Bhutan’s long standing policy of isolationism has preserved traditional lifestyles and cultures in this part of the Himalayas. Something must be different in a country that aims to put “Happiness” ahead of “Capitalism”, a long term goal of policy makers. The policy is more than just words, and regulations on the tourism industry limits the number of visitors to Bhutan at around 40,000 whereby nearby Nepal receives just shy of a million visitors. Bhutan is a country almost untouched by the cultures of begging and touting that spring up around modern tourist hotspots offering trekkers a unique experience if they are willing to accommodate to policy. For westerners, Bhutan has always been difficult to visit and the government has set not only minimum spending requirements but also requires all treks to be arranged through a local agent.
Situated in the eastern Himalayas it’s a small country both geographically and population wise. The climate is dominated by the influence of the Indian Monsoon with the best trekking months being from March to May as well as September and October. On every trek in Bhutan you will be accompanied by your own staff consisting guide, cook, camping assistant and a few horsemen and horses to carry your gear. The lack of tourism has not inspired the development of tea houses have cropped up in Nepal and that trails are generally only used by locals and settlements maybe few and far between. Tea house trekking in Nepal is great fun it’s just a different experience in Bhutan and might even be preferable to those seeking solitude with the mountains. Here’s a look at five of the greatest treks in Bhutan;
The Jhomolhari Trek
This 8 day trek is one of the most popular in Bhutan. It’s a moderately challenging trek that crosses over both Bhonte La pass 4,890m (16000 feet) and Takhung La pass 4,520m and attracts visitors for its spectacular views of Mt. Jomolhari 7,326m (24000 feet). Mount Jomolhari, straddles the border between Bhutan and Tibet, is sometimes known as the “Bride of Kangchenjunga” and is famous for its northern face which juts abruptly from the highlands with a vertical relief of 2700m (9000 feet). If you are going you might want to time your trek with the Jomolhari Mountain Festival, an annual event whose time varies from year to year that celebrates the local culture of the small villages near the base of Jomolhari.
Druk Path Trek
At six days this trek is fairly short and offers a good introduction to Trekking in Bhutan. The trek starts near Paro and takes you over the mountains to Thimphu which lies in the adjacent valley. The trek ascends nearly 2000m with a high point of 4200m (13776 ft). The trek goes through alpine forests which are a mix of pine and dwarf rhododendrons and crosses passes several alpine lakes famous for their large trout. On the way back down towards Thimphu Valley you can have excellent views of Mount Gangkar Puensum 7570m (24,836 feet) which is Bhutan tallest peak and is likely the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. A number of attempts on the peak were made by professional teams but none ever reached the summit. In 1994, the government of Bhutan stopped allowing climbing of peaks higher than 6000m so unless policy changes Gangkar Puensum is likely to retain its title into the future.
This is one of the most famous treks in Bhutan and might be the most difficult trekking route in the world. The trek takes approximately 25 days depending on the starting point and basically traverses the mountains border region between Bhutan and Tibet starting from Paro and ending in Lunana in northern Bhutan. It crosses 11 passes the tallest of them being Gangla Karchung La at 5230m, Jaze La, 5251m, Loju La, 5155m and Rinchenzoe La, 5332m. One of the challenges of the trek is the isolation of the country being visited as there are few villages and the chances for helicopter evacuation are slim. This is truly one of the few places you are on your for an extended duration while trekking in the Himalayas. The best chance for good weather is during October before the snows come to the high passes and just after the monsoon ends.
Duer Hot Springs Trek
This is a challenging 9 day trek which for part of its distance overlaps with the Snowman Trek just mentioned. One of the highlight of the trek is a rest day near the Duer Hotsprings one of the most pristine and beautiful in all the Himalayas. Juli La (4,700m) is the highest point on the trail but be prepared for numerous climbs and subsequent descents as you traverse the mountain valleys. The largely intact forest ecosystem hosts a variety of wildlife including Musk Deer and Black Bear. Unlike the other treks mentioned so far which have different ending and starting points this treks takes you into the hot springs and out along the same route.
Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek
A Challenging 6 day trek that takes you to some fabulous alpine lakes famous for local trout fishing and has great views of the high peaks of the Himalayas, including Everest and Kanjenjunga, in the distance. If you want try your hand at local trout fishing let us know beforehand and a license can be obtained at minimal cost. The high point on the trek is about 4500m but part of the difficulty lies in several ascents and descents of intervening ridges which are over 1000m (3300 feet) in relief. The trek passes several traditional villages as well as camps of yak herders and imparts you with a feel of traditional life in the Himalayas.
Bumthang Owl Trek
This 3 day is a great option if your short on time and want to get a feel of some local culture and take in some great mountain views on the way. The forests are largely of bamboo and interspersed with a large variety of Rhododendrons that can be seen flowering during April and May. The forest cover makes for excellent bird watching and you might even see a black bear which are common in the region. The trail starts near Dhur village a traditional village with a large population of nomadic herdsmen. The second day brings you to Drangela Pass 3600m (11,800 feet) the high point on the trek from where you can have great views of Gangkar Puensum 7570m (24,836 feet) Bhutan’s tallest peak. Coming down from the pass you will have a chance to visit several monasteries including the Chuedak monastery which features over 100 stoned carvings of Avalokiteśvara one of the most honored bodhisattvas.