Best Trips 2016 – By National Geographic [Eastern Bhutan Tour]
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The last remaining Himalayan Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan is distant by most standards. Flying in requires a plane nimble enough to navigate around mountain peaks and land in Paro Valley, the main tourist hub, where the number of hotels has tripled over the past decade as the once isolated country opens to more visitors. Then there is eastern Bhutan. This far-flung region remains largely unexplored by tourists. But the arduous two-day journey there by 4×4 delivers many rewards.
“You are the first foreigner we have seen in 22 years,” exclaims a surprised monk welcoming an American trekker to his mist-shrouded outpost near Mongar. In Lhuntse village, women display their vibrantly hued silk wares to Bhutanese traders, who travel here from the capital city of Thimphu in search of precious kushutara textiles. Family homestays fill in for hotels, offering travelers a place to sleep and dine on traditional dishes, including ema datshi, spicy chilies and cheese, often served with red rice. This is Bhutan at its most welcoming—the perfect adventure combination. —Costas Christ
When to Go: Spring (March through May) and fall (September through November) for eastern Bhutan’s major religious festivals, including the Gomphu Kora Festival in March and Monggar Tshechu in November.
How to Get Around: All travel into and around Bhutan must be arranged through licensed Bhutanese tour operators or their international partners. Tours include all transportation within Bhutan and a licensed guide who accompanies you throughout the trip. Getting from Paro International Airport in western Bhutan to “eastern circuit” destinations (including Mongar, Lhuntse, Trashiyangtse, Trashigang, and Samdrup Jongkhar) requires at least a two-day drive along the East-West Highway, the country’s main road.
Where to Stay: Accommodations available to foreign tourists include traditional homestays (no electricity or running water), rustic guesthouses, modern hotels, and tents for trekking groups. Opened in 2008, the Wangchuk Hotel Mongar regularly hosts tour groups visiting eastern Bhutan. All 32 rooms have an attached bath, cable TV, and Mongar Valley views.
What to Eat or Drink: Bhutanese cuisine is all about the chilies. Whether red, green, fresh, dried, crushed, powdered, or turned to paste, the fiery pepper is an essential ingredient in most recipes. The national dish, ema datshi, is a spicy stew of chilies and cheese ladled over red rice.
What to Buy: Khoma, a remote village in northeastern Bhutan’s Lhuentse district, is known for its intricately woven kishuthara (silk brocade) fabric. The complex silk-on-silk art form is passed down from mother to daughter (only women weave in Bhutan) in Khoma, where weaving is the primary source of income. Textile Tour itineraries offered by Access Bhutan Tours and Treks and other operators include visiting the village to watch the weavers and shop for brightly colored scarves, kiras (traditional Bhutanese ankle-length dresses), and other handwoven items.
What to Read Before You Go: Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan (University of Alberta Press, 2004) is the true adventure story of a young Canadian who spent two years teaching—and learning—in a remote Himalayan valley.
Cultural Tip: Always ask your guide before taking any photos or video inside any dzong (fortress), monastery, temple, or other religious institution. Interior photography is not permitted at some sites.
Fun Fact: Bhutan’s bustling capital city, Thimphu, has paved roads, sidewalks, streetlights, and motorists but no traffic signals. Instead, pagoda-style wooden booths sit in the middle of major intersections. Each booth is manned by a white-gloved police officer, who employs theatrical hand gestures to keep the traffic flowing smoothly.
Sources: National Geographic