Bhutan, the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” is no ordinary place. The country’s landscapes and sceneries suggest not just one nation but several. It houses lush forests and snowcapped mountain ranges, a vast expanse of grassy valleys and exciting jungles full of varied species of exotic wildlife.
Neighboring countries and regions include India and the Chinese region of Tibet. It is located in the Himalayas and the customary Tibetan culture experienced in the country is what sets Bhutan as the last remaining great Himalayan Kingdom.
The middle part of Central Bhutan contains several fertile valleys where population is mostly dense. On the southern part lies the Duars Plains that extends to India. This area is usually hot, humid and rainy but tourists are likely to see elephants, tigers and deer as well as rare wildlife including gold langurs. Thick forests and woodlands cover most of the slopes.
Experience fantastic trekking adventures and witness splendid flora and fauna in the Phobjika Valley. This is a nation full of surprises where the ancient is still kept and practiced even though modernization has taken its toll in the country. Traditionally dressed people can be seen using mobile phones and saintly monks are transcribing old texts to computers. But what impresses tourists about Bhutan is that the local people are really protective of their environment. The nation is pretty much free of any environmental destruction like soil erosion, deforestation and other things that threaten their wildlife.
Truly, Bhutan is an enigmatic country. Visiting this medieval nation will involve you in their struggle to join the modern world while maintaining their unique and marvelous cultural identity. The Last Shangri la – Bhutan gives its visitors a glimpse of what truly life is.
When to Travel
Weather must be considered when planning to travel. However, with Bhutan’s range of altitude means you can visit the country whole year round.
The best time to travel around the country will be around autumn, from September to November. Typically, the sky will be clear giving tourists a perfect view of high mountain peaks rising from the plains. This is also the time when black-necked cranes arrive to their wintering grounds in eastern and central Bhutan. Visitors crowd to the country because of the Thimphu Tsechu which is a dance festival.
From late November to February which is the winter season is an ideal time to go to the Western part of the country. Usually, days will be sunny and pleasant but it is recommended to bring some warm clothing since nights can be pretty cold. Bird watching and whitewater rafting activities are good during these times.
March to May is considered to be the second best time to visit the country. Spring season brings glorious magnolias, rhododendrons and other wildflowers in full bloom. The Paro Tsechu (dance festival) is held in this season and bird life is quiet abundant.
The monsoon season from June to August floods the market with different fresh fruits and vegetables. Although summer, heavy downpours can hide the mountains and shroud the valleys.
Cuisines and Drinks
Paro and Thimpu have a fair choice of restaurants and food outlets where most tourists can have their pick. Most Bhutanese Chefs adjust the spicy Bhutanese dishes to suit western tastes. The staple food is rice and the country is full of apple orchards, rice plantations and asparagus plants which can be seen growing freely in the countryside.
Meals in restaurants are typically buffet style and mostly coupled with dishes. National specialties include Datse made from cow’s milk, Tshoem, a kind of curry served with rice and Eue chum which is nutty flavored pink rice. Datse is sometimes served in a dish with red chilies and potato (kewa datse) or chilies and mushroom (shamu datse). Note that Bhutanese food is dominantly flavored with one condiment – chili. It is not only added to every dish but is also often eaten raw.
Cheese momo is another Bhutan food worth eating. It is a small steamed bun with cheese, onions and cabbage as stuffings. Recently, other vegetables such as papaya can be used instead of cabbage. A specialty of Bumthang, khuli (buckwheat pancakes) and Puta (buckwheat noodles served with curd) are also must - eats in Bhutan.
It is not surprising that the most popular drink in the country is tea with large tea plantations in the region of Assam and Darjeeling. A steaming cup of tea remains a favorite of the locals may it be sweet with milk or Tibetan style with salt and butter. On the other hand, coffee drinkers will not be disappointed because coffee culture is beginning to creep into the country. However, coffee here usually means the instant variety and is simply served white or black. Chang is also widely available in the country. This is a kind of beer generally brewed at home and is cereal based. Tourists are encouraged to drink Ara, which is a local spirit brewed from corn or rice and is very popular in rural areas.
Bhutan Sights and Things to Do
As the world’s last Buddhist Kingdom, a lot of tourists and trekkers want to explore the splendid terrain of this amazing country. The capital of Thimphu lies in a fertile valley that is traversed by the Wangchu River. In a way, the region resembles a widely dispersed village rather than a capital.
Tashichhodzong is the religious and administrative center of the country. It has a rich history and was rebuilt in 1961. The National Assembly Hall, the country’s largest monastery and the Throne Room of the King can be found here.
Tourists who enjoy festivals will eventually be entertained with Thimphu Festival held annually in the courtyard directly in front of the National Assembly Hall. For sentiments and souvenirs, visitors should visit the Handicraft Emporium that displays a wide array of unique crafted products and beautiful hand-woven crafts. Simtokha, the most ancient Dzong (fortified monastery) can also be found in Thimphu.
The country is also well known for its stamps and the best place to buy them will be in Phuentsholing. This is where you can find the first and only department store of Bhutan.
In Tongsa, there’s a famous Dzong that offers a fantastic view of a river valley. It also houses a magnificent collection of rhino horn sculptures. The district of Wangdiphodrang is known for its slate carving and bamboo weaving.
Highly recommended place to visit will be the Paro Valley where Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Goemba can be seen clinging to a high precipice. Further up the Paro Valley is the legendary Drukgyul Dzong that once protected Bhutan against a number of Tibetan invasions. The Par watchtower is where the National Museum of Bhutan presently located. The Punakha valley has many sacred temples including the Machiu Lhakhag in the Punakha Dzong. The high Dochu La Pass will give tourists a breathtaking view of the eastern part of the Himalayan ranges. If you’re lucky enough, you can even spot the country’s national animal, the Takin, a rather peculiar-looking beast.
Highlights of the country’s visit will be the cultural tours and trekking trips. Bhumthang is the starting point for the seven-day cultural tours through the rural villages. Interesting destinations also include Mongar, Thimphu, Punakha, Paro and Jakar.
Treks are best adventures in Bhutan. The so-called Snowman Trek is probably the hardest and toughest trek in the country. This is because of its remote location plus the altitude and different weather conditions. For those less adventurous but wants to have a taste of hiking and trekking, there are plenty of other fun, easy trekking trips available.
Bhutan’s currency is ngultrum (Nu). One dollar is equivalent to Nu.40, more or less. Bhutan’s currency is on the same level with Indian rupee and both currencies can be used in the country. US dollars and travellers cheques in dollars can be exchanged at any banks across the country and even in large hotel establishments. ATMs can be seen in major cities and larger towns. Moreover, credit cards are not that reliable to bring in Bhutan. Only a few establishments are accepting them namely the Handicrafts Emporium, some other handicrafts shops and larger hotels. A reminder though, this transactions take time to process and credit card companies charge higher fees for this. There’s even a limited time for the verification process and that will be from 9am to 5pm.
Local hand woven fabrics are valued not just in Bhutan but around the world. It comes in different types – from stitched clothing, table mats, rugs and even wall decorations. Yathra is a special product of Jakar region. It is colored woven wool that is dyed with natural colors. There’s also the Dappa, handmade wooden bowls used to carry food. Although locals of the Trashi Yangtse region are best in making these bowls, tourists are likely to see vendors all around the country selling them. Another popular hand woven product is the Bangchung which is a small woven basket consists of two fitting halves tightly attached together. This is commonly known as the “Tupperware” basket in the country.