Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is no ordinary place. This is a country where buying cigarettes is illegal, where the rice is red and where chillies aren’t just a seasoning but the entire dish. A country whose past is still the present, a country where TV and the Internet have not changed the people’s age-old traditions, a country which is rightly called by some as “The Last Shangrila”.It’s also a deeply Buddhist land, where men wear a tunic to work, where giant protective penises are painted on the walls of most houses. The Kingdom of Bhutan has adopted a cautious approach to tourism to avoid any negative impact on the country’s culture and environment. All tourists, group or individual, must travel on a pre-planned all inclusive guided tour through a registered tour operator in Bhutan or their counterparts abroad. The basic rate is fixed by the government.
There are still plenty of takers wanting to explore the breathtaking mountains and valleys of this astonishing country. The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning it must be environmentally friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. The number of tourists is also kept to a manageable level by the limited infrastructure.
The Bhutanese name for Bhutan, Druk Yul, means ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. Much of Bhutanese history is lost in legends but the first major event was the arrival of Guru Rinpoche, believed to have brought Mahayana Buddhism from Tibet in the eighth century. Bhutan, the world’s last Mahayana Buddhist kingdom, became a coherent political entity around the 17th century and has never been conquered or ruled by another foreign power. There are the early Buddhist sites in the cultural heartland of Bumthang Dzongkhag and the undisturbed traditional Tibetan-style culture that sets Bhutan aside as the last remaining great Himalayan kingdom. Bhutan is a peaceful country with strong traditional values based on religion, respect for the royal family and care for the environment.
This information has been compiled for your reference in good faith but please use this only as a general guide. We advise you to check with relevant authorities with regard to the latest requirement for passport, visa, travel advisory, entry restrictions, health requirements, local currency etc. as these are subjected to change with without prior notice and our information given below may not be as updated.
Best time to go: Bhutan is a mountainous country and the experiences sporadic rains throughout the year and rather heavy from June to August. From December to February, Bhutan gets snow which can cause disruption and delay in programs due to frequent road closures. Others months are good to visit Bhutan.
Visa: All visitors need a Visa to enter Bhutan and this Visa is issued locally by Bhutan Tourism on the condition that accommodation and sightseeing arrangements are pre-booked for all the days. Visa can be requested by our local operators and process generally takes about 6 weeks to issue the Visa. Visa copy is faxed in advance and the original is handed over at the border. Please ask us for more details and assistance in this case.
Currency: Currency of Bhutan is Ngultrum and bank notes come in denomination of 5, 10, 20, 50, 100 and 500 Nu. If you are entering Bhutan after visiting India, you may exchange your Indian Rupee in Bhutan. US Dollar is another currency that you can easily exchange at the Hotel. You may have difficulty in changing NZ Dollar; hence it is advisable to carry US Dollars from home. Credit cards and traveller cheques have limited acceptability in Bhutan.
Health: Bhutan does not have any particular health risk accept for those people who feel uneasy traveling on winding road in the mountains. Please prepare yourself for altitude sickness as well. It is strongly recommended to carry day-to-day medication with you as medical facilities may not close at hand.
Food and drinks: Bhutan being a Buddhist country, vegetarian food is available everywhere but meats are also available at a few places now. Bhutanese food is a little spicy but European food is also available at all Hotels. Mineral water is recommended but please ensure that it’s properly sealed before you buy it.
Safety & security: Like in any other part of the world, a few precautions need to be taken to avoid any problems. Please do not leave your bags unattended at any times. Please use safe deposit in your hotel room or Reception to keep your money or valuables including passport. When you leave the room, it is recommended that you lock your suitcase. It is also recommended to carry a copy of your passport including the visa page.
Clothing: Bhutan is a conservative country and all Bhutanese citizens have to wear their traditional dress in public. Tourists are expected to keep their shoulders and knees covered and overly casual dress should be avoided. During winter months from October till March, it gets very cold and warm clothing are advisable. Please take good walking shoes with non-slip sole as you will be required to walk frequently during your sightseeing programs and sometimes on uneven surface.
Language: Official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha though English is widely spoken and understood as it’s taught in schools in Bhutan.
Gratuities: Tipping is not mandatory but it is highly appreciated by the people who serve you. Before you tip, please check if the service charge has been added. Some suggested guidelines could be : Nu 10 per piece of luggage on arrival or departure at Hotel; 8%-10% of the total bill for your lunch or dinner (provided Service Charge is not included). No tip required for taxi driver but you could give Nu 200 per day each to your car driver as well as local guide.
Airport tax: Generally your international air ticket should include airport tax on international departure.
Internet: Internet facilities are not available at all places. Only a few Hotels have it and internet cafes are generally found in Thimpu.
Telephone: Bhutan has a dialling code of +975 from New Zealand. Telephone numbers of Hotels arranged by us will be supplied to you in your itinerary though communication with Bhutan is than slow and erratic. While calling New Zealand from Bhutan, you will need to dial +64… You may have to use Hotel’s telephone facility as calling booths are not always at hand. Mobile network is fast expanding though is still does not cover the entire country.
Time Difference: Bhutan is 7 hours behind New Zealand from April to September and 6 hours from October to March.
Photography: Taking photos of airports, government buildings and military establishments are prohibited. If you are taking photos of local people, please politely ask for prior permission.
Electricity: Voltage supply in Bhutan is 220 volts and 3-pin (round pins) are used in Bhutan. Few Hotels have adapters available which you could borrow free of charge during your stay but it might be a good idea to carry one from home. Please visit this website for more information on plugs: http://kropla.com/electric2.htm
Postage: Postage system is very unreliable and the letters/items may not reach the destination as stamps as often stolen due to its high value.
CITIES OF INTEREST
Paro valley is one of the most populated areas of the whole country. If ever there was a place where nature and man conjured to create their dearest image, it must be Paro. Paro valley contains a wealth of attractions and requires a few days to be properly explored. To the north Mount Chomolhari (mountain of the Goddess) reigns in white glory and the glacier waters from its five sister peaks plunge torrentially through deep gorges finally converging to form the Paro River that nourishes the rice fields and fruit orchards of Paro valley. Casting a shadow across the town of Paro is the elegant and perfectly symmetrical Rinpung Dzong. Built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first temporal ruler of Bhutan, it now houses the Paro monastic body and the office of the Dzongda (Governor) and Thrimpon (Judge) of Paro district
Takshang, literally meaning Tiger’s Nest, built around a cave in which Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambava) meditated, clings seemingly impossible to a cliff of rock at 3,000 feet (800m.) above the valley floor. For local people it is a place of pilgrimage, but for a tourist, a hike to the viewpoint opposite the monastery in exhausting, thrilling and mystical.
It is the venue of the Paro Tsechu (festival) held once every year. Behind Rinpung Dzong, on the high hillside, is the castle shaped Ta Dzong. This one time watchtower built to defend Rinpung Dzong during civil wars among many temporal rulers of Bhutan in the 17th century, has been the National Museum since 1967. Eighteen kilometres from the small town of Paro are the burnt ruins of Drugyel Dzong (Victorious Fortress) from where Bhutan repelled several invasions by Tibet. The only international airport of Bhutan is also located in Paro.
Thimphu, perhaps the most unusual capital city in the world, is a bustling town on the banks of its own river and set gloriously in the hills of its own valley. The city of Thimphu is nothing like what a capital city is imagined to be. Nevertheless, for Bhutan it is a fitting and lively place. A regal town, Thimphu is home to the revered Bhutanese Royal family and to several foreign missions and development projects. Old wooden houses stand side by side with newly constructed concrete buildings, all painted and constructed in traditional Bhutanese architectural style. The Handicrafts Emporium displays a wide assortment of beautiful hand-woven and crafted products. Prominently standing out in Thimphu is the National Memorial Chorten (stupa), a monument dedicated to the Third King of Bhutan popularly known as the Father of Modern Bhutan. The paintings and statues inside the monument provided a very rare insight into Buddhist philosophy.
Five miles away from Thimphu stands the Simtokha Dzong on a lofty ridge. Built in 1627, this oldest Dzong in the country now houses the School for Buddhist Studies. Other places of interest are the School Of Traditional Painting, the Indigenous Hospital, the National Library and the Gold & Silversmith’s Workshop. On the bank of the river lies Tashichho Dzong, the main secretariat building which houses the throne room of His Majesty the king of Bhutan. Five miles from Thimphu stands the 17th Century Simtokha Dzong on a lofty ridge. Built in 1627, oldest Dzong in the land houses the school for Buddhist studies.
blessed with a temperate climate and drained by the Phochu and Mochu rivers, the fertile valley of Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and even today, it is the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the Central Monk Body. In 1667, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal built Punakha Dzong at the junction of Phochu and Mochu rivers to serve as both the religious and administrative centre of Bhutan. Punakha Dzong houses many sacred temples including the Machen where the embalmed body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal lies in state.
Damaged four times by fire in the late 18th century and early 19th century and by earthquake in 1897, the Dzong was completely restored by the present King. The drive from Thimpu to Punakha crosses the high Dochula Pass, site of one of Bhutan’s most enchanting views. From this pass, the breath taking peaks of Bhutan’s northern border can be viewed and within sight of alpine snow is a magnificent canvas of colours – a profusion of red, pink, white yellow and purple rhododendron blossoms splashed among the soft green of wild herbs and forest trees.
Wangdiphodrang is like an enlarged village a few well provided shops, towards the south of Punakha valley lays the valley. At the confluence of Mochu and Tangchu rivers stands the impressive Wangdi Phodrang Dzong. The higher reaches of the valley provide rich pasture land for cattle. Phubjikha in Wangdi Phodrang is the winter retreat for the rare Black Necked cranes. The district is also known for its fine bamboo work including slate and stone carvings.
Midway between Ha in the far west and Tashigang in the east stands the striking Tongsa Dzong, the ancestral home of Bhutan’s Royal Family. The approach to the town involves a 14kms trip around Tongsa Valley. A vantage point from the opposite side of the valley provides a spectacular view of Dzong and the town. Like almost all towns in Bhutan, the secular and the religious centre, the Dzong, dominates the horizon, dwarfing the surrounding buildings. Tongsa is the Royal Family’s ancestral home. Both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruled the country form this ancient seat. All four kings of Bhutan held post of Tongsa Penlop (honorary post of Governor) prior to being crowned the king.
A massive structure with many levels that slopes down the contour of the hill on which it is set, the Tongsa Dzong was built in 1648 and later enlarged and decorated. Because of its highly strategic position on the only connecting route between the eastern and western sectors (the trail actually running through the dzong), the Tongsa Penlop was able to control the whole of the eastern region effectively for many centuries. Protected from invaders by an impenetrable valley, Tongsa Dzong is an impregnable fortress. The Dzong itself is a labyrinth of temples corridors and offices holding court over the local community. It is built on many levels into the side of the hill and can be seen from every approach to Tongsa heralding its strength as a defensive stronghold.
To the east of Tongsa lays the wide valley of Bumthang where the tales of Padmasambava dominate the holy places. Bhumtang has an individuality that charms its visitors and separates it from other regions. Comprising of four smaller valleys, the deeply spiritual region of Bhumthang is shrouded in religious legend. The valley is home to the scared Jambey Lhakhang (monastery) and to the Kurjey Lhakhang where the bodily marks of Padmasambava remain to this day impressed on a solid rock face. Both the temples are believed to have been built in the 8th century by Sindhu Raja after Padmasambava had cured this ailing ruler and converted him to Buddhist faith. Along the highway between Bumthang and Mongar is the beautiful village of Ura. A visit to this village and the Ura monastery will give visitors an insight into the lifestyle of the people of Central Bhutan.