An Inside Look at the Self-proclaimed Happiest Country on Earth

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which touts itself as the happiest country on earth, is a pastoral fantasyland steeped in tradition.
January 23, 2018

"Can I see the red yeti skin?"

Even in Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that has one of the world's highest standards for strangeness, the question stopped my guide in his tracks. "Who told you about that?" Max asked suspiciously, pulling his gho robe closer as if to ward off a sudden chill. We were standing on the timeworn stone steps of the Gangtey Monastery, an eerily quiet religious complex perched above a misty valley, where monks slipped like ghosts through a cobblestoned courtyard. Until that moment, Max (his name in English; his Bhutanese name is Nawang Gyeltshen) had been a polite but disciplined font of information — the sort of guide whose aim is to usher travelers along a well-established path rather than get them behind closed doors. Now he was looking at me with a mix of alarm and curiosity.

I explained that a friend in New York, Erin Levi, the author of the Bradt guidebook to Bhutan, had told me about a fabled yeti hide hidden in the tantric chamber of the Gangtey Monastery. The relic was last documented by the Italian adventurer Reinhold Messner in 1991.

"I have heard the skin is still here," Max admitted. "But it is totally off-limits! Only the highest religious officials can see it."

This was good enough for me. "Let's find the abbot!" I declared, marching into the courtyard. "We can
request special access." Max at first looked perturbed, but then hurried behind me, ready — I hoped — to take up the challenge. After all, you don't come all the way to the Himalayas and miss a good yeti relic.

This flurry of excitement was something of a breakthrough on my weeklong trip to Bhutan. Three days earlier, when I'd first arrived in the world's last Buddhist kingdom, I found myself experiencing some not-very-Buddhist feelings — frustration, impatience, anxiety. No matter how often I took a deep, meditative breath, a cantankerous mood descended.

On the face of it, this was a dream trip. The coups de théâtre had begun with the heart-stopping flight into Bhutan's international airport in Paro, with the plane tilting its wings 45 degrees to squeeze between snowcapped peaks. At 7,300 feet above sea level, the airport itself was promisingly exotic, with a terminal that resembled a temple and a billboard-size portrait of Bhutan's young king and queen flashing smiles like Bollywood stars. Within an hour, I was walking a rope bridge across a river gorge to a fortress, accompanied by farmers in handwoven traditional garb. What's more, in the midst of this deluge of culture, I would be spending my first night in the lap of Bhutanese luxury. My entire suite in the Amankora Thimphu Lodge — located above the tiny capital city, Thimphu, and one of the five high-end Aman lodges that opened across the country a little more than a decade ago — was crafted from polished wood, with a terrazzo bath placed in its center like a site-specific sculpture. As dusk fell, the staff produced hot toddies made with the local whiskey, Misty Peak, to be drunk around a fire blazing on an outdoor deck overlooking a pine forest.

The reason for my cantankerous mood was simple. Bhutan, which opened to the outside world in 1974 and which has a near-mythic status as one of the world's purest and most remote countries, places extreme restrictions on foreigners' activities. Travelers must follow a preplanned itinerary and have a guide present at all times, per the government. Because every movement must be planned, the experience can feel like visiting the U.S.S.R. in the 1970s. By the end of the very first day, I was ready to step off the manicured path. I told the Aman employees that I was headed off on a solo stroll around Thimphu. But it turned out I couldn't leave. Such a jaunt was not on my "schedule," the staff kindly informed me. All the guides had gone home, and I was not permitted to explore the capital alone. In any case, they added, it would be all but impossible to find a taxi at this hour, and there was no public transport.

So I sat with my hot toddy by the fire, staring at the pine forest, which now seemed oppressive. At that moment, I might as well have been in the Catskills.

Bhutan’s most visited site, the Tiger’s Nest Temple, which visitors reach by hiking a two-hour trail.
Ian Allen

Bhutan has had some excellent PR. The tiny kingdom of 700,000 people squeezed between India and China has long been billed as the untouched gem of the Himalayas, attracting Buddhist celebrities like Richard Gere and Uma Thurman. Some of the reverence dates back to the mid 70s, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuk announced that instead of measuring the gross national product, Bhutan would measure Gross National Happiness, or G.N.H. It was a media coup, and the G.N.H. chestnut has been repeated in every story on Bhutan ever since — it's trotted out as proof that the Buddhist kingdom really is a spiritual haven, untouched by the crass materialism of the Western world. You'd think that all visitors were swept up in a euphoric state of enlightenment the moment they crossed the border.

Adding to the mystique is Bhutan's unique approach to tourism. The country has always limited arrival numbers and in 1989 imposed a "minimum daily tariff" to keep out the riffraff (now $250 in high season, including a $65 sustainable-development fee, which goes toward providing the citizens with free health care and education). The restrictions were imposed to allow the country to step gingerly into the modern era and avoid the fate of other fragile cultures crushed by global onslaught. Still, Bhutan is hardly in stasis: Six Senses is opening five luxury lodges there this year, in the same key valleys as the Amans, and rumors swirl that other brands are looking to join them. Interest in Bhutan has grown in recent years, in part because the country still feels like a dreamlike time capsule, especially when compared with the many other corners of manic Asia that are plunging into the future.

"Tourism in Bhutan is different from anywhere else in the world," explained Dhamey Tenzing Norgay, son of the famous sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who guided Edmund Hillary to the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. Dhamey, whom I met in New York before my trip, lives in Bhutan and works as a mountain guide. "Independent travel doesn't make sense. It's too hard to get around alone." He suggested I alter my expectations to fit this reality. "Bhutan is not a vacation destination. It's more of an emotional journey." In other words, it was a pilgrimage, and one should obey the rules.

I'll admit I have a shamefully Western attitude toward travel. If I am doing the same thing as everyone else, it's all but impossible to have a sense of discovery and wonder. Happiness means different things to different people, and for me, happiness means doing different things than other people. So as I downed my third hot toddy beneath the blazing Himalayan stars that night, I became determined to find a little ancient magic on my own.

This resolution induced a Zen-like calm. From then on, most of the time I would work within the system, selflessly accepting the more luxurious blessings of my seven-day journey — Amankora's fine cotton sheets, for instance, or its multicourse dinners in a former potato barn surrounded by hundreds of candles, like an elvish feast out of Tolkien. I would sink into a traditional outdoor hot-stone bath heated by fire-roasted rocks that released healing minerals. But for the rest of my weeklong expedition, I looked for every opportunity to slip through the cracks.

From left: The Gangtey Monastery, a center for the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism in Bhutan; a valley view from Amankora Gangtey.
Ian Allen

It was easy to disappear on short hikes, since outside of Thimphu, the Amankora lodges are in rural settings connected by a spiderweb of footpaths, which meander through rice paddies and past shrines with colorful prayer flags. One afternoon, I met a family of farmers who invited me to drink a Himalayan tea called suja, a dubious concoction flavored with yak butter and salt. On another hike, I stumbled upon an archery match (archery is the national sport) where a dozen enthusiasts in leggings paraded about like Tudor aristocrats, showing off their state-of-the-art metal bows and chatting about their chances of making it to the Olympics. These were fleeting glimpses into other worlds.

And I began to realize that the Bhutanese guides weren't so much passive as very shy, and unsure about what might actually interest a traveler. When Saturday night rolled around in Punakha, a pastoral valley with skies so bright and warm it resembled Napa with rice fields, as a joke I asked one guide, Ugyen, what the weekend party scene was like. Ugyen, who with his slicked black hair and aviators qualified as the hippest of the Aman employees, soon divulged that several nightspots were operating in a village called Sopsokha, half an hour away. It seemed wildly improbable. But after dinner, a few game guests piled into a car with Ugyen — now in mufti, having traded in his gho for a black hoodie and jeans — and roared off into the dark countryside.

The spontaneous nightlife tour began in a roadside pool hall, where players had to dodge long strips of bloody beef hanging from the rafters in the early stages of being air-cured. Soon after, we were following pounding music down nearby stairs into a concrete bunker illuminated by colored lights. It was a historic moment: the Sopsokha region's first pop-up discotheque had opened that weekend. It was rumored that some village girls trying to make money to travel overseas were setting up the club for a month, and fresh-faced young farmers and yak herders had traveled from miles around to buy bottles of Misty Peak and the local firewater, ara, which many drank in traditional fashion, mixed with chunks of scrambled egg. The music was a medley of  Western classic rock, Indian pop, and Bhutanese folk songs, all equally beloved by the wildly dancing crowd. As I lurched home at 3 a.m., I could feel that the script was beginning to fray.

Of course, these cultural immersions paled in comparison to chasing the yeti skin. As I wandered the Gangtey Monastery with Max, trying to find someone who would let us in to see the artifact, I began to appreciate for the first time the depth of traditional lore in Bhutan. The religious complex, a bone-rattling five-hour drive from the capital, was an otherworldly enclave that seemed to float on its lonely hilltop, caught between lush forests and luminous clouds. Mist from the valley floor began to drift through the ancient courtyards, and every room was blackened by the soot from four centuries' worth of incense sticks and butter lamps.

It was a minor setback to learn that the top officials were away. Surely someone other than the abbot had a key? Max saw that I wouldn't take no for an answer. After giving it some thought, he explained that each of the three inner shrines in the monastery did have its own special caretaker. If we were lucky — and I gave a decent "donation" for the upkeep of the monastery — one might open the tantric chamber.

We descended to the village's backstreets, poking our heads into farmhouses and barns, dodging donkeys, chickens, and dogs before finding a pallid monk in a red robe. As Max made our case, the monk looked me over with a furrowed brow. "I told him you are not a tourist but a respected Buddhist scholar," Max confided as we slowly walked together back up the hill to the monastery. I felt a new sense of camaraderie. Max was suddenly my new best friend. He didn't even seem to mind that my only spiritual credentials came from daily meditations on the Headspace app. "Maybe you are a Buddhist scholar then," he laughed. "Almost a lama!"

Night was falling by the time we reentered the monastery. The monk indicated that we should climb a wooden ladder to the second floor, where we groped in near darkness past murals of demons grinning malevolently. I entered one shrine filled with rusted weaponry — antique spears used against Tibetan invaders, muskets that repelled the British — but nothing resembling the hide of an abominable snowman. And then, to my surprise, the custodian waved me over to another portal, which he unlocked and slowly opened.

I couldn't believe it: the inner sanctum. Holding my breath, I pressed forward into a wood-paneled chamber illuminated by the watery light coming through one sliver of a window. As my eyes adjusted to the sepulchral darkness, I saw a wall lined with ghoulish animal trophies, like the monsters of a medieval bestiary — the desiccated carcass of an enormous fish baring piranha-like fangs; the hide of a feline that resembled a saber-toothed tiger; the scaly skin of a giant serpent. "This is the hand of a ghost," Max said matter-of-factly, pointing to a skeletal claw that had belonged to a "dead king" who once haunted the valley. I had been transported back to a prescientific age, looking at evidence of myth and legend.

Max then shined the light of his iPhone to reveal a grisly skin nailed to the wall and hanging like a sinister cape — the red yeti. I cautiously ran my fingers over the 400-year-old prize. It was definitely animal hide, stiff and fraying, with mummified claws and feet attached. Framed by long strands of hair (which was very black by now) was a grimacing, simian face. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but the yeti's features may have been reworked by the monks over the centuries, perhaps with stretched leather, to stem the tide of decay. The attendants solemnly explained that this strange creature was known as a meichum, a smaller type of yeti, which had been spotted around the village in the 17th century. The creature had a thorn in its foot, and the peasants, once they got over their terror, helped to remove it. Later, when the yeti was found dead in the forest, the abbot ordered its skin preserved for the monastery's Cabinet of Curiosities.

From left: Punakha Dzong, a 17th-century fortress; drinks by the fire at Amankora Gangtey; archers compete near the Punakha Dzong.
Ian Allen

I felt like high-fiving Max. Instead, I soberly slipped some cash into the offering bowl, bowing profusely. Walking back down the mountain trail, I was exultant. Caught up in the moment, it didn't matter whether the hide was authentic. Instead, I was happy to suspend disbelief as Max spoke casually about yeti lore — the footprints he had seen in the snow, the howls villagers heard in the night, the hulking figures his ancestors had glimpsed in blizzards. The fact that nobody had found a live yeti was only logical, he explained, because many yetis can become invisible. Others had feet that were on backward so they were impossible to track.

The creature's elusiveness felt oddly enviable. I could do with a few yeti tricks myself.

On my last day, the contradictions of Bhutan came together at the Tiger's Nest Temple. This fantastical monastery, which seems almost glued to the side of a sheer cliff and can only be reached via a two-hour hike along a steep, twisting path, is the Machu Picchu of the Himalayas, its trails usually clogged with tourists. As it happens, I needn't have worried about the crowds. In December, even though it was sunny and 70 degrees, there were only a handful of hikers. For most of the time, my only company was a pious dentist from Sikkim, India, who took selfies along the route. I entered the Tiger's Nest solo, was waved into its labyrinth of lanes by a drowsy guard, and wandered through echoing chambers lined with age-old murals.

Up in the last ornate shrine, a lonely monk was chanting to himself, and I joined him cross-legged on the stone floor. I had to admit that behaving like a pilgrim — going where everyone else was going, doing what everyone else was doing — wasn't so bad if you could find scenes like this. And while Bhutan's system has its frustrations, it's hard to imagine what the alternative would be. Tourism is thriving, and the government is debating deregulating portions of it in the eastern side of the country, where there are fewer travelers. (The idea is being considered by parliament, but mass tourism is violently opposed by every Bhutanese person I spoke to.) The country's single highway, until now an obstacle course of SUV-size potholes, will be paved this year. The more pessimistic observers say that in five years Bhutan will lose its innocence, making it the Cuba of the Himalayas with a see-it-while-you-can urgency. I realized that being able to visit under the current restrictions was a blessing in disguise.

When I got back to New York, I tracked down Reinhold Messner's book, My Quest for the Yeti: Confronting the Himalayas' Deepest Mystery, which recounts his pilgrimage to the Gangtey Monastery and hike across the country. I was bemused to find that Messner declared the relic a fake. Outraged, he said the four-century-old skin was either that of a large monkey or a Himalayan brown bear. Even so, seeing it must have been a powerful experience: Messner's photographer fell ill with blood poisoning not long after, and became convinced that he had fallen under a curse for sneaking a flash shot. He eventually had to be helicoptered out of Bhutan. (Luckily, I hadn't taken any photos.)

But Messner surely missed the point. It matters less to me whether it was a real yeti skin than that the monks and my new friend Max believed it was. There is little enough wonder left in the world. Personally, I still prefer to suspend my disbelief. On chilly evenings in Manhattan, as I hustle for the subway or rush through the crowds, I like to imagine that in faraway Bhutan the yetis are still in the mountain forests, invisible, feet on backward, making ghostly footprints in the snow. My own Gross Personal Happiness is much higher for it.

How to Explore Bhutan

Getting There

There are no direct flights to Paro, Bhutan's only international airport. I connected via Bangkok, but other stopover options include New Delhi and Singapore. The state-owned Drukair Royal Bhutan Airlines and the private Bhutan Airlines serve these three cities. The landing in the Himalayan airport was spectacular — and just as hair-raising as reputed.

Tour Operators & Lodging

Independent travel is all but impossible in Bhutan. You must go through a government-licensed tour operator (they obtain your $40 visa) and pay the minimum daily tariff of $250 in high season (September–November and March–May) or $200 in other months. Most itineraries are about nine days, and can be booked through seasoned, high-end companies such as Remote Lands and Absolute Travel. Carole Cambata, a member of T+L's A-List, our network of editor-approved travel agents, also specializes in Bhutan. I stayed at Amankora (doubles from $1,550, all-inclusive), a series of five luxury lodges in valleys around the country. You don't have to stay at all five — but many visitors make the circuit to get the full experience. One of my favorites was Amankora Gangtey Lodge, an opulent eight-suite hotel on a hilltop in the remote Phobjikha Valley. It is within hiking distance of the vibrant Gangtey village and its ancient monastery, and each suite has its own wood-fired stove. Ask for a hot-stone bath to unwind at dusk. Another standout, Amankora Punakha Lodge, can be reached only by walking over a suspension bridge swaying above a roaring river. Hiking trails from its doorway lead across an orange orchard to small farms that seem lost in the Middle Ages, with prayer wheels placed at strategic points. With barely 100,000 inhabitants, Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, will never be mistaken for a bustling South Asian metropolis, but it's still worth staying in the heart of the city so you can explore on foot. Le Méridien Thimphu (doubles from $380) has a traditional Bhutanese façade to fit in with the Himalayan aesthetic, but its rooms are surprisingly contemporary. By year's end, Six Senses plans to open its own circuit of five lodges.

Experiences

Your tour operator can work any of these sights into your itinerary. At the top of many a bucket list is the Tiger's Nest, a Buddhist monastery that sits on the side of a cliff. The structure was built beside a cave where the Guru Rimpoche lived after flying here on a tiger, as legend has it. The hike up was as memorable as promised: the steep two-mile trail, swathed in prayer flags, became more astonishing with every step. The National Museum of Bhutan was another highlight. Although still being restored after an earthquake in 2011, the circular 17th-century watchtower, or ta dzong, above Paro is an impressive attraction in itself. The exhibits on display offer a primer on Bhutanese culture, with information on holy men, relics in glass cases, and a natural-history gallery. Not everything worth seeing makes it into the scheduled tour circuit. In Thimphu, the Bhutan Postal Museum, which is dedicated to the humble stamp, perfectly sums up the country's quirkiness. Visitors can have their own images reproduced on legal stamps and use them on postcards to send back home — the ultimate Bhutanese souvenir.