Bhutan

Capital Thimphu
Currency Ngultrum (BTN)
Population 765,552 (2014)
Electricity 220V/50Hz
Country code +975
Time zone GMT +6

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."

Regions

Bhutan can culturally and geographically be divided into three regions, which are further divided into 20 districts or dzongkhag (singular and plural):

Bhutan regions - Color-coded map
Central Bhutan
Eastern Bhutan
Western Bhutan

Cities

Other destinations

National parks

Wildlife sanctuaries/Nature reserves

Official Site of National Parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan:

Understand

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.

History

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.

Guru Rinpoche

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.

Weather

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.

National Holidays

2014:

In addition to the above national holidays, there are also Tshechu holidays which are celebrated regionally.

Recommended reading/viewing

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Media

Get in

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.

Visas

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.

Tourist tariff

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:

The minimum tariff is (for a group of 3 persons or more):

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:

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.

By plane

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).

By car

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.

By bus

The Bhutan Post bus that runs between Phuenthsoling and Thimphu

By train

There are no railways in Bhutan. The nearest options (both in India) are:

Get around

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).

By plane

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.

By bus/car

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.

Hitchhiking

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.

Roads

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.

See

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.

Monasteries

Taktsang Monastery, Paro

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.

Dzongs/Fortresses

Gasa Dzong

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:

Trekking

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:

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Scenery

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

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.

Traditionally, the Paro and Thimphu have been the most popular but tourists are fast realizing that the smaller more rural festivals are much more intimate.

Other festivals which happen throughout the year are:

Do

Bhutanese Archery

Talk

Common Languages

Usage

Buy

Eat

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.

Vegetarian dishes

A traditional Bhutanese dish made from chilli and cheese

Kewa-datsi and shamu-datsi tend to be less hot than ema-datsi; all three dishes are generally served with rice.

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.

Drink

Sleep

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).

Learn

Buddhism

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.

Work

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.

Stay safe

Stay healthy

Respect

Cope

Money

NOTE: Although Indian currency is legal tender in Bhutan, the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan has issued a notice banning the use of Indian 500 rupee and 1000 rupee notes. Nonetheless, as of Oct 2009, the 500 rupee note is largely accepted by most locals. Government owned establishments do not accept the aforementioned notes, and hence it is advisable to carry sufficient currency in either Bhutanese currency or in the form of Indian 100 rupee notes.

Also, be keenly aware that the import and export of Indian rupees to and from India by foreign nationals is illegal.

Embassies and Consulates

Bhutan has a number of embassies and consulates, including those listed below .

Connect

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