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Bhutan ~ FAQ on Bhutan

Bhutan remains an enigma till date. And it prefers it that way. You don't get to read much about it in the newspapers or hear about it in the news. Unlike its high profile neighbours, India and Nepal, this small Kingdom is publicity shy. While answering the following questions, we have attempted to lift the veil somewhat to our ignorance about this fascinating place and its wonderful people.

1. Where is Bhutan?
Ans: Tucked away in the folds of the mighty Eastern Himalayas is Bhutan, a small Buddhist Kingdom. The Tibetan Autonomous Region of China is in the North, Sikkim is in the West, West Bengal and Assam comprise its Southern borders and Arunachal Pradesh is in the East. The total area of Bhutan is 47000 sq kms.

More on Bhutan
Places to Visit

Holiday in Bhutan
Into Central Bhutan

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2. Why is Bhutan a "must do " destination for Indian tourists?
Ans: It remains one of the most exclusive tourist destinations in the world today. Every year about 5,000 foreign tourists (the number is strictly regulated by the Tourism Authority of Bhutan-TAB) from all corners of the globe pay upwards of US$200 a day to visit this enchanting kingdom. This is in accordance with the Government's policy of restricted tourism intended to protect the nation's rich culture and tradition and it's fragile environment. The same, however, does not apply to Indians with whom Bhutan boasts a relationship that dates back to the 50's when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made a historic trip on Yak back. Indians are required to pay actuals, a rate far below those charged to foreigners for the same facilities. In other words, the cost of travel can be about the same as a trip to any other Indian hill station.


Further, in 1988, Norman Myers identified Bhutan as one of the ten bio-derversity hotspots in the world. It has also been identified as the centre for 221 global endemic bird areas. Bhutan's ecosystem harbours some of the most exotic, endemic species of the eastern Himalayas. It has an estimated 770 species of birds and over 50 species of rhododendron. The mountains brim with other exotic species like the blue poppy (national flower) and different medicinal herbs. Animals like takins (national animal), snow leopards, golden langurs, bears, wild boars, tigers and elephants roam its forests. 72.5% of the land area is under forest cover.

3. How can one reach Bhutan?
Ans: Bhutan's only airport is at Paro. It is well connected with flights on Monday and Thursday from New Delhi via Kathmandu (3 hrs). From Calcutta , there are 3 direct flights on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday (1hr). Druk Air is the only airlines allowed to operate in Bhutan. By road, one can enter from the border town of Phuntsholing. From Bagdogra airport or New Jalpaiguri station , Phuntsholing is 170 kms away i.e a driving time of 4 1/2 hrs. The journey through the plains is through picturesque tea gardens and the famous Jaldapara WLS with the mountains visible in the distance. From Phuntsholing , Thimphu is 176 kms or 6 hrs drive away.If you are visiting Darjeeling, Kalimpong or Gangtok , then by starting early in the morning , you will be able to reach Phuntsholing by evening.

4. Which is the best time to visit Bhutan?
Ans: Every season in Bhutan has it's own charm. Autumn is a lovely season when the skies are blue, the air is fresh after the rains, the trees are shedding their leaves creating a kaleidoscope of colours. Winters are very cold and in most parts of Bhutan eg. Paro, Thimphu , Dochula Pass, Bumthang etc., it snows. It is a fabulous season if you can bear the cold. The summers are as it should be - very pleasant. The skies are clear with occasional rains to clear the air. Foreigners visit Bhutan mainly to see the religious festivals (or Tsechus) performed in the various monasteries. These festivals coincide with the autumn and summer season. So, accommodation is tight and one should book in advance. Indians prefer going as per the climatic seasons.


5. How many days are enough for a holiday in Bhutan?
Ans: This depends on the places that you want to cover. If you are looking for a very short break, a 3 night-4 day vacation covering Paro and Thimphu would suffice. A 7 night - 8 day package would cover Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Wangdiphodrang. However, if you have enough time on your hands and wish to cover the whole of Bhutan, then 12 nights would be needed. You may enter from Paro or Phuntsholing in the West and exit from Samdrup, Jonkhar in the East. From Samdrup, Guwahati is only 110kms (3hrs) away.

6. Which areas can I visit in Bhutan?
Ans: The promoted areas are Paro, Thimphu, Punakha , Wangdi, Trongsa, Bumthang, Mongar and Tashigang. However, the places that are frequently visited are Paro, Thimphu, Wangdi and Punakha.

7. How good are the hotels in Bhutan?
Ans: The hotels we deal with are some of the finest in the region. However, one must understand that Bhutan is still emerging as a tourist destination and facilities at all hotels, though not luxurious, are comfortable and adequate. Some of the hotels like Olathang and Kichu Resort in Paro and Hotel Zangthopelri in Punakha have rooms scattered in a sprawling campus and room service is not encouraged. Service in the restaurants is faster and the food warmer.


8. What are the roads like?
Ans: The roads in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Wangdi are very good. In Central Bhutan, some patches on the Trongsa to Yotongla Pass section (before Bumthang ) are in need of minor repairs which are carried out regularly. Unlike Sikkim, landslides are not so common here.

9. Do Indians require permits to enter Bhutan?
Ans: Yes. But passports are NOT required. Any photo identity like a ration card or a driver's license or an electoral voting card would suffice. Based on this ID card, permits to enter Bhutan are issued by the Dept of Immigration and Census, Ministry of Home Affairs, Royal Govt. of Bhutan. In Phuntsholing, Indians may obtain this permit from the Indian Embassy office there. Two passport size photographs are required for the above. For going to Dochula , Punakha and onwards to Wangdi and Central Bhutan , a special permit is issued from Tashichodzong, Thimphu. This will require 2 extra passport size photographs. Permits have to be made 24 hrs in advance and requires travellers to be in Thimphu on that day. All Government holidays must be avoided on the day of the permit application. All offices are closed on Saturdays and Sundays. Entry /exit by Druk Air to/from Kathmandu will require passports. If you are going through a travel agent, your worries are less as the nitty gritty is taken care of smoothly, provided all documentation is in order. These permits do not allow you to enter restricted dzongs like Wangdi.

10. What are dzongs? Can we enter all dzongs?
Ans: Most tourists are awed by the dzongs and monasteries with their unique medieval architectural design which usually doesn't have a plan and nails are not used in the construction. Bhutanese Dzongs are versatile buildings: fortress, monastery and town hall under one roof. An example of this is the Capital's grand 17th century Tashichhodzong which functions as a Royal Palace, parliament Building and the epi-centre of the country's religious life. Entry to dzongs and monasteries is presently restricted.


11. Which dzongs and monasteries can we enter?
Ans: In Paro: Ta Dzong (or watch tower above the main dzong. It is also the National Museum) and Drugyel Dzong. Due to a fire Taksang Monastery is now closed to tourists till further notice. In Thimphu : Tashichhodzong when the monks are in Punakha (in winters), Memprial Chorten, Changlimithang Lhakhang, Thimphu town. In Punakha: Punakha dzong when the monks are in Thimphu.

In and around Phuntsholing: Zangthopelri Lhakhang (in Phuntsholing), Phuntsholing and Kharbandi Monasteries. In Wangdiphodrang: Only the festival or Tsechu. Not the dzong. In Bumthang: Jakar dzong (before and after office hrs), Kurjey Lhakhang, Jampa Lhakhang, Prakhar Monastery.


12. Are there any adventure activities?
Ans: Yes. Trekking is a wonderful way of discovering Bhutan. Fishing is also permitted but is strictly as per the Bhutan Fishing (Amendment) Rules, 1992. The Dept of Forestry or the DFO issues a valid fishing license. A day's permit costs Rs. 25. The rivers are not conducive for rafting.

13. Is there any nightlife?
Ans: The Bhutanese love to let their hair down once in a while! So, if you are in Thimphu on a Friday or a Saturday night, check out the discotheque at Hotel Druk-Yul and Club X respectively. It starts after 10 p.m. and goes on well into the wee hours of the morning. There is no nightlife anywhere else in Bhutan.


14. What about food?
Ans: Good food is available in all the good hotels. In Thimphu , there is a lot of variety. Good burgers and sandwiches are available at the Swiss Bakery. In places outside Thimphu, be careful about eating food from small restaurants. Stick to the hotels you are staying in. All hotels have a good vegetarian menu although the chefs are more adept at making non vegetarian dishes. The Bhutanese love hot, spicy food and meat. They cannot survive without chilli! Their national dish, hemadatshi, is made entirely of chillies (hema) treated as a vegetable and served in a cheese (datshi) sauce! If cooked properly it is delicious. Pork and beef are easily available. Drinking water should be consumed only at good hotels. Mineral water is a safer bet.

15. Are Bhutanese very traditional?
Ans: They are fiercely traditional. They have imbibed their traditions into their living so much so that all buildings including the airport in Bhutan have designs that are totally traditional. All men and women must wear their traditional dresses called the 'gho' and 'kira' respectively. Their national sport is traditional archery. Their definition of 'progress' is different from ours. Only that technology from the outside world is imported that blends with their lifestyle without jeopardising their rich cultural heritage. You will find a farmer in a remote corner of Bhutan stepping out of his Toyota Hi-lux, smoking Marlboro, wearing his 'gho' and discussing the latest scientific enhancements in farming that he learnt about during his 3rd trip to Switzerland in less than a year!

17 Some snippets?
There is no TV in Bhutan as the King believes that TV should be brought in when every Bhutanese can afford one.
The currency is Ngultrum(g is silent). It is at par with the Indian rupee.
The weekly newspaper in English is 'Kuensel'.
Their local time is 1/2 hr ahead of IST. If it is 1030 hrs in India , it is 1100 hrs in Bhutan.
Bumthang cheese, apple juice and apple brandy are famous.
Major crops are rice, maize, wheat,barley,millet,potato,mustard,beans,ginger and ,chilli.
Cash crops are Oranges, apples, cardamom.
Buddhism is the main religion.
Their main language is Dzongkha.
Population of Bhutan is 600,000!


18. Who is the King?
Ans: King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the present King, fourth in lineage, is pious, humble and erudite. Educated in Darjeeling and England he was coronated in 1974 at the age of 17.

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Editor: Romola Butalia       (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.