An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983.
You might have heard that Bhutan is the happiest country on earth.
And it’s easy to see why: surrounded by verdant pastures, stunning mountains and unique local wildlife, the Bhutanese live a life close to nature that enhances wellbeing. Bhutan is culturally distinct too: known as the ‘Hidden Kingdom’, society has long been untouched by outside influence. Buddhism is central to daily life. Prayer flags and stunning monasteries dot the landscape, most notably the Paro Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest, which clings to a over three-thousand metre high cliff. And annual religious festivals (known as tshechu) are not just tradition, but a living form of art and culture, the social highlight of the Bhutanese calendar.
Odyssey travels by coach and occasionally uses local transport, including trains and ferries. Specifics are always outlined in your tour itinerary. Bhutan has a limited domestic air service but no passenger rail. Bigger cities are serviced by taxis (though they do not operate to a metre). Bhutan’s one main road is the National Highway, and it is narrow and winding. But the best way to experience Bhutan is by road, because you can come so close to mountains and feel immersed in its rugged landscape.
In major cities, Odyssey stays in centrally located 4-5 star hotels, with access to public transport where available. In smaller towns or rural areas, we usually stay in family-run hotels or guesthouses. On our long stay tours, during which you spend the length of the tour in a single location, we use serviced apartments.
Odyssey always engages local guides with regional knowledge to ensure an authentic experience during which you can learn as much as possible about the history and culture of places you visit.
Geography Weather & environment
Bhutan is nestled in the eastern Himalayas between China in the north and India to the south, east and west. The altitude varies from 180m (590ft) in the southern foothills to over 7,300m (23,950ft) in the north. Bhutan has three distinct climatic regions. Due to Bhutan’s location and unique geographical and climatic variations, it is one of the world’s last remaining biodiversity hotspots.
Bhutan’s pristine environment, with high rugged mountains and deep valleys, offers ecosystems that are both rich and diverse. Conservation of its rich biodiversity is one of the government’s development paradigms. The government has enacted a law that shall maintain at least 60% of its forest cover for all time.
World Heritage sites
As yet, no sites in Bhutan are officially inscribed on the World Heritage List. However, there are a number of Tentative sites that are well worth visiting. These include:
The Ancient Ruin of Drukgyel Dzon, which is situated on the ridge of the upper Paro valley. Constructed in 1649, it was originally a defense base. After being destroyed by fire in 1951, its’ ruin remains an integral symbol in Bhutan’s heritage
Tamzhing Monastery is known for its unique mural paintings and other cultural artifacts. The monastery is the principle seat of Pema Lingpa, who built it in 1501.
Royal Manas National Park is one of ten global biodiversity hotspots. Located in south central Bhutan, it includes tropical and subtropical ecosystems, grassland and river beds. Thus, it is home to a great variety of wildlife. It also has the world’s highest tiger density!
Festivals & events
The Thimphu Tshechu is one of Bhutan’s biggest festivals. It takes place over three days in September, which are designated national holidays. People wear their finest garments and pack into the courtyard of the Tashichho dzong (fortress). Mask dances are performed upon a specially installed dancing stage.
In March, in the spring, Paro Tshechu takes place. This popular festival sees monks and locals dress up in vibrant, brocade costumes. They reenact Buddhist legends, wearing masks that represent deities. The festival culminates with the viewing of the four storey high, 350 years old thangkha (Buddhist religious scroll), celebrating the deeds of Guru Rimpoche.
Jambay Lhakhang Drup occurs in October. Guru Rimpoche is celebrated with traditional dances, as people also mark the establishment of the Jambay Lhakhang Monastery. The highlight is the fire ceremony, or Mewang. Locals run beneath a large flaming gate made from dry grasses.
Another notable event within Jambay Lhakhang is the Tercham, or Dance of Treasure. Traditionally, masked dancers perform naked in the middle of the night. They believe this dance will bless infertile women so that they may bear children.
- The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan by Bunty Avieson
- Samu-Shamu, The Sonam Stories: Narratives of Childhood in Bhutan by Suzie Sims-Fletcher
- The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho
- A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan by Madeline Drexler
Eating & Drinking
Bhutan’s unofficial national dish is Ema Datschi. This spicy stew is similar to a curry, and is often eaten daily accompanied by red rice. Ema Batschi is made of chillies and cheese from yak or cow’s milk. Taste with caution – Bhutanese chillies are hot!
Other classic stews include Jasha Maroo, which is a spicy, diced chicken with tomato, coriander and ginger, served bathed with a chicken broth; and Phaksha Paa, simmered pork shoulder and spices topped with dried pork and fresh chilli.
Momos are perhaps the most familiar choice for the Western palate. They are similar to Chinese dumplings: steamed buns typically filled with minced meat, cabbage and spices
Health & Safety
While much of Bhutan is usually safe to travel around, it’s important to stay alert to anything unusual. Also, you will often see signs warning of pickpockets in areas popular with tourists, so it’s important to keep a close eye on your belongings at all times.
Whenever you travel overseas, it’s always wise to take an appropriate travel adaptor. The electricity supply runs at 230V, 50Hz. Bhutan accepts plugs of Types C, D, F, G and M.
National textile museum
The Nalakhar Tsechu festival
Temples of significance
Bhutan’s time zone is GMT + 6 Greenwich mean time. Bhutan does not observe Daylight Savings time.
If you’re on an Odyssey tour, we take care of tipping so you don’t need to give it a second thought. However, in your free time, or if travelling independently, it is recommended that you tip up to 15USD for guides and 6USD for drivers. Information on this custom varies, with some saying tipping is discretionary. Staff tend to earn low wages, so tips would be greatly appreciated.
Some hotels will provide wifi to their guests, and there are a few internet cafes in major towns. But on the whole, internet access cannot be relied upon. The networks are continually undergoing expansion.
Check with your cell phone provider to see whether you’re able to make calls and use data while in Bhutan. Many providers will offer a daily fee that allows you to make calls and check the internet while only being charged your regular rates. However, be certain to inform your provider that you’re heading overseas, because just like a bank they can turn off your service as a result of unusual activity.
Responsible Travel Tips for Bhutan
- If sightseeing in rural areas, remember to be respectful of residents and locals. As well as being tourist attractions, these are peoples’ homes!
- Learn at least the local greetings to break the ice. Although many locals speak English, the more you know of the native language, the greater your experience of the country will be.
- Carry a business card in your wallet or purse from your local hotel, to assist you with the return journey if you do become lost.
- Always ensure that you are covered by travel insurance. If you need advice on this feel free to contact Odyssey and we’ll be able to help.
- When travelling independently, make sure you check the opening hours of shops and museums so that you don’t miss out! Museums and galleries are often closed on Mondays. Also be certain to check whether your trip coincides with any public holidays, so you can plan accordingly.
- Consider contacting your bank to inform them that you may be making purchases overseas. Otherwise, they may flag any activity on your account as suspicious. Also, check which ATMs and banks are compatible with your cards, to ensure you can withdraw cash with minimal fees.
- Before departing, make sure you have a number of euros in a range of denominations. You don’t want to be carrying around enormous amounts of cash, but take enough to make it easy to pay in locations that might not accept credit card. It will also help you avoid card transaction fees, and it makes tipping a breeze.