The last true Himalayan Kingdom, where fortresses overlook terraced valleys, monasteries perch on cliff faces and progress is measured in Gross National Happiness.
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When to go
Bhutan has a varied climate depending on elevation. The low-lying southern border has subtropical temperatures with high amounts of rainfall, the central areas of Bhutan are temperate highlands and the Himalayan regions have a polar climate with snow all year round. Western Bhutan has heavy monsoons but eastern Bhutan is drier than the west with warm summers and cool winters.
Bhutan's generally dry spring starts in early March and lasts until mid-April. From mid-April until mid-June, there are occasional showers as the temperatures rise and the summer monsoon lasts from late June through late September bringing heavy rains from the south-west, high humidity, flash floods and landslides, and numerous misty, overcast days. Autumn, from late September or early October to late November is characterized by bright, sunny days and some early snowfalls at higher elevations. From late November until March, winter sets in, with frost throughout much of the country and snowfall common above elevations of 3,000 metres.
At any time of year, conditions can change quickly in the Himalayas and the weather and climate can be diverse as you traverse high mountain passes then descend into warmer valleys.
Spectacular Cultural Events
The Trashigang Tshechu festival is held in the dzong from the 7th to 11th of the tenth month of the Bhutanese calendar (late November or December). Pilgrims gather around the edge and monks look out from balconies on the first and second floors. As the monks perform their dances their swirling robes appear as spinning tops on the stone paved floor. Pilgrims travel from as far as the Indian border and Brokpas, a semi-nomadic community make the journey from Merak and Sakteng. On the Trashigang’s final day the thongdrel of Guru Tshengyed is displayed before dawn.
Held each spring, the Paro Tsechu is one of the largest festivals in Bhutan with pilgrims travelling from neighbouring districts to participate in the festivities. The first day of the festival is usually held in the courtyard of the Dzong and dances such as the 'Black Hat Dance' or 'Dance of the Lord of Death and his Consort'. On the final day a giant appliqué thangka, or Thondrol, is unrolled and displayed before dawn.
The famous Tashichho Dzong in Thimphu is the setting for one of the biggest festivals in the Bhutanese year: The Thimphu Tshechu. It is held in the capital city for three days from the 9th day of the eighth month of the Bhutanese calendar (September) and people travel from all over Bhutan to gain merit from attending and watching the masked dances. The Thimphu Tsechu is preceeded by the Dromchoe; three days and nights of prayers and rituals, conducted to invoke the gods.
Each spring, people from all over eastern Bhutan descend upon the Gomphu Kora Festival, dressed in all their finery, to partake in the festivities, worship and to reunite themselves with their past. For a few days each year, the desolate rock-scarred landscape transforms into a town of all shades and colours. The festival draws people from remote villages including the Dakpa tribe of Tawang, (from neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh, India) who endure days of travel on foot with entire families in tow.
Bhutan has a rich and unique culture, closely tied in with religion, that has been passed down from generation to generation. Bhutan sees the preservation and promotion of its distinct cultural identity as an important means for its survival as an independent and sovereign kingdom. The Bhutanese government has made determined efforts to promote its rich spiritual and cultural heritage so that values and customs are preserved in the process of modernization.
The main religion of the Bhutanese is Buddhism.
Although towns are now growing in Bhutan, more than 70% of the population still live off the land - even though only 10% of the land is cultivatable. After hydro-electricity, agriculture, livestock and forestry are still the mainstay of the economy with most of the farms and villages located in the fertile river valleys.
The national sport of Bhutan is archery and is played everywhere virtually all year around as well as being an essential part of Bhutanese festivals. The traditional bow and arrows are made from a special variety of bamboo. Nowadays, people also use compound bows. Playing archery in Bhutan, especially during competition, is a serious business and involves a series of rituals. The local astrologers are consulted and offerings made to the local deities to seek their divine intervention. Other traditional games are Degor, Khuru, and Soksom. Degor involves throwing a flat pancake like stone at a target about 20 metres apart. The target is a small stick driven into the ground. The player who can get his stone closest to the stick gets the point. Khuru is a darts game played outdoors with targets set at 20 metres apart. Soksom involves throwing a long and slender bamboo spear to a target placed at a distance.
One of the most distinguishing features of Bhutanese food is the ubiquitous chilli –eaten as a vegetable, not as a spice; fresh green ones, dried red chillies or chilli powder are used in almost everything. Raw chillies can be eaten dipped in salt to accompany a dish! Cheese is another favourite ingredient and in fact ema datse - chillies and cheese is Bhutan’s national dish. Almost all Bhutanese meals consist of a generous helping of rice and one or more "curry" dishes. Other staples, especially at higher altitudes include buckwheat noodles (poota) and buckwheat pancakes (cooli).
580 species of birds have been recorded. The Common raven is the most revered bird. The god Mahakala took the form of the bird to lead Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyl to Bhutan. Around two hundred black-necked cranes migrate from Tibet to Bhutan in winter. These can be witnessed at Gangtey where the birds are celebrated at a festival in their honour. The colourful Rufous-necked hornbill, Mrs Gould's sunbird and Satyr Tragopan are also to be found here.
The country's devotion to Buddhism has meant that hunting of animals is strictly forbidden. The largest of Bhutan's mammals are the Asiatic Elephant and rare Indian Rhinoceros. The country also boasts the tiger, leopard, red panda, and the national animal of Bhutan - the strange goat-like Takin. In the mountains the grey wolf preys on horned animals such as the blue sheep, serow and goral. The snow leopard roams above the tree-line in the summer and has been sighted at altitudes above 5,500m.