The land of the thunder dragon kingdom is a
trekker’s paradise and an environmentalist’s dream. With 72
percent of the country under forest cover, Bhutan’s pristine
ecology is home to rare and endangered flora and fauna. This
spiritual land is the last bastion of the Vajrayana school of
Mahayana Buddhism which provides the essence of a unique
identity for the 750,000 people.
Bhutan is a unique blend of the old and
new. Here is a country that is slowly opening up to the modern
world in a fine balance with its ancient traditions. Those
fortunate enough to visit Bhutan describe it as a unique, deeply
spiritual and mystical experience. This kingdom is an adventure
like no other.
Archaeological evidence suggests Bhutan was inhabited possibly
as early as 2000 BC. Buddhism was probably introduced in the 2nd
century although traditionally its introduction is credited to
the first visit of Guru Rinpoche in the 8th century. Guru
Rinpoche is one of the most important figures in Bhutan’s
history, regarded as the second Buddha.
Before the 16th century, numerous clans and
noble families ruled in different valleys throughout Bhutan,
quarrelling among them and with Tibet. This changed in 1616 with
the arrival of Ngawang Namgyal, a monk of the Drukpa Kagyu
school of Buddhism from Tibet. He taught throughout the region
and soon established himself as the religious ruler of Bhutan
with the title Shabdrung Rinpoche. He repelled attacks from
rival lamas and Tibetan forces and transformed the southern
valleys into a unified country called Druk Yul (Land of the
Thunder Dragon). While the political system he established
lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, the announcement
of the Shabdrung’s death in 1705 was followed by 200 years of
internal conflict and political infighting.
Instability lasted until 1907 when Ugyen
Wangchuck was elected, by a unanimous vote of Bhutan’s chiefs
and principal lamas, as hereditary ruler of Bhutan. Thus the
first king was crowned and the Wangchuck dynasty began. Over the
following four decades, he and his heir, King Jigme Wangchuck,
brought the entire country under the monarchy’s direct control.
Upon independence in 1947, India recognized Bhutan as a
The fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck,
had espoused and implemented the policy of controlled
development with particular focus on the preservation of the
environment and Bhutan’s unique culture. Among his ideals is
economic self-reliance and what has now become widely known as
‘Gross National Happiness’. His coronation on 2 June 1974 was
the first time the international media were allowed to enter the
Kingdom, and marked Bhutan’s debut appearance on the world
stage. The first group of paying tourists arrived later that
year. In major political reform in June 1998, the king dissolved
the Council of Ministers and announced that ministers formerly
appointed by him would need to stand for open election. In 1999
television and Internet were first introduced to Bhutan.
The way to Bhutan
Until the early sixties, the Kingdom of Bhutan was
accessible only by foot through the high passes of Tibet and the
plains of India. The construction of a road in the late sixties
from Phuntsholing on the Indian border to Thimphu and Paro made
travel by car and bus possible. In1983, the first international
airport was opened in Paro, 65 km from the capital of Bhutan,
Travel by Air
Bhutan’s only international airport is located in Paro,
which is located in a deep valley at an elevation of 7300 ft
above sea level. The Paro Valley is surrounded by hills as high
as 16,000 feet, whereby making the approach of Druk Air into the
Paro International airport entirely by visual flight rules. A
particular highlight is the stretch between Kathmandu and
Bhutan, where one passes 4 of the 5 highest mountains in the
world. Weather permitting; passengers will be treated to
intimate views of Mt. Everest, Lhotse, Makalu und Kangchenjunga.
Travel by Land
The town of Phuntsholing in south-western Bhutan is
currently the only land border access open for international
tourists. Phuntsholing lies approximately 170 kms. east of the
Indian national airport Bagdogra and nearby Darjeeling. From
here begins a mountain journey of almost unbelievable beauty.
The road leads from the northern Indian tea plantations through
endless turns, hair-pin bends and daring stretches carved into
the mountain rock via Chhuka to Thimphu. The travel time for the
176 kms. stretch can be more than 6 hours.
Traveling within Bhutan
All major towns in the 20 districts of Bhutan are accessible
by road. Despite high mountains, steep slopes, and the deepest
of valleys, Bhutan has a relatively well developed network of
roads. That said, rarely will one find a length of either
straight or flat road. In some stretches one can encounter 6 to
7 bends per kilometre! Steep ascents and descents are
characteristic of road travel in Bhutan and this can make travel
much slower than one may be used to. Average speeds for road
travel rarely exceed 40 km/h, with tourist buses making even
slower progress. One is however handsomely rewarded for the long
and sometimes tiring car journey, by the spectacular views of
towering mountains, lush green jungle, ancient villages and
Majority of roads are sealed but can still
be bumpy and are almost always single lane. Bhutan’s drivers
know their land well and are cautious and careful drivers. The
density of traffic is normally very low.
Other than Indian, Bangladeshis nationals, all visitors to
Bhutan require a visa; all visas are issued from Thimphu; visas
are only issued to tourists booked with a local licensed tour
operator, directly or through a foreign travel agent.
Applications for tourist visas are submitted by the tour
operator. Visa clearance from Thimphu must be obtained before
coming to Bhutan. Visa clearance takes at least 10 days to
process. Air tickets to Bhutan cannot be purchased without visa
clearance. At your point of entry the visa will be stamped in
your passport. Two passport photos will also be required.
You can entry from three entry points:
Samdrup Jongkhar (southeast Bhutan), Gelephu (south Bhutan), and
Phuntsholing (southwest Bhutan)
Upon arrival immigration officers endorse your
identification card: the passport or voter’s registration card.
Also, please carry some passport photographs as well just in
case. The permit can be extended by contacting the immigration
office. The following permits are issued to visitors. You will
have to go personally! The endorsement is done at the entry
points in Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar, and Gelephu, if you
are travelling by land, and Paro airport, if you flying into
Restricted area (Route) Permit
Tourists who plan on travelling to places other than Thimphu,
Phuntsholing, and Paro (free zone) will have to obtain route
permit from the immigration office in Thimphu.
Please remember that not all religious places are open for
tourists. However, most of the religious places are made
accessible to tourists but they are required to produce a
special permit. For this, tourists will have to contact
Department of Culture.
Brining in your own vehicle
Indian visitors can bring in their own vehicle but you will
have to get your documents endorsed from Road Safety and
Transport Authority (RSTA), Bhutan The roads in Bhutan are
narrow so the services of Bhutanese drivers and using Bhutanese
vehicles are highly recommended.