Bhutan – The Land of Thunder Dragon has remained sequestered from the rest of the world in its pristine state, unspoiled by outside influences. Bordered by China (Tibet) in the North and by India in the south, the kingdom of the Lost Horizon opened its door to tourism only in 1974, since then the number of visitors to Bhutan has steadily increased. Bhutan is endowed with breathtaking natural beauty, surrounded by sacred mountains, virgin peaks and holy lakes. Its beautiful valleys and lush forests are teeming with flora and wildlife undisturbed in its natural environment. Bhutan is perhaps the last Eden, not just in part, but in its entirety. Its approximately 38,600 Square kilometer of area is covered with not less than 72% of dense forest and jungles. In less than 65 miles, Bhutan rises 25,000 feet from the subtropical jungles of the south to arctic cold of the high Himalayas. Bhutan is truly a haven for wildlife and is considered the most exclusive tourist destination in the world. The country manages to retain all the charm of the old world.
Travelers to Bhutan will experience the enchantment of the pure and exotic land, through its ancient fortresses, monasteries, and temples that dot the countryside. With its imposing architecture and superb art, for its delightful race of people in their traditional dress, time has stood still in this serene environment. Their unique customs, beliefs and life-style are magical and preserved in its ancient ways. As exemplified by the sacred mask dances performed during festivals in colorful costumes.
More than 85% of the populations of about 672,425 people are farmers who live in small villages spread over rugged mountain. Since 8th century the Mahayana Buddhist teachings and philosophy played vital role in shaping the country’s culture and their way of life. In fact it is the only surviving Mahayana Buddhist Kingdom in the world.
The documented history of the Kingdom begins in the 8th century with the legendary flight of Guru Padmasambhava from Tibet in 747 A.D, on the back of a tigress. The Guru who is also considered as second Buddha, alighted in Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), in the valley of Paro and began the propagation of the Tantric strain of Mahayana Buddhism. In the ensuing centuries, many great masters preached the faith resulting in full bloom of Buddhism by the middle ages. Although sectarian at first, the country was eventually unified under the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism by the saint /administrator, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in the early 17th century. The Shabdrung codified a comprehensive system of laws and built a chain of Dzongs which guarded each valley during unsettled times and now serving as the religious and administrative centre of the region. In the next two centuries, the nation was once again caught up into regional fiefdoms with intermittent civil wars.
Towards the end of the 19th century, the Tongsa Penlop, Ugyen Wangchuck, who then controlled the central and eastern region, overcame all his rivals and united the nation once again. He was unanimously crowned as the first King of Bhutan in 1907. The country now has the system of democratic monarchy. Bhutan is the last Mahayana Buddhist Kingdom, and the teachings of this school of Buddhism are living faith among its people. The air of spirituality is pervasive even in urban centers where the spinning of prayer wheels, the murmur of mantras and glow of butter lamps are still important features of everyday life. Bhutan’s religious sites and institutions are not museums, but the daily home of its people.
Bhutan is a small independent kingdom in the Himalayas lying between Tibet and India, with a recorded avifauna of over 616 species. Only recently has it begun to open up to visitors. Over 72% of the land is still forested and 26% of the land is protected as National Parks. It is an ideal place to see a wide variety of birds that are impossible or difficult to see anywhere else. Unlike the other Himalayan countries, which suffer from much deforestation and environmental degradation, Bhutan’s richly diverse and beautiful forests are some of the best remaining forest habitats in the Himalayas – so much so that the country is considered to be the most important part of the high bio-diversity conservation hotspot known as the Eastern Himalayan hot-spot.
Bhutan is positioned at the junction of migrating birds and animals and is a treasure house for those who wish to discover different species of flora and fauna. The two distinctive climatic conditions, tropical rainforests in the south and the alpine in the north have permanent residents of many fauna and some are yet to be named.
Because of the lack of specialist in the field of flora and fauna, few thin books are available but not enough have been said and very few details. Of the few species that are unique to Bhutan are rhododendron kesangiai and Bhutanese and sixteen species of globally endangered birds.
Buddhism and nature are often considered as partners and the elements that are supporting the living beings are interdependent, the government of Bhutan has given a priority to preserve environment and received a medal from the UN for preservation in 2004.
Bhutan is visually and environmentally stunning and it is a living art. The difference of elevations from 250 mts in the south to more than 7500mts in the north are home to those migrating birds and animals and the nature is still intact today.
This has created an asset of environmental alcove to which local plants and animals have adapted in a remarkable number and variety of ways and still flourishing. There are, more than 46 species of rhododendron, 770 species of mushrooms, 780 species of birds have evolved, considering the size of the country as same size as Switzerland. Bhutan is a dwelling for exotic mammals such as takin (a large, musk-ox-like animal), clouded leopards and red pandas. Bird species range from the cutia and boreal owl to the tiny black-throated parrotbill. Bhutan is a country full of natural wonders where people and nature live in harmony and respect each other.
One of the most striking physical features of Bhutan is its architecture. The characteristic style and colour of every building and house in the Kingdom is a distinct source of aesthetic pleasure. The Dzongs – themselves, imposing 17th century structures built on a grand scale without the help of any drawing and nail – are outstanding examples of the best in Bhutanese architecture. Patterns of rich colours adorn every wall, beam, pillar, door in traditional splendor.
Like its architecture, Bhutan’s art and painting are important aspects of Bhutanese culture and they depict the spiritual depth of Bhutanese life. Whether it is on a wall, or one of the renowned Thangkas or murals, painters use vegetable dyes to give their work the subtle beauty and warmth seen nowhere else in the world.
Bhutan also boasts an unparalleled wealth in its cottage industry. Its fine handicrafts of wood and bamboo, ornaments of gold and silver, and highly developed weaving skills represent an advanced art form.
One of the main attractions in the Kingdom is its annual religious festivals known as TSHECHUS, celebrated to honor Guru Padmasambhava also known as “Guru Rimpoche”. For local people, Tshechu is an occasion for reverence and blessing, feasting and socializing. Two of the most popular Tshechus are held at Paro in the spring and Thimphu in the autumn, but there are various others all the year round at temples, dzongs and monasteries throughout Bhutan. Staged at different places at different times of year, it provides an opportunity for our clients to experience its unique and extraordinary charm.
Though Bhutan has four distinct seasons, it is hard to generalize the weather since mountain climate varies enormously from one region to another. It varies with the altitute and can reach extremes of heat and cold within a day’s travel. Depending on the altitude, you may be freezing on top of a pass and 2 hours later you may be sweating in a sub-tropical jungle.
The central valleys, where most cultural tours take place (Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdi, Tongsa, Bumthang, Mongar, Tashigang, Lhuntse)
Best seasons to visit this region are: spring and autumn. In gerneral, valleys of Punakha, Wangdi, Mongar, Lhuntse and Tashigang with relatively lower altitude are warmer than the other valleys in this region.
Spring lasts from mid March to mid June with temperatures warming gradually to 20-25 degree celcius by day and 12 degree celcius by night. This is one of the most beautiful time of the year as the whole kingdom comes to life with the spectacular flaming red, pink and white of the rhododendron, magnolia and numerous other wildflowers in bloom.
Autumn, which lasts from mid September to mid December, is possibly the most rewarding time to visit Bhutan. The days remain lovely with crisp clear skies. Visitors can enjoy stunning views of snow-capped Himalayan mountains, particularly during the month of November and December. In October and November, a riot of color envelopes the valleys of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Mongar and Lhuntse – the gold of ripe rice paddy in the fields is splashed with the pink of wild cosmos, and all the grey shingle roofs of farmhouses have red chillies drying on them. Higher up in the valleys of Bumthang, Rukubji and Haa, the fields are now a brilliant patchwork of pink buckwheat, yellow mustard and crimson amaranth. During this time, the temperature remains 20-25 degree Celsius during the day and drops to 8-10 degree Celsius by night.
Winters are quite dry with some snow and lot of sunshine. During sunny days, in most valleys, the daytime temperatures remains between 12 and 16 degree Celsius, while evenings and mornings are very cold.
Clear skies in winter months are the best time to view the snow-covered peaks of the high Himalayan mountains.
In Summer, from mid June to August, most valleys in this region receive abundant rain. However, in most valleys in this region, the rain falls mainly in the late evenings and at night. Temperature in most valleys remains between 28-32 degree Celsius during the day and 18-20 degree Celsius at night. Sun often comes out from behind the clouds and the days are very pleasant.
Northern region – where most treks take place (Laya, Lunana, Lingshi)
This high altitude region on the slopes of the high Himalayan ranges, inhabited between 3,500 and 5,000 meters, is characterized by harsh climate with continues snow during the winter months from December to mid March. By end of November, most passes that connect these regions with the lower central valleys remain closed by snow.
The region truly offers a stunning look at nature’s most spectacular Himalayan landscape during the trekking seasons in spring and autumn. The days are warm and pleasant with lot of sunshine. Nights are cold and the temperature may drop even below freezing – but then, you are already in your warm sleeping bag!
During summer, there is abundant rain and it becomes difficult to cross the icy cold swift flowing streams to get to this region from the lower southern valleys.
The southern region is tropical. It is hot, humid and rainy in summer, but cool and pleasant in winter.
Nowhere in the Himalayas the natural heritage is more rich and varied than in Bhutan. In historical records, the Kingdom was called the valley of Medicinal Herbs, a name that still applies even today. The country’s rich flora and fauna is the result of its unique geographic location in the eastern Himalayas, within an area that extends through both Indo-Himalayan (oriental ) and the Pale-arctic biographic regions ; its annual rainfall, which is significantly higher than in the central and western Himalayas, and its considerable attitudinal variation, from 200 meters in the south to over 7,000 meters in the north, which is accompanied by dramatic climatic changes because of deep traditional reverence which the Bhutanese have for nature, the Kingdom is one of the leading countries in environmental preservation. More than 70% of the area is under forest cover. Many parts of the country which have been declared as wildlife reserves are the natural habitats of rare species of both flora and fauna. Opened for tourism in 1974, after the Royal coronation of the fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most exclusive tourist destination. The country manages to retain all the charm of the old world. Like timeless images of the past, travelers encounter the full glory of the ancient land through its strategic monastic fortresses known as dzongs, numerous ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags which flutter along the high ridges, wild animals which abound in dense forests, foamy white waterfalls which are ethereal showers, and above all the warm smile of the people. Each moment is special as one discovers a country which people have chosen to preserve in its magical purity.
Bhutan Time is 6 hours ahead of GMT. 30 minutes ahead of India and 15 minutes behind Nepal time.
Bhutan’s climate varies significantly with altitude and between specific locations. There are three broad climatic zones: subtropical in the south, temperate in the broad central regions and alpine in the north. Rain is concentrated in the monsoon season from June to September.
The national language is Dzongkha. English is widely spoken in major towns and is a medium of education in schools. Other widely spoken languages are Nepali, Bumthap, Sharchop and Hindi. There are a many local dialects spoken in small pockets within the country.
The unit of currency is the ngultrum (Nu), which is equivalent to one Indian Rupee. The Indian rupee is also legal tender. Major convertible currencies and traveler’s cheques can be exchanged at banks in all major towns. Certain credit cards (Mastercard, Visa, American Express) are accepted at a few large hotels and shops.
Traditional Bhutanese cuisine is very rich and renowned for the plentiful use of chilies. The most popular dish, ema datsi, is comprised of chilies (used as a vegetable) in a cheese sauce. Hotels and restaurants generally serve Indian, Chinese, Continental and Bhutanese food.
It is safer to only drink mineral or boiled and filtered water. A reasonable variety of both hard and soft drinks are available in hotels, restaurants and shops in most towns. Many Bhutanese enjoy drinking traditional homemade alcoholic brews made from wheat, millet or rice.
The standard of accommodation remains relatively basic, particularly away from the major western towns. Most places are simple but clean, and service is slow but friendly.
All towns in western Bhutan have a reliable power supply. Elsewhere, access is less consistent, and electricity is not available in most outlying areas of the country. The voltage supply is 220/240, the same as India.
The main health risks are similar to other South Asian countries, namely diarrhea, respiratory infection or more unusual tropical infection. It is wise to have health insurance, and although vaccinations are not required they are recommended. When trekking there is also risks associated with altitude sickness and accident. In the event of health problems there are basic hospital facilities in each district headquarters.
The crime rate is currently extremely low, making Bhutan one of the safer places in the world. It is rare to feel at all insecure within the country.
All major towns have basic communication facilities, including post, telephone, fax and telegraph. Television and internet were introduced in 1999, and can be accessed in major western centers.
The most popular tourist purchases are traditional Bhutanese arts and handicrafts. Produced by skilled artisans, these are generally of a high quality, and include Buddhist paintings and statues, textiles, jewelry and wooden bowls and carvings. Bhutan is not a consumer society, and the variety of everyday goods available is not particularly large.