Bhutan, Asia - Stein Travel
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Bhutan

Imagine a land hidden from the world for centuries, a pristine natural environment free of pollution and crime, guided by an official policy known as Gross National Happiness.

Welcome to Bhutan, known to its people as Druk Yul- Land of the Thunder Dragon. Situated in the remote Himalayan mountains, with India and China its only neighbours, Bhutan is one of 10 biodiversity hotspots and the only remaining Mahayana Buddhist kingdom.

The scenic majesty of its soaring mountains and pristine 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 Tiger's Nest Monastery, built into a cliff face 2,950 feet (900m) above the ground near Paro, the country's capital city. Another key attraction is Trongsa Dzong, 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: the walls of many buildings are emblazoned with drawings of giant penises - an invocation of good luck and fertility. All new structures must follow the ancient style and people are obliged by law to wear traditional dress in public. Monks have broadband access, and 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 USD250 per day on a pre-determined 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, the splendidly named King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, 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 exciting though uncertain world beyond the borders of this, the last Shangri-La.

Information & Facts

Climate

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.

Communications

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.

Customs

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; avoid any disparaging remarks or gestures. Mountains are considered to the abode of the gods and hence any recreational activities therein are disallowed.

Duty Free

Travellers to Bhutan may bring with them up to 400 cigarettes/150g pipe tobacco/50 cigars, two litres of liquor, and goods for personal use. Guns and ammunition, narcotics, antiques and wildlife products are prohibited.

Electricity

Electrical current is 230 volts (50Hz). European round pin attachment plugs and three-pin rectangular plugs are in use.

Health

Ensure you have adequate health 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.

Language

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.

Money

The local currency is the Ngultrumbut subdivided into 100 Chetrums. 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.

Passport Visa

Bhutan has an unusual but fairly simple process for admitting visitors: Bhutanese embassies abroad cannot issues visas, instead you must apply for your visa in advance through a registered tour operator. The visa takes a minimum of two weeks to be approved 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. You will need to pay a USD 20 fee and present two passport photographs.

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 250 per day of stay.

Safety

Bhutan is one of the safest destinations on the planet. There is virtually no crime or violence.

Time

Local time is GMT +6 hours.

Tipping

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.

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