Bhutan Travel Guide

Of all Himalayan countries, Bhutan is the most alluring to Westerners, at least to those with a romantic vision of the past. Bhutan is also the ideal place for trekking in a beautiful landscape of sacred mountains, lush valleys, remote temples and fortress-monasteries. Tucked between China and India at the eastern end of the Himalayan chain, it is the most remote, the least touched by modernity, and – apart from Assamese insurgents taking refuge from the Indian army inside the southern border – the least affected by violent political conflict. Its survival into the present century as an independent country is something of a marvel. With the neighbouring kingdom of Sikkim swallowed by India, and Tibet taken over by China in the 1950s, Bhutan is the only remaining Buddhist state in the region. With less than a million inhabitants and about a dozen languages it is also, arguably, the most varied, both in its terrain and human geography. Although a new king was crowned in 2008, democracy has replaced the country’s medieval system of absolute monarchy. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called “The Last Shangri-La“.

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.

It is still termed as a third world country with subsistence farming practised in much of Bhutan. 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, although rudimentary, medical care. The sale of tobacco products is banned and smoking in public areas is an offence punished with fines.

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.

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 2nd 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.

Culture

Cradled in the folds of the Himalayas, Bhutan has relied on its geographic isolation to protect itself from outside cultural influences. A sparsely populated country bordered by India to the south, and China to the north, Bhutan has long maintained a policy of strict isolationism, both culturally and economically, with the goal of preserving its cultural heritage and independence. Only in the last decades of the 20th century were foreigners allowed to visit the country, and only then in limited numbers. In this way, Bhutan has successfully preserved many aspects of its culture, which dates directly back to the mid-17th century.

Modern Bhutanese culture derives from ancient culture. This culture affected the early growth of this country. Dzongkha and Sharchop, the principal Bhutanese languages, are closely related to Tibetan, and Bhutanese monks read and write the ancient variant of the Tibetan language, known as chhokey. The Bhutanese are physically similar to the Tibetans, but history does not record when they crossed over the Himalayas and settled in the south-draining valleys of Bhutan. Both Tibetans and Bhutanese revere the tantric guru, Padmasambhava, the founder of Himalayan Buddhism in the 8th century.

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 neighbour to the north, Tibet.

Because of the danger of their distinct culture being overwhelmed by Hindu Nepalese immigrants, some of whom had been in Bhutan for generations, many were expelled or fled as stateless persons to refugee camps in Nepal.

Wildlife

Bhutan is one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world, forest cover has now increased to over 72% of the country, with 60% of the country under protection.

The array of flora and fauna available in Bhutan is unparalleled due to conservation and its wide altitudinal and climatic range. Physically, the country can be divided into three zones:

1. Alpine Zone (4000m and above) with no forest cover;
2. Temperate Zone (2000 to 4000m) with conifer or broadleaf forests;
3. Subtropical Zone (150m to 2000m) with Tropical or Subtropical vegetation.

Forest types in Bhutan are fir forests, mixed conifer forest, blue pine forest, chirpine forest, broadleaf mixed with conifer, upland hardwood forest, lowland hardwood forest, and tropical lowland forests. Almost 60% of the plant species found in the eastern Himalayan region are present in Bhutan.

Bhutan boasts of about 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of rhododendrons. Some common sights for the visitors are the magnolias, junipers, orchids of varied hues, gentian, medicinal plants, Daphne, giant rhubarb, the blue and trees such as fir, pine and oaks.

A wide range of rare and endangered animals can also be found frequenting the dense jungles and high mountains of Bhutan. Due to the countries conservation efforts and its unspoiled natural environment Bhutan supports thriving populations of some of the rarest animals on earth and has thus been classified as one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world.

Some high altitude species are the snow leopards, Bengal tigers that are found at altitude ranging 3000 to 4000 meters, the red panda, the gorals and the langurs, the Himalayan black bear, sambars, wild pigs, barking deer, blue sheep and musk deer.

In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan one can come across clouded leopards, the one horned rhinoceros, elephants, water buffaloes and swamp deer. You can even find the Golden Langur, a species of monkey that is unique to Bhutan.

Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species. It is recognized as an area of high biological diversity and is known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’, the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and is expected to rise as new birds are discovered.

In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Of about 50 species of birds that migrate during the winters are the buntings, waders, ducks, thrushes and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants and they include species such as swifts, cuckoos, bee-eaters, fly catchers and warblers.

Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White bellied heron, Pallas Fish eagle and Blyth’s King fisher to name a few. Phobjikha valley in Wangdue Phodrang and Bomdeling in Trashi Yangtse are also two especially important locations of the endangered Black Necked Cranes.

As one of the ten global hotspots, Bhutan is committed to preserve and protect its rich environment through its government and environmental organizations. This commitment is apparent in the fact that the kingdom has the distinct honor of being one of the only nations whose forest cover has actually grown over the years.

 

Climate

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.

Visa

All tourists (except nationals of India, Bangladesh and Maldives) must obtain a visa prior to departure. All tourists must book their travel through a licensed tour operator. Visas are applied for online by your local tour operator and it is not required that you visit a Bhutanese Embassy or consulate. 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 USD20, two passport photos will also be required.

Entry Points to Bhutan

By Air

The easiest way for visitors to enter Bhutan is by air on Druk Air and Buddha Air, Bhutan’s national carrier and Nepalese airline operating in Bhutan. Druk Air’s fleet consists of two British Aerospace jets, BAe 146s, which are specially specially designed for Bhutan.

Flights to Bhutan are available from Bangkok in Thailand, Kathmandu in Nepal, Delhi & Calcutta in India, and Dhaka in Bangladesh several times each week. Latest flight schedules are available on request.

On clear days the flight into Paro from kathmandu offers spectacular views of the Himalayan mountain range, including Mt. Everest, Mt. Kanchenjunga, Chomolhari, Kula Kangri and many other peaks of the Himalayas.

Paro Airport, located in the mountains, is subject to the vagaries of nature, and weather conditions sometimes prevent flight landing and take off. Druk Air itself has an impeccable safety record, without a single mishap since its inception in 1983.

We can book your air-seats in and out of Bhutan well in advance, avoiding last-minute rush during the peak tourist seasons of Spring and Autumn.

By Road

Tourists wanting to combine a visit to Bhutan with Sikkim & Darjeeling (or other places in India) can enter Bhutan by surface through the border town of Phuentsoling. This is the only other entry point to Bhutan other than flying into Paro airport. In the reverse order visitors can fly into Bhutan and exit by surface to India through Phuentsoling.

For those travelling to far Eastern Bhutan there is a option to exit out of the country through the border town of Samdrup Dzonkar to Guwahati Airport in Assam of India. Only exiting out of Bhutan is allowed from here not entry. From Guwahati there are flights available to Calcutta and Delhi.

Air Tickets

Druk Air, the national carrier of Bhutan, is the only airline that fly in & out Bhutan’s Paro airport. Air tickets will be issued only after your visa is approved by the Home Ministry of Bhutan. To expedite this procedure, it is essential that you send us all passport information required to apply for your Bhutan visa (see below). The air-tickets cannot be issued until the visa is approved – and this process takes a week or more.

Tourist Visas

Tourist visas have to be approved prior to your arrival in Bhutan. With prior approval visas are then issued only on your arrive in the country, either at Paro airport or (if by road) at Phuentsoling. Once your are ready to confirmed your tour arrangements we will apply for your visas. We need the following details in order to start applying for visas.

  • 01: Your full name (as it appears in your passport)
  • 02: Permanent address
  • 03: Occupation
  • 04: Nationality
  • 05: Passport number
  • 06: Date of issue and expiration of passport
  • 07: Date and place of birth –

Double check that the information is correct; if there are discrepancies when you arrive in Bhutan, delays and complications can take place.

The actual visa is stamped in your passport only when you arrive in Bhutan. You need to pay US$ 20 and present a passport photo with your passport number written on the back. You will then receive a visa for the period of your stay in Bhutan. We will process visa extensions for you if they become necessary.

Accommodation

In the major towns such as Thimpu, Paro, and Phuentsoling, comfortable hotels await the visitor, while in smaller towns, modest, but adequate, hotels, lodges and guest houses are available. Your tour agent should ensure that the best available accommodations are arranged for you. The Tourism Authority of Bhutan (TAB), regulates hotel standards and all travel regulations in Bhutan. The cost of the accommodations are included in the tour cost.

Food and Drink

Traditional Bhutanese food is hot and spicy. For our visitors, however, Chinese, Indian, and Continental fares are served. The more adventurous can try the local delicacies like the tasty, but fiery, ematatshi, the national dish of Bhutan, made with red chillis and cottage cheese. Meals are normally served buffet style in the hotels. On trekking tours, we serve simple but nutritious and tasty dishes, freshly cooked by our trained cooks. The daily tour cost includes all meals while in Bhutan as well as other services, including trekking arrangements, as required. Your only extra expenses will be mineral water, liquor, laundry, souvenirs and optional tips to the guide, driver and hotel staff.

Transport

We use comfortable and safe Japanese cars, jeeps, vans and coaches to transport our guests. The cost of transport is already included in the daily tour cost. All our drivers are fully trained in safety and are well experienced in driving in Bhutan. You will find that you are more comfortable driving through the winding hilly roads of Bhutan, where sane driving prevails, and drivers are unusually courteous to each other, unlike in some of the neighboring countries.

Guides

All tourist groups will be accompanied throughout their stay in Bhutan by an English-speaking guide and have a vehicle and driver at your disposal at all times.

All of our guides are trained by the Tourism Authority of Bhutan (TAB) and licensed by the Government. Our trekking guides and cooks undergoe an additional mountain guide training, including safety and first aid instruction. TAB has received assistance from the Austrian Government in the form of trainers and funds to establish the training programs for tourist guides.

Tourist Seasons

A visit to Bhutan can be planned anytime of the year but the best period is from mid-September to May. The peak seasons, when most visitors come to Bhutan, are during the Spring and Autumn. Spring is from April through June and Autumn from September through November. There are many festivals during these periods, and visitors come to take advantage both of the pleasant climate and the wonderful festivals. However, Bhutan has limited tourism infrastructure and during peak seasons facilities are packed. For those wanting to avoid the busy tourist periods the winter months of December, January, February, are recommended.

Daily Tour Costs

The Tourism Authority of Bhutan (TAB) regulates all tourism related activities in Bhutan. All tour operators are registered with them, and the TAB also fix the daily tariff rates. Thirty-five percent of the daily cost goes directly to the TAB and hence to the national treasury. These funds are used by the government for the socioeconomic development of Bhutan. Hospitals, schools, and roads are built and maintained with the income. TAB has released a travel information booklet detailing their role and the regulations by which all tour operators are governed.

Contact us if you have any questions regarding the tour costs. The daily rate may sound high at first, but remember that this includes all your accommodation, all meals, guided tours, and all transportation within Bhutan as per tour itinerary.

What to Bring

The following list will cover your needs for a vehicle-based cultural tour. Since you will be travelling in private vehicles, there is less concern about weight than if you were transferring your own luggage on and off various forms of public transport. There is a 20 kg (44 lb) weight limit (30 kg or 66 lb in business class) on Druk Air flights. You should try and keep to this allowance. Even if you are willing to pay for excess baggage, it travels standby and may be offloaded. As with all travel, the less you carry, the easier it is to move about.

Casual clothes are fine, but please also do take along a set of dress-up clothes (jacket and tie for men, dresses for women) for festivals or in the likely event that you are invited to a Bhutanese home or social function. Thimpu and other towns in Bhutan have a small-town atmosphere, and you might easily find yourself in the company of a high government official. If you have scheduled your trip during a festival, you definitely should carry a set of dressy clothing. Bhutanese people dress quite formally, and dirty jeans do not fit-in on such occasions.

Even in the summer, it can be cool in Bhutan, and it is downright cold in winter. Days can be quite warm, especially in the lower regions such as Punakha and Phuentsoling, and you could start off driving in the cold of dawn and be uncomfortably warm by midmorning. Use a layering system, starting with thermal underwear and adding a shirt, pile jacket and wind-breaker (or parka) as necessary. If you are not trekking, you will need:

  • Underwear (including thermals for cold weather)
  • Cotton trousers
  • Cotton skirt for women
  • Pile jacket or sweater – even in summer
  • Down jacket – in winter; not needed in summer
  • T-shirts or short sleeved (not sleeveless) cotton shirts
  • Sneakers or walking shoes and socks
  • Sandals or flip-flops
  • Rain jacket (Gore-Tex if possible), otherwise a poncho or nylon jacket
  • Dress-up clothes for festivals
  • Sun hat

All hotels provide sheets, blankets or quilt, and a pillow. Unless you are trekking, you won’t need to carry a sleeping bag. Most hotels also provide some sort of heating in winter, either an electric heater or a wood stove. The heating, plus the pile of blankets on your bed, should keep you warm.

You will be outside a lot, much of the time at altitudes above 2,500 m (7,800 ft); so there is plenty of sun and wind. Bring a supply of sun cream and lip protection, such as Blistex; these items are not available in Bhutan.

Essential Extras

There are several things that you should carry to make a trip to Bhutan more comfortable. All of the following items are essential:

  • A folding umbrella; especially if traveling during the monsoons. Rain is possible any time, and is almost certain from June through August.
  • Be sure to carry ear plugs (and spares) to reduce the noise from the barking dogs at night. There are a lot of dogs in Bhutan as the Bhutanese love dogs.
  • There are occasional electric outages throughout the country; so you should always keep a torch (flashlight) beside your bed.Carry a pair of sunglasses (as protection from high altitude glare).
  • A Swiss army knife has many uses, such as cutting cheese and opening bottles.
  • Bring a small clock with an alarm to help you wake up, because not all hotel rooms have telephones.

Packing

If you are on a cultural tour, it’s OK to bring a hard suitcase, though a soft bag is more versatile and easier to pack into the luggage space of a vehicle. For those trekking in Bhutan a strong duffel bag as luggage is best. You will also want a small rucksack (back pack) or waist pack to carry your camera, water bottle and other essentials in the vehicle and when you are walking around town or visiting monuments.

Pre Departure Information

Once your tour or trek in Bhutan is confirmed we will provide you with a detailed Pre Departure Information packet which contains a list of recommended clothing & equipment along with many other details that will help you prepare for you tour/trek in Bhutan.