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Travel guide for Bhutan

Bhutan – the Kingdom of Happiness

The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most spectacular places on earth and primarily known for one thing: its concept of “gross national happiness”. This means that the well-being and happiness of the population and all living things in Bhutan comes before economic growth. With this type of politics, Bhutan became the only climate-neutral country in the world. And if that wasn’t enough the country has now a negative carbon footprint, truly amazing.

Culture

Bhutan’s culture is strongly based on its Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism, which contains a sprinkling of Tibet’s ancient Bon shamanist religion. The country’s rich heritage, protected by Bhutan’s isolation from the modern world until the 1960’s, is still very much in evidence. For most visitors to the country, Bhutan’s traditions and uniqueness are the main attractions, just ahead of its spectacular and mostly unspoiled natural beauty.

Religion

The predominant religion in Bhutan is Buddhism, followed by Hinduism. As a result, Bhutanese culture is influenced a lot by sacred Buddhist values. Bhutanese live by their religious values and respect their gods and deities. The colorful prayer flags on hillsides and at the entrance of monasteries are considered sacred. The Dzong, a unique combination of a fortress and a monastery, is present in every district or Dzongkhag of the country.

Festival

Punakha Drubchen

The glorious cultural festival of Punakha Drubchen is a celebration of the country’s victory over the invading neighboring forces of Tibet. Celebrating the unification of Bhutan as a nation, the festive events reenact the scenes from the fights of Bhutan and Tibet. Starting as a celebration of Bhutan’s victory, today this festival is an annual event, celebrated with great pride and joy.

Gomphu Kora Festival

The Gomphu Kora Festival is of prime importance to the locals of Trashigang. The tale of the Ghompha goes back to 8th century when Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the cave for three days to vanquish the evil that was hiding in the cave. During the festival, the devotees take a trip around the cave and the festival marks the victory of good over evil.

Paro Tshechu

One of the most popular cultural events in Bhutan, Paro Tshechu, is celebrated in the city of Paro, the festival witnesses thousands of locals and tourists gathering around the courtyard of the Dzong to celebrate the deeds of Guru Rinpoche. Marked by the masked dance performed by lamas and laymen, the festival is meant to thank deities for their blessings.

Sakteng Festival

There is a semi-nomadic settlement nestled at 3000m above the sea level, which are called Brokpas and they celebrate their local deities for their blessings. Living close to the nature in the pristine valley, Brokpas have remained untouched and they have managed to preserve their centuries-old traditions and practices. During the festival, the entire community comes together to offer prayers and thank deities for the prosperity.

Language

There are around 19 languages and dialects spoken in this small Himalayan kingdom. Spoken by half a million Bhutanese people, Dzongkha is a Sino-Tibetan language. It was declared the national and official language of Bhutan in 1971. Besides Dzongkha, there are three other well-known languages named Tshanglakha, Lhotshamkha and Bumthangkha.

Cuisine

Ema datshi – chilies and cheese

If there is one national dish to eat when touring Bhutan, this is it. It’s so ubiquitous that some say if you haven’t eaten ema datshi, you haven’t been to Bhutan. The locals eat the stew, which is similar to a curry, daily along with red rice. It’s made of green, yellow or red chilies, yak or cow’s milk cheese, onions and tomatoes. Taste very carefully, though. The chilies of Bhutan are high up on the Scoville Heat Scale and are meant to make you warm enough to sweat.

 Jasha Maroo or Maru – spicy chicken

Although this mix of chilies, onion, tomato, garlic, coriander leaves and ginger is usually made with finely diced chicken, you will occasionally find it made with beef. Though often called a stew, there’s actually a hefty portion of liquid (chicken broth) in the finished dish. Like most Bhutanese food, it is served with red rice.

Momos – Dumplings

This is one food that Western travelers may have sampled, since the momo has immigrated to India and is quite similar to the Chinese dumpling. Throughout the Himalayas–from Nepal and Tibet to Bhutan– these steamed buns are eaten as treats. They may be stuffed with almost anything, but the typical fillings are minced pork or beef, cabbage, or fresh cheese mixed with spices such as garlic, ginger and coriander.

Paro

The picturesque Paro valley is counted amongst the widest and greenest valleys of Bhutan. Paro has many attractions and the international airport of the country is a sight in itself. This heart of Bhutan is surrounded by the fertile rice fields and serene Paro River (Pa Chu) which flows down the valley. It’s also one of the best towns in Bhutan to explore by foot.

Taktsang Lhakhang or Tiger’s Nest

The Tiger’s Nest is Bhutan’s most iconic sight and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paro. The distinctive structure of the monastery combined with its remote location and the stunning green valley view makes it an unforgettable experience. Reaching this monastery requires a trek of 3-4 hours through the mountainous paths of this remote area.

Paro Dzong

Rinchen Pung Dzong means ‘Fortress on a Heap of Jewels,’ once served as the meeting hall for the National Assembly. Now, Rinpung houses both the monastic body and district government offices, including the local courts. Most of the area is prohibited for the tourists, but visit this Dzong for its marvel architecture. Famous as Paro Dzong, it was built in 1644 under the order of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the holder of Drukpa- Kagyud Buddhist School, and the unifier of Bhutan.

National Museum

The National Museum captures the heritage of Bhutan, and promotes it through the well-preserved artefacts displayed from across the country. It is among the few educational institutes which capture the country’s transition from as early as 4000 B.C, keeping its cultural inheritance intact.

Kyichu Lhakhang

Kyichu Lhakhang (also called Lho Kyerchu and Kyerchu) is a majestic seventh-century temple revered as one of the most magnificent sites of worship in Bhutan. Located in the town of Paro, some sources claim the temple as one of the oldest in the nation.

PUNAKHA

Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong was built at the confluence of two major rivers in Bhutan, the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu, which converge in this valley. It is an especially beautiful sight on sunny days with sunlight reflecting off the water onto its white-washed walls. In addition to its structural beauty, Punakha Dzong is notable for containing the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani.

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal

Built in 2004 by the Queen of Bhutan, Khamsum Yulley Namgyal is a chorten, or stupa, overlooking the Punakha Valley. It was built with a specific function in mind: to ward off evil spirits in Bhutan and across the world, and to bring peace and harmony to all living things.

Dochula pass and the 108 memorial stupas

In the snow-covered Himalayas within Bhutan are 108 memorial stupas known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens”. The 108 memorial stupas were built in memory of the 108 Bhutanese soldiers from the Royal Bhutan Army, who were killed in the 2003 battle against Indian rebels. Apart from the stupas there is a monastery called the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang.

Thimphu

The bustling capital city is the main centre of commerce, religion and government in the country. The juxtaposition of ancient tradition and modernity make Thimphu the ideal location for visitors to break away from their tour itinerary to immerse themselves in the contemporary Bhutanese lifestyle.

Motithang Takin Preserve

Located in the Motithang district of Thimphu, Motithang Takin Preserve is a wildlife reserve area for takin (Budorcas taxicolor), the national animal of Bhutan.  The reason for declaring takin as the national animal of Bhutan is attributed to a legend of the animal’s creation in Bhutan in the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kunley, popularly known as the Divine Mad Man.

Chari Monastery

Cheri Monastery, also known as Chakri Dorjeden, is a hermitage and monastery in the Upper Thimphu valley in Bhutan. It was built in 1619 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel as his first monastery in Bhutan, where he established the first monastic body.

National Memorial Stupa

Another unique structure is the prominent National Memorial Chorten. This stupa, which is predominantly white with spires of gold, was erected in 1974 in honor of the father of modern Bhutan, the third king of the country, His Majesty Jiqme Dorji Wangchuck.

Bumthang

Besides natural beauty, Bumthang is blessed with some of the oldest Buddhist temples in the kingdom. It was here that Buddhism was first introduced to Bhutan and where the legendary saint Pema Lingpa was born, to whom the Bhutanese royalty trace their descent.

Trongsa Ta Dzong

The Ta Dzong was built in 1652 by first Governor of Trongsa. The watch tower was built to oversee the ongoing construction of the Trongsa Dzong and also to watch out for any invading forces. Today it houses the Royal Heritage museum. The displays in the museum focused on Buddhist art and Royal memorabilia.

Jakar Dzong

Jakar Dzong which translates to the fortress of white bird is situated atop a tall ridge overlooking the whole Jakar valley and Chamkhar town in Bumthang. Jakar Dzong was constructed in 1667. When a group of lamas were in the area searching for a suitable site for the new dzong, a single white bird continuously circled overhead before settling on the top of a hill. This explains the name.

BHUTAN’S WILDLIFE

Snow leopards

Snow leopards are easily recognized as one of the least known and elusive cats in the world. This solitary and nocturnal cat has found a home above the tree line where it hunts. Within this habitat, sighting a snow leopard is rare.

Royal Bengal tiger

Bhutan is fortunate to be one of the remaining 13 tiger countries. With 72% of the country under forest cover and over 50% under protected area status, tigers can be found from the warm subtropical forests in the south to the cold alpine forests in the north; from 100 meters to 4200 meters above sea level, making them the highest altitude tigers in the world.

Birds

Given Bhutan’s amazing natural diversity it is not surprising that the country is a key stronghold of such enigmatic birds like the White-bellied Heron, Blyth’s Kingfisher, Ward’s Trogon, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan and Wood Snipe.

NATURE

Himalaya

One of the highest mountain reliefs on Earth can be found in the tiny country of Bhutan. Sandwiched between eastern India and the Tibetan plateau, Bhutan hosts peaks that reach between 5,000 and 7,000 meters (16,000-23,000 feet) in height. These mountains are neighbors to Mount Everest, Earth’s highest peak at 8,850 meters (29,035 feet). The impressive Bhutan Himalayas are permanently capped with snow, which extends down valleys in long glacier tongues.

Rhododendron Season

Walking along the trail under blooming rhododendron trees can be compared with the famous cherry blossom paths in Japan. Bhutan proudly possesses about 49 species of this plant and has also plenty of Bhutanese songs and works of art that use this flower as a symbol of pure and divine beauty. There are many places, both in a wild and within city borders, where you can enjoy the blooming season of rhododendrons.

Souvenir recommendation

When you are visiting this magical country don’t miss the opportunity to buy the best Bhutan souvenirs to keep the spirituality of this Buddhist country forever.

Nilgiri and rhododendrons

Woodcarvings – basic but unique

The ancient art of woodcarving has existed in the Bhutanese society for a long time and was passed on from generation to generation. Through skillful artisans, different shapes of wood become exquisite products and decorative items such as bowls, cups, plates with unique shapes and colors. They are widely used in the daily life of the Bhutanese people and now you get to take a piece of Bhutan home with you

Handmade products

Canes and bamboos are widely used to make many items for the daily life of Bhutanese people. Since the Government opened their country to travelers around the world, items made of cane and bamboos are popular things to take home.

Traditional masks – the spirit within

Festivals play a vital role in the culture as well as the spirituality of Bhutanese people reflecting the deep inheritance of Buddhist religion to the country. The dance festival is believed to has significance to people’s souls, by watching these dances, it is thought to help to purify their mind and bring them good luck. Bhutanese masks are generally made of wood, carved with different shapes of the face and decorated with Bhutan’s traditional colors.

Hand woven textiles – A colorful memory

Bhutan is incredibly wealthy with abundant vegetation and herbal medicine. Dying materials are extracted to make stunning colors and floral patterns. Traditional methods use various types of natural ingredients such as leaves, roots, tree barks or flowers. Bhutanese weaving is the unique art of intricate designs made entirely by Bhutanese women.

Bhutan Honey – Pure as the Nature

With over 70% area covered by vegetation, Bhutan pure honey is one of the treasures which is given by nature. It is widely known for its natural benefits as well as containing antioxidant compounds. Bring some pure honey from Bhutan for your loved ones.

Travel tips

  • Travel during a festival in Bhutan
  • consider an authentic Bhutan Home Stay
  • Learn a few phrases in Dzongkha
  • Buy handicrafts but not antiques
  • Don’t buy or sell tobacco products, its illegal
  • US Dollars and Indian Rupees are accepted
  • There are ATMs in Bhutan, but only in the main towns.
  • Don’t disrespect the Royal Family
  • most Bhutanese are fluent in English
  • Tuesdays are considered the national ‘dry day,’ with the sale of alcohol prohibited
  • It’s wise to always have a jacket when travelling in Bhutan, regardless of the seasons
  • You can haggle in most shops but don’t expect more than 10% discount
  • Bring along a multi-purpose electrical plug and a universal travel adapter

First time visit

Try the national sport – Archery

Archery, or “Da” as it’s called in Dzongkha (the official language of Bhutan), became Bhutan’s national sport in 1971. In that year, the Buddhist kingdom also became a member of the United Nations. For this small country, nestled between India and China, archery dates back far beyond the sport’s official recognition. It is deeply entrenched within the fabric of Bhutanese culture.

Visa

All tourists, except visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, must obtain a visa clearance prior the travel to Bhutan.  Visas are processed through an online system by your licensed Bhutanese tour operator or through a foreign travel agent. The visa will be processed by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) after the visa fee of USD $40 has been paid.  Once received, the visa clearance will be processed within 72 working hours.

Best time to go

October to December is the ideal time to visit Bhutan as the air is clear and fresh with sunny skies. January and February are colder, but from then until April the climate remains dry and pleasant and in late spring the famous rhododendrons bloom spectacularly, flooding the valleys with color

Top Itinerary

Conclusion

While Bhutan is definitely one of the smallest countries in the world, its cultural and natural diversity is magnifying. The people of Bhutan promote and protect the nation’s unique culture as much as their own happiness. Value Happiness.

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