Bhutan Feature

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Bhutan Today

Want to experience the customs and traditions of an ancient culture, soak up clean air and unspoiled natural beauty, and revel in the spirituality of the last Buddhist kingdom, where "gross national happiness" takes precedence over material wealth? Then get to the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan—but get there quick.

A Rapidly Changing Country

Though hardly any roads existed and no tourists were permitted until 40 years ago, Bhutan is now undergoing a period of unprecedented change and growth. There's little chance that Bhutan's most outer reaches will become overrun with belching smokestacks anytime soon—building on this rocky terrain is a challenge for the most experienced engineer—but with each visitor who enters the kingdom, Bhutan's very essence morphs closer to the modern world it long fought to keep away. Even the magnificent Phobjikha Valley, where rare black-necked cranes descend each year, just got electricity. (The cables are buried, however, in deference to the environment and birds.) And the government just opened up the previously restricted remote northeastern districts of Merak and Sakteng for the first time in September 2010, where nomadic yak herders have retained their way of life for centuries.

Increasing Travel Standards

Since the swank Amankora resorts began opening in Bhutan in 1994, the standards and expectations for travel have begun to upgrade, even for those who can't afford the thousand-dollar-a-day vacation (per person) those luxury lodges offer. Simple guesthouses are now rapidly replaced by modern hotels that offer more services and amenities than ever available before in Bhutan. The lodging staff is professionalizing, too, albeit with the innocence of a people not terribly accustomed to outsiders.

Internet access, particularly wi-fi, is now more widely available in Bhutan's capital city and in the higher end hotels in Bhutan's outer reaches. In early 2007, brewed coffee was next to impossible to find outside an occasional private home; now at least a half dozen cafes proudly serve lattes and the like. And so far, there's no chain stores. (Once in a central hotel in the capital Thimphu, I ordered two eggs scrambled, and the waitress, aghast by my indulgence—eggs are very pricey to the locals, and far from a typical breakfast—brought out two separate plates, one egg on each.)

The Bottom Line

The most important thing to keep in mind is: You still can't just go to Bhutan. You have to work with a qualified tour operator who arranges just about every aspect of your trip for you, from where you stay and eat to what you see. And a guide and driver are with you every step of the way.

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