What gear to bring?
- 35mm gear:
lenses: I recommend at least one wide
angle lense in the 24-35mm range for the wide views and a telephoto
covering 100-200mm for to get closer pictures of masked dancers
at crowded festivals. If you use primes keep in mind that you
may not be able to "zoom by walking back and forth" in some situations
(steep slopes on a trek or a crowded tshechu festival).
filters: Bring at least a polariser
- especially useful for during midday festival dances in the dry
season, or to cut down reflections from the wet vegetation during
the monsoons. A warming filter may help in cloudy conditions in
the monsoon season time.
tripods are manageable for treks (pack
ponies) and cultural tours (cars). but forget about using one
at a tshechu festival, you wont find the space.
You will find mostly 35mm print film. The following is what's
available in Thimphu. Selections will be limited in all other
towns. Colour print film is easy to
come by in Thimphu. Mostly consumer versions of Kodak and Konica
and sometime Fuji in ISO 100, 200 and 400 (all 36 exposures).
They cost around Nu 100-150 (Nu46=US$1 in Dec 2003). Slide
film is difficult to come by, I would suggest you
bring enough yourself. As for black and white film,
you may occasionally find Kodak 400CN chromogenic.
Good alkalines batteries are now easier to find in Thimphu. I
would suggest that you stick to the international brands (duracell,
energiser, national etc). Cheaper knockoffs and Indian brands
will run out quickly or give you problems at low temperatures.
Lithium batteries CR123 and CR2 batteries are available in Thimphu,
Paro (not sure abou other places) but you have to know where to
look for them. They are usually in the smaller stalls selling
imported goods in the "shopping complexes".
- airline restrictions:
You will be flying into Bhutan on a "small" plane (BAe 146 carrying
about 70 passengers) with baggage weight restrictions.
In economy class, you are allowed 20kg checked baggage, and in
executive class, its 30 kgs. Carry ons will be limited by size
as well. If you are willing to pay for excess baggage and are
willing to check in your gear, you have that option as well. For
more details see the Druk
- Tshechu festivals:
of the tshechu festivals are in the dry season during or
after the harvest (late Sept to march) so you are likely to get
a lot of bright high altitude sun. Most masked dances will begin
around 8 or 9am and go on until late afternoon. So expect clear
and bright skies (most of the time).
It will be crowded with people from all over the valleys attending
the festival in their finest clothes. You will find good opportunities
to photograph ordinary bhutanese people as well as dancers and
monks. You will need a telephoto of atleast 100mm focal length
to get close up of masks and masked dancers from crowded sidelines
- a zoom covering atleast 80-200mm is recommended. A polariser
and lens hood is advisable. Since you will be in the dzong
or monastary most of the day, its also a good opportunity to photograph
the architecture and wall paintings and carvings.
Tshechu festivals are living traditions and also because it'll
be mostly in crowded coutyards of dzongs and monastaries,
please observe your etiquette -your guide should brief you on
Most treking routes will take you to high altitude passes (3000m
- 5000 meters) but you may begin your trek at around 1800 to 2400
meters. The vegetation changes accordingly from warm moist broadleaved
forests through pine forests through mixed conifers and broadleaved
temperated forests up to fir and alpine pastures. The best trekking
season is in the fall and spring. It is also relatively dry at
this time since the monsoons have either not yet arrived or just
There will be pack ponies (yaks at higher altitudes) to carry
all the trekking gear so you do not have to worry too much about
weight. You will only need a daypack or a hip pack to carry what
you may need on hand.
If you start walking really early in the morning, you will encounter
pheasants and sometimes other wildlife on the trail. Watch out
for bears in the fruiting season (autumn) - stick with the group.
In the wet season in warm areas, especially on the Gasa Punakha
route, you'll find a lot orchids and birds but if you stray off
the trail you'll be sure to pick up leeches.
Tucking pants into socks is no use - a good leech repellent is
anti-mosquito cream. Apply the cream liberally on your leg from
your ankles to above the knee and also around the shoe. If you
see one starting to clib your shoe, flick it off with your finger.
- cultural tours:
Besides the tshechu festivals, you will be visiting monastaries
and sites of cultural and historical significance and sceniv viewpoints.
There will be opportunity to visits a few traditional art schools,
museums and also some traditional farmhouse visits. Most of your
travels will be in a bus, van or car (depending on your group
size) and sites are within easy walking distance from the vehicle
so weight should not be a problem. Lot of opportunities for landscape,
architecture and cultural photography.
- in monastaries, temples and dzongs:
Photography inside most monastaries, temples and dzongs
(fortress monastaries) is restricted in order to preserve the
sanctity of the place (behaviour of tourists in the past like
theft and disturbance of monks and objects was a major factor).
You can however photograph in the coutyards and surrounding areas.
If you are travelling with a tour group, your guide will be able
to tell you when it is not appropriate to take photographs.
- at tshechu festivals:
These festivals are living traditions and people come not only
to watch and enjoy the masked dances but also because of religious
faith. If you want a good spot, you will have to come and reserve
your own spot just like everyone else - best location if you want
to sit is on the south side of the courtyard, otherwise you have
all back-lit dancers. If you must move up in front of the crowd
to get a shot of a dancer, do so at accessible areas, and move
off when you're done. Bring a long telephoto or zoom of at least
100mm focal length if you want any kind of close up shots. This
is also the opportunity to take photographs inside courtyards
of some dzongs (cameras are not allowed in the courtyard of some
- with people:
Although most Bhutanese people do not mind their pictures being
taken, it would not be impolite to ask their permission first.
In urban areas, a lot of the younger people may become self conscious
when you point your camera at them. However, outside of the major
urban areas, most people will break out into a smile and willingly
pose for you. Most children everywhere will be willing to have
their pictures taken. However, sometimes a few people (mostly
school children) may ask you to send a copy of the picture of
you took and will give you their name and mailing address.
Bhutan is one of the best remaining representatives of the Eastern
Himalayan environment and forms a major part of this "global hotspot
for biodiversity". The kingdom's policy is to strike a balance
between economic development and environmental conservation. If
you are on a trek (or even stopped somewhere along the road) you
may come want to take pictures of plants, animals or birds. However,
don't expect to see animals like on an African safari because
most the habitats are dense forests and the topography very rugged.
Processing film in Bhutan
Unless you really need it, just don't! A lot of the labs in Thimphu
tend to produce green or blue tinted prints. I have to take the
trouble of finding a friend or colleague travelling to India or
Bangkok to take my film for me. This is a real hassle because I
am not sure of consistency in what I get.
Update October 2003:
In the last year, a few more labs have come up in Thimphu that provide
1 hour services. They seem to do a decent enough job with negative
film. A roll of 36 exposure film will cost about Nu. 250 (US$5)
for process and print at 4x6. size. For critical work, I would still
not do my processing here.
E6 processing is still not available in Bhutan.