Land of the Thunder Dragon is one of the most exotic destinations in the world today. This kingdom, often referred to as the last Shangri-la, is a land of outstanding people, remarkable scenery and natural wonders, and a proud and vibrant culture. A unique and rare place that few have had the privilege of visiting.
Wedged between the world’s giants, India and the Tibetan region of China, Bhutan is today slowly opening up to the world through a sensitive approach to tourism.
You can now discover the cultural and natural wonders of this last remaining Mahayana Buddhist Kingdom of the Himalaya. Here is a kingdom that is just throwing off the veil of mystery, and opening its doors to visitors.
Bhutan has a pristine environment, almost no pollution, and a living culture where festivals and cultural events are a part of daily life and not creations for tourism. Let us take care of your needs on your tour of this little known kingdom.
The ancient period of Bhutan that dates from the beginning till the 8th century AD, was marked by rural settlement, domestication of animals, agriculture, the first advent of Buddhism and subsequent buildings of Buddhist temples.
The visit of Guru Padmasambhava and other Buddhists saints and scholars from India and Tibet marked the medieval Bhutan. Emergence of ruling clans and development of arts and architecture were also seen during this period.
Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a leader of the Drukpa sect, came to Bhutan in 17th century. He introduced the dual system of Government and for the first time some degree of stability was maintained, which was unseen before. But this did not last long. After Ngawang Namgyal’s death, successors became victims of intrigues and rivalries. The instability continued till the early 20th century.
The country’s modern period began with the establishment of monarchy in Bhutan. The powerful Bhutanese Chief, Ugyen Wangchuk was crowned as the first hereditary ruler of Bhutan in 1907. The country’s self-imposed policy of isolation continued till the reign of the third king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. He decided to shed this age-old policy and introduced the country to the outside world, bringing the country into the international mainstream.
Though the country is known as Bhutan to the outside world, to Bhutanese it has been known as Druk Yul ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. The people call themselves Drukpas.
Gross National Happiness
His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the king of Bhutan, is the founder of this philosophy – Gross National Happiness. This philosophy inherently is based upon the proposition that there is something inbuilt phenomena which can promote the happiness of the people not only through material comforts but also through shared spiritual values. It is a non-quantifiable ultimate objective of every human being. In Bhutan this philosophy is used as the fundamental political thought and objective in governance while other economic variables and material elements are used as tools to either increase or achieve it. It tries to strike out the balance between the happiness achieved through material benefits and the spiritual satisfaction. This balance can be as a result of the experiences and belief that increased modern material comfort has not increased the happiness proportionately. If progressed made by the economic prosperity can be used as the yardstick of development, the non-quantifiable spiritual happiness can also be used as the indicator of development and progress.
The development in Buddhist philosophy can be attributed to the ‘individual enlightenment’, which can be attained by creating a harmonious psychological, social and economic environment.
It believes in the minimization of self-concern and constructing a happier web of human relationships and transforming man into a less intrusive and destructive force in the natural environment.
In nutshell Gross National Happiness follows a holistic and multidimensional-approach to progress, aimed to maintain a balance between the material and spiritual reconciliation.
In any case Gross National Happiness presupposes that there is something called ‘happiness’ once there is a balance between material longings and spiritual values.
Although happiness is a common value of humanity but one rarely finds the ‘happiness’ focused-objective of human progressive realization. Instead in the saga of governance and administration, often one particular objective is set to achieve.
Often times, people tend to believe that this philosophy was propagated to contain the material and cultural invasion of the outside world within Bhutan. When the very basis of this philosophy is universal in nature, there is no reason why it should be perceived as a shield against the outside-world influence.
It does not negate the scientific, technological and economic benefits but it merely asks how these benefits will in fact increase the happiness of the human being. It tries to focus on the material benefits and the spiritual satisfaction.
Where does this philosophy stand in the midst of the other western philosophies? Hegel and Marx believed that the evolution of societies would end when mankind had achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings. Presumption is that the happiness is automatic once objective is fulfilled. But will there be an end to the human wants and longings? It is very doubtful if one has to analyze within the paradigm of objective reality. For this reason one has to focus on the fundamental element of ‘spiritual value’, which can limit the human want and achieve happiness. Of course even Hegel believed that there is non-materialist account of History, based on the ‘struggle for recognition.’ According to him, there can be happiness once all human beings are recognized on par. It is the desired to be recognized as a human being with dignity that drove man at the beginning of the history into a bloody battle to the death for prestige.
According to Friedrich Nietzsche, once the man is content with his happiness, he is unable to feel any sense of shame for being unable to raise those wants, the last man ceases to be human. Interestingly, he says that ‘liberal democracy’ produced him ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long-term interest.
Literally, there seems to be a close similarity between the Gross National Happiness and Jeremy Bentham’s theory of utilitarianism wherein he emphasized on the ‘sacred truth’ that men inevitably pursue pleasure and avoid pain, and “greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation.” Presumption here is that whole of morality could be derived from ‘enlightened self-interest.’ His idea was that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should govern judgment of every institution and action and this brings very close to the theory of development from the Gross National Happiness perspective.
Of course the difference between these two philosophies being that former is too logical and mechanical rationalization of facts while latter believes in the spiritual values too.
Some believed that Gross National Happiness would be achieved in the state “where everyone cares enough and everyone shares enough so that everyone has enough” other wise it is merely a utopian concept best suited for intellectual brain-storming.’
The King & his Family
Hereditary Monarchy dates from 17th December 1907,when Sir Ugyen Wangchuk was crowned as the first hereditary King of Bhutan and ruled from 1907 to 1926. His Majesty the King Jigme Wangchuk ruled from 1926 to 1952 and his Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuk from 1952 to 1972.
In the course of time, the planed Developmental activities where under taken and the country joined World Organization such as the Colombo Plan in 1962, the Universal Postal Union in 1969, and the United Nations in 1971 to strengthen and maintain international relations.
The present His Majesty the King Jigme Singye Wangchuck was born on November 11, 1955 at Dechencholing Palace in Thimphu. He had studied in Darjeeling and later he went to England for the higher education. Upon returning from England he studied at Ugyen Wangchuck Academy in Paro to receive a unique Bhutanese Education.
On June 2, 1974, when he was only 18 years old, His Majesty was formally crowned as the fourth King of Bhutan in the Tashichodzong. On the occasion of the coronation, for the first time in history, Bhutan opened doors to a large gathering of foreign dignitaries and for the first time international press was allowed to enter the kingdom.
The following are the basic goals set by His Majesty the King Jigme Singye Wangchuck for the development of Bhutan:
Gross National Happiness
Social and Economic Prosperity
Strong and Efficient Administrative System
National Self Reliance
Preservation of Culture and Tradition
Preservation of Cultural Environment
Planned Population Growth
One Nation, One People.
On October 31, 1998, His Majesty’s marriage to Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Ashi Tshering Pem, Ashi Tshering Yangdon and Ashi Sangay Choden was solemnized in the sacred Dechog Lhakhang of Punakha Dzong. Daughters of Yab Ugyen Dorji and Yum Thujee Zam, the four Queens descended from very old Bhutanese families of distinguished lineage of fifth Shabdrung Sungtruel Chogley Yeshey Ngedrup on the paternal side and sixth Shabdrung Thugtruel Jigme Dorji on the maternal side.
The Royal Wedding was a very important national event for the Bhutanese people because it fulfilled the long cherished dream of ensuring the line of succession to the throne.
His Majesty the King and their Majesties the Queens have five princess and five princesses including the Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Dasho Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck.
With his selfless dedication and hard work in the service of the people, the King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has not only gained the great love and loyalty at home but respect abroad. His close contact with the common people and his deep concern for the welfare of the people makes him truly a ‘Monarch of the People’.
Bhutan is a landlocked country wedged between the autonomous region of Tibet, China, in the north and India in the south along the lofty mountains of the eastern Himalayas. It is located between 88°45’and 92°10′ longitude east and between 26°40′ and 28°15′ latitude north. It covers 46,500 square kilometers and has population of 650,000 with seventy five percent of the population living on cultivation and livestock rearing.
The country can be divided into three major geographic zones: the southern foothills and plains with hot and humid climate, the hills and valleys in the center with moderate rainfall and the highland of the north with high mountains covered with snow almost through out the year.
Bhutan is the land of complex gorges and valleys, soaring snow-peaked mountains and steep slopes, humid jungles and foothills, magnificent lakes and waterfalls, fast flowing rivers and streams and the richest biodiversity of flora and fauna.
People & Dress
The people of Bhutan can be classified into three main ethnic groups: Sharchops, who live in east of the country, are believed to be the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan. They are Indo-Mongoloid origin and appear closely related to the inhabitants of northeast India and northern Burma. The Ngalongs are of Tibetan descendant migrated to Bhutan in the 9th century and settled west of the country. The third group Lhotsampas are the Nepali origin that settled in the foothills of southern Bhutan in mid 19th century. There are other minority groups in Bhutan such as Layap, Brokpa, Doya, Lhopu, Dhakpa and Lepcha.
The men wear a knee-length garment called ‘Gho’ which resembles the Scottish Kilt. The women wear a long robe ‘Kira’, which is wrapped around the body covering it from neck to ankle. Women usually wear heavy silver and gold necklaces with coral, turquoise and other precious stones. Rings and earrings decorated with pearls and turquoise are also popular.
The early inhabitants of Bhutan practiced ‘Bonism’, a practice of making animal sacrifice and worshiping non-living objects such as mountains, lakes, rivers, trees and rocks. With the advent of Buddhism in 7th century the Bonism gradually disappeared from the country.
The country’s official religion is Drukpa Kagye, school of tantric Mahayana Buddhism, which is similar to Tibetan Buddhism but has unique beliefs and practices. The religious affair of the country is looked after by the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) who also enjoys equal power as the king.
The Bhutanese people of Nepali origin in the south practice Hinduism.
The national language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, which is widely spoken in western region. The eastern region of the country speak Sharchop, where as the people in the south speak Nepali.
English has been used as the medium of instructions in schools and institutes. The country’s national newspaper Kuensel is written in English, Dzongkha and Nepali.
Food & Drink
The staple food of Bhutanese is rice and vegetables with abundant chillies. Bhutanese eat incredible amount of chillies. It is used as vegetable rather than as spices. Most Bhutanese prefer ‘Emadatse’ a dish made entirely of chillies mixed with cheese.
Meat is widely eaten in Bhutan. Common meat includes pork, beef, chicken, fish and yak meat. The Bhutanese also eat a variety of vegetables, including potatoes, fern, spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, beans and mushrooms.
In central Bhutan, buckwheat is cultivated as one of the main cereals. The rice is not grown due to high altitude. The Bumthang region is famous for its buckwheat pancakes. The Bhutanese are fond of taking ‘suja’ (butter tea) and ‘ara’, an alcohol distilled from the brewery of locally produced rice, wheat, maize or corn. Drinks are also used as a part of offerings while performing ceremonies on different occasions.
Entertainment & Sports
The national sport of Bhutan is archery. The bows and arrows are made up of special kind of bamboo. Bhutanese also popularly use carbonite Hoyt brand bows.
Bhutanese also play western sports like soccer, basketball and volleyball. Basketball has become popular especially among youths and students. Badminton, golf, table tennis, cricket, tennis and taekondo are also played.
The modern entertainments such as cinema, discotheques and snooker parlours have liberally sprung up in the larger towns. These places are often being flocked by students, businessmen and civil servants.
The annual festival is called ‘Tshechu’. It is one of the most exciting experiences that the visitor can have in Bhutan. It is celebrated in honour of Guru Padmasambhava who visited Bhutan in 7th century.
During the Tshechu, the monks and laymen perform mask dances and the religious skits. It is also the time for the people to socialize and rejoice. Men, women and children are attired in their best silk and brocade, and intricately woven colourful ghos and kiras.
In some festivals you can witness the unveiling of a “thongdrel,” (a giant appliquéd thangka) that is hung from a wall in the Dzong’s courtyard. Punakha Dzong has the largest thongdrel in Bhutan.
Bhutanese followed arranged marriage in olden days. Today the love marriages are common. There is no child marriage in Bhutan.
Bhutanese marriage can either be an informal affair or complicated ceremonies depending upon the family status. The wedding ceremony ends in dancing and feasting.
In less well off families, young people start living together and declare themselves married and quite often it is not even announced verbally. There is no dowry in Bhutan. But in some remote regions there is a system of giving wine, grains and slaughtered pigs as gifts to the girl’s parents. The people in the south follow Hindu system of marriage.
Art & Architecture
The traditional Bhutanese arts and architecture are unique. They are highly decorative and ornamental. The traditional Bhutanese architecture has no nails or iron bars.
The Bhutanese architectural grandeur is exhibited in the form of Dzongs, monasteries, temples, chortens and traditional Bhutanese houses. The Dzong architecture is one of the most elegant and harmonious in the world. The genius of Bhutanese art is best expressed in frescoes and paintings. Bhutan’s thangkas and mandalas depict an artistic skill and a rare exquisite fineness. The mandala or mystic circle represents the Buddhist concept of cosmogony of the universe. The statues are made of wood, stones, bronze, coral, pearl and other expensive materials, which depicts fine craftsmanship of the Bhutanese artists.
Flora & Fauna
Bhutan has about 72% of its area under forest cover. Over 5000 species of plants grow in Bhutan. These include 300 species of medicinal plants, over 50 species of rhododendron and 600 species of orchids.
The great variety of fauna includes: elephants, tigers, buffalo, one horned rhinoceros (rhinoceros unicornis), leopards (panthara pardus), gaur, red pandas, langur monkeys, wild boar, deer, white-collared black bears, yaks (bos gruniens), tahr (hemitragus jemlahicus) and goral (naemorhedus goral). Brown trout and local fishes are found in northern rivers and lakes, while in the south the rivers are full of masheer.
The rare and exotic species found in Bhutan are: golden langur (found only in Bhutan), pangolin, pygmy hog, snow leopard, red pandas, wild buffalo, monal peasant, peacock peasant, raven, rufous-necked hornbill, white-bellied heron, common shelduck, ruddy duck, black necked crane, golden masheer, spotted deer, leopard, leopard cat, himalayan black bear, serow, snow leopard, takin, musk deer, himalayan brown bear, himalayan marten, tiger, hornbills, pheasants, mountain goats and timid blue sheep.
About 675 species of birds have been recorded in Bhutan and more than 16 different species of birds are included in the lists of endangered species.
Bhutanese economy is predominantly agrarian. About 75% of the population depends on subsistence farming and livestock rearing. The food crops are rice, maize, millet, wheat, buckwheat and barley. The cash crops include apples, oranges, potatoes, cardamom and mustard.
Bhutan exports agro products like apples, oranges, mushrooms, canned fruit and jams. The country also exports forestry products like timber and lemon grass oil. Cement, ferro alloys, calcium carbide, coal and gypsum are also exported.
Tourism is the largest foreign exchange earner for Bhutan. The country’s largest source of earning is the hydroelectric power. It contributes about 25% of the government revenue. Bhutan also exports postage stamps
Facts for Visitors to Bhutan
When to travel to Bhutan?
You can visit Bhutan anytime of the year. Visitors tend to stay away during the monsoon months of June, July and August when the weather is sometimes a little wet for sightseeing. The best time for trekking is in spring and autumn. Hence, the months of March, April, May and Sept, October, November.
Weather & clothing
Due to wide range of temperature and climatic conditions, it is advisable to bring appropriate clothing. In the months of October, November, December, January and February, mornings and evenings will be cold. You will have to being in warm clothes (thick overcoats not necessary). While the months of March, April, May, June, July, August and September the days are warmer. June, July and August will be little wet and some rain gears would be necessary.
Bhutan offers generally modest but clean hotels. There are none of the chain hotels in Bhutan although a couple of high end resorts have been opened in some districts. You will stay in the best available hotels that are classified and approved by the Royal Government. Visitors are advised not to expect luxury or five star hotel services. Bhutan’s local hospitality is, however, an insight into a society where tourism may be a new venture, but where visitors are greeted with true warmth and friendship.
Generally, tourist facilities and services are good in western Bhutan, but the quality of service and facilities decreases the further east we go. This is because tourism is less developed in the more remote east.
You will travel in comfortable passenger coaster buses for groups of seven visitors or more. You will also be traveling comfortably throughout the country in six seater Japanese hi-ace buses. Smaller groups of one to two passengers will discover the country in 4WD cars.
A variety of meals are available in most hotels – the most popular being Indian, Chinese, and the more common continental food. Non vegetarian dishes are generally available in most parts of Bhutan – pork, beef, chicken, and fish. The best advise is to ask the hotel and restaurant to recommend what is fresh and in season.
Licensed Bhutanese travel guides will introduce you to the many facets of this interesting country. The English-speaking guides undergo regular training and, where required, specialized guides will lead you on bird watching, botany or other special tours.
Although the system of ‘give and take’ is always there in Bhutanese tradition, tipping is not compulsory. But if you would like to appreciate the services of our guides, drivers and service staff you may tip them according to your will.
Gay & lesbian travelers
People’s sexual preferences are considered personal matters and do not bother most Bhutanese. The Bhutanese people are, however, not used to open intimate behavior. Sometimes, you come across people of the same gender holding hands but they are not necessarily gay or lesbian.
Money, ATM and credit cards
Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan. It is equivalent to the Indian rupee which is widely accepted through out Bhutan. You can buy ngultrum at the Paro airport, Bhutan National Bank and the Bank of Bhutan. You can also buy at all hotels but the exchange rate is slightly higher than banks. You are advised to bring in traveler’s checks or cash dollars which are widely accepted.
ATMs are available in the bigger towns of Thimphu and Paro. If you have visa cards with pin codes, you can encash money from any ATM outlets. Credit cards are accepted in very few hotels and shops. All credit card transactions take extra time and are cumbersome to use. For convenience, it is preferable to have travelers cheques and cash dollars.
Bhutan uses a 240 v system. Electrical supply is generally good, but can be less stable in the smaller towns outside the capital, Thimphu. If you are using computers and other sensitive equipment, be prepared for fluctuations and power surges. Many rural areas are still without electricity although some farms have solar electrification.
Bhutan uses the Indian round pin plug sockets. You can find adaptors in many of the hardware shops in the capital, Thimphu.
Health & safety aspects
Currently, you are not required to undergo any inoculations for travel to Bhutan. However, before your travel, you may consult your doctor if any immunization against certain preventable diseases is required. US Center for Disease Control and Prevention provides up-to-date travel information about which diseases you may need to immunize yourself against when planning your travel to Bhutan.
Bhutan has good health coverage and all regions that you have Hospitals and Basic Health Units. Bigger medical stores are concentrated only in Thimphu and if you wish to buy any medicines, you may do so in Thimphu.
There is very little crime rate in Bhutan and it is safe for the women travelers. There is no sexual harassment as Bhutanese women generally enjoy a good standing in society. Since all tourists have a travel guide, there is little chance of coming across unpleasant occurrences. Women are however, advised to take the same universal precautions when in crowded entertainment places at night, particularly when in discos or bars, or if walking home late in the evening. Sometimes, the stray dogs could pose a problem on the streets at night. Please visit the link US Department of State Consular Information Sheet for in-depth and up-to-date information on travel to Bhutan.
On our cultural tours you do not reach altitudes higher than 3,400 meters and all our treks runs from 3,500 – 5,500 meters. We hardly have any cases of altitude sickness in Bhutan although the altitude in Bhutan is higher than many people are used to. Signs of altitude sickness include headache, nausea, loss of appetite and fatigue. You can log on to International Society for Mountain Medicine for more information on altitude sickness and prevention.
All visitors are advised to get their insurance cover from their own country and insurance of any kind is not included in our tour price.
Bhutan Tourism Policy
The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. For this reason the number for tourists visiting Bhutan are kept to an environmentally manageable level through Government regulated tourist tariff.
It is mandatory to have your trips organized through any one of the registered tour operators in Bhutan and no other missions or embassies will arrange your travel to Bhutan.
Visitors are advised to dress comfortably as Bhutan is generally a formal place. Shorts, skirts and revealing tight clothing are to be avoided.
The Bhutanese people wear their full traditional dress and formal wear to Dzongs and to temples. Visitors should wear long pants (even if jeans), shirts with full sleeves, and more formal skirts below the knees to these places. Slippers and sandals are discouraged. Sun caps are also not permitted inside Dzongs and temples.
Basic courtesy & etiquette
Bhutanese people have a distinct manner of greeting people, sometimes with a slight nodding of the head or bowing slightly if we meet older, senior people. Guests are encouraged to observe the local etiquette and not to talk too loudly when meeting Bhutanese. A nod of the head is also appreciated when meeting people, particularly in villagers and towns outside Thimphu. Intimacy in public is generally not appreciated.
The export of antiques is prohibited by law. Visitors should buy only artifacts that have been certified for sale and for export. The government provides an official seal to certify that artifacts can be taken out of Bhutan.
Bhutan is perhaps one of the most photogenic places in the world. The landscape, nature, architecture and the people make it a photographer’s paradise. People are generally happy to pose for pictures, but do ask before you do so if you are focusing on one person. Photography is not permitted inside Dzongs, monasteries and temples as they are considered living institutions.
You could use your video camera for recording your events during the tours (except in those restricted places mentioned) but there is a set of rules for the commercial filming.
It is advisable to bring your own photographic equipment and needs. Films and camera batteries are available generally only in major towns. Slide film is generally not available so bring plenty of slide rolls if you’re shooting slides.
Embassies in Bhutan
There are only two foreign embassies in Bhutan and a Thai Consulate:
India House, Thimphu
Thori Lam, Thimphu
P.O Box 1352
Lower Motithang, Thimphu
There is no US Embassy or Consulate in Bhutan and some contact is being maintained between the US and Bhutan through the US Embassy in New Delhi, India. Visitors may also obtain help from the US Embassies/Consulate in the places listed below:
The US Embassy
Shantipath, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110021
Lincoln House, 78 Bhulabhai Desai Road, Mumbai 400026
5/1 Ho Chi Minh Sarani, Calcutta 700071
Website: http://calcutta.usconsulate.gov/ http://calcutta.usconsulate.gov/
The US Consulate in is located at Gemini Circle, 220 Anna Salai, Chennai 600006
Telephone: 977-1-411179 or 410531