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Sandwhiched between the two of the world's most densely populated nations (India and China), Bhutan has a remarkably low population that's been estimated to be anywhere between six hundred thousand and two million. Partly due to this small population, partly because of Bhutan's isolated past, and partly due to the government's focus on conservation of Bhutanese culture, environment and a state policy of promoting happiness the country retained its past better than most of its south Asian neighbours. Buddhist temples and monastries dating back centuries are more than just a ruin for visitors to get their photo taken in front of: they are as significant in daily life as ever. Bhutan is the only Himalayan Buddhist state.
Forest covers a whopping 72% of the country and hold a predictably large and varied flora and fauna populations. Bhutan is one of those wonders of the world, if simply for the fact its environment has hardly been touched by the currents of modernization.
The first sign of Neolithic people appeared in Bhutan are 2000 BC. There is very little information on this time. The earliest written account of Bhutuan came from a passage by the Buddhist saint Padma Sambhava who travelled in Bhutan in 747 AD. Very little of Bhutan's early history is known because of a fire in the traditional capital of Punakha in 1827.
What is known was by the 10th century the countries political and economic development were heavily influenced by Buddhism. There must have been various sub sects of Buddhism that emerged by different Tibetan and Mongol overlords. Mongol power declined in the 14th century which lead to two hundred years of war among the different sub sects of Buddhism for dominance in the region. In the 16th century the Drukpa sub sect came to power.
In the 17th century Bhutan was still a patchwork of waring fiefdoms which were unified by a Tibetan Lama and military leader. In order to defend the country a series of fortresses were built, which successfully defended Bhutan against Tibetan and Mongolian invasions. During the 19th century Bhutan had series of battles and wars with British India. After it was all over Bhutan signed a treaty that allowed Britain to take a little bit of land.
1907 was a very important year in the history of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen to be the hereditary king of Bhutan. Very quickly the British government recognized the king and in 1910 the new king agreed to let the British government guide Bhutan's foreign affairs, which really meant nothing because Bhutan really had no foreign affairs before that point. After Indian independence on August 15, 1947 Bhutan and India signed a similar treating granting India the right to guide Bhutan's foreigner affairs.
The next 20 years saw great change in Bhutan, the setting up of a National Assembly, a Royal Advisory Council, a Cabinet and in 1971 Bhutan was admitted into the United Nations. In 1972 Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne at the mere age of 16. He brought significant change when he announced that Bhutan's goal will be to measures its success to the world in Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product.
This brought a major change to the way the country operated. Anything the government does or enacts is done because it is meant to improve the happiness of the people. This includes things like everyone is required to wear traditional dress during business hours and the fact that TV was not introduced to Bhutan until 1999. Today Bhutan continues its goals of Gross National Happiness and has started to install the first steps to democracy by having mock elections
Bhutan is located on the southern slopes of the eastern Himalayas, landlocked between the Tibetan Autonomous Region to the north and the Indian states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to the west and south. It lies between latitudes 26° and 29°N, and longitudes 88° and 93°E. The land consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers, which form deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. Elevation rises from 200 metres in the southern foothills to more than 7,000 metres. This great geographical diversity combined with equally diverse climate conditions contributes to Bhutan's outstanding range of biodiversity and ecosystems. The northern region of the country consists of an arc of Eastern Himalayan alpine shrub and meadows reaching up to glaciated mountain peaks with an extremely cold climate at the highest elevations. Most peaks in the north are over 7,000 metres above sea level; the highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum at 7,570 metres, which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. The lowest point, at 98 metres, is in the valley of Drangme Chhu, where the river crosses the border with India. Watered by snow-fed rivers, alpine valleys in this region provide pasture for livestock, tended by a sparse population of migratory shepherds. The Black Mountains in the central region of Bhutan form a watershed between two major river systems: the Mo Chhu and the Drangme Chhu. Peaks in the Black Mountains range between 1,500 and 4,925 metres above sea level, and fast-flowing rivers have carved out deep gorges in the lower mountain areas. The forests of the central Bhutan mountains consist of Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests in higher elevations and Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests in lower elevations. Woodlands of the central region provide most of Bhutan's forest production. In the south, the Shiwalik Hills are covered with dense Himalayan subtropical broadleaf forests, alluvial lowland river valleys, and mountains up to around 1,500 metres above sea level. The foothills descend into the subtropical Duars Plain.
Bhutan is organised into 4 administrative zones (or dzongdey), which in turn are divided into districts. The four zones are listed below.
Takstang Monastery literally meaning Tiger Nest is one of the most famous monastery's in Bhutan. It said this is where Rimpoche flew from Tibet in the 7th century to Bhutan. This temple is a must see and it clings to the side of a mountain. It is about a 20-minute drive outside of Parao and the best hike is about 2 hours long in order to see the best veiw.
Trongsa Dzong was originally built in 1644 as fortress and as the seat of power for the Wangchuck dynasty. Built on a mountain spur high above the canyons of the Mangde Chhu this fortress controled east-west trade for hundreds of years. The way it controlled trade was because the only ancient road that connected eastern and western Bhutan passed through this fortresses courtyard.
Tashichoedzong was originally a monastery/fortress built in the 17th century at the edge of Thimphu. After being a religious center for several centuries the federal government took it over in 1952. Today this beautiful building is the current seat of the government of Bhutan.
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.
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.
Bhutan Folk Festival is a celebration of 100 years of monarchy and the coronation of a new king.
This celebration of the arrival of Bhutan’s famous colony of black-necked cranes takes place in Phobjikha Village every November. It’s an event which not only celebrates the birds return to their nesting place, but is aimed at the conservation of these rare species. The birds are welcomed home with costumed and masked dances representing the cranes, dramatic performances, and children’s songs.
Set in Trashiyangtse in the east of the county, this festival celebrates the banishing of a local demon by an 18th century lama, Ngawang Loday, who built the stupa in memory of the event and is a popular place of pilgrimage. The festival takes place in Bhutan every March.
This lively festival takes place annually in July, showcasing the nomadic lifestyle of the people in Bhutan, as well as honoring their religion, traditional songs, dances, and music. It’s a display of living culture in an area that only recently began accepting outside visitors.
The Gomphu Kora Festival, another of Bhutan’s pilgrimage events, is set in the eastern region and takes place every March. Its heart is the circumnavigation of an ancient cave linked to an 8th century legend in which an evil spirit was destroyed by Guru Padmasambhava. Pilgrims have visited the site for more than a millennium, including those from the Dakba tribe of north India.
This rare event takes place in a remote valley close to Thrashigang Dzong, which is inhabited by the nomadic Brokpa tribe. The high valley is untouched by the modern world and its peoples live as they have for centuries, rearing yaks and other animals. Bartering takes the place of currency and the women can take several husbands. The three-day festival is a unique occasion that ends with the unfurling of a huge thangka (Tibetan silk painting).
One of the largest events in Bhutan, the three-day Thimphu Festival begins on the 10th day of the eighth lunar month. Costumed dances include the Dance of the Black Hats and masked movements performed by monks. Rituals and prayers continue for a full three days, concluding with the display of a giant, holy thangka.
This festival, held in Bumthang’s Ura valley every May, is famous for its unique Ura Yakchoe dance. During the event, a sacred relic is displayed, and its legend is retold through dramatic interpretations. The story goes that one day; an old woman was visited by a llama, who asked her for a glass of water. When she returned with it, the llama had disappeared, leaving behind a sacred image, which has been owned by her descendents to this day.
Trongsa in central Bhutan is the sacred heart of the country, and its Trongso Tshech draws thousands every December. Held over four days, the events sees devout Buddhists arrive from across the country to receive blessings from the unfurling of the sacred Thongdrol on the final day. The mask dances and traditional rituals have been performed here for hundreds of years.
The weather in Bhutan depends on the elevation. In the northern parts of the country, where the highest mountains are, the climate is similar to the arctic. In the south, closer to India, the weather can be subtropical with yearly monsoons. The summer lasts from June to September with generally warm weather but this is also the rainy season. Winters can be a good time to visit the lower parts, but the highest areas are extremely cold and snowy. The best times to visit Bhutan are spring (March-May) and autumn (late September - November) when mostly warm, dry and sunny condtions are the norm. Temperatures are usually around 20 °C or a bit more while nights can be relatively cool, so bring some extra warm clothes.
Bear in mind that when visiting Bhutan you need to prearrange your visa with the department of tourism. You won't be able to get one upon arrival at the border or airport. Also, you have to either fly into or out of Bhutan (or both if you want). But you can not travel overland to and from Bhutan.
There is only one airline serving Bhutan and that's the national airline Druk Air. It has at least weekly services to several cities in Asia, notably Calcutta, Baghdora, Guwahati, Delhi, Bangkok and Kathmandu. All flights arrive and depart from the international airport at Paro, about 50 kilometres from the capital Thimphu.
There are two border crossings between India and Bhutan permitted to foreigners. One at Phuentsholing, on the border with the Indian state of West Bengal, and one at Samdrup Jongkhar, on the border with the state of Assam. For now, foreigners can only use the Phuentsholing border crossing for entering Bhutan. Foreigners can only depart via Samdrup Jongkhar, but not entering!
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.
Currently there is no passenger rail service in Bhutan. Currently there is construction on a rail link between Bhutan and India and China. This is still in the planning phase and might take a while before construction even starts.
Foreigner tourists must have a driver with their car. The countries main road is the east-west highway that is known locally as the Lateral Road, which was built in 1962. The road starts in Phuentsholing on the SW Indian Border and continues to Trashigang in the eastern part of Bhutan. There are spurs to the main cities of Paro, Thumphu and Punakha. The highway only has a width of 2.5 metres (8.2 feet), making it a very narrow two way highway. The road hugs sides of cliffs with dizzying drops and many of the bridges only have enough room for 1 car. There are almost no signs, safety barriers and road markings along the highway. Most traffic moves at only around 15 km/h. The Lateral Road also crosses a number of high passes, which can be hard on foreigners. Because of the geology being unstable land slides are quite common that can cause massive traffic problems.
There is a public bus system linking most of the cities. Although once tourists come into Bhutan they have a driver and car included with their guide. Therefore taking the buses seems a little silly.
It usually takes less than one month to process things, which can be done by a Bhutanese tour operator for you.
When entering Bhutan, you receive a visa for only 2 weeks. Visa extensions can be granted if you stay longer.
For more info, have a look the Kingdom of Bhutan Visitor Information website.
Travelling in Bhutan is possible but not cheap. A visa must be arranged with a travel agency and so must a plane ticket. The easiest and cheaper way to go is on a tour group, which can be arranged with several different travel agencies. An individual traveller, not a tour group, must pay US$200 a day to stay in the country. This daily fee includes personal guide, driver, car, hotel, entrance to sights and some food.
See also Money Matters
Bhutan's currency is the Ngultrum. It is subdivided into 100 chhertum. Coins come in denominations of Ch. 5, Ch. 10, Ch.20, Ch.25, Ch.50 and Nu.1,
Banknotes in denominations of Nu.1, Nu.5, Nu.10, Nu.20, Nu.50, Nu.100, Nu.500 and Nu.1,000.
US dollars are widely accepted. Bhutanese currency is only needed for expenses personal in nature and buying small souvenir items.
The majority of people work for the government. There are few private companies and factories. More jobs for science and technological backgrounds. Highest job opening for Civil Engineers, Teachers, Doctors, Electrical Engineers.
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.
The national language is Dzongkha. A good number of people speak English and most people can speak Nepalese & Hindi.
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.
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.
Travellers who enter Bhutan have to purchase a travel package from authorized travel agents. As such, hotels are generally arranged by travel agents. However, travellers are normally given the right to choose the hotels which they would like to stay. Getting good hotels are tougher as you travel to Central Bhutan such as Gangtey and Trongsa, especially during the festive or peak season.
Popular and recommend hotels include Amankora; Amankora Gangley; Dewachen Hotel; Swiss Guest House; and Uma by COMO, Paro. These locations range from budget-conscious to world-class.
See also Travel Health
There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Bhutan. There is one exception though. You need a yellow fever vaccination if you have travelled to a country (7 days or less before entering Bhutan) where that disease is widely prevalent.
It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Bhutan. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and when travelling longer than 2 weeks also typhoid.
If you are staying longer than 3 months or have a particular risk (travelling by bike, handling of animals, visits to caves) you might consider a rabies vaccination. Vaccination against Tuberculosis as well as hepatitis B are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.
Malaria is prevalent in the country, but only at the lower elevations in the southern part of the country, bordering India. Don't underestimate this tropical disease and take precautions. Buy repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Dengue sometimes occurs as well.
Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.
See also Travel Safety
Crime-wise Bhutan is one of the safest countries in the world, where the main crime is people selling illegal vegetables after the market has officially been closed. On the other hand, there are a lot of dangerous animals in the forests (including tigers) and the national sport of archery is practiced everywhere, so make sure to watch out for stray arrows. The roads are very basic in Bhutan and can be very dangerous, especially after rain. Be prepared for long delays from landslides. In general though, encoutering some of these problems is highly uncommon.
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.
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.
See also International Telephone Calls
The country calling code to Bhutan is: 975. To make an international call from Bhutan, the code is: 00
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 say, 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. B-Mobile recharge cards can be purchased in most general stores.
Bhutan Post offers services throughout the country. It's reliable but it takes quite some time for your postcard or letter to arrive in other countries.
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