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The magical Kingdom of Bhutan is renowned for being the country where Gross National Happiness is valued more than Gross National Product. It's also one of the most pristine and culturally intact countries in the world too. Bhutan also places great emphasis on environmental issues and may well be a Carbon Negative country. Dependent upon how you value the stuff of life, Bhutan may well be the most 'perfect' country in the world and a model to us all. There's free health care for all Bhutanese citizens (partly funded by tourism and as the Bhutanese take great pride in their beautiful country, it's very clean too. Litter is almost non-existent.
Bhutan didn't get its first road until the 1960's and even now there are very few roads, other than the main East/West Highway. But the odd one or two extra are now pushing into previously isolated valley systems. Outside of the larger urban areas of Thimpu and Paro, there is still very little in terms of traffic on the roads of Bhutan.
Television, mobile phones and the Internet was only introduced in the late 1990's. To the greater extent Bhutan has successfully remained isolated from the outside world for very many centuries. It is a land of supernatural legends, ancient monastery fortresses and, even today, the Bhutanese people live their lives according to time-honoured cultural traditions and deeply held Buddhist beliefs. It all sounds too good to be true.....a veritable Shangri La. Certainly the Bhutanese have a very different outlook as to what western society may consider to be "progress". Compared to western countries Bhutan remains a very basic, simple country and to some extent Bhutan wishes to keep it that way, "cherry picking" if you like certain aspects from the west, whilst endeavouring not to make the same mistakes as more developed nations have a habit of doing.
It's well known that in respect of tourism, Bhutan is a rather costly place to visit and if considered in purely economic terms is poor value for money, when compared to Nepal. Whilst the minimum daily tariff package charge does include certain things (see here for more on that) it could be readily debated that tourists are being "ripped off". In reality what you are paying for is exclusivity, but with no real added frills that (say) an exclusive deluxe hotel affords. Contrary to popular belief Bhutan does not limit the number of tourists visiting the country. The $250 per person per day daily tariff does that. Plus, the fact that you can't travel to Bhutan independently and only through a licensed Bhutanese operator means that Bhutan remains an exclusive destination. By that it is not despoiled by tourism, changed by tourism or over run with tourists. The exclusivity in the instance of Bhutan is the opportunity to experience a country that has held onto its values and traditions and is not going to change just to suit tourists. So, you are paying for that privilege. If you don't think that's a privilege, then a visit to Bhutan may well be something to reconsider. All that said, Bhutan readily welcomes tourists...it just wants the right sort of tourists, not the ones who need McDonalds every 5 minutes and actually just want everything to be like their own country.
If you're the right sort of tourist whom can respect Bhutanese values, traditions and culture as well as the environment (and don't mind paying a little more for that), then Bhutan may well be your Shangri La. "High Value, Low Impact" is the tourism mantra in Bhutan.
This short, but very inspiring video from the Prime Minister of Bhutan goes a long way in understanding the Bhutanese approach
But anyone travelling to Bhutan also needs to take off the 'rose tinted sunglasses' and take a reality check. The fact is that it remains one of the poorest countries (econmically) in the world and there is no escaping that. Unless you blindfold yourself when stepping off the plane at Paro Airport and steadfastly remain inside a luxury hotel you will experience and witness the fact that the people on the whole are very poor, but usually happy as Bhutanese are not materialistic.Begging from tourists is however virtually non-existent.
The infrastructure of the country is poor at best
'Health and Safety' as you know it in Europe and North America is virtually non-existent in Bhutan.
Bhutan has very few paved roads. Travel by road is invariably a slow, uncomfortable affair and even in private vehicles the journeys can still be arduous and tiresome. Although our drivers are very experienced and understand the standards of driving tourists expect, the overall standards of driving here leave a lot to be desired.
Although Bhutan may well be a real Magical Kingdom, it's the opposite of the Disneyland version...Bhutan is real....warts and all.
Serious crime is a rarity in comparison to Europe and North America though, although with tourism comes some undesirable consequences. So, always keep your belongings safe, wherever you are.
You'll find that even in the most luxurious of hotels that plumbing is sometimes far from the standards you take for granted at home and instances of no hot water in accommodations can frequently arise. Many standard hotels will have unheated rooms.
Drugs (including marijuana) are illegal in Bhutan and possession/use can lead to imprisonment.
Bhutan is prone to earthquakes although these are usually relatively minor affairs. The Himalaya is still growing as a result of the Indian tectonic plate grinding & twisting its way underneath the Asian plate.
Oddly enough you may find that even in some remote areas there's a mobile signal. Wifi can often be found at some accommodations. But, don't rely on this, and as you will find limited opportunities to keep your phone charged we'd suggest you limit the use of your phone, unstaple it from your ear and see if you can break the habit :-)
Bhutan remains an adventurous travel destination and with many risks whatever style of holiday you choose. Clearly to many that Bhutan is very much a real travel destination is one of the primary appeals. However, if the idea of visiting a poor country with poor infrastructure and a lack of basic services isn't your idea of a good holiday, then we'd respectfully suggest you don't travel to Bhutan. Even in the perceived 'safety bubble' of a private holiday, what Bhutan is (and isn't) will be a de facto part of your overall travel experience.
The population is around 700,000.
The capital city is Thimpu and is the largest urban area in the country, although the population is a mere 70,000 (approx).
Bhutanese people can be generally categorised into three main ethnic groups. The Tshanglas, Ngalops and the Lhotshampas. The other minority groups are the Bumthaps and the Khengpas of Central Bhutan, the Kurtoeps in Lhuentse, the Brokpas and the Bramis of Merak and Sakteng in eastern Bhutan, the Doyas of Samtse and the Monpas of Rukha villages.
Vajrayana Buddhism is the dominant faith in Bhutan and the one you are most likely to encounter whilst on holiday in Bhutan. Around 75% of Bhutanese people follow this faith. Minority religions like Hinduism do co-exist in the southern regions.
Previously a Kingdom with an absolute monarchy and whilst the Royal Family are still revered and loved, Bhutan now has a parliamentary democratic system.
6 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Dzongkha is the national language although there are numerous dialects. Tshanglakha is the native language of eastern Bhutan while Lhotshamkha is spoken by the southern Bhutanese. English is taught to children in school from a very young age, so you'll find that many Bhutanese in the urban areas can speak a little English, less so in more remote locations.
The Ngultrum (Nu) is the currency of Bhutan and is linked to the Indian Rupee, which is also accpeted as legal tender. You won't be able to obtain Bhutanese currency prior to travel and can exchange (we rcommend using cash ($US, £GBP, €EUR) at banks and hotels in the main towns. Credit cards are really accepted only at high-end tourist shops and in hotels. However (at the time of writing) there is now an ATM in Thimpu in which you may be able to withdraw cash and it accepts Visa cards only. The availability oif cash machines in Bhutan is likely to improve.
Electricity in Bhutan is 230 Volts, alternating at 50 cycles per second. If you travel to Bhutan with a device that does not accept 230 Volts at 50 Hertz, you will need a voltage converter. To find out what plug adaptors and converters you'll need click here (links to external site in a new window).
Food & Drink
The Bhutanese love chillies. But for tourists the use of chilli is toned down (unless you ask for local strength) Rice forms the main body of most Bhutanese meals. It is accompanied by one or two side dishes consisting of meat or vegetables. Pork, beef and chicken are the meats that are eaten most often. Vegetables commonly eaten include Spinach, pumpkins, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, river weed, onions and green beans. Grains such as rice, buckwheat and barley are also cultivated in various regions of the country depending on the local climate.
Ema Datshi: This is the National Dish of Bhutan. A spicy mix of chillis and the delicious local cheese known as Datshi. This dish is a staple of nearly every meal and can be found throughout the country. Variations on Ema Datshi include adding green beans, ferns, potatoes, mushrooms or swapping the regular cheese for yak cheese.
If you require a special diet, then you should contact us before you book your Bhutan holiday as it is entirely possible that it may not be able to be catered for, particularly in the mountains.
Thimpu is the only capital in the world not to have traffic lights. It did have some for a while, but the locals complained as they prefer the white gloved police to direct traffic.
The highest unclimbed mountain in the world-Gangkar Puensum-is in Bhutan. As the Govt of Bhutan has banned peak climbing, this record is likely to remain.
Less than 140,000 tourists visit Bhutan each year.
Bhutan has no trains (at the moment).
Hydro-electricity is Bhutan's most valuable export commodity.
Bhutan's National Sport is Archery.
To the locals Bhutan is Druk Yul-Land of the Thunder Dragon- this is because of the huge thunder storms that roll in across the Himalayas.
If anyone is caught harming or killing the endangered black-necked crane, they could be sentenced to prison for life.
Bhutan is the only country in the world where the sale of tobacco is prohibited.
The first foreign tourists were allowed into Bhutan in 1974.
Up until 1960, Bhutan had no roads, no electricity, no automobiles and no postal system.
30% of the population in Bhutan are younger than 15!