Planning your trip
Where to go
Bhutan has slowly emerged from its former self imposed isolationism, cautiously embracing modernizing influences in telecommunications, broadcasting, industrial development, and political reform. It is the inspirational Buddhist tradition of Bhutan, insulated from the turbulence and insecurity of neighboring lands, combined with a relatively underdeveloped infrastructure, that long secured the country’s reputation as the most mysterious land in South Asia. The first motor roads were constructed only in the 1960s, cable television was introduced in the late 1990s and in the first decade of the 21st century a mobile phone networks was connected. The most foreign exchange in Bhutan is generated by the export of hydroelectric power to neighboring country India. Affluent foreign visitors are charged high daily rates for the privilege of internal travel, and freewheeling backpackers or independent travelers are unable to enter the country. Such policies ensure that the limited number of visitors is self- limiting and that the negative impact of mass tourism can be avoided. While there are many guesthouses offering simple accommodation, Bhutan has within the last decade attracted high-end hotel development, with the collaboration of the Taj, Como and Aman international chains.
The beauty of Bhutan
There is without doubt a country of unmistakable natural beauty, where ecological issues are at the forefront of everybody concerns and where pristine forests extend from the Himalayan snow massifs of the north through the precipitous mid- mountain belt to the plantations and nature reserves of the southern plains. The dramatic changes in terrain and vertical climate zones sustain a rich diversity of flora and fauna, characteristic of both Central and South Asia.
Moreover, Bhutan may be regarded as a microcosm of Tibetan culture, preserving intact traditions, lifestyles, art and architecture that have been subjected to periods of revolutionary change and devastation in Tibet itself over the last 50 years. Equally, it is important to recognize that Bhutan has evolved its own distinctive national identity over last three century’s, resolutely maintaining its independence from both Tibet and India.
North, South, East and West
The north and the more remote central and southern parts of Bhutan are even now only accessible by tracking, which offers not only spectacular scenery but also chance to see the village people maintaining there ancient skills and crafts. Several of the fast-flowing river are suitable for white – water rafting. The bleak pastures of the high Himalayan ranges are gazed by nomads (drokpa), the decorative farm houses of the central valleys are inhabited by Drukpa, Moenpa, Sharchokpa communities; and the jungles terrain of the south bordering India has been largely settled by the Lhotshampas of Nepalese origin. Relentless winding roads, exposed to landslides in the rainy season and snow drifts in winter, tenuously link the west of the country with the centric and the east, as well as with the trading town of the south, such as Phuntsholing, were decorated Bhutan gates demarcate the Indian boarder crossings.
Packing for Bhutan
A sturdy rucksack or a hybrid backpack/ suitcase covers most eventualities and survives bus boots, roof rack, and plane/ ship hold with ease. Serious trekkers will need a framed backpack and zip- fastening duffel bag. It is always best to keep luggage to a minimum, and if you are on an all- inclusive package to Bhutan, you need to carry fewer items that you other wise would.
Indian brands of toiletries and cosmetic are widely available, but you will find few well- known international brands, even in Thimphu. If you are attached to a particular brand, you should consider bringing your own shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, etc. Also take high- factor sun cream, a sun hat and lip- salve, insect repellent containing DEET, contact lens, cleaning fluid, and condoms and tampons, which can be hard find in remote areas. A small first- Aids kit also be useful.
You would do well to carry a water bottle ( with purification tabs), flashlight, multi- heated electrical adapter, an electrical recharger ( to take power from electric light socket), batteries, inflatable pillow, ear plugs, Swiss army knife, sheet sleeping bag, and pillow case, vacuum flask, and a universal bath- and basin plug. If you are visiting the sub- tropical areas of southern Bhutan, a mosquito net will also be useful. Remember not to throw away spent batteries containing mercury or cadmium; take them home to be disposed of or recycled properly.
For trekking equipment and clothing see page no 21
When planning a cultural trip, it would be advisable to allocate three or four days to the Paro- Thimphu area of western Bhutan, or to extend this to one week by including Haa and Punakha. Two weeks in the country would enable you to visit the main sites of Bumthang, Trongsa and Wangduphodrang in central Bhutan, while a three-week option would provide sufficient time for long drives require to Monggar, Lhuntse, Tashi Yangtse or Trashigang in eastern Bhutan. It is worth remembering that standards of accommodation and meals are simpler and more Spartan in the east of the country.
Trekking itineraries can also be of varying length. It is possible to add a short three-day trek to a western Bhutan itinerary, a short Bumthang trek to the two-week option, or to undertake longer specialized treks in Gasa, Lunana and Lhuntse districts. Details on all these trekking routes will be found under the respective districts, and for practical information on trekking.
The areas of greatest importance for Bhutanese are to be found in the mid-mountain belt. Kyerchen Lhakhang in Paro and Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang are revered as seventh-century geomantic temples, reputedly dating from reign of the Tibetan emperor Songtsen Gampo, whose governance included Bhutan. Lhakhang Karpo in Haa and Taksang Hermitage in Paro, along with the temples of Kurje Lhakhang and konchoksum Lhankhang in Bumthang, are all associated with Guru Padmakara and the establishment of Buddhism throughout the Tibetan Pugyel Empire during the eighth century. From Ganteng Monastery in the Black Mountains through to the central valleys of Bumthang, there are several important sites associated with the three great Nyingmapa masters, Longchen Rabjampa, DOrje Lingpa and Pema Lingpa (13th-26th centuries), all of whom were active in Bhutan. Among them, the temples of Bolu, Tharpaling, Trakar, tamzhing and Rimochen, along with the monasteries of Kunzang Drak and thowa Drak, are particularly renowned.
Bhutan’s most striking cultural resonance is probably found in the strategic fortifications (Dzong) founded by the Drukpa Kagyu hieraches from the mid-17th century onwards. Constructed in a distinctively Bhutanese style, these buildings combine administrative and religious functions. The best known are Tashichodzong in Thimphu, Rinpung Dzong and Drugyel Dzong in Paro, and Dechen Phodrang Dzong in Phunakha, but those of Wangdu Phodrang, Trongsa, Jakar, Lhuntse and Tashigang are also architecturally impressive and culturally significant.
The following recommended routes encompass all parts of the country and they will assist you when preparing an itinerary; but they are by no means exclusive.
Cultural tour of western Bhutan
This short itinerary is ideally suited for those who dislike long journeys on winding mountain roads, in that the cultural centres of Paro, Haa, Thimphu and Punakha are all within easy reach, and the roads are in good condition, staring from one of the gateway cities (Kathmandu, Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata or Dhaka), fly to Paro airport, and spend the first two days exploring the Paro valley. On day three, travel further west to Haa, staying there overnight, or on a day excursion. Either way, on day four you would reach Thimphu the capital city, staying two nights there, before heading further east to Chi-me Lhakhang and Punakha Dzong on day six. The return drive through Thimphu to Paro would take two leisurely days, enabling you to exit Bhutan from Paro Airport on day nine. As an alternative, exit by road through Phuntsholing into India is also possible.
Cultural tour of western and central Bhutan
This is a slightly longer itinerary, combining the highlights of western Bhutan with the culturally diverse Bumthang valleys of central Bhutan. Starting from one of the gateway cities (Kathmandu, Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata or Dhaka), you would fly to Paro and spend two nights there. On day three travel to Thimphu and remain there for a further two nights. Chi-me Lhakhang and Punakha Dzong would be the destination on day five; followed by Wangdu Phodrang and Gangteng monastery on day six. Then, crossing the Black mountains on day seven, you would explore Trongsa Dzong on day eight before continuing on to Jakar for the next three nights. This is an ideal base for exploring the Chukhor Valley on day nine, the Tang Valley on day 10 and the Chu-me Valley on day 11, before returning west to Trongsa. On day 12 you could take an excursion south from Trongsa to Zhemgang Dzong, before returning westward to Wangdu Phodrang on day 13. From here you drive via Thimphu, either south to Phuntsholing or west to Paro, on day 14, exiting the country the following morning.
Grand cultural tour of Bhutan
This is an extensive three-week itinerary, including the eastern districts of Bhutan, as well as the main sites of the western and central Bhutan. Starting from one of the gateway cities (Kathmandu, Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata or Dhaka),fly to Paro for two nights, before heading east to Thimphu on day three. On day five, continue to Chi-me Lhakhang and Punakha Dzong, followed by wangdu Phodrang and Gangteng Monastery on day six. Crossing the Black Mountains, you would the reach Trongsa on the day seven, detouring south to Zhemgang Dzong on day eight. Continuing to Bumthang via the Chu-me valley on day nine, you would saty in Jakar for three nights to explore the Chukhor and tang valleys. Then on day 12 you drive eastwards via Ura and across the watershed into Eastern Bhutan, staying overnight at Mongar. From there, it’s worthwhile taking a day excursion north to Lhuntse, before continuing eastwards to Drametse monastery and Tashigang on day 14. Stay in Tashigang to explore the Dzong and the town on day 15, before driving north to Gomkara and Chorten Kora in Tashi Yangtse on day 16. The following day you return to Tashigang and head to Rangjung in the Gamri-chu valley, staying overnight in Tashigang. On day 18, you head south to visit Yongla Gonpa in Pema Gatshel district. Here you leave Bhutan for Assam and Guwati Airport in India. Alternatively, from Tashigang on day 18 you could head back west on the same winding roads, to reach Paro within four days, exiting Bhutan by air on day 22.
When to go
While selecting a suitable itinerary for your visit to Bhutan, there are two other factors that will probably influence your decision: the weather conditions and festival season. Autumn (late September-November) is the best season for mountain panoramas, photography and trekking. Spring (March-May) is somewhat dustier and more overcast, but ideal for botanists and birdwatchers. The extraordinary diversity of Bhutanese flora is best appreciated at this time. Winter (December-February) is fine for visits to the Paro-Thimphu area of western Bhutan, although passes leading to central and eastern Bhutan can be closed by snow. The days can be warm and sunny, and the light is superb, but the nights are very cold, so warm clothing will be essential for any winter visitors. Summer (June-early September) is the rainy season. Although it can rain in Bhutan at any time of the year and you should always carry an umbrella, the monsoon deluge in summertime obscures mountains and valleys, flooding the narrow roads and sometimes causing landslides. The areas of eastern Bhutan bordering Assam have some of the highest levels of rainfall in the world, and the countryside is infested with leeches. Nevertheless, the cultivated fields and forests are more verdant at this time than in any other season.
What to do
The most popular sport in Bhutan and the one that has brought more Bhutanese competitors to the Olympic Games than any other is archery. Archery grounds are found in all the district towns and village blocks (gewok) of Bhutan, most with wide range wooden targets placed 140m away from the point of fire. Archers use both the tradition bamboo longbow and the modern carbonite high-velocity crossbow. Weekend competitions take place throughout the country, and they are known for their partisan rivalry. Team-mates and cheer-girls urge on their own side, while loudly and lewdly insulting their opponents. Tournaments are also organized biannually by the Bhutan national Archery Federation.
Bicycling and Mountain Biking
The Tourism Council of Bhutan, www.tourism.gov.bt/outdoorsports, have designated several routes for bicycling in Thimphu, Phunakha, WangduPhodrang,Bumthang and Trashigang districts. Mountain biking can be arduous over long distances because there are many steep passes to cross. Amoung the officially recommended routes are the trails from Kuruthang to Punakha via Samdingkha (17 km), and from Bajo to Tsochagsa via Jansabu (40 km). for further information on both long and short itineraries, contact the Bhutan Bicycle club, www.bhutanmtb.com.
Motorcycling and self-driving
Motorcycling is exhilarating and sometimes dangerous on the winding mountain roads. It is possible to hire a motorbike in Bhutan or to drive your own bike or 4WD vehicle overland from India. Contact international tour operators who can make arrangements on your behalf, or Himalaya Roadrunners, www.ridegigh.com , who organize motorcycling tours in Bhutan.
Bhutan’s snow mountains were surveyed in 1964-1965 by Michael Ward and Frederic Jackson. Who climbed a number of peaks under 6000 m. although Bhutan has no 8000-m peaks, there are 21 above 7000 m, including the world’s highest unclimbed peak, Mount Gangkar Punsum (7541 m). Mountaineering was permitted only between 1983 and 1994, during which time the Japanese climbed Mount Kulha Gangri (7239 m) in 1985 and Doug Scott’s team climbed Mount Jichu Drakye (6989 m) in 1988. The scared Mount Jomolhari was previously climbed from Tibet in 1937 and from Bhutanese side in 1970. Ascents of Jomolhari have contunied from Tibetan side, but climber regard the snow and weather condition of the Bhutan Himalaya to be among the most treacherous. In 1994 the government decided to ban mountaineering above 6000 m, taking into account both the risks to climbers and the potential desecration of secret mountain peaks. Trekkers may still climb peaks below 6000 m without seeking special permission ; and rock-climbing activities are organized by the Vertical Bhutan Climbing Club, www.verticalbhutan.com .
Outdoor photography is free of charge, and there is some spectacular scenery, but be careful not to film members of the royal family or sensitive military installations. Interior photography is not generally permitted within temples, monasteries, or Dzongs, but you may freely film outside of such buildings. The early mornings and late afternoons usually offer the best condition for filming; at other times try under-exposing by half a stop.
An ultra violet filter or polarizer can help reduce the exposure problem cause by high altitude solar glare. A good wide-angle lens will give the best results when you are filming mountain panoramas; and when filming people or the colorful pageantry of the Tshechu festival it will be best to use a non-intrusive telephoto lens, without flash. If you do find yourself taking close-ups, remember to ask permission first, and offer to send copy by post when you return home. If you travel to Bhutan during the rainy season, be sure to protect film against humidity and at all times try to protect your equipment from dust by using a lens hood and a good camera bag.
There are special rules for commercial filming projects in Bhutan. For details, contact the Tourism council of Bhutan (TCB, www.tourism.gov.bt ).
In the interests of the diminishing minority who continue to shun digital photography, we recommend for color prints, Fuji Hr100 or equivalent, and Fuji HR1600 for interiors; for color slides, Kodak chrome 3 ASA and 64, and Kodak Tungsten ASA 160 for interiors; for black and white, Kodak T-max ASA 100 and Kodak Tri-X for interiors.
River rafting and kayaking
There are a few rivers in Bhutan where the Tourism Council is encouraging rafting and Kayaking, mostly ranging in degree of difficulty from Grade 111 to Grade V. certain stretches of white water have been designated for rafting or kayaking on the Paro-Chu, the Pho-Chu and Mo-chu tributaries of the Ouna Tsang Chu, which converge at Punakha, as well as on the Dang-Chu around Wangdu Phodrang, the Mangde-chu In Trongsa, the Chamkhar-Chu and Tang-Chu in Bumthang, and the Kuri-Chu in Lhuntse. In all there are now over 22 runs on 14 designates rivers. Further information on recommended routes can be found at www.tourism.gov.bt/outdoorsports. For details and costing, contact the river-rafting specialists at Lotus Adventures, T(975)2-322191, email@example.com, in Thimphu.
Modern spectator sports like Football, Tennis and basketball have a certain degree of local popularity during the summer and autumn months in particular, but there will be few opportunities foe casual visitors to participate. There is a covered swimming pool in Thimphu, and the country also has four Golf courses, including those in Thimphu, Haa, Dewathang, and even Jomolhari base Camp. Golfing trips are organized by the Bhutan Youth Golf Association, www.golfbhutan.com. Fishing is possible under license (Nu 500 per day) in certain rivers or lakes, but generally frowned upon in Buddhist countries such as Bhutan, where the population gain merit by releasing captures fish.
Wildlife safari and botany
Bhutan is an important destination for naturalists. Travel programmes can be organized for lepidopterists, and conservations with an interest in rare and endangered species, hot springs and the country’s abundant flora. The Royal Manas national Park in southern Bhutan, which is the best area of the country for wildlife observation, is reopening in the autumn of 2010, following Bhutan’s successful suppression of the Assamese insurgency movements in 2003. The Black Mountains national park in central Bhutan currently offers the best prospects for bird watching, and for bears, tigers, wild boar, Leopards and red pandas. Other wildlife sanctuaries in eastern Bhutan include those of Bumdeling ( in Trashiyangtse), Sakteng (in tashigang), Thrumshing la ( in Mongar),and Khaling (in samdrupjongkhat). In the west of the country there is the Jigme Dorji National Park (in Gasa, Punakha, Thimphu and Paro), and the Torsa Srict Nature Reserve (in Haa). The Phibsoo Wildlife sanctuary (in Sarpang) is the country’s largest area of natural sal forest, and Sakteng is an important reserve for rhododendrons.
Since Bhutan is landlocked and presently has no transcontinental or long-haul flight connections, the air traveler will first have to reach on of the seven neighboring gateway cities: Bangkok,Delhi, Kathmandu, Kolkata or Bagdora or Guwahati; during the winter season there are also direct flights from Bodhi Gaya in north India- the foremost pilgrimage centre of world Buddhism. Logistically it may be easiest for many visitors to Bhutan to sue Bangkok as nib, since in most cases no visa for Thailand will be required. Those flying via kathkamdu will have to obtain Nepalese visa either in advance or on arrival at Tribuvan Airport in Nepal. Travellers connecting through Dhaka or any of the Indian airports will require a pre-arranged visa (double entry if exiting through the same country); India also requires a prearranged endorsement permitting re-entry within two months.
The most competitive airfares are usually available to Delhi or Bangkok, whether your journey begins in Europe, North America, south Africa, Australia or New Zealand, Kathmandu is an important hub for travelers visiting central parts of Tibet as well as Bhutan, while Kolkata and Bagdora are closer to the land Border at Phuntsholing, and Guwahati offers easy access to Samdrupjoongkhar and eastern Bhutan.
Generally speaking, European and Middle eastern carries are most suitable for travelers commencing their journey in Europe or the east coast of North America; while the oriental and some Middle eastern or US carries are preferable for those starting in East Asia, Australia, or the West Coast of North America. Regional airlines in India and Thailand also offer access to the gateway cities. Check the relevant websites in India for the latest schedule and price information, which are invariably subject to change. Discounted fares may also be available from www.expedia.com, www.ebookers.com, www.airbrokers.com, www.travelbag.co.uk, or www.startravel.co.uk.
Few airlines schedules accommodate easy flight connection of Druk Air into Bhutan; in most cases an overnight stop is required. For a range of hotel options at discounted rates in these cities, refer to the footprint India or footprint Thailand handbooks, or to the list of tour operators, who can arrange travel itineraries, tour programmes and Bhutanese entry visas.