Bhutan

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Introduction to Bhutan

Bhutan, nestling in the heart of the great Himalaya, has for centuries remained aloof from the rest of the world. Since its doors were cautiously opened in 1974, visitors have been mesmerised: the environment is pristine, the scenery and architecture awesome and the people hospitable and charming.

Despite the huge potential of its natural resources, Bhutan emerged as one of Asia's poorest countries, shunning the 'profit at all costs' mentality of the rest of the world. With one foot in the past and one in the future, it strolls confidently towards modernisation on its own terms.

Caution

It's a long, hard, winding slog to reach eastern Bhutan. To avoid the greying of hairs on the way back, many Bhutanese travel into India, cross the plains and re-enter Bhutan at Pheuntsholing. However, travel across the Assam/Bhutan border is seriously discouraged due to intense security problems posed by Indian separatist groups such as the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) who are seeking their own independent homeland. This border can be closed to foreign travellers depending on the current security situation.

There is a highly visible Indian army presence in Assam. If you choose, or are forced by road closure, to travel through this area, take extreme caution. Do not take inspections lightly - the Indian army is under continuous attack and understandably jittery.

Full country name: Kingdom of Bhutan

Area: 47,000 sq km

Population: 2.13 million

Capital City: Thimphu

People: Drukpas (Ngalops and Sharchops - 65%), indigenous or migrant tribes (15%), other

Language: Dzongkha, Tibetan, Nepali

Religion: Buddhist (75%), Hindu (25%)

Government: monarchy

GDP: US$2.3 billion

GDP per capita: US$1,100

Annual Growth: 6.5%

Inflation: 7.4%

Major Industries: Cement, wood products, processed fruits, alcoholic beverages, calcium carbide, rice, corn, root crops, citrus, dairy products, eggs

Major Trading Partners: India, Bangladesh, Japan, UK, Germany, USA

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Traveler Facts

Visas: 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 minimise 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 and pay around 165.00-200.00, depending on the time of year, a night for the privilege, 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. With notification of approval and receipt of full payment, visas are issued when you arrive in the country. It's actually an extremely efficient system and you can set up a trip with as little as 10 days planning.

Health risks: altitude sickness, diarrhoea, hepatitis, malaria (lowland areas only)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC +6

Dialling Code: 975

Electricity: 230V ,50Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

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 autumn. 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. If you can't take a good photograph here, you should hock your camera. Pack as much film as you think you will need and then double it.

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Best time to Visit

The best time to visit is October and November and during major festivals. The climate is best in autumn, from late September to late November, when skies are clear and the high mountain peaks are visible. This is the ideal time for trekking and for travelling throughout the country. You're likely to get wet no matter what the season, but avoid the monsoon, 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.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: Ngultrum

Meals

Budget: Nu30-90

Mid-range: Nu90-130

High: Nu130-250

Deluxe: Nu250+

Lodging

Budget: Nu150-350

Mid-range: Nu350-750

High: Nu750-2000

Deluxe: Nu2000+

The daily tariff for visitors is US$200 (US$165 off-season), whether you stay in hotels or go trekking. This covers all your accommodation, food, land transport within Bhutan, service of guides and porters, supply of pack animals and some cultural programs. The rate applies uniformly irrespective of location and the type of accommodation asked for or provided (which means if you get bumped from the fancy hotel you booked - which occasionally happens during busy times - you have no recourse). Groups of fewer than four people pay a daily surcharge, ranging from US$20 per person in a group of three to US$40 for a lone traveller. This covers all your costs apart from drinks, laundry and cultural splurges such as a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath.

Bhutan has two banks, with branches throughout the country. You can cash travellers cheques at any bank and most hotels, but you should only carry well-known brands such as American Express. You can use your credit card, but only at bigger hotels and shops in Thimphu. There are no ATMs.

Tipping isn't de rigueur - staff may act embarrassed, but they will appreciate the gesture. You will probably be accompanied by the same guide and driver throughout your trip and you should tip them: the equivalent of about US$2-3 per day for the guide and slightly less for the driver is standard. Trekking guides expect considerably more, at least twice this amount. Bargaining isn't a Bhutanese tradition: your haggling skills won't get you far here.

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Attractions

Thimphu

Thimphu lies in a beautiful, wooded valley, sprawling up a hillside on the bank of the Thimphu Chhu river, and it is the only world capital without traffic lights. Despite recent development, Thimphu retains its charming, medieval feel thanks to its brightly painted, elaborately decorated facades.

Thimphu is a cornucopia of Bhutanese culture. Dominating the horizon is the imposing Trashi Chhoe Dzong(Fortress of the Glorious Religion) which 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.

Bumthang

It sounds like a blues bar in America's deep south, but Bumthang is the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and home to its most ancient and precious Buddhist sites. Bumthang encompasses four major valleys; the main one, Choskhor, is home to the most important dzongs, temples and palaces.

Jakar, at the foot of the Choskhor valley, is likely to be your base. Jakar Dzong, founded in 1549, is the largest in Bhutan. Further along Choskhor valley, the temple of Jampa Lhakhang was built in 659 and hosts one of the kingdom's most spectacular festivals, the Jampa Lhakhang Drup, in October.

Paro

If you come to Bhutan by air, you'll probably 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 and you will immediately realise you are well 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 centre - the building itself was completed in 1656.

Phobjika Valley

Phobjika is a glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains. It borders the Black Mountains National Park which 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 you can learn more about the cranes at the Crane Observation and Education Centre and view their roosting place. It's an awesome spectacle at dusk when all the birds from the valley congregate for the night.

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Disclaimer: We've tried to make the information on this web site as accurate as possible, but it is provided 'as is' and we accept no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone resulting from this information. You should verify critical information like (visas, health and safety, customs, and transportation) with the relevant authorities before you travel.

Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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