Shrouded in equal parts mist and mystery, the Kingdom of Bhutan remains one of the world’s last adventures. The country only opened its borders to foreigners some 45 years ago, and has never been colonised, all the while maintaining relationships both east and west of its setting in the foothills of the Himalayas. ‘I come here at least once a year,’ says Bell. ‘For me, it is one of the most comfortable countries in the world to travel. The Bhutanese government set a minimum price for travellers per day, which helps fund education across the country and means it has avoided the budget end of the travel market. The result is wonderful hotels and local guides who make a very good living from sharing their culture.’
The teachings of Buddhism drive life and, since 1971, the country has measured its success by Gross National Happiness, rejecting GDP as a measure to model progress. Social, spiritual, physical and environmental wellbeing are the factors that hold day-to-day value. ‘The photography is centred around the colourful festivals at temples and dzongs, though quiet moments bring just as much pleasure. Afternoons spent with potato farmers or visiting local markets are the experiences that define the real joy in the Land of the Thunder Dragon.’
Chilli and yak cheese are two dominant ingredients in Bhutanese cooking. Western travellers are often subjected to a bland alternative to protect them from the fearsome chilli heat the locals adore. ‘To get the real flavour of the country, it means sitting down with farmers as they prepare buckwheat noodles and finding the local momo shop where taxi drivers hang out,’ says Bell. Stay in Punakha at COMO Uma Punakha for its access to the surrounding temples and eat at Raven Restaurant, where its ginger- and coriander-heavy chicken curry is the stuff of local legend.