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WINGS Birding Tours – Information

Bhutan

Tour Information

Note: The information presented here is an abbreviated version of our formal General Information for Tours to Bhutan. Its purpose is solely to give readers a sense of what might be involved if they take this tour. Although we do our best to make sure that what follows is completely accurate, it should not be used as a replacement for the formal document sent to all tour registrants, whose contents supersedes any information contained here.

TRAVEL TO INDIA AND BHUTAN: This tour is organized by our British company, Sunbird, and starts and ends in Delhi.

ENTERING INDIA: United States citizens will need a valid passport and a multiple entry tourist visa. Visas can be obtained from the Indian Embassy or Consulates in various major cities. You can reach the Indian Embassy in Washington, D.C. here. Visas can also be obtained for you by Visa services like CIBT. Citizens of other countries should contact the closest Indian consulate or embassy. Evidence of a Yellow Fever vaccination must be shown only if you are arriving within six days after leaving or transiting endemic areas.

ENTERING BHUTAN: To enter Bhutan, all foreigners need a tourist visa and a passport valid for at least six months beyond the intended date of departure from Bhutan. To avoid delay and serious inconvenience, our Bhutanese agent will apply for a visa on your behalf; the visa will be issued on our arrival at Paro International Airport. For the application process, WINGS needs a copy of the document page from your passport, which can be sent as a photocopy through the postal mail or as a scan by e-mail. The cost of the Bhutan visa is included in the tour price. Participants should not try to obtain a Bhutanese visa themselves.

BHUTAN AND INDIA MAPS AND COUNTRY INFORMATION: You can view maps of India here, and of Bhutan here in the University of Texas series. You can review the U.S. Department of State Country Specific Travel Information for India here and for Bhutan here. The CIA World Factbook background notes for India and Bhutan are here and here, respectively.

HEALTH: The CDC currently recommends that all travelers to malaria-risk areas in the Indian Subcontinent should take one of the following antimalarial drugs (listed alphabetically) — you will want to check with your doctor or public health department as to which drug is best for you: atovaquone/proguanil (brand name Malarone), doxycycline, mefloquine (brand name Lariam), or primaquine. NOTE: Chloroquine (brand name Aralen) is NOT an effective antimalarial drug in the Indian Subcontinent and should not be taken to prevent malaria in this region.

Further, CDC recommends the following vaccines (see your doctor at least 4-6 weeks before your trip to allow time for shots to take effect): Hepatitis A or immune globulin (IG); Japanese encephalitis (only if you plan to visit rural areas for 4 weeks or more, except under special circumstances, such as a known outbreak of Japanese encephalitis); typhoid vaccination is particularly important because of the presence of S. typhi strains resistant to multiple antibiotics in this region. There have been recent reports of typhoid drug resistance in India and Nepal. If needed, you should also ask about booster doses for tetanus-diphtheria and measles and a one-time dose of polio for adults.

Health advisories for India change frequently, and we recommend consulting your physician at least two months prior to trip departure to insure that all necessary inoculation sequences can be completed. You can review the CDCs current travel advisories here.

ALTITUDE: On the second day of the tour, we will fly from Delhi into Paro airport (7,400 feet). It is exceptional for anyone to experience serious problems at this altitude. From there we’ll drive to Thimpu, only marginally higher at 7,550 feet. On our first full day in Bhutan we will drive up to the summit of the Dochu La (10,050 feet), one of Bhutan’s five major road passes. We’ll spend about five hours at this altitude, but, as throughout the tour, we’ll try to avoid walking uphill and will move at a slow pace so as to avoid altitudinal headaches, breathlessness, etc. Our next two nights will be spent near Punakha (4,500 feet), and the intervening day’s activities will also be at this altitude.

From Punakha we move on, spending the night at Gangtey in the Phobjika Valley. At 10,900 feet, this will be our highest overnight stay. Very few people have suffered altitudinal problems other than mild headaches and minor bouts of breathlessness.

From Gangtey we will continue east, crossing a couple of fairly high passes: the Pele La at 11,132 feet and the Thrumsing La (Bhutan’s highest road pass) at 12,400 feet. We won’t spend much time birdwatching at either site, and will keep physical exertions at this altitude to a minimum. In any case, we will do virtually all our birdwatching from the road, usually walking downhill, and our vehicle will always be close at hand so that anyone wishing to take a longer break can easily do so.

We anticipate no serious altitudinal problems on this carefully chosen tour loop. Most acclimatization problems can be overcome by sitting quietly in or near the vehicle and drinking plenty of fluids.

CLIMATE: Delhi will be very hot, with mid-day temperatures in late April perhaps approaching 38°C (100°F). Lowland Bhutan, i.e., the areas south of Zhemgang and near Samdrup, Jongkhar, will also be warm, perhaps 30-32°C (86-90°F) if the weather is clear. Since much of the remainder of the tour is spent at moderate altitude, it will be noticeably cooler for the bulk of our trip. Temperatures on the higher passes may drop to near freezing, and there may be a few patches of lingering snow or ice in shaded roadside gullies (it is unlikely to snow during the tour). The possibility of rainfall cannot be totally discounted anywhere, but is perhaps more likely around Paro, Thimpu, and Punakha in western Bhutan.

Our second campsite, at Sengor on the upper Limithang road in eastern Bhutan, is at about 9,650 feet, and on clear nights the temperatures can drop as low as 2°C (36°F). Our other campsites, at Yongkola on the lower Limithang road and south of Zhemgang, are at about 5,000, 2,000, and 5,000 feet, respectively. The nights at all three of these sites will be comfortably warm.

Note that temperatures in mountainous regions such as Bhutan can vary enormously from year to year and often dramatically throughout the day. The expected range extends from 32 to 90°F.

TRANSPORT: Transportation between sites is by bus in Delhi and in Bhutan. Our internal flight from Delhi to Paro is with Druk Air, Bhutan’s national airline, while our flight back to Delhi from Gauhati in Assam is with Jet Airways. Both of these carriers’ planes are very modern, and their safety record is excellent.

SMOKING: Smoking was made illegal in Bhutan in early 2005. Cigarettes cannot be bought in or brought in to Bhutan. This new law is enforced in all public places and applies to both foreign tourists and Bhutanese citizens. Even outside Bhutan and in keeping with all WINGS/Sunbird tours, smoking is not allowed in the vehicle, nor at meal times or when the group is gathered together for the checklist. If you are sharing a room with a non-smoker please don’t smoke in the room. If you smoke in the field, please stand down wind of the group so that smoke doesn’t drift into their faces.

ACCOMMODATION: Throughout most of the tour we will be staying in moderate or good-quality accommodation. Our hotels will always be among the best available and the rooms will always be clean and fairly well maintained. Still, it must be remembered that Bhutan is a third-world country and hotel facilities are below the standard we are used to in the West. You should also be aware that very few tourists visit sites away from western Bhutan (this is a lot of the attraction of an adventurous tour such as this), and that the tourist infrastructure in the east is still in its infancy.

In Thimpu and near Punakha, we’ll be staying in good-quality hotels. All the rooms have private bathroom facilities with showers, baths, and western toilets. There will be ample supplies of hot water and constant electricity.

Once east of Punakha, the number of foreign tourists drops off dramatically and the standard of the accommodations drops slightly. At both Trongsa and Jakar, we’ll stay in clean and reasonably equipped family-run guest houses, the best accommodation available. Both have private bathroom facilities with showers and western toilets.

At Gangtey, we’ll stay in the new guesthouse in the Phobjika Valley, about a twenty-minute drive from the spectacular Gangtey Gompa. The Phobjika Valley is not connected to the main electricity grid, and while our guest-house has its own generator, this does not operate 24 hours a day. Normally the generator is turned on at dark, off again at about 10:00 pm, and on again at about 6:30 in the morning (normally well after we’ve left the guest house). In the past, we’ve been able to negotiate longer hours. Each room has a private bathroom with a western toilet and a shower.

Partly because the accommodation in eastern Bhutan is somewhat basic, and partly in order to avoid long drives and to be near the best birdwatching, we’ve decided to camp at four sites. We’ll spend a total of seven nights in tents, two near Tingtibi on the Zhemgang road, one at Sengor about a third of the way down the Limithang road, three more near Yongkola farther down the Limithang road, and one at Narphung about half-way down the eastern highway. We will use modern, spacious, two-man walk-in tents, each with sewn-in groundsheets, a flysheet, and doors at either end. The tents measure about 10’ long and 8’ wide, and are about 7’ high down the central ridge. Our ground agents will set up the tents for us.

Each double tent will be provided with two comfortable camp beds, each with a mattress and a couple of thick blankets. Single tents are exactly the same, but with only one bed. One or possibly two latrine tents are also provided. We’ll have a separate mess tent, complete with tables and chairs, for meals.

Our camps near Tingtibi, Yongkola and Narphung will also have an enclosed shower tent about 7’ tall and 4’ square. Our camp staff will provide large buckets of hot water and a ladle. This shower tent will not be available for our one night at Sengor, where it is a little too cold for most people to be interested in having a shower; instead bowls of hot water for washing will be provided.

People who are sharing rooms will also share a tent. Those who have requested single rooms will have a tent to themselves. We are unable to guarantee single rooms at all our hotels, but if you have requested one and you do have to share occasionally, we will refund the single room supplement for those nights.

FOOD: Most of the food on the tour will be very good. We’ll have a few hotel breakfasts, and most of the others will be cooked for us in the field by our ground staff. The meals that our ground crew provide when we are camping are amazing, often the tastiest of the entire tour. Field breakfasts are invariably tastier than those provided by any of the hotels. They usually consist of otameal or cornflakes, followed by scrambled, fried, or poached eggs, often with baked beans or sausages. There are also ample supplies of toast and jam and tea and coffee. As always in Bhutan, the quantities of food provided will be vast. Lunches will usually be eaten in the field, and will frequently be a meal cooked for us on site. Lunch is often lighter than breakfast, with a wide variety of soups, crackers, breads, and cheeses being offered over the course of the tour. All evening meals, usually hot buffets, will be in our hotels, except when camping, where our camp staff will cook for us. Up to ten different dishes have been provided at dinner, and there’s always more than enough.

In contrast to some other parts of the Indian subcontinent, food hygiene is good in Bhutan, and although mild stomach upsets are sometimes encountered due to a change of diet, we anticipate very few problems here.

PACE OF THE TOUR: The tour is not physically strenuous in any way, but in several places we’ll need ot make early starts to reach the best areas of forest for birding. This will mean leaving the hotels as early as 4:00 or 5:00 am on those days. We’ll have breakfast in the field most days, with our ground crew going ahead of us to set up their cooking equipment. We’ll often do some bird watching before joining the crew for breakfast. Tables, chairs, plates, and cutlery are all provided for these excellent and enjoyable meals. We will usually also have lunch in the field, and once again the crew will normally go ahead of us and set up the tables and chairs at a suitably scenic spot.

Most birdwatching will be done from the road. Away from Paro and the capital, Thimpu, there is relatively little traffic, and in any case the forests are often so dense that it would be impractical to try venturing into them. There will probably only be a couple of occasions where we will venture onto forest trails, one which is fairly steep and about one and a half miles long. Our coach will drop us at the start of this trail and drive around to rejoin us at the bottom, so that anyone not wishing to do the walk does not need to. The second forest trail is also about one and a half miles, downhill all the way; the coach will drop us at the top and wait for us at the bottom. The leader will explain more about these trails and the other day’s events during the course of the tour.

As much of the tour will enjoy moderate temperatures, bird activity continues throughout the day and conditions remain pleasant, making long mid-day breaks unnecessary. If anyone wishes to have a longer break during the day and stay with the bus, this will never be a problem. Our bus will be with us throughout the tour, and those taking a break can rejoin the group whenever they wish to.

We anticipate having at least two vehicles with us throughout the tour, one for us and at least one for our Bhutanese ground crew. This gives us greater flexibility, including the option of returning to our hotel early for those who wish.

On a couple of days there will be some optional pre-breakfast bird watching. There will also be several occasions where we’ll take an optional after dinner owl walk. We try to make as many of our birding excursions as possible optional, so that if you find the pace too tiring it is possible to take some time off and relax. However, it is important to realize that on this tour we are moving on most days and spend more than one night only at the hotel near Punakha and at two of our three campsites. As a result, it is rarely possible to take the entire day off. Essentially we aim to provide dawn to dusk birding for those who want it—and as many opportunities as possible to opt out for those who wish to pursue other interests or simply relax.

GENERAL INFORMATION AND CONDITIONS OF WINGS & SUNBIRD TOURS: Please take a moment to read the WINGS General Information and Conditions here. This section contains important information about how we conduct tours, e.g., what is included in the tour price, refund and cancellation policies, pace of the tours, and other information that will help you prepare for the tour.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: More complete General Information for Tours to Bhutan will be sent to registrants on receipt of booking. Final information with instructions for meeting the group, hotel addresses, etc., will be mailed about three weeks before trip departure. Other news will be communicated as necessary. If you have any questions, please contact us.

Updated: June 2013