Official Name: Kingdom of Bhutan
Population: 770,228, based on projections of the latest United Nations data
Languages: Dzongkha (official), Nepali, English and numerous regional languages
Main Religions: Himalayan Buddhism 75%, Hinduism 20%, and rest Christians
Time Zone: 6 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+6 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is not observed
Voltage Requirements: 220 Volts
Telephone Code: 975, country code
2. PREPARING TO GO
We arrange your visa for you and we must begin processing the visa request a minimum of 60 days prior to your arrival in Bhutan. You will need to fill out a visa application form and send it to us. When the visa request is approved, we will send you a visa authorisation letter that you must print out and present along with your passport on arrival in Paro. Then you will be issued with your visa.
Please note: You may also be required to present the visa authorisation letter when you board your Druk Air flight into Bhutan.
Visas are initially granted for stays of up to 14 days, but extensions are possible with an additional fee per person.
The money in the unit in Bhutan is the Ngultrum (Nu) which is divided into 100 chetrum. The Ngultrum is fixed to the Indian Rupee (1 Nu = 1 INR).
Approximate exchange rates (as of October 2017) are as follows:
1 Pound Sterling = 86 Nu
1 US Dollar = 66 Nu
1 Euro = 77 Nu
Check current exchange rates with this handy currency converter: www.xe.com/ucc
At present, there are no restrictions on the amount of foreign currency that a visitor may bring into Bhutan although large sums should be declared on arrival. Indian Rupees (INR) are widely accepted in Bhutan even though it is illegal to export them from India! (Note: Ngultrums are not accepted in India)
Financial institutions in Bhutan have been greatly enhanced and today we have a number of banks that cater to the needs of the people. Some of the banks that you can avail of services and facilities while in Bhutan are the Bank of Bhutan Limited, the Bhutan National Bank, the Druk PNB, and the Tashi Bank.
There are ATM facilities that you can avail and ATMS are located in a number of places where you can withdraw your money especially in Thimphu, Paro, and in the border town of Phuentsholing. There are bank branches in all major towns. A few hotels and shops in Thimphu accept payment by credit card, but with a surcharge added. Visas cards are more widely accepted than Mastercard or American Express. Traveler’s cheque can be easily withdrawn and exchanged into local currency. However, as you travel into the interior, ATM and Internet facilities are almost non-existent and we suggest that you do your banking facilities while in Thimphu. However, it is also recommended to make some cash while visiting Bhutan, as sometimes ATMs may become dysfunctional due to technical reasons. It happens very rarely.
Visitors are required to fill out a Customs Form upon arrival. The following articles are exempt from duty:
(a) Personal effects and articles for day to day use by the visitor (b) 1 liter of alcohol (spirits or wine) (c) 200 cigarettes, on payment of import duty of 200% (d) Instruments, apparatus or appliances for professional use (e) Photographic equipment, video cameras and other electronic goods for personal use. The articles mentioned under (d) & (e) must be declared on the declaration form. If any such items
are disposed of in Bhutan by sale or gift, they are liable for customs duty.
On departure, visitors are required to surrender their forms to the Customs authorities.
Import/export restrictions of the following goods are strictly prohibited: (a) Arms, ammunitions and explosives (b) All narcotics and drugs except medically prescribed drugs (c) Wildlife products, especially those of endangered species (d) Antiques, Imports of plants, soils, etc. are subject to quarantine regulations. Visitors are advised to be cautious in purchasing old and used items, especially of religious
or cultural significance; as such items may not be exported without a clearance certificate. Always ask your guide if you have any questions while shopping for certain antiques.
Changing Money, Credit Cards & ATM’s
You can change money and traveler’s cheques without too much trouble at counters at the airport, larger hotels (which often offer a faster service), and banks in major cities, e.g. Thimpu, Paro, and Phuentsholing.
Outside main towns changing money can be a very time-consuming business. We recommend that you take either US$ or GB£ currency and traveler’s cheques (in well-known brands such as American Express, Thomas Cook, Visa, etc), however, it is possible to exchange other major currencies (please note Scottish Pounds are not recognised outside of the UK).
ATM’s in Bhutan do not accept international cards. Credit cards are accepted at very few establishments. If you plan to make a major purchase (such as art or handicrafts), you may wish to consider bringing US Dollars cash (as most shops will accept this) to avoid changing large amounts into Ngultrums. Leftover Ngultrums can be exchanged back on the production of your original encashment receipt (although usually only into US dollars). You will not be able to exchange any Ngultrums outside of Bhutan. Your Tour Leader will be able to advise you of the most effective places to change money.
Working out your Budget
Here is some general information about the things you will need to consider when budgeting for your holiday.
In Bhutan, entrance fees are included for all sites listed as part of the itinerary.
Optional Excursions & Activities
All of our itineraries include some free time. If you wish to take optional excursions your tour leader will be able to advise you of the possibilities in each area.
You will find the meal plan for your tour clearly indicated on your Trip Dossier. Breakfast is provided every day (except day 1) and all other meals are included in Bhutan. (For a guide to the type of food you will find in Bhutan see the general information section of this dossier.)
Tea and coffee are always provided with breakfast on all our tours. All other drinks (i.e. bottled water, soft drinks) are at your own expense. Approximate costs for drinks bought in a shop in the street are shown below. Note: Prices in restaurants and hotels can be as much as double those specified. 1l of water US$0.30 30cl bottle of soft drink US$0.40 65cl bottle of beer US$0.60 It is not recommended that you drink the local tap water in Bhutan however bottled water (often imported from India!) carbonated soft drinks and fruit juices are widely available throughout the country.
Officially tipping is illegal in Bhutan. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, it is appropriate and appreciated. Your tour leader can collect and administer a tipping kitty. Traditionally gifts, such as textiles, are given when visiting a Bhutanese home. You may want to consider bringing duty free spirits or fancy long socks (very popular) from home in case you have the opportunity to visit someone’s home.
What to Bring
You will receive a more comprehensive gear discussion once you have booked your tour which contains a comprehensive list of items that you should consider bringing with you. There are also certain items of specific equipment (e.g. sleeping bags, down jackets) that you will need on some tours and not on others. So check with us once you have booked for these special items.
As a general guideline, clothing should be lightweight, loose-fitting, hard-wearing and easily washed. Even in the summer months Paro and Thimpu can be cool and in the winter the weather can be very cold (particularly in the mountains). Make sure you allow for climate changes and remember that even when day-time temperatures are quite high, night-time and early morning temperatures can be extremely cold. You will generally find it is better to have several thin layers rather than one thick layer as it gives you more flexibility and warmth. Fleece can be invaluable and double as a pillow.
You should also bear in mind that Bhutan as conservative attitudes towards dress – the country has a national dress code and people always look smart and neat so scruffiness (as well as revealing clothing) will look out of place. Women, and also to a certain extent men, will find that the way they dress will often determine the degree of respect they receive from both men and women and both sexes should avoid earing shorts in towns.
In certain areas and at religious sites (and particularly when visiting dzongs – see below) your Tour Leader may ask you to dress conservatively. Out of respect for local values, we ask that you follow your Tour Leader’s advice at all times.
Bhutanese National Dress
It is compulsory for all Bhutanese to wear the national dress in schools, government offices, and formal occasions. This distinctive clothing is characterised by the colorfully patterned Gho (long robe) for men and Kira (long dress) for women. Although a complicated ensemble, the Bhutanese are flattered by visitors who make an effort to wear their national dress and are more than willing to help you buy, and put on a Gho or Kira!
Dzongs (fort-monasteries) are found all over Bhutan and you will usually only be able to enter if you are correctly dressed. Bhutanese people must wear a full national dress, while the guidelines for visitors state that men should wear trousers and a shirt with a collar and women should wear a dress or smart trousers.
Luggage & Load Limits
Please note: Druk Air imposes a strict 20kg weight limit (with 5kg hand luggage) and excess baggage may not arrive when you do.
We tailor tours to the needs of each of our groups, so each tour will be different in terms of physical demand on your body. Generally, you don’t have to be super-it, and age in itself is no barrier to traveling the Himalayas! However, as with everything we do, the fitter you are the easier it is for your body to adapt to new conditions and being on the move. Before making your choice of trip, things to consider are the duration of your trip, it’s grading, style of accommodation, and maximum and average altitude.
3. CULTURE & ENVIRONMENT TIPS
While camping toilets are not available. Therefore we use toilet tents at campsites and dig deep holes for the outlet of these tents. However, if it is not possible to use a toilet tent (or there is nowhere to put your toilet paper) please burn your toilet paper – do not bury it. If it is not possible to burn it take it back to the camp where it can be placed in the rubbish bin and disposed of appropriately. Wherever you use a western or squat style toilet remember to place your toilet paper in the rubbish bin provided – DO NOT flush it down the toilet as this may block the sewerage system. You may also want to carry your own toilet paper as not all toilets will supply it.
Water supplies are drawn from local streams. Please do not wash yourself, your clothes, or cooking utensils directly in or near streams and watercourses. It is important that you use the bowls provided and wash your utensils at least 20 meters away from the water source. Please limit the use of soaps and detergents as much as possible and make sure that those you do use are biodegradable/eco-friendly.
While out in the country it is particularly important to take all rubbish and nonbiodegradable items with you. Try to leave campsites even cleaner than you found them!
Travelers should respect that religion is an inherent part of Bhutanese life. We encourage travelers to experience religious festivals and visit temples but ask that you follow religious rules such as removing your shoes and refraining from taking photographs at certain sites. At Buddhist temples, you should always move in a clockwise direction. Your Tour Leader will be on hand to advise you of local sensitivities.
Etiquette & Customs
Although staunchly traditional and devout in their religious beliefs the Bhutanese are relatively open and liberal people. Having said that there are a few simple rules of etiquette which are worth noting.
You should avoid pointing the soles of your feet at anyone – although this may seem unlikely you could inadvertently do this while laying down or sitting with your feet up. It is also important for Bhutanese people not to lose face so you should never react to a frustrating situation with anger – instead, be patient and smile!
Photographing mountain landscapes is one thing, photographing people quite another, especially if those people are foreign and poor. Don’t just stop, click the shutter and walk off, try and have some sort of personal contact with the person you wish to photograph and ask their permission first. Usually, Bhutanese people respond warmly to smiles and friendly attitudes. Please be tactful, unobtrusive, and respectful and sensitive to the feelings and dignity of the person being photographed. It may be possible for us to arrange for copies of the photos you take to be sent to villages with future tours, but it is better not to make false promises to do this as it will only disappoint and cause future resentment.
4. ON TOURS
Most people find that Bhutan is an incredibly friendly and hospitable country and feel quite comfortable wandering around alone during the day.
while on tour To help stay healthy during your tour you should ensure you drink plenty of water at all times; wear a hat to protect against the sun and when cold, wear a head covering. Always maintain personal hygiene and use disinfectant for your hands, especially after going to the toilet and before eating. Should you encounter any problems, please make sure you let your tour guide and/or Tour Leader know.
Altitude & Acclimatisation
There is no need to worry unduly about altitude, but above 3,000m air becomes thinner and your performance may be affected. No one understands why some people are affected and others not. Being young, strong, and fit is no guarantee of success. The only way to acclimatise is to ascend slowly. The average and maximum altitude reached on each of our tours can be found on your Trip Dossier. Be aware that altitude sickness can be fatal, so if your leader advises you to stay at a certain altitude or descend, please do as instructed. He/she has the experience and is there to ensure your safety.
It is worth remembering that relaxed attitudes to time and efficiency ensure that tours do not function like clockwork, so please don’t expect them to!
Tour Leaders & Guides
Your Tour Leaders role is to ensure all aspects of the trip run smoothly. He/she will share their local knowledge, advise on how to fill your free time, and coordinate the day to day running of the tour – although occasionally he/she may need your understanding if things do not go according to plan. In Bhutan, our tours are led by experienced and professional trained local guides/ leaders provided by Bhutan’s Department of Tourism. If you have any problems on the tour, please let your Tour Leader know so that steps can be taken to put it right.
In Bhutanese hotels hot water may not always be forthcoming (you may need to run the tap for some time) and rooms can be cold at night. Please bear in mind that all levels of hotels can sometimes suffer from minor problems and technical difficulties. At each hotel, your Tour Leader will try to organize the rooming arrangements to suit everyone’s requirements. If you are traveling alone you will be allocated a room with another group member of the same sex (unless you have paid a single supplement*). If you are traveling as a couple please note that we cannot guarantee the availability of double beds.
A laundry service is available in most of the hotels we use although outside Thimpu they may not have dryers so the speed of service will depend on the sunshine!
Local Food & Drink
Bhutanese food is spicy and varied and has strong Tibetan and Indian influences. Most meals are served buffet style and consist of several dishes. Traditional Bhutanese food always features chilies, and one dish called emadatsi, actually uses hot green chilies as the vegetable rather than seasoning!
Other popular dishes (with chilies) are phak sha laphu, stewed pork with radish, no sha huentseu, stewed beef with spinach, and bja sha maroo, chicken in garlic and butter sauce. You will find that most of your meals revolve around chicken, pork, and cheese or vegetables and are accompanied by rice – either white or the locally produced Bhutanese red variety, which has a nutty taste. Tibetan dishes including momos, which are steamed dumplings with a vegetable or meat filling and thukpa, a noodle soup are also common in Bhutan. In Bumthang, buckwheat pancakes and noodles replace rice as the favorite staple.
Most of the restaurants in Bhutan are situated in hotels, and the cost of all meals is normally included in your travel package. The hotel restaurants offer Bhutanese cuisine, as well as Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and some other international food. Locally cooked traditional Bhutanese food is served during treks.
Bhutan’s national specialties include:
- Meals are often buffet-style and mostly vegetarian.
- Cheese is a very popular ingredient in dishes and the most popular cheeses are dates (cow’s milk cheese), often served in a dish with fresh chillies (emadatsi).
- Another favorite is mushroom and chilli with cheese.
- Rice is ubiquitous, sometimes flavored with saffron. Look out for the excellent Red Rice!
- The country is replete with apple orchards, rice paddies, and asparagus, which grows freely in the countryside.
- There are also over 400 varieties of mushrooms.
- Fat brown and rainbow trout swim amid the glacial waters of the Pa Chu River, but these will not be caught by Bhutanese Buddhists. However, recent restrictions on meat-eating have lapsed ever so slightly. Meat and fish are now imported from nearby India, and Nepali Hindus living in Bhutan are licensed to slaughter animals.
- In Bhutan, there is a good variety of vegetarian food available even if much of it is made with chillies! Unusual ingredients such as nettles, ferns, and orchids may also appear in traditional Bhutanese vegetarian dishes.
- The most popular drink is sud-ja (tea served with salt and butter).
- Other drinks include buttered and sweet teas and delicious fruit juices.
- Bottled water and soft drinks – Pepsi cola, lemonade, and orangeade – can be found almost anywhere, as can fruit juices of which apple deserves special mention.
- Many alcoholic drinks like beer, rum and whisky are imported from India and relatively cheap.
- Bhutan’s alcoholic drinks include chang (brewed from fermented cereals) and arra, which is stronger and distilled from either rice, barley, or wheat. Locally produced beer and whiskey can also be found in some places.
If you have food allergies or preferences, please make them known to us before going abroad and your Tour Leader upon arrival we will do our best to ensure that your requirements are met.
Please note: Unfortunately we can give no guarantee that special requirements can always be met.
Internet cafes can now be found in larger towns. The average cost for an hour is approx. US$7 in a hotel and US$4 in an Internet cafe.
The Bhutanese phone system is fairly good. There are many public call offices (PCOs) throughout the country and some offer ISD calls overseas. Most hotels can also arrange international calls. A3 minute call (to the UK) will cost approx. US$12 from a hotel and approx. US$6 from a PCO.
The postal service is fairly good and stamps are available from hotels and post offices. An overseas stamp will cost approx. US$0.40.
Availability of Film
Camera film can be found in Bhutan but there is limited choice. Therefore we recommend you bring your supply from home.
You will probably find the best way to get around Bhutan’s cities and towns are to walk. Even in Thimpu, almost everything is within walking distance. For greater distances, or when your legs get tired, taxis are the best way of getting around.
In Bhutan, taxi meters are for show only so it is a good idea to find out, from your Tour Leader or the hotel receptionist, approximately how much the fare should be for the journey you propose (a local journey within Thimpu should cost approx. US$11.50) however you will almost certainly have to accept that you will pay more than the Bhutanese do.
Great things to shop for include colorful masks, hand-woven bamboo items, wood carvings, stamps (great collector’s items), silver, silk and bronzes. Handmade paper products, Buddhist paintings and religious thangkas are also popular items. It’s best not to purchase antiques as they will not be allowed out of the country. One of the local specialties is, of course, the traditional clothing; Kira for women and Gho for men.
Markets are held regularly, generally on Saturday and Sunday, and are a rich source of local clothing and jewelry, as well as foodstuffs.
The handicraft emporium on the main street in Thimphu is open daily except for Sunday and offers a magnificent assortment of hand-woven and handcrafted goods. Silversmiths and goldsmiths in the Thimphu Valley are able to make handcrafted articles to order.
Shopping is otherwise limited and bargaining is not customary.
Shopping Hours: Monday to Sunday 8 am to 8 pm for most shops.
5. GENERAL INFORMATION
Your spectacular flight into Bhutan is a great introduction to this beautiful Buddhist Kingdom, also known as Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. You have breathtaking views of many Himalayan peaks, including the sacred Jhomolhari and Mt Jichu Drake in Bhutan and Mt Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, on the Sikkim-Nepal border.
After such a stunning welcome, your visit to Bhutan allows you to explore a truly unique culture, see the stunning traditional architecture, clothing and crafts, the famously spicy food and of course to learn about Bhutan’s incredibly rich Buddhist heritage! All of this, set in the beautiful Bhutanese landscape with its high mountains, lush forests, and picturesque terraced fields.
Geography of Bhutan
The Kingdom of Bhutan lies towards the eastern extreme of the Himalayan Range, between the Tibet Autonomous Region to the north and India to the south, southwest and east. Other neighbors include Nepal to the west, Bangladesh to the south, both separated by small stretches of Indian territory. Bhutan is a very compact, landlocked nation, with just a small bit more length than width and size of approximately 46,500 square kilometers. The Himalayas dominate the north of the country, where many mountain peaks reach seven thousand meters. Further south, the highlands are the most populous part of the nation, with the capital of Thimphu lying in the western highlands. This region is characterized by its many rivers, the isolated river valleys that house most of the population, and the expansive forests that cover seventy percent of the nation. The extreme southern strip of the nation consists mostly of tropical plains, more typical of India. It is largely agricultural land, producing mostly rice. Only two percent of Bhutan is arable land, with most of it found in this southern strip.
Bhutan has five distinct seasons: summer, monsoon, autumn, winter, and spring. Bhutan’s generally dry spring starts in early March and lasts until mid-April.
Summer weather commences in mid-April with occasional showers and continues through the premonsoon rains of late June. The summer monsoon lasts from late June through late September with heavy rains from the southwest. Autumn, from late September or early October to late November, follows the rainy season. It is characterized by bright, sunny days and some early snowfalls at higher elevations. From mid-November until mid-March, winter sets in, with dry weather and frosts throughout much of the country and snowfall common above elevations of 3,000 meters. The winter northeast monsoon brings gale-force winds down through high mountain passes, giving Bhutan its name – Drukyul, which in the Dzongkha language means Land of the Thunder Dragon.
The seasons can be broken down as follows:
Autumn: September to November – warm days and cool nights – max 74oF vs. min 35.oF – (especially
cold at high camps) with the chance of rain – camping trek season.
Winter: December to February – crisp sunny days great for mountain views and cold dry nights – max
68oF vs. min 24.8oF – snow may fall but won’t settle for long in Western and Central valleys.
Spring: March to May – warm days and cold nights – max 75.2oF vs. min 35.6oF – (especially at high camps) – camping trek season.
Summer: June to August – warm days and balmy nights with rain most afternoons – max 78.8o F vs.
min 57.2o F.
The climate in Bhutan varies with altitude, from subtropical to a polar-type climate! The southern part of Bhutan is tropical, and in general, the east of Bhutan is warmer than the west of the country. The central valley of Punakha, Wangduephodrang, Mongar, Trashigang, and Lhuntse enjoy a semi-tropical climate with very cool winters, while Thimphu, Trongsa, and Bumthang have a much harsher climate, with heavy monsoon rains in the summer and heavy snowfall in winter.
Religions of Bhutan
About three-quarters of Bhutanese practice Buddhism and about one quarter practice Hinduism, although there are still a few priests and followers of the ancient Bon religion and there are a small number of Christians.
While the law provides for religious freedom, the Drukpa sect of the Kagyupa School, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, is the state religion, and the law prohibits religious conversions. This sect incorporates both the ideology of the classical Buddhist scriptures and the indigenous pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs called Bon.
The Nyingmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism is also practiced, although primarily in the eastern regions. Among Hindus, the Shaivite, Vaishnavite, Shakta, Ghanapath, Paurinic, and Vedic schools are all represented.
Festivals of Bhutan
Religious festivals are important events throughout the Buddhist world. Festivals commemorate the deeds of Buddha or those of the great masters of the past associated with one Buddhist tradition or another. The main Buddhist traditions in Bhutan are Drukpa, a subsect of the Kagyupa School of Tibetan Buddhism, and the Nyingmapa School which is mostly practiced in the east of Bhutan.
Tshechus are festivals celebrated with great fanfare in each district on an annual basis. These religious festivals are held by most Dzongs and monasteries and pay homage to Guru Rinpoche, who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. The Tshechus feature dances (most of which are performed by monks) which bring blessings on the onlookers as well as instructing them about Buddhism. They usually take place on or around the 10th day of the month according to the lunar calendar and the normal duration for a Tshechu is three days. Tourists are welcomed to Tshechus under the provision that they act in a respectful manner….
Tshechu festivals provide the people of remote communities with a wonderful occasion to dress up, gather together and have fun. It is also an occasion to renew their faith and receive blessings by watching the sacred dances or receiving ‘empowerment’ from a lama or Buddhist monk. The dances, each aspect of which has a symbolic meaning, are performed by trained monks and laymen wearing ornate costumes, and, in many cases, impressive masks. At Paro, Wangdu, Mongar, and Tashigang, among other places, a large ‘thanka’ scroll known as a Tongdrol is exhibited for a few hours, at daybreak of the final day of the festival, enabling the people to obtain its blessing, since such scrolls ‘confer liberation by the mere sight of it’ (tongdrol in Bhutanese).
Please note that the dates of the festivals change from year to year because they are based on the lunar calendar, which changes against the Gregorian Calendar every year.
Festivals are religious ceremonies and are held on consecrated ground, therefore it is important that respectful conduct is adhered to during these festivals. Please be mindful that the dancers are in a state of meditation; they are assuming the personas of the deities that they are representing. The Tshechu dances bless the people present and also instruct them in Buddhist dharma.
Things to be mindful of are that the dance ground is not a place to drink or smoke, talk too loudly or laugh loudly at inappropriate times. While photography is permitted care should be taken not to intrude upon the dance space as well as to respect the local sentiment. Don’t be scared of doing everything wrong, just practice common courtesy when attending the festival and in particular when photographing the dancers or onlookers.
Please remember that Bhutan’s festivals are not entertainment held as tourist attractions, but are practiced as part of an ancient religious tradition. At present outsiders are allowed to attend, however, disrespectful behavior has in the past lead to dismay from the local population as well as criticism. In order to maintain the policy of tourists being allowed to visit Bhutan’s festivals, everyone must be mindful of practicing common courtesy and that this is a privilege that can be removed if local people are offended.
Festivals are one occasion where all Bhutanese will dress in their finest clothes! So, of course, the dress code for visitors should also be formal. Full sleeved shirts and long trousers should be worn by men, with women wearing the same or full-length dresses (with long sleeves). For men, ties are not necessary and the jackets are optional. Inside Dzongs and monasteries, hats are not permitted as a rule. Shorts / half pants and sleeveless shirts are not permitted while entering an official premise or any attraction with cultural significance.
Approximate festival dates:
Early March -Punakha Dromche & Tsechu (Punakha)
Mid-March – Chorten Kora (Trashiyangtse)
Early April – Gomkora (Trashigang)
Early April – Chhukha Tsechu (Chhukha)
Early April – Paro Tsechu (Paro)
Early May – Ura Yakchoe (Bumthang)
Late June/early July – Nimalung Tsechu (Bumthang)
Early July – Kurjey Tsechu (Bumthang)
Late September – Wangdue Tsechu (WangduePhodrang)
Late September – Tamshingphala Choepa (Bumthang)
Late September – Thimphu Drupchen (Thimphu)
Late September – Thimphu Tsechu (Thimphu)
Early October – Tangbi Mani (Bumthang)
Early November – Jambay Lhakhang Drup (Bumthang)
Early November – Prakhar Duchhoed (Bumthang)
Late November – Mongar Tsechu (Mongar)
Late November – Trashigang Tsechu (Trashigang)
Late December – Trongsa Tsechu (Trongsa) Lhuntse Tsechu (Lhuntse) Late December
2 June – Coronation Day 1
1 November – King’s Birthday
17 December – Bhutan National Day
A Brief History of Bhutan
Stone tools, weapons, elephants, and remnants of large stone structures provide evidence that Bhutan was inhabited as early as 2000 BC, although there are no existing records from that time. Historians have theorised that the state of Lhomon (literally, “southern darkness”, a reference to the indigenous Mon religion), or Monyul (”Dark Land”, a reference to the Monpa, the aboriginal peoples of Bhutan) may have existed between 500 BC and AD 600. The names Lhomon Tsendenjong (Sandalwood Country), and Lhomon Khashi, or Southern Mon (country of four approaches), have been found in ancient Bhutanese and Tibetan chronicles.
The earliest transcribed event in Bhutan was the passage of the Buddhist saint Padma Sambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche) in 747. Bhutan’s early history is unclear, because most of the records were destroyed after fire ravaged the ancient capital, Punakha, in 1827. By the 10th century, Bhutan’s political development was heavily influenced by its religious history. Various sub-sects of Buddhism emerged which were patronised by the various Mongol warlords. After the decline of the Mongols in the 14th century, these sub-sects vied with each other for supremacy in the political and religious landscape, eventually leading to the ascendancy of the Drukpa sub-sect by the 16th century.
Until the early 17th century, Bhutan existed as a patchwork of minor warring fiefdoms, when the area was unified by the Tibetan lama and military leader Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who fled religious persecution in Tibet. To defend the country against intermittent Tibetan forays, Namgyal built a network of impregnable dzong (fortresses), and promulgated a code of law that helped to bring local lords under centralised control. Many such dzong still exist and are active centres of religion and district administration.
Circa 1627, Portuguese Jesuit Estêvão Cacella and another priest were the first recorded Europeans to visit Bhutan on their way to Tibet. They met with Ngawang Namgyal, presented him with firearms, gunpowder and a telescope, and offered him their services in the war against Tibet, but the Shabdrung declined the offer. After a stay of nearly eight months, Cacella wrote a long letter from the Chagri Monastery reporting the travel. This is a rare report of the Shabdrung.
After Namgyal’s death in 1651, Bhutan fell into a civil war. Taking advantage of the chaos, the Tibetans attacked Bhutan in 1710, and again in 1730 with the help of the Mongols. Both assaults were successfully thwarted, and an armistice was signed in 1759.
In the 18th century, the Bhutanese invaded and occupied the kingdom of Cooch Behar to the south. In 1772, Cooch Behar appealed to the British East India Company which assisted them in ousting the Bhutanese, and later in attacking Bhutan itself in 1774. A peace treaty was signed in which Bhutan agreed to retreat to its pre-1730 borders. However, the peace was tenuous, and border skirmishes with the British were to continue for the next 100 years. The skirmishes eventually led to the Duar War (1864–1865), a confrontation for control of the Bengal Duars. After Bhutan lost the war, the Treaty of Sinchula was signed between British India and Bhutan. As part of the war reparations, the Duars were ceded to the United Kingdom in exchange for a rent of Rs. 50,000. The treaty ended all hostilities between British India and Bhutan.
During the 1870s, power struggles between the rival valleys of Paro and Trongsa led to civil war in Bhutan, eventually leading to the ascendancy of Ugyen Wangchuck, the penlop (governor) of Trongsa. From his power base in central Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck defeated his political enemies and united the country following several civil wars and rebellions in the period 1882–1885.
In 1907, an epochal year for the country, Ugyen Wangchuck was unanimously chosen as the hereditary king of the country by an assembly of leading Buddhist monks, government officials, and heads of important families. The British government promptly recognised the new monarchy, and in 1910 Bhutan signed a treaty which “let” Great Britain “guide” Bhutan’s foreign affairs. In reality, this did not mean much given Bhutan’s historical reticence. It also did not seem to apply to Bhutan’s traditional relations with Tibet. The greatest impact of this treaty seems to be the perception that it meant Bhutan was not totally sovereign.
After India gained independence from the United Kingdom on 15 August 1947, Bhutan became one of the first countries to recognise India’s independence. A treaty similar to the one of 1910 was signed on 8 August 1949 with the newly independent India.
In 1953, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck established the country’s legislature – a 130-member National Assembly – to promote a more democratic form of governance. In 1965, he set up a Royal Advisory Council, and in 1968 he formed a Cabinet. In 1971, Bhutan was admitted to the United Nations, having held observer status for three years.
In July 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended to the throne at the age of 16 after the death of his father, Dorji Wangchuck. He emphasized modern education, decentralization of governance, the development of hydroelectricity and tourism, and improvements in rural developments. He was perhaps best known internationally for his overarching development philosophy of “Gross National Happiness.” It recognizes that there are many dimensions to development and that economic goals alone are not sufficient.
Satisfied with Bhutan’s transitioning democratization process, he abdicated in December 2006 rather than wait until the promulgation of the new constitution in 2008. His son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, became King upon his abdication and Bhutan held its first democratic elections in March 2008.
6. USEFUL PHRASES IN DZONGKHA
Many public signs, books and menus throughout Bhutan are in English and you should have little difficulty being understood in most circumstances, however it will always be appreciated if you learn a few words of Dzongkha. Dzongkha is a Tibetan dialect and many sounds can only be approximated in English. However vowels and most consonants are pronounced as in English.
The “h” in the combinations: dh, gh, kh, ph & th is aspirated, i.e. merely a puff of air after the initial consonant. If you find this difficult just pronounce the initial letter. Ch and sh are not aspirated, but pronounced as in as in church and ship respectively.
Hello – Kuzo zangpo la
Goodbye – legzhembe joen (person leaving); legzhembe zhug (person staying)
How are you? – chhoe gadebe yoe?
I’m fine – nga leshom bera yoe
Thank you – kadinchhey
Yes – ing, yoe
No – me
How much is it? (price) – dilu gadechi mo?
Tea – Ja
Water – Chhu
1000 chigton/tongthra chi
7. FURTHER READING ABOUT BHUTAN
Try these books to learn more about Bhutan:
‘Beyond the Earth and Sky: A Journey into Bhutan’ by Jamie Zeppa a Canadian teacher working in Bhutan. We read about her transition as she grows to understand that Bhutan is more than the Shangri-la she came to experience and begins to appreciate the complexities and realities of life in Bhutan.
‘Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon’ by John Berthold is a unique photographic portrayal of the country by region and cultural group. Something to treasure when you come home and something to awaken your senses to the trip before you go.
‘Buttertea at Sunrise: a year in the Bhutan Himalaya’ by Britta Das, a physiotherapist who writes well and honestly about a year working at a small hospital in remote Eastern Bhutan. Great for an understanding of more than just the romantic aspects of this Buddhist Kingdom.
‘So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas’ by Barbara Crossette is a very readable book about Buddhism in the Himalayas. It focuses largely on Bhutan because it’s the last remaining Buddhist monarchy of the Himalayan region. Although it is unashamedly biased in favour of the Bhutanese monarchy, despite their dubious record of human rights violations toward the Hindu minority, this book is a great introduction to the context of religion in Bhutanese life.
‘Birds of Bhutan: Field Guide’ by Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, Richard Grimmett. Bhutan has immense natural diversity and the birdlike is just one part of this. This
And of course the ‘Lonely Planet Bhutan Country Guide’ is a good collection of information and things to know and learn about to appreciate your trip to Bhutan.
Our Tours in Bhutan
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Pikey Peak hiking and Nargakot Mountain biking were such unforgettable experiences. Stunning scenery and beautiful people. Thanks again guys 5 stars straight up
Highly recommended! Hiked to BC, followed by an epic 3-High-Passes trek. This was the third time I travelled with the Himalayan Trails team. Mads, the backoffice team, guides (Tendu) and porters always go above and beyond to make this it memorable experience! This time - despite adverse weather conditions - (we've lost 4 days at the beginning of the trip) they somehow managed to get us to the end without missing out on anything. I will be back, for sure!
We travelled on an itinerary organised by Mads, Raj and Co in Nov/Dec 19. Our brief was a short trek and lots of culture. And culture we got! Our pickup was from Chitwan , and stayed a night in Bandipur. This was our introduction to the wonderful "hobbit houses" of Nepal, with its amazing woodwork. Then to a trek spread over 4 days , walking village to village, enjoying the terrace of a thousand of agriculture and the hospitality of locals. Then Lumbini, visiting Buddha's birthplace, Bandia to see hippos and tiger, and then to the personalised tour of the world heritage sites of the Kathmandu valley.
Every facet of the trip worked seamlessly, with drivers always ready, the guides expert, and the sites amazing. The standard of accommodation was always comfortable. In Kathmandu, the fabulous Hotel Manuslu, and a jazz club located around the corner. The hot shower at Sikles village, and the bottle of Gurka, after a 1600m ascent, was so welcome.
I recommend these guys to all.
And we are going back, ready for a trek through the flowering rhododendron forests and into the alpine areas