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Bhutan is a land of pristine natural environments, existing as a biodiversity hotspot. Free of pollution and crime, it's guided by an official policy known as Gross National Happiness. Known to its people as Druk Yul (meaning 'Land of the Thunder Dragon'), Bhutan sits in the remote Himalayan Mountains with India and China as its only neighbours.
The scenic majesty of its soaring mountains and green valleys, coupled with the vibrancy of its cultural life, makes Bhutan one of the last undiscovered destinations; an adventure to feed the soul and enrich the senses.
Bhutan's iconic sight is the Tiger's Nest, a monastery built into a cliff face 2,950 feet (900m) above the ground in the Paro Valley. Another key attraction is Trongsa Dzong fortress, the ancestral home of the royal family. Trekking and mountain biking are popular attractions too, as are the many Buddhist festivals that bring out the extroverted side of these famously friendly people.
It is at times a wonderfully strange place: all new structures must follow the ancient style and people are obliged by law to wear traditional dress in public. Monks have broadband access, while cigarette sales are illegal. And, uniquely, 70 percent of the land is owned by women as inheritance is matrilineal.
Bhutan remained closed to the outside world until the 1960s when its borders slowly began opening. Tourism is based on a high value, low volume principle in a bid to avoid the destructive effects of mass tourism suffered by Nepal and India. Visitors must spend a minimum of USD200 per day on a predetermined itinerary, a strong deterrence for budget travellers. Therefore, visiting Bhutan is much easier through a registered tour operator.
Under the guidance of the current monarch, Bhutan is slowly changing as its economy matures and its fledgling government engages more with the world. Improved communications and widespread internet access is affecting the younger generation and exposing them to the world beyond the borders of this, the last Shangri-La.
Known as the Tiger's Nest and the Taktsang Palphug Monastery, Paro Taktsang is considered one of the holiest places in Bhutan. Located in the Paro Valley, the monastery is perched on a cliff 2,950 feet (900m) above the valley floor. The monastery has been an important site for pilgrimage and meditation in Mahayana Buddhism since it was built in 1692 around a cave believed to be the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan. Tourists can reach Taktsang Monastery via a 20-minute drive from Paro to the base of the mountain, followed by a two-hour hike (or pony ride) to the monastery.
Serving as the winter capital of Bhutan, Punakha is only 45 miles (72km) from Thimphu. However, it has a much warmer climate than the latter, allowing for the patchwork of red and white rice fields to cover the surrounding valleys. The serene atmosphere of the city is personified in the Punakha Dzong, also known as the Palace of Great Happiness. The palace is the winter residence of Bhutan's Central Monastic Body and home to several sacred relics. Punakha makes a good base for exploring nearby attractions like the Guru Rinpoche Cave and Koma Tsachu hot springs.
The geographic centre of Bhutan, Trongsa is a historical village built around a monastery that was established in 1543. Small enough to easily explore on foot, Trongsa's main attractions include the Trongsa Dzong and the Thruepang Palace, as well as the markets in the centre of town that sell handmade textiles and traditional carpets for prices lower than those in Thimphu. Trongsa is a popular rest stop on the journey between Thimphu and Bumthang.
Bumthang is one of the most scenic valleys in Bhutan, with town of Jakar at its centre. More a cluster of villages than a real town, Jakar has a few points of interest that include the Jakar Dzong (Fortress of the White Bird), Wangdicholing Palace, and half a dozen monasteries. Jakar also hosts a number of colourful festivals between July and December. Visitors to Bumthang Valley (also known as Choekhor Valley), will want to try the beer Red Panda Wheat, which is brewed locally and is the only beer made in Bhutan.
Bhutan's climate is as varied as its landscape. In the southern plains, the climate is tropical while the central valleys are cool. The Himalayas have severe winters and mild summers. The monsoon season is from June to August. In general, the best time to visit is spring (March to May) and autumn (late September to late November) when there are many Buddhist festivals.
The local currency is the ngultrumbut, subdivided into 100 chhertum. The currency is pegged to the Indian rupee on scale of 1:1. The ngultrumbut was only introduced in 1974 before which the country had no currency, relying on a system of bartering to acquire goods. US Dollars and Travellers Cheques can be exchanged at banks and large hotels. Visa and Mastercard are not widely accepted.
Dzongkha is the official language, and various Tibetan dialects are spoken. English has recently become the language of instruction in schools but is only spoken fluently by guides and tourist industry professionals.
Electrical current is 230 volts (50Hz). European round pin attachment plugs and three-pin rectangular plugs are in use.
US nationals: United States citizens must have a passport valid for six months beyond arrival. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
UK nationals: British nationals must have a passport valid six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
CA nationals: Canadians must hold a passport valid six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
AU nationals: Australians must have a passport valid six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
ZA nationals: South Africans must have a passport valid six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
IR nationals: Irish nationals must have a passport valid six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals must have a passport valid six months beyond arrival date. A visa is required and must be applied for in advance through a tour operator.
Bhutan has an unusual but fairly simple process for admitting visitors: Bhutanese embassies abroad cannot issue visas, instead you must apply for your visa in advance through a registered tour operator. The visa should be applied for at least 12 weeks before intended travel at which time your tour operator will confirm with you directly with a faxed or emailed copy of the successful application. The actual visa is then stamped into your passport on arrival. This must be accompanied by at least two passport photographs. A visa allows for a stay for a maximum of 15 days.
Note that the Government of Bhutan refuses entry to people wishing to visit the country for mountaineering, publicity, and other research activities. All visitors are required to book with a registered tour operator in Bhutan, which can be done directly through a travel agent abroad. All visitors must hold confirmed return or onward tickets, all documents required for next destination, and USD 200 per day of stay.
Ensure you have adequate travel insurance that includes the facility for emergency repatriation. The most significant health risks for travellers are water-borne parasites from unclean drinking water and altitude sickness resulting from exposure to high altitudes. Health care standards are relatively high. For locals all health services are free, and both western and traditional medicine is practiced side by side. In 2004, Bhutan became the first country in the world to entirely ban the sale of cigarettes. Hospitals and clinics are located throughout the country, with excellent facilities available in the capital, Thimpu.
Tipping is not expected in restaurants as your meal would have been prepaid by your tour agency. On treks, it is usual to tip the cook, his assistant, and any porters. Ask your guide for advice. If you hire a driver tip him at the end of your trip. Bhutanese tradition is that one typically refuses a tip the first time it is offered but accepts it the second time.
Bhutan is one of the safest destinations on the planet. There is virtually no crime or violence.
Bhutan is a traditional Buddhist society. Dress conservatively when visiting religious sites, avoid public displays of affection, and never climb or sit on a statue. Do not take photographs within temples unless permission has been granted to do so.
Avoid pointing at people or religious icons with your finger; this is considered very rude. Smoking is banned in all public places, including restaurants and bars. Betel nut is chewed throughout the day by young and old alike and has become an integral part of Bhutanese society.
The royal family is revered and deeply respected so avoid any disparaging remarks or gestures about them. Mountains are considered to be the abode of the gods and hence any recreational activities therein are disallowed.
The international dialling code for Bhutan is +975. The outgoing code is 00 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 0044 for the United Kingdom). There is extensive mobile phone coverage, which is more reliable and widespread than the landline network. Internet access is available in all main towns and hotels.
Travellers to Bhutan may bring with them up to 200 cigarettes, one litre of liquor, and goods for personal use. It's illegal to sell tobacco in Bhutan, but import of tobacco is subject to 100% tax. Guns and ammunition, narcotics, antiques, and wildlife products are prohibited.
Tourism Council of Bhutan, PO Box 126, Thimphu,Tel: (2) 323 251 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bhutan Embassy, New York City, United States: +1 (202) 682 2268/2312.
Bhutanese Honorary Consulate, London: (+44) 1483 538 189
Bhutan Honoray Consulate, Toronto: (416) 960 3552
Bhutan Consulate, Sydney: (61) 2 9394 3113
US Embassy, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): 91 11 2419 8000
British High Commission, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): +91 11 2419 2100
High Commission of Canada, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): +91 11 4178 2000
Australian High Commission, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): +91 111 4139 9900
South African High Commission, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): +91 112 614 9411
Embassy of Ireland, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): +91 114940 3200
New Zealand High Commission, New Delhi, India (also responsible for Bhutan): +91 11 468 83170
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