Bhutan Travel Guide

Bhutan is a unique country both culturally and environmentally. 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. Very little has been heard of Bhutan and to most people it is a hidden kingdom shrouded in mystery. It is classed as one of the most exotic destinations in the world today.

History

The ancient period of Bhutan that dates from the beginning till the 8th century AD, was marked by rural settlement, domestication of animals, agriculture, the first advent of Buddhism and subsequent buildings of Buddhist temples.The visit of Guru Padmasambhava and other Buddhists saints and scholars from India and Tibet marked the medieval Bhutan. Emergence of ruling clans and development of arts and architecture were also seen during this period.

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a leader of the Drukpa sect, came to Bhutan in 17th century. He introduced the dual system of Government and for the first time some degree of stability was maintained, which was unseen before. This did not last long. After Ngawang Namgyal’s death, successors became victims of intrigues and rivalries. The instability continued till the early 20th century.

The country’s modern period began with the establishment of monarchy in Bhutan. The powerful Bhutanese Chief, Ugyen Wangchuk crowned as the first hereditary ruler of Bhutan in 1907.The country’s self-imposed policy of isolation continued till the reign of the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. He decided to shed this age-old policy and introduced the country to the outside world, bringing the country into the international mainstream.

Though the country is known as Bhutan to the outside world, to Bhutanese it has been known as Druk Yul ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. The people call themselves Drukpas.

Geography

Bhutan is a landlocked country wedged between the autonomous region of Tibet, China, in the north and India in the south along the lofty mountains of the eastern Himalayas. It is located between 88°45’and 92°10′ longitude east and between 26°40′ and 28°15′ latitude north. It covers 46,500 square kilometers and has population of 650,000 with seventy five percent of the population living on cultivation and livestock rearing.

The country can be divided into three major geographic zones: the southern foothills and plains with hot and humid climate, the hills and valleys in the center with moderate rainfall and the highland of the north with high mountains covered with snow almost throughout the year.

Bhutan is a land of complex gorges and valleys, soaring snow-capped mountains and steep slopes, humid jungles and foothills, magnificent lakes and waterfalls, fast flowing rivers and streams and the richest biodiversity of flora and fauna.

People

The people of Bhutan are classified into three main ethnic groups: Sharchops, who live in east of the country believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan. They are Indo-Mongoloid in origin and appear closely related to the people of north-east India and northern Burma. The Ngalongs are descendants of Tibetan migrants who migrated to Bhutan in the 9th century and settled west of the country. The third group Lhotsampas are of Nepali origin who settled in the foothills of southern Bhutan in mid 19th century. There are other minority groups in Bhutan such as Layap, Brokpa, Doya, Lhopu, Dhakpa and Lepcha.

Traditional Dress

The men wear a knee-length garment called ‘Gho’ which resembles the Scottish kilt. The women wear a long robe ‘Kira’, which is wrapped around the body covering from neck to ankle. Women usually wear heavy silver and gold necklaces with coral, turquoise and other precious stones. Rings and earrings decorated with pearls and turquoise are also popular.

Language

The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, which is widely spoken in western region. The eastern region of the country speak Sharchop, where as the people in the south speak Nepali.

English has been used as the medium of instructions in schools and educational institutions. The country’s national newspaper ‘Kuensel’ is written in English, Dzongkha and Nepali.

In Bhutan, in addition to the standard Buddhist festivals, there are yearly festivals celebrated with great fanfare in each district. The most renowned of these are the Tsechu (10th day) festivals, commemorating the deeds of Padmasambhava. Locally referred to as ‘Guru Rimpoche’ or, simply as ‘Guru,’ this eighth century master, introduced the Nyingma school of Buddhism into Tibet and Bhutan. Each 10th day of the lunar calendar is said to commemorate a special event in the life of Padmasambhava; and some of these are dramatized in the context of a religious festival. Most festival lasts from three to five days – one of which, usually, falls on the 10th day of the lunar calendar.

Of these festivals the Paro Tsechu, in the spring, and the Wangue and Thimpu Tsechus, in the fall, are the most impressive. These festivals are very popular with western tourists. The festivals in Bumthang and East Bhutan attract fewer tourists. By attending these festivals those who want to get a more authentic flavor of Bhutan’s cultural and religious extravaganza will be well rewarded.

Paro Tsechu

All religious and lay people of Paro and neighborhood areas, dressed and adorned in their finest attend the festivals, with a belief that they will get their sins washed away and will accumulate merits. This is also an occasion of social gatherings. There will be a series of mask dance performances mainly by monks with some folk singing and dancing as well.

Thimphu Tsechu

The Thimphu Tsechu is one of the biggest and most spectacular of the Buddhist festivals faithfully celebrated in Bhutan. Both monks and lay people perform in the dances and dramas as an act of meditation, seeking to personify the deity that they portray. Masked and dressed in elaborate costumes of silk brocade, dancers demonstrate the triumph of good over evil and the power of compassion to the haunting sounds of trumpets, cymbals and flutes. Today this beautiful and sacred festival remains a wonderful manifestation of a religious faith that is still a crucial part of Bhutanese daily life.

Jambay Lhakang Bumthang Drub

This festival held in the picturesque valley of Bumthang gained its popularity from the visits of tourist in the recent years. In addition to the mask dances, Jambay Lhakhang Temple built in the year 659 host the “Mewang” (Fire blessing) and “Tercham” (Dance of Treasure). It is believed that the Tercham can bless the infertile women with children, and is only performed during the night.

Festivals

  • Punakha Dromche , Punakha, Feb 11- 15
  • Chorten Kora, Trashiyangtse, Feb 21 – Mar 7
  • Gomkora, Trashigang, Mar 14 – 16
  • Paro Tshechu, Paro, Mar 17 – 21
  • Chhukha Tshechu, Chhukha, Mar 19 – 21
  • Ura Yakchoe (Tentative), Bumthang, April 16 – 20
  • Nimalung Tshechu, Bumthang, Jul 10 – 12
  • Kurjey Tshechu, Bumthang, Jul-12
  • Thimphu Drupchen, Thimphu, Oct 4 – 8
  • Wangdi Tshechu, Wangdi Phodrang, Oct 7 – 9
  • Thimphu Tshechu, Thimphu, Oct 9 – 11
  • Tamshingphala Choepa, Bumthang, Oct 8 – 10
  • Tangbi Mani, Bumthang, Oct 13 – 15
  • Jambay Lakhang Drup, Bumthang, Nov 12 – 16
  • Prakhar Duchhoed, Bumthang, Nov 13 – 15
  • Mongar Tshechu, Mongar, Dec 4 – 7
  • Pemagatsel Tshechu, Pemagatsel, Dec 4 – 7
  • Trashigang Tshechu, Trashigang, Dec 5 – 8
  • Nalakhar Tsechu, Bumthang, Dec 12 – 14

Bhutan’s climate ranges from tropical temperatures in the south and central parts of the country, to cold in the north. Like much of your adventure in the Himalayas the weather will be quite unpredictable.

The spring season in Bhutan can only be compared to an artist’s palette, truly a spectacular time. The autumn season, late September through November, is usually very mild and clear. The sky is usually at its clearest, displaying magnificent views of the Himalayan range. The spring and fall seasons are traditionally the most popular times to visit Bhutan.

In the Thimphu and Paro valleys, the winter day time temperature averages around 60 degrees Fahrenheit during clear winter days but drops well below freezing during the night. Mid December to early January can be beautifully clear and dry in West Bhutan. Late December through mid February is the period of heaviest snow fall in the higher elevations.The higher peaks will be snow-covered all year. The higher passes, particularly Thrumshing La, between Bumthang and Mongar, can be treacherous during winter as snow falls frequently and ices up the road. Light snow will often dust Thimphu and Paro in winter, occasionally there will be heavy snowstorms despite their location in the Central Himalayas

During  summer, daytime temperature often rises to the mid-eighties. Punakha and central valley’s temperatures are lower than    their western neighbors and tend to always be a few degrees warmer. The summer monsoon from the Bay of Bengal affects Bhutan from late May to late September. Views over the Himalayas from the higher passes are usually obscured from June to August. There are notable advantages to visiting Bhutan during the wet season including the spectacular rhododendron blossom from March through May and the deep green valleys. Many species of wild orchids are in full bloom during late summer season (August).

The major cities of Bhutan include Thimpu (the capital city), Paro (the city of the international airport and Taktsang Monastery), Punakha (former Bhutanese capital and a popular city in Western Bhutan) and Mongar (one of the largest towns in Eastern Bhutan). Bumthang is another very popular place in Bhutan.

Trekking, hiking, rafting and cycling are among the physical activities that you can get involved in, during your trip to Bhutan. Similarly, you can take part in the country’s many festivals and visit ancient monasteries. The list of activities in Bhutan also includes  bird watching and traditional village tours.

There are a number of beautiful monasteries to see and visit in Bhutan. The country’s wildlife parks – Jigme Dorji National Park, Jigme Singye Wangchuk National Park, Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary, Khaling Wildlife Sanctuary, etc. introduces you to Bhutan’s rich biodiversity.

Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan. It is equivalent to the Indian rupee which is widely accepted throughout Bhutan. It’s possible to get Ngultrum at the Paro airport, Bhutan National Bank and the Bank of Bhutan. There are ATM kiosks that accepts Visa and MasterCards at major towns and cities. You can find out where the ATMs are located by clicking on the Bank of Bhutan’s ATM locator page https://www.bob.bt/atmlocator/.
Most hotels and handicraft stores accept credit card payment nowadays.
It is imperative that you have full comprehensive insurance cover  against unforeseen accidents and mishaps. Such policies are not available in Bhutan. It should adequately cover baggage and travel delays; helicopter evacuation, transportation and medical assistance while trekking.
Spring (March, April, May) and autumn (September, October, November) are best seasons to visit Bhutan. The major cultural festivals are held during these seasons and the fine weather makes it an ideal time for trekking and traveling throughout the country and viewing the high mountain peaks. The rainy season falls in June-August, with rainfall averaging about 0.5m (1.5ft).

By Air:

Bhutan has two international carriers, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines. While Druk Air is the national flag carrier, Bhutan Airlines is a privately owned  company. All international departures and arrivals are operated from the country’s only international airport at Paro(2235m). As Bhutan is a mountainous country, flight departures are subject to weather conditions. We advise you to keep a 24-hour gap before any onward international connections.

Ace the Himalaya can assist you in arranging your flight to Bhutan. For your reservation, you need to furnish your full name (as mentioned in your passport) and other details. As the airlines do not issue paper tickets, an E-ticket will be forwarded to you via e-mail or fax in advance once your booking is confirmed.
Note: Airport tax per person is payable at the time of departure.
Please contact us for further details on flight arrangements.

By Land:

The border towns of  Phuentsoling, Samdrup Jogkhar and Gelephu are the only entry/exit points opened for tourists. These border towns are located quite far from the country’s capital Thimpu. One has to enter India for overland entry via these towns.

The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. For this reason, the number of tourists visiting Bhutan is kept to an environmentally manageable level through government regulated tourist tariff.

It is mandatory to have your trips organized only by a registered tour operator in Bhutan. Bhutanese missions or embassies will not arrange your travel or tourist visa to Bhutan.

The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. For this reason, the number for tourists visiting Bhutan is kept to an environmentally manageable level through government regulated tourist tariff.

It is mandatory to have your trips organized through any one of the registered tour operators in Bhutan as no other missions or embassies will arrange your travel to Bhutan. Bhutanese missions or embassies will not arrange your travel or tourist visa to Bhutan.

The electricity cycle is 220V Plus. Please bring along the camera chargers or travel appliances in accordance to this power rating.

Due to wide range of temperature and climatic conditions, it is advisable to bring appropriate clothing. In the months of October, November, December, January and February, mornings and evenings will be cold. You will have to be in warm clothes (thick overcoats not necessary). While in the months of February, March, April, May, June, July, August and September, the days are warmer. June, July and August will be little wet and some rain gear would be necessary.

Clothes as per season, sunglasses/spare glasses or contact lenses, pair of casual shoes, washing kit, shaving kit, towel, hat, umbrella, camera, film and accessories, maps, insect repellent, hand cream, small sewing kit & safety pins, torch or flash light with spare batteries, mirror, sun screen cream, lip salve or soluble aspirin, antiseptic cream, preparation for the relief of sunburn.

Bhutan offers generally modest but clean hotels. A couple of high end resorts have been opened in some districts. Ace the Himalaya’s agents put you up in the best available hotels that are classified and approved by the Royal Government. Visitors are advised not to expect luxury or five star hotel services. Bhutan’s local hospitality is, however, an insight into a society where tourism may be a new venture, but where visitors are greeted with true warmth and friendship.

Generally, tourist facilities and services are good in western Bhutan, but the quality of services and facilities decreases the further east we go. This is because tourism is less developed in the more remote east.

We arrange comfortable passenger coaster buses for groups of seven visitors or more. You will also be traveling comfortably throughout the country in six seater Japanese hi-ace buses. Smaller groups of one to two passengers will discover the country in luxury SUVS.

The staple food of Bhutan are red rice (like brown rice in texture, the only variety of rice that grows in high altitudes), buckwheat, and maize. The diet in the hills also includes chicken, yak, beef, pork, pork fat, and mutton. Soups and stews of meat, rice, ferns, lentils, and dried vegetables, spiced with chili peppers and cheese are a favourite meal during the cold seasons. ‘Zow shungo’ (a rice dish mixed with leftover vegetables) and ‘Ema datshi’, made with cheese and chili peppers (similar to chili con queso) might be called the national dish for its ubiquity and the pride that Bhutanese have for it. Other dishes include ‘Jasha Maru’ (a chicken dish), ‘Phaksha paa’, and fried rice. Dairy products, particularly butter and cheese from yaks and cows, are also popular, and indeed almost all milk is turned into butter and cheese. Popular beverages include: butter tea, black tea, locally brewed ara (rice wine), and beer. Popular spices include: curry, cardamom, ginger, chillies, garlic, turmeric, and caraway.

Also other variety of meals are available in most hotels – the most popular being Indian, Chinese, and the more common continental food. Non-vegetarian dishes are generally available in most parts of Bhutan – pork, beef, chicken, and fish. The best advice is to ask the hotel and restaurant to recommend what is fresh and in season.

Bhutanese hand woven fabric is prized around the world and it is very famous, and is available stitched into clothing. Other popular handicraft items include wall hangings, table mats and rugs. ‘Yathra’, a brightly colored woven material made from wool and dyed with natural colors is sold in pieces or sewn into jackets, bags, rugs and wall hangings. It is available in Thimpu and other cold areas, but is a specialty of the Jakar area. ‘Dappa’, handmade wooden bowls used to carry cooked food, can be purchased throughout the country. ‘Bangchung’, a small bamboo woven baskets with two tightly fitting halves is a specialty of  southern Bhutan but available throughout the country. The buying or selling of antiques is strictly forbidden.
  • The word “Bhutan” translates to “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” It earned the nickname because of the fierce storms that often roll in from the Himalayas.
  • One of 43 landlocked countries in the world, Bhutan is about half the size of the US state of Indiana.
  • At 24,840 feet, Gangkhar Puensum is the highest point in Bhutan – and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
  • Bhutanese manners dictate that you are to refuse food whenever it’s offered to you. The tradition is to say the words “meshu meshu” and cover your mouth with your hands. You can give in, though, after two or three offers.
  • Anyone found guilty of killing the endangered and culturally sacred black-necked crane could be sentenced to life in prison.
  • Bhutan is one of the last countries in the world to introduce television to its people. The government lifted a ban on TV – and on the Internet – only some years ago.
  • Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment. Among its requirements: at least 60 percent of the nation must remain under forest cover at all times.
  • One-third of Bhutan’s population is under the age of 14; its median age is 22.3 years.
  • Thimpu is one of just two capital cities in Asia that does not have a single traffic light. (The other is Pyongyang, North Korea.) There was such public outcry when local officials installed a single signal that it was quickly removed, and a traffic officer was re-assigned to the intersection.
  • Bhutan is the only nation in the world where the sale of tobacco is banned.
  • Greetings / Hello: Kuzoozangpo La (Response is also Kuzoozangpo La)
  • Welcome: Joen pa Leg So
  • How are you: Ga Day Bay Zhu Yoe Ga ?
  • I’m fine: Nga Leg shom Bay Rang Yoey
  • Good wishes: Tashidelek !
  • Thank you: Kaadinchhey La
  • What is your name? : (for elders with respect) Na gi Tshen Ga Chi Mo ?
  • What is your name? : (for peers) : Chhoey gi Ming Ga chi Mo ?
  • My name is: …. Ngegi Ming…………… Ein
  • Where are you from? : Chhoey ga te lay mo ?
  • How old are you? : Kay Lo gadem chi Ya shi ?
  • Good Bye: Log Jay Gay (means we’ll meet again)
  • Where does this road lead to? : Lam dig a thay jow mo ?
  • Is it far: Tha ring sa in-na
  • Here: Na / Nalu
  • There: Pha / Phalu
  • Where? : Ga tey ?
  • Which? : Gadee ?
  • In front of: Dongkha
  • Next to: Bolokha
  • Behind: Japkha
  • What is this? : Ani ga chi mo ?
  • How much is it? : Dilu gadem chi mo ?
  • That’s too much: Gong bom may
  • Who is speaking? : Ga Sung Mo La ?
  • I’m speaking: Nga……………Zhu Do la
  • Yes, Yes: Ong, Ong
  • I’m sick: Nga nau may
  • Water: Chhu
  • Hot water: Chhu Tshe
  • Milk Tea: Na Ja
  • Butter Tea: Su Ja