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In Bhutan, trekkers will find an alternative to the overcrowded trails of Nepal. Serious photographers will be impressed with the country’s traditional architecture and abundant wildlife. (Herds of yaks graze in its high-country valleys, and rare snow leopards, blue sheep and black-necked cranes can sometimes be spotted in its farthest reaches.) Others can find pleasure in the elaborate tsechus (religious festivals) that are held throughout the year at various dzongs (fortress monasteries). Nearly everyone who visits Bhutan will be awed by the unsurpassed majesty of the Himalayas.
But it’s neither easy nor cheap to visit Bhutan, which is tucked in between India and China (Tibet). No independent travel is allowed in the country—all visitors must book their trip through a state-licensed travel office or a foreign travel agent who deals directly with the government. The government charges all travelers 9,000 Nu a day, to which the Bhutanese company may or may not add its own operating costs.
On the brighter side, your trip is usually free of the hassles associated with travel in other countries in this region, as the fee covers lodging, food, tours and comfortable transportation in well-maintained buses, SUVs or cars. The fee also includes a guide with whom you can plan your itinerary.
Most visitors see western Bhutan, which contains the country’s main cities and most of its people. The area has steep hills, lush valleys and a number of winding rivers. Many fabled Buddhist monasteries are in central Bhutan, which is divided from the west by the Black Mountains—excellent terrain for trekking. Eastern Bhutan, which has steep slopes but lower altitudes and a warmer climate, contains extensive farmland and is renowned for handwoven clothes and textiles.
For most of the 20th century, the tiny landlocked kingdom called Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) was virtually unknown to outsiders: Telephones, electricity, paved roads, airports, hospitals, formal education, postal service and foreign relations were nonexistent. Business was conducted on the barter system. It was only in the 1960s that these elements of infrastructure were put in place, and only in 1974 were tourists allowed into the country.
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king, who ruled 1972-2006 (his son, Jigmen Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, replaced him), was considered a progressive-minded leader who encouraged the sensitive process of opening Bhutan to modern influences. In 1999, he allowed his country access to television and the Internet. The same year the nation’s first feature-length film was released. (The Cup depicts a burgeoning soccer craze among Buddhist monks.) Another film, Travelers and Magicians, by the same director debuted internationally in 2003. The film is a delicate fable about the illusory world of dreams and the true nature of reality as taught in Buddhism.
Other initiatives have been calculated to ensure that Bhutan is not overwhelmed by the modern world. Maintenance and restoration of the nation’s dzongs are high priorities—not merely as historical artifacts, but as functioning monastic and governing communities. All new buildings constructed by private and government agencies or individual homeowners must receive approval from the state Division of Works and Housing, which is responsible for the standardization of architectural styles and regulations. Designs for new buildings must incorporate an officially regulated number of traditional elements aimed at preserving Bhutanese aesthetics as well as the livelihood of the artisans who specialize in the traditional designs.
The king also passed into law a decree requiring the maintenance of 60% of the kingdom’s total area under forest cover—for all time. Among other measures to protect the culture, traditional robes must be worn by all citizens in government buildings and at official functions, under penalty of a fine. And tourism, although encouraged, is controlled by the governmental regulation of high tariffs. Even today, the vast majority of the people are subsistence farmers, and the Bhutanese, who call themselves Drukpas (Dragon People), hold strongly to ancient traditions.
Wangchuck (the fourth king) also tried to make the monarchy more democratic. The National Assembly can now revoke the royal title with a no-confidence vote, and according to his wish, the first democratic elections were held in 2008.
Less certain is the future of ethnic Nepalese who fled Bhutan in the late 1980s. The Bhutanese government says they were illegal aliens; the Nepalese say they had lived in Bhutan for generations and were the victims of an arbitrary and discriminatory campaign. Whether they left of their own accord or were forced to flee depends on which group you ask. However, after difficult and lengthy negotiations, resettlement of refugees encamped in eastern Nepal to Bhutan’s western countries began in 2008 under the auspices of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees).
Bhutan is a good destination for flexible, adventurous travelers who are visiting India or Thailand and who enjoyed Nepal, Tibet or the Ladakh region of India. Although there are several high-end resorts, the country is generally not for those who require deluxe accommodations, who are adversely affected by high altitudes, who desire a wide variety of food, shopping and nightlife, or who will become upset if everything doesn’t go exactly as planned.
The national dress code—khos for men and kiras for women—was established in the late 1980s to establish a sense of national unity.
There are no traffic lights in Bhutan. The first set was removed within days as people did not like them.
In some parts of Bhutan, villagers hang wooden phalluses from the roofs of their houses to ensure good crops and healthy children.
During the Fire Blessing festival in Bhumtang, people of all ages run through burning hay to purify their souls.
Nearly all dzongs (fortress monasteries) are dual-use complexes built by Shabdrung Ngawal Namgyal in the 17th century. Villages often take their names from the nearest dzong.
Bhutan has recorded more than 600 species of birds, including the black-necked cranes from Tibet that winter there. Other rare animal species include the bharal (blue) sheep, golden langur (monkey), red panda, takin (the national animal) and snow leopard.
There are only about 50 names commonly given to Bhutanese people. They are not necessarily passed down to family members, however, but are chosen as auspicious at the time of birth and can be first or last names.
Bhutan has imposed a national ban on smoking in offices and restaurants. Some areas have imposed a total ban.
Along with rice, hot chili peppers are the single most important ingredient of the Bhutanese diet, and issues over chili are hotly (no pun intended) debated in the National Assembly.
Most visitors perceive the atsaras, or clowns, at the annual tshechus (festivals) as buffoons because of their antics. In actuality, they are highly respected religious teachers and the word atsara is derived from the Sanskrit, acharya, or “great teacher.”
Bhutan is becoming a popular destination for Himalayan trekkers, and several outfitters have set up shop recently in Thimphu. Set routes have been established, which range from three to 25 days.
The Chomolhari trek is the most popular. This nine-day trek begins at Drugyel Dzong, northwest of Paro, and continues to the base camp of Mount Chomolhari. The route then continues to Lingshi, over two 16,000-ft/4,875-m passes, then goes south to Thimphu. Although the weather can be rough (it snowed almost every day on our March trek), the scenery and culture are magnificent along this route.
The 25-day Snowman trek, which tops at 17,500 ft/5,320 m and reaches areas seldom seen by Westerners, is considered one of the most challenging in the Himalayas and should be attempted only by experienced trekkers. Easier—and highly recommended—treks include the four- to six-day Druk Path trek from Thimphu to Paro and the culturally oriented, four- to five-day Bumthang trek.
Other activities include mountain biking, kayaking and rafting, bird-watching, festivals, golf (the country has one course) and spas in top-end resorts.
Bhutan’s national sport is archery, but basketball is gaining in popularity. Soccer matches are common sights in Thimphu’s Changlingmethang Stadium.
Shop for tanka (religious) paintings and Tibetan articles, such as prayer wheels or tea bowls and jewelry at Bodnath. It’s officially forbidden to export precious stones, gold or silver, but customs officials may not care about small pieces of silver jewelry, especially if you are wearing them. (Items in your luggage tend to get closer scrutiny, though wearing purchased items is not 100% foolproof.)
Other goods—all to be found in the labyrinthine streets of Thamel—include bronze and copper items, shoulder bags, knives, wooden masks and statues, silk handbags, colorful sweaters and jackets, used camping gear, carpets (test to see if they are colorfast), papier-mache masks, Nepalese caps, block prints on rice paper, fossils, Nepalese flutes and violins, handmade paper, books, spices and pashmina shawls.
For Western-style clothes, cameras and other electronic equipment, head for New Road, the busy street leading up to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. And remember, bargaining never hurts. You can get cheap custom-made shirts, skirts and so forth, but the material is usually of very poor quality and the colors will soon fade. In general, it’s wise to carry, rather than mail, packages home.
Shopping Hours: Most stores are closed on Saturday, not Sunday. In general hours are Sunday-Friday 10 am-7 pm but are longer in tourist areas during the high season.
Except for the Swiss Bakery and restaurants in some of the larger hotels in Thimphu, most restaurants don’t offer much in the way of international cuisine. However, several fine restaurants, such as Plum’s Cafe, serve delicious local fare. Be sure to visit the Bhutan Kitchen (a reservation should be included in tour price). The restaurant has the minimalist decor of a fine Japanese restaurant and features a minimuseum representative of Bhutanese village kitchens and storehouses. The menu features the most authentic Bhutanese fare available in a modern restaurant, and the owner and chef, Leki Dorji, personally selects and procures the ingredients from villages in various parts of the country.
If you go trekking, your package tour will outfit your group with a cook.
Drinks include buttered and sweet teas and delicious fruit juices. Bhutan’s alcoholic drinks include chang (brewed from fermented cereals) and arra, which is stronger and distilled from either rice, barley or wheat. Locally produced beer and whiskey can also be found in some places.
Although pickpocketing is not entirely unknown, there have been few incidents of foreign visitors being pick-pocketed or accosted. Bhutan is usually safe and the incidence of theft and loss of property, especially those involving tourists, is rare. Still, be cautious against a flagrant display of money or wealth, which is not only unnecessary provocation, but is viewed by the Bhutanese (who are usually private about money matters) as vulgar.
For more information, contact your government’s travel-advisory agency.
See your doctor about obtaining malaria suppressants (chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria have been reported in the lowlands bordering India). Recommended immunizations include hepatitis A, polio booster, typhoid, tetanus/diphtheria, meningitis and influenza. Take along insect repellent and all prescription medicine needed for the trip. If you become ill in Bhutan, there’s an adequate hospital in Thimphu and small clinics across the country. Medical care is free.
The major danger is altitude sickness, which can strike anyone—even seasoned climbers—who is not yet acclimated to the mountains. It can be fatal if warning signs are ignored. Give yourself a few days to become accustomed to the higher altitudes before you engage in much physical activity, and stay away from cigarettes and alcohol the first few days. Drink plenty of clean water or tea. Climb at a gentle pace, rest frequently and sleep at a lower altitude than the highest reached in the day. Early symptoms include persistent headache, vomiting or erratic behavior—if you experience these, move (or be moved) to lower altitude straightaway.
If you’re planning to go trekking, it’s imperative that you have a physical checkup and train before leaving home. How much training will depend on the grade and length of your planned trek but should include hill and mountain walking or equivalent exercise to build up muscles and breath.
Bears are rarely seen by trekkers, but it is safer to remain with the group in remote areas.
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Do walk clockwise around chortens (Buddhist monuments), manis (carved stones), prayer flags and other religious artifacts. Do remove your shoes, hats and scarves before entering a dzong, monastery or chorten.
Do ask the tour operator arranging the trip about appropriate clothing for the area being visited. Do use your right hand when accepting any object.
Do attend a Bhutanese festival (tsechu), typically a spirited and colorful few days of activity. The most popular are those in Paro (usually in March) and Thimphu (usually in September-October).
Do watch an archery competition. They are held frequently in Thimphu, and many other towns and villages periodically hold contests against each other. The grandest occur during the new-year celebration, Losar, which typically falls in February or March.
Don’t handle religious items or take pictures inside monasteries.
Don’t take antiques out of the country unless you have a permit from the Department of Antiquities. The government is very sensitive about the exportation of religious or cultural artifacts. If you have purchased a thangkaor anything else of religious or cultural significance, be sure to have all of your receipts and permits to show customs before leaving the country, or you might have to leave your thangka behind.
Don’t sit with your feet pointed at anyone who is older than you.
Don’t point at religious objects and paintings with your index finger. The correct way to draw attention to holy objects is to extend your arm in the direction of the object with your palm open and facing skyward.
Do take your plastic bags home and respect all animals and plants. The Bhutanese treat their natural environment as a divine gift.
Languages: Dzongkha (official), Nepali, English and numerous regional languages.
Predominant Religions: Buddhism.
Time Zone: 6 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+6 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed. Voltage Requirements: 220 Volts.
Telephone Codes: 975, country code;
The Bhutanese ngultrum is tied to the Indian rupee and has been fairly stable for the past decade. You can change money immediately upon arrival at the Paro Airport, or in town in Paro or Thimphu at the official Bank of Bhutan, or the smaller city banks (your tour guide should be able to take you to the bank and assist with formalities). You can also change money at your hotel, although the rates of exchange are more favorable at the official banks. You will need your receipts to change back any unused currency prior to departure.
Credit cards are only accepted in some major hotels and some shops. There are no ATMs, except those for local bank cards.
December-March can also be beautiful but cold, especially at night. Snow may cause roads to close December-February.
Summer months (June-September) are the monsoon season, when the advantages of warmer temperatures (usually near 70 F/21 C) are offset by heavy rains (washing out the roads), clouds (obscuring the beautiful views) and the onset of the leech season.
Regardless of when you go, take warm clothing: Nights are always cold in Bhutan, and days can be, too, at high altitudes. Because of the mountains, you can expect some rain whenever you go.
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The best source of entertainment, dining and nightlife information is your guide.
Druk Air has purchased two Airbus A 319 aircrafts with seating capacities up to 126 passengers each. This has greatly diminished the likelihood of your baggage being unloaded for weight reasons, a frequent problem encountered by travelers to Bhutan with the airline’s two previous smaller aircrafts. No tickets are issued without visas. For more information, go to Druk Air’s Web site, http://www.drukair.com.bt.
Allow ample time, preferably 24 hours, for international connections on the return journey, as flights can be delayed by unpredictable mountain weather. If you fly into Bhutan from Kathmandu, sit on the left for views of Everest and the Himalayas.
Bus service is available from India (although insurgent violence makes some areas of northeastern India off-limits to travelers). Internally, the roads continue to improve—especially to the most interesting areas—although the terrain makes automobile travel very slow. Most tours employ minibuses and cars.
For More Information
Bhutan does not have tourist offices in Australia, Canada, the U.K. or the U.S.
Bhutan does not have diplomatic representation in Australia, Canada, the U.K. or the U.S.
There is a Bhutanese Mission to the United Nations in New York: 2 United Nations Plaza, 27th Floor, 44th Street, New York, NY 10017. Phone 212-682-2268. Fax 212-661-0551.
Foreign Embassies in Bhutan
Australia is represented by its embassy in India: 1/50 G. Shantipath, Chanakyapuri, New Dehli, 110-021. Phone 11-4139-9900. Fax 11-4149-4490.
Canadian Cooperation Office, P.O. Box 201, Thimphu. Phone 2-322-109. Fax 2-332-614.
The U.K. is represented by its Deputy High Commission Office in Calcutta: 1 Ho Chi Minh Sarani,
Kolkata, 700 071. Phone 33-2288-5172. Fax 33-2288-5177. There is an honorary British Consul in Thimphu.
The U.S. is represented by its embassy in India: Shanti Path, Chanakyapuri, New Dehli, 110021. Phone 11-2419-8000. Fax 11-2419-0017. http://usembassy.state.gov/posts/in1/wwwhmain.html.
Bhutan, a Trekker’s Guide by Bart Jordans (Cicerone).
Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods by Christian Schicklgruber and Francoise Pommaret (Shambhala Publications). A collection of essays by select Bhutanese intellectuals and foreign scholars of Bhutanese culture, the book provides an intimate yet sweeping overview of Bhutanese customs, history and religious practices as well as its breathtaking geography.
The Blessings of Bhutan by Russ and Blyth Carpenter (University of Hawaii Press). An account of traditional and modern Bhutan through narrative and personal anecdotes.
Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Ashi Dorji Wagmo Wangchuck (Viking). An insight into Bhutanese culture, written by the first wife of the fourth king. Illustrated by young Bhutanese artists and with family photographs from the author.
Land of the Thunder Dragon by John Berthold (Wisdom). A journey of discovery from the capital to areas off the beaten track.