Discover Bhutan, the place to be if you want to experience traveling back in time. The Bhutanese government tries very hard to limit tourism, as it wants to protect its beloved country against extern influences. Bhutan’s tourism industry focuses on quality rather than quantity. As a result, there are only a limited amount of visitors allowed every year. Before the 70’s the Bhutanese borders remained closed for outsiders. Nowadays you have the opportunity to visit this stunning country if you pay – quite an expensive – daily fee. In our opinion, this is worth it, as you will return home with exceptional memories of a country where its leaders have chosen Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product. Bhutan’s dramatic location in the middle of the mighty Himalayas is already a good enough reason to visit, but its culture is just as overwhelming. This small kingdom has managed to stay put amidst surrounding superpowers such as Indian and China. Even the most experienced traveler will be in complete awe as nowhere else Buddhist traditions and culture are preserved so well and soaked so deep in daily life. You won’t see big cities, modern infrastructure or luxurious tourist facilities when traveling to Bhutan. In exchange, you have the opportunity to take part in ancient Buddhist festivals, witness traditional performances and archery contests and admire numerous temples and monasteries. Choose one of the world’s unique destinations and treat yourself to a once-in-a-lifetime experience in mysterious Bhutan.
Background information Bhutan
Bhutanese people like treating their guests to a cup of tea or an alcoholic beverage. If you are invited to dinner, it is custom to have a few drinks beforehand. They are also quick eaters and finish their plate in no time and don’t hesitate to serve a second or even third portion. Bhutanese people greet each other by shaking hands, and good friends and family even hug. When visiting a temple or a dzong, you need to dress accordingly; shorts are frowned upon, but a short-sleeved shirt is okay to wear. Don’t forget to take off you shoes and headgear, and to whisper when talking.
Around 90% of Bhutanese people are followers of the country’s official religion: the Drukpa Kagyupa movement within Mayahana Buddhism. The remaining 10% are Hindu. The Je Khempo is the religious leader of the kingdom. He is nominated by the monasteries’ leaders and assigned by the king. Apart from the king, he is the only person allowed to wear an orange-yellow headscarf, and he advises the king on many different levels.
Bhutan’s official language is Dzongkha. There are also around 20 different dialects and in some regions, people speak Nepalese. Dzongkha is taught in school, but English is the daily academic language. Many school books are only available in English.
The most important festivals in Bhutan are Losar, Tibetan New Year, and Dashain, the celebration of fertility. The king’s birthday is on February 21st and Bhutan’s national holiday is on December 17th. This was the day when Ugyen Wangchuck became the first king of Bhutan in 1907.
There are various masked religious dance festivals or tshechu’s throughout the year, and they celebrate Guru Rinpoche’s great acts. He came to Bhutan from India and brought Tantra Buddhism with him. Guru Rinpoche is considered a second Buddha and every place he’s been to or meditated at is now a pilgrimage destination.
Food & drinks Bhutan
Bhutanese cuisine is sober but delicious, with hot peppers as a much-used ingredient. The national dish is Ema datsi, which is nothing more than peppers with cheese sauce. Bhutanese people cook meat and vegetables together with a little bit of oil or butter. Apart from a pinch of salt and the popular peppers, not many spices are used. The cooked meat and vegetables are eaten with rice, preferably red rice.
The most popular drink in Bhutan is tea. There is sudja, made with salt and butter, and Nadja, Indian style tea with milk and sugar. In mid and eastern Bhutan people drink a lot of ara, which is a beverage with 20% alcohol made from maize, rice or corn.
Tips & gratuities Bhutan
In Bhutan, it is customary to tip in hotels and restaurants. If you are happy with the service, you can leave some money in your room or give it personally. In restaurants, a 10% tip is expected from tourists.
When trekking through Bhutan, thank everyone with a tip, as their monthly salary is not exactly large. It is advised to give the highest tip to your guide, and then the guide’s helpers, kitchen staff and the horseman and his assistants. Give it personally to everyone separately so you can thank them personally and are sure the right person receives the money. Make sure you have sufficient cash (dollars or even euros), as there is no possibility to exchange your foreign currency during your trek.
Weather & climate Bhutan
Bhutan’s climate is unpredictable and can vary from place to place and day per day. The south has a tropical climate with a monsoon season, and the East is warmer than the west. Thimpu’s and Paro’s valleys have frosty nights during winter, but temperatures can go as high as 16° Celsius on clear sunny days. The North has a harsh climate, with monsoon rains in summer and lots of snow in winter. From the end of April, strong dusty winds blow from midday until early evening. The rainy season starts mid-June, with abundant rainfall, especially in the south. During summer, temperatures are stable in the middle of the country, with average day temperatures around 25° Celsius.
Bhutan’s three largest ethnical groups are the Drukpa, the Shachops, and the Lhotshampa. The Drukpa are linked to Tibetan groups and have always been politically and culturally important. Bhutan’s total population is still a mystery, as the exact number of Nepalese people in the south is unclear. Estimations vary from 670.000 to two million inhabitants. Bhutanese people are young, with half of them under 23 years old. More than 90% works in agriculture.
Bhutan offers three entirely different scenes over a distance of just 70 kilometers. In the tropical south, you travel through rice paddies, banana, and orange groves before moving up to dense forests that slowly turn into an alpine and then mountainous environment.
With more than 70% of the country covered with forests and more than 40% designated as protected nature reserve, Bhutan is a paradise for every nature lover. Its unique ecosystem houses an enormous variety of plants, birds, butterflies and mammals.
Practical information Bhutan
The national currency in Bhutan is the ngultrum, which is linked to the Indian rupee with the same value. You can visit www.xe.com/currencyconverter for more information about the current exchange rates. Money can be exchanged at the Bank of Bhutan (BOB), the Bhutan National Bank (BNB) or in a few bigger hotels. You can withdraw ngultrum out of the BOB ATM’s with a master or credit card. BOB has ATM’s in Thimpu, Paro, Phuentsoling, Wangdue, Tashigang and Gelephu. Don’t forget to change your bankcard settings to ‘world’ before leaving your home country.
Except for citizens of Bangladesh, India and Maldives, all foreigners must obtain a visa before traveling to Bhutan. Tourists must use a licensed Bhutanese tour operator or one of their international partners to pre-arrange their visa and organize their holiday. If approved, they are given a visa clearance letter that must be presented at the port of entry. The visa is then stamped into the passport and is standard valid for 15 days. You have to travel via another country (India, Nepal or Thailand) to enter Bhutan, so you have to double-check if you need a double-entry visa before you leave. Your passport needs to be valid for a minimum of six months. A daily fee is charged for every day of stay. This fee is $250 a day for most tourists during high season and $200 during low season. The minimum daily package required for visa processing covers the costs of accommodation, food, guide and vehicle with driver. Part of this fee goes towards free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation in Bhutan. Designated tour guides accompany visitors during their stay. Independent tourism by citizens of non-visa exempt countries is not allowed.
The mountainous area of Bhutan can be freezing cold, especially at night. Therefore it is recommended to pack enough warm clothes, but also, a few lighter items to wear when visiting the lower warmer regions. Sturdy walking shoes and something to cover shoulders and legs when visiting a holy place is also essential when traveling to Bhutan.
Opening hours Bhutan
Bhutanese shops are open from Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 8 pm. In Thimpu, many shops are also open on Sunday. The banks in Thimpu and Paro are open from 9 am to 3 pm during the week and from 9 am to noon on Saturday.
There are public telephone booths in Bhutan’s cities for making international phone calls. Talk to your provider if they have an agreement with a Bhutanese provider for making mobile calls. There are various travel agencies and internet cafes if you want to browse on the internet. Many hotels have wifi, but the connection is often too slow for Skype.
Bhutan’s voltage is 220 volt and power cut-offs are common, even in Thimpu. Bhutan uses sockets type D, F, and G, so a universal travel plug is recommended. It is also a good idea to pack a flashlight or candles.
Bhutan has the world’s lowest crime rate, so it is a safe travel destination, even for women traveling by themselves. One of the only things to worry about is aggressively barking dogs in Thimphu. Therefore, it is recommended to take an umbrella or stick with you when walking along the back streets at night. In the unusual case of a robbery, you should report this to the local police for an official statement, as you will need this for insurance purposes.
Vaccinations are not compulsory but recommended when traveling to Bhutan. Talk to your doctor for advice. Pack a small pharmacy bag with items such as iodine, bandages, disinfectant, and medicines treating fever, constipation, insect bites, sunburn and motion sickness. You can also opt to add a pair of tick pliers, an unbreakable thermometer, oral rehydration salts against dehydration, vitamin tablets and disinfectant wipes and gel.
Take your time adjusting to arrival. Certainly don’t underestimate the difference in altitude and intensity of the sun. Protect yourself with a sunscreen with a high SPF and don’t forget to put on a hat and carry a bottle of mineral water with you. Because you lose a lot of fluids in the dry heat, it is highly recommended to drink enough water as you lose a lot of fluids due to the altitude and the summer heat. Tap water is okay for brushing your teeth, but should be avoided to drink. There is an increased risk for altitude sickness if you travel higher than 2500 meters. Because of the lack of oxygen, respiration slows down, and you breathe more fluids than usual. That is why you need to drink enough water: above 2500 meters even three to four liters a day. Altitude sickness usually occurs within 24 to 72 hours after reaching a new height. A headache is a main symptom. Inform yourself well in advance about the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Bhutan is a very exciting and rewarding destination for taking pictures. Most Bhutanese people don’t mind if you take pictures but always ask for their permission. Cameras are not allowed in most monasteries and temples.