Armchair Explorer

Land of the Thunder Dragon: Exploring Bhutan with British Travel Writer of the Year Emma Thomson

Listen on

Episode notes

Bhutan is the last of the great Himalayan kingdoms. Still largely untouched by outside influences, shrouded in mystery and magic, this Buddhist country, hidden for centuries on the roof of the world, is like nowhere else on the planet. Follow British Travel Writer of the Year Emma Thomson as she explores the culture and majesty of Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it's known by its people. Shunning the usual group tour, Emma stays with local families miles from the tourist trail and discovers, because of that, a glimpse of the real Bhutan most travellers will never see. 

But this is more than just an adventure. Cut off from the rest of the world until 1974, and surrounded by virtually impenetrable Himalayan peaks on all sides, Bhutan has remained culturally intact for centuries. It is a real-life Shangri-La, a kind of fabled mythical kingdom hidden in the mountains, where spirituality and happiness are more important than money and economic development. Intrepid travellers whisper its name in hushed and reverent tones for a reason. Bhutan is, perhaps, the most enlightened country on Earth, and when we visit some of that wisdom and inspiration becomes a part of us too.

Highlights include:

  • Staying with two local Bhutanese families in remote rural villages, far off the usual tourist trail
  • Experiencing real Bhutanese daily life: tending the fields, bathing in hot stone baths and helping to prepare the meals - fresh dumplings, curries, chillies and cheese
  • Exploring Punaka Dzong, the most beautiful of all of Bhutan's fortress temples
  • Trekking to the Tiger's Nest Monastery, which clings to the face of a sheer cliff and is the holiest site in the country
  • Hearing the myth of Shangri-La, or Shambala, a fabled hidden kingdom in the mountains where the wisdom of the world was guarded for centuries, and how that relates to the history and ideology of Bhutan today
  • Learning about Gross National Happiness. Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure its progress not by Gross National Product (the value of the goods it produces) but by Gross National Happiness (how happy and spiritually fulfilled its people are)
  • Visiting Bhutan's head of astrology, which is usually forbidden to tourists and discovering a surprise message there that might just shake your scepticism. 
  • Be inspired by the peace and serenity of the most enlightened country on Earth, and learn how to take that wisdom and stillness into your own life too

Who's the Guest?
Emma Thomson is the current British Guild of Travel Writers Travel Writer of the Year. She has been hooked on all things 'travel' since the age of 14, when she would sneakily rip pages out of ageing copies of National Geographic in the school library to add to her travel scrapbook. 

Today, she's just as passionate about adventure and has been working as a full-time freelance travel journalist since 2011, after spending six years as Commissioning Editor at respected guidebook publisher Bradt Travel Guides. She specialises in remote destinations and responsible, adventure-based stories.

Follow her on twitter: @emmasthomson, and instagram: @emmathomsontravels

Want More Bhutan?
For background photos, information, itineraries and more, please visit: 

The Armchair Explorer: the world's greatest adventurers tell their best story from the road. Each episode is cut documentary style with music and cinematic effects to create an immersive storytelling experience. 

Host/Producer Aaron Millar is an award-winning travel writer (Nat Geo, The Times etc.). He like science fiction, sushi and tequila, he hates rom coms, shellfish and gin. Like travel? We'll get on well. Instagram/Twitter @AaronMWriter / Facebook: @armchairexplorerpodcast.