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Bhutan Travel 101

BHUTAN | Monday, 26 July 2010 | Views [3226]

There are plenty of choices for travelers today, but few places on earth offer the natural beauty and rich, ancient culture as Bhutan.  Located in the Himalayas, between China and India, this tiny land-locked country is steeped in the tradition of its ancient roots, and provides stunning scenic views and a truly unique cultural attitude unmatched anywhere else in the world.  A trip to Bhutan is an experience not to be forgotten.

The History

Although the true origin of Bhutan is unknown, some evidence suggests that there were nomadic herders inhabiting the land as early as 2000 BC.  In 747 AD, Guru Rimpoche, the patron saint of the country, visited the area and introduced the Buddhist religion.  To this day, Bhutan is the world’s only Vajrayana Buddhist nation.  Theocracy and a code of law were established in 1652, and it was then that the many fortresses, called Dzongs, were built.  Dzongs still remain in use to this day.  The country is now ruled by kings but still carries much of the tradition that it was built on centuries ago.

The People

There are three ethnic groups that make up the Bhutanese people:  the Sharchops of the east, the Ngalongs of the west and the Lhotshampas, who inhabit southern Bhutan.  Each culture speaks their own dialect, with the Ngalongs’ language of Dzongkha given the title of the national language.  The Bhutanese people are strongly influenced by their Buddhist religion and have kept the teachings and traditions alive for generations.

The Culture

One of the most unique things that visitors to Bhutan discover is the way the country views wealth and economic achievements.  In comparison to other countries, Bhutan is considered quite poor in terms of average wage.  But the Bhutanese don’t measure wealth in monetary terms.  Instead, value is placed on things like cultural development and environmental preservation.  In 1974 King Jigme Singye Wangchuck implemented a new ideology that the country’s success should be measured not by economic achievements, but by the level of happiness and contentedness of its people.  This led to the establishment of the GNH indicator, which stands for “Gross National Happiness”, which the Bhutanese value much higher than the GNP indicator used by most other nations.  This unique attitude contributes to a culture of peace and harmony rarely seen elsewhere.

And although the country as a whole is considered poor, because the population is small and the land so fertile, the Bhutanese people are well fed, receive free education and free medical care.  Tourists find it refreshing to know that beggars and homelessness are nonexistent and the environment pristine.  There is also virtually no crime anywhere in the region.  Because of this, Bhutan is often referred to as “The Last Shagrila”.

What to See and Do

Even though Bhutan is a relatively tiny country, there are still seemingly endless beautiful sights to take in, so planning ahead is encouraged.

The Paro Valley is truly beautiful and includes sights such as The Museum and Dzong.  The grand Paro Dzong dominates the valley and is the most important Dzong in Bhutan.  It is the model by which all other dzongs are constructed and can be viewed only from outside, as it is not open to visitors. The watchtower above it, Ta Dzong, is also an impressive building that houses the National Museum.  Old costumes and battle dress, together with priceless jewelry and specimens of the kingdom’s unique flora and fauna are present in the museum.

The famous Takstang Monastery, perched high on the cliffs above Paro is also known as the Tigers Nest Monastery and is a highlight not to be missed.  It is the divine resting place of the Guru Ringpoche, and is definitely worth the 2 hour walk to the top.

Cross the Dochu La pass by road for magnificent close up views of the sacred mountains of Bhutan.  On the other side lies Punakha and the sprawling Punakha Dzong with its 21 temples, administrative buildings and Assembly Hall.  The Tibetan Buddhist sect that constitutes the official religious school of Bhutan is also housed here.

Rice is the main staple of Bhutanese cuisine and don’t forget to try the national dish, ema datchi, made of boiled chilies and cheese.

Travel Tips

Given the beautiful landscape and harmonious nature of Bhutan, it’s no wonder the tiny nation is considered one of the world’s top travel destinations.  There are a few things, however, that visitors should know before planning their trip.

Getting a Visa
Visas are required to travel to Bhutan, and can be easily obtained through the assistance of a travel company.

Independant Travel?
Travelers must be accompanied by an operator as independent travel to Bhutan is strictly prohibited.  This is actually beneficial to tourists since negotiating the local terrain can be tricky without the use of an experienced guide. "All tourists (group or individual) must travel on a preplanned, prepaid, guided package tour or custom-designed travel programme. Independent travel is not permitted." Bhutan Tourism department

Daily tariff
There is a mandatory tariff imposed on all tourists of a minimum of USD 200.  This tariff is typically inclusive of all taxes, meals, guides and transportation.

Cash and ATMs
Travelers are advised to bring all the funds they will need for their trip with them when they go, as there are no banks or ATMs that can be used to access money while in Bhutan.

Tobacco
The sale of tobacco products is banned.  Tourists are allowed to bring tobacco products, however it is illegal to sell them to the local people and smoking in public areas can result in a hefty fine.

Flights to Bhutan
Air tickets to Bhutan can only be booked after visa is obtained. It is advised to apply for a visa at least 2 months before arrival date. So it is not difficult, but the procedure has to be adhered to, and without a visa, one cannot board a Druk Air flight into Bhutan.

Weather in Bhutan
The weather in Bhutan is best from mid-March through mid-July, when the rainy season begins.

With beautiful landscapes, a truly harmonious atmosphere and cultures and traditions that have remained virtually untouched for centuries, Bhutan is a destination that should be any world traveler’s itinerary.  Visitors are sure to be moved by the true contentedness of the Bhutanese people, and will bring home with them a new view on life and memories to last a lifetime.

Thanks to our friends at World Expeditions and EcoOdysseys for their help and insight; both offer small group tours to Bhutan.

Related Articles:

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to Bhutan

Off the Beaten Path: Bhutan

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Tags: asia, bhutan, bhutan travel tips, flights to bhutan, visas for bhutan

 

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