Bhutan

BHUTAN
Map of the Indian sub-continent where Bhutan is marked in the green colour.

Perhaps the nearest to the fantasy land of Shangri-La that is to be found on our planet! Nestling in a pocket of the Himalayan foothills, with Nepal further west and the northern parts of the Indian states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and West Bengal to the east, this mystical, truly enchanting kingdom will leave its mark on the heart and soul of every visitor.

Bhutan, the Land of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon, is a predominantly Buddhist kingdom and the world’s only theocracy. Its form of Buddhism  – the Tantric form of Mahayana Buddhism (Drukpa Kagyu)  – is nowadays a national religion unique to Bhutan. Stupas and chortens (temples and places of meditation) are common on roads and tracks throughout Bhutan. Fluttering, brightly coloured prayer flags line the ways and dot the hillsides, reminding the Bhutanese to maintain constant communication with the heavens.

Until just forty years ago, Bhutan remained a forbidden land to all but a few. Since opening up to foreign travellers, a steady tourist industry has developed though it is tightly regulated. Bhutan strives to keep its cultures and landscape uncorrupted by the excesses of larger-scale tourism and many outside influences. The tourist is therefore met with exhilarating vistas, cultures and experiences that are largely undiluted from those that first evolved centuries ago …. A humbling and rich dip into the world of yesteryear.

The land is one of vast contrasts – from the stark but breath-taking snow-capped peaks of the eastern Himalayas; to the highly forested, steep river valleys with their cascading waterfalls; and southwards into the alluvial valleys near the Indian border. Most of the land is above 3000m altitude, with an appreciable proportion above 5000m. Whilst the north has an alpine climate: the south is sufficiently mild to support citrus trees.

Bhutan has a unique cultural identity, with its own language (Dzongha) nowadays displacing Nepali, a distinct political footprint unlike its neighbours of India and Nepal, and abounding temples, monasteries and fortresses, and idyllic local festivals.

BHU_mapThis largely untouched country not only provides astoundingly rich scenery but also supports a vast range of wildlife – bears, foxes and, above all, birdlife. Indeed, the endangered black-headed cranes hold a unique position in Bhutanese folklore.

Nowadays we have come to feel that travel to distant lands is perhaps a “right”: with Bhutan the Wild Navigator traveller will have been honoured and privileged to have been able to set foot in such a land. At sundown, with the final rays penetrating the valleys, in a remote village with its distinctive wooden boarded houses and friendly people; with the prayer flags fluttering on the hillsides in the mountain breeze and the sounds of the countryside –  there can be few better places on earth to have ever been!

Getting there

By air – Paro, a town lying 55km.(1 h. drive) south of the capital Thimpu, is the sole international airport.  It is only serviced by the national airline, Druk Air. The Bhutan government requires tourists to either enter or exit the country by air.

By road –   The road from Bagdogra, West Bengal (The nearest Indian airport) enters Bhutan at Phuentsholing, the border town.

Visas and passports – You will have to apply for visa through a tour operator in Bhutan (which we can obtain). A passport valid for a minimum of 6 months is essential. A visa is essential and cannot nowadays be obtained at Bhutanese embassies. The visa is issued a month prior to your arrival and the visa number is advised to you. The visa itself is then stamped into your passport on arrival at the Paro Airport.

Customs clearance –  Personal items such as cameras, binoculars, mobile phones, and computer and personal electronic equipment must be declared on arrival and will be checked out on departure. It is illegal to export antiques of any type eg. Metal statues, sacred images, paintings and manuscripts, and animal or plant products. Abs – We think this is the first entry for all the countries you have covered that has no reference to a duty free allowance! – is this needed or an intentional omission?

When to go

In the high valleys, Spring (Mid-March to May) enjoys warm days (20°C) and cool nights. June marks the beginning of summer when day temperatures can reach 27-29°C.  However, the rainy season starts during July and continues to mid-September. Winter months are colder, though the days are often fairly warm (16-18°C) with clear, azure skies providing a striking backdrop to to the snow-capped peaks. At nights, however, temperatures can fall significantly below freezing. In contrast, the alluvial valleys of the southern border of Bhutan experience a tropical climate with hot humid monsoons and cool winter months..

Unpredictable weather, especially during the monsoon season, can delay flights and sometimes other forms of travel. Travellers are advised to include a buffer day into their itinerary for your enjoyment and convenience

Local customs – Bhutanese are friendly by nature and, like other countries in the sub-continent, warm to friendliness that is reciprocated. However, tourism is still in its infancy and thus certain behaviours e.g. Photography, that may be very acceptable in other countries of the Indian sub-continent, should be undertaken with caution and common sense. In addition, the country has many strong traditions. Therefore, certain customs and protocols should be kept to, including:

  • In public places, please wear sensible clothes that cover arms and legs.
  • Do not photograph Bhutanese people without seeking their approval. This is essential good practice in remoter areas in particular.
  • Always ask whether still and video photography are permitted at monuments and inside any buildings.
  • Always ask formal permission before entering any religious building.
  • Always remove your shoes when entering a temple.
  • Do not take photographs within temples.
  • In wildlife reservations, check whether any fees are charged for photography.
  • It is customary to tip most persons providing services – waiters, guides, doormen, porters, private drivers, etc.

Clothing – Choice of clothing will be very dependent upon the areas of Bhutan you wish to visit and outdoor activities. For lower altitude areas, cottons and light woolens in are suitable during summer months (June to September), with waterproof clothing (anorak, jacket and hat) when the rainy season starts. For the rest of the year, heavy woolens and jackets are advisable. For the more mountainous areas, warm woolen clothing and protection from wind, rain and snowfall eg. anorak, hat, etc. – as well as stout walking boots – are recommended at all times.

Currency – The national currency is the Ngultrum (Nu) with100 Chetrum = 1 Nu. The exchange rate is approximately US$ 1 = Nu.45.

Credit cards – American Express and Visa are accepted at a few shops, which also generally accept travellers’ cheques. However, since tourism is relatively new to Bhutan, and still with limited visitor numbers, many payments in towns, and all in the countryside, will need to be made in cash.

Electricity – Bhutan uses 220 volt, 50Hz mains electricity similar to the United Kingdom supply. Plug sockets are round pin (2-pin or 3-pin) as in most Asian countries. We recommend you purchase a travel adaptor before leaving your country of residence. The electricity supply can be prone to power cuts. Some remoter areas doe not have electricity.

Vaccinations and health requirements – Before visiting Bhutan, you may need to get the following vaccinations and medications for vaccine-preventable diseases and other diseases you might be at risk for at your destination. For more information consult your doctor (GP).  Your doctor can advise you on appropriate vaccinations. Please obtain advice a few months in advance of your travel so there is adequate time to complete any course of injections.

Insurance – We advise you to take out a medical/accident insurance policy in your country of residence. If you are trekking in the more remote regions insurance should include cover for helicopter evacuation. This type of policy cannot be purchased within Bhutan.

Acute mountain sickness – Because much of Bhutan is at high altitude, many travellers can suffer from this condition for a day or so, after which they tend to acclimatise. Symptoms vary widely but include breathlessness, headache, lethargy and a decrease in visual acuity. If you have concerns, please speak with your doctor before leaving for Bhutan.

Skin and eye protection – Higher altitude (Thinner atmosphere and low pollution) mean that the effects of sunlight are more pronounced even in cloudy conditions. We advise you to wear an appropriate factor sun-block, to take a wide brimmed hat, and have sunglasses. Because the tourist industry is not yet well-developed it may be advisable to purchase these products before entry into Bhutan.

Communications – In towns, landline telephone services are usually of good quality. Mobile/cellular phone coverage is limited.

Frequently-asked questions

Is English spoken?

Dzongkha, is the official national language; in certain remoter areas local languages persist. English is widely spoken across the whole country, and is the language used by government agencies and larger businesses.

Do I need a permit to trek in Bhutan?

Trekking in Bhutan is only allowed along certain carefully prescribed routes. You require a permit to undertake these. Permits are obtainable through a travel agent. Wild Navigator will be please to advise on, and organise, your permits.

Are there some regions that I should avoid?

Caution should be exercised if you plan to visit the more remote areas of Bhutan. Because of the remoteness of many regions you are advised to register your intentions and general plans with your embassy or local consulate. Up-to-date information will be available from your country’s embassy or visit the Foreign Travel Advice Bhutan Section.

Pictures of Bhutan

The Black-necked Crane (Grus nigricollis)

This medium sized crane breeds in the Tibetan plateau and winters in parts of India and Bhutan. IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) status of this bird is Vulnerable in it’s Threatened species list. This bird is culturally protected in Buddhism and in Bhutan they celebrate a special festival on this bird.

A Traditional Bhutanese House

Kuengachholing

Bhutanese Local Yathra Seller

Traditional Archery

Bhutanese Traditional Cham Dance

Clouds walk upon the picturesque palace of the Druk Chhoglay Namgyal at Trashigang Dzong

An indigenous tribal Layap girl

From the high mountains of Bhutan

The Punakha Dzong also known as ”the palace of great happiness or bliss”

Gee’s Golden Langur (Trachypithecus geei)

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