been an independent entity, never part of any empire or outside culture, although its closest neighbours to the north and south have had an influence on it over the centuries. The great Indian saint, Padmasambhava introduced Buddhism, and several Tibetan monks brought in Tibetan Buddhism, along with the arts of writing, governance, and administration. Cheif among these was Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, a Tibetan monk who escaped persecution in his home province in the 16th century, and was welcomed by the religious Bhutanese. He is said to have formally united what had so far been fiefdoms, and established a central government that controlled what is modern day Bhutan. 

Still, Bhutan remained isolationist and suspicious of foreign influence upto the late 19th Century, by which time encounters with the British in India could no longer be rebuffed. Recognizing changing times, Bhutanese selected a King from among their peers- the man who was best able to negotiate peace with the all-powerful British Empire, and control the warring factions within Bhutan. The Monarchy of Bhutan, was established in 1907 with a particularly interesting agreement between the new King and his people. King Ugyen Wangchuck, by becoming the first hereditary monarch of Bhutan, accepted the responsibility with a promise on behalf of all his successors to protect his country for all times to come. 

The 20th Century saw Bhutan take measured but steady steps towards modernization. Modern education, healthcare, governance, and economic systems were adopted, and Bhutan adopted all the trappings of statehood: A national Flag, membership to the United Nations, its own currency, and so on. 

In the 21st Century, Bhutan is like and unlike other countries. Its long isolation has delivered the country to the modern age with much of its ancient culture and tradition intact. This is immediately visible in the architecture and dress of the people, the festivals and religious sites, and is also present in how Bhutanese live and think. 

An example of how Bhutanese think that may seem strange to the outside world, is the story of its democratic transition. The Fourth King of Bhutan, highly popular and beloved, introduced the idea of democracy to his people, as something inevitable in the growth of a nation. The idea was received by the Bhutanese with reluctance and only fell short of outright rejection because it came from a King who was highly respected. 

Bhutan today a mix of modern ideas and ancient values, largely influenced by Buddhism. Its philosophy is an outlier in modern politics. Education and Healthcare are free, and in many ways Bhutan is close to what people might consider a welfare state, and there is a great deal of influence in policy from the Buddhist values that reject materialism. This is not, however, a rejection of capitalism or free trade, as there is also a recognition of the need for people’s basic needs to be met. Even though among countries with similar development levels and economy, Bhutan has better socio-economic indicators, it is clear that as a lower-middle income nation, Bhutan is not pioneering a novel model for how societies should be organized or managed. 

In a world of greater connectivity and access, Bhutan is examining itself with a clear eye, and working to bring itself to the modern world. The difference, if there is one, is that Bhutan also recognizes the value of its heritage, and wishes to bring as much of it as possible into the modern age intact.

Bhutan’s cultural heritage and value system has resulted in a strong set of policies for the stewardship of the natural environment, a recognition that there is more to human existence than simply the economic status as a country- resulting in the famous “Gross National Happiness” policy which is misunderstood or willfully interpreted to suit convenient understanding, but really should be read as that development cannot be measured on national wealth alone.

Bhutan is not James Hilton’s Shangri-La, where all-knowing monks have nothing to learn from the outside world and only have nuggets of wisdom to offer to ignorant wanderers who stumble into the hidden land. But it is special, because of the unique set of circumstances that have shaped its culture and history. And it is worth protecting and supporting Bhutan’s endeavour to do its best for its people, while safeguarding the cultural and heritage it holds, part of the world’s heritage, and protecting the natural environment and diverse ecosystem that it has kept safe despite many opportunities to exploit for money. 

If Bhutan is Shangri-La, it is one with heart. 

5 Reasons To Trek in Bhutan, and 5 Stunning Trails 

Tucked high up in the Himalayas, Bhutan is a dream destination for nature enthusiasts and adventure seekers. From the towering peaks of the Himalayas to the lush green valleys and forests, Bhutan offers a diverse range of trekking experiences that cater to all levels of fitness and interests.

Here are the top 5 reasons to trek in Bhutan: 

  1. The Undeniable Luxury of Bhutanese Treks 

The best part of trekking in Bhutan is undoubtedly your experienced trekking team, which will elevate your experience, ensuring that you are safe and comfortable at all times. 

All treks to Bhutan are regulated by the government and require that you book through a certified tour agency. This is to ensure that treks are safe and of a certain standard, and has meant that Bhutan has an impeccable record of safety in trekking as well as high levels of satisfaction from trekkers. 

Bhutanese treks are not littered with tea-houses and motels- a challenge for independent trekkers seeking to find their own way, but not for a well-prepared trekker with a world-class team. Which brings us to the next big plus-

2. Bhutanese Treks are 100% Authentic

If you mean to embrace the wilderness and raw beauty of the untouched Himalayas, Bhutanese is the smartest destination. Because of the format of the treks, and because most of your supplies are carried with you, you will never find a hyper-commercialized tourist trail. Instead, they are exactly how they would be if no one had ever passed though them- with the wild beauty of mountains and forests, an occasional village along the way, where people lead lives undisturbed by the larger world. 

3. A Bhutan Trek is a Spiritual Experience 

Buddhism is the prevalent religion practiced in Bhutan. Bhutanese Buddhism and culture is largely influenced by and intertwined with an older, naturalist religion. Mountain peaks, lakes, and forests are believed to be dwellings of nature spirits, and therefore sacred. Many animals, and plants are considered sacred. There is a rich lore of elusive creatures, and medicine. Trekking in Bhutan is the closest you can get to nature, and truly reckon with the power of being one with the natural world. There’s something to be said for the experience of gazing at pristine mountain peaks, and knowing that they remain unclimbed, not because they are impossible to scale, but out of respect for the deities that inhabit them. To fall into the embrace of wide valleys, pass sacred lakes, is to connect to all those who passed before, knowing they have seen exactly what you do now, and cross into another world. 

4. Bhutan is stunning! 

You’ve heard this before. Sure you’ve seen glossy pictures half-filled with turquoise sky, or some nature documentary where the mysterious snow leopard prowls across a jagged cliffside. But no picture or video can really do justice to the magnificence that is Bhutan’s wilderness. 

Trekking trails are picturesque. The most convenient camping spots are also the most beautiful- at the shadow of the mighty Jomolhari, under a brilliant star-studded sky, beside a placid lake, across springtime blooms of Rhododendron… trekking through Bhutan yields a lifetime of memories. 

5. Trekking in Bhutan is a conscientious traveller’s choice

Bhutan’s higher than average price-tag has a purpose. There is a robust system of regulation, based on policies to protect the environment, the cultural heritage of the Kingdom, and even the tourism policy of high value low volume is meant to protect against the kind of footfalls that damage places we ought to protect. Local tour operators are small businesses with few employees, not large, indifferent corporations. Every person you will meet is well compensated and respected- national policies as well as business dynamics in Bhutan do not leave room for exploitation. The Bhutan that you will grow to love, and the people who will welcome you with warmth and affection, are beneficiaries of a system that tourism contributes to. When you visit Bhutan, you are supporting its goals for sustainable growth, and for safeguarding what we consider are not just Bhutan’s, but the world’s treasures. 

5 Stunning Treks in Bhutan 

  1. Trans Bhutan Trail 

Trans Bhutan Trail spanning Bhutan from west to east, was the ancient route for Bhutanese traveling through the country. It was re-developed during the pandemic years, and is open and proudly revived now. The 403km long trail crosses a national part, and over 400 historic and cultural sites, including ancient centres of administration, historical villages, and of course, the stunning valleys and mountain passes of Bhutan. It can be explored in its entirety or in segments, on foot or by bike, and is an extraordinary chance to retrace the path of historical travelers, both explorers to Bhutan, as well as messengers, pilgrims, and traders of the past. 

2. Snowman Trek

Widely described as the ‘toughest trek in the world’, the snowman trek is not for the faint of heart. For those who do it, however, this is an experience of a lifetime. Minor adjustments can be made to the start and end, but by and large, the trek goes through Laya, the nomadic village famous for the spiky bamboo hats worn by women, and then the gorgeous Lunana, a bowl-shaped valley ringed by mountains, still inaccessible by road. Perhaps among the most remote places in the world, and now famous because of the Oscar-nominated film that bears the valley’s name, Lunana is magic. Abutting into glaciers of the highest Himalayas, with glacial lakes feeding rivers downstream, wide valleys above the tree-line, the place of the mythical Blue Poppy and Snow Leopard, this is the unforgettable world that you enter with the Snowman Trek. 

3. Dagala Thousand Lakes trek 

With a name like that, you know you’ve signed up for a stunning adventure. Lakes are, of course, aplenty in this trek that takes you through rhododendron forests ablaze with colour in springtime, views of Kanchenjunga, the revered Sikkimese mountain, yak pastures, and closer than you have ever been to the brilliant blue skies. 

4. Jomolhari Trek 

Jomolhari is the abode of the Goddess Jomo, and Bhutan’s most photogenic mountain peak. The trek, usually 6-days long, takes you through places that can only be described as settings for high fantasy stories. Sweeping valleys, the incredible Lingzhi, a fortress perched on a hill with a village in its shadow, lakes, views of famous peaks, and the camp at Jomolhari base. If you ever hoped for an epic adventure, this is it. 

5. Merak Sakteng Trek

What is more meta than taking an offbeat trek in your offbeat holiday? Merak-Sakteng in the East of Bhutan offers an exceptional experience even in Bhutan. The Trek takes you through the nomadic villages of Merak and Sakteng, known for their distinctive red wool jackets, and the spiky yak hair hats the women wear. There are some wonderful homestays for those who want to experience life in a yak-herding village, filled with warm woven blankets, the traditional Bhukari stoves, and flavorful fermented cheese and dried yak. The Trek to and between villages holds it own special charms- the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary is home to not only the endangered Red Panda, but also the fount of the Yeti myth.