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Bhutan guide

Overview

Bhutan is a landlocked nation which borders Tibet and North-Eastern India. Bhutan is a Buddhist state, with a unique philosophy based on the principles of Gross National Happiness. The Royal Family, established in 1907 and now a constitutional monarchy, has proven to provide popular dynamic and charismatic leaders, in conjunction with a spiritual co-leader. National dress is worn extensively, and always in public buildings: for men the Gho, and for women the Kira.

Throughout the country are the remarkable and stunning Dzongs which are perhaps the defining signature of Bhutan. Dating back as far as the mid seventeenth century, they were built as fortresses and religious centres and today house monasteries and government offices.

Bhutan is famed for its unique philosophy of Gross National Happiness. It defines social, economic and environmental development policy, emphasising good governance, and is the ultimate goal of progress.

Brief History

The ancient written history of Bhutan has largely been lost due to earthquakes and fires, indeed much of the history today is passed on verbally, with a lesser dependence on written texts. In 746 AD Guru Rinpoche arrived in Bhutan from Tibet and is considered one of the founding fathers of the nation. He is said to have banished evil spirits and unified Buddhists. Later as Buddhists were persecuted, particularly in Tibet, more came to Bhutan, where the faith developed and grew. In 1616 the first Zhabdrung (spiritual leader) arrived, bringing charismatic leadership to become an important political and spiritual figure. He became Zhabdrung Rinpoche, and directed the building of the first Dzongs. The Zhadbrung also worked hard to establish a national identity and he devised many of the cultural songs, dances, customs and indeed infrastructure still in use today. The Zhabdrungs co-lead Bhutan to this day on spiritual matters.

In 1907 the first king was crowned, a man pivotal in defence and political mediation. Throughout the twentieth century, under a succession of Royal leadership, Bhutan evolved with stability; developing infrastructure, economy, international relations, and most recently in 2008, democracy.

Despite this modernisation, Bhutan retains a rich diversity of peoples and a fascinating collective cultural heritage. Restriction to tourism perhaps protects this resource from dilution.

Highlights

When to go

Visits to Bhutan are possible all year round. The most popular times are generally from October to November and from February to April, when the weather is at its best and mountain views clearest. December to January is also a good time, though it will be cooler and there will be some rain showers. Bhutan has a considerably higher rainfall than Nepal, though this is concentrated during the monsoon months of June to September when there can be extremely heavy and prolonged rain. Trekking during these months is hard work and many routes are not possible.

A major consideration when choosing when to visit Bhutan is whether you want to fit your tour around one of the major festivals, or ‘Tsechus’. Dates for these are set by the Bhutanese lunar calendar, and can be found in our Bhutan Holidays & festivals.

If you are combining your tour to Bhutan with time in India, Nepal or Thailand, then it is worth considering when the best time to visit these countries as well is.

Geography

The Bhutan countryside is not designed for speed! The highest point in the country is the sacred Jhomolhari at 7314m (Bhutan's previously highest peak Kulha Gangri has recently been lost to China with a significant change to the Tibetan border). The lowlands dip to not much over 100m above sea-level. In between are hills and valleys of every shape and size, with forests and agricultural land providing coverage. Crops are grown in fields and on terraces high in the hills and include rice, fruit, especially apple, vegetables and grain. Bhutan's extensive forests are very mixed, with lots of rhododendron, blue pine, oak and magnolia birch. Rivers run down through the country from Himalayan Glaciers south into India and provide substantial hydro-electric power. The export of this power constitutes Bhutan's largest economic contribution. The rivers swell by up to 6 metres during monsoon season, and floods are an infrequent but potentially devastating problem.

Weather & climate

The climate of Bhutan reflects the diversity in the landscape: from the high peaks of the inhospitable Himalayas in the north, which border Tibet, to the hot jungle lowlands of the south, bordering with India. It is important in planning your trip to consider temperatures and appropriate clothing. Temperatures may vary considerably between locations and times of day throughout your trip. The monsoon season runs from June to September and there are very extensive rains during this period, though you may also get rain showers at any other time of year.

Click for Thimphu, Bhutan Forecast
Thimphu
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Rain (mm)
25
25
25
51
51
76
355
304
127
76
25
5
Sun (hrs)
6
6
8
6
5
2
2
3
5
10
10
9
Temp (Max)
15
16
18
21
23
24
25
25
24
21
18
16
Temp (Min)
-3
-2
3
7
11
15
16
15
14
8
2
-2
Days of Rain*
1
0
1
4
17
23
29
28
21
7
0
0
Hum (%)
50
58
62
66
69
76
81
82
79
68
57
47
* denotes number of days with at least 1.0 mm of rainfall

Currency

Ngultrum (Nu)

1 US$ = 55 Nu (June 2012)
1 UK£ = 85 Nu (June 2012)

Common notes

  • 1 Nu
  • 5 Nu
  • 10 Nu
  • 20 Nu
  • 50 Nu
  • 100 Nu
  • 500 Nu

NB: It can sometimes be difficult to change larger notes in small villages so try to keep some smaller denominations with you.

Bhutan’s unique approach to tourism means that you will need little local currency while in the country. Every traveller to Bhutan must pay a set daily amount for every day spent in the country although this will normally be arranged through your tour company. This daily amount covers all your meals, hotel accommodation and tour costs incurred. Items that are paid for locally include alcoholic and soft drinks, souvenirs and certain personal expenses like tips and laundry.

Bhutan’s local currency is the Ngultrum (Nu) and its value is fixed to that of the Indian rupee which is also legal tender and roughly equates to the same value, ie 50 Nu is approximately US$1. Don’t expect to be able to use US$ or Euros as only hotels with special licences are able to accept these payments. Please also bear in mind that any ATM’s you may come across are only available to locals and not tourists. You can change travellers cheques in banks and also use them in certain hotels. If you do need to change currency while in the country, it’s worth noting that banks offer better exchange rates for higher denominations (US$50 or more). Banks tend to be open from Monday to Fridays with a half-day on Saturday but closed on Sundays. You may find that some larger establishments take credit cards but it is always best to have an alternate option. No black market for currency exists in Bhutan.

Holidays & Festivals

There are many festivals in Bhutan, spanning both the country and the calendar. Non-religious festivals include New Year, National Day, and the King’s birthday.

Most famous perhaps are the Tshechus (religious dance festivals) which are held on an annual basis in many towns and regions of the country. Smaller local festivals pepper villages and are important social events believed to bestow blessings on those who attend and participate. Tshechus take place in Dzong courtyards and Chortens and feature traditional mask dances commemorating historical religious figures and the destruction of evil spirits. The festivals can last up to four days, and trips visiting the Tshechus in Paro, Thimphu and Punakha in particular need booking well in advance as accommodation books up very early. Please dress modestly and behave discreetly, especially with photography: these are very significant events for the Bhutanese and while tourists are welcomed, you should be respectful.

Some dates vary from year to year as they are based on the lunar calendar and other determinations.

Fifth King's Birth Anniversary-21st-23rd February
New Year (losar)-25th-26th February (varies)
Third King's Birth Anniversary-2nd May
Shabdrung Kuchoe (passing of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal)-4th May
Buddha Parnivarna-7th June (varies)
Guru Rinpoche Birth Anniversary-2nd July (varies)
Independence Day-8th August
Coronation of the Fifth King-1st November
Descending day of Lord Buddha-9th November (varies)
Fourth King's Birth Anniversary-11th November
National Day (commemorating coronation of the First King in 1907)-17th December

Festivals for 2012

Punakha DrubchenPunakha27th Feb-2nd March
Punakha TshechuPunakha3rd-5th March
Chorten KoraTrashiyangtse8th & 22nd March
Bulli Mani (Chhumey)Bumthang9th-11th March
Tangsibi Mani (Ura)Ura, Bumthang9th-11th March
Gomkora

Trashigang

31st March-2nd April

Paro TshechuParo2nd-6th April
Nimalung TshechuBumthang27th-29th June
Kurjey TshechuBumthang29th June
Thimphu DrubchenThimphu20th-24th September
Wangdi TshechuWangdue Phodrang23rd-25th September
Tamshingphala ChoepaBumthang24th-26th September
Thimphu TshechuThimphu25th-27th September
Tangbi ManiBumthang29th Sep-1st Oct
Jambay Lhakhang DrupBumthang29th Oct-2nd Nov
Prakhar TshechuBumthang30th Oct-1st Nov
Mongar TshechuMongar20th-23rd November
Pemagatshel TshechuPemagatshel20th-23rd November
Trashigang TshechuTrashigang21st-24th November
Nalakhang TshechuBumthang28th-30th November
Trongsa TshechuTrongsa21st-23rd December
Lhuntse TshechuLhuntse21st-23rd December

NB: These are tentative dates - exact dates to be based on the lunar calendar and determined closer to the time)

For exact dates of holidays and festivals for the coming year please click here.

NB: Banks and government offices are closed during public holidays.

Religion

Buddhist (Mahayana) 75%, Hindu 25%.

Vaccinations

We do always recommend that you seek professional medical advice when considering holiday vaccinations but the ones that are normally recommend for travel to Bhutan are listed below:

  • Diphtheria
  • Hepatitis A
  • Tetanus
  • Meningitis
  • Malaria prophylactic drugs are recommended for all tours visiting the lowland, rural areas of Bhutan neighbouring India, below about 2,000m)

For direct, up-to-date information on vaccination requirements for Bhutan please click here

Customs

  • Greetings are traditionally accompanied with a small bow, a big smile, and hands together in prayer, however the handshake is becoming more and more popular, especially amongst men.
  • On visiting a Dzong, both male and female visitors should wear long trousers and tops covering the shoulders, preferably to the elbows. Sunglasses should be removed (including from the top of your head), as should hats. Sandals or flip-flops are acceptable.
  • Public shows of intimacy are considered inappropriate and you should try to dress conservatively wherever possible.
  • On visiting temples, photography and even the carriage of cameras are strictly forbidden. Images made of Buddha are also sacred and concerns surround the subsequent care of pictures taken.
  • If seated in a temple, take care not to point your feet towards the altar: cross your legs. Again hats and sunglasses should be removed. Coats or jackets should be worn or left outside, and not tied around the waste. Any lapses will be gently pointed out to you.
  • Particularly during festivals, please dress with consideration. You may be asked to wear traditional national dress in order to attend - this can be hired or purchased as you prefer.
  • A popular treat in Bhutan is a hot stone bath, which many hotels can provide for an extra fee ($10 approx). Guests can relax in a large wooden bath filled with water heated by hot stones, heated outside on a fire. An outside attendant will modify the temperature as you request.
  • Haggling and bartering is not as prevalent as in neighbouring Nepal and India, and even in some markets, many items have fixed prices.
  • Tipping is entirely at your discretion. If you chose to tip, as a guide, we may suggest US$5 per day for your driver, and US$8 per day for your guide
  • Be considerate when taking photographs. Avoid taking photos of religious ceremonies, funerals, and people bathing as this is most likely to cause offence. Always ask permission before taking pictures of people and try to avoid flash photography around light-sensitive paintings or artwork.
  • If you would like your guides to eat with you, you should invite them – politeness will otherwise dictate that they eat separately.
  • The sale of tobacco was made illegal in Bhutan in 2004. You can import up to 200 cigarettes for personal consumption, but do not expect to be able to obtain more while you are there. Import duty of 200% may be charged. Smoking in public places is also illegal.

Security

Bhutan is a secure and safe country with very low levels of petty crime. The risk of muggings and robberies is extremely low.

Know before you go

In association with the ‘Know Before You Go’ Campaign, we are working with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to do all that we can to help British travellers stay safe overseas. Before you go overseas, check out the FCO website at www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo. It is packed with essential travel advice and tips, and up-to-date country information.

FCO know before you go logo

Visas

  • Contrary to rumours, the number of Bhutanese visas issued is not restricted annually.
  • All nationalities except for Indian citizens do need a visa to enter Bhutan.
  • Visas are issued when you arrive in Bhutan, but require prior approval which can only be obtained through a local tour operator after payment for your tour has been made. You cannot board a Druk Air flight to Bhutan without showing a visa approval letter.
  • We will arrange your Bhutan visa approval for you through our local agents, and will send you a print out of the approval confirmation which you will need to show to the Druk Air staff when you check in for your flight to Bhutan.
  • The visa fee is US$20 per person, payable in advance with your main tour price. You will need to complete a completed visa application form (which we will provide) and also provide a passport photograph (a scanned version is ideal) which we will send to Bhutan to secure the visa approval.

Flights (Druk Air)

  • Bhutan has one national airline, Druk Air, and it is the only airline with permission to fly in and out of the country.
  • Druk Air flies into Bhutan from Kathmandu in Nepal and Delhi in India on most days of the week, and everyday from Bangkok in Thailand. Schedules and times change every few months.
  • Druk Air does not have any interline agreements with other airlines and you are therefore not able to check your luggage in all the way through to Paro. We therefore recommend that you always build in at least one night in India/Nepal/Thailand/China before your flight to Bhutan.
  • You should always try and check in early for Druk Air flights, as they do sometimes leave early when weather conditions are expected to change in the near future.
  • Druk air flights landing in and taking off from Paro are subject to VFR (visual flight rules). This means that landings/takeoffs are only permitted during daylight hours with good visibility. If the Paro valley is clouded in, then flights will be delayed or cancelled, sometimes for several days. You need to take this into account when booking your international flights and always allow at least 24 hours after your Druk Air flight is scheduled to land before your international flight home is scheduled to check in.
  • Druk Air flights do sell out some months in advance during peak periods, mainly around major festival dates.
  • You cannot board the flight without an approved visa.
  • Print outs of your flight e-ticket and your visa approval need to be shown to the Druk Air staff before you can check into the flight - we will provide both of these for you.
  • Druk Air flight schedules can be found on their website (Note - these are subject to regular changes so please contact us to reconfirm dates and times before finalising your international flight plans).

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Factfile

Time: GMT+6
Dial code: 00 975
Area: 38,394 sq km
Elevation: Lowest point: 192m Highest point: Mount Jhomolhari 7,314m
Population: 658,888 (2007)
Capital: Thimphu
Government: Democratic Constitutional Monarchy
International Visitors: 17,342 (2006)
National Symbols: Tree - Cypress; Bird - Raven; Animal - Takin; Flower - Blue Poppy
Language: Dzongkha (official), English taught in all schools, Nepalese widely spoken

News & features

A brief history of Bhutan

A brief history of this small, culturally fascinating himalayan country.

Paro, Bhutan

This small, attractive town boasts traditional Bhutanese architecture set amongst beautiful green hills and mountains.

Thimphu, Bhutan

Capital city of Bhutan and perhaps the oldest capital city in the world.

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