This little Himalayan kingdom jealously guards its lifestyle and ancient traditions. The beauty of the unspoilt landscape seems unreal to travelers from the industrialized world: houses with brightly decorated window frames and shingled roofs, patchworks of green paddy fields, plots of tawny buckwheat, oak forests, covered bridges bedecked in colorful prayer flags, fences of intricately woven bamboo, a man leaning on a wooden rail trampling his harvest, a women weaving in the open air, a baby tied into a horse’s saddlebag, yaks browsing in groves of giant rhododendrons.
Such scenes remain in the memory forever. The symbols of Bhutan’s religion leave the deepest impression: chortens (commemorative monuments) dot the landscape, fluttering prayer flags, prayer wheels turned by the water of swift mountain streams and impressive monasteries. Buddhism is everywhere, determining attitudes, and molding thoughts.
Impenetrable jungles to the south and daunting ranges of snow-capped mountains to the north have always barred access to the remote valleys of the kingdom. In spite of many incursions by both Tibeto-Mongol troops and the armies of the British Empire stationed in India, the country has not been colonized since the 8th century. Bhutan has therefore kept alive its extremely rich heritage, stubbornly maintaining its distance from the modern world, proud of its own values and traditions.
Capital city: Thimpu (population 98,676 – 2009)
Area: 38,394 sq km (14,812 sq miles) – 350km long x 150km wide approximately
Altitude: 7,200m (in the north) to 100m (in the south)
Population: 708,500 (2010 UN)
Political system: Democratic constitutional monarchy
Population: 683,407 (2009 est.)
Religion: Buddhism (official), Hinduism
Life expectancy: 66 years (men), 70 years (women) (UN)
Currency: Ngultrum (BTN) – 1 USD = 45.5 Ngultrum (Mar 2010)
Forest coverage: 72.5% of land area
Cultivated area: 7.8% of total land
Main exports: Electricity, timber, cement, agricultural products, handicrafts
GNI per capita: US $2,020 (World Bank, 2009)
Time zone: GMT +6
Dialing code: +975
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.
Smoking is illegal in public places.The sale of tobacco products is banned.
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.
Bhutan has opened for tourists only since the 1970s following the coronation of the fourth king of Bhutan in 1974. Before this, very few foreigners visited. Almost all visitors before then were guests of the royal family. Paro airport opened in 1983 and the airline, Druk Air started operating flights from Kolkata.
Bhutan has a rich medieval and modern history, when the fortresses were built, warlords jostled for power and many monasteries were set up all over this Buddhist country.
Guru Rinpoche is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is also known as Ugyen Rinpoche. He traveled in various manifestations throughout Tibet, India, Nepal and Bhutan, meditating in many caves (now seen as important sites).
Between the 11 th and 16 th centuries, many terma (sacred texts), hidden by Guru Rinpoche in caves, rocks and lakes were found by tantric lamas (tertons) who were important religious figures.
Fragmented by competing monasteries, unity came after Ngawang Namgal (1594-1651) came to Bhutan from Tibet. A former student of religion and art, he had been forced to leave his home at Ralung in Tibet. As he traveled through western Bhutan teaching, his political strength increased and he became the first in the line of zhabdrungs. War followed against opposing Buddhist groups in Bhutan and Tibet, but agreement was reached in 1639, recognizing Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal as the supreme authority in Bhutan.
During his rule, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal ordered the construction of many monasteries and dzongs throughout Bhutan. He enhanced his authority by establishing good relations with neighboring kings, including Rama Shah, king of Nepal.
To differentiate themselves from the Tibetans and to preserve their religion and culture, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal devised many of Bhutan’s ceremonies and traditions. He codified the Kagyu religious teachings into a distinctly Bhutanese system. He defined the national dress, which is still maintained to this day. A code of laws was established defining the relationship between lay people and the monastic community. Taxes were paid in kind, in wheat, rice, yak meat, paper, timber and so on. Compulsory labor for the construction of trails, dzongs, temples and bridge was levied. These practices remained largely unchanged until they were eliminated by the third king in 1956.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal went into retreat to Punakha Dzong in 1651 and never re-emerged. His death was concealed until 1705, and four successive desis (secular ruler) continued, in the belief that the continued presence of Zhabdrung was necessary to keep the country unified and keep Tibet at bay. All the same, Tibet attacked Bhutan seven times between 1656 and 1730.
The following two centuries saw civil war, internal conflicts and political instability After skirmishing with the British in 1772-3 when claimants to the throne of Cooch Behar in India appealed for help to drive out Bhutanese from their kingdom, Bhutan signed a treaty with the British in 1774 that agreed transit rights to Tibet through Bhutan.
There were very numerous boundary skirmishes and following the Burmese War of 1825-26, the British took over control of Assam, a territory that forms the eastern half of Bhutan’s southern border. The plains area that covers the plains between the Brahmaputra River and the low hills of Bhutan, known as the duars (gates) became an area of dispute, as the western Bengal duars had been annexed by Bhutan in the late 17 th century. Major disagreements resulted between the British who controlled the Assam duars and Bhutan. As well as being strategically important, as excellent tea-growing country, the British were very attracted to the duars.
Instability in the region meant that Bhutan was able to take advantage and mount many raids in the Bengal duars. Finally in 1864, the British annexed this area, with a fierce battle at Dewangiri ending the war when the British destroyed the buildings and killed the captives. The treaty of Sinchula was signed in November 1865 and the duarswere ceded to the British forever.
The final decades of the 19 th century saw continual political instability in Bhutan. In an attempt to restore Bhutan’s sovereignty, Ugyen Wangchuck, who has emerged as the most powerful person in the country, developed closer relations with the British. He accompanied Francis Younghusbandman during his invasion of Tibet in 1904 and assisted with the treaty negotiations between Britain and Tibet.
In 1907, Ugyen Wangchuck was elected as hereditary ruler of Bhutan by Bhutan’s chiefs and principal lamas. Installed with the title Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King), he maintained close contacts with the British, as much to get some security from the increasing Chinese influence in Tibet.
Anglo-Bhutanese relations were further strengthened in the Treaty of Punakha, signed in 1910. Britain agreed not to interfere with the internal administration of Bhutan, in return for Bhutan being guided by the advice of the British on external relations.
Uygen Wangchuck died in 1926 and was succeeded by his son, Jigme Wangchuck. He improved the tax system and administration, bringing the whole country under his direct control. Following India’s independence in 1947, India recognized Bhutan as an independent country. A treaty was signed agreeing not to interfere with Bhutan’s internal affairs, while Bhutan agreed to be guided by India on external affairs.
Jigme Wangchuk died in 1952 and was succeeded by his son, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. When China invaded Tibet, Bhutan recognized that its policy of isolationism was no longer appropriate in the modern world. To protect Bhutan’s independence, the country needed to be part of the world community. In 1961, Bhutan started a process of planned development and in 1962 joined the Colombo Plan, giving access to assistance and training from member countries in south east Asia. Bhutan joined the Universal Postal Union in 1969 and became a member of the UN in 1971. Jigmi Dorji established the National Assembly (Tshogdu) and drew up a code of law. Serfdom was abolished, land holdings reformed, and the Royal Bhutan Army, a police force and High Court were established. The National Assembly meets twice a year and has 150 members who serve for three year terms.
Jigme Dorji Wangchuk died at the age of 44 in 1972 and was succeeded by his 16 year old son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. He continued with his father’s program of reform and focused of economic self-reliance. He was crowned in 1974 and it was the first time that the international press were allowed to enter the country. Some 287 guests were invited and hotels were built to accommodate them, providing the first hotels that would be later used for tourists.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck developed Bhutan’s policy of environmental conservation, as well as modernizing education, health services, rural development and communications. National identity, traditional values and the idea of ‘One Nation, One people’ is still paramount. In 1988, he married the sisters Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Ashi Tshering Pem, Ashi Tsering Yangdon and Ashi Sangay Choedon.
In 2005, Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced he would abdicate the throne in favor of his eldest son, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk and look to bring the country from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy.
Hotels and guesthouses are used on Bhutan trips.
The accommodation used is generally of a good standard, though can be simple, with electricity and water sometimes sporadic.
Fly from Kathmandu to Paro to enter Bhutan.
A minibus is used for traveling between towns.Although the roads are generally fairly good, bus travel is slow with average speed limits of less than 40kph (25mph).Generally public transport is not used, as services are very limited.Roads can be windy – if you get motion sickness bring medication.
Auto rickshaws are used for sightseeing in some of the towns.
Internet access is limited.The best option is in Thimpu where there are some internet cafes.
There are few telephones in Bhutan.International calls can be made via landline through India.The Bhutan dialing code is +975.Mobile phone coverage does exist but is limited and is only available in main cities.
Receiving post is not convenient and not advisable.Mail out of Bhutan is unreliable as items are often stolen due to the high value of Bhutanese stamps.
What to buy?
Shopping is done mainly in markets which are generally held on weekends.Look out for handmade knives, Buddhist carvings, traditional masks, jewelry (made to order), walnut-wood, dyed raw silk and woven wool.Thangkas are Buddhist paintings and make great souvenirs.
Check with your local customs officials to ensure that you are able to import some items back into your home country. Australia and New Zealand for example have strict quarantine laws on natural products like hemp.
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.
Eue chum (nutty pink rice).
Nakey fern fonds.
tohsey vegetables, rice and cheese.
Tea. Souza is the national drink of Bhutan.
Vegetarian food is the norm.Meat is only available in some areas.
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.