Welcome to Travel Planning 101. Find country specific information about where you are going and what to do to prepare to get there!
- Travel highlights of the country.
- Fun facts and background information.
- History notes, facts on currency, health, holidays and transportation.
- Pre-departure tips, when to go, and visa information.
- Information on weather and electricity plugs.
- Suggestions on things to do if you have extra time to explore on your own.
Places To See
Taktshang is the most famous of Bhutan's monasteries, perched on the side of a cliff 900m (2952ft) above the floor of Paro valley, where the only sounds are the murmurs of wind and water and the chanting of monks. The name means 'tiger's nest'; Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress.
On 19 April 1998 a fire (which some say was arson) destroyed the main structure of Taktshang and all its contents. It had already suffered a previous fire and was repaired in 1951. Reconstruction started on an auspicious day in April 2000 at a great cost and the rebuilt site was reconsecrated in the presence of the king in 2005.
This is the most impressive dzong (fort-monastery) in the kingdom, and can be seen from a great distance in its strategic position high above the Mangde Chhu. It is one of the most aesthetic and magnificent works of traditional Bhutanese architecture, a rambling collection of buildings trailing down the ridge. It has a succession of beautiful courtyards.
To reach Dechenphu Lhakhang involves a short climb up a stone staircase to an elevation of about 2660m (8725ft). The imposing tall, red goenkhang (chapel) is dedicated to the powerful deity Gyenyen and is said to be able to supply weaponry for an endless number of soldiers. Many of the paintings in the adjoining goemba (Buddhist monastery) have been restored.
When to go?
The ideal time for trekking late-September to late-November when skies are generally clear and the high mountain peaks rise to a vivid blue sky. March-May is recognised as the second-best time to visit Bhutan for touring and trekking. Though there are more clouds and rain, the magnificent wildflowers are in bloom and birdlife is abundant. 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.
Winter is a good time for touring in western Bhutan, bird watching in the subtropical jungles in the south, and white water rafting. The days are sunny and cool but it's quite cold once the sun sets. From December to February the road from Thimphu to Bumthang and the east may be closed because of snow for several days at a time. It would be best not to plan to visit these regions at this time.
In recent years overcrowding has become an issue during the major tsechus (Buddhist festivals) at Thimphu and Paro, which coincide with the best seasons. You stand a much better chance of getting flights, accommodation and probably a more intimate and rewarding festival experience if you schedule your trip around one of the other cultural events.
Travel Visa Overview
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
European plug with two circular metal pins
British-style plug with two flat blades and one flat grounding blade
South African/Indian-style plug with two circular metal pins above a large circular grounding pin
Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes.
There are 6 known types of viral hepatitis:A, B, C, D, E and G. G is not dangerous. A and E are passed on by the fecal-oral route of transmission; there is a vaccine. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. A and E cause an acute illness, but you will recover fully from it.
B and D are passed on via blood, saliva, semen and vaginal fluids. They can be passed on by close contact, sexual contact, and blood-to-blood contact. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. There is a vaccine.
Hepatitis C is only passed on from blood-to-blood contact. There is no vaccine.
In the thinner atmosphere above 3000m (9842ft), or even lower in some cases, lack of oxygen causes many individuals to suffer headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, physical weakness and other symptoms that can lead to very serious consequences, especially if combined with heat exhaustion, sunburn or hypothermia. Acute mountain sickness (AMS) can affect anyone and care should be taken to avoid ascending mountain peaks above 3000m too quickly. Sleep at a lower altitude than the greatest height reached during the day, if possible.
To prevent diarrhoea, avoid tap water unless it has been boiled, filtered, or chemically disinfected (e.g. with iodine tablets); only eat fresh fruits and vegetables if cooked or peeled; be wary of dairy products that might contain unpasteurised milk, and be highly selective when eating food from street vendors.
If you develop diarrhoea, be sure to drink plenty of fluids, preferably an oral re-hydration solution containing lots of salt and sugar. A few loose stools don't require treatment but, if you start experiencing more than four or five stools a day, you should start taking an antibiotic (usually a quinolone drug) and an antidiarrhoeal agent (such as loperamide).
If diarrhoea is bloody, or persists for more than 72 hours, or is accompanied by fever, shaking chills or severe abdominal pain you should seek medical attention.
Present only in lowland areas of Bhutan this serious and potentially fatal disease is spread by mosquito bites. If you are travelling in endemic areas it is extremely important to avoid mosquito bites and to take tablets to prevent this disease. Symptoms range from fever, chills and sweating, headache, diarrhoea and abdominal pains to a vague feeling of ill-health. Seek medical help immediately if malaria is suspected. Without treatment malaria can rapidly become more serious and can be fatal.
If medical care is not available, malaria tablets can be used for treatment. You should seek medical advice, before you travel, on the right medication and dosage for you.
If you do contract malaria, be sure to be re-tested for malaria once you return home as you can harbour malaria parasites in your body even if you are symptom free.
Travellers are advised to prevent mosquito bites at all times. The main messages are: wear light-coloured clothing; wear long trousers and long-sleeved shirts; use mosquito repellents containing the compound DEET on exposed areas (prolonged overuse of DEET may be harmful, especially to children, but its use is considered preferable to being bitten by disease-transmitting mosquitoes); avoid perfumes and aftershave.Use a mosquito net impregnated with mosquito repellent (permethrin) - it may be worth taking your own.
Higher parts of Bhutan have pleasant months either side of the rainy season, which lasts from May to September. Days from March to April and October to November are generally warm with less rain, decent sunshine and temperatures between 25-30°C (77-86°F). Nights can get a bit fresh between November and March. Lower parts of the country experience heavier falls and warmer temperatures during the day across this time.
History and Culture
Pre-20th Centure History
Archaeological evidence suggests Bhutan was possibly inhabited as early as 2000 BC. Buddhism was probably introduced in the 2nd century although traditionally its introduction is credited to the first visit of Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century.
Guru Rinpoche is the most important figure in Bhutan's history, regarded as the second Buddha. His miraculous powers included the ability to subdue demons and evil spirits, and he preserved his teachings and wisdom by concealing them in the form of terma (hidden treasures) to be found later by enlightened treasure discoverers known as tertons. One of the best known of these tertons was Pema Lingpa; the texts and artefacts he found, the religious dances he composed, and the art he produced, are vital parts of Bhutan's living heritage.
Before the 16th century, numerous clans and noble families ruled in different valleys throughout Bhutan, quarelling among themselves and with Tibet. This changed in 1616 with the arrival of Ngawang Namgyal, a monk of the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism from Tibet. He taught throughout the region and soon established himself as the religious ruler of Bhutan with the title Shabdrung Rinpoche. He repelled attacks from rival lamas and Tibetan forces and transformed the southern valleys into a unified country called Druk Yul (Land of the Dragon). While the political system he established lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, the announcement of the Shabdrung's death in 1705 was followed by 200 years of internal conflict and political infighting.
Instability lasted until 1907, when Ugyen Wangchuck was elected, by a unanimous vote of Bhutan's chiefs and principal lamas, as hereditary ruler of Bhutan. Thus the first king was crowned and the Wangchuck dynasty began. Over the following four decades, he and his heir, King Jigme Wangchuck, brought the entire country under the monarchy's direct control. Upon independence in 1947, India recognised Bhutan as a sovereign country.
The third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, is regarded as the father of modern Bhutan because of the development plans he initiated. In 1958 he abolished slavery. When China took control of Tibet, Bhutan's policy of total isolation lost its appeal and the country was formally admitted to the United Nations in 1971. The present monarch, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, has continued the policy of controlled development with particular focus on the preservation of the environment and Bhutan's unique culture. Among his ideals is economic self-reliance and what he nicknamed 'Gross National Happiness'.
His coronation on 2 June 1974 was the first time the international media were allowed to enter the kingdom, and marked Bhutan's debut appearance on the world stage. The first group of paying tourists arrived later that year.
Traditionally, lyonpos (members of the Council of Ministers) were appointed by the king for five-year terms. Lyonpos were usually reappointed and an unrivalled political stability in the last two decades has enabled Bhutan to progress steadily with its policy of controlled modernisation. Lyonpo Dawa Tshering holds a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest serving foreign minister (1972-98).
In major political reform in June 1998, the king dissolved the Council of Ministers and announced that ministers formerly appointed by him would need to stand for open election. A rotating chairman fronts the resultant cabinet.
What has really shaken Bhutanese society, young and old, is King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's announcement in 2005 of his intention to adbdicate the throne and move towards a democratic constitutional monarchy by 2008. At the time of research, Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck was circulating a draft constitution around the country seeking opinion and support. This constitution, which is expected to be ratified by referendum, reinforces the King's idea of having a democratic government committed to increasing gross national happiness (GNH) and not just gross national product (GNP).
The other issue dominating Bhutanese civic life is the Nepali refugee problem. In the early 20th century many Nepalis migrated to Bhutan and settled in the south of the country. From the 1950s the Bhutanese government started taking steps to integrate the ethnic Nepalis, with little or no conflict up until the 1980s. In 1988 the government conducted a nationwide census aimed partly at identifying illegal immigrants, defined as those who could not prove family residence before 1958. Lack of proper documentation, a series of violent acts and ensuing fear and insecurity led to an exodus of Nepali-speakers from Bhutan.
How much this movement was voluntary remains a matter of fierce debate, but tens of thousands of Nepali-speakers left Bhutan between 1988 and 1993. At the end of 2005 there were 106,000 people in camps located in the Jhapa district of south-eastern Nepal, 10% to 15% of whom were born there. Their status is protected by the UNHCR, which uses donor support to provide the survival rations and shelter.
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