Bhutan is a small country in the Himalayas between the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and India.
Besides the stunning natural scenery, the enduring image of the country for most visitors is the strong sense of culture and tradition that binds the kingdom and clearly distinguishes it from its larger neighbours. Bhutan is the only Vajrayana Buddhist nation in the world, and the profound teachings of this tradition remain well preserved and exert a strong influence in all aspects of life. Due to its pristine environment and harmonious society, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan has been called “The Last Shangrila.”
The first humans probably arrived sometime after the Ice Age, and little is known about Bhutan’s prehistory. Historical records began with the arrival of Buddhism in the 7th century, when Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) visited Bhutan and established monasteries.
In 1865, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding some border land. Under British influence, a monarchy was set up in 1907; three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs. This role was assumed by independent India after 1947. Two years later, a formal Indo-Bhutanese accord returned the areas of Bhutan annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India’s responsibilities in defense and foreign relations.
In December 2006, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred power to his oldest son, the Crown Prince Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, bestowing upon him the title of the fifth Druk Gyalpo. The official coronation took place in November 2008. The Fifth King is Boston and Oxford educated and is held in high esteem throughout the country.
Exploring Bhutan, you imagine yourself catapulted hundreds of years back. This is enhanced by its’ people, Bhutan mother and child hardly influenced by Western mass consumption and lifestyle. Instead they still wear their selfwoven traditional outfits, leading a calm, simple and peaceful life.
The first records of people settling in Bhutan go back 14.000 years ago. It is very wel possible though that Bhutan was already inhabited by scattered clusters of tribes. The Drukpa are Bhutan’s indigenous population. They can be divided into three main ethnic groups: the Sharchops, Ngalops and Lhotsampas.
The Sharchop are believed to be Bhutan’s original inhabitants, living predominantly in Eastern Bhutan. Their roots lie in North Burma and Northeast India.
Bhutan’s second tribe are the Ngalop. Importers of Buddhism to the kingdom, they migrated in the late 19th century from the Tibetan plains. You find them mainly in Western Bhutan.
In the early 20th century, the Lhotshampa nestled in the southern plains of Bhutan, looking for agricultural land and work. They are of Nepalese origin and you’ll recognise them by their ‘topi’, a very specific headgear. This minority group was so heavily discriminated in the late 1980’s, that in 1990 they massively fled to Nepal. Nowadays they still can’t return back to Bhutan and live mostly in Nepalese refugee camps of the United Nations.
Bhutan is a relatively egalitarian society where women enjoy equal rights with men in every respect. Because the kingdom is gender balanced, there never was any need for the upliftment of woman. They are actively involved in all ranges of Bhutans socio-economic development. The kingdom also never had a rigid class system. People’s rank of birth doesn’t influence their opportunities on the social and educational ladder.
One of Bhutan’s major ‘secrets’ is the exact number of people living there. The United Nations have estimated that Bhutan is inhabited by about 2.1 million people, but there are also rates of no more than 810.000 inhabitants. However, Bhutan is one of the countries in the world with the least dense population, with 79% of the people living in rural areas. More than 90% of the people are selfproviding and spread across the country in sparsely populated villages. It was only in the mid 1900’s – when roads were built to connect the different regions of the country – that ethnic groups started to mingle.
Bhutanese culture and Buddhist influence go hand-in-hand. The influence of religion is highly visible in every day life and is a major reason for Bhutan’s spiritual and cultural legacy. The hundreds of sacred monasteries, stupas, religious institutions, prayer flags and prayer wheels make Buddhism a faith that nowadays still is very alive and probably always will be in the kingdom. Not only this makes Bhutan a very authentic country; it is also because of the traditional woven garments the people wear, the typical robust yet refined architecture and the splendid cultural festivals which are steeped in Buddhism. All of these combined make Bhutan into a unique cultural setting.
All religious ceremonies and rituals (and there are many!) are regularly performed, with reverence for all of life. All Bhutanese families go on a pilgrimage on auspicious days, offering prayers and butter lamps to the gods of the Himalayas. National and regional festivals coincide with the seasons, happening all year round.
Bhutan might globally be a small country, yet it holds a very strong identity and unity. The rich cultural heritage is strongly promoted by its government. Although modernisation is slowly making its way, generating urban settlements and introducing computers, mobile phones and other Western modernities, most of Bhutans people still live quietly in small remote villages. The predominant way of life are small family farms and Bhutan’s number one occupation is being a farmer.
Everywhere in the country, you’ll find Bhutan’s mythology expressed in many different ways. Most striking is the name its inhabitants have for the kingdom: Druk Yul, literally meaning ‘land of the thunder dragon’ in Bhutanese mythology.
Talk about Bhutan and you talk automatically about Buddhism. This religion is integrated in all aspects of the country, including architecture. Typical is the degree of uniformity: all structures correspond with traditional designs.
Bhutan’s culture is very much alive and expressed in everything, including the traditional clothing its people have been wearing for centuries. While machine milled traditional clothing is popular for daily wear, the traditionally woven dress is worn on all formal occasions including working in the office.
Bhutans unique spirit and identity is also reflected in the arts and crafts, which are all religiously rooted. Three characteristics are typical for Bhutanese art: it has no independent aesthetic function, it is religious and anonymous.
Bhutans absolute # 1 sport is archery. Each village has its’ own archery range and every festival knows a high-spirited competition. Archery tournaments happen all through the year on local, inter-village and national level.
Bhutan’s colourful festivals definitely will leave a big impression on all visitors. Although they are very joyful and the local alcohol arra is drunk abundantly, all festivals are holy spiritual events and its attendees gain merit for the next life.
Taktsang - Tiger's Nest Monastery
Paro Taktsang is the popular name of Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as Tiger’s Nest), a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley, in Bhutan. A temple complex was first built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country. Today, Paro Taktsang is the best known of the thirteen taktsang or “tiger lair” caves in which he meditated.
The Guru mTshan-brgyad Lhakhang, the temple devoted to Padmasambhava, “the Temple of the Guru with Eight Names”) is an elegant structure built around the cave in 1692 by Gyalse Tenzin Rabgye; and has become the cultural icon of Bhutan. A popular festival, known as the Tsechu, held in honor of Padmasambhava, is celebrated in the Paro valley sometime during March or April.
10 things you didn't know about Bhutan
Bhutan’s king has married his commoner bride in a colourful ceremony in the tiny Himalayan country. Here are 10 unusual facts about the nation:
1. Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia, and the eighth in the world, despite widespread poverty and illiteracy. A survey pointed to the landlocked Himalayan kingdom’s beautiful mountain scenery, isolated culture and strong sense of national identity as reasons for the contentment of its citizens.
2. The national identity was strictly and sometimes brutally enforced by the country’s ruling monarchy by banning foreign tourism, expelling thousands of ethnic Nepalese and Gurkhas, and by forcing its people to wear national costume – a tartan judo-style jacket known as Driglam Namzha – during daylight hours.
3. Television was banned until 1999, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided it would help to modernize his isolated kingdom.
4. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck had a democratic epiphany in the late 1990s, introduced a new constitution in 2005 and abdicated in favour of his young son, today’s royal groom, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in 2008.
5. The former King’s greatest legacy was his concept of the ‘Gross National Happiness’ to measure of a nation’s wellbeing as an alternative to the Gross National Product. Bhutan is rated as far more ‘happy’ on a range of indicators than its powerful and wealthy neighbour India, which is ranked as only the 125th happiest country ion the world. The idea has inspired similar approaches in France and by David Cameron in Britain.
6. The nation’s strong sense of identity grew in high altitude isolation and amid fear of invasion by Tibetan armies or colonization by Britain.
7. Bhutan was unified under Tibetan warlord and lama Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who fled Tibet in the 17th century and built the country’s famous Dzong fortresses to defend against foreign invaders.
8. The country was never colonised by Britain but its forces were defeated in North Bengal and Bhutan was forced to sign a treaty which gave Britain control of its foreign relations. India inherited that power when it became independent in 1947 and remains a powerful influence over the country.
9. Bhutan is overwhelmingly Buddhist, with a large Hindu minority, but remains deeply superstitious. Traditional homes have carved wooden erect phalluses protruding from the main door lintels to ward off evil spirits.
10. Bhutan’s national sport is a form of archery in which rival teams face each other across a field, and fire sharp arrows at one another, while each team waves its arms to distract their opponents. Players battle it out wearing national costume.
Birth Place of Lord Buddha
Lumbini, the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama, the Lord Buddha, was born in 623 B.C. in the famous gardens of Lumbini, which soon became a place of pilgrimage. Among the pilgrims was the Indian emperor Ashoka, who erected one of his commemorative pillars there.
Paro (2,250m), the site of Bhutan’s only airport, is set amongst the pastoral beauty of Paro Valley. This picturesque region is one of the widest valleys in the kingdom and is covered in fertile rice fields and has a beautiful, crystalline river meandering down the valley. Visitors often spend several days in Paro as there are over 155 temples and monasteries in this area, some dating as far back as 14th century. Athe incredible monastery of Taktsang which clings to a sheer rock cliff, the Tiger’s Nest. This awe-inspiring temple was constructed upon a sheer cliff face, hundreds of meters above forests of oak and rhododendrons and the valley floor. Well worth visiting is the National Museum featuring a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps. Other nearby the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong (fortress of the victorious Drukpas) with its magnificent views of Mount Jumolhari and the 7th century Kyichu Temple.
The Haa Valley is one of the most picturesque districts in Bhutan. An ideal day trip from Paro beyond the beautiful Chelila Pass, Haa is the ancestral home of the Royal Grandmother and the Dorji family, and is characterised by its rugged and mountainous terrain. Legend says that the Haa valley was previously dominated by animist traditions before the tantric master Padmasambhava visited the valley in the 8th century and transformed their beliefs into peaceful Buddhist traditions. In addition to its natural beauty, Haa also features a number of interesting sites including Chhundu Lhkhang, dedicated to the valley’s protecting deity, 7th century Lhakhang Karpo (white) and Lhakhang Karpo (black) and Haa Dzong. Haa’s annual summer festival provides a fantastic opportunity to participate in the nomadic lifestyle of the Haaps, including savouring their delicious delicacies. You may also compete in the traditional game of khuru, archery and soksum and try hitting the bull’s eye.
Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu (2,350m) is a fascinating blend of the old and the new. Zoning regulations have retained the forms and motifs of Bhutan’s traditional architecture giving the city a wonderful structural harmony amidst the modernity of restaurants, shopping centres, nightclubs and cafes. The Kingdom’s capital city is home to approximately 100,000 inhabitants including the Royal family. Thimphu’s most striking visual landmark is the magnificent Tashichhodzong, the seat of the Royal Government and Central Monastic Body. Semtokha Dzong, 6km from the city limits, is the kingdom’s oldest Dzong and now used as the Dzongkha language school of Bhutan.
A number of institutions in Thimphu such as the Royal School of the Performing Arts, the Folk Heritage Mueseum, the School of Traditional Painting and the Institute of Traditional Medicine offer visitors a fantastic insight into Bhutanese culture. Other attractions include the National Memorial Chorten, the 51.5 metre high Buddha Dordenma Statue, the Handicrafts Emporium, the National Library (housing a rare collection of Buddhist scriptures) and the lively weekend market.
Dochula pass is located on the way from Thimphu to Punakha. On clear days, the location proves a stunning panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain range, with snowcapped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 chortens gracing the mountain pass. Known as the Druk Wangyal Chortens, the construction of these 108 chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. The Pass also features The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple), built in honor of His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The past and future appears to merge in the details of the Lhakhang and its structure tells the story of a supreme warrior figure, whose vision pierces the distant future in a fine blend of history and mythology.
Punakha (1,310m) is Bhutan’s ancient capital and the winter seat of the Central Monastic Body due to its sub-tropical climate. The Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 by the Shabdrung (the unifier of Bhutan), is situated on a triangular spit of land at the confluence of two rivers. The body of the Shabdrung, who died in 1651 while in meditation at Punakha, is preserved at the Dzong. Its main temple is breathtaking with four intricately embossed entrance pillars crafted from cypress and decorated in gold and silver. Other highlights includes the incredible views from Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten and Chimi Lhakhang, dedicated to Bhutan’s popular saint Drukpa Kuenley, otherwise known as the “divine madman” due to his unorthodox methods of religious teaching.
GANGTEY PHOBJIKHA VALLEY
Phobjikha Valley (2,900m) is often described as “the most beautiful valley in the most beautiful country in the Himalayas”. It is located in the Black Mountains, the highest of Bhutan’s north-south ridges about 2 and a half hours drive from Wangduephodrang on a spectacular route. Every winter, the rare and beautiful Black-necked Cranes return from Tibet to the safety of this quiet and remote valley. Every November the Black-Necked Crane Festival is held in honour of these majestic birds.
Gangtey, located a few kilometres above the valley has a very interesting 17th century Nyingmapa monastery, the only one of its kind west of the Black Mountain range. Known for its lovely paintings and statues, it is ringed with family houses of the gomchen, the religious laymen who worship the work at the monastery.
Ancestral home of Bhutan’s ruling dynasty, Trongsa is a strategically located town on the east-west route. Trongsa Dzong, built on a spur with a spectacular views of the Mangde River Valley is Bhutan’s largest Dzong and the location of where the institution of Bhutan’s monarchy began. The foundations of Trongsa Dzong were laid in the 16th Century and there are now 22 temples in the complex. Overlooking the Dzong is the Ta Dzong museum housing an incredible collection of historical artefacts of the Royal Family including the Raven Crown worn by the 1st King of Bhutan and a range of traditional armour. Nearby there are also a number of impressive palaces built by former Kings including Kuenga Rabten Palace and Yurungchhoeling Palace.
En route to Trongsa is Chendebji Chorten, patterned on Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points.
Bumthang is the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and distinguished in history as the first place Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rimpoche. Its undulating green valleys are renowned for their natural beauty, historic palaces, numerous temples and important ancient Buddhist sites. Some of these include Kurje Lhakhang, home to a rock featuring the imprint of Guru Rimpoche’s body, 7th century Jambay Lhakhang, one of the Kingdom’s oldest temples and the Tamshing Monastery containingsome of the oldest wall paintings in Bhutan.
Other highlights in the Bumthang Valley include the 16th century Ugyen Chholing Palace complex housing a fascinating museum, 14th century Tang Rimochen Lhakhang where Guru Rinpoche meditated and Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake), where some of Guru Rinpoche’s treasures were found in the 15th century by the famous treasure discover Pema Lingpa.
Mongar is Bhutan’s eastern commercial centre. Like other towns in the East, Mongar is located on the top of a hill. The Dzong provides an exhilarating vista and houses many ancient artefacts. The landscape is spectacular with stark cliffs, gorges and dense conifer forests. The region is known for its weavings, with its textiles and fabrics considered some of the best in the country. Mongar also features many places of pilgrimage like the Aja Nye and the Hungja Nye and hundreds of sacred lakes. One of the most notable religious sites is the Dramitse Lhakhang built in the 16th century by Ani Cheten Zangmo, the daughter of the renowned terton Pema Lingpa. The Dramitse Ngacham or the “Dance of the Drums of Dramitse,” was born in this lhakhang in the 16th century. Today, it is a popular dance performed at all major festivals. It is also on the esteemed UNESCO World Heritage list.
Trashigang (3,773m) is the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan. It is known for its magnificent landscapes, woodwork and fine weavings. The 17th century Trashigang Dzong commands a spectacular view over the valley and the Gong River below. In winter, semi-nomadic people from the north-eastern glacial valleys of Merak and Sakteng, dressed in their characteristic burgundy jackets, come here to sell their cheese, butter and yak wool. From Trashigang, one can experience the invigorating excursions to Khaling, Radi, Phongme and Trashi Yangtse, home to the Chorten Kora, a stupa constructed in 1740 and patterned after the Bodhnath in Nepal.
Located in the scenic south-east of Bhutan, the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar is the eastern overland gateway to Bhutan, and holds the distinct honour of being the oldest township in the country. From here you can reach the nearest airport at Guwahati in the Indian state of Assam, from where you can fly to Delhi or Kolkata. It is by far the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan, and a convenient exit town for visitors who have travelled from the west to the east of the country. Today the road from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar, completed in the 1960s, connects the eastern and southern regions of the country, allowing them to benefit from trade, especially through trade across the Indian border. It lies at elevations ranging from 200m to 3,500m.
The bustling frontier trading town of Phuentsholing in the south is the gateway to Bhutan for overland travellers from India and Sikkim. It is Bhutan’s second largest town, and is located next to the Indian town of Jaigon. Karbandi Monastery is a popular temple for those wishing to have children after an Indian pilgrim became pregnant after praying at there. It also provides wonderful views over Phuentsholing and the Bengal Plain. From Phuentsholing, the road winds north over the southern foothills, through lush forested valleys and around the rugged north-south ridges of the inner Himalayas to the western valleys of Thimphu and Paro. Hairpin corners on this breathtaking six hour drive are, to reassure the traveler, marked with tall, colourful sculptures of the Tashi Tagye, the eight auspicious signs of Buddhism.
It is mandatory for all tourists (other than Indian, Bangladeshi & Maldivian nationalities) to obtain a Bhutan visa clearance before travelling to Bhutan. The Bhutan visa has to be processed through our ground handling company in Bhutan.
To obtain the visa, you need to tell us how long you will be staying in Bhutan and from where you will fly. We will then book your flights and hotels accordingly. After this, you must send us a scanned copy of your passport. As soon as we receive these, we will send you the tour invoice so that you can make payments following which we will forward the same to the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and Department of Immigration (DOI). These agencies will process the visa online.
Next we will send you the visa confirmation code. You must carry a printed copy of the visa confirmation code and your flight tickets as these need to be produced at the check-in counter at Paro International Airport.
Your actual Bhutan visa will be stamped on your passport upon your arrival.
Visa/Permits for Indian, Bangladeshi & Maldivian nationalities can be obtained at the Immigration Check Points, at the port of entry, upon production of a valid Passport (Indian Nationals can also use their Voter Identity Card).