WHY VISIT BHUTAN
Bhutan is bordered by Tibet to the north and India to the south: a small country shaped by tropical plains on the Indian border and high valleys in its Himalayan part, it was for a long time unknown to travelers and placed under the authority of Buddhist monks before being today a kingdom, with less than a million inhabitants. We can now discover this country at the end of the world, its incredible landscapes, its practice of traditional agriculture which is its main resource, and its astonishing customs.
You can start with the capital Tiumphu, set in a wooded valley, with the old charm of its colorful houses and not a single red light! Several sites are to be seen: the Trashi Chhoe Dzong, Fortress of the Glorious Religion, which houses the king’s offices; The National Institute for Zorig Chusum, a school that teaches traditional arts to children from all over the country; The National Memorial Chorten, a religious monument where one can see Tantric statues and sacred pictures, but which is also a place of worship where hundreds of Bhutanese circulate permanently; The Weekend Market where villagers come to sell their products; The Changlimithang Stadium where the archers train for this national sport which is practiced in traditional dress; The National Institute of Traditional Medicine, where medicines are manufactured with more than 300 plants to be sent to the four corners of the kingdom.
Paro, in the west of the country, is located in a fertile valley, and the landscapes are sumptuous. You will see the National Museum which plunges you into the culture of the country, but also the Taktshang Monastery which dominates the valley, sacred site of the kingdom. It is also near Paro that the airport is located.
Impossible to cite all the places of interest of this tiny country, but here are some other examples of places almost unavoidable for the curious visitor: the Bumthang, spiritual center of the country, with its 4 great valleys, its dzongs, its temples, and its palaces; The Phobjika Valley, a unique and protected animal reserve, with its black-necked cranes, bears, leopards, and red foxes, and the Black Mountains National Park; The small town of Trashigang, so isolated and authentic; The sanctuary of the yeti in the extreme east of the country; The village of Laya, at 3700 meters above sea level, under the Tsenda Gang peak, where the Layap have their own customs and language, to which you can only reach by foot.
WHAT TO SEE IN BHUTAN
Top destinations in Bhutan are:
WHEN TO GO TO BHUTAN
The best period to visit Bhutan is from March to May and August to November.
The climate of the country is very varied according to the altitude: tropical type to the south, and the presence of the Himalayas to the north makes it more rigorous.
Between September and November is the most pleasant period, with a clear time, which allows the practice of the trek in good conditions, and it is the same in spring, from March to May, with in addition the flowering Superb rhododendrons. In December and January, you will encounter colder weather, but as tourists are less frequent, it will be more interesting financially.
Avoid, the period from June to August, because of the monsoon. If you want to make your trip coincide with the traditional festivals, know that there are almost all year round.
Following a list of typical festivals and celebrations of Bhutan.
- Thimphu Tshechu (September): The Thimphu Tshechu is one of the biggest festivals in Bhutan as thousands of people flock to the capital in their finest garments. This three-day festival is a welcomed reprieve from work. During the festival, people pack into the courtyard of the Tashichho dzong (fortress), a dancing stage is erected, and mask dances, often with a religious significance, are performed.
- Paro Tshechu (March): The most popular spring festival, monks and laymen dress up in vibrant, brocade costumes. While wearing masks representing wrathful and peaceful deities, they re-enact the legends and history of Buddhism in Bhutan. The culminating moment of the festival is the viewing of the four-story-high, 350 years old thangkha (Buddhist religious scroll), celebrating the deeds of Guru Rimpoche.
- Jambay Lhakhang Drup (October): Traditional and mask dances are performed to honor Guru Rimpoche and to celebrate the establishment of the Jambay Lhakhang Monastery. The fire ceremony, Mewang, is considered the highlight. During the fire ceremony, locals sprint underneath a large flaming gate made from dry grasses. The other notable event is the Tercham (Dance of Treasure), where masked dancers perform naked in the middle of the night. They believe this dance will bless infertile women so that they may bear children.
- Punakha Drubchen (February): What makes Punakha Drubchen different is the dramatic recreation of a scene from the 17th century battle with the Tibetan army. The local militiamen (pazaps), dressed in battle gear, reenact the encounter. It’s to remember when the village districts in Bhutan came forward and managed to drive the Tibetan forces out of the country, bringing newfound internal peace and stability. The Punakha Tshechu is held immediately afterward.
- Haa Summer Festival (July): Set in a stunning location in the wilderness with views of the Himalayan landscape, the 3rd Haa Summer Festival gives visitors an in-depth picture of the lives and culture of the nomadic herders living in Haa Valley. It’s a happy and lively celebration of traditional Bhutanese culture, sports, and religion. Tourists can participate in some of the local sports (such as yak riding), try the local cuisine, or dance to their ancient folk songs.
- Wangdue Phodrang Tshechu Festival (October-November): The region of Wangdue Phodrang, central Bhutan, is famous for its ornamental speeches and songs are known as Lozeys. The annual festival was introduced after the completion of Dzong, which is a fortress, in 1639. It is one such Bhutan festival, where locals and thousands of tourists come together to revel in the festivities and to celebrate life and merriment. The ‘Dance of Ox’ is also a major attraction, where people dance to ensure a peaceful afterlife. The festival is concluded with the unfurling of a gigantic scroll of various paintings, known as Guru Tshengye Thongdrol.
- The Sakteng Festival: The Sakteng Festival is a great 3-day festival put on by the semi-nomadic Brokpas people. The Sakten valley, where the festival is located, is in eastern Bhutan next to Trashigang Dzongkhag. The Brokpas are about as untouched by the outside world as a group of people can get and the same goes for the Sakteng valley. This festival is a time for the people to celebrate and essentially, party. The festival, like many in Bhutan, is centered around worship. It also focuses on traditional clothing and lots of ara which is the local wine. The Brokpas people will also perform the Yak Dance and the Ache Lhamo dance. These two dances are specific to the Brokpas people and are different than the mask dances that take place during celebrations in the rest of Bhutan.
- Dochula Druk Wangyel Festival: held annually on December 13th at the Druk Lhakhang Festival Ground at Dochula Pass. The grounds are just 22km outside of the capital city of Thimphu. The festival was set up to honor His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and the Armed Forces successful defeat of Indian insurgents in Southern Bhutan in 2003. This festival is a true example of Bhutanese cultural traditions and it offers one of the most stunning views in the country. The grounds offer an incredible panoramic view of the Himalayan mountains.
- The Black-Necked Crane Festival: Held every year in the courtyard of the Gangtey Gonpa, in Phobjikha, the Black-Neck Crane Festival holds two very important purposes. It raises awareness for the protection of the endangered Black-Neck Crane and it also brings to light the importance of having a strong link between economic welfare and sustainable living for the farming community. While they promote these causes, they also have an impressive showcase of their culture through dance, song, and dress. Many of these are inspired by the beautiful black-neck crane. The festival is every November to signify the incoming migration of the black-neck cranes.
- Punakha Drubchen (March 2nd, 2017 to March 6th, 2017): A festival enacting the glorious war and the subsequent victory if Zhabdrung Namgyel against Tibetan armies is still celebrated in Punakha. Warrior dances revolving around the battle are displayed in the festival.
- Punakha Tshechu (7th March 2017 to 9th March 2017): This is one of the most famous festivals of Bhutan and it happens right after the Punakha Drubchen. The rolling out of the Throngdol of Guru Rinpoche is the central attraction of the festival besides the many colorful masked dances.
- Gasa Tshechu (April 3 2017 to April 6, 2017): The largest festival dominating the quiet little district of Gasa in Northwest Bhutan, there is much to look forward to in the Gasa Tshechu. There are a variety of indigenous dance performances which are not found anywhere else in the world. The venue is the Gasa Dzong.
- Tsirang Tshechu (April 03 to April 06, 2017): Arguably, the biggest festival in Southern Bhutan the Tsirang town is packed to the hilt during this festival. The focus is again on masked dances with local music and traditional costumes (some of them have skulls fixed on them). The 8th-century Throngdol of Guru Padmasambhava is displayed on the last day of the festival.
- Zemgang Tsechu (April 04 to April 07, 2017): One of the more inaccessible areas of Bhutan, Zhemgang gains a burst of new life when the annual Tshechu is held there. Along with many different dance performances, a highly revered Throngdol belonging to Guru Rinpoche is unfurled and displayed.
- Gomphu Kora Festival (April 4th -6th 2017): Gomphu Kora is in the center of East Bhutan. It is merely 24 km away from Trashigang that is Bhutan’s most populated district and about 2 km away from Duksum. The name Gomphu Kora literally translates into Meditation Cave and Circumambulation. The name gets its inspiration from a cave fashioned out of a rock cave. The presiding deity of Gomphu Kora is Myongkhapa who had vanquished evil spirits at this very spot. From the 10th to 15th centuries, the Gomphu Kora saw a lot of construction and addition along with mural paintings. The Gomphu Kora festival is held between 23rd to 25th march every year and almost the whole of Eastern Bhutan congregates around Gomphu Kora to perform circumambulation (the theory is “go around Gomphu Kora now as tomorrow may be too late”). The Gomphu Kora is one of the most sacred festivals of Bhutan and its especially touching to see the dedication of the Dakpa tribes of Arunachal who walk through the rough terrain for days with their whole families, to reach the Gomphu Kora during festival time. The Dakpa’s have supposedly been doing this since the 8th century.
- Merak Tshechu (2nd to 3rd August 2017): The Eastern Bhutan Merak Valley lies inside the Trashigang Dzongkhang (altitude 3000 meters). Semi nomads named Brokpas inhabit this valley and they exist close to nature with unchanged customs and rituals that they have been practicing for thousands of years. The Brokpas do not use currency; they use the barter system. Their clothes are made completely out of skin, hair, and wool of the Yak. The women practice polyandry and the whole community loves to dance and music. In the 3 days long Merak Tshechu, Brokpas perform the rare Ache Lamo dance along with the Yak dance (also practiced in Sikkim). If cultural immersion is one of your interests, then this festival will surely appeal to you.
- Matsutake Festival (4th weekend of August): The Matsutake festival is a food festival and brings with it a great opportunity to sample the unique varieties of mushrooms found in Bhutan. Identification, harvesting, and tasting the wild Matsutake mushrooms of Bhutan is the highlight of this festival, and thousands of tourists comb through the trails of the valley to discover lush patches of mushroom. The festival happens in the Ura Valley and tourists generally stay in local homestays (tour operators will arrange accommodation). Visitors learn to dance and sing with the locals, wander through the beautiful Ura Valley, and learn to cook mushroom recipes.
- Jomolhari Mountain Festival (14th-15th October 2017): Jomolhari Mountain Festival is a beautiful 2-day celebration held in the base of Mount Jomolhari. The festival is inspired by the different communities peacefully co-existing with nature and animals. The graceful snow leopard is the focus of this festival and communities like Jigme Dorji National Park, Nature Recreation and Ecotourism Division (NRED) along with SLC (Snow leopard conservancy) all get together to create harmony and build awareness about the leopard. The festival activities consist of trekking, photography, and nature sensitization.
- HAA Summer Festival (July 5-6th 2017): The HAA Summer festivities provide a unique glimpse into the lives of Bhutan’s nomads who exist in this famous valley. Traveling to HAA Valley takes only 2 hours from the Paro international airport and on the way, you will cross the well-known Chele La Pass. With luxuriant green cover and jagged mountains, HAA Valley is one of the best-hiking destinations. The HAA festival encompasses several activities like flower gazing, hiking, nature trails, songs, dance, and music. Tourists will get the opportunity to see the extremely rare white poppy that grows exclusively at high altitudes in Bhutan.
- Jambay Lhakhang Festival (March 2-6th 2017): Jambay Lhakhang is one of the most famous temples of Bumthang and its just 10 minutes away from the town of Chamkhar. Jambay is the oldest temple in the Kingdom and was built by 7th-century king Songsten Gampo on the same day as 107 other temples. there is a 5-day festival that is organized at the temple premises and it draws a lot of local as well as tourist attention. The highlight of this festival is the ritual of the naked dance.
- Drochula Druk Wangyel Festival (December 13th, 2017): This is amongst the newest batch of festivals in Bhutan (the first edition was held in 2011). Held in the picturesque Dochula pass, the festival is a daylong session of revelry and merrymaking in the background of the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang. The goal is the festival is to celebrate the victory of the 4th king of Bhutan against insurgent Tibetans.
- Nomad Festival (24th June 2017): This is a yearly congregation of nomads of Bhutan’s who span across the northeast and northwest Himalayan vistas. This festival is a unique opportunity for tourists to imbibe the local customs of the nomads like trying on indigenous dresses, food, and conveyance modes (yak riding) along with harvesting and tiling fields. If you have an interest in exploring tribal customs and culture of Bhutan, then this presents a unique opportunity.
- Mongar Tshechu (November 2017): Mongar lies in East Bhutan and is quite well known for its exquisite wooden carvings. In November, the Monggar Thechu festival is held for 3 days with much fanfare. The highlights of the festival are songs, dances, and masked parades that are unique to the region of Monggar.
- Gangtey Drubchen: Drubchen is a fascinating practice of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism. The practice of this deep meditation (often associated with a retreat for seven-ten days) is thought to have powerful effects in ridding the world of evil, especially when the festival is in full attendance. These prayers will be chanted for 24 hours a day for eight days. You will also see masked dances and other rituals related to the Drubchen being performed.
- Buli Mani: Buli Mani Festival is held in a small temple in the Chhume Valley, Bumthang. The festival is held every two years on the 16th day of the first month of the Bhutanese calendar.
- Jakar Tsechu: This thrilling five-day event is a relatively new festival begun by the Monastic Body of Jakar. It is held within the Jakar Dzong and it includes celebratory masked dances and folk songs.
- Jambay Lakhang Drup: This festival is held over four days in one of the most ancient temples of Bhutan, built in the 7th century. The festival honors Guru Rinpoche (the man held responsible for spreading tantric or Tibetan Buddhism) as well as the founding of the temple itself. This festival is well known for the sacred naked dance performed in the courtyard of the temple at midnight – although it is not permitted for tourists to attend. A fire dance is also held in the evening to bless infertile women, hoping that this will help them to bear children. Prakhar Dushoed: This small festival is held in the Prakhar Monastery in the Chumey Valley, about 30 minutes’ drive from Jakar. It is more low key than most other festivals but can be a nice addition to a trip to Bhutan, especially if you are traveling through to Trongsa from Jakar because you can stop here en route.
- Sumdrang Kangsol: This is a small festival held in Ura near Bumthang in the 9th month of the Bhutanese calendar. You will see masked dances and hear local folk songs.
- Tamshingphala Cheopa: This festival is held in the Tamshing Monastery in the Bumthang Valley. The festival itself celebrates the temple’s link to the Bhutanese Saint Pema Lingpa.
- Tang Nabkha Rabney: This celebration lasts for three days and it is performed for peace and prosperity. It also commemorates the founding of the temple Namkha Lhakhang.
- Thangbi Mani: this is one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan, famous for the fire dance held in the courtyard of the monastery as well as the purification rituals performed here.
- Punakha Dromache and Tsechu: This celebration lasts for five days with two days, devoted to Drubchen (the practice of deep meditation thought to rid the world of evil) followed by three days for the Tsechu. The Drubchen is unusual because it seeks to re-enact the Tibetan invasion of Bhutan to steal its most precious relic. A man named Shabdrung pretended to throw this relic into the river, making the Tibetan army retreat. During the festival, a procession of monks walk down to the river and throw a handful of oranges into the running water to symbolize the relic and to re-enact this important event in Bhutanese history.
- Talo Tsechu: This is held in a village in the hills above Punakha at an altitude of 9,1080 feet (2,800 m). You will enjoy stunning views over the mountains as well as experiencing the joy of a local festival.
- Paro Tsechu: is one of the most popular events in the Bhutanese calendar, as well as being one of the most well attended by tourists and local people. The festival is held over four days, with the first day beginning in the courtyard of the Dzong and the last day ending with the unveiling of the sacred Thanka (silk painting). This is unveiled before dawn to ensure that it is not damaged by the sunlight. It is considered a blessing if you are able to see the sacred Thanka with your own eyes. Throughout the festival there are masked dances and songs, creating a lively atmosphere.
- Thimpu Drubchen: The annual Thimpu Druchen is famous for the masked dance performed here to appease and protect one of the key deities of Bhutan, Pelden Lhamo.
- Thimpu Tsechu: This festival is held over a four-day period and it is held to commemorate Guru Rinpoche (a figure known for the spread of Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism). This is a well- attended festival that will light up the atmosphere of this otherwise quiet capital.
A useful updated calendar of the folk festival is reachable at drukasia
HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH BHUTAN
To travel in the country, you have a choice between the road and … your feet! The road can be blocked by various unpredictable causes (snow, mudflow, falls of stone, etc.), so take your trouble patiently, whether you are in a vehicle chartered by your tour operator or on a public bus. Inner airlines are currently being planned.
by plane, the main airports are:
GENERAL INFORMATION ON BHUTAN
health tips & vaccination: none
local currency: Bhutanese Ngultrum
local time zone: GMT+6
electricity: type C, type D, type F, type G and M (230 V, 50 Hz)
mobile phone operators:
WHAT TO DO IN BHUTAN
typical food in Bhutan
- Datshi: Cow’s milk cheese, often served in a spicy stew with red chilies (ema datshi)
- Tshoem: A spicy curry made with beef and mushrooms
- Eue chum: Bhutanese red rice, a nutty-flavored variety unique to Bhutan
- Phaksha Paa: Pork cooked with fiery red chilies
- Sha Kam: Dried beef, often served in a spicy stew with red chilies, radishes, and tomato
- Hoentoe: Buckwheat dumplings from Haa, stuffed with turnip leaves, chili, and cheese
- Jasha Maru: Spicy minced chicken with garlic, ginger, tomatoes and green chili
- Goep: Tripe, often stewed with chili
- Ara: A rough spirit distilled from fermented rice
- Chang: Local beer, cereal-based and generally home-brewed
souvenirs from Bhutan
- Buddhist paintings and Thangka (Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, or silk)
- mandalas paintings
- prayer wheel
- Buddhist figures
- yatra, colorful strips of woolen cloth, dyed with natural colors, that is used to make different fabric items ranging from blankets to jackets, bags, and rugs
- colorful masks
- stamps very appreciated by collections
- hand-woven bamboo items
- wooden products, such dappa bowls (two halves of these bowls fit together so tightly that they can be used to carry cooked food)
- hand-woven textiles
- Dzi, semiprecious stone–beds oblong in shape and available in brown and cream colors
- honey, jams, and comfitures
- Gho and Kira, men’s and women’s national dresses
- carved masks
- woven baskets of cane and bamboo,
- Dapas wooden bowls
- handmade paper products
- silver handmade goods
Hello: Kuzu zangpo la
Goodbye: Tama che gae
How are you?: Kuzu zangpo la?
Thank you: Kadrin chhe la
What is your name?: Chhoe gi ming ga chi mo?
How much is it?: Gadem chi mo?
Sorry: Atsi zur nang