The Kingdom of Bhutan is known for its culture, architecture and archery, but in many ways, it has remained a mystery until half a century ago.
Trekking Bhutan is becoming more and more popular now that traveling to Bhutan has become easier since the cap of 25000 tourists per year is off.
The serene country is landlocked between its neighbors China to the north and India to the south. From subtropical Savannah’s to forests to the unforgiving Himalayas that guard the country’s eastern border. It covers an area of about 4500 kilometers and is populated by an estimated 683,000 who live in the central valleys. Its isolation and the policy to limit tourism have helped to protect its culture and its natural beauty. On the other hand, the Bhutanese call their country Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, because of the violent snow storms.
The country’s three main ethnic groups are the Ngalongs, Sharchops and the Lhotshampas. The Ngalongs live most in the western and central regions. They are descendants of Tibetan immigrants. The Sharchops, considered the original inhabitants live on the east side of the country. The south is inhabited by The Lhotshampas, ethnic Nepalese. Dzongkha is the spoken language but several dialects are used throughout the country. Dzongkha means, “the language spoken in fortresses.” It has 30 consonants and four vowels.
The local currency is the Ngultrum. It is divided into 100 chetrums. The exchange rate in late May was 39.98 Ngultrums was equal to one U.S. dollar.
Buddhism is the counties official religion. The major religious festivals are called tshechus. They last three to five days and involve music, dance and drinking. Masked dances and dance dramas accompanied by traditional music are common features at festivals. Energetic dancers, wearing colorful wooden or composition face masks and stylized costumes, depict heroes, demons, animals, and gods. The dancers enjoy royal patronage.
You can visit Bhutan any time of the year. Bhutan’s warm and temperate climate, the festivals and rich heritage sites provide visitors a lot of experiences throughout the year across the country. Bhutan has all four seasons and the climate varies widely depending on the altitude. Spring (March – May) is thought to be the most beautiful time of the year. It also is the time to witness the famous Paro tsechu festival.
Autumn (September – November) is lovely with clear and blue skies providing a fabulous view of some of the tallest unclimbed mountains in the world. It is the best time for trekking and traveling. The monsoon season, summer (June- August) gives more rainfall than any other region in the Himalayas.Winter (December – February) is sunny and cool. The majority of the east-west highway remains snowbound during winter. It is best to visit the western districts however,: Paro, Wangdue, Punakha, Thimphu and Haa.
Temperatures in the south range from 15°C in winter (December to February) to 30°C in summer (June to August). In Paro the temperatures vary from -5°C in January to 30°C in July . In the high mountains the average temperature is 0°C in winter and could reach 10°C in summer with just an average of 350mm of rain.
Bhutan’s altitude ranges from subtropical valleys to alpine peaks. There is something going on all through the year in Bhutan, with the many fascinating and colorful festivals.
The hills and valleys in central and eastern Bhutan are temperate and drier than in the west, with warm summers and cool winters. The northern region has an alpine climate, and is perpetually under snow. Most of the peaks in the north are over 7,000m, with the highest point at Gangkar Puensum, at 7,564m, a sacred mountain and the highest in the world that still has not been climbed.
The southern part of Bhutan is tropical, and in general, the east of Bhutan is warmer than the west of the country. The central valley of Punakha, Wangdiphodrang, Mongar, Tashigang and Lhuntshi enjoy a semi tropical climate with very cool winters, while Thimphu, Tongsa and Bumthang have a much harsher climate, with heavy monsoon rains in the summer and heavy snow falls in winter.
Best times to travel:
Winter (November to January) is the best time to come for bird-watching, trekking at lower altitudes and cycling along the mountain roads. The trekking routes in the high mountains are covered with deep snow and are impassable during this time of year. The endangered black-necked cranes winter in Phobjikha (western Bhutan) and the high valley of Bumdelling (eastern Bhutan). Winter is a good season for touring in western Bhutan, bird-watching and visiting the southern subtropical jungles. This time of the year the climate is dry with daytime temperatures of 16-18° C and night-time temperatures falling below zero.
Spring (February to April) is the best time for kayaking, rafting and trekking in moderate altitudes. This is also a very good time for touring and the popular religious dance festival at Paro takes place in the spring. The spring is also a good time for trekking, especially to see the spring flowers and rhododendrons.
The pace in Bhutan is slow so be prepared for delays.Bhutan is +6 GMT, with a time difference of 30 minutes to India and 15 minutes different to Nepal.The best approach to traveling in Bhutan is to forget about the time and relax into the slow pace of life.
All travelers to Bhutan must travel on a planned and guided package tour.Part of the daily fixed rate paid goes to the government and forms an important source of income to help pay for services like healthcare and schools.
Dzongkha is the official language of Bhutan but the Bhutanese are taught in English at school, so most people can speak English. Many people originally came from Nepal and Nepali is widely spoken in many places. The state religion is Buddhism and its influence can be seen on every aspect of daily life. Always ask before taking photos of people.
It is compulsory for the Bhutanese citizens to wear national dress in public, to the office and in particular for any formal occasions. Bhutan is very conservative and you should dress accordingly. Shoulders and knees should be covered. Please do not wear shorts.
Remove shoes and hat upon entering important rooms of a temple. Leave cameras, umbrellas and hats outside the monastery. Always move in a clockwise direction around the building and monuments. Don’t speak in a loud voice. If there is a ceremony being performed inside, always check first before entering. It is customary to make a small offering (Nu 10) on the altar.
Despite a late start towards modernization, Bhutan has recorded some remarkable achievements in a short period of time. During the past 40 years, the country has become connected with a wide network of roads; electricity is more widely available; and modern communications links different parts of the country and Bhutan with the outside world. Progress in the economy and physical infrastructure has been matched with improvements in the social sectors such as education and health.
A least developed country in the 1960s, with a GDP per capita of only USD 51 (the lowest in the world at that time), Bhutan’s GDP per capitra in 2008 has reached USD 1,852, one of the highest in South Asia. In 2009, Bhutan ranked 132 out of 182 in the Human Development Index, placing it in the ‘medium human development’ category of countries.
That said, there is a big difference between the relatively better off in the towns, and the farmers in remote areas, where poverty, access to education and health services are still very poor.
Only 7.8 percent of land is cultivated, with around 72.5 percent under forest cover. Bhutan is rich in water and hydropower, with an estimated potential of 30,000MW with an annual energy capacity of nearly 120,000GWh. Much of this is exported to India.
Gross National Happiness:
Gross National Happiness Bhutan has a unique philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Bhutan holds an uncompromising stance on environmental conservation and is known for its policy of ‘high value, low volume tourism’, rich tradition, pristine ecology and abundant wildlife.
Expressed as the country’s philosophy of economic and social development by the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, it sets out social and economic interventions that evaluate societal change in terms of the collective happiness of people, leading to the adoption of policies aimed at that objective. Based on the belief that all people aspire to happiness in one way or the other, the concept promotes collective happiness of society as the ultimate goal in development.
According to GNH, true development of human society occurs when material and spiritual advancement complements or reinforces each other. The means should always be considered in terms of the end and every step in material development and change measured and evaluated to ensure it will lead to happiness, not just development. The philosophy attempts to harmonize economic progress with the spiritual and emotional well-being of the people.
The holistic development of the individual and society can only be developed by a sustainable balance between the economic, social, emotional, spiritual and cultural needs of the people. Development based on GNH values are therefore not restricted to the present population of any society but includes future generations and other societies. The emphasis is that current development should not cause misery to future generations, or other societies.
GNH is Bhutan’s development philosophy that has guided the country’s development policies and programs. Guided by this, Bhutan has made rapid progress in development in a short period of time. Achievements have come with minimal impact on the culture and environment of the country.
The four main pillars of GNH are:
– Equitable and sustainable socio-economic development
– Preservation and promotion of culture
– Conservation of environment
– Promotion of good governance
The GNH indicators include psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, culture, health, education, environmental diversity, living standards, and governance.
In a survey conducted on happiness levels in 2005, 45.2% reported being very happy, 51.6% happy and only 3.2% reported not being happy. The average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is in the top 10% of nations in the world.
In Bhutan the currency is the Ngultrum (BTN). In 2010, the rate of exchange was approximately 1 USD to 45.5 BTN.It is best to bring a mixture of cash and travelers checks in major currencies – USD, CAD, EUR, AUD – and ensure you have a mixture of large and small denominations.
All meals are included in the price of your trip, so money is only needed for personal expenses such as drinks, laundry and shopping. Shopping is difficult to predict, but most people buy more than they intend.
If you transfer to Bhutan via Nepal, most major currencies can be changed into Nepalese Rupees (NPR) at Kathmandu Airport and at banks and exchange counters throughout the city. Credit card cash advances and ATM withdrawals are in NPR only.
Major currencies can be exchanged for Bhutanese Ngultrum on arrival at Paro Airport, at large hotels and at banks in Thimphu. Credit cards are accepted only by large hotels and major handicraft emporiums, but incur a service charge. Outside Thimphu, it is best to use cash.
ATM withdrawals and credit card cash advances are not available. It is possible to exchange excess BTN into USD on departure on production of the original exchange receipts. You cannot exchange BTN outside Bhutan.
Tourism in Bhutan is managed through a government-private partnership. There is no restriction on the number of visitors, but a minimum daily tariff is fixed by the government. This covers all your accommodation, meals, transport, guides, porters and cultural programs. The government receives 65USD per person per day as a tax which is used to fund infrastructure, education, health and other public services.
Food and drink:
Traditional Bhutanese food features spicy, hot chillis. Ema datse includes large usually green and very hot chillis prepared as a vegetable, in a cheese sauce. Phak sha laphu (stewed pork with radish) is another favorite. Other typical dishes (always accompanied by chillis) include no sha huentseu (stewed beef with spinach), phak sha phin tsoem (pork and rice noodles), and bja sha maroo (chicken with garlic and butter). Dal bhat (rice, curry and lentils) is also widely available.
Rice is the staple diet in the lower regions, while wheat and buckwheat are staples at higher altitudes. In Bumthang, khuley (buckwheat pancakes) and puta (buckwheat noodles) are eaten with rice.
Common snack food includes zaw (toasted rice), jasip (beaten rice) and gayzasip (beaten maize). Chugo (hard, dried cheese) is also a popular snack.
Most meals are included on your trips in Bhutan.Most meals are buffet-style and consist of European food.Bhutanese food often contains a lot of chillies.Tipping is generally not necessary.
Must try: Eue chum (nutty pink rice), Yak cheese, Nakey fern fonds, tohsey vegetables, rice and cheese, Asparagus.
Tea, Souza is the national drink of Bhutan and Chillies. Furthermore, vegetarian food is the norm. Meat is only available in some areas.
However, water in Bhutan is not safe to drink. Water purification tablets or bottles with inbuilt filters are recommended.
It is only possible to enter Bhutan on a fully organized tour. Visa approvals are only issued to authorized travel agents when you book your tour. Once the approval has been issued it is then possible for your agent to book your flight. It is not possible to book seats prior to the visa approval being issued so it is important to confirm your trip and provide your agent with a copy of the details page of your passport as soon as possible.
Your actual visa will be issued on arrival at Paro Airport. Cost is USD 20.00. The Tourist Development Fund (TDF) payment of USD 10.00 is included in the trip cost.