Bhutan Travel Infomation

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

1. Climate:

Autumn (late September-November) is the best season for mountain panoramas, photography, and trekking. Spring (March-May) is somewhat dustier and more overcast, but ideal for trekkers, botanists and bird-watchers. The extraordinary diversity of Bhutanese plants and flowers is best appreciated at this time. The winter months (December-February) are fine for visits to the Paro-Thimphu area of West Bhutan, although passes leading to Central and East Bhutan can be closed by snow. The days can be warm and sunny, and the light is superb, but the nights are very cold. Summer (June-early September) is the rainy season. Although it can rain in Bhutan at any time of the year and you should always carry an umbrella, the monsoon deluge in summertime obscures mountains and valleys, flooding the narrow roads, and sometimes causing landslides. The areas of east Bhutan bordering Assam have some of the highest levels of rainfall in the world, and the countryside there is infested with leeches! Nonetheless, the cultivated fields and forests are more verdant at this time than in any other season.

During the trekking seasons, the weather will be warm to hot during the day and can be cool to freezing at night, and is often dusty and windy depending on the location and season. The low-lying valleys can be quite hot and you may sweat profusely while ascending the many ridges and passes. At higher elevations (4,500-5,500 metres), the dry atmosphere stops perspiration and trekking can become easier, despite the thinner air and slow progress.

2. Customs & Immigration:

On arrival at Paro Airport or Phuntsoling land border you will be given a customs declaration form, on which you should list all valuable electrical equipment (computers, cameras etc), Eight millimetre cameras are allowed, but special permits and fees are required for professional filming equipment (including High Eight and 16 millimetre cameras). The declaration form will have to be surrendered when leaving Bhutan, and the items you listed at the time of entry will have to be shown, so you should keep it safe with your passport at all times. Duty-free allowance: two litres of spirits and 400 cigarettes.

NB You may not export antiquities, religious artefacts, plants or animal products. Items resembling antiques and new religious artefacts (including tangkas) may be taken out but they will have to be cleared prior to your departure by the Division of Cultural Properties (T02-322284, F02-323286). All sales receipts should be kept for inspection.

3. Conduct:

Since the Bhutanese are acutely conscious of the need to preserve their distinctive cultural traditions and physical environment amid the pressures of globalisation, they have an established code of conduct, known as Driklam Namzhak, which concerns a wide range of issues, including correct motivation, dress code, physical demeanour, honorific modes of speech, the prescribed etiquette for dining, sitting, and leave-taking, the importance of hierarchy and rank in processions or public gatherings, appropriate gestures of respect, and the conduct required while visiting dzongs, as well as correct procedures for funerals, births, inaugurations, festivals, and consecration ceremonies. The code applies to all sections of society: the monarchy, nobility, ministers, monks, married mantrins (gomchen), civil servants, and private citizens. The Bhutanese are required to wear their national dress during working hours and in most other situations, although the code has been slightly relaxed for evenings out in Thimphu.

As a visitor you will not be expected to familiarise yourself with the myriad nuances of this code of conduct, but there are certain basic guidelines that will ensure your stay is happy and inoffensive: 1) You should remain polite and courteous in social relationships regardless of the difficulties which arise. Loss of self-control will not bring about your desired response. 2) Dress modestly and according to the occasion-- casual clothes for everyday use, formal wear for special events, visiting dzongs and work. Tight or revealing clothes, including sleeveless shirts and T-shirts are not suitable. Shorts may only be worn by men when hiking in the countryside, and never by women. 3) You should remember to show respect for the monarchy and for all Buddhist institutions. Avoid killing animals or insects. Fishing in certain rivers can only be done under licence, and you should never pollute or swim in a lake. 4) You may take photographs of the exterior of a building, but not inside a temple or monastery. There are some limited opportunities to photograph the dzong courtyards. Do not block the view when filming during tsechu festivals or public gatherings. Always ask people for permission to take their photograph. 5) You should never point your fingers or feet towards anyone, and you should avoid public displays of intimacy. 6) At the time of arrival or departure, it is customary to exchange white offering scarves (katak), or gifts. Small gifts (such as bottles of wine, duty free spirits and cigarettes, etc) will be appreciated, particularly by your guide and driver, or by a host if you are invited to a Bhutanese home. Men also appreciate long argyle woollen socks, while photographs of important lamas from the various Buddhist traditions are revered throughout the monasteries, villages, and towns of Bhutan. 7) When visiting a monastery or temple, you will have to remove shoes, as in India. Cameras and umbrellas should be left outside, as well. Remember to remove your hat, to abstain from smoking, and to proceed around or through sacred shrines in a clockwise manner. You can bow or prostrate in the local manner towards the central images, and, if requested, you may even roll the sacred dice-cup indicative of good fortune that is found near the entrance. If you make an offering in a shrine you will probably be given a sip of consecrated water from a sacred vase. The water is taken in the palm of the right hand and after drinking you would wipe the remainder on the crown of your head. Never sit down pointing your feet towards the images of a temple or its inner sanctum! Never interrupt prayers or on-going ceremonies!

4. Transport:

There is no domestic air or rail infrastructure. The road network is not extensive since construction only began in the 1960s. The main lateral road links Thimphu with Tashigang (1965-85); and there are now four main roads linking the mountain areas with the plains: Thimphu-Phuntsoling (1982); Wangdu Phodrang-Khalikhola; Trongsar-Gelekphuk; and Tashigang-Samdrup Jongkhar (1963-65). Prearranged tour groups will have all transportation provided-- Japanese air-conditioned minibuses where the roads are good, and 4WD vehicles on the tougher routes, if necessary with a support vehicle to carry baggage and camping equipment. In the case of itineraries that emphasise trekking, baggage will be transported by yak caravans or ponies. There are also specialist motorcycling and mountain biking itineraries, which permit visitors to bring their own transportation.

5. Accommodation:

Bhutan has only been accepting foreign visitors since 1974. The first international chain (Aman Hotels) opened only in 2004. Currently there are high-end luxury hotels in Thimphu, Paro, Punakha and Bumthang. Elsewhere (and in those same districts) there are standard hotels, ranging from 3 star downwards, which are approved by the Tourism Council of Bhutan-- they all have electricity, telephone connections, television, attached bathrooms with intermittent hot water supply, business centre facilities, restaurants and bars. Standard and deluxe rooms are available, as well as suites. All rooms are on a twin-share basis, although single supplements are generally available. The rooms are well decorated, often in traditional Bhutanese design, and there are electric or oil heaters, although a hot water bottle will be a useful asset in the colder months of the year. In Bumthang area the hotels and guesthouses all have wood-stoves (burkhari). During the festival season, the best accommodation is frequently overbooked.

Accommodation in the towns of central and eastern Bhutan, including Trongsar, Mongar and Tashigang, is simpler but the lodges in these parts still mostly have modern plumbing and helpful staff (water and electricity supply can be erratic). Most towns have simpler guesthouses (often called hotels) where the guests are predominantly Bhutanese, Indian, and Nepalese. These establishments can be noisy, often with shared toilet and bathroom facilities. If you end up staying in such accommodation, you should bring your own disinfectant and toilet paper!

Laundry: Apart from the larger tourist hotels and major towns, no laundry or dry-cleaning service is available. If you wish to avoid the do-it-yourself option, it is sometimes possible to come to a private arrangement for laundry services with local guesthouse attendants.

6. Food and Drink:

Organized tours in Bhutan usually include a full package with three meals per day. The meals served in the best hotels provide both buffet and a la carte services. The buffet is generally the better option, in that there is usually a wide selection of dishes (Bhutanese, Nepalese and some continental cuisine). A la carte service can be very slow by comparison. You may also have the option of dining outside your hotel on certain occasions at downtown restaurants. International cuisine is only offered at a small number of hotels in the Thimphu and Paro areas. A few specialist restaurants will offer Tibetan, Indian, Nepalese, or Chinese dishes. Otherwise the standard cuisine offered in restaurants throughout the country is Bhutanese.

Bhutanese cuisine, for the most part, is pretty basic. In the central hills of Bhutan, red rice is the staple, eaten with spicy and hot vegetables and meat curries. The national dish emadasi consists of hot chillies and melted cheese, served with rice. Other spicy alternatives include beef with spinach, pork with rice noodles, and chicken in garlic butter. Buckwheat pancakes (kule) and noodles (puta) are popular in the Bumthang area, corn (gesasip) in Tashigang, and roasted barley or wheat (tsampa) in the nomadic drokpa areas of the northern mountains. The nomads also have yak meat and some mutton (fresh or dried), and diary products- delicious yoghurt, butter, milk, buttermilk, as well as cheese which comes in many varieties: hardened cubes which must be carefully sucked to avoid damaging the teeth, and moderately soft whisps which are easy to digest. Roasted barley is also the staple of the Tibetan diet. Other Tibetan dishes are also found on the menu of many restaurants: the famous momo: a steamed meat dumpling which resembles the Chinese jiaoze, or Tibetan country-style noodles (then-thuk), and noodle soup (thukpa) are great favourites. In the south of Bhutan Nepalese cuisine is predominant, and some dishes such as dhal bhat (rice & lentils) and alu takari (potato curry) can be found in restaurants throughout Bhutan.

Meat: Pork and beef are the most commonly available meats, but both can be suspect particularly during the rainy season. Fish is not generally eaten by the Bhutanese, and will not be fresh-- usually imported from neighbouring West Bengal in India. Mutton is rare, unlike in India. Chicken is becoming increasingly popular and is generally regarded as a safer option. Yak meat is a favourite during the winter season. Vegetarian fare is widely available and exotic: nettles, asparagus, taro, orchids, and various types of mushroom are found, invariably seasoned with hot chillies and sometimes with a hot cheese sauce. Desserts are not generally served but delicious apples, apricots, peaches, and walnuts are available in season. Indian snacks, such as Masala dosa and samosa are becoming quite popular in urban areas of Bhutan.

The Indian habit of chewing paan or doma, a mixture of powdered lime, palm nuts, and tobacco rolled up in a betel leaf, is widespread. The habit is discouraged in some official quarters because of the links between paan and oral cancer, and because the red stains left on the pavements where paan eaters have spat out the remains are considered unseemly.

Packed lunches are provided by the tourist hotels and local operators for day-long hikes and longer drives, but you would do well to stock up on a few dietary supplements of your own before heading up country- instant soups, cheeses, pates, biscuits, chocolates, real coffee and fresh bread rolls or pastries, all of which can be very welcome if the weather suddenly turns nasty, or if you have stomach trouble. Organized trekking expeditions which include camping will have a cook to prepare full campsite meals, or take over the kitchen of a roadside restaurant.

Tea: Sweet Indian style milk tea (ngar-ja) is very popular in Bhutan, as are the Tibetan-style dri-butter tea (so-ja) and clear salted tea (ja-dang). Butter tea is often consumed in Bhutanese homes on special occasions. Lipton tea bags are commonly served, but good quality teas are surprisingly hard to find. Coffee: Only instant Nescafe is available in Bhutan, and if you are looking for real coffee or an alternative instant brand, you will have to bring your own. Soft drinks: Soft carbonated drinks are imported from India and Pepsi Cola is even bottled at Phuntsoling. A variety of locally produced fresh fruit juices are available in cans and cartons: apple, mango, orange, pineapple and tomato, among them. Mineral Water: Local and Indian brands of bottled mineral water are widely available. Beer: Indigenous beers, such as the Bumtang brews Red Panda and Weissbeer are available, as are imported beers, including Indian brands (Golden Eagle, Black Label, Kingfisher and Dansberg), and SE Asian brands (Tiger, Sinha and San Miguel). Wines & Spirits: Expensive imported wines are available at the Duty Free Shop in Thimphu. Locally produced alcoholic drinks include traditional home brews, such as wet fermented barley or wheat ale (pang-chang), dry fermented millet, wheat or rice (tomba or sin-chang), and distilled rice liquor (arak). Indigenous brands of whisky, rum, brandy and gin are distilled by the military for commercial purposes, and these are widely consumed. NB No alcohol can be served before 1.pm, and none at all on Tuesday, which is considered as a dry day.

7. Clothing:

Cottons and light woollens should be worn in summer (June-September), and heavy woollens and jackets the rest of the year. Since it may rain at any time of the year, take an umbrella (not only for the monsoons), and a pair of comfortable walking shoes. The air temperature in Bhutan can change very quickly with a passing cloud and the coming of the night. A flexible system of ‘layered’ clothing is recommended: thermal underwear, cotton shirts and cotton undershirts with short-sleeves, cotton trousers or skirts, a warm pullover and windproof jacket, and lightweight or Goretex rain-gear, as well as a sun-hat, sun glasses, and a scarf or face-mask to ward off the dust. Flip-flop sandals are useful for hotel bathrooms, and swimming costumes for pools, stone baths and hot springs. For short hikes, strong but lightweight walking boots and thick socks should be worn. Down jackets, warm gloves and woollen hats will be needed in the winter months. Shorts should not be worn when visiting towns.

NB Casual clothes may be generally worn while travelling in Bhutan, but there are occasions when you will have to dress up, wearing a suit and tie (gentlemen) or a smart dress or trouser suit (ladies). These occasions will include visits to Tsechu or Drubchen festivals, when all the Bhutanese wear their finest clothes, meetings with senior government officials (which can happen here with surprising ease), and invitations to private homes.

Toiletries and cosmetics: Indian brands are widely available, but you will find few well-known international toiletries and cosmetics, even in Thimphu. So if you feel dependent on certain familiar products, you should consider bringing your own shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, wet wipes, cotton buds, sunscreen, lip-salve, insect repellent, contact lens cleaning fluid, perfume, deodorant, face cream, manicure set, tampons and even toilet paper! A small first-aid kit will also be useful (see health).

8. Baggage for Cultural Touring:

An experienced traveller carries as little luggage as possible. Remember that you are allowed no more than the normal weight (20 kg in economy class and 30 kg in business class) and that you may be liable to pay for excess baggage. You should also carry essentials, medication, reading material, cameras, flashlights, and other necessities (eg toilet paper) at all times in your flight bag or, as many prefer, in a lightweight backpack. It is always best to keep luggage to a minimum, and if you are on an all-inclusive package tour to Bhutan, you will need to carry fewer items than you otherwise would. A sturdy rucksack or a hybrid backpack/suitcase, rather than a rigid suitcase, covers most eventualities and survives bus boot, roof rack and plane/ship hold with ease. Serious trekkers will need a framed backpack and zip-fastening duffel bag—a complete checklist of items required for long treks or overland journeys is given below under Trekking.

Useful items: In addition to the folding umbrella (already mentioned), you would do well to carry a water bottle (with purification tabs), flashlight, multi-headed electrical adaptor, an electrical recharger (to take power from an electric-light socket), batteries (for electrical appliances), pocket calculator, electric shaver (rechargeable type), inflatable pillow, hot water bottle (for winter months), ear plugs, sewing kit, Swiss army knife, bottle opener, corkscrew, tin-opener, pocket-size screwdriver, sheet sleeping bag & pillow case, alarm clock, shoe polish, nail brush, pocket mirror, vacuum flask, light waterproof nylon shopping bag, clothes’ line, and a universal bath- and basin plug of the flanged type that will fit any waste-pipe. If you are visiting the sub-tropical areas of southern Bhutan, a mosquito net will also be useful, along with a straw hat which can be rolled or flattened and reconstituted after 15 minutes soaking in water.

NB Remember not to throw away spent batteries containing mercury or cadmium; take them home to be disposed of, or recycled properly. Never carry knives, scissors or other blunt objects in hand baggage, and never carry firearms. Their possession could land you in serious trouble.

9. Travel Insurance:

In view of the Bhutanese regulations concerning pre-payment for tours and inflexible cancellation clauses, it will be essential to take out an appropriate insurance policy, which also covers medical expenses. Before you travel make sure that your medical and cancellation insurance is adequate, and that you are covered for theft or loss of property.

10. Trekking:

The main recreational pursuit that attracts travellers to Bhutan is trekking. Northern Bhutan and even some subtropical parts of the south offer great scope for trekking since forests and high-altitude pastures make up most of the country, and some of these remote areas are even now only accessible on foot or horseback. There are no roads and villages are few and far between. Trekking conditions are very different from those in Nepal, where the travel agencies have had many years’ experience at organizing treks and where the routes have often been over-trekked. With Bhutan's small, scattered population you might trek for hours, and sometimes days, without seeing a single house, and only passing the odd person with pack animals along the track.

Somewhat like trekking in Tibet, Bhutan still offers the prospect of an original, fresh experience off the beaten track-- some of the trails are old disused trade routes dating from the period when the Tibet-Bhutan border could easily be crossed, or before the construction of the lateral highway. The trails are more precipitous than in Nepal, and physically exacting because you will constantly be climbing or descending steep inclines. Most treks start around 2,400 metres and generally ascend to 4,000 metres quite rapidly. There is very little open space for camping, and you will frequently have to trek seven-nine hours per day to reach a suitable clearing. The trails are not always well mapped or well-defined, so it is easy to lose one's way. High-altitude rescue is non-existent. It is therefore essential to trek with a reliable local guide provided by Trans Himalaya and the Bhutan Travel Service.

Campsites and pack-animals: There are no tea-houses or lodges where trekkers can stay overnight, with welcoming thermoses of hot water. In the countryside the Bhutanese are fully occupied tending animals and working in the fields and they do not have time, or the need, to take in guests. Because of the inaccessibility of most of the countryside, people are reluctant to sell any food since a shop could be three days' walk away. In remote areas, barter is a standard mode of exchange; salt or edible oil are more likely to see eggs materialize than a bank-note! It is therefore essential to have tents and provisions.

You are advised to bring your own sleeping bag and trekking gear (see below for a check-list), and you will have to carry a small back-pack with your water bottle, camera and other essential items. Tour operators provide full camping support for the duration of the trek: two-person tents with foam mats, dining and toilet tents, and three hot meals daily. Lunch is usually pre-cooked in the morning, stored in hot-cases and served during a brief halt in the middle of the day. In addition to your local trekking guide and cook, you will have camp-site assistants or waiters, and muleteers or yak-men responsible for the pack-animals. All the equipment will be transported by pack-animals, not by porters—the economy is not dependent on tourism and so the Bhutanese do not hire themselves as porters. Since the trekking months coincide with the busy agricultural season, the owners of pack animals have to be contacted well in advance, and then flattered and cajoled before they agree to participate. Moreover, in the course of a single trek, the pack animals will also be changed when crossing district frontiers.

Ecological issues: The Bhutanese government and the Tourism Council of Bhutan in particular are responsible for implementing an ecologically oriented trekking programme, ensuring that trekkers and their crews do not litter the still pristine environment. Many treks also take place in the national parks, such as the Jigme Dorje Wangchuk Sanctuary (7,813 square kilometres), which occupies the north-western belt of the country. Here conservation of flora and fauna is the responsibility of the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature. Support crews should carry all necessary fuel for cooking, but in practice you will find that local yak-men and muleteers still gather wood for camp-fires. Latrines should be dug whenever a camp is set up and refilled whenever the camp is broken up. Used toilet paper that cannot be buried should be burnt, and other garbage should be carried along to the end of the trek. Try to be mindful of the need for conservation of the local environment, even if the crew sometimes set a bad example themselves!

Trekking season: The climate is much wetter in Bhutan than it is in Tibet and even in Nepal. Therefore the trekking season is much shorter and for some high-altitude treks choosing a period between snow and rain can be difficult. The best months are March-April and October-November. However if you wish to see alpine flowers at their best you will have to travel during the wet season (July-August) when trails are muddy and leeches abound, particularly below 2,000 metres. High passes are snow-bound in the winter months, from late November until early March. While trekking in autumn, the optimum time of year, the temperature will fluctuate from the high twenties to minus ten degrees centigrade. Spring is the best time if you want to see the dazzling variety of rhododendrons.

11. Packing List for Trekking:

Since tour operators will guarantee to provide full camping and trekking support, you will not have to bring your own tents, ground mats, or food (unless you need specialist equipment). Nonetheless there are certain items that you will have to carry with you from home. Careful preparation is required for trekking in Bhutan. You don’t want to carry anything more than what is essential. You should carry your luggage in a zip-fastening, preferably waterproof, duffel bag or hold-all, which will be carried on the back of a pack animal, and keep your immediate necessities in a small knapsack, or shoulder bag (camera bag). Trekking gear should be kept down to about 15 kg, which is an ideal weight for pack animals.

Bedding: You will need to bring your own sleeping bag, suitable for all weather conditions (at least three-season quality and preferably four-season quality). A cotton or silk inset sheet sleeping bag will also be useful, as will a hot-water bottle if you are trekking above 4,000 metres.

Clothing: The following items of clothing are essential, particularly if you will be trekking above 4,000 metres: long thermal underwear (silk, cotton or wool), several short-sleeved sweat-shirts or T-shirts (polypropylene or cotton), two or three cotton shirts with pockets, swimming costume (for hot springs and outdoor bathing), hiking shorts with pockets (for men only), long trekking trousers (possibly one heavy, one light-weight); long skirts or chubas (essential for women), waterproof and windproof pants, lightweight wool sweaters (at least two, one to be worn over the other), fleece jacket, down or fibre-filled jacket, poncho or waterproof jacket, scarf or cravat, handkerchiefs, sunhat, sun glasses, wool hat or balaclava, gloves, several pairs of hiking socks (wool or polypropylene), comfortable walking shoes or boots (waterproof boots required for trekking in snow, be sure to wear them in first); light sandals or canvas shoes, and gaiters (to keep boots and socks mud-free and leech-free). In general, Gore-tex is recommended for both walking boots and trekking clothes.

Toiletries: You will have to carry soap, shampoo, shaving cream, toothpaste, a bar of washing soap for laundry, dental floss, wet wipes, sunscreen, lip-salve, insect repellent, contact lens cleaning fluid, face cream, disinfectant, tampons and toilet paper. A small first-aid kit will also be useful, and you should keep band-aid or elastoplast for blisters in your knapsack for immediate use.

Other useful items: In addition to the duffel bag and knap-sack already mentioned, you will need stuff-bags or plastic garbage bags to protect your luggage from the rain, a folding umbrella, a strong flashlight or head-lamp with extra alkaline batteries, an adjustable hiking pole, a screw-top water bottle with water purification tabs and rehydration powders, a waterproof pouch or belt for money and passport, a Swiss-army knife with bottle opener/corkscrew attachments, as well as a can opener, scissors, sewing kit, cigarette lighter and trowel (for burning used toilet paper and burying excrement), and pocket-size screwdriver.

Dietary supplements: Although organized treks will have a Bhutanese cook to prepare main meals, you may prefer to carry some supplements to vary the diet. Some people like to carry freeze dried meals, and instant soups are particular welcome at higher elevations. You can bring your own preferred brand of tea, coffee or energising drink, as well as high-energy grenola bars, as well as chocolate, beef jerky, fresh cheese, pate, meusli and so forth.

12. Health:

The only vaccination certificate required for entry to Bhutan is for Yellow Fever in the case of visitors arriving from infected areas of the world, such as equatorial Africa and Latin America. However, immunisation against typhoid, polio, tetanus and hepatitis is recommended. Try ringing a specialist travel clinic if your own doctor is unfamiliar with health in Bhutan. If you are trekking in remote nomadic areas of northern Bhutan you might consider immunisation against rabies. Malaria prophylaxis is certainly recommended for visitors to low-lying sub-tropical parts of southern or eastern Bhutan, but since the particular course of treatment for a specific part of the world can change from time to time, you should seek up-to-date advice from the Malaria Reference Laboratory, Tel: 0208-600350 (recorded message, premium rate) or the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Tel: 0151-7089393. In the USA, try Centre for Disease Control, Atlanta, Tel: 404-3324555.

Avoid unboiled water and ice-cubes, as well as uncooked vegetables and unpeeled fruit since diarrhoea and dysentery are not uncommon. The lynch pins for the treatment for diarrhoea are rest, fluid and salt replacement. Loperamide (Imodium) can significantly reduce the discomfort, but antibiotics such as Ciprofloxacin should be used for the bacterial types, and special diagnostic tests and medical treatment for the amoeba and giardia infections.

Altitude sickness at higher elevations around 4,000 metres is the commonest ailment and you are advised to take plenty of fluids throughout your stay. You should have a daily intake of four litres at high altitude, and keep your water-bottle handy and filled up, or be sure to keep taking soft drinks, mineral water, or instant soups regularly in the course of the day. Rehydration powders can easily be added to water bottles. Otherwise the effects of the high altitude are more likely to cause you to feel headaches, light-headedness, nausea, or sleeplessness. It is important to pace yourself well when walking in Bhutan. Move slowly and in a relaxed manner to minimize discomfort. Apart from paracetamol, aspirin and mild sleeping tablets which can help, the following remedies have sometimes been recommended by experienced travellers and mountaineers: Coca 30 and Phosphorum 30 (homeopathic); and acetazolomide (eg the diuretic Diamox).

Apart from altitude sickness, the major irritant to health in northern Bhutan is the dryness of the atmosphere, which often causes respiratory problems, nose-bleeds, or cracking of the lips. You are advised to carry throat lozenges and an expectorant for dry coughs such as Actifed, as well as an effective lip-salve such as Himapasta or Nivea UV Protection Lip Care.

Most children travel well at high altitude and they can be more resilient than their parents. It is always wise to carry a suitable supply of children’s medications, including calpol, liquid paracetemol, rehydration powders, and remedies for gastritis.

First-aid kit: It is always useful to carry a small first-aid kit when travelling in Bhutan. Be sure to include sticking plasters, antiseptic cream, detol, antihistamine cream, insect repellent, high-factor sunscreen lotion, immodium, talcum powder, foot powder, and eye drops.

Don’t forget to consult your doctor before departure and ensure that you bring adequate supplies of any necessary prescribed drug (to be carried in hand luggage).

13. Money:

The national currency is the Ngultrum (Nu), which has the same monetary value as the Indian rupee. Indian rupees circulates freely in Bhutan, alongside the Ngultrum. The current exchange rate (April, 2010) is US$1 = Nu 45.65, 1 Euro = Nu 59.98, and 1 GBP = Nu 67.88. The Bank of Bhutan and the Bhutan National Bank will change travellers’ cheques and hard currency (US dollars, GBP, euros, yen, Swiss francs, Singapore & Hong Kong dollars and Danish kroner). In general it will be easier to change money at the airport, in Thimphu or one of the larger towns. Major purchases in craft and textile stores may also be made in US dollars. Even if you are a tourist travelling on an all-inclusive prepaid itinerary, you will still need some Ngultrum in hand for unforeseen contingencies and for incidentals (drinks, laundry, souvenirs, phone calls, donations to monasteries, photographic fees, tips etc). This is particularly important for long overland drives or treks. On leaving Bhutan by air you will also have to pay Nu 300 airport tax, but this is now built into the cost of the flight tickets.

Travellers’ cheques: Currency-exchange outlets generally prefer travellers’ cheques to currency notes— the banks charge 1% for cashing travellers’ cheques, whatever the issuing bank, but only Amex travellers’ cheques can be replaced when lost or stolen in Bhutan. Credit cards (Amex, Visa, Mastercard) can be used only in a few large shops, such as the Handicrafts Emporium in Thimphu, and in the biggest hotels. The card-processing surcharge is high and verification can only be made during office hours (09.00-17.00). There are still no ATM machines in Bhutan.

14. Postage and Communications:

The Bhutan Postal Service, introduced as recently as 1962, has a regular mail service and an EMS express mail service, which is quite effective. If you use the ordinary service, you should allow at least two weeks for delivery to Australia and Europe and longer for the Americas. The EMS service is cheaper than couriers such as DHL. Postage stamps for letters and postcards are widely available in the Bhutan Post offices in larger towns, and also in the main tourist hotels of Thimphu and Paro. Some hotels also provide post box facilities. Larger packages should preferably be mailed from Thimphu-- the shop where you make your purchases will be able to assist, but hold on to all receipts. Air mail and sea mail options are both possible. For collecting mail, there is a post restante facility in the Thimphu GPO, but it may be better to use the post box of your hotel or local tour operator.

Stamps for postcards cost Nu 3 to neighbouring countries of the subcontinent and Nu 20 to all other countries. Stamps for letters posted to destinations within the subcontinent cost Nu 4 and Nu 20 for all other destinations (max. 20 grams).

Internet: It is possible to log on through Druknet, the national internet service provider Druknet (www.druknet.net.bt), which has been functioning since 1999. There are internet cafes in Thimphu and other towns, such as Paro, Phuntsoling, Jakar and Tashigang, but they are not yet as universal as they have become in India and SE Asia in recent years. Hotels and restaurants will often offer internet facilities.

Telephone and fax services: Domestic DDD (or STD) and international IDD (or ISD) calls can easily be made from public call offices or hotels. Connections are excellent and the fax services are also very reliable. DDD calls cost Nu 2-8 per minute, and 10% discount is offered on IDD calls made between 18.00-09.00. The Bhutan international dialling code is 975, and for IDD access dial 00. Bhutan also has its own mobile network. It is advisable to purchase a local SIM card for an unlocked cell phone—otherwise calls may be expensive and in some case may not even be possible. Satellite calls can be made through Bhutan Telecom using Indian-made Thuria phones.

Radio and television: There are television and radio services in Bhutan, operated by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). Radio broadcasts (16.00-20.00) can be heard Monday-Saturday on 60 MHz and FM 96 in English, as well as in local languages. Sunday broadcasts are longer, 10.00-16.00. The radio reception for BBC world service and VOA is also good.

15. Shopping:

Bhutan is renowned for its arts and crafts, which can be either Buddhist or secular in their inspiration. Some of the best-known items are listed here. The only opportunities for bargaining are at the handicraft section of the Changlimathang weekend market in Thimphu and the roadside stalls on the ascent to Taktsang Viewpoint in Paro. Tipping is officially frowned upon, but an acknowledgement of good service is always appreciated in hotels, and by local guides, drivers and trekking staff.

Baskets: The round bamboo picnic baskets with colourful geometric patterns (bangchung) are found all over Bhutan. Larger square baskets (zhim) are used for trekking and can easily be secured to the back of a pack-animal. Long bamboo cylinders are also used for holding alcohol.

Books are available at outlets in Thimphu and Paro. Most publications are in English, Dzongka, Tibetan, Nepali or Hindi. The National Library has its own bookshop in Thimphu, where texts in the traditional loose-leaf and modern bound format can be purchased. This shop also has a catalogue of published works.

Buddhist Artefacts: Ritual objects for sale in the main market places of Thimphu and Paro include offering materials (incense, butter lamps, water-offering bowls, libation cups), and ritual instruments, such as bells, vajras, cymbols, shin-bone trumpets (kangling), skull-drums, oboes (gyaling), and horns (radong/ dongchen).

Carpets: Indigenous carpets are made at recently established factories in Phuntsoling and Phobjika. Traditionally, most carpets were imported from Tibet.

Clothes: In Paro, Thimphu and Phuntsoling there are a number of stores selling ready-to-wear Bhutanese garments in traditional patterns. The gho worn by men is a loose fitting coat, similar to a dressing gown, which is tied at the waist by a narrow cumber band (kera) and worn knee-length, with a long-sleeved shirt and short pants underneath, and long woollen socks. The kira, worn by women, is a tighter fitting garment, secured to the shoulders by a pair of silver broaches and bound at the waist by a wide belt. It is worn ankle-length, with a long-sleeved blouse (wangju) underneath and a short-length jacket outside. Formal dress code requires both men and women to wear a ceremonial scarf over the left shoulder. The male version, known as the kabney, and the female version, known as the rachu, are both made of silk. The colours of the ceremonial scarves worn by men denote rank and status. Traditional headwear made of bamboo, yak hair, brocade and felt is also for sale.

Furniture: Wooden cabinets, tables and altar shrines carved and brightly painted with traditional motifs are for sale in the larger towns. Most can be exported in sections for assembly.

Jewellery: Traditional Bhutanese jewellery is similar to Tibetan jewellery, and includes amulet boxes, necklaces, broaches, rings, earrings, and hair-ornaments, inset with red coral, blue turquoise or yellow amber stones. Men often prize small ornate cases used for carrying betel nut (paan or doma). There are a few good outlets in Thimphu but much of the jewellery on sale in the markets is of poor quality or else manufactured in Nepal-- particularly the finely worked filigree silver and white metal pieces.

Masks: Masks similar to those worn by performing monks during the Tsechu and Drubchen dances are available in handicraft stores.

Metalwork: Some of the best items available include intricately carved swords and knives with elegant scabbards and hilts, which are almost impossible to export, even in checked baggage, following the events of 9/11.

Offering scarves: Silk and cotton scarves (katak), usually white in colour but also red, blue, yellow or green, are sold to pilgrims and devotees for offering in temples or to important teachers, as well as to the public for important secular events, including marriage ceremonies, departures and arrivals.

Paintings: Modern painted scrolls (tangka) sewn in brocade are available from the National Handicraft Centre in Thimphu, and other shops. Prices vary according to the size and complexity of the subject, and the larger tangkas can cost in excess of US$ 500. Generally speaking, it is better to commission a painted scroll from one of the more reputable artists at the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, in order to ensure that the iconography is accurate.

Philately: Attractive and highly prized national stamps are sold at the GPO, Thimphu and Philatelic Bureau, Phuntsoling, in sets or presentation albums. There are stamps depicting Buddhist deities, mandalas and historical figures, local flora, fauna, and village life, as well as novelty stamps depicting three-dimensional mushrooms and Walt Disney characters, and others that can be played like vinyl records!

Prayer Flags: Multicoloured sets of prayer flags printed with mantras and protective animals, and fashioned of varying sizes are sold in all the traditional markets. Cheaper and smaller versions of these are also printed on paper for dispersal on mountain passes.

Statues: The best statues for sale in Bhutan are the cire perdu images of gilded brass and copper manufactured in Patan in Nepal. These are preferred by locals to the cheaper and less refined yellow brass images that are imported from India. Indigenous metal and clay sculptures are also highly esteemed, but they cannot be exported from the country.

Textiles: Bhutanese hand-woven cotton, silk and woollen fabrics are for sale at the National Handicraft Emporium and other outlets. Cotton and silk are sold in loom lengths, three of which are used to make a traditional gho or kira. Woollen fabrics, best purchased at Zung-ne in the Chu-me valley of Bumtang, are sold in lengths known as yathras, which are used to make sweaters, blankets and scarves. Machine-manufactured cottons, brocades and silks in traditional designs are imported from India and sold for lower prices than hand-made textiles. Bhutanese raw silk and the blue and red checked cotton are particularly well-known. Some intricately woven hand-made silk textiles are very highly priced, and find their way into museum collections overseas.

Woodwork: Intricately carved covers for loose-leaf Tibetan books are available. In Eastern Bhutan wood-carvers make large wooden bowls with lids, fashioned sometimes from the gnarl of a single tree. Smaller tsampa containers with lids and wooden drinking cups inlaid with silver or pewter are among the best buys. Cut wooden moulds for dough-offerings (zan-par) may also be of interest, as are square woodblocks used for printing prayer flags.

NB According to government regulations the export of antiquities is illegal, and clearance is hard to obtain for most Buddhist statues, whether new or old.

16. Photography:

Since digital cards are only available in Thimphu, it will be best to bring all the smart cards or memory sticks you need from home. The only print film widely available in Bhutan is Konika ASA 100. Kodak and Fuji print film can sometimes be found, but it is best to bring you own supply. If you are taking slides you will have to bring all your own film. Video cartridges for Camcorders are sold at the Sony Shop in Thimphu. Generally speaking, it is prudent to over-compensate by bringing more film than you think you will need.

Recommended films: for colour prints, Fuji HR100 or equivalent, and Fuji HR1600 for interiors; for colour slides, Kodak chrome 3 ASA 25 and 64, and Kodak Tungsten ASA 160 for interiors; for black and white, Kodak T-max ASA 100, and Kodak Tri-X for interiors.

Tips: Outdoor photography is free of charge, and there is some spectacular scenery, but be careful not to film members of the royal family or sensitive military installations. Indoor photography is not generally permitted within temples, monasteries or dzongs, but you may freely film the outside of such buildings. The early mornings and late afternoons usually offer the best conditions for filming, and at other times try under-exposure by half a stop. An ultra-violet filter or polariser can help reduce the exposure problem caused by high altitude solar glare. A good wide-angle lens will give the best results when you are filming mountain panoramas; and when filming people or the colourful pageantry of the Tsechu festivals it will be best to use a non-intrusive telephoto lens, without flash. If you do find yourself taking close-ups remember to ask permission first, and offer to send copies by post when you return home. If you travel to Bhutan during the rainy season make sure to protect film against humidity, and at all times try to protect your equipment from dust by using a lens hood and a good camera bag.

NB It would be best to carry all film in a lead bag that offers protection from x-rays, or at least in a plastic bag that can be removed for manual inspection when checking-in at Paro Airport. Never leave film in checked baggage, which will also be x-rayed.

17. Recommended Reading on Bhutan:

Guidebooks

Contemporary Fiction

Travelogues

Biography & Autobiography

History

Nature, Flora & Wildlife

Cultural Heritage, Art and Architecture

Dzongkha & Tibetan Language and Dictionaries

Buddhism

Maps

The best widely available English language maps of the area are ITMB’s 2001 fold-out Map of Bhutan (1:380,000), and the Bhutan Himalaya Map (1:390,000) published by the Himalayan Map House in 2000. There is a larger 1:125,000 colour map showing the dzongkhag and gewok boundaries, published in 1994 by the Land Use Planning Section of the Bhutanese Ministry of Agriculture, in association with the Danish organisation Danida. A companion atlas based on this map, and on the same scale was published in 1997 by the Ministry of Agriculture. The Survey of Bhutan has published a composite Landsat map (1:125,000), and some interesting topographic maps (1:50,000) in 1995, as well as administrative maps for each dzongkhag (1:540,000) in 1996. The Department of Tourism has published a series of detailed trekking maps (1:50,000), including the well-known Jomolhari Trek, and town plans of Thimphu and Paro.

 

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