Trekking and cycling through Bhutan

Richard Branson laughing in a lake in Bhutan
Adam Slama
Virgin Galactic
Richard Branson's signature
Published on 16 November 2023

What a magical Strive Challenge in Bhutan. The 10 day trip included hikes to sacred sites, ancient trails through forests and valleys, treks across mountain ridges, rafting down rapids, jumping in rivers, cycling through farming villages, and meeting the most inspiring people (including the king!) along the way.

We’ve wanted to do a Strive Challenge in Bhutan for a few years now. Hugging the eastern edge of the Himalayas, Bhutan is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and its landscape makes for the most wonderful adventures. On top of that, Bhutan’s unique approach to measuring the collective happiness and wellbeing of its population (its Gross National Happiness) aligns wonderfully with Big Change’s mission to transform education, so that all young people are set up to thrive in life. In case you’re not familiar with it, the Strive Challenge takes place every year to raise funds for Big Change and brainstorm ways to achieve education transformation while also pushing our bodies to the limits. To date, Strive has raised £8 million for the cause. Big Change was founded by Holly, Sam, Noah (my nephew), and a few of their friends over 10 years ago now with this very purpose. I’m so proud of what the charity has achieved in this time – backing 60 early stage ideas and leaders that have gone on to support 200,000 teachers and adults, unlock £60m in funding, and impact 8m young people.

Richard Branson with the Strive Challenge team in Bhutan
Adam Slama

The hiking and cycling was tough, but the scenery was just extraordinary… when you had the chance to look up! It was fascinating to learn how Bhutan became the only carbon negative country in the world. The previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, had also made it constitutionally mandatory to maintain at least 60% forest cover and ensure the environment would not be compromised.

The beauty and tranquillity is evident everywhere you go. It was also remarkable to step inside ancient Buddhist monasteries tucked into the side of mountains, where we met monks with brilliant stories and plenty of wisdom to share. It was also a true honour to have lunch with Bhutan’s king, who shared his big plans to help young people stay in Bhutan, which included innovative education policies and by building a sustainable city where the infrastructure will be no higher than a tree.

Adam Slama

We also met many incredible creative and entrepreneurial young people and held some fascinating conversations about ways to transform education, while we scaled mountains and sat huddled around campfires. Just like the Finalists in the £1m Big Education Challenge set up by Big Change, those young people had great insights on how education needs to be more engaging and relevant to their lives and ambitions. The team who come on Strive are always so passionate about the cause, so we always come away with plenty of new ideas and work to take away with us. I was just on the phone today about one of the ideas we had! You really never know where a good idea will come from.

Richard Branson and Sara Blakely in Bhutan
Adam Slama

Sara Blakely is also a regular Striver who joined us in Bhutan. I first met Sara on The Rebel Billionaire programme, a TV series for entrepreneurs that I hosted many moons ago, before she went on to launch Spanx and become a life-long friend of mine. Another honourable mention goes to Natasha Müller and James Benamor, who both hit a speed bump and went head over handlebars during a particularly dicey descent. James has been an incredible supporter of Big Change and Strive over the years, and when the earthquake struck Morocco this year, he doubled every donation that the Strive network made to the Eve Branson Foundation, which brought the total Striver donations to £266k.

Richard Branson with a Moroccan man following the 2023 earthquake
Branson family

To cap off a magical trip, we joined a football match where Bhutan played Hong Kong for the first time in many years and we taught the crowd how to do a Mexican Wave. Bhutan ended up winning 2-0 and I like to think the wave had something to do with it! We also watched a terrific Bhutanese film in an art deco theatre. It was called The Monk and the Gun, and I think it could and should win an Oscar. All in all, it was a magical trip and one I am unlikely to forget.