About Bhutan

Bhutan, or “Druk Yul,” means Land of the Thunder Dragon. It is a speck on the map bordered by Tibet (China) in the north and India in the south, east and west. The land area covers 38,394 square kilometers – comparable to Switzerland (about half the size of the State of Indiana in the U. S.).

Although small in size, Bhutan is rich in terms of culture and bio-diversity. It has often been referred to as the “world’s last Shangri-La” because of its remoteness. Himalayan scenery, unsurpassed numbers of birds, mammals and plants, Buddhist temples, shrines, dzongs and traditional Bhutanese houses are among the rarest sights in the world. While traveling there you will find the Bhutanese people friendly and hospitable. Their traditions of hard work and sincerity are passed on one generation to another well-preserved.

Bhutan has been blessed by the rule of a Divine Monarch, King Jigme Singe Wangchuck for 32 years. The King has diligently seen to the needs of the country by protecting cultural traditions and fragile ecosystems from outside exploitation while simultaneously improving the lives of citizens. Education and healthcare are free in this egalitarian society.

Written Bhutanese history begins in the1600s. All other history is legend, folklore and myth passed down through generations. Many of the stories are dramatized through dance in “tsechus,” religious festivals. See Religion. One oft told story is how the Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, flew in on the back of a flaming tigress. He landed in Paro (fittingly where the only airport is today) and founded the Taktshang Monastery (called Tigers Nest) perched on a cliff, surveying the valley.

Unification from groups of scattered tribes or clans into a loosely defined country occurred in the 12th Century, and the Divine Monarchy took root in 1907 when the first hereditary King, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned.

In the 1960s, the 2nd King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck instituted the National Assembly and shared power with 150 elected representatives who serve three year terms. Now the fourth King is in charge, walking the tightrope between tradition and modernity. The King educated at Oxford, has four wives, all sisters, and resides in the outskirts of the capitol, Thimphu. It was at his coronation in 1974 that the country was first opened to tourism.

Economy/Currency

While the economy is primarily agrarian, the King’s social programs are bolstered by the sale of hydropower to India with added income from the export of forestry products, apples, oranges, mushrooms, as well as canned fruits and jams. And even with its limited numbers, tourism contributes significantly to the economy.

The national currency of Bhutan is the Ngultrum (Nu). In early August 1st, 2010 it was valued at approximately 46.40 NU = $1.00. When you travel to Bhutan, bring dollars to exchange at a bank as there is only one ATM (in Thump) and few places accept credit cards, although you will find the Indian Rupee widely accepted. Your guide will help you exchange money.

Tourist Policy

Bhutan’s tourist policy is captured by the slogan, “low volume, high quality,” and reflects the country’s commitment to avoiding the negative impacts of tourism on culture and environment that have affected other developing countries. Tourists must plan their visit through state accredited private travel agencies, apply for visas through the travel agencies, and pre-pay approximately $200/day for their stay. While travel is restricted in some remote parts of the country, visitors may freely walk through most towns and villages and mingle with local people.

In 2004 almost 9,000 tourists entered the country, a number that is increasing slowly over time.

Environment

In Bhutan, the natural environment is seen as the living place of gods and spirits and is revered by the people. Accordingly, the country allows only sustainable development and tourism. For this reason, the land is still nearly seventy five percent forested (it takes a permit to cut down any tree), rivers and lakes are all pure and endangered species are safe.

Climate

Bhutan’s climate is very favorable in that it is neither too hot in summer nor too cold in winter. Gentians, blue poppies (the national flower) edelweiss, mosses, lichens, and other plants garland the countryside in springtime and summer, while snow crisps mountain silhouettes throughout winter. Two seasons, spring and fall, March to May and September to November, are when most visitors choose to come. Spring adorns the valleys and mountainsides with shades of green against the white, pink, and purple of the more than fifty species of rhododendron. In fall, clear skies reveal spectacular views of the high Himalayas showcased by beautiful fall colors of the lower mountains. The weather is the mildest during these months, and they are also the times of the largest festivals.

Flora and Fauna

Many people come to Bhutan to commune with nature, watch birds or look for exotic animals. The well-cared for environment of Bhutan supports more than 5,000 plant species, including some 300 medicinal plants and 600 types of orchids. Accordingly, the country allows only sustainable development and tourism. For this reason, the land is still nearly seventy five percent forested (it takes a permit to cut down any tree), rivers and lakes are all pure and endangered species are safe.

An abundance of bird life fills the forests and fields. Six hundred and seventy five different species have been identified (more than anywhere else on earth) and that list is growing as more and more birders visit Bhutan. While the most publicized birds are black-necked cranes that winter in Bhutan, other recorded sightings include the white-bellied heron, Blyth’s tragopan, and many hoopoes, cuckoos, warblers, horn-bills and sun-birds.

In the Bhutanese animal kingdom there are 165 species. The strange looking Takin (somewhat like an American moose) is the national animal. Other creatures you may find are monkeys, elephants, tigers, rhinos, Himalayan brown bears, red pandas, wild pigs, blue sheep, mountain goats, antelope, golden langurs, wild buffalo, and Himalayan martins. If you are lucky, you may even see a snow leopard!

Culture

Culturally this country has no parallel. For many centuries, the Himalaya isolated Bhutan so that its language, society and social customs developed with little external influence.

The culture is based purely on Buddhist philosophy. It is neither borrowed nor made in recent years; the roots of its existence are as old as the existence of the land and people themselves. Nowhere is this better witnessed than in the Tsechu rituals. These festivals reenact Bhutanese history and religious lessons for successive generations, while providing great community enjoyment.

The people of Bhutan still live a primarily agrarian life. The country is largely populated by three ethnic groups. In the eastern areas, Sharecrops predominate and are believed to be the earliest inhabitants. In the west, you will find Naglops of Tibetan descent, and in the south, many Nepalese who began settling in Bhutan in the 1900s. The Bhutanese are warm, friendly, peace loving, hard working and enjoy a great sense of humor.

Language

English and Nepali speaking visitors to Bhutan are lucky. While Dzongkha is the national language, English and Nepali are also taught in school and English is used as the official working language. If you want up-to-date information about Bhutan, you can read the government sanctioned newspaper, Kuensel, on the Internet in English. Go to www.kuenselonline.com It is also published in Dzongkha and Nepali.

Religion

Mahayana Buddhism permeates and inspires all of Bhutanese life. Religious structures and prayer flags dot the landscape and nearly every home has an altar where families worship daily.

Aside from visiting some of the more than 2,000 temples and monasteries, a major attraction for tourists is attending one of the Tsechus. These occur in different parts of the country throughout the year. In contrast with many other countries, Bhutan’s ceremonies are not relics of the past – performances now geared primarily for tourists – they are still important aspects of contemporary life. Be sure to plan your trip around one of these colorful and mystical experiences.

Art and Architecture

Your cultural tour may showcase the country’s magnificent architecture and arts and crafts which form a significant part of the Bhutanese identity. The architecture is striking especially so when you learn the neither blueprints nor nails are used in construction. State buildings and homes alike have distinctive white mud walls supported by heavy timber frames and punctuated with arched trefoil windows. The wooden beams are painted with elaborate symbolic earth-toned designs. Dzongs (fortresses), Lhakhangs (temples), Goenpas (monasteries), Chortens/Stupas (religious monuments) and houses all reflect this special architecture.

Bhutan is justly proud of its vibrant heritage in arts and crafts. There are thirteen traditional crafts: painting, carpentry, carving, sculpture, casting, blacksmithing, bamboo work, gold and silver smiting, weaving, embroidery, masonry, leather work, and paper-making. Music and dance are also part of the traditional arts and passed down through generations. In Thimphu, you can visit a school where talented young people study for seven years to become experts in traditional crafts.

Clothing

the first thing visitors notice about the inhabitants is their clothes. In 1990, there was a royal decree that all Bhutanese must wear the national dress in public, for men that is a knee length robe called the “gho” and for women the “kira” a long piece of fabric wrapped and pinned around the body. These garments are made of colorful, richly woven and sometimes embroidered fabrics of wool, cotton or silk which immediately catch your eye. Weaving is an art form in Bhutan and the vivid colors are hand-mixed vegetable dyes.

Sports

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. It is amazing to watch archers aim and hit small targets almost 400 feet away. The archery teams sing and dance to distract opponents and turn up the volume when a score is actually made. Matches are festive affairs with music, singing, dancing, drinking and gaiety. In 1984, Bhutan first sent a team to the Olympics.

Food and Drink

Bhutanese food is a tantalizing confluence of hot Himalayan flavors – Indian, Chinese and Tibetan. It is an excellent cuisine, although what tourists eat has been modified for the Western palate. Bhutanese prefer rice, vegetables, chilies and more chilies. In Bhutan, chilies are just another vegetable. The nation dish is Ema Datse – cheese and chilies.

Meat is widely available as are a great variety of vegetables. Dishes are prepared with herbs and chilies and served with Bhutan’s indigenous red rice. Tea and butter tea are served everywhere and coffee is available in more populated areas. As far as alcohol goes, there is locally produced beer, “chang,” and spirits distilled from rice, maize, wheat or barley. You will find a selection of imported products in Thimphu and Paro.

Mail and Other Communications

Regular Bhutanese mail service is very reliable. In addition, there is an Expedited Mail Service, EMS, a fast international service, less expensive than other standard carriers,

International direct dial phone service is available throughout the country, but of course is easiest to access in Thimphu, Paro and other larger towns, which also have some fax facilities. The country code for Bhutan is 975. To call Thimphu or Paro add 2-02 and the local phone number. Travellers can bring their cell phones with them and might be able to use them depending on their service. Bhutan’s service, B-mobile cannot call out of the country, but can receive international calls. For codes to call out of your own country see the Contact Us page.

You will find Internet cafes in Thimphu and Paro and a few other places. Bhutan has its own Internet provider, Druk net.