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The destinations here are not easy to get to, but that’s part of their appeal. In an era when the world is flooded with selfie-stick-carrying tourists and everything has a “been there, done that” feeling, it’s exhilarating to think of the road less travelled. Indeed, the best part of any journey is the romance of it, whether that involves scaling Bhutan’s vertiginous cliffs, past sacred temples and fluttering prayer flags, and achieving your own sense of nirvana in the happiest nations on the planet; spending the night under the darkest sky in Chile’s Atacama Desert and taking in the whole Milky Way; or stepping into someone else’s dream, like that of the creative fabulist Ramdane Touhami, who has reimagined a mountain chalet in Switzerland’s Bernese Alps as something out of a fairytale. Isn’t that the fantasy?

As with so many travellers, Bhutan, often referred to as the last Shangri-La, has loomed large in my imagination. So when the country reopened for tourism post-pandemic in autumn 2022, I was aboard one of the first flights landing on its mountain-flanked airstrip. The occasion also marked the start of a bold new approach to sustainable tourism. Following a ‘high-value, low-volume’ model with a levy for visitors, currently £78 per person per day, this Himalayan kingdom keeps numbers relatively low, which meant that during my two-week jaunt around its main valleys I had mountain trails and frozen-in-time dzong (a type of architecture used for monasteries) almost entirely to myself. That thrill, combined with deep-rooted Buddhist culture, some of Asia’s most luxurious resorts and historic temples, made this tiny nation one of my favourite places.

One morning I hiked up the hills around Gangtey’s Phobjikha Valley and was lucky enough to spot two rare black-necked cranes circling over the marshland to find a spot to roost.
En route from Thimphu to Punakha, we took a break at the Dochu La pass, where the clouds had just lifted to reveal snowy Himalayan peaks in the distance. The stupas in front – there are 108 of them – were built in memory of the Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives in a 2003 battle against insurgents from Assam, India.
I have visited Punakha three times, but its dzong never fails to take my breath away. It’s particularly pretty in spring, when it seems to rise out of a lilac-hued halo of jacaranda trees.
Out of all the dzongs I visited around Bhutan, the Punakha Dzong remains my favorite. The second-oldest and second-largest in the country, its warren of hidden corridors and timeworn Buddhist frescoes make you feel like you’ve entered a time warp into another century.
I met these young monks on a prayer flag-pinned hilltop outside Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, and loved how their hoodies matched their burgundy robes.
The trek up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery near Paro took me three hours, but with views like these along the way, I didn’t even notice my screaming muscles until I returned for a foot massage at Amankora’s Bumthang lodge, where I was staying.
One early morning at the lodge, clouds hovered low over the pine-tufted mountains flanking the valley. Eventually they drifted off high enough to bring the red-ribboned Jakar Dzong fortress into view.
The imposing Gangtey Gonpa monastery is the Phobjikha Valley’s focal point and the little village around it was a great spot to stop for butter tea and watch Buddhist thangka artists at work.
Almost everyone, including the staff at Amankora, dresses up in Bhutan’s national garb: a wide-sleeved gho for men and these beautifully patterned kira for women.
I kept asking my driver to stop so I could take pictures, including this one of an early-morning scene of tropic-tinged Punakha, where rice fields and palm trees make it easy to forget you’re in the Himalayas.

Photography and text by Chris Schalkx. Taken from Issue 59 of 10 Men UK – PRECISION, CRAFT, LUXURY – out NOW.