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The Leader in Small Groups on the Road Less Traveled
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BHUTAN

Called everything from “the last Shangri-La” to “paradise on Earth,” Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and China. Fiercely protective of its monarchy, culture, and ancient traditions, Bhutan remained almost completely cut off from the outside world for many centuries. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the country began to let in a trickle of foreign visitors. Roads, currency, and electricity soon followed. When television arrived in 1999, it was the last country in the world to receive it. Reflecting a longstanding belief in deriving happiness from life’s simple pleasures, Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk then established a set of principles known as Gross National Happiness, an approach to development that seeks a balance between economic growth and the spiritual wellbeing of its citizens and the natural environment.

This cautious path to modernization has paid off for Bhutan, for it remains an isolated land of virgin forests, devout Buddhist monks, pastoral villages, ancient clifftop monasteries, and fluttering prayer flags. Exotic wildlife such as snow leopards, golden langurs, barking deer, and the goat-like takin still roam its enchanting mountainous landscapes. And lest they “disturb the spirits,” Bhutan still does not allow anyone to scale sacred Gangkhar Puensum—the world’s highest unclimbed peak.

Barely touched by modern civilization, Bhutan offers adventure travelers an authentic glimpse of an unspoiled land and harmonious society that is extremely rare in today’s world.

Most Popular Films

Films featuring Bhutan from international, independent filmmakers

Bhutan

Meet the stylish locals and cheeky wildlife of Bhutan as you steal a glimpse at its temples, landscapes, and villages.

Produced by Clemens Purner

Measuring Happiness

Wellness in body, mind, and spirit is a national imperative in Bhutan.

Produced by Mariko Takayasu and Christopher Flavelle

2009 The New York Times

Incredible Bhutan - Paro Tsechu

Become a fly on the wall at Bhutan's Paro Tshechu Festival, where gazing at a colorful mural is said to cleanse one of sin.

Produced by Dave Fanner

Bhutan Interactive Map

Click on map markers below to view information about top Bhutan experiences

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*Destinations shown on this map are approximations of exact locations

Featured Reading

Immerse yourself in Bhutan with this selection of articles, recipes, and more

ARTICLE

Forty-four years ago, a tiny nation in the Himalayas made waves by announcing a seemingly radical new policy.

Compare Our Adventures

Click 'Select to Compare' to see a side-by-side comparison of up to adventures below—including
activity level, pricing, traveler excellence rating, trip highlights, and more

16 DAYS FROM $5,195 • $ 325 / DAY
Small Group Adventure

7 NIGHTS FROM $2,695

PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

Bhutan: The Last Shangri-La

DAYS IN BHUTAN
6

Hike to world-renowned Tiger's Nest Monastery
Explore the impressive Punakha Dzong
View Bhutan's unusual national animal at the Takin Reserve
Spend time at a nunnery in the Punakha Valley

8 NIGHTS FROM $2,595

PRE-TRIP EXTENSION

Bhutan: The Hidden Kingdom

DAYS IN BHUTAN
6

Hike to world-renowned Tiger's Nest Monastery
Explore the impressive Punakha Dzong
View Bhutan's unusual national animal at the Takin Reserve
Spend time at a nunnery in the Punakha Valley

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Find the Adventure That’s Right for You

Our Activity Level rating system ranks adventures on a scale of 1 to 5 to help you determine if a trip is right for you. See the descriptions below for more information about the physical requirements associated with each rating.

Activity Level 1:

1 2 3 4 5

Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 25 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 1-2 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last at least 1-2 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 2:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Easy

Travelers should be able to climb 40 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 2-3 miles over some uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for at least 2-3 hours at a time. Altitude can range from zero to 5,000 feet.

Activity Level 3:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderate

Travelers should be able to climb 60 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 3 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 3 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 5,000 to 7,000 feet.

Activity Level 4:

1 2 3 4 5

Moderately Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 80 stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 4 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 7,000 to 9,000 feet.

Activity Level 5:

1 2 3 4 5

Strenuous

Travelers should be able to climb 100 or more stairs consecutively, plus walk at least 8 miles over some steep slopes and loose or uneven surfaces without difficulty. Walks typically last for 4 or more hours at a time. Altitude can range from 10,000 feet or more.

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Growing a Better Society

Bhutan and the Gross National Happiness Index

In 1972, Bhutan unveiled its plan to measure success by GNH: Gross National Happiness. Unlike most countries, which focus on economic indicators like the GNP (Gross National Product), Bhutan established a set of benchmarks that examined quality of life more holistically, and allowed citizens to self-report their levels of satisfaction. As the minister of education wrote, “GNH is an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society.

The plan was the brainchild of Bhutan’s fourth “dragon king,” Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who was convinced that Bhutan’s unique way of life could only be preserved by promoting Buddhist  values over material wealth. Valuing culture and nature as important kinds of currency, Wangchuck created a ministry dedicated to examining happiness as a multi-faceted thing, influenced by changing factors, and measured not only by the individual but by the community.

The GNH Index was divided into nine domains: psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standards, health, education, and good governance. GNH census-takers fanned out across the nation to collect data on how citizens felt about each facet of their experience. While a majority of the respondents did indeed rate their happiness as high in many areas, the government soon learned where the nation was falling short as well.

Sowing the seeds of happiness

One of the most striking discoveries was that region alone heavily influenced which facets of life made people more or less unhappy. Rural Bhutanese people reported lack of education and low living standards as the main elements compromising happiness. The better-educated and more financially stable urban population of Thimpu reported more psychological stress and difficulty finding community.  With these results in mind, the government strategy was to directly address the relevant factors, hoping that this would yield a higher rate of happiness.

As a result, Bhutan changed its agricultural policies, improved access to education, required better workplace conditions, and fostered communal events in urban areas, especially those emphasizing culture and heritage. But the GNH model was built to be proactive, not just reactive. It not only measures what already exists, but shapes future policies. All legislation taken up by Parliament must now address the effects of a proposal on the GNH; bills are debated in light of how they impact governance, the environment, and cultural values.

Reaping the rewards

Over the past four decades, Bhutan found clear evidence that this model did make a difference—and the GNH index reveals it clearly. In the 2010 census, 90 percent of respondents said they were living happily, with the bulk of their GNH conditions met. Nearly 100% of the children have school access and life expectancy has doubled. And 60% of the country has been legally declared off limits to further development, so that the natural character of Bhutan is now preserved for future generations.

Such results haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly created its first World Happiness Report. 68 nations signed on, using a Bhutan-inspired model, and the number of participant nations has risen to 156. Unlike for Bhutan itself, the initial global results have been sobering; the most recent World Happiness Report noted that discrepancies in happiness correlate to inequality overall. And that this inequality is growing. As the report states, “People are happier living in societies where there is less inequality…[and] happiness inequality has increased significantly in most countries, in almost all global regions, and for the population of the world as a whole.”

Bhutan argues that continued vigilance as a society is key to fighting this trend and that the commitment must be long term. The Prime Minister once wrote that the GNH definition of happiness is different “from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term.” He went to note that the success of GNH was only possible when every member of society was included. “We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, [and] living in harmony with nature.”

 

Bhutan and the Gross National Happiness Index

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