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Bhutan is a landlocked Himalayan country, East of Nepal. Between Nepal and Bhutan is tiny Sikkim, now a state of India but an independent country until 1975. There are no 8,000 meter peaks in Bhutan, but there are many over 7,000 meters. Many people find Bhutan's mountains especially beautiful.
Bhutan is small, 185 miles (300 Km) west-to-east, and less than 100 miles (150 Km) north-to-south. Like Nepal, most of Bhutan is mountainous, but the southern plain bordering India is as low as a few hundred feet above sea level. Despite its size, Bhutan is even less accessible than Nepal. There is only one airport, at Paro. All transportation in Bhutan is by road, at speeds that make travel anywhere else look fast.
Bhutan's capitol is Thimphu, two hours from Paro. In the cold winters the government and monastic body move north (but lower) to the valley city of Punakha. All of our programs will visit these three places, and more. The Jhomolhari trek stays in the eastern part of the country to maximize time on trek. The Bumthang cultural program and trek programs explore the central part of Bhutan, often called the "heartland". This is where most of Bhutan's cultural heritage arose, and both Bumthang adventures include the festival of Jambay Lhakhang Drup.
Bhutan is a little warmer and a little wetter than Nepal, much warmer and wetter than Tibet. October and November are the driest season, but Spring growth makes the countryside especially beautiful. Monsoon is very rainy and cloudy. If trekking or seeing the mountains is the main reason for visiting, come Fall or Spring. Winter is a great season for sightseeing or cultural tours.
Bhutan is an absolute monarchy and has been blessed by intelligent and actively involved kings since the 1960's. The monarchy and ministers and bureaucracy exercise a degree of control many Westerners would find uncomfortable - for example men are forbidden to wear western clothing in public, with very rare exceptions. Buddhism is the state religion, and senior lamas are involved with government at all levels. In return, religious institutions are supported by the state.
Bhutan has a per-capita income of about US$ 500, with very few rich and a tiny middle class. About 85% of the population lives in the countryside and depends on subsistence farming. Bhutan has developed it's hydroelectric resources and sells power to India, providing more than one third of the country's gross income.
Bhutan's history is intertwined with Tibet's. Until medieval times Bhutan was an outer province of Tibet, in Tibet's opinion if not always in the Bhutanese's. Virtually all of Bhutanese culture is heavily influenced. From the mid-1500's Bhutan was united into an independent state by a lama who took the title Shabdrung. From then interactions with Tibet were mainly military, with the Butanese repelling many invasions.
Bhutan's currency in the Ngultrum, equal to one Indian Rupee. You will not need a lot of pocket money in Bhutan as the trips are highly inclusive. But for drinks, souvenirs and other expenses, plan on bringing cash or travelers checks and converting them into local currency. Credit cards are uncommon, and there are no ATM machines in Bhutan. If you bring a credit card as backup, make it Visa card.
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