A magical Kingdom
Looking from a natural side, Bhutan is a gem in the Himalayas, where fauna and flora flourishes in great varieties as the terrain rises from the southern foothills (150m above sea level) to unclimbed peaks over 7,000m. An isolated country, which opened its doors to tourism only in 1974, the Himalayan Kingdom, is perhaps the world’s most exclusive tourist destination.
Despite development, the country has retained all the charisma of the old world; priceless treasures, embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and chortens (stupas), which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests and rushing glacial rivers. Travellers experience the full glory of this magical Kingdom, including something exclusively Bhutanese and perhaps most important of all – the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people. Every moment in Bhutan is special. It is more than a journey. It is an expedition, where one discovers a country that has been preserved in the most sublime form, with in all its magical purity.
The birth of Bhutan
Medieval Bhutan was a country ruled by various chieftains, each claiming their own territorial rights. This changed after 1616 with the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who not only unified the country but also built several Dzongs (Fortresses) and codified a comprehensive system of laws. He established the dual system of Governance, the temporal and theocratic – with Je Khenpo (chief abbot) as the religious head and the temporal leader known as the Desi. However, civil wars continued and the country remained fragmented until the emergence of the Trongsa Penlop (Governor), Ugyen Wangchuck.
At the end of the 19th century, Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the central and eastern regions, overcame all his rivals and united the nation. Another important chapter in Bhutanese history was penned in 1907. In a historic Assembly of the clergy, the official administration, and the people, Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously elected as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. This brought an end to the internal civil turmoil and marked the beginning of a new era in Bhutan.
Religious teachings form the crux of Bhutanese language and literature, the arts and crafts, ceremonies and events, and basic social and cultural values. Despite development making rapid inroads, the tradition of fine art is very much alive today. The manifestations are manifold and expressed through exquisite traditional paintings on monasteries and houses, which adds not just color but beauty to the unique architecture.
One of the most striking physical features of Bhutan and its culture is epitomized by its architecture. The characteristic style and colour of every building and house in the kingdom is a distinct source of aesthetic pleasure. Patterns of rich colours adorn walls, beams, pillars and doors in traditional splendour. Art and paintings are also important aspects of Bhutanese culture and they bear testimony to the spiritual depth of Bhutanese life.
While festivals, known as Tsechus are great social and spiritual ceremonies that awe both Bhutanese and visitors, performance of religious ceremonies and rituals are an integral part of Bhutanese lives, both in urban and rural Bhutan. Buddhist scriptures are the basis from which the horoscopes of Bhutanese life are drawn.
Bhutan’s cultural wealth is also embodied in the music, dance, and handicrafts, which play an important role at the national, village, or domestic functions and festivals. These are performed both by the clergy and the lay population.
Nowhere in the Himalayas is the natural heritage more rich and varied than in Bhutan. Because of the deep traditional reverence which the Bhutanese have for nature, the kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation. Over 70% of Bhutan’s land area is still under forest cover. Many parts of the country have been declared wildlife reserves, and are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna. Thus, Bhutan has been aptly described as a natural paradise. It has emerged as a champion of sustainable development, a country that believes in preserving for the future. The country’s Constitution mandates that 65 percent of the land should be under forest cover for all times to come. The forests are home to some of the most endangered flora and fauna.
Located between China and India, Bhutan’s terrain ranges from the sub-tropical foothills in the south, through the temperate zones, to heights of over 7,300 meters (24,000 feet). Historical records say that Bhutan was known as Lhojong Menjong – ‘the Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs.’ Besides these, wild flowers and plants add to the splendor of the Bhutanese seasons.
People of the un-colonized Kingdom
That Bhutan was never colonized add to the uniqueness of the small Kingdom and is a matter of great pride to all Bhutanese. Physically strong and fiercely independent, Bhutanese have an open and ready sense of humor. Hospitality is an innate characteristic of the Bhutanese and respects for elders an inherited social value.
More than 70 percent of the people live on subsistence farming, scattered in sparsely populated villages across the rugged terrain of the Himalayas. With rice as the staple diet in the lower regions, and wheat, buckwheat, and maize in other valleys, the people farm narrow terraces cut into the steep hill slopes.
Bhutanese communities settled in the valleys with limited communication in the past. It is for this reason that the sense of individuality and independence emerges as a strong characteristic of the people. This also led to the development of different languages, dialects and ethnic groups.
Most Bhutanese dishes are rich and spicy with a lot of cheese and chili. Rich in carbohydrates, the typical Bhutanese dish is rice with curry. It is advisable that visitors stick to the Chinese, Continental or Indian cuisine that is served in most restaurants. Visitors can also choose among the various vegetarian and non-veg food. You can also try out momos, the Tibetan dumplings, and for those daring, you may try out the ema datshi dish served with cheese and chili and other typical Bhutanese dishes.
Bhutanese men wear a heavy knee-length robe tied with a belt, called a Gho, folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach. Women wear colourful blouses over which they fold and clasp a large rectangular cloth called a Kira, thereby creating an ankle-length dress. A short silk jacket, or Toego may be worn over the Kira. Everyday Gho and Kira are cotton or wool, according to the season, patterned in simple checks and stripes in earth tones. For special occasions and festivals, colourfully patterned silk Kira and, more rarely, Gho may be worn. Additional rules of protocol apply while visiting a Dzong or a temple, or when appearing before a high level official. Male commoners wear a white sash (Kabney) from left shoulder to opposite hip. Local and regional elected officials, government ministers, cabinet members, and the king himself each wear their own colored kabney. Women wear a narrow embroidered cloth draped over the left shoulder called Rachu.
Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu) that is at par with the Indian Rupee. It is however recommended that you carry travelers’ cheque or cash, preferably American Express and US dollar instead, as the ATM facilities for foreign currency is limited to just few towns including the capital city Thimphu. Visa and American Express credit cards are also widely accepted.
Some of the banks that you can avail of services and facilities while in Bhutan are the Bank of Bhutan Limited, the Bhutan National Bank, the Druk PNB, Bhutan Development Bank Limited, and the Tashi Bank. Many of these banks provide you with SMS and internet banking facilities. There are also ATM facilities that you can avail of and ATMS are located in a number of places where you can withdraw your money especially in Thimphu and in the border town of Phuentsholing. Traveler’s cheque can be easily withdrawn and exchanged into local currency. However, as you travel into the interior, ATM and internet facilities are almost non-existent and we suggest that you do your banking facilities while in Thimphu.
All major towns are well connected with electricity that runs on 220/240 volts with round hole two-pin and three-pin power outlets. Our energy is clean and green energy generated by hydropower.
The country has a good network of telecommunication facilities. Almost every town has an internet cafe and IDD calling booths from where you can log on to and send messages home and to your loved ones. Also most hotels have internet access. Mobile (cell) phone is also widely used with international roaming facilities.
Bhutan is an ideal place and a frequent haunt for photographers offering immense opportunities for photography especially during our outdoor sightseeing trips. However you may need to check with your guide for indoor photography as taking photographs inside Dzongs, temples, monasteries and religious institutions are restricted unless you have a special permission from the Department of Culture. One can however, capture images of the landscapes, the panoramic views of the mountain ranges, the rural folk life, the flora and fauna, the Bhutanese architecture and the Dzongs and Choetens in particular.
For people who love shopping and taking home gifts, Bhutan offers a variety of goods that revolve mainly round textiles. You may shop for items like hand-woven textiles that is either in raw silk or silk, carved masks of various animals, woven baskets of cane and bamboo, wooden bowls known as Dapas, handmade paper products or finely crafted gods of silver. You can also shop for thangka paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamp. One can come across these items in the many handicraft shops in and around Thimphu and also in major towns. Please remember that buying and selling of antiques is strictly forbidden in Bhutan.
Besides Dzongkha, the national language, English is also a medium of communication and most Bhutanese speak English. Communicating in English especially with the people in the urban areas and the towns will enhance your knowledge on Bhutan.
Cloths and paraphernalia
With great altitudinal variations, weather is quite erratic in Bhutan. So be prepared to brace the erratic weather as you step outdoor. We expect visitors to dress modestly and respectfully especially if you are planning a visit to the monasteries, fortresses and other religious institutions. As a mark of respect, be kind enough to remove your hats, caps etc. as you enter religious and administrative premises, institutions and in any other place that you come across with the national flag being raised.
Our standard time is 6 hours ahead of GMT and there is only one time zone throughout the country.
Office hours in Bhutan are divided into two – the summer timing and the winter timing. The summer timing begins at 9 AM Bhutan standard time and goes on till 5 PM in the evening. The summer timing is followed from March till the end of October. The winter timing that lasts for the months of November till the end of February begins at 9 AM in the morning till 4 PM in the evening. However, these timings are followed only by the civil servants. For those people employed in corporations and private organizations, the timings are usually from 9 AM till 5 PM irrespective of the season.
Before embarking on a trip to Bhutan, it is advisable to have tetanus, typhoid and hepatitis A inoculations.
We have a duty to protect Bhutan from Drugs and Tobacco Products. To do this we need your help and cooperation. If we stop you and ask you about your baggage please cooperate.
Please do not carry tobacco goods that are over the limits.
Most hotels in Bhutan meet the recent standardization policy, most tourists accommodate in a 5 star or a 3 star hotel. The hotels are well maintained and have all basic amenities such as geysers and shower rooms and are properly maintained. Visitors can be assured of their warmth and comfort of the hotels, and the ambience and the hospitality offered by the hotels are incredible. The 5 star hotels are mostly located in Thimphu and in Paro; towns like Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang also have a variety of hotels that are comfortable. Away from town, you may find it tempting to camp outside in the forest or make a night halt at the purpose-built-in cabins sprinkled along some main trekking routes.
Weights and Measures
Bhutan has a standard system of weights and measurements in place and most weights are measured in gram and kilogram. With better and efficient measurement systems readily available, most of the shopkeepers in the capital city make use of electronic and weighing scale. However, as you travel further east, you will find the ordinary weighing scale in place.
While safety is not much of a concern, it is good to come prepared for any mishap. One needs to avoid walking alone or roaming the streets after 9 PM as you may never know of any mishap that may occur. Or else you may visit the town in groups or with your guides.
Also please ensure that your belongings especially your passports, route permits, cameras, wallets and purses are properly secured.
Guides and Interpreters
Bhutan has a good team of interpreters and guides who are well-versed in history and possess good communication skills. They are all certified having undergone training conducted by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. There are also guides who speak fluent Japanese, Thai and other European languages.
Public holidays are declared by the government. However, each district has its own list of holidays that is observed especially while conducting annual Tshechus (religious festivals).