Asia’s Ancient Kingdoms

Nepal and Bhutan offer travelers a Shangri-La steeped in natural beauty and spirituality.

Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal, image

Kathmandu Durbar Square in Nepal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

You might expect Nepal and Bhutan, two kingdoms in the Eastern Himalayas, to be very similar. Only about a hundred miles apart, they both offer an immersion into highly spiritual cultures, jaw-dropping landscapes and vestiges of an unusual history dating back many centuries. But the countries also provide dramatically different, contrasting travel experiences. It may be hard to choose between the industrious and sometimes manic energy of Nepal's Kathmandu and the calm of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, perhaps the purest Buddhist kingdom on earth. Fortunately, you don't have to.

Nepal

Words like "dramatic" and "magical" only begin to describe Nepal. In this small landlocked country, you can travel from sea level to the top of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain at 29,050 feet, in less than 100 miles. Everest's imposing snowcapped peak stands in counterpoint to Kathmandu, Nepal's chaotic and exotic capital.

The city seems only lightly touched by the 21st century. You wander through an ancient maze of squares, temples and alleys filled with markets, architectural treasures and colorful Buddhist prayer flags. Start your morning at the top of Swayambhunath, a hilltop monastery, where you take in panoramic views of the vast Kathmandu Valley along with believers, local musicians and macaque monkeys.

Wander around the 500-year-old palaces of Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then visit the massive white dome stupa of Boudhanath, the center of Buddhist worship, where Nepalese and Tibetan worshippers walk clockwise, chanting as they spin prayer wheels. At the city's Hindu temple at Pashupatinath, you'll encounter colorful sadhus (holy men with painted faces). Explore the nearby historical cities of Patan and Bhaktapur. And if you want more than a glimpse of the Himalayas, book a sightseeing flight from Kathmandu to circle Mount Everest. The best souvenir? Meeting the hospitable Nepalese people, whose lives are intertwined with the mystical.

Bhutan

What to make of a country that measures its Gross National Happiness? Bhutan, known to its people as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is a compact, edenic country where 20,000-foot mountains and pine forests lie remarkably close to terraced rice fields, cacti and bamboo groves. Everywhere you venture, your senses are put on alert—by crimson- robed Buddhist monks and temple bells and chants, the country's soundtrack.

This profoundly Buddhist nation feels remarkably unspoiled. It won't take you long to discover its charming oddities. Bhutan is the only country in the world where archery is the national sport, and Thimphu can lay claim to being the only world capital without traffic lights. Keeping the vehicular peace: white-gloved policemen, another 21st-century anachronism.

Tashichhodzong Fortress, the center of Bhutan's government since 1641, presides over the capital. And the King's National Memorial Chorten, a treasured monument, draws fervent pilgrims from all over the country who chant mantras and whirl prayer wheels.

Thimphu also harbors Bhutan's most sacred shrine, Paro Taktsang, the Tiger's Nest Monastery. Set on a rock outcropping about 2,600 feet above the Paro Valley, the holy site dates back to 1692. If you're especially fit, it's an adventure to climb up.

Two hours from Thimphu, Paro displays its own historical treasures. The National Museum, filled with antique Thangka paintings, weapons and textiles, houses a remarkable collection.

Regardless where you go in Bhutan, be prepared: Your level of happiness may increase.

Burma

After years of isolation, Burma's opening to Western tourists is welcome news. Long considered one of the gems of southeast asia, this land of pagodas and natural splendor has suddenly thrown open its gates, offering you a chance to be among the first to visit in many decades.

Begin in Yangon with the gold-covered stupa, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Bagan, on the Irrawaddy river, shelters thousands of 11th- to 13th-century temples and stupas. And one of the best places to encounter Burma's many ethnic tribes is at the 5th day market on Inle lake. Then visit the legendary city of mandalay and ply the Irrawaddy river on a small cruise boat.

Now is one of those rare opportunities to explore an unchanged country before it joins the 21st century.

Photography courtesy of Bernard Gagnon/Wikipedia

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This article was first published in September 2012 in Traveler. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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