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Practicing peace in Bhutan

Plan a pilgrimage to this remote country in the Himalayas, Matt's third “Where in the World” stop. TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg offers tips on transportation and more.
/ Source: TODAY

Of all the destinations this week that Matt is visiting, Bhutan is arguably the most mysterious, mystical and isolated. Most Americans have no idea where it is, and sadly, have never even heard of Bhutan. To say Bhutan is “untouristed” is to pay it a compliment.

The Kingdom sits high up in the Himalayas, but is roughly at the latitude of Florida. And the country has moved slowly into the 21st century — some would say it is still moving into the 20th century. The first paved roads were completed in the 1960s, and televisions only showed up eight years ago. Looking for a traffic light? Keep looking. And consider this small fact: Before the ngultrum became a money unit in the 1970s, there was no — repeat no — national currency.

In economic terms, Bhutan remains one of the poorest countries on Earth, but in terms of experience, it is one of the richest.

In one small country, you get ancient Buddhist culture, traditional village life, fortresses and monasteries, and nature reserves.

But then, there are the logistics.

First, getting there may not be easy.

Transportation & lodging
While the U.S. State Department says you can only visit Bhutan as part of an organized tour group with a recognized company, local hotels, such as Uma Paro, say they can make arrangements for independent travelers our groups. The hotel will confirm the space, ask for a copy of the front page of your passport, and then they will make the arrangements for your visa and your Druk Air flights into and out of Bhutan.It is impossible to just book a flight on your own to Bhutan (unless you’re a resident of the country). You must book one through one of the accredited tour operators (which will also arrange for a visa) to enter the country.

And the only airport with regular commercial flights in Bhutan is located in the town of Paro, and serves only the national carrier, Druk Air. The only cities Druk Air flies to are: Calcutta/Kolkatta, Delhi, Dhaka (Bangladesh), Kathmandu (Nepal), as well as a weekly flight to Bangkok via Dhaka.

Since you need to be with a tour group to travel through Bhutan, options for hotels and dining are limited. Here are few: Uma Paro is one of the only five-star hotels in Bhutan, with 18 deluxe rooms, two suites, eight one-room villas and one ultra luxury two-room villa. There's a certain amount of pampering available here, including yoga. And the Buchari restaurant is considered one of the best in Bhutan, using local organic ingredients.

FoodTraditional dishes include “sicum paa” or dried local pork with Bhutanese chilli, and “bathup,” a hearty soup based on handmade noodles. Other local produce includes hand-churned butter, hand-molded farm cheese, apple vinegar and honey sourced from hives in the wildflower-strewn Bhumthang Valley. Wild mushrooms are featured, as well as red rice grown in the fields below. Room rates are $250-$1,200. ()

But don't forget yak. Bhutanese people have an affinity for yak meat, but since Bhutan is a Buddhist country, the slaughter of animals is restricted, and in some places, Bhutanese do not slaughter animals at all; therefore, many enjoy vegetarian dishes. (Translation: the yak is, uh, imported!)

My suggestion: Try some of the vegetarian dishes, especially one called“Ema Datshi,” which is made with cheese and chili. Still, the yak is everywhere. And if someone offers you a glass or cup of Suja, be warned that this is a tea that includes salt and ... yak butter!

Want to stay connected? In the capital city of Thimphu, the Hotel Druk has all the basicthree-star amenities you need, including Wi-Fi. (The Zhiwa Ling Hotel in the Paro Valley, which means “Place of Peace” — also offers Wi-Fi.)

ToursSince you're going to have to be part of a small tour group to enter the country, here are some recommendations:

Asia Transpacific Journeys (; (800) 642-2742): This company offers a 14-day trip to the Kingdom in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund.

Land cost: $6,995 (includes accommodations in Bangkok)Single supplement: $950Destinations: Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, Phobjikha Valley, Trongsa, Kuenga Rabten, Jakar, Wangdue and BangkokDepartures: October 29, 2007

Asia Transpacific was among the first U.S.-based tour operators permitted to enter Bhutan. Note: You must be a World Wildlife Fund member in order to participate on this trip (membership costs $25).

This is wildlife up close and personal. You'll see takin, sambar, black bear, leopard, fox, and even barking deer. Includes visits to monasteries, private dance performances of sacred folk dances by the Royal Academy of Performing Arts and a stop at Drukgyel Dzong, the fortress that sits along a strategic route to Tibet and once provided protection from invasion from the north. A shorter, 11-day trip costs $4595.

A second outfitter, Wilderness Travel (), can get you to Bhutan on a 10-day trip ($3395 per person), and it includes all land transportation and private guides throughout.

Golf coursesHere's a surprise — Bhutan has seven courses. Four are nine holers: Royal Thimphyu (par 34, 2,800 yards), the Wangdi Military Base Course (2,000 yards, par 32 with sand greens), India House (a 2,100-yard layout that is located on the Indian Embassy compound in Thimphu and has eight greens and six fairways) and the King's private layout on his property in Punhaka. The other three courses range from four to eight holes and are located on military bases. Royal Thimphu is the only course open to the public.

The Royal Thimphu Golf CourseNestled in a valley in the Himalayas, the Royal Thimphu Golf Course is a challenging nine-hole (par 33) course set up between Thimphu’s Tashicho Dzong (the High Court) and the mountainous views. The course’s water hazards are manmade and are strategically placed for a challenging game on the narrow fairways. A different set of tees for the back nine make it a great double round of 18 holes. The restaurant at the golf course is said to be one of thebest in Thimphu. The course is about 35 years old, has about 100 members and is open all year. The cost is about $50 per person, including club rental, and you can play all day.

But then again, in a country with no traffic lights and no sense of urgency (what a relief) why not play all day? And that, among other things is one of the great — and particularly attractive — distinctions of this destination.

Clarification: The original version of this report, published May 2, indicated it is "impossible" to visit Bhutan unless you're a part of an organized group. That is not the case. Local hotels can also make arrangements for independent travelers. The article has been updated.