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Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel.com is pleased to have as our guest, Kinzang Dorji, expert on the Kingdom of Bhutan and a representative of Bhutan Visit.

Kinzang is here today to share his knowledge about the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Thank you, Kinzang for participating in our interview.

Norm:

Please tell our readers where is the Kingdom of Bhutan and something about its topography and climate? Why would travelers choose Bhutan as a travel destination?

Kinzang:

Thank you for asking me to talk about my country. Bhutan is a small country that lies in the eastern part of the great Himalayas. It is tucked in between two giant countries, India in the south and China (Tibet) in the North. With a population of 700,000 living in a country, almost the same size as Switzerland, the majority of the people are involved in subsistence farming. The state religion is Mahayana Buddhism and Buddhism is a way of life, still very much alive.

Bhutan rises from an altitude of 250 mts, the lowest point in the south, (bordering with the Indian states of Bengal and Assam) to 7,500mts, the highest point in the North (bordering with Tibet). Driving from south to North for a period of 6 hours, one can experience three different climates, tropical, sub-tropical and alpine. Bhutan's forest cover is 61% and it is a paradise for those who love flora and fauna. Bhutan is home to 16 species of birds which are extinct in other parts of the world. There are 660 bird species, 771 species of mushrooms and 60 species of rhododendrons found in the wild.

Tourism in Bhutan is regulated by the state. In order to preserve our culture, socio-economic development and the environment, the policy of the Department of Tourism in Bhutan is to set a minimum charge of US$ 200 per day for any type of package tour. Visitors can only come to Bhutan through a licensed Bhutanese travel agent. Thus managing the flow of tourists, the government's aim is to avoid the kind of environmental problems faced by our immediate neighbor, Nepal. In 2005 we received about 13,000 tourists. Now our government is going one step further by promoting eco-tourism. In 2004 Bhutan was ranked the fourth best adventure destination by National Geographic Magazine, if my memory serves me right.

Tourism is a new industry, having started only in 1974, coinciding with the enthronement of the present king. The pristine environment, vibrant culture, friendly people and colorful festivals offer a variety of experiences for those who visit Bhutan. The unique idea of Gross National Happiness, actively promoted by the government in recent years and the daily life of the majority of the farmers are some of the main attractions for those who visit Bhutan. The stunning scenery, majestic views of the eastern Himalayas, giant forts, colorful temples and whisper of prayer flags on the mountaintops are additional attractions. Deep gorges with crystal-clear rivers, white farm houses surrounded by terraces of paddy fields and the pleasant experience of being received by well-educated, fluent English-speaking guides are the plus points for Bhutan to be promoted as an exotic yet comfortable, safe travel destination.

Norm:

I understand you are involved in organizing various tours in Bhutan. Please briefly describe these tours and which ones would you believe to be the most unique and romantic?

Kinzang:

Traveling was my philosophy up until my first son was born! Meeting people of different countries is my passion. Having lived in Europe and other parts of Asia for many years, I decided to open a travel agent and promote adventure and cultural tours in Bhutan.

There are two quite different types of Bhutan experiences and both are unique in their own way. On the one hand, the up-market image is quite well-established because of the government limitations and so, Bhutan attracts a very well-heeled set. Even though, until recently, there were no five star hotels in the country, the tourist always gets the feeling of being treated like a V.I.P., accompanied by a guide in comfortable transport, ushered in and out of pleasant lodges, served buffet-style lunches in their hotel suddenly the daily rate does not seem so exorbitant.

The other type of holiday is far more rugged as you would expect from the Himalayas. We organize fantastic trekking adventures lasting any number of days from 4 to 27 days. We feel that this is the way to see the real Bhutan, since you get a true sense of the awesome scale of the mountains and you get to see the way people in the mountains have been living for generations. And the flora and fauna, in every season, never ceases to leave us with a sense of wonder. The photo opportunities are amazing! Isn't that romantic?

So, Bhutan offers something for everyone unique, adventurous honeymoons, leisurely photo tours, Buddhism study-cum-pilgrimage tours, conferences, eco-tourism, trekking and cultural Tours. We also offer special interest Tours for those who wish to study and see the flora and fauna of Bhutan. Elderly or young, you should not miss Bhutan. It will change your way of thinking for sure!

From my own experience, the Laya-Lingshi trek (14 - 17 days) is truly memorable, trek to the highest village, on the border with Tibet and enjoy wonderful mountain scenery and unique meetings with the locals. See our picture of the Laya women for an idea of what I mean. For more pictures go to our WEBSITE. Alternatively, for those who don't want to trek, a driving tour as far as Tashiyangtse in the east (17 days) allows you to see the Bhutanese way of life in depth.

Norm:

How safe is travel in Bhutan?

Kinzang:

Because of our traditional Buddhist-influenced culture, and a mainly agrarian way of life, Bhutanese towns are very calm and safe. The main social nuisance that people complain about in letters to the newspapers are the barking dogs at night in Thimphu (nobody wants to put the stray dogs down!). So, be warned, bring a pair of ear-plugs!

Norm:

Please describe the kind of lodging and food a traveler may expect in Bhutan.

Kinzang:

As already mentioned, the hotels are standard tourist hotels and lodges with Bhutanese interior furnishings. The facilities are not fantastic, it must be admitted but they do have character. Now, we have two international hotel chains operating in the country and one locally owned resort of international standard. We can book our guests into any of these hotels and our prices vary accordingly. We encourage our guests to go for a mix of hotels. On a trek, the service is top-rate we set up a full camp, complete with sleeping tents, dining tent, and toilet tent, as well as tables and chairs. Everything is carried on mules.

Three meals a day are included in the cost of all our tours and treks. In the hotels these are usually buffet- style. On the treks it is unbelievable how the cooks manage to present an amazing array of dishes western and Bhutanese, so high up and far away from civilization.

Norm:

What is the average cost of your tours in Bhutan?

Kinzang:

The government rate determines the minimum cost of our tours. We have a range of tours on offer. For example, a two-week tour would cost from about US$2,900 per person for a group of four (exclusive of airfares). A 10-day trek would cost from about US$2,000 per person.

Norm:

How does one travel from North America or Europe to Bhutan?

Kinzang:

The national airline, Druk Air, is the only airline that flies to Bhutan. It has connecting flights from Bangkok, which is most convenient for Americans. They also operate flights from Dehli, Calcutta and Gaya, in India, which is more direct for Europeans. Other departure points are Dhaka in Bangladesh and Kathmandu, Nepal.

Norm:

How should one prepare for travel in Bhutan?

Kinzang:

For all tours and treks, make sure you get the recommended vaccinations and bring a supply of your personal medications and a small first aid kit with you. You should also make sure you carry enough film and extra lithium batteries for your camera.

With regard to clothing, bring comfortable clothes that can be worn in layers since it is warm and sunny in the daytime but can be cool or cold at night. Of course, comfortable, flat shoes are important. See our packing lists on our WEBSITE for a complete list appropriate to the type of tour you choose.

You should be sure that you have adequate medical insurance, as recommended for any holiday. Trekking is not a dangerous sport but seek advice from your insurance company on how they classify it. For the treks you should be fairly fit and it would be a good idea to prepare by going hiking in your home country.

Norm:

Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?

Kinzang:

I think we have probably already talked too much, so let's keep it short - if anybody requires information about Bhutan or travel in our country, please let us know - we will be glad to be of assistance. And, don't forget: check out our WEBSITE for the latest pictures of flora and fauna maybe you can help us with the latin names of the species. Our hobby is taking photos of the animals and plants (especially birds and butterflies at the moment) but we need help identifying them all. Also, we are developing a Podcast, with Bhutanese music and interviews with interesting Bhutanese characters. See what you think.

Thanks once again for participating in our interview.

Kinzang:

You're welcome.

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