Bhutan is a country of rolling hills and towering crags. With small patches of cultivation and very little deforestation, Bhutan proves to be paradise for the traveller who enjoys untouched scenic beauty and fresh air. Often compared to the Swiss Alps, Bhutan flaunts its beauty with green hills, houses that look like chalets and pleasant snow peaks that cover the basic terrain of the region.
Traveling light is the key to having fun in this area. Casual clothes are most appropriate but if the trip is scheduled around a festival season, you should carry at least one set of dressy clothing. To kill the cold use a layering system; start with thermal underwear and ad a shirt, pile jackets and windbreakers. Don’t forget to pack a folding umbrella and also bring a water bottle and iodine. Avoid wearing revealing clothes – women especially should not wear any short shorts, halter neck or tank tops. To trek Mt Everest and beyond, you will need expensive, expert mountain trekking gear. Do not forget to carry a pair of sneakers or walking shoes.
A primary feature of this land is its mountain ranges which are filled with wildlife and vegetation. The weather depends largely on the time of the year that you visit and the altitude of the place where you are visiting. In general, October and November (autumn) has a dry and mild climate and the temperature fluctuates between 70F (20C) to 90F (30C). December and January are dry and it gets chilly in the morning and night, but the temperature can reach up to 59F (15C) – 68F (20C). Late February, March and early April is the springtime and the temperature is similar to the autumn. May and June are the pre-monsoon months with hot and humid temperature that is accompanied by occasional evening thunderstorms. During July and early September, the monsoon hits this region it rains almost everyday and it is during this time that nasty downpours, humid air and hot temperatures are to be expected. Though Nepal and Bhutan can be visited all year round, it’s best to visit during summer and spring.
Visas are required for entry into Both Nepal and Bhutan by all nationalities except India and transit passengers. Visas are usually valid for up to six months from date of issue, however, they may be extended in Nepal at the Department of Immigration at Katmandu or theImmigration Office in Pokhara. You can get tourist visas on arrival at the airport, this requires two passport-size photos. Business can also be conducted on a tourist visa for up to 30 days. Everyone will need a valid passport, except for Indian nationals who can enter the country with just a valid proof of identity.
For Bhutan, you can obtain the visa on arrival at Paro Airport or at Phuentsholing if you are entering by road. You must apply in advance through a tour operator and receive approval before you travel to Bhutan. The Bhutanese Embassy only issues visas for governmental project.
A tourist single-entry visa, which is valid for up to two months from the date of arrival, costs $40. A multiple-entry visa, which is valid for six months, will cost around $100. For a business visa applications can be made on arrival, which need to be approved by the Ministry of Industry.
The currency of Nepal is Nepalese Rupee. In Bhutan the Indian Rupee is the currency. This very approximately converts to:
£1= 120 Nepalese Rupees, 80 Bhutan Rupees.
$1= 75 Nepalese Rupees, 50 Bhutan Rupees.
1 Euro = 80 Nepalese Rupees, 50 Bhutan Rupees.
Both Nepal and Bhutan are fairly inexpensive countries to travel in. If you are willing to stay in rock-bottom accommodation and survive on a predominantly local diet, you could live for less than $5 a day. The various village inns or teahouses would offer these prices. Heading a little more up-market, $10 to $20 per day would bring you three star class hotel accommodation and popular tourist-oriented restaurant food. Even the very best restaurants won’t charge more than $30 to $40 for a meal. A five star hotel in Katmandu might charge around $100 per day for accommodation.
Even though vegetarian food is served in all parts of Nepal and Bhutan, non-vegetarian dishes are more popular with the locals. Food is easily available and as most hotels cater to groups, they have developed the habit of providing meals buffet-style. There is usually a continental dish and sometimes Indian, Chinese or a local dish. There is almost always rice in the food. Rice is either served plain white or the local red variety along with a lentil soup called dal.
When in Nepal be sure to take a bite of the momos. These are small pasta shells filled with meat and steamed like dim sum. You also get vegetable ones, but it is the meat ones that are more popular. Some other food items which can be put on the ‘to try’ list, are the lamb kebab and the vegetable samosas. Both of which can be spotted at the local street shops.
In Bhutan, the restaurant food is not particularly special, but beware of the local dishes with chillies. There is a wide range of vegetarian food to choose from, but most of it is prepared using chillies and the primary ingredient and not as a seasoning, so ask the waiter what ingredients go in a dish before you order it. Popular Bhutanese dishes include ema daste, which comprises of large green chillies dipped in cheese sauce and phak sha laphu, which is basically stewed pork with radish.
After the meal be sure to try paan. It is a local Indian mouth freshener, which is sold by the street vendors at roadside shops. Paan is bittersweet tasting, mildly intoxicating concoction and it stains the mouth bright red.
Nepali is a language closely related to Hindi which is easy to pick up. Although it is the national language of Nepal, the linking language between all the country’s ethnic groups is Hindi and some people do speak English. In the tourist areas of Kathmandu Valley and in Pokhara, most people will speak some basic English. Along the main trekking trails, particularly theAnnapurna Circuit, English is widely spoken. Many languages are spoken by Nepal’s numerous tribal groups.
Dzongkha, similar to Tibetan, is Bhutan’s official language, although fortunately English is widely spoken amongst educated people and it is taught in schools. In the south, Nepali is widely spoken and in the east Sharchop is the main tongue. Numerous tribal languages are spoken as well, like Khengkha, Kurtoep, Mangdip and Bumthap.
Historically, Nepal is the meeting point for the Indo-Aryan people of India with the Tibeto-Burman of the Himalayas and this is why, like the history and geography of Nepal, even the population of Nepal is so diverse. While moving from south to north, you can roughly divide the ethnic map into layers: the Terai, the Midlands or Pahar zone and the Himalayas. Each zone is dominated by a characteristic ethic group whose agriculture and lifestyle are adapted to suit the physical constrains of their environment. The main ethnic groups are Sherpas, Thakalis, Tamanga, Tibetans, Rai and Limbu, Newars, Gurungs, Magars, Bahuns and Chhetrisand the Tharus.
Bhutan is very much a rural country with no major cities and few big towns, where half the people live a day’s walk from the nearest road, although it’s mainly young population is growing at a rapid rate and it is thought to exceed one million people. The main ethnic groups are theSharchops (‘people of the east’ of Indo-Mongoloid descent), the Ngalong (of Tibetan origin who live in the west) and the Lhotshampa (Nepalis who live in the south).
It’s easy to get around this region; hiring a motorbike will cost you about 400 rupees or $7 US a day which is one of the best ways to get around the Kathmandu valley. Hitching is common and most private vehicles will charge you for a ride. Another travelling tip is that if you’re booked on an airplane, always confirm it about 72 hours before to guarantee your seat.
Common vaccinations that will be required are against typhoid, malaria and yellow fever. Apart from this, high altitude sickness is a hazard for trekkers, so it is important to be in good health before traveling and to take time to acclimatize. Advice relating to dealing with altitude sickness can be sought from the Himalayan Rescue Association near the Kathmandu Guest Housein Thamel. It is advisable, particularly when in rural areas, to carry a medical kit containing items such as re-hydration mixture for the treatment of severe diarrhea and ‘dry spray’ for cuts and bruises.
A general check of hygiene of food and water might save you from diseases. Avoid dairy products, which are likely to have been made from un-boiled milk and eat well-cooked meat and fish that is served hot.
By Nitasha Kulashreshtha
Trekking in Bhutan
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