A Person Walking In A Forest

Happiness is a Country


Conversation 7 minute read


A Man With Dark Hair


Ugyen Dendup was born in Southern Bhutan, but he has lived in Paro for fifteen years, beneath the shadow of the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery. He has worked as an activity guide with COMO for twelve years, and never tires of sharing his culture and country with visitors.

What is the significance of the butter lamp ceremony?

The lighting of butter lamps is an everyday act of reverence. It’s part of Buddhist belief, representing the eradication of darkness and ignorance with wisdom and light. Each day, the faithful light butter lamps on home altars to brighten their paths in life’s journey. On special feast days, or when a close relative or friend has passed away, more lamps will be lit. On these occasions, we often use real yak butter to fuel the lamps, instead of the more commonly used solidified vegetable oil.

What advice on cultural tact would you give foreign visitors?

It’s very important to the Bhutanese that proper protocol should be followed when visiting temples or government offices. Clothing should be modest and shoes should be taken off at temple entrances. Photos should not be taken inside temples and it’s considered polite to ask permission before taking pictures of locals. In our culture, when you visit private homes or monasteries, it is also customary to bring a gift of some kind. When conversing with Bhutan’s most important figures: royalty, head monks, Rinpoches and so on, you should cover your mouth with your sleeves or hands.

A Group Of People Sitting In A Room
A Candle In A Glass

What has been your most moving experience in Bhutan as a guide?

A guest visited Bhutan shortly after the loss of her daughter. She was in deep mourning. Throughout the journey she made with us, her sadness was profound and yet somehow cathartic, especially during temple visits where offerings were made and butter lamps were lit. 

The Paro Festival is the most well-known event in Bhutan; what other events do you recommend?

In Central Bhutan in my hometown of Bumthang, we have a festival called Jambay Lhakhang Drup. It’s held in honour of one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, the seventh-century Jambay Lhakhang. The festival culminates at midnight with the Ter Cham, or naked dance, an ancient tradition which celebrates the construction of the temple after demons were successfully subdued. 

A Group Of People In Yellow Uniforms In Front Of A Building
A Group Of People Dancing

Do you think sacred landscapes exist?

Absolutely. Folklore has very special significance among Bhutanese families; we share our stories from generation to generation. We believe yetis exist in Brigdungla and Bumthang, as well as magical lakes such as Chumphul, or the Floating Goddess Lake.

Every temple has 1,000 paintings; which one resonates the most with you and why?

The Wheel of Life. It depicts the Karmic life cycle, which teaches us how to be better people, and how to elevate the way in which we live our lives. 

A Building On A Hill

If a guest only had a week in Bhutan, what is unmissable?

My top recommendations would include a pilgrimage to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which is perhaps Bhutan’s most iconic temple complex, a butter lamp lighting ceremony, and the hoisting of prayer flags. Another extraordinary experience is a helicopter journey to Jomolhari, winding between the hidden glaciers and lakes around Paro and Thimphu. 

Which COMO itinerary would you recommend for families?

I would recommend the Jewels of Bhutan itinerary, which takes in the best hikes around Paro and Punakha. It is fully customised for each family to suit all ages and abilities.

What are your hopes for the Trans-Bhutan Trail?

The Trans-Bhutan Trail — covering 250 miles, and opening this year for the first time — connects all the valleys and districts of Bhutan along its centuries-old pathways. It’s a great way to promote trekking: we can choose which parts of the trail we walk to match any length of stay and point of interest. It shines a light on the pristine areas and different cultural centres of Bhutan outside the usual tourist circuit.

A Person Walking Out Of A Building
A Boy Smiling And Looking At The Camera

Bhutan is known as the Land of Happiness — is it really?

It depends on how you measure happiness. We are not rich in a material sense, but in Bhutan, happiness is measured by having enough. We are contented and grateful: to be able to give unconditionally builds kindness in us all, which in turn creates more happiness. 

Which book about Bhutan would you recommend before visiting?

My favourite guidebook is Bhutan Travelog by Ashley Chen and Joni Herison. It has insights into Bhutan’s history, values and culture, and also includes first-hand travellers’ accounts of their journeys to the Dragon Kingdom. For an everyday sense of Bhutanese life, I love Chablop Passang Tshering’s PaSsu Diary. He’s a very popular Bhutanese blogger, and this collection spans ten years of his writing about everyday people, places and events.  

A Group Of People Standing On A Hill With Trees And Buildings In The Background
A Forest Of Trees
A Man Sitting On A Rock
A Tent In A Forest
A Person Holding A Flag

What do you think people find most surprising about Bhutan?

The Kingdom is still culturally intact. For instance, most Bhutanese still wear the country’s national dress daily (gho for men, kira for women). The monasteries and temples are active places of worship that still have monks and nuns residing in them. The food has not changed much over the years; fern tips, chilli and cheese — my grandparents and their grandparents before them ate the same things I do. 

Do you worry that tourism brings more damage than good to Bhutan?

We’re lucky in Bhutan. When His Majesty the Fourth King opened Bhutan to tourism in 1974, he promoted a ‘high value, low impact’ philosophy. It means that we prioritise quality of tourism over quantity, which allows us to preserve our culture and environment. 

If you’d like to explore Bhutan’s cultural heritage, or book a Jewels of Bhutan hiking itinerary, get in touch with our team.

COMO Uma Bhutan   |   E. res.uma.bhutan@comohotels.com   |   T. +975 8 279 999