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The Kingdom of Druk Yul, or what we know in the west as Bhutan is a tiny nation located in the Himalayan Mountains and one that remains perhaps the least-touched by western civilization. The country was only opened up to tourism a little over 30 years ago and its previous isolation has meant that its culture and traditions have thrived without external influences. The government is committed to keeping it this way, so all tourism is strongly regulated and only local tour operators can lead groups through the region. The restrictions are tight, including the fact that solo travel is not encouraged. In fact, Bhutan imposes a daily surcharge for groups under three people of $40 per day for a single traveler and $30 a day per person for two travelers. So even if you are not normally a "group" travel kind of person, Bhutan may be the exception.

The government also sets the daily tariff for tours, although some companies may still charge an additional fee over the set rate. In general though, most tours, regardless of their content will cost $200 per day throughout most of the year ($165 for July and August) and that includes accommodation in hotels, guest houses and camping; transport; English-speaking guides; entrance fees; all meals; airport transfers; and trekking animals when required. Only airfares on the local carrier Druk Air are additional. Think of it like a very traditional and somewhat rigid form of the "all-inclusive" vacation. This system actually makes researching tours a lot easier as you can compare and contrast by itinerary rather than by cost. It also means that you may find the same or very similar tours available at several different websites and tour operators. All tours need to be paid in full at least one month in advance of travel (the Bhutanese government recommends three months for visa issuing), so there's no "last-minute" travel in Bhutan.

This is not a place where you will find McDonalds nor $1 knock off T-shirts or souvenirs made in China, but traditional home-grown food and authentic handicrafts made by a population of devout Buddhists and Hindus. This year marked 100 years of the current Bhutan monarchy. Much of the tourism here is focused around the celebration of festivals (Tshechu) that take place throughout the year. These events in monasteries and villages are spectacles of color, music, art and religion.

Jachung Travel (www.jachungtravel.com) offers a selection of tours from bus trips, to cycling adventures, trekking to camping. Their five-day "Glimpse of Bhutan" is the perfect introduction to the country, and as the name suggests, provides a sneak peek into Bhutan life. It runs throughout the year and includes visits to Paro and its Drugyal Dzong (fortress); the Paro Rinpung Dzong, a 17th century Dzong converted into government buildings and the national museum; Kyichu Lhakhang, the oldest temples in Bhutan; Thimpu, Bhutan's capital city; King's Memorial Chorten; Changgangkha Monastery; Takin Animal Reserve; Nunnery Temple and National Library, home to ancient manuscripts; Folk Heritage and Textile museums; Tashicho Dzong (summer fortress); Simtokha Dzong, the nation's oldest fortress; and a hike to Taktsang (Tiger's Nest), the most famous of Bhutan's historical fortresses. The "Paro Festival Tour" takes place from March 13 to 23, 2008 and is a private tour with your own car and driver/guide. The trip starts in Paro and visits Thimpu; the Thimpu market; Simtokha Dzong; King's Memorial Chorten; Changgangkha Monastery; Takin Animal Reserve; Nunnery Temple and National Library; Folk Heritage and Textile museums; Wangduephodrang; the Dochula Pass; Bumthang market; Trongsa Dzong; Jakar Dzong; the Jambey Lhakhang Monastery; the sacred site of Kurjey Lhakhang; Shukdrag Monastery; Punakha Dzong; Chimi Lakhang Fertility Temple; Taktsang Monastery; and a dinner at a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse. The highlight of the tour is witnessing the Paro Festival, the country's largest -- a three day event held in an open air courtyard next to the impressive Paro Dzong. See religious masked and cultural dances by Bhutanese villagers with major processions, family celebrations and the unfurling of a giant appliqué thankas painting of Guru Rinpoche, often regarded as the second Buddha and the creator of Tantric Buddhism.

Exotic Bootan (www.exoticbootan.com) specializes in cultural and festival related tours. Their "Bhutan Textile/Master Weaver's Workshop and Gomkoro Festival Tour" takes place from March 6 to March 21, 2008. This 16 day adventure features a hands-on workshop in the traditional Bhutanese ancient art of weaving, an integral part of Bhutanese society where the woven cloth and dress is closely associated with social status and etiquette, as well as cultural and religious events. Experience dyeing and spinning of yarn, sheep wool and Yak hair, loom and weaving kits, warps and wefts, weaving techniques and fruits of the loom while visiting the heartland of Bhutan's weaving country, including Bumthang; Pema Gatshel; Khoma village; Radi and Khaling. You will also visit several monasteries, Dzongs and cultural/religious centers en route plus the Gomkoro Festival.

Enjoy a full day at this remote and unique festival which acts as a religious purification ceremony and social gathering. It features elaborate brocade costumes and masked dancers performing ancient rituals of purification and blessing. The "Ura Festival Cultural Tour" is from April 12 to April 25, 2008 and includes cultural hikes to ancient centuries-old Dzongs; Temples and Buddhist monasteries; weekend markets; and visits to remote villages. Spend two days at the Ura Valley Tsechu in Bumthang. Ura is considered one of the holiest valleys in Bhutan and local communities from several different regions gather to pay their respects and to be blessed at this social gathering. The Bhutanese will be dressed in their finest traditional clothes and jewelry for this celebration of purification and religious blessings. Witness displays of ritualistic dances, sword throwing and entertainment. The 14-day trip also includes a chance to meet with Ura's Head Lama and a full-day excursion to Haa Valley, an area opened to tourism in 2001 along the Bhutan-Tibet border, often referred to as the Lost Shangri-la.

Other tour providers with websites to peruse include Yak Adventure Travel (www.visit2bhutan.com), Shangri-la Bhutan Tours (www.bhutanonline.net), Bhutan Travelers (www.bhutanadventure.com), Bhutan Majestic Travel (www.bhutanmajestictravel.com) and Bhutan Footprints Travel and Adventure (www.tourbhutantravel.com). All are locally operated.

A $20 pre-processed visa is provided upon entry to Bhutan (payment along with two passport photos is required on arrival at Paro Airport). You can fly into Bhutan, to Paro International Airport from the following Asian cities on Druk Air (www.drukair.com.bt):

  • Bangkok $372 one-way
  • New Delhi $330 one-way
  • Kathmandu $202 one-way
  • Calcutta or Dhaka $205 one-way

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