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Quick Facts
CapitalThimphu
Governmentmonarchy; special treaty relationship with India
CurrencyNgultrum (BTN); Indian Rupee (INR)
Areatotal: 47,000 sq km
water: 0 sq km
land: 47,000 sq km
Population 800,000 est.
LanguageDzongkha (official), Bhotes speak various Tibetan dialects, Nepalese speak various Nepalese dialects
ReligionVajrayana Buddhist 85%, Indian and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 15%

Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas between China and India.

Besides the stunning natural scenery, the enduring image to visitors of the country is the architecture. All buildings, whether large monasteries, private houses or even gas stations, must conform to traditional design. The nation is also a bastion of Vajrayana Buddhism, and the teachings of this tradition influence all aspects of life in the kingdom.

Regions

Administrative districts

20 districts (dzongkhag, singular and plural):

  • Bumthang, Chhuka, Dagana, Lhuentse, Mongar, Samdrup Jongkhar, Samtse, Sarpang, Thimphu - the capital city
  • Jakar - an administrative town in the north and the place where Buddhism entered Bhutan.
  • Mongar - one of the largest towns in east Bhutan.
  • Paro - the location of the international airport and Taktsang Monastery.
  • Phuentsholing - a town on the Indian border. The point of entry for travelers arriving by bus from Calcutta.
  • Samdrup Jongkhar - an administrative town in the southeast, near the Indian border.
  • Trashigang - a picturesque administrative town in the east.
  • Trongsa - a small administrative town famous for its dzong.

Other destinations

Sacred sites

  • Kurjey Lhakhang in Jakar is a temple built around a cave with a body print of Guru Rinpoche imbedded 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.
  • Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest) is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the country, and Guru Rinpoche visited here on his second visit to Bhutan. The temple is built on a 1,200 meter cliff in the Paro valley and is Bhutan's most well known sacred site.
  • Singye Dzong is a sacred valley in Lhuentse near the Tibetan border. The temple there was founded by Yeshi Tsogyal, and Guru Rinpoche visited the region on his second visit to Bhutan. However, partly due to the fact that the valley is located in a sensitive area near the border and also partly due to Bhutan wishing to preserve the sanctity of its sacred sites, the valley is not open for tourists.

Understand

In terms of average wage, Bhutan is rated as a poor country, but the land is fertile and the population small and so the people are well fed and beggars and homeless are non-existent. In addition, this generation all receive free education and all citizens have access to free medical care. The sale of tobacco products is totally banned (foreign tourists and NGOs are exempt, though it is illegal for them to sell tobacco to locals), and smoking in public areas is a fineable offence.

A very special aspect of Bhutan is that it has developed a unique set of indicators to measure its progress. Instead of the usual GNP statistics, Bhutan relies on a GNH scale to measure the country's ranking. GNH stands for 'Gross National Happiness', and figures are based on the amount of environmental protection work that has been accomplished, the efficiency of using the country's natural resources, the government's ability to meet the people's needs and the degree to which conditions for creating harmonious co-existence among its citizens are being followed. Having gained a master's degree in philosophy from Cambridge University in the UK and having traveled abroad extensively, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk realized that mere economic success did not necessarily translate into a content and happy society. Consequently, in 1998 the GNH indicator was established. As a result, Bhutan is a country that highly values environmental protection (the use of plastic bags are completely banned, for instance) and harmony among its citizens. In addition, it actively protects its rich culture and profound Buddhist traditions.

Still, while Bhutan is often painted as a modern-day Shangri-La in the Western press, the country remains poor, with average life expectancy around 63.5 and a 7.2% infant mortality rate. At present, the country remains an absolute monarchy, with no political opposition allowed. However, this is about to change with the introduction of a new constitution that will transform the kingdom into a parliamentary democracy in 2008, as well as legally protect the rights of the citizens to freedom of speech, choice of religion and the right to a free and independent media.


Around 125,000 ethnic Nepalese, known as the Lhotshampa, live in exile in Nepal and India after having their citizenship stripped in the early 1990s. This issue is still unresolved.

Culturally, Bhutan is roughly divided into East and West:

The Ngalungs (often called Drukpas) ethnic group inhabit the western part of the kingdom. Their ancestors are from Tibet, and they generally follow to the Drukpa Kargyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism - the royal family belong to this group - while the Sharchops ethnic group, often considered the original inhabitants of Bhutan, inhabit the eastern and central areas of the kingdom and are followers of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism. In addition, there are ethnic groups of Indian and Nepalese origin called Lhotshampas, living predominately in the southern areas, especially Samtse District, and other smaller groups such as those from Bumthang and Lhuentse. Each ethnic group has their own distinct language.

The official name for the country is Druk Yul - Thunder Dragon - but due to the harmonious nature of the society, it has acquired the additional nickname of Deki Druk - Peaceful Dragon.

History

The first humans probably arrived sometime after the 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 Rimpoche (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.

National Holidays

  • National Day - Ugyen Wangchuck became first hereditary king, December 17, 1907

Get In

Everybody except citizens of India must apply for a visa at least 30 days in advance. While the visa itself costs a reasonable US$20 for 14 days (extendable once), the visa will not be issued without paid bookings for a tour generally costing upwards of US$200 per day (which includes room, board, guide, and transport in Bhutan). Although the tours are organized by private companies, the cost is not negotiable as it is set by the government, but generally it is slightly cheaper in off-season and more expensive if you take the tour alone. The only other options for visiting the country are to receive an invitation by 'a citizen of some standing' or a volunteer organization. Once the tour or invitation has been accepted, visas will be issued either by immigration at Paro airport or in Phuentsholing - basically all the work for a visa application is completed within Bhutan. There is no need to visit a Bhutanese embassy or consulate. More detailed information can be found on the Bhutan government visa information web site: [1] (http://www.kingdomofbhutan.com/visitor/visitor_.html)

Bhutan only has four embassies and consulates.

  • India: Royal Bhutanese Embassy - Chandragupta Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110 021. Tel: 609217/ 609218, Fax:6876710
  • U.S.: Consulate General of Bhutan - 2 UN Plaza, 27th Floor, New York NY 10017. Tel:(212) 826-1919, Fax:(212) 826-2998.
  • Hong Kong: Honorary Consul of Bhutan - Unit B, 1/F, Kowloon Centre, 29-43 Ashley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. Tel:23762112.
  • Thailand: The Royal Bhutanese Embassy in Bangkok - Jewelry Trade Center Building, Rm. 1907, 19th Floor, 919/1 Silom Road, Bangkok 10500. Tel:2671722, 630119 - Fax:6301193.

By Plane

The country's only international airport is at Paro in the south west of the country, and is served only by the country's flag carrier Bangkok, Calcutta, Delhi, Kathmandu, and Yangon. Note that Druk Air will not issue tickets without a visa clearance number.

By Bus

  • From Calcutta: The Royal Bhutanese Government runs a service to Phuentsholing. These buses depart from Calcutta's Esplanade bus station at 7PM on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and from the Phuentsholing Bhutan Post office at 3PM on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The journey takes around 18 hours and costs 300Rps/Nu. The buses are comfortable, but because much of the highway to Calcutta is like the surface of the moon, don't bank on getting much sleep on the way.
  • There is frequent service between Siliguri and Phuentsholing.

By Train

  • The nearest station is at Siliguri in India.

Get Around

  • 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. These permits are issued by the immigration office in Thimphu (near the gate of Trashi Chhoe Dzong).
  • By Bus: The roads that cross the country are are characterised 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. Tourists usually prefer to travel by a 4 wheeler-offroad or mini bus, which can be reserved through a tour operator. However, traveling by local or inter-district bus allows the traveler to meet Bhutanese people first hand and get more of a 'feel' for really being in Bhutan.
  • Due to the mountainous terrain, roads are frequently blocked by rock falls during the summer monsoon 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 because if the landslide is substantial it could take some time to clear the road.
  • Hitchhiking - 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. Note, however, 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 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.

The highest motor road in the country takes you across Thrumshingla Pass at an altitude of 4000 meters above the sea level.

  • By Train: There is no railway service in the country.
  • Beautiful Bhutan email: beautifulbhutan@hotmail.com offer tours and trekking services in Bhutan

See

Permits are required to visit all monasteries, dzongs and sacred sites deemed of special significance. These permits are issued by the Cultural Affairs Office in Thimphu.

  • The stunning scenery. The Paro and Bumthang valleys are especially impressive.
  • 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.

Temples

  • Precariously perched on the edge of a 1,200 meter cliff, Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest) creates an impressive sight, and is the unofficial symbol of Bhutan. The monastery is located in the Paro valley in west Bhutan.
  • Kurjey Lhakhang is one of Bhutan's most sacred monasteries. A body print of Guru Rinpoche is preserved in a cave around which the oldest of the three buildings is built. The monastery is located near the town of Jakar in Bumthang District.

Do

  • Bhutan is a popular place for trekking. However, the walks here are quite tough. There are generally no places to stay or eat in the higher regions, and so all food and camping equipment must be carried in. The Fall and Spring are the best seasons for undertaking a trek. In the Summer, the paths are too muddy, while in Winter they are snow covered. However, despite the difficulties of the treks, all efforts and discomforts are more than compensated for by the stunning scenery and extremely friendly, gentle and hospitible people you will meet on the journey.

Talk

The official language of Bhutan is Dzonghka, which is related to Tibetan. Other Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken throughout the kingdom, and Nepali can be understood by most people in urban areas.

The suffix 'la' is an honorific, and many Bhutanese feel that their remarks sound to harsh if it is not used, and this carries over even into English. So, don't be surprised if you hear expressions such as "Yes-la" or "I'm not sure-la". It just implies respect for you.

See also: Dzonghka phrasebook

Buy

  • Bhutanese woven cloth is prized around the world. It is available stitched into clothing, or as wall hangings, table mats or rugs.
  • Dzi beads are available throughout the kingdom. These oblong, brown and cream colored beads, which are are unique to the Himalayas, used to be cheap until wealthy Taiwanese took a liking to them. Now they are an expensive and precious commodity, and there are many fakes.

Eat

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 with your mouth under the faucet!

Vegetarian dishes

  • Ema-datchi - ema means chili and datchi is cheese, so ema-datchi is a kind of spiced-up Welsh rarebit.
  • Kewa-datchi - a potato, cheese and chili dish.
  • Shamu-datchi - a mushroom, cheese and chili dish.

Kewa-datchi and shamu-datchi tend to be less hot that ema-datchi; all three dishes are served with rice.

  • Though not a Bhutanese dish, mutter-paneer is readily available throughout Bhutan and therefore is an additional choice for vegetarians.
  • Cheese momo - a small steamed bun containing cheese and possibly potato and onion.
  • Buckwheat cakes - small rounds of bread made from buckwheat - a kind of Bhutanese nan bread. These are a speciality of the Bumthang area.

Drink

Local spirit brewed form rice or corn called Ara is popular among village folk. Tea is also very popular in Bhutan and many people prefer butter tea (Suja) to milk tea.

Sleep

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Stay safe

  • Bhutan is a very safe country and crime of any sort is uncommon.

Stay healthy

  • Access to free (albeit rudementary) medical treatment is available throughout the country, even in the remotest areas. However, travelers should not expect hi-tech hospitals, and at many of the Basic Health Units, the resident doctor is often away.
  • All district capitals have an indigeneous medical facility, with the largest being in Thimphu, so it also possible to have ailments diagnosed and treated with natural herbal compounds during your stay.
  • The water at high altitude is pure, but in the towns and villages it may contain bacteria. Don't worry what the locals do (they have had a life-time to establish immunity to local contaminations), make sure your water is thoroughly boiled and, where possible, filtered.
  • In case of emergency, it is advisable to carry first aid material, which might include a few antibiotics and acetamenophin (paracetamol).
  • Some areas of Bhutan, especially in the north, are over 3,500m high, which is above the altitude where altitude sickness can strike. Be aware of this before embarking on expeditions in the mountains. If you suffer palpitations, shortness of breath or severe headaches, inform your guide and head to a lower altitude immediately. Take altitude sickness seriously. It can and does kill.
  • The hygiene standard is acceptable in tourist areas. However, it is probably wise to prepare medicine for stomach upsets.

Respect

  • The King and royal family are accorded much deserved respect in Bhutan. It is wise to bear this in mind when conversing with local people.
  • Always pass mani stones, stupas and other religious objects to the right, and turn prayer wheels in a clockwise direction.
  • Never sit on mani stones or stupas.
  • When visiting temples, remove shoes and hats, and wear clothing that expresses respect for the sacred nature of the site.
  • At monasteries, it is custom to make a small donation to the monks as a sign of respect; and also to the Buddhist statues as a means of developing a generous and spacious mind. However, this is not mandatory.
  • No Smoking at monastaries and public places. That was the general rule, and now it's the law.

Contact

  • The international dialing code for Bhutan is 975
  • Most centers of population have internet cafes, though they are relatively expensive.