Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and India.
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. Bhutan is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, and the profound teachings of this tradition remain well preserved and exert a strong influence in all aspects of life. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called "The Last Shangrila."
In terms of average wage, Bhutan is a poor country, however the land is fertile and the population small, so the people are well fed, and beggars and homeless are nonexistent. In addition, the current generation receives free education, and all citizens have access to free medical care. If a patient's ailment cannot be treated in the country, then the government refers the patients to reputable hospitals abroad.The sale of tobacco products is banned (foreign tourists and NGOs are exempt, though it is illegal for them to sell tobacco to locals), and smoking in public areas is a fineable offense.
A unique aspect of Bhutan is that progress is not purely defined by economic achievements as in most countries, but also based on the level of cultural and environmental preservation and development. This ideology was the brain child of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who, having gained a modern education in India and the UK, realized that mere economic success did not necessarily translate into a content and happy society. Consequently, soon after his coronation in 1974, the young king began to float the idea of developing a new set of guidelines by which to govern the country. Slowly these ideas took shape, and in 1998 the GNH indicator was established. GNH stands for "Gross National Happiness" and is defined by the following four objectives: to increase economic growth and development, preserve and promote the cultural heritage, encourage sustainable use of the environment, and establish good governance. Currently, work is in progress on converting the GNH from being a mere guiding principle for the country's development into a workable set of standard indicators. As a result of this more humane style of governance, Bhutan has developed high environmental protection standards (the use of plastic bags, for example, is completely banned) and a peaceful and harmonious society that actively protects its rich culture and profound Buddhist traditions. Major sources of income for the kingdom are agriculture, tourism and hydroelectric power.
Still, while Bhutan is often painted as a modern-day Shangri-La in the Western press, the country remains poor, with average life expectancy around 66 and a 7.2 per mil infant mortality rate. The kingdom became a parliamentary democracy in March 2008 upon the command of the Fourth King.
Culturally, Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist with a national language (although there are regional variations - such as Sharchopkha, the predominant language in Eastern Bhutan), and a common dress code and architectural style. Bhutanese people primarily consist of the Ngalops and Sharchops, called the Western Bhutanese and Eastern Bhutanese respectively. The Ngalops primarily consist of Bhutanese living in the western part of the country. Their culture is closely related to that of their neighbor to the north, Tibet.
The official name for the country is Druk Yul - Land of the Thunder Dragon - but due to the harmonious nature of the society, it has acquired the additional nickname of Deki Druk (Yul) - (Land of) the Peaceful Thunder Dragon.
The first humans probably arrived sometime after the Ice Age, and little is known about Bhutan's prehistory. Historical records began with the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century, when Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) visited Bhutan and established monasteries.
In 1865, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding some border land. Under British influence, a monarchy was set up in 1907; three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs. This role was assumed by independent India after 1947. Two years later, a formal Indo-Bhutanese accord returned the areas of Bhutan annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India's responsibilities in defense and foreign relations.
In December 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred power to his oldest son, the Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, bestowing upon him the title of the fifth Druk Gyalpo. The official coronation took place in November 2008. The fifth King is Boston and Oxford educated.
It is not possible to travel far in Bhutan without seeing images of a man wearing a tall elaborate hat and with eyes that are open wide and staring forward into space. This is the great 8th century sage of Vajrayana Buddhism, Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche as he often called. According to legend, Padmasambhava was reincarnated into a lotus blossom as an eight year old child, and from very young he possessed great wisdom and insight. Furthermore, he had mastery of the elements and so like a potter manipulating basic clay and turning it into beautiful pots, he was able to transform harmful action and substances into something positive and beneficial.
Guru Rinpoche's special association with Bhutan began when he traveled to the town now known as Jakar at the invitation of a local king to subjugate negative forces. The mission was a success, and from this encounter Buddhism spread throughout the land. A body print of the great sage exists to this day at Kurjey Lhakhang in Jakar, and he is also associated with many other sacred sites in Bhutan, with perhaps the most notable being the cliff-hanging Taktshang Monastery in Paro.
Although the country expanse is quite small Bhutanese weather varies from location to location mainly depending upon the elevation. In the North of Bhutan on the borders with Tibet it is perennially covered with snow. In the western, central and eastern Bhutan (Ha, Paro, Thimphu, Wandue, Trongsa, Bumthang, Trashi Yangtse, Lhuntse) you will mostly experience cold European-like weather. Winter lasts here from November to March. Punakha is an exception as it is in a lower valley and summer is pretty hot but winter is pleasant. Southern Bhutan bordering with India is hot and humid with a sub-tropical climate. The monsoon is the determining factor for rain here. Spring and autumn are the best season to visit Bhutan. There are four distinct seasons similar in their divisions to those of Western Europe. The Monsoon occurs between June and August when the temperature is normally between 8° and 21°C (46°-70°F). Temperatures drop dramatically with increases in altitude. Days are usually very pleasant (average about 10°C/50°F) with clear skies and sunshine. Nights are cold and require heavy woolen clothing, particularly in winter. Generally, October, November and April to mid-June are the best times to visit – rainfall is at a minimum and temperatures are conducive to active days of sightseeing. The foothills are also very pleasant during the winter...
In addition to the above national holidays, there are also Tshechu holidays which are celebrated regionally.
Bhutan can culturally and geographically be divided into three regions, which are further divided into 20 districts or dzongkhag (singular and plural):
While Bhutanese villages are extremeley picturesque, the towns are generally characterized by their harsh concrete structures and lack of green public spaces. Notable exceptions to this generaliztion are Trashigang and Trashiyangtse, where the buildings are constructed of traditional material.
The majority of tourists do "cultural tours" where they visit important destinations in a vehicle. This allows maximum coverage of the country within a limited period of time. Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, and Jakar are popular destinations. Further afield, the unexplored region of Zhemgang (birders paradise, excellent wildlife viewing) and Eastern Bhutan are the least visited.
Treks are the best way to see and "feel" the country. The Snowman Trek below is the toughest but there are plenty of other easy and fun hikes and treks.
Snowman Trek with Gangkar Puensum
This trek goes to the remote Lunana district and is considered to be the most difficult trek in Bhutan due to distance, altitude, weather conditions and remoteness. A very fit trekking group could tackle the final stage from Tshochenchen to Bumthang (Day 22: 21 km, 13 hours) in one day. Seasons: The Snowman Trek is frequently closed because of snow and is almost impossible during winter. The recommended season for this trek is mid-June to mid-October.
Official Site of National Parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan:
Everybody except citizens of India and Bangladesh must apply for a visa at least 30 days in advance of their proposed date of entry into Bhutan. There is no issuing of Visa on arrival. The local travel operator processes the visa on behalf of the guests. While the visa itself costs a reasonable US$20 for 14 days (extendable once), the visa will not be issued without pre-paid bookings for a tour, which costs from US$200 per person per night. These fees include room, board, guide, and transportation within Bhutan.The Airfare is not included. This policy is influenced by the Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy,whereby the country intentionally develops slowly and learns from mistakes made by other countries. This is a sustainable tourism policy whereby price controls the number of arrivals. Bhutan cannot afford to have too many tourists as it will dilute the rich and ancient tradition & culture. The very asset that attracts tourists will be soon destroyed. Although the tours are organized by private local tour operators, the cost is set & monitored by the government and so not negotiable. It is illegal to under cut prices for the tours. However, a rule of thumb is that tours are slightly cheaper during off-season (January, June, & July) and more expensive for groups of three or less. There is surcharge of $40 per night for solo travelers and $30 pp/per night for groups of two people. There is also a surcharge for luxury hotels and certain treks. The only other options for visiting the country are to receive an invitation by "a citizen of some standing" or a volunteer organization. Once the tour or invitation has received government approval, visas will be issued either by immigration at Paro airport or in Phuentsholing - basically all the work for a visa application is completed within Bhutan. There is no need to visit a Bhutanese embassy or consulate.
As travel to Bhutan almost invariably requires at least one flight change in India, Nepal, or Thailand, ensure that you can meet the visa requirements of those countries before departing on your journey. Nepal and Thailand offer visa on arrival or visa waiver for many nationalities. India generally requires visa procedures to be completed before arrival, and this can take up to two weeks.
Bhutan has a number of embassies and consulates, including those listed below .
There are only two legal entry points into Bhutan: Paro's airport, and the land border with India at Phuentsholing. A third border crossing from Samdrup Jongkhar in southeastern Bhutan into India's Assam state is open, but for exit only - see Samdrup Jongkhar - 'get out' section for more detailed information.
At Phuentsholing, Indians can visit the Immigration office to apply for a visa on entry. A photograph and Identification document (Passport, Ration card or Election ID) is needed along with a photocopy. Fill the document with purpose "Tourism" and stay location as "Any hotel". At Phuentsholing you will only get 7 days for Paro and Thimphu. For extension of duration apply in Thimphu at the Immigration office at the northern end of Norzin Lam. For visiting other districts you will need to apply for road permits at the same office. They are best applied in the morning and you will receive the document in the afternoon. In case you are defence official without a passport or a student without the above three accepted identification papers, you can request the Indian consulate further up the road to provide you an identification endorsement document but this takes time.
There are no railways in Bhutan, but a link to Phuentsholing from India is under the final stages of construction and may open in 2010. Until then, the nearest options (both in India) are:
While there are ample restaurants on highways between main towns and the hygiene standards at such places is acceptable, the quality of the food is very low and the choice of dishes limited. In addition, the dining halls offer an environment no better than a bus station waiting room. Therefore, it is generally better to prepare food and refreshment for the journey at the point of departure.
See also: Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent
Rice is a staple with every meal. Vegetable or meat dishes cooked with chili and/or cheese comprise the accompanying cuisine.
Bhutanese food has one predominant flavor - chili. This small red condiment is not only added to every dish but is also often eaten raw. So, if you don't like spicy-hot food, make this abundantly clear before ordering a meal. Otherwise, you'll be spending the next hour dousing your mouth with cold yogurt or milk.
Kewa-datsi and shamu-datsi tend to be less hot that ema-datsi; all three dishes are generally served with rice.
Imtrat run canteens that sell excellent Indian dishes along with tea from 9.30AM to 4.30PM. The quality of the food is very good, while the price is low. The canteens are located throughout the country, especially along main highways.
All towns connected by motorable roads have hotels, though the standard varies considerably. International standard hotels are mostly found in tourist areas or major towns, while five star accommodation is only available in Paro, Jakar, Punakha, Gangtey and Thimphu.
It is important to note that the hotel rates shown on the city articles are only relevant to people who have residency, visa exemption (generally this only applies to Indian nationals) or who are visiting the country as an invited guest. Other visitors can only enter the country as part of a tour, for which the daily rates are set by the Bhutanese authorities at around $250 per person per night irrespective of the hotel rates (except for very expensive hotels where a surcharge is added).
Weaving - Bhutanese woven cloth is prized throughout the world for its unique designs and high quality, and there is a weaving center in Khaling in Trashigang.
There are a few NGOs based in Bhutan, so it is possible to arrange volunteer work. However, Bhutan is very selective about who it engages in this field. In addition, it is highly unlikely that a position can be found while visiting Bhutan, so those interested in undertaking volunteer work here should first seek employment with NGOs overseas and then express a preference to be located in Bhutan.