Bhutan is located in the eastern Himalayas, bordered to the north by China and to the south, east and west by India. The altitude varies from 590ft in the narrow lowland region to over 23,950ft in the Himalayan plateau in the north and there are three distinct climatic regions. The foothills are tropical and home to deers, tigers, leopards and the rare golden langur monkeys; as well as much tropical vegetation, including many species of wild orchids. The Inner Himalaya region is temperate. Wildlife includes bear, boar and sambar; and the area is rich in deciduous forests. The High Himalaya region is very thinly populated, but the steep mountain slopes are the home of many species of animals (including snow leopards and blue sheep).
Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom with close links between the monarchy and the priesthood. Some representative political institutions were established in the 1950s. In 1998, Druk Gyalpo (‘Dragon King’) Jigme Singye Wangchuk gave up some of the monarch’s absolute powers. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck took over when his father abdicated in December 2006. In March 2008, the party of the former Prime Minister (Jigme Thinley) won a landslide victory after a move to democratic rule was proposed by Bhutan’s royal family. The long-standing issue of ethnic Nepalese whose citizenship is in dispute is being addressed by the United-Nations with gradual resettlement to Western countries.
Bhutan’s indigenous population is the Drukpa. Three main ethnic groups, the Sharchops, Ngalops and the Lhotsampas (of Nepalese origin) make up today’s Drukpa population. Bhutan’s earliest residents, the Sharchops, reside predominantly in eastern Bhutan. Their origin can be traced to the tribes of northern Burma and north-east India. The Ngalops migrated from the Tibetan plains and are the importers of Buddhism to the kingdom. Most of the Lhotsampas migrated to the southern plains in search of agricultural land and work, in the early 20th century.
The lifestyle, manners and customs of the Bhutanese are in many respects unique to the area. The strongest influence on social conventions is the country’s state religion, and everywhere one can see the reminders of Buddhism and the original religion of Tibet, Bonism. There are no rigid clan systems and equal rights exist for men and women. The majority of the Bhutanese live an agrarian lifestyle. In 1989, it was made compulsory for all citizens to wear national dress. Failure to comply at official functions or in government buildings incurs a fine. The men wear a gho, a robe resembling a dressing gown with upturned white cuffs and knee-high socks; whilst the women wear a kira, a sari-like garment that is furnished with ornate brooches and worn over a blouse. Bhutan has outlawed the sale of tobacco products, and also banned smoking in public places. Healthcare and education are free. The political leaders of the country have also been religious leaders historically.
For years, the country has deliberately isolated itself from visitors, a policy which is now to some extent being reversed. But Bhutan continues to bear the hallmarks of seemingly peculiar customs borne from legacy and legend. Giant phalluses can often be seen painted onto walls etc., in order to ward off evil spirits and ensure good crops and healthy children. Climbing some of the Himalayan peaks is banned due to the belief that the mountains are the repository of the Gods and all life, animal or plant, and are treated with respect as a divine gift.
Dzongkha is the official language. A large number of dialects are spoken, due to the physical isolation of many villages. Sharchop Kha, from eastern Bhutan, is the most widely spoken language. Nepali is common in the south of the country. English has been the language of educational instruction since 1964 and is widely spoken.
Bhutan is 10 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time(EST).
220 volts AC, 50Hz
Bhutan’s climate ranges from tropical in the South, to temperate in the Center, to cold in the North. Like much of your adventure in the Himalayas, it will be quite unpredictable. The weather can vary dramatically from place to place and can vary equally dramatically from day to day or within the same day. In the Thimphu and Paro valleys, the winter daytime temperature averages 60 degrees Fahrenheit during clear winter days but drops well below freezing during the night. The fluctuations are not quite so great during the summer. The daytime temperature often rises to the mid-eighties Fahrenheit. Punakha and the central valleys are lower than their Western neighbors and tend to always be a few degrees warmer. The higher peaks will be snow-covered all year. The higher passes, particularly Thrumsing La between Bumthang and Mongar, can be treacherous during the winter as snow falls frequently and ices up the road. Light snow will often dust Thimphu and Paro in winter but infrequently will there be heavy snowstorms, despite their location in the Central Himalayas.
The summer monsoon from the Bay of Bengal affects Bhutan from late April to September. Views over the Himalayas from the higher passes are usually obscured from May to August. There are notable advantages to visiting Bhutan during the wet season including the spectacular Rhododendron Blossom in May and the deep green valleys.
CLOTHES TO WEAR
Bhutan’s changeable climate means you have to bring an assortment of clothes. Walking boots are essential, even if you are not hiking. It’s useful to have a good windbreaker. Warm clothes are recommended for the evening.
Entry & Exit Requirements:
You will need a passport valid for at least six months following the date of your arrival to Bhutan and a visa to enter and exit Bhutan. All visas are approved in the capital, Thimphu, and are only issued to tourists who have booked travel with a local licensed tour operator, either directly or through a foreign travel agent. Applications for tourist visas are submitted by the local tour operator (See the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators website for further information). All visitors, including those on official U.S. government business, must obtain visa clearance from Thimphu before travelling to Bhutan. Visa clearance takes at least 10 days to process and airplane tickets to Bhutan cannot be purchased without visa clearance. At your point of entry into Bhutan, immigration authorities will stamp a visa into your passport upon payment of $40 U.S. You will also need to provide two passport photos. Tourist visas are usually granted for the scheduled travel period. More information, including a list of authorized tour operators in Bhutan, may be obtained from the Tourism Council of Bhutan, PO Box 126, Thimphu, Bhutan, telephone 00975-2-323251, 2-323252, 2-337098, fax 975-2-323695, and email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan sets a non-negotiable minimum daily tariff for all visitors to Bhutan. The rate includes all accommodations, all meals, transportation, services of licensed guides and porters, and cultural programs where and when available. The rate is the same for both cultural tours and treks. Travelers should contact the Tourism Council for the latest daily tariff.
Drukair, the Bhutanese government airline, services Bhutan. Entry by air is available only via India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Singapore. The border with China is closed. Drukair will board only travelers with visa clearance from the Tourism Authority of Bhutan. A second airline, Bhutan Airlines, initiated operations in October 2013 with service between Bangkok and Paro.
Some HIV/AIDS entry restrictions exist for visitors to and foreign residents of Bhutan. There are no disclosure regulations or restrictions for HIV/AIDS patients who enter Bhutan on a tourist visa for a maximum two-week visit. For longer stays, however, applicants must present the results of an HIV/AIDS test completed within the six months prior to their visit. The test can also be administered by Bhutanese officials upon arrival. Travelers should verify this information with the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations before they travel.
For the most current information on entry and exit requirements, please contact the Bhutan Mission to the United Nations (Consulate General), 343 East 43rd Street, New York, NY 10017, telephone (212) 682-2268, fax (212) 661-0551. Outside the United States, inquiries should be made at the nearest Bhutanese embassy or consulate.
Embassy & Consulate Locations:
U.S. Embassy in New Delhi
Shanti Path, Chanakyapuri
New Delhi-110 021, India
U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu
Maharajgunj, Kathmandu, Nepal
Tel: (977) (1) 400-7200
Fax at (977) (1) 400-7281
U.S. Embassy in Bangkok
120/22 Wireless Road, Bangkok
Canadian Consulate in Bhutan
The Canadian Cooperation Office, Thimpu
Tel: 975 (2) 322-109 or 332-615
Mobile phone: 975 1-711-0040
Fax: 975 (2) 332-614
Medical facilities in the populated areas in Bhutan such as Thimphu and Paro are available but may be limited or unavailable in rural areas. U.S. citizens in need of urgent medical care should try to get to the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in the capital city, Thimphu. For emergency services in Thimphu, dial 113 for police or 112 for ambulance. Medical services may not meet Western standards, and some medicines are in short supply. Certain emergency medical services are provided free of charge to all tourists. Visitors planning to trek in Bhutan should pay special attention to the risk of altitude illness. Altitude sickness is a risk above 8,000 feet and travelers to that altitude should consult an appropriate health care provider 4 to 6 weeks before their trip. Treks in Bhutan can take visitors days or weeks away from the nearest medical facility. Helicopter evacuation from remote areas in Bhutan is available through the registered tour operators at the U.S. citizen’s expense. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi can also help arrange evacuations through private companies at the U.S. citizen’s expense. We strongly urge you to ensure that your medical insurance covers such evacuations, which can be extremely expensive.
Please note: Some medications may not be permitted in the country. Please check if the medication you are bringing is permitted in the country you are visiting.
Information on vaccinations and other health precautions, such as safe food and water precautions and insect bite protection, may be obtained from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) hotline for international travelers at 1-800-232-4636end_of_the_skype_highlighting or via the CDC website at http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/list. For information about outbreaks of infectious diseases abroad, consult the infectious diseases section of the World Health Organization (WHO) website at http://www.who.int/topics/infectious_diseases/en/. The WHO website also contains additional health information for travelers, including detailed country-specific health information.
BANKS & CURRENCY
1 Ngultrum (BTN; symbol Nu) = 100 chetrum (Ch). The Ngultrum is pegged to the Indian Rupee (which is also accepted as legal tender). Notes are in denominations of Nu 500, 100, 50, 20, 10 and 5. Coins are in denominations of Nu 1, and 50, 25 and 20 chetrum. Smaller denomination notes and coins have been discontinued but are still in circulation and are legal tender. US Dollars are also widely accepted.
Leading foreign currencies are accepted but travelers’ checks are preferred and receive a better exchange rate. Major hotels in Thimphu, Paro and Phuentsholing will also exchange foreign currency.
Most cards have limited acceptability. ATM’s only accept Bhutanese bank cards. Traveler’s checks can be exchanged in any branch of the Bank of Bhutan or at all BTCL hotels. Travelers are advised to take traveler’s checks in US Dollars. There are no restrictions on the import or export of local or foreign currency, but foreign currency must be declared upon arrival.
Banking hours: Mon-Fri 9am-3pm, Sat 9am-12pm.
Services are restricted to the main centers. Country code: 975. All other calls must go through the international operator. Outgoing international code: 00.
Cell Phone Usage:
Please contact your cell phone provider to determine whether your contract includes coverage in the country you are visiting. Depending on your contract you may have to add international services and/or country specific services.
Food & Drink:
There is a fair choice of restaurants in Paro and Thimphu but most tourists eat in their hotels, where hygiene is good and chefs temper the spicy Bhutanese dishes to suit Western tastes. Rice is the staple (sometimes flavored with saffron or of the red variety) except in central Bhutan where the altitude makes rice cultivation difficult. Buckwheat is more common here. The country is replete with apple orchards, rice paddies and asparagus, which grows freely in the countryside and there are over 400 varieties of mushroom including orchid mushrooms. Meals are often buffet-style and mostly vegetarian. Meat and fish are now imported from India. Nepali Hindus living in Bhutan are licensed to slaughter animals. Usual precautions apply.
- Datse (cow’s milk cheese), sometimes served in a dish with red chillies (ema datse)
- Tshoem (curry), usually served with rice
- Eue chum (pink rice), a nutty-flavored variety unique to Bhutan.
- The most popular drink is tea, sweet or Tibetan style with salt and butter
- Ara is a spirit distilled from rice
- Chang (a kind of beer, cereal-based and generally home-brewed).
Himalayan festivals have reputations for being raucous, joyous affairs. Bhutan is no exception. Residents of the valley prepare for weeks in advance and wear their finest kira and kho; they come from far and wide to celebrate in the valley’s dzong. The festivals last for several days and the partying continues for as long as the festivities. Colorful costumes, mask dances, processions and music performed by monks playing exotic Himalayan instruments are all part of the fun.
Buddhist festivals, full of masks, dancing and ritual, generally centre on Dzongs (fortified monasteries) in cobbled courtyards, the most famous of which is at Paro. More than 40 religious or folk dances are performed by the monks recounting tales of Buddhist history and myth. As the dates for these festivals are based on the Bhutanese lunar calendar, it is difficult to predict them precisely. They are, however, numerous; and visitors should be able to witness and enjoy at least one of these extremely colorful events during their day. Dzongs are open to all, foreigners and locals, for the duration of the festival. The highlight of most Bhutanese Tsechus is the unveiling of the dzong’s thongdrel, a massive hand-embroidered appliqué with a religious subject. The thongdrel is unveiled at first light to bring enlightenment to all who view them and are only displayed once a year for a few hours. Formal dress is required for all festivals.
Markets are held regularly, generally on Saturday and Sunday, and are a rich source of local clothing and jewelry, as well as foodstuffs. The handicraft emporium on the main street in the capital is open daily, except Sundays. It offers a magnificent assortment of handwoven and handcrafted goods. The Motithang Hotel in Thimphu has a souvenir shop. Silversmiths and goldsmiths in the Thimphu Valley are able to make handcrafted articles to order.
Shopping hours: 0900-2000 Monday to Sunday (closed Tuesday).
Baggage rules for international and domestic air travel have changed much in recent years, differ from carrier to carrier and these days even may cover your on-board bags. Checking luggage may cost a separate fee or may be free depending on your personal status with the carrier. We therefore encourage you to read your ticket’s small print and/or contact your carrier for exact rules.
Gratuities are not included as a part of our service. However, we would like to reiterate that tipping is NOT mandatory and is entirely at your discretion, based on your level of satisfaction for the services that you have received. Having said that, most service providers do expect gratuity. We are pleased to provide you with the suggested guideline that you may use at your discretion.
Laundry service is available in most of the hotels at main destinations. However, it is advisable to check the hotel’s individual laundry return policy and pricing schedule before choosing to have laundry done at a hotel.
PHOTOS & VIDEOS
Bhutan’s landscape, buildings and people are some of the most photogenic in the world. While photographic local people, it is always better to ask permission first. In some countries you must refrain from photographing sites such as Military bases and industrial installations. Also be aware of cultural sensitivities when taking pictures of or near churches and other religious sites. It is always courteous to ask for permission before taking photographs of people.
USE OF DRONES
The use of drones is being legislated by many countries. In some cases drones are already forbidden and their unauthorized use may carry severe penalties. If you plan to travel with a drone please contact the embassy or consulate of the country you wish to visit.