Earth : Asia : South Asia : Bhutan
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."
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 measure using a holistic approach of well-being, not just based on gross domestic profit. Chilies are considered a vegetable and Ema Datshi the national dish. Ema Datchi consists of green chilies mixed in with a Bhutanese cheese sauce. It is still termed as a third world country with subsistence farming practiced in much of the country. 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 medical care. The sale of tobacco products is banned and smoking in public areas is a fineable offense.
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. The capital Thimphu is growing at a fast pace with many people migrating from eastern Bhutan to the population centres of the west.
Culturally, Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist with Dzongka 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 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 kingdom became a parliamentary democracy in March 2008 at the initiation of the Fourth King.
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, 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.
On 19 July last year, 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 realizing the vision of a new well being and sustainability based economic paradigm that effectively integrates economic, social, and environmental objectives.
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
Official Site of National Parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan: 
Bhutan is a unique destination and as such it has a few unique rules. All tourists must obtain a visa before arriving in Bhutan. Visas are issued on receipt of full payment of your holiday by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. The money remains with the Tourism Council until your travel in-country is complete before the local tour operate is paid. Bhutan does not restrict tourist numbers any longer and operates an open door policy.
All tourists must obtain a visa prior to departure. All tourists must book there 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. 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 US$20, two passport photos will also be required. Visa extensions can be obtained through you local tour operator at a cost of Nu.510 (1 Ngultrum = 1 Indian Rupee) and the tourist will also be subject to the daily tariff for the additional days. Visas are issued on arrival to residents of India, Bangladesh and Maldives only.
As travel to Bhutan almost invariably requires at least one flight change in 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 visa procedures to be completed before arrival, and this can take up to two weeks.
Paro International Airport (PBH) 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 2 planes (two airbuses) which fly routes to Bangkok in Thailand; Delhi, Kolkata, Bodhgaya/ Gaya, Bagdogra, Guwahati in India; Kathmandu in Nepal; Dhaka in Bangladesh. There are two operational domestic airports. Yongphulla Airport is located in Trashigang in the east and Bathpalathang Airport is located at Jakar in the Bumthang region. 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.
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 monies 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.
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 so 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 not recommended that you drive in Bhutan only if you have experience on 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.
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.
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 theDruk 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. The original Dzong was built in 1216.
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.
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:
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 than 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).
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.
Embassies and Consulates
Bhutan has a number of embassies and consulates, including those listed below .