Tourism in Bhutan was privatised by the Royal Government of Bhutan in 1991 which adheres strongly to a policy of low volume, high value tourism. 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. The number of tourists visiting Bhutan is regulated to a manageable level because of the lack of infrastructure.
The Royal Government of Bhutan recognizes that tourism is a world-wide phenomenon and an important means of achieving socioeconomic development particularly for developing countries like Bhutan. It also recognizes that tourism, in affording the opportunity to travel, can help in promoting understanding among peoples and building closer ties of friendship based on appreciation and respect for different cultures and lifestyles.
Towards achieving this objective, the Royal Government, since inception of tourism in the year 1974, has adopted a very cautious approach to growth and development of the tourism industry in Bhutan. Landlocked Bhutan is roughly the size of Switzerland. It is bounded on the north and northwest by Tibet, with India nudging its remaining borders. Virtually the entire country is mountainous, peaking at the 7554m (24,777ft). North to south it features three geographic regions; the high Himalayas of the north, the hills and valleys of the centre, and the foothills and plains of the south. Its great rivers helped sculpt its geography and their enormous potential for hydropower has helped shape the economy.
Thanks to centuries of isolationism, its small population and topographical extremes, Bhutan’s ecosystem is virtually intact, and boasts the most varied habitats and a rich array of animal and plant species. Under Bhutanese law, 60% of the kingdom will remain forested for all time. There is currently a remarkable 72% forest cover and an astonishing array of plants; more than 5500 species, including over 300 medicinal strains. There are 165 species of mammals, including many rare and endangered animals such as the golden langur, snow leopard and red panda. So far, 770 species of birds have been recorded, including the rare and endangered black-necked crane.
Just over a quarter of the kingdom is in protected areas, all of which encompass inhabited regions. A progressive integrated conservation and development program reconciles the needs of the community with environmental protection, the foundation of Bhutan’s entire economic ethos. National parks sustain important ecosystems and have not been developed as tourist attractions. In many cases you won’t even be aware that you are entering or leaving a protected area.
COUNTRY QUICK FACTS
Location: Southern Asia, between China and India.
Population: 2,485,569 note: other estimates range as low as 810,000 (July 2014 est.)
Religion: Lamaistic Buddhist 75%, Indian- and Nepalese-influenced Hinduism 25%
Currency: Ngultrum (NU)
100 Chetrum = 1 Ngultrum. The Ngultrum is fixed to the value of Indian rupee. Tourists are advised to carry their money in the form of traveler’s checks (preferably American Express) with some cash (US dollars would be best) which might be used for incidental purchases/expenses.
There are bank branches in all major towns. A few outlets in Thimphu accept payment by credit card, but with a surcharge added. Daily expenditure varies from person to person, but in general you should allow US$5-10 daily for laundry, drinks, phone calls overseas, small souvenirs, postcards and stamps.
Climate: The best time to visit is October and November and during major festivals. The climate is best in the Fall from late September to late November when skies are clear and the high mountain peaks are visible. You are likely to get wet no matter what the season, but you should avoid the monsoon period which is June-August when an average of 0.5m (1.5ft) of rain buckets down in Thimphu and up to 1m (3ft) saturates the eastern hills.
Average Temperature:- (in degree celsius)
(Source: Meteorology Unit, Department of Power, Ministry of Trade & Industries, Thimphu)
PUNAKHA / WANGDUE-PHODRANG
Electricity: 230-240 V, 50 cycles AC
Credit Cards: American Express, Visa and MasterCard are accepted in a few shops. Travellers Cheques are generally accepted.
Before the 16th century, numerous clans and noble families ruled in different valleys throughout Bhutan, quarrelling among themselves and with Tibet. This changed in 1616 with the arrival of Ngawang Namgyal, a monk of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism from Tibet. He taught throughout the region and soon established himself as the religious ruler of Bhutan with the title Shabdrung Rinpoche. He repelled attacks from rival lamas and Tibetan forces and transformed the southern valleys into a unified country called Druk Yul (Land of the Dragon). While the political system he established lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, the announcement of the Shabdrung’s death in 1705 was followed by 200 years of internal conflict and political infighting.
Instability lasted until 1907 when Ugyen Wangchuck was elected, by a unanimous vote of Bhutan’s chiefs and principal lamas, as hereditary ruler of Bhutan. Thus the first king was crowned and the Wangchuck dynasty began. Over the following four decades, he and his heir, King Jigme Wangchuck, brought the entire country under the monarchy’s direct control. Upon independence in 1947, India recognized Bhutan as a sovereign country.
The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, is regarded as the father of modern Bhutan because of the development plans he initiated. When China took control of Tibet, Bhutan’s policy of total isolation lost its appeal and the country was formally admitted to the United Nations in 1971. The present monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has continued the policy of controlled development with particular focus on the preservation of the environment and Bhutan’s unique culture. Among his ideals is economic self-reliance and what he nicknamed “Gross National Happiness”.
His coronation on 2 June 1974 was the first time the international media were allowed to enter the kingdom, and marked Bhutan’s debut appearance on the world stage. The first group of paying tourists arrived later that year.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Despite popular mythology, you don’t need special ‘pull’ to get a visa, neither is there a limit on the number of tourists allowed to visit. However, to minimize the perceived threat to Bhutan’s unique culture, the government has established a stringent set of rules, which means you must travel on a pre-arranged itinerary. all costs included. Apart from that, the process is relatively straightforward. All visa applications must be channelled through the Department of Tourism (DOT) from a selected tour operator such as Goway. With notification of approval, visas are issued when you arrive in the country. It is actually an extremely efficient system and you can set up a trip with as little as 2 weeks’ planning.
The largest and most colourful festivals (tsechus) take place at Bhutan’s dzongs and monasteries once a year in honour of Guru Rinpoche. They normally take place in spring and the fall. Tsechus consist of up to five days of spectacular pageantry, masked dances and religious allegorical plays that have remained unchanged for centuries. As well as being a vital living festival and an important medium of Buddhist teaching, tsechus are huge social gatherings. The Bhutanese revel and rejoice together, dressed in their finest clothes and jewellery, in an infectiously convivial atmosphere where humour and devotion go hand in hand. For visitors, the tsechu provides an ideal opportunity to appreciate the essence of the Bhutanese character. Pack as much film as you think you will need and then double it.
Spicy chilies mixed with a cheese sauce called emadatse are the national dish of Bhutan. Chilies are treated as a vegetable rather than a seasoning in the Bhutanese diet. A wide variety of fresh vegetables are a daily staple of the Bhutanese diet. Red and white rice are served at all meals. Meats, poultry and fish (usually in the form of stews) are also found on many Bhutanese menus along with Tibetan momos and noodle dishes. Bhutan’s professional chefs temper their natural tendency to over spice dishes by preparing food more suitable to western taste ranging from Continental to Chinese. Bhutanese, Tibetan and Indian cuisines are also available.
Mode of transportation within Bhutan is by motor vehicles only. There are no domestic airlines or trains. However the main roads are well maintained. The main two-lane highway runs from west to east connecting all the major towns and villages. The mountainous terrain and winding roads restrict the average speed of vehicles to less than 40 km.per hour. During monsoon and winter months, weather can disrupt travel and unexpected changes might occur in itineraries. Every effort will be made to stay as close to original travel itinerary as possible.
FLYING INTO BHUTAN:
Druk Air, the national airline and Bhutan Airlines – only private airlines are the only airlines that serve Bhutan so most visitors to Bhutan are introduced to the kingdom in its care. Flights enter from Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu, Mumbai, Singapore, Bangkok, Bagdogra and Guwahati. It is a flight that travellers will always remember. As the airplane rises towards the foothills of the Himalayas, the mountains rise to eye-level with the aircraft. On clear days from Kathmandu, the airplane flies past the summit of Everest.
WHAT TO WEAR:
Bhutan’s changeable climate means you have to bring an assortment of clothes including rain gear. A layered wardrobe makes the most sense. Good walking shoes or hiking boots are essential even if you are not hiking. Because of the altitude, a hat or cap and a good pair of sunglasses are essential. Warm clothes are recommended for the evening. Because of the long distances between towns and villages, bring the medicines you will need along with some first-aid supplies. A good flashlight (torch), water bottle and polarizing filter for your camera will also come in very handy.
No vaccinations are currently required for traveling to Bhutan. However, visitors coming from an area infected with yellow fever are required to have had a yellow fever vaccination at least 10 days before their arrival. Cholera vaccinations are strongly recommended for visitors coming from a cholera infected area. Anti-malarial medication is also recommended for all travelers who will be visiting rural areas of districts bordering India.
The photographic opportunities on all trips are immense. The natural scenery is superb, and you will also wish to record the local people, their houses and shops etc. Always ask by a gesture if it is ok to do so. Don’t take your destination as a living museum! Also, note that photography in shrine rooms of dzongs, monasteries and religious institutions is generally not permitted. Outdoor photography is usually permitted, but when visiting such places, please check with your guide before taking any photographs.
Hand-woven textiles, carved masks, woven baskets, wooden bowls, handmade paper products, finely crafted metal objects, thangkha paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps are the items mostly purchased by travelers in Bhutan. Thimphu has the most extensive range of textiles, but for yatha (hand-woven woolen textiles), the range is greatest in Bumthang. Thimphu’s gold and silversmiths make to order, with items ready in seven days.
The buying and selling of antiques is strictly forbidden. Be cautious when considering the purchase of old and used items, especially of religious or cultural significance, as such items may not be exported without a clearance certificate. Etho Metho’s advice should be sought before committing to such purchases. It is best to buy more expensive items at reputable shops which provide receipts as proof of purchase.
Hotel and restaurant bills include service charges amounting to 20%. There is no need to add anything further to this.
Thimphu, the capital, lies in a beautiful, wooded valley, sprawling up a hillside on the bank of the Thimphu Chhu (river). It is the only world capital without traffic lights. One set was installed several years ago, but residents complained that it was impersonal and it was removed within days.
Despite recent development, Thimphu retains its charm and is awash with brightly painted, elaborately decorated facades which give the town a captivating, medieval feeling. Thimphu is a cornucopia of Bhutanese culture, brimming with things to see and do. Dominating the horizon, on a hill just above the town, the imposing Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) was completely renovated in the 1960s to become the symbol of the capital. It now houses the offices of the king and the central monk body.
In the center, the most visible religious structure is the National Memorial Chorten containing numerous sacred religious paintings and tantric statues. For many, this is the focus of their daily worship and people circumambulate the chorten throughout the day. The Weekend Market, in the centre of Thimphu, is an ideal spot to experience an urban and rural blend as villagers jostle with well-heeled Thimphu residents for the best bargains. Nearby, the Changlimithang Stadium is the national archery ground, where you can see competitors participating in the kingdom’s national sport, complete with traditional garb, colourful behaviour and entertaining rituals. The National Institute of Traditional Medicine is an interesting facility that uses over 300 different plants to make medicines that are distributed throughout the kingdom.
When you fly to Bhutan, you usually land in Paro. Western Bhutan is the heartland of the Drukpa people and you will be confronted with the largest, oldest and most spectacular dzongs in the kingdom. You will immediately realize you are off the beaten track of world tourism.
The town of Paro lies in the centre of the rich, fertile Paro valley, with beautiful landscapes, scenic villages and historic buildings all within a few kilometres. Immerse yourself in Bhutanese culture in the National Museum close to the town center. The building itself was completed in 1656. In April 1998 a fire destroyed the main structure of Taktshang Monastery, perhaps Bhutan’s most photographed and famous site, perched on the side of a cliff 900m (2952ft) above the valley floor. It is also known as ‘tiger’s nest’ because Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to the site on the back of a tigress in the eighth century. It has been one of the kingdom’s most sacred sites ever since, and will be rebuilt in its original style once an auspicious date has been chosen.
Paro airport is 7 km (4 mi) from Paro town and 53 km (33 mi) from Thimphu.
Phobjika is a glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains and is a designated conservation area nudging the borders of the Black Mountains National Park. It is one of the most important wildlife preserves in the country because of the large flock of rare, endangered black-necked cranes that winter there. These birds have a special place in Bhutanese folklore, and one of the most popular folk songs laments the time when the cranes leave the valley to return to Tibet. You can learn more about the cranes at the Crane Observation and Education Centre and view their roosting place. It is an awesome spectacle at dusk when all the birds from the valley congregate for the night.
Permanent residents of the valley include muntjaks (barking deer), wild boars, sambars, Himalayan black bears, leopards and red foxes. WWF has assisted in setting up the Khebethang Nature Study Centre in Phobjikha village, near the foot of the valley.
Nearby, Black Mountains National Park is a vast area still in its natural state. It has an impressive array of plant species, and animals found there include tigers, Himalayan black bears, leopards, red pandas, gorals, serows, sambars, wild pigs and golden langurs.