The Happiest Place on Earth


Why Bhutan Belongs on Your Travel List Now?

It’s been decades since the fourth king of Bhutan came up with the notion of gross national happiness. But that’s still what comes to mind when most of us think of the country. Even though it’s sort of silly, it proved to be successful marketing, on top of the inherent mystique and allure of this Himalayan nation that was isolated from the wider world for much of the 20th century.

People want to see this “last Shangri-La,” preferably before it changes much more. But that’s not so easy to do. That king, who was then 17, was also prescient in his embrace of high-value, low-volume tourism. The visa application process is cumbersome, there’s a requirement that all visitors book their trip with a licensed Bhutanese tour operator and have local guides at all times, and there’s a minimum per diem of $200 or $250 per person, depending on the season.

That’s actually quite reasonable, as it covers all meals, guides, drivers and accommodation at basic hotels, plus it funds education, health care and infrastructure for the Bhutanese people. (You’ll pay hundreds more at five-star hotels.) It was enough to keep the backpacker set from descending—there are no cafes hawking banana pancakes or by-the-pound laundries.

That doesn’t mean it never gets crowded. Especially in this age of instability, angst and violence, a remote, peaceful Buddhist kingdom has an understandable appeal. The main sites get busy in the spring and autumn, making winter the time to come, says Mark Wright, the general manager of the exquisite Gangtey Lodge. It’s far milder than you might expect, with clear sunny skies and warm afternoons, and hotels are nearly empty. “And it’s half price.”

 His lodge is never cheap, but it’s plenty idyllic, with 12 enormous guest rooms that have slipper tubs right in front of their picture windows and cozy wood-burning stoves. An informal dining and lounge area is the social hub, and the food and drink are very good. Top-notch therapists give in-room massages in eight styles, and a new bathhouse offers a luxurious take on the traditional hot-stone bath. Rocks are roasted over a fire for hours and then put in to sizzle at the foot of a tub whose water is mixed with fronds of artemesia, which is said to have healing and calming properties.