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 neighbours. 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."
Bhutan is a unique country both culturally and environmentally. Perched high in the Himalayas, it is the world’s last remaining Buddhist Kingdom. It has developed the philosophy of Gross National Happiness; where development is measured using a holistic approach of well-being, not just based on gross domestic product.
It is still termed as a third world country with subsistence farming practised in much of Bhutan. In broad terms the land is fertile and the population small. In addition, the current generation receives free education, and all citizens have access to free, although rudimentary, medical care. The sale of tobacco products is banned and smoking in public areas is an offence punished with fines.
Major sources of income for the kingdom are tourism, hydroelectric power and agriculture.
While traditional culture has been very well preserved, the opening of the country to TV and internet in 1999 has had a major effect, and modern-day culture is mostly centred on bars and snooker halls. As a result, there is very little or no evidence of quality contemporary art, theatre or music.
Culturally, Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist with Dzongkha as 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, and Lhotshamphas (Southern Bhutanese), a people of Nepalese Gurkha Origin, respectively. The Ngalops primarily consist of Bhutanese living in the western part of the country. Their culture is closely related to that of their neighbour to the north, Tibet.
Because of the danger of their distinct culture being overwhelmed by Hindu Nepalese immigrants—as had happened in neighboring Sikkim, which ended up being annexed by India—some of whom had been in Bhutan for generations, many were expelled or fled as stateless persons to refugee camps in Nepal.
Gross National Happiness
This ideology was the brain child of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who, having gained a modern education in India and the UK, realised 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. While the concept of GNH receives much international praise and is a major draw for tourists, potential visitors should be aware that the idea is very much in its incubation stage, and there is very little evidence of GNH in the country itself.
On 19 July 2011, 68 countries joined the Kingdom of Bhutan in co-sponsoring a resolution titled “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development,” which was adopted by consensus by the 193-member UN General Assembly. In follow up to the resolution, the Royal Government of Bhutan convened a High Level Meeting on “Happiness and Well Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” on 2nd April 2012 at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This meeting initiated the next steps towards realising the vision of a new well being and sustainability based economic paradigm that effectively integrates economic, social, and environmental objectives. Following this resolution, Bhutan continues to be a champion of the resolution and actively promotes the concept internationally.
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 and is held in high esteem throughout the country.
Although geographically quite small, Bhutan’s weather varies from north to south and valley to valley, 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 European-like weather. Winter lasts here from November to March. Punakha is an exception as it is in a lower valley and summer is hot and winter is pleasant. Southern Bhutan bordering with India is hot and humid with a sub-tropical climate. While the monsoon affects northern Indian it does not command the same influence in Bhutan. Summer months tend to be wetter with isolated showers predominately in the evenings only. Winter is by far the driest period while spring and autumn tend to be pleasant.
There are four distinct seasons similar in their divisions to those of Western Europe. Temperatures in the far south range from 15°C in winter (December to February) to 30°C in summer (June to August). In Thimphu the range is from -2.5°C in January to 25°C in August and with a rainfall of 100mm. In the high mountain regions the average temperature is 0°C in winter and may reach 10°C in summer, with an average of 350mm of rain. Precipitation varies significantly with the elevation. The average rainfall varies from region to region.
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):
Wildlife sanctuaries & nature reserves
All tourists must book their travel through a local licensed tour operator (or international partner). Visas are applied for online by your local tour operator and it is not required that you visit a Bhutanese Embassy or consulate. Your holiday must be paid in full, via a wire transfer, to the Tourism Council of Bhutan account before a tourist visa is issued. The money remains with the Tourism Council until your travel in-country is complete before the local tour operator is paid.
Visa clearance takes no longer than 72 hours, once full payment has been received. At your point of entry, the visa will be stamped in your passport on payment of USD40, also prepaid through your tour agent. Visa extensions can be obtained through your local tour operator at a cost of Nu.600 (1 Ngultrum = 1 Indian Rupee) and the tourist will also be subject to the daily tariff for the additional days.
As travel to Bhutan almost invariably requires at least one flight change in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Singapore or Thailand, ensure that you meet the visa requirements of those countries before transiting through. Nepal and Thailand offer visas on arrival or visa waiver for many nationalities. India generally requires visas for most nationalities, though 50 nationalities can obtain an electronic visa online without having to send their passports or visiting an embassy. Check your local Indian embassy/consulate for details.
The total cost for a Bhutanese visa is $250 a day during tourist high season, and $200 a day for low season. This includes accommodation, transportation, meals, plenty of bottled water and special entry fees. Discounts apply for minors and larger groups, while surcharges exist for groups smaller than 3.
The only exceptions for having to book a tour as a condition for being allowed to visit are for those who receive a formal invitation to Bhutan from "a citizen of some standing" or a volunteer organisation, and those who come as guests of the Bhutanese government.
Special information for Indian travellers
1. Travel time from Bagdogra Airport to Jaigaon/Phuentsholing by road is around 5-6 hours depending on traffic jams.
2. No permit is required for entering Phuentsholing. However the entry gate from India closes at 20:30 (IST). Bhutan time is half hour ahead of Indian time. You can stay in hotels in Phuentsholing without permit. Permit is made at Phuentsholing for onward visit to Thimphu and Paro only. For visiting other places in Bhutan like Punakha or Bumthang, permit is made at Thimphu.
3. Staying in Jaigaon is cheaper, and availability is not an issue during off season.
4. Indians do not require visa to travel to Bhutan, but need permit. Obtaining the permit may take as long as half a day. Permits are issued at Phuentsholing. Identification proof like Voter ID Card or Passport is needed. However, you can also get them at Kolkata
5. Indians can withdraw Bhutanese currency using their Indian debit card at a charge of IDR20 per transaction.
6. Indian currency is widely accepted, excluding 500 and 1000 rupee notes. However most shops and establishments accept Indian 500 rupee notes.
7. Travel time from Phuentsholing to Thimpu is around 7 hours by road.
8. The road is mostly mountainous, and must be avoided by those with fear of heights.
Paro International Airport (PBH/VQPR) is the only entry point to Bhutan by air. It is located in the south west of the country and served only by the country's flag carrier Druk Air . E-tickets have been in use since April 1st 2008. Druk operates four planes (three airbuses and an ATR-42) which fly routes to Bangkok in Thailand; Delhi, Kolkata, Bodhgaya/ Gaya, Bagdogra, Guwahati in India; Kathmandu in Nepal; Dhaka in Bangladesh. There are two domestic airports. Yongphulla Airport is located in Trashigang in the east and Bathpalathang Airport is located at Jakar in the Bumthang district - however both of these airports are currently (Oct 2012)not operational. From the latter part of 2012 the domestic Gelephu Airport will go into operation. It is located in the southern central region, close to the Indian border. From 01st September 2012 flights will operate from Singapore  and Mumbai.
There are three land border crossings located along southern border to India only. Phuntsholing in the west, Gelephu in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar in the east. No border crossings are open along the Chinese northern border. Road permits are also required; however, these are processed by your local tour operator, along with your visa.
There are no railways in Bhutan. The nearest options (both in India) are:
The Tourism Council of Bhutan operates the daily tariff for all tourists entering the country. It is not possible to enter Bhutan as a tourist without paying this tariff except if you are from India, Maldives or Bangladesh. For these three countries all the visitor requires is to produce their identity card of their country.
The daily tariff covers:
It is illegal to undercut tariff prices and tour operators found to be undercutting have their licensed terminated.
The only other options for visiting the country are to receive an invitation by a Bhutanese citizen, where proof of the relationship must be presented on applying or through a NGO.
The royalty, which is included in the daily tariff, is the Tourism Council of Bhutan sustainable tourism policy fee. This royalty of USD $65 goes directly to the government to provide free education and healthcare, as well as poverty alleviation.
Prior to your trip to Bhutan you will be asked to wire the full payment for your holiday to the Tourism Council of Bhutan account. A tourist visa will not be issued until full payment is made prior to departure. This money will remain with the Tourism Council of Bhutan until your trip is complete. Only after you have completed your holiday will the money be transferred to the local tour operator with which you booked your travel through. If you are not satisfied with the service you received while on your holiday to Bhutan, you can contact the Tourism Council of Bhutan who will assist.
Alternatively, MyBhutan is the only platform that allows you to submit payment via credit card or ACH online. Endorsed by the government, the industry-wide services website expedites the trip planning process and handles all administrative tasks -- all provided at the government minimum tariff.
In the case of persons from India, Bangladesh and Maldives only, visas are issued on entry. A photograph and Identification document, Passport or Voter ID Card, is required (along with a photocopy of either). Fill the document with purpose "Tourism". At land border crossings 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.
Route permits are required to travel around Bhutan, and there are check posts in most districts east and north of Thimphu where you are required to produce these documents in order to proceed. Route permits are processed by your local tour operator on applying for your visa. These permits are issued by the immigration office in Thimphu (Northern end of Norzin Lam).
The roads that cross the country are characterized by their twists, turns, and steep inclines, but despite the difficult topography, they are generally very well-maintained and safe. Local and inter-district bus services are not very comfortable and stop frequently. Your local tour operator will provide a vehicle and driver for the duration of your stay. This cost is included in the daily tariff. However, traveling by local or inter-district bus or taxi can also be organized. It is recommended that you drive in Bhutan only if you have experience driving in mountainous regions. The quality of road surface is variable with endless mountainous hairpin bends. It is recommended that you pack travel sickness tablets.
As the public transport running between towns in Bhutan is infrequent, hitching is a very common way to get around. The thumb in the air symbol, however, is not recognized, and you will need to flag down a passing vehicle in order to get one to stop. NB: As some drivers pick up passengers as a means of supplementing their incomes, it is customary to offer payment when getting out of the vehicle (the amount depends roughly on the distance, but it will be comparable to the cost of traveling by bus). However, most drivers require nothing, and are more than happy just to have some company and the opportunity to make a new friend. If you plan to hitch a lot (and in some rural areas there is no other way to get around), it is a good idea to take a few small gifts to offer the drivers as an expression of your appreciation. It is generally very safe to hitchhike throughout the country, especially outside of the most urban areas, like Thimphu.
Due to the mountainous terrain, roads are frequently blocked by rock falls during the summer season. Therefore, it is best to avoid traveling long distances from the beginning of June to the end of August. However, if you must travel at this time, carry ample bottled water and snacks as if the landslide occurs it could take some time to clear the road.
At an altitude of 3750 meters, the section of road that runs through the Thrumshingla Pass connecting Bumthang and Mongar is the highest in the country and offers some spectacular scenery. However, due to the steep sides of the valley it is especially susceptible to rock falls, so be prepared for long waits during the wet periods in particular.
Food and refreshment
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.
The majority of tourists do "cultural tours" where they visit important destinations. Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, and Jakar are popular destinations. Further afield, the unexplored region of Zhemgang (birders paradise, excellent wildlife viewing) and Eastern Bhutan have just been opened up to tourism. If you are an adventurist and want to explore the unexplored the east of Bhutan is the place for you. This unique and yet untouched part of the country offers the ultimate experience.
MonasteriesParo. This is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world, and Guru Rinpoche visited here in the 8th century on his second visit to Bhutan. It is the most recognized and visited monument in Bhutan. It is believed that he arrived on the back of a winged tigress, hence the name, Tigers Nest. The temple is built on a 1,200 meter cliff and was built in 1692. The hike up to the Tiger's Nest can be very strenuous and you can rent a horse to bring up the mountain for about USD $10. The horse ride is a one-way trip (this is recommended if you are not very fit and may face altitude sickness) and you have to make your way down the mountain by foot.
For independent travelers, taxis can be arranged to reach Taktsang Monastery. As on May, 2014, a reserved small car will cost you Nu 500 for a round trip and takes about 20 minutes one way. The car will drop you at the site and then will come to pick you up at a later fixed time.
You can visit Kyichu Lhakhang Monastery on your way to Taktsang.
Hundreds of monasteries dot the landscape in some of the most pristine and remote areas.
Kurje Lhakhang, Jakar. A temple built around a cave with a body print of Guru Rinpoche embedded in the wall. Guru Rinpoche practiced meditation here on his first visit to Bhutan and as such it is the earliest Buddhist relic in the country.
Tashichho Dzong is a Buddhist monastery and fortress on the northern edge of the city of Thimpu in Bhutan, on the western bank of the Wang Chu. It has traditionally been the seat of the Druk Desi (or "Dharma Raja"), the head of Bhutan's civil government, an office which has been combined with the kingship since the creation of the monarchy in 1907, and summer capital of the country. The main structure of the whitewashed building is two-storied with three-storied towers at each of the four corners topped by triple-tiered golden roofs. There is also a large central tower or utse. Built in 1216, Semtokha Dzong in the Thimphu Valley was the first dzong built in the country.
The dzongs are ancient fortresses that now serve as the civil and monastic administration headquarters of each district. Apart from the architecture, which in itself makes a dzong worth visiting, they also hold many art treasures.
Dzongs dot the countryside and were built without the use of cement, nails or plans. Dzongs which you can visit are:
Trekking is also extremely popular. The Druk path is the most commonly trekked from Paro, to the capital Thimphu. However, many other more impressive treks are available, see the complete list below. The Jomolhari, and Laya Gasa trek are also very popular and the Snowman Trek is reported to be one of the toughest treks in the world, taking a approximately 30 days. The recommended season for this trek is mid-June to mid-October.
Bhutan pristine environment offers ecosystem which are rich and diverse, due to its location and great geographical and climatic variations, Bhutan’s high, rugged mountains and valleys boast spectacular biodiversity, earning it a name as one of the world’s ten most important biodiversity hotspots.
Recognizing the importance of environment, conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of its development paradigms. The government has decreed that 60% of its forest resources will be maintained for all time through a recently enacted law passed by government. Today, approximately 72% of the total land area is under forest cover and about 26% of the land area fall under protected areas comprising of four parks. As a result, Bhutan offers a wonderful raw and unexploited environment that is generally very much appreciated by international travelers.
35% of Bhutan is made up of protected national parks. Namely, Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park (1,300 sq.km), TrumshingLa National Park (768 sq. km), Royal Manas National Park (9,938.54 sq. km), Jigme Dorji National Park (4,349 sq. km), Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (1,545 sq. km) and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (650 sq. km).
Festivals or Tshechu (“tenth day”) are another major draw card to Bhutan and are held every year in various temples monasteries and dzongs across the country. The Tshechu is mainly a religious event celebrated on tenth day of a month of lunar calendar corresponding to the birth day of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava). However the month of Tshechu depends place to place and temple to temple. Tshechus are large social gatherings where people from various villages come together to witness the religious mask dances which are based on incidents from as long as 8th century from the life of Guru Padmasambhava and to receive blessings from lamas. The event also consists of colorful Bhutanese dances and other entertainments.
It is said that everyone must attend a Tshechu and witness the mask dances at least once to receive the blessings and wash away the sins. Every mask dances performed during Tshechu has a meaning or a story behind. In monasteries the mask dances are performed by monks and in remote villages they are performed jointly by monks and village men. Among many Tshechus in the country most popular are Paro and Thimphu Tshechus in terms of participation and audience. Besides the locals many tourists from across the world are attracted to this unique, colorful and exciting culture.
Other festivals which happen throughout the year are:
The official language and lingua franca of Bhutan is Dzongkha - a Sino-Tibetan language which is written in the Tibetan script. Dzongkha is the main language spoken in Western Bhutan, with nearly two-dozen other Sino-Tibetan languages being spoken across the country, including Sharchopkha in the east and Bumthangkha in Bhumthang.
Most Bhutanese can also speak Nepali, which is the native language of most Bhutanese who reside in the south of the country.
Owing to the presence of Indian media and trade, most people in urban areas also understand English and/or Hindi.
Quotes unique to Bhutan
The official currency is the ngultrum (Nu.), which is pegged 1:1 with the Indian rupee (₹). However, the ₹500 and ₹1000 notes are technically banned by the Bhutanese government, although many local non-governmental establishments accept the ₹500 note. Remember that the import and export of Indian rupees to and from India by foreign nationals is illegal, and that Indian nationals may not export more than ₹25,000.
US dollars ($) are widely accepted. Bhutanese currency is only needed for expenses personal in nature and buying small souvenir items.
Most ATMs in Bhutan - which are mostly concentrated in Thimphu and Paro - are now compatible with international credit cards such as VISA, MasterCard and Maestro. However, as the service it is not overly reliable, it is good practice to have a supply of ngultrum, rupee or dollar notes.
Failing everything else, banks and major hotels will exchange US dollars for ngultrum and vice versa. Remember to keep your bank exchange receipt to get back dollars.
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 flavour - chili. This small red condiment is not only added to every dish but is also often eaten raw since chillies are considered a vegetable. 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.
Hot-pot and Western European food is now available in some restaurants in Thimphu where French fries, pork or beef ribs, pizza... are served.
Kewa-datsi and shamu-datsi tend to be less hot than ema-datsi; all three dishes are generally served with rice.
Imtrat run canteens that sell excellent Indian dishes along with tea from 09:30to 16:30. The quality of the food is very good, while the price is low. The canteens are located throughout the country, especially along main highways.
Good Indian vegetarian food in Thimphu is available in few pure vegetarian restaurants located on Norzin Lam, the main street in centre of city. Prices are reasonable.
The legal drinking/purchasing age of alcoholic beverages is 18.
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).
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.
Homosexuality is illegal, and is enforced. Punishment includes prison sentence between 1 month to one year. The United States Department of State issues a travel warning to anyone who is LGBT.
Embassies and Consulates
Bhutan has a number of embassies and consulates, including those listed below .