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Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas between Tibet and India. Besides the stunning natural scenery, the enduring image of the country for most visitors is the strong sense of culture and tradition that binds the kingdom and clearly distinguishes it from its larger neighbors. Bhutan is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, and the profound teachings of this tradition remain well preserved and exert a strong influence in all aspects of life. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called "The Last Shangrila."
Bhutan can culturally and geographically be divided into three regions, which are further divided into 20 districts or dzongkhag (singular and plural):
- Thimphu - The capital city
- Jakar - An administrative town in the north and the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan.
- Mongar - One of the largest towns in east Bhutan.
- Paro - The location of the international airport and Taktsang Monastery.
- Punakha - A former winter capital of Bhutan.Still hosts the Monastic Body in Winter.
- Phuentsholing - A town on the Indian border. The point of entry for travelers arriving by bus from Kolkata.
- Samdrup Jongkhar - An administrative town in the southeast, near the Indian border.
- Trashigang - A picturesque administrative town in the east.
- Trongsa - A small administrative town famous for its dzong and the Tower of Trongsa
- Jigme Dorji National Park
- Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park
- Royal Manas National Park
- Thrumshingla National Park
Wildlife sanctuaries/Nature reserves
- Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary
- Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary
- Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary
- Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary
- Toorsa Strict Nature Reserve
Bhutan is a unique country both culturally and environmentally. Perched high in the Himalayas, it is the world’s last remaining Buddhist Kingdom. It has developed the philosophy of Gross National Happiness; where development is measured using a holistic approach of well-being, not just based on gross domestic product. Chilies are considered a vegetable and ema datshi the national dish. Ema datchi consists of green chilies mixed in with a Bhutanese cheese sauce. It is still termed as a third world country with subsistence farming practiced in much of the country. In broad terms the land is fertile and the population small. In addition, the current generation receives free education, and all citizens have access to free, though rudimentary, medical care. The sale of tobacco products is banned and smoking in public areas is a fineable offense.
Major sources of income for the kingdom are tourism, hydroelectric power and agriculture.
While traditional culture has been very well preserved, the opening of the country to TV and internet in 1999 has had a major effect, and modern-day culture is mostly centred on bars and snooker halls. As a result, there is very little or no evidence of quality contemporary art, theatre or music.
Culturally, Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist with Dzongkha as a national language (although there are regional variations - such as Sharchopkha, the predominant language in Eastern Bhutan), and a common dress code and architectural style. Bhutanese people primarily consist of the Ngalops and Sharchops, called the Western Bhutanese and Eastern Bhutanese, and Lhotshamphas (Southern Bhutanese), a people of Nepalese Gurkha Origin, respectively. The Ngalops primarily consist of Bhutanese living in the western part of the country. Their culture is closely related to that of their neighbor to the north, Tibet.
Gross National Happiness
This ideology was the brain child of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who, having gained a modern education in India and the UK, realized that mere economic success did not necessarily translate into a content and happy society. Consequently, soon after his coronation in 1974, the young king began to float the idea of developing a new set of guidelines by which to govern the country. Slowly these ideas took shape, and in 1998 the GNH indicator was established. GNH stands for "Gross National Happiness" and is defined by the following four objectives: to increase economic growth and development, preserve and promote the cultural heritage, encourage sustainable use of the environment, and establish good governance. While the concept of GNH receives much international praise and is a major draw for tourists, potential visitors should be aware that the idea is very much in its incubation stage, and there is very little evidence of GNH in the country itself.
On 19 July 2011, 68 countries joined the Kingdom of Bhutan in co-sponsoring a resolution titled “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” which was adopted by consensus by the 193-member UN General Assembly. In follow up to the resolution, the Royal Government of Bhutan convened a High Level Meeting on “Happiness and Well Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” on 2 April 2012 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This meeting initiated the next steps towards realizing the vision of a new well being and sustainability based economic paradigm that effectively integrates economic, social, and environmental objectives. Following this resolution, Bhutan continues to be a champion of the resolution and actively promotes the concept internationally.
The first humans probably arrived sometime after the Ice Age, and little is known about Bhutan's prehistory. Historical records began with the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century, when Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) visited Bhutan and established monasteries.
In 1865, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding some border land. Under British influence, a monarchy was set up in 1907; three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs. This role was assumed by independent India after 1947. Two years later, a formal Indo-Bhutanese accord returned the areas of Bhutan annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India's responsibilities in defense and foreign relations.
In December 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred power to his oldest son, the Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, bestowing upon him the title of the fifth Druk Gyalpo. The official coronation took place in November 2008. The Fifth King is Boston and Oxford educated and is held in high esteem throughout the country.
It is not possible to travel far in Bhutan without seeing images of a man wearing a tall elaborate hat and with eyes that are open wide and staring forward into space. This is the great 8th century sage of Vajrayana Buddhism, Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche as he often called. According to legend, Padmasambhava was reincarnated into a lotus blossom as an eight year old child, and from very young he possessed great wisdom and insight. Furthermore, he had mastery of the elements and so like a potter manipulating basic clay and turning it into beautiful pots, he was able to transform harmful action and substances into something positive and beneficial.
Guru Rinpoche's special association with Bhutan began when he traveled to the town now known as Jakar at the invitation of a local king to subjugate negative forces. The mission was a success, and from this encounter Buddhism spread throughout the land. A body print of the great sage exists to this day at Kurjey Lhakhang in Jakar, and he is also associated with many other sacred sites in Bhutan, with perhaps the most notable being the cliff-hanging Taktshang Monastery in Paro.
Although geographically quite small, Bhutan’s weather varies from north to south and valley to valley, mainly depending upon the elevation. In the North of Bhutan on the borders with Tibet it is perennially covered with snow. In the western, central and eastern Bhutan (Ha, Paro, Thimphu, Wandue, Trongsa, Bumthang, Trashi Yangtse, Lhuntse) you will mostly experience European-like weather. Winter lasts here from November to March. Punakha is an exception as it is in a lower valley and summer is hot and winter is pleasant. Southern Bhutan bordering with India is hot and humid with a sub-tropical climate. While the monsoon affects northern Indian it does not command the same influence in Bhutan. Summer months tend to be wetter with isolated showers predominately in the evenings only. Winter is by far the driest period while spring and autumn tend to be pleasant.
There are four distinct seasons similar in their divisions to those of Western Europe. Temperatures in the far south range from 15°C in winter (December to February) to 30°C in summer (June to August). In Thimphu the range is from -2.5°C in January to 25°C in August and with a rainfall of 100mm. In the high mountain regions the average temperature is 0°C in winter and may reach 10°C in summer, with an average of 350mm of rain. Precipitation varies significantly with the elevation. The average rainfall varies from region to region.
- January 1 - Winter Solstice (Western Bhutan only)
- January 31 - Traditional Day of Offerings (a day to offer food to hungry creatures - celebrated as new year in Eastern Bhutan)
- February 21–23 (every year) - Birth Anniversary of HM the Fifth King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck
- March 2–3 - ( Year of the Wood Horse) - New Year (losar)
- May 2 (every year) - Birth Anniversary of Third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuck
- May 9 (not fixed) - Shabdrung Kuchoe (commemorates the passing of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1651 CE)
- June 13 (not fixed) - Commemoration of Lord Buddha's Parnirvana.
- July 7 (not fixed) - Anniversary of the Birth of Guru Rinpoche
- July 31 (not fixed) - The first sermon of Lord Buddha
- September 9 (not fixed) - Thimphu Drubchen (Thimphu Only)
- September 23 (not fixed) - Blessed Rainy Day
- October 3 (not fixed) - Hindu ceremony of Dashain
- October 3–5 (not fixed) - Thimphu Tshechu(Thimphu Only)
- November 1 (not fixed) - Coronation Day of His Majesty the King
- November 13 (not fixed) - Descending Day of Lord Buddha
- December 17 (every year) - National day, commemorating the 1907 coronation of the first hereditary king of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck
In addition to the above national holidays, there are also Tshechu holidays which are celebrated regionally.
- Travellers and Magicians, Bhutan's first internationally acclaimed feature film was made in 2003 and showcases life in Bhutan.
- Beyond the Sky and the Earth (buy) - a novel by Jamie Zeppa telling the true story of a young Canadian's (Jamie) experiences teaching at schools in Bhutan - very entertaining and informative.
- The Raven Crown (buy) A book by Michael Aris about the origins of the Buddhist monarchy in Bhutan.
- The Circle of Karma - an excellent novel by acclaimed local author Kunzang Choden - insights into the life of Bhutanese women.
- Kuensel. A partially government owned newspaper with a forty-year history. Kuensel is published daily.
- BBS. The official TV broadcasting station
- The Bhutan Times. An independent source of news on Bhutan - commercial and somewhat tabloid in nature. BT is published once a week on Sunday.
- The Bhutan Observer. An independent source of news on Bhutan - a social leaning paper with in-depth stories. BO is published once a week on Friday.
- Radio Valley. Bhutan's first Private FM Radio Station. A program called "With Love From Home" can be listened online.
- Kuzoo FM An English language radio channel - mixture of youth orientated music and discussion programs - FM 105.
- Centennial Radio An English and Dzongkha (National Language) program.
Bhutan is a unique destination and as such it has a few unique rules. Most tourists must obtain a visa before arriving in Bhutan. Visas are issued on receipt of full payment of your holiday by the Tourism Council of Bhutan, and the fixed rates start from US $200/person/day. The money remains with the Tourism Council until your travel in-country is complete before the local tour operate is paid. Bhutan does not restrict tourist numbers any longer and operates an open door policy.
All tourists not from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives must obtain a visa prior to departure. All tourists must book their travel through a local licensed tour operator (or international partner). Visas are applied for online by your local tour operator and it is not required that you visit a Bhutanese Embassy or consulate. Your holiday must be paid in full, via a wire transfer, to the Tourism Council of Bhutan account before a tourist visa is issued. Visa clearance takes no longer than 72 hours, once full payment has been received. At your point of entry the visa will be stamped in your passport on payment of US $20, two passport photos will also be required. Visa extensions can be obtained through you local tour operator at a cost of Nu.510 (1 Ngultrum = 1 Indian Rupee) and the tourist will also be subject to the daily tariff for the additional days. Visas are issued on arrival to residents of India, Bangladesh and Maldives only. Indian citizens are allowed to stay in Bhutan indefinitely with only a valid passport.
As travel to Bhutan almost invariably requires at least one flight change in India, Nepal, Singapore or Thailand, ensure that you meet the visa requirements of those countries before transiting through. Nepal and Thailand offer visas on arrival or visa waiver for many nationalities. India generally requires visa procedures to be completed before arrival, and this can take up to two weeks.
Visa on entry
For citizens of India, Bangladesh and Maldives only, visas are issued on entry. A photograph and Identification document, Passport or Voter ID Card, is required (along with a photocopy of either). Fill the document with purpose "Tourism". At land border crossings you will only get 7 days for Paro and Thimphu. For extension of duration apply in Thimphu at the Immigration office at the northern end of Norzin Lam. For visiting other districts you will need to apply for road permits at the same office. They are best applied in the morning and you will receive the document in the afternoon. In case you are defence official without a passport or a student without the above three accepted identification papers, you can request the Indian consulate further up the road to provide you an identification endorsement document but this takes time.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan operates the daily tariff for all tourists entering the country. It is not possible to enter Bhutan as a tourist without paying this tariff.
The daily tariff covers:
- A minimum of 3 star accommodation – Luxury hotels may incur an additional fee
- All meals – Breakfast, lunch, dinner
- A licensed Bhutanese Tour Guide for the extent of the stay
- All internal transport – excluding any internal flights
- Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
- All internal taxes and charges
- A royalty of $65 (which is included in the tariff price)
The minimum tariff is (for a group of 3 persons or more):
- USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October and November.
- USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August and December.
The rates are applicable per tourist per night halt in Bhutan. Groups of two or less shall be subject to a surcharge, over and above the minimum daily rates applicable, as follows:
- Individual, US $40 per night
- 2 persons, US $30 per person per night.
There is no charge for children up to the age of 5 years. Children aged between 6 and 12 years accompanied by parents/ guardians shall be given 50% discount on daily rates and 100% discount on Royalty. Full-time students below the age of 25 years holding valid identity cards from their academic institutions shall also be given a 25% discount on daily rates. A discount of 50% on daily rates shall be given to one person in a group of 11 to 15 people. 100% discount shall be given to one member in a group exceeding 16 persons. A 50% discount on Royalty shall be provided after the 8th night and a 100% discount on Royalty shall be provided after the 14th night.
It is illegal to undercut tariff prices, and any tour operators found to be undercutting will have their licence terminated.
The only other options for visiting the country are to receive an invitation by a Bhutanese citizen, where proof of the relationship must be presented on applying or through an NGO.
Paro International Airport (PBH) is the only entry point to Bhutan by air, located in the south west of the country near capital Thimphu. Long served only by flag carrier Druk Air , Druk operates 2 planes (two airbuses) which fly routes to Bangkok in Thailand; Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bodh Gaya/ Gaya, Bagdogra, Guwahati in India; Kathmandu in Nepal; Dhaka in Bangladesh and Singapore. In October 2013, Druk's monopoly was broken when Bhutan Airways launched daily flights to Bangkok.
The other option is Bagdogra Airport (IXB) , serving the city of Siliguri in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal, Bagdogra is a four-hour drive from the Bhutanese border town of Phuentsholing. Bagdogra receives frequent flights from major cities within India, and Druk Air operates flights from Bangkok on Sundays and Wednesdays (with out going flights on Tuesdays and Saturdays).
There are three land border crossings located along southern border to India only. Phuntsholing in the west, Gelephu in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar in the east. No border crossings are open along the Chinese northern border. Road permits are also required; however, these are processed by your local tour operator, along with your visa.
- From Kolkata: The Royal Bhutanese Government runs a service to Phuentsholing. These buses depart from Kolkata's Esplanade bus station at 7PM on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and from the Phuentsholing Bhutan Post office at 3PM on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The journey takes around 18 hours and costs 300Rps/Nu. The buses are comfortable, but because much of the highway to Kolkata is like the surface of the moon, don't bank on getting much sleep on the way.
- From Siliguri: There is frequent service between Siliguri and Phuentsholing/Jaigaon. It is roughly a four-hour journey. Buses operated by Royal Bhutan Government depart from across the main highway from the bus station, near Heritage Hotel, at 7:30AM and 1:30PM daily. Tickets cost Rs 62 and are available on entering the bus.
- From Phuentsholing: There are private buses and shared taxis from Phuentsholing to Thimphu but a comfortable option is to book a Bhutan Post bus (Rs/Nu 170) which leaves each morning at 7AM (Bhutan time) from the post office.
There are no railways in Bhutan. The nearest options (both in India) are:
- Hasimara on the main Kolkata/Siliguri line to Assam is the nearest railway station to Phuentsholing, 17 km away. Indian Rail operated train #13149 and #4084 stop here. As of October 2010, some sections of the road from New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri to Phuentsholing are in a very bad shape. Extending travel by train till Hasimara would save your freshness for Bhutan.
- New Jalpaiguri Station (NJP) in Siliguri is a popular choice for travellers heading to Bhutan by land. There are direct shared taxis from NJP to Jaigaon or there is the option of buses from Siliguri bus station. A taxi between the station and the bus station costs around 80rs max. Alternatively you can also take a local train to Hasimara which costs around Rs40 and takes around 3 hours. Trains from NJP should be booked ahead, as it is a popular stations amongst locals. There are not any trains leaving from this station with a tourist quota.
Route permits are required to travel around Bhutan, and there are check posts in most districts east and north of Thimphu where you are required to produce these documents in order to proceed. Route permits are processed by your local tour operator on applying for your visa. These permits are issued by the immigration office in Thimphu (Northern end of Norzin Lam).
Plane travel is a fast and relatively safe alternative to tackling Bhutan's twisty roads, but schedules are sparse and flights are cancelled at the drop of a hat. Druk Air and Bhutan Airways (aka Tashi Air) fly from Paro (Thimphu) to Yongphula Airport near Trashigang and Bathpalathang Airport in Jakar, Bumthang region. A third airport in the southern central region, close to the Indian border, technically opened in 2012 but is not served by scheduled flights yet.
The roads that cross the country are characterized by their twists, turns, and steep inclines, but despite the difficult topography, they are generally very well-maintained and safe. Local and inter-district bus services are not so comfortable and stop frequently. Your local tour operator will provide a vehicle and driver for the duration of your stay. This cost is included in the daily tariff. However, traveling by local or inter-district bus or taxi can also be organized. It is recommended that you drive in Bhutan only if you have experience driving in mountainous regions. The quality of road surface is variable with endless mountainous hairpin bends. It is recommended that you pack travel sickness tablets.
As the public transport running between towns in Bhutan is infrequent, hitching is a very common way to get around. The thumb in the air symbol, however, is not recognized, and you will need to flag down a passing vehicle in order to get one to stop. NB: As some drivers pick up passengers as a means of supplementing their incomes, it is customary to offer payment when getting out of the vehicle (the amount depends roughly on the distance, but it will be comparable to the cost of traveling by bus). However, most drivers require nothing, and are more than happy just to have some company and the opportunity to make a new friend. If you plan to hitch a lot (and in some rural areas there is no other way to get around), it is a good idea to take a few small gifts to offer the drivers as an expression of your appreciation.
Due to the mountainous terrain, roads are frequently blocked by rock falls during the summer season. Therefore, it is best to avoid traveling long distances from the beginning of June to the end of August. However, if you must travel at this time, carry ample bottled water and snacks as if the landslide occurs it could take some time to clear the road.
At an altitude of 3750 metres, the section of road that runs through the Thrumshingla Pass connecting Bumthang and Mongar is the highest in the country and offers some spectacular scenery. However, due to the steep sides of the valley it is especially susceptible to rock falls, so be prepared for long waits during the wet periods in particular.
Food and refreshment
While there are ample restaurants on highways between main towns and the hygiene standards at such places is acceptable, the quality of the food is very low and the choice of dishes limited. In addition, the dining halls offer an environment no better than a bus station waiting room. Therefore, it is generally better to prepare food and refreshment for the journey at the point of departure.
The majority of tourists do "cultural tours" where they visit important destinations. Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, and Jakar are popular destinations. Further afield, the unexplored region of Zhemgang (birders paradise, excellent wildlife viewing) and Eastern Bhutan have just been opened up to tourism. If you are an adventurist and want to explore the unexplored the east of Bhutan is the place for you. This unique and yet untouched part of the country offers the ultimate experience.
Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest), Paro. This is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world, and Guru Rinpoche visited here in the 8th century on his second visit to Bhutan. It is the most recognized and visited monument in Bhutan. It is believed that he arrived on the back of a winged tigress, hence the name, Tigers Nest. The temple is built on a 1,200 metre cliff and was built in 1692.
Hundreds of monasteries dot the landscape in some of the most pristine and remote areas.
Kurje Lhakhang, Jakar. A temple built around a cave with a body print of Guru Rinpoche embedded in the wall. Guru Rinpoche practiced meditation here on his first visit to Bhutan and as such it is the earliest Buddhist relic in the country.
Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue under construction in the mountains of Bhutan. The statue will house over one hundred thousand (one hundred thousand) smaller Buddha statues, each of which, like the Buddha Dordenma itself, will be made of bronze and gilded in gold. The Buddha Dordenma is sited amidst the ruins of Kuensel Phodrang, the palace of Sherab Wangchuck, the thirteenth Desi Druk, overlooking the southern approach to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Upon completion, it will be one of the largest Buddha rupas in the world, at a height of 169 feet (51.5 meters). Although its completion was planned for October 2010, construction is still ongoing as of February 2014.
The dzongs are ancient fortresses that now serve as the civil and monastic administration headquarters of each district. Apart from the architecture, which in itself makes a dzong worth visiting, they also hold many art treasures.
Dzongs dot the countryside and were built without the use of cement, nails or plans. Dzongs which you can visit are:
- Punakha Dzong
- Trongsa Dzong
- Jakar Dzong
- Lhuentse Dzong
- Simtokha Dzong
- Gasa Dzong
- Rinpung Dzong
- Gonggar Dzong
- Gyantse Dzong
- Shigatse Dzong
- Tashichho Dzong - Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of Thimpu; traditional seat of theDruk Desi (or "Dharma Raja"), the head of Bhutan's civil government (synonymous with the king since 1907) and summer capital
- Lingzhi Yügyal Dzong
- Drukgyal Dzong
- Changchukha Dzong
- Tsechen Monastery and Dzong
- Shongar Dzong
- Singye Dzong
Trekking is also extremely popular. The Druk path is the most commonly trekked from Paro, to the capital Thimphu. However, many other more impressive treks are available, see the complete list below. The Jomolhari, and Laya Gasa trek are also very popular and the Snowman Trek is reported to be one of the toughest treks in the world, taking an approximately 30 days. The recommended season for this trek is mid-June to mid-October.
Other treks include:
- Bumthang Cultural Trek.
- Bumthang Owl Trek.
- Chelela Trek
- Dagala Thousand Lakes Trek.
- Dongla Trek
- Druk Path Trek.
- Dur Hot Spring Trek.
- Gangjula Trek
- Gangkar Puensum
- Gantey Trek.
- Jomolhari Trek.
- Laya Gasa Trek.
- Lingmithang – Zhemgang Trek
- Nabji Korphu Community Based Trek.
- Nubtsona Pata Trek
- Punakha Winter Trek.
- Rigsum Goenpa Trek
- Royal Heritage Trek
- Sagala Trek
- Samtengang Trek.
- Sinchula Trek.
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Bhutan pristine environment offers ecosystem which are rich and diverse, due to its location and great geographical and climatic variations, Bhutan’s high, rugged mountains and valleys boast spectacular biodiversity, earning it a name as one of the world’s ten most important biodiversity hotspots. Recognizing the importance of environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of its development paradigms. The government has decreed that 60% of its forest resources will be maintained for all time through a recently enacted law passed by government. Today, 72% of the total land area is under forest cover and 26% is protected in four parks.
35% of Bhutan is made up of protected national parks. Namely, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (1,300 km2), TrumshingLa National Park (768 km2), Royal Manas National Park (9,938.54 km2), Jigme Dorji National Park (4,349 km2), Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (1,545 km2) and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (650 km2).
Festivals or Tshechu (“tenth day”) are another major draw card to Bhutan and are held every year in various temples monasteries and dzongs across the country. The Tshechu is mainly a religious event celebrated on tenth day of a month of lunar calendar corresponding to the birth day of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava). However the month of Tshechu depends place to place and temple to temple. Tshechus are large social gatherings where people from various villages come together to witness the religious mask dances which are based on incidents from as long as 8th century from the life of Guru Padmasambhava and to receive blessings from lamas. The event also consists of colourful Bhutanese dances and other entertainments.
It is said that everyone must attend a Tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once to receive the blessings and wash away the sins. Every mask dances performed during Tshechu has a meaning or a story behind. In monasteries the mask dances are performed by monks and in remote villages they are performed jointly by monks and village men. Among many Tshechus in the country most popular are Paro and Thimphu Tshechus in terms of participation and audience. Besides the locals many tourists from across the world are attracted to this unique, colourful and exciting culture.
Other festivals which happen throughout the year are:
- Black Necked Crane Festival.
- Chorten Kora Festival.
- Gomphu Kora Festival.
- Haa Summer Festival.
- Jampa Lhakhang festival.
- Kurjey Festival.
- Lhuentse Festival.
- Merak Tshechu.
- Mongar Festival.
- Nimalung Festival.
- Nomad Festival.
- Paro Tsechu.
- Pema Gatshel Festival.
- Punakha Festival.
- Sakten Tshechu.
- Takin Festival.
- Thimphu Festival.
- Trashigang Festival.
- Trongsa Festival.
- Ura yakchoe.
- Wangdue Phodrang Festival.
- Trekking: Bhutan is a popular place for trekking, though the walks are generally quite tough as there are no places to stay or eat in the higher regions, and so all food and camping equipment must be carried in. Autumn and spring are the best seasons for undertaking a trek. In the summer, the paths are too muddy, while in winter they are snow covered. However, despite the difficulties of the treks, all efforts and discomforts are more than compensated for by the stunning scenery and extremely friendly, gentle and hospitable people that are met along the way. See: Wilderness backpacking.
- Festivals: Tshechu is the largest religious festival in Bhutan and is celebrated in the late summer and autumn throughout the country (see city articles for local information), though Thimphu Tshechu is the most famous and attracts around 30,000 people. The highlight of the tshechu ceremonies is the masked dances by monks, which were developed according to precise instructions given by past Buddhist masters. According to Buddhist philosophy, all experiences leave an imprint in the mind stream that produces a corresponding result in the future, and so viewing these dances, which are imbued with sacred symbolism, is considered to be a very auspicious and sanctifying experience. While the event is not held in a solemn atmosphere and there is much merriment, visitors are reminded that it is still a religious festival that is of great importance to Bhutanese people, and so appropriate behavior is expected.
- Archery: This is the national sport of Bhutan and competitions are held throughout the country at most weekends. Visitors are very welcome to watch and also to add voice to the boisterous cheering that accompanies these events.
- Hot Stone Bath: The hot stone bath is a ritual in itself, riverside rocks are heated till red hot and gradually dropped into a wooden tub filled with water and scattered with Artemisia leaves. The burning rocks heats the water gradually and thus release minerals in to the water. Traditionally these bath are done near a river bed with plenty supplies of stones and water and preferably after dark in the open air.
- Dzongkha. The mother tongue of most people residing in Western Bhutan, and the kingdom's official language.
- Sharchopkha. The major regional language spoken in Eastern Bhutan.
- Bumthangkha. Similar to Sharchopkha - spoken in the Bumthang region.
- Nepali. Most people on the borders used to use the Nepali language.
- English and Hindi. Both languages are understood by most people in urban areas.
- La. The suffix 'la' is an honorific, and many Bhutanese feel that their remarks sound too harsh if it is not used, and this carries over even into English. So, don't be surprised if you hear expressions such as "Yes-la" or "I'm not sure-la". It just implies respect.
- Reach. In Bhutan, the verb 'reach' means to 'take' or 'accompany' (a person). For example: "I'll reach you to the bus station" means "I'll take/accompany you to the bus station."
- Cousin-brother, Cousin-sister. Extended families living under one roof are common in Bhutan. As a result, the dividing line between siblings and cousins is blurred, and so it is not uncommon to be introduced to a "cousin-brother" or "cousin-sister". Although these people are just cousins, the English word implies a more distant relationship than is the fact in Bhutan.
- BST. The exact meaning of this phrase is 'Bhutan Standard Time', but as Bhutanese people are notorious for being late or just not turning up at all, it has taken on the meaning of 'Bhutan Stretchable Time'. Therefore, when someone arrives late, they will often excuse themselves by saying that they are running on BST.
- Woven cloth. Bhutanese handwoven fabric is prized around the world, and is available stitched into clothing, wall hangings, table mats and rugs.
- Yathra. A brightly colored woven material made from wool and dyed with natural colors. It is sold in pieces or sewn into jackets, bags, rugs and wall hangings. Yathra is available in Thimphu and other cold areas, but is a specialty of the Jakar area.
- Dappa. Hand made wooden bowls. The halves of the bowl fit tightly together so they can be used to carry cooked food, which is their function in Bhutan. However, they also make excellent salad or cookie bowls. Dappa are a specialty of the Trashi Yangtse region, but can be purchased throughout the country.
- Bangchung. Small bamboo woven baskets with two tightly fitting halves. They are a specialty of the southern Bhutan, but available throughout the country.
Rice is a staple with every meal; traditionally red rice, but white rice is now common too. Vegetable or meat dishes cooked with chili and/or cheese comprise the accompanying cuisine.
Bhutanese food has one predominant flavour - chili. This small red condiment is not only added to every dish but is also often eaten raw. So, if you don't like spicy-hot food, make this abundantly clear before ordering a meal. Otherwise, you'll be spending the next hour dousing your mouth with cold yoghurt or milk.
- Ema-datsi. Ema means chili and datsi is a kind of cottage cheese, so ema-datsi is similar to jalapeños with cream cheese.
- Kewa-datsi. A potato, cheese and chili dish.
- Shamu-datsi. A mushroom, cheese and chili dish.
Kewa-datsi and shamu-datsi tend to be less hot than ema-datsi; all three dishes are generally served with rice.
- Mutter paneer. Though not a Bhutanese dish, this Indian staple of curried peas and cheese is readily available throughout Bhutan and is therefore an additional choice for vegetarians.
- Cheese momo. A small steamed bun that traditionally contained cheese, cabbage and sometimes onion. However, these days other vegetables, including green papaya, may be substituted for cabbage.
- Khuli. Buckwheat pancakes - a specialty of Bumthang. They are often served with ema-datsi as an alternative to rice.
- Puta. A dish of buckwheat noodles usually served with curd - a specialty of Bumthang
Imtrat run canteens that sell excellent Indian dishes along with tea from 9:30AM–4:30PM. The quality of the food is very good, while the price is low. The canteens are located throughout the country, especially along main highways.
- Ara. A local spirit brewed from rice or corn. It is popular in rural areas, and often served in restaurants, particularly at the start of meals, poured from a special vessel.
- Tea. Located next to the tea growing regions of Assam and Darjeeling, a steaming cuppa remains the popular drink in Bhutan, with both the butter variety (suja) and sweet milk kind (cha) readily available throughout the country. The butter tea is very traditional but has quite a strong flavor and is similar to Tibetan tea, while the sweet milk kind is very drinkable and is like Indian chai.
- Coffee. The coffee culture that has swept most of the planet is just beginning to creep into the country, and there are a few good cafes in Thimphu. However, for the most part, coffee in Bhutan means the instant variety and it is served simply white or black.
- Beer. The main local beers are from Bhutan Brewery (founded 2006), part of the Tashi Group conglomerate, and are sold in 650 ml bottles: Druk 11000 (8%) is cheapest and a lot of alcohol; slightly higher quality and lower alcohol are Druk Lager Premium (5%) and Druk Supreme (6%); none of these is particularly good. There is also sometimes Red Panda Weissbeer (wheat beer), which is rather good. Imported beers may not be available, as importing these is sometimes banned (to preserve foreign reserves).
- Whisky. There is some "Bhutanese whisky", though it is neither Bhutanese nor straight whisky. Rather, it is blended whisky, made of imported Scotch malt whisky blended with grain neutral spirits: it is blended and bottled in Bhutan, but not distilled locally. These are produced by the Army Welfare Project in Gelephu, and the main brand is Special Courier, which is surprisingly drinkable.
All towns connected by motorable roads have hotels, though the standard varies considerably. International standard hotels are mostly found in tourist areas or major towns, while five star accommodation is only available in Paro, Jakar, Punakha, Gangtey and Thimphu.
It is important to note that the hotel rates shown on the city articles are only relevant to people who have residency, visa exemption (generally this only applies to Indian nationals) or who are visiting the country as an invited guest. Other visitors can only enter the country as part of a tour, for which the daily rates are set by the Bhutanese authorities at around $250 per person per night irrespective of the hotel rates (except for very expensive hotels where a surcharge is added).
- It is possible to receive instruction on Buddhist practice at any monastery, though for discussions on Buddhist philosophy it is better to consult with the khenpos or loppons (teachers) at Buddhist colleges (shedra), such as, for example, Lhodrak Kharchhu Monastery in Jakar, Tango Monastery near Thimphu or Chokyi Gyatso Institute in Deothang.
- Deer Park Thimphu holds various Dharma related events in the capital, including weekly meditation sessions.
Weaving - Bhutanese woven cloth is prized throughout the world for its unique designs and high quality, and there is a weaving centre in Khaling in Trashigang.
There are a few NGOs based in Bhutan, so it is possible to arrange volunteer work. However, Bhutan is very selective about who it engages in this field. In addition, it is highly unlikely that a position can be found while visiting Bhutan, so those interested in undertaking volunteer work here should first seek employment with NGOs overseas and then express a preference to be located in Bhutan.
- While drug abuse, gang and domestic violence are common in urban areas, these crimes are kept within their communities and rarely, if ever, affect tourists. Indeed, Bhutan remains one of the safest places in the world for tourists.
- Police in Thimphu are quite active, they keep doing rounds around the city late nights to ensure safety.
- Bears are a threat in remote mountainous regions.
- Homosexual activity between consenting adults is punishable by a prison sentence of up to 1 year under Bhutanese law. Though this law is largely unenforced, LGBT travelers should exercise discretion.
- Hospitals and clinics are located throughout the country, even in the remotest areas. However, travelers should not expect hi-tech facilities, and at many of the Basic Health Units the resident doctor is often away.
- Indigenous medical facilities are located in all district capitals, with the largest being in Thimphu, so it is also possible to have ailments diagnosed and treated using natural herbal compounds while in Bhutan.
- Waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, giardia and even typhoid are not uncommon in Bhutan, especially during the summer monsoon season. Therefore, ensure that all water has been thoroughly boiled or otherwise purified before consuming.
- In case of emergency, it is advisable to carry first aid material, which might include a few antibiotics and acetaminophen (paracetamol).
- Altitude sickness can strike at altitudes as low as 2,500m. Be aware of this before embarking on expeditions in the mountains. If you suffer palpitations, shortness of breath or severe headaches, inform your guide and head to a lower altitude immediately. Take altitude sickness seriously. It can and does kill.
- The hygiene standard is acceptable in tourist areas. However, it is probably wise to prepare medicine for stomach upsets.
- The Street dog population is very high in Thimphu (and to a lesser extent in many of the towns). Most of the animals are extremely docile and there are very few cases of tourists ever being bitten. Still, it is best to err on the side of safety and not to disturb the animals. Moreover, if bitten, immediately receive a rabies vaccination. Although incidences of the disease are uncommon, it inevitably proves fatal if left untreated.
- Malaria and Dengue fever are not common problems in Bhutan, though there are outbreaks in the Indian border regions during the summer monsoon season.
- The king and former king are accorded a great deal of respect in Bhutan. It is wise to bear this in mind when conversing with local people.
- Sacred objects. Always pass mani stones, stupas and other religious objects with your right side nearest to the object, and turn prayer wheels in a clockwise direction. Never sit on mani stones or stupas.
- Clothing. When visiting temples, remove shoes and headgear and wear clothing that expresses respect for the sacred nature of the site. You will need to wear trousers and long shirts.
- Donations. At monasteries, it is custom to make a small donation to the monks as a sign of respect; and also to the Buddhist statues as a means of developing a generous and spacious mind. There are many places in each temple where you can donate, and it is expected that you donate to each place. Remember to have small notes for this gesture. However, this is not mandatory.
- Smoking. It is illegal to smoke at monasteries and in public places.
- Tobacco. Products containing tobacco (cigarettes, chewing tobacco etc.) are effectively banned throughout Bhutan (which remains the only country in the world to do so) and penalties for possession or use may be severe.
- Proselytizing is illegal in Bhutan, and has been punished by prison sentences of up to 3 years. Respect should be afforded to the state religion of Vajrayana Buddhism.
- US Dollar, US dollars are widely accepted. Bhutanese currency is only needed for expenses personal in nature and buying small souvenir items.
- Credit Cards Visa MasterCard and Visa Maestro has also now been compatible with most ATM's in Bhutan most of which are concentrated in Thimphu and Paro
- Money exchange. Banks and Major Hotels change major currencies
- ATM. The main banks operate ATMs that accept international cards such as Visa MasterCard. However, as the service it is not overly reliable, it is best to have other funds on hand.
- Western Union Money Transfer, Thimphu Post Office. This facility can receive transfer of funds from overseas, but cannot make payments from customers' personal accounts.
Embassies and Consulates
- India: Royal Bhutanese Embassy - Chandragupta Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110 021. Tel: 609217/ 609218, Fax:6876710
- U.S.: Consulate General of Bhutan - 2 UN Plaza, 27th Floor, New York NY 10017. Tel:(212) 826-1919, Fax:(212) 826-2998.
- Canada: Honorary Consul of Bhutan - 146 Yorkville Ave, Toronto, ON M5R 1C2. Tel: (416) 960-3552 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hong Kong: Honorary Consul of Bhutan - 32/F, New World Tower, 16-18 Queen's Road, Central, Hong Kong. Tel: (852) 28443117, 2844-3111, Fax: (852) 25247652 Email: email@example.com
- Thailand: The Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Bangkok - Jewelry Trade Center Building, Rm. 1907, 19th Floor, 919/1 Silom Road, Bangkok 10500. Tel:2671722, 630119 - Fax:6301193.
- Kuwait: Royal Bhutanese Embassy, Adailiya-Block 3- Essa Abdul Rahman Al-Assoussi Street, Jaddah No. 32- Villa No. 7, Kuwait. Phone: +9652516640/50, Fax: +9652516550
- Bangladesh: Royal Bhutanese Embassy,House No.12 CEN, Road No.107, Gulshan, Dhaka-1212. Phone: +880-2-8826863/8827160, Fax: +880-2-8823939
- The international dialing code for Bhutan is 975
- WiFi is readily available in the majority of hotels throughout the country. Many of the internet cafes offer WiFi also. Most population centres have internet cafes, although they are relatively expensive, and the connection is slow. Please make sure your travel agent find an appropriate internet cafe in advance if you need a connection for work.
- Telephone call booths are existent in major towns in Bhutan
- Most of Bhutan has mobile phone coverage, which is smart phone capable. B-Mobile has agreements with North American, some Asian and European countries on mobile roaming. Tashi Cell is another mobile company based in country.
- Tourists can now quickly and easily register for a B-Mobile SIM that is valid for 1 month. Simply take your passport to a B-Mobile office. The SIM card costs 50Nu, and comes with 50Nu credit. Ask them to activate 3G and data access while you are there, and test it works before leaving. There are no data plans per se, but the rate is affordable by international standards (0.0003Nu/KB). The only available SIM card size is the standard size, but some offices have sim cutters for the iPhone 4 & 5 (if you're worried, bring your own SIM cutter). B-Mobile recharge cards can be purchased in most general stores.
- The official tourism board in Bhutan is the Tourism Council of Bhutan, for more information on the destination you can found on there website.
- Kolkata - Druk Air (Royal Bhutan Airlines) flies between Paro and Kolkata. In addition, the Bhutan Government operates an overnight bus service from Phuentsholing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The buses depart from Bhutan Post office at 3PM, and the journey takes around 18 hours and costs 300 Rps/Nu.
- New Delhi - Druk Air flies between Paro and Delhi. It also operates flights between other Indian cities of Guwahati, Gaya and Siliguri (Bagdogra Airport).
- Nepal - many travellers to Bhutan combine the visit with a trip to this other Himalayan country and Druk Airways operate flights from Paro to Kathmandu.
- Thailand - Druk Air operates daily flights from Paro to Bangkok.
- Dhaka - Druk Air operates 3 flights a week from Paro to Dhaka, capital city of Bangladesh. It is one of the major cities of South Asia.