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Destination Details: Bhutan

Land of the Thunder Dragon

Draped along the greatest heights of the Himalaya, Bhutan is a land of sublime scenery, time-worn temples, and some of the most remote walking trails on earth. It's a Buddhist country, rich in scenic splendour and cultural treasures.

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Read about our time in Bhutan

Bhutan is known to its people as "Druk Yul" (Land of the Thunder Dragon) and they call themselves Drukpa. Bhutan is a small Himalayan country about the size of Switzerland, surrounded by the Asian giants of India to the south and Chinese-occupied Tibet to the north. Sharing the same latitude as Miami and Cairo, Bhutan�s climate is dictated by its extreme elevation "on the rooftop of the world." The land is characterized by massive mountains and steep valleys bisected by raging rivers. Primarily because of the of the terrain, the population is scattered across sparse mountain valleys; many of whom are without roads, electricity or running water. There is one highway, running east to west and charmingly no traffic lights in the entire country. The most likely traffic jam is a herd of yaks meeting a caravan of horses on one of the infinite footpaths in Bhutan.

As a Buddhist kingdom, religion permeates all aspects of daily life. This is most evident in the beautiful dzongs. Designed originally as fortresses to protect against attacking Tibetan armies in the 17th century, they now serve as both Buddhist temples and regional government centers. These white citadels are beautifully decorated with Buddhist murals and statues.

Bhutan's rich Buddhist culture has been successfully preserved by its current monarchy, which was established only 100 years ago - there have only been four kings in the current lineage. King Jigme Sinye Wangchuck is the current king and highly regarded by the Drukpa. He and his father before him have guided Bhutan slowly and deliberately into the modern age. Education is a primary element in this plan. Hydroelectricity and tourism are two of Bhutan�s primary income sources and both are strictly regulated. Many have thought it to be a "closed" country, which was once partially true. Today tourists are required to pay a flat daily tariff through a registered Bhutanese travel company.

Now is an exciting time to be in Bhutan. The country is in the midst of finding a balance between a modern society and a traditional culture.

The Laya Lingshi Trek

The Laya Lingshi Trek is considered to be the second most difficult trek in Bhutan, with the Lunana Snowman Trek being the toughest. The trek spans 15 days and four high altitude passes. Beginning in Paro, the hike initially leads to the Chomolhari Basecamp. Chomolhari is one of the largest, most reknown mountains in Bhutan. From there, the trail begins to parallel the Tibetan border as it climbs over the first of its passes, Nyele La.

It then descends to the first of the remote villages on the trek, Lingshi. This village is home to the 500 year old Lingshi Dzong and over a dozen monks. From here, the trail continues for several days in the same manner, crossing high passes and following along narrow ridges and steep valleys until it reaches Sinchey La, the highest pass on the trek. At 16516 feet,  the effects of altitude are definitely felt here. From Sinchey La, the trail begins a gradual descent to the village of Laya.

Laya is the one of the largest and most unique mountain villages in Bhutan. It has its own style of dress and a very unique pointed hat worn by the women. From Laya the trail continues to descend to the town of Gasa, home to some of Bhutan's best hot springs as well as the massive Gasa Dzong. After a day of soaking in the springs, the trail continues on to its terminus in the city of Punakha.

Keys To Bhutan : Our Guide

Because of Bhutan's unique approach to tourism, we had to find a guiding company to lead us on our trip to Bhutan. There are two ways to approach this, hire a US reseller of Bhutanese services or hire the Bhutanese company directly. While going through a US company may appear to be easier, it is more expensive and more hands off. Booking directly through a Bhutanese company offers many advantages, including a more personal experience as well as a significant cost savings.

After some good old web surfing, with an emphasis on the Thorn Tree forum in the Lonely Planet's web site, we came up with a Bhutanese company called "Keys to Bhutan". This company is owned by two Bhutanese guys, Anan and Gelay. Both of them are awesome people as well as amazing photographers. Not only are they a guiding company, but they have published the first coffee table book on Bhutan by Bhutanese and they are the primary producer of Bhutan's postcards.

By the time we had left Bhutan, we had realized how amazing and unique this tour company is. They are well educated, fluent English speakers that are willing to go to any length to make a trip to Bhutan amazing. When the Lonely Planet says that Buddhist temples are off-limits and most guiding companies tell you that you can't enter them, Keys to Bhutan goes to the trouble of getting the permits and permission necessary to let tourists into the temples. Most of the tourists we met on the trek had walked through villages and past families and dzongs that we had stayed in, shared meals with and visited monks in.

Gelay was our guide for this trip and he made our visit all it could be, doing everything possible to maximize our experience. It seemed as though every person we met was his friend. Many meals and cups of butter tea were shared because of his endless friendships. As a fellow photographer, Gelay was very in tune with what kind of images we were looking for as well. Many times he paved the way for the once in a lifetime Buddhist monk shot or exposre to Layap school children. As a practicing Buddhist with an amazing knowledge of Bhutanese history and religion, Gelay was uniquely suited to provide us with an incredibly comprehensive understanding of Bhutan.

If anyone is planning a trip to Bhutan, we strongly recommend Keys to Bhutan(www.keystobhutan.com). Two crucial factors to selecting a guide in Bhutan are their direct experience with the trek/region you wish to visit and their willingness to make sure your Bhutan experience is complete.

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