The Land of the Thunder Dragon, The Kingdom in the Sky, The Land of the Hidden Treasures, Bhutan has been called many mysterious and enchanting names. For a country that remained essentially disconnected from the outside world until the 1960s, that should come as no surprise. Landlocked between the most remote parts of India to the South and Tibet through the Himalayan Mountains in the North, this Buddhist monarchy seems to have evolved completely separate from the rest of the world in many aspects. And that, is a blessing in disguise and a source of many surprising facts about Bhutan.
It is this self-sufficiency and physical isolation that has brought on some of the most surprising yet fascinating elements that make the country so special and captivating to the visitor. After spending nine days criss-crossing mountains through roads that seemed impassable and spending time with my guide-chaperone, there were countless interesting moments and many “aha” realisations that made me wonder: “Where have we, in the rest of the world, in the West, gone wrong?”.
Here are 20 things about Bhutan that you probably never heard of before, at least I didn’t, and which surprised me about Bhutanese life or traditions.
1. “The worst roads in the World”
I had never thought that Bhutan would have bad roads. It now seems obvious given the altitude, the continuous hyper-high mountains towering up to over 7,500 meters and the farming/rural way of life. But even if I had known or read about it nothing could prepare me for the craziest most unbelievable roads in the world. I have no doubt about it. After a couple of nights in Thimphu, the capital, I was to travel to Gangtey, in Central Bhutan, for a completely idyllic setting in the fir forests and valleys that seemed taken out of a Tolkien movie. I went to instagram live my Gooogle map journey when I realised that Google expected the 130km trip to take 5h.
The road, especially from Punakha in the lower valley, is a continuum of literal hairpin turns every 9 seconds. If you get car sick, good luck with the journey. I found it exhilarating, but it was indeed nerve wrecking and heart spinning. If the amount of turns did not deter you from the drive, then the constant landslides that wipe out entire sections of the road, the many road blocks or the complete abyss that flanks the sharp outer side of the pavement sure will. I could not help myself from incessantly repeating how crazy the road was as if it was a mantra. I had never seen anything like this and I was sure I never would again. The Bhutanese usually drive slowly and carefully, unlike the drivers in neighbouring India, but the journey across the country is an obstacle race. The road is the main meet up point for children going to school, yaks, cows and horses, roadside vendors presenting their produce, farmers heading for their land and all sorts of Bhutanese inhabitants. The pavement is to be shared by all and cars do not have the exclusive use. Unless of course they are the compact Tata trucks that carry goods, wood or people across the country, they sure drive as if they owned the road.
2. You can’t smoke and you can’t buy cigarettes
After a short stint in Japan this summer where I was brought back to my childhood years of indoor smoking at clubs and bars, I was reminded of the horrible smell and feeling one has the morning after partying in an enclosure where people are allowed to smoke so I was part amused part satisfied to read that Bhutan has banned smoking in public places and the sale of cigarettes in the country. For a second, it felt like Singapore with chewing gum, only from a healthier stand point.
Instead of smoking, Bhutanese seem addicted to another horrible, mildly hallucinogen substance, betel nuts. Everybody chews them and you will recognise those who are really addicted by their painted orange lips and tainted teeth.
3. Plastic? No thanks
On to more sensible banning, plastic bags are not available and they are banned in the country since 1999, well before other countries started to consider the ban. I read in the autobiography “Married to Bhutan” that locals wash and hang to dry the few plastic bags they have and reuse them until their life ends. This is an obvious ecological and environmentally friendly measure that has sure made a difference: you do not see the horrific and heart breaking Southeast Asian scenes of colourful plastic bags stuck on fences and weeds by the side of the road. Chapeau to Bhutan for the initiative.
4. Abdication in favour of democracy
The Bhutanese are the most peaceful and spiritual countrymen in the world and this is probably the only country where a King decided to install democracy then abdicated, without a coup or a war, in favour of his son. King Jigme Singye Wangchuc realised that Bhutan may not always have a good king, so democracy should be installed. He called for elections and established a Constitution in 2005. Today, Bhutan is a Buddhist democratic monarchy, quite an interesting combination resembling Thailand’s whose King’s passing put the entire monarchy in doubt.
5. Happiness not wealth
You may have heard of Gross National Happiness as a measure of progress replacing the capitalistic Gross Domestic Product. Bhutan’s former King invented the notion that his country’s wealth should be measured by the happiness of his people in 1974 in order to replace western consumption driven values by the spirituality of a Buddhist society. Gross National Happiness is supported by four pillars related to Sustainable development, Preservation and promotion of cultural values (like wearing the national dress), Conservation of the natural environment and Establishment of good governance. One can easily recognise that these values have had immense impact in the wellbeing of the nation despite its economic development would lag behind by any Western standards. Bhutan’s forests cover 65-70% of the territory, a stark contrast with neighbouring Nepal where the land has become arid and barren as a result of over development and excessive subsistence farming. Endangered species like Bengal tigers, leopards and rhino have sought solace in the country away from Nepal and India where they have been hunted down to extinction.
The country ranks 1st in Asia in the Happiness Index, although 84th in the world as the index considers elements that are not important to the country and which the King decided to trade on, like economic development and choice. Most importantly, Bhutan has the most egalitarian score and everyone is equally happy.
6. Phalluses protect us from evil
One of perhaps the most famous images of Bhutan, along with the photos of beautiful Tiger’s Nest, are the phalluses painted on the facade of many homes. They are supposed to fend off evil and were brought by the country’s strangest deity, The Divine Mad Man, an unconventional Buddhist teacher known for using jokes, ridicule and sarcasm to pass on the teachings of the Buddha. He would only bless you or consider your asks if you were to bring him a bottle of wine and a beautiful woman. The tales of his most famous teachings could fill books with incongruent and plain rude demonstrations of how to convey Buddhism most important teachings.
7. It is mandatory to wear the national dress
One of the many ways in which Bhutan preserves its arts and traditions is by making its people wear the national dress to schools, government buildings and on all formal occasions. Bhutanese in civil service, formal jobs like in the hospitality industry and alike are all expected to wear the traditional gho for men and kira for women. In both cases, the dress is made of thick fabric that is wrapped around the body and held with a belt. In the case of the women, the kira is a sarong type of skirt that is complemented by a shirt and an overall jacket. Men’s equivalent is a long sleeve short skirt version of a kimono paired with high socks. The belt holds the dresses in place with a large fold of the fabric creating a sort of kangaroo pouch which serves as a throw-all. Bhutanese do not need backpacks.
What makes the national dress wearing extra interesting is the fact that the men cannot wear any stocking or trousers underneath until the country’s main Buddhist Abbot decides that it is time for the monks to retreat to the lower valleys for the winter months. That marks the beginning of the winter and the official approval of stockings under dresses. The same is repeated in the spring when the stockings can be removed and the monks return to the mountains. This may mean that, in the colder months of Autumn in high elevation Paro or Thimphu, freezing morning temperatures cannot be faced but with bare legs.
8. Isolation from the world
Bhutan’s mystic and mysterious cache is rightly caused by its complete isolation from the world. It was not until 1974, when the former king was coronated, that international media were allowed in the country to witness the celebration. Hotels had to be built to accommodate them. TVs only arrived in the 1990s and the country banned tourists until the 1960s.
9. Food in the open
Winter time is so harsh that not a lot of produce can be grown and Bhutan is as self-reliant as it can be, bar some trade with India, so during the summer months, fresh vegetables, fruits and meats are preserved or dried for the winter months. In Autumn, in preparation for the winter, the roofs of most houses are covered with red chillies spread out to dry for the winter. Bhutanese could not live without them and, in fact, could perfectly be with just rice and chilli.
Another common sighting are the piles of rice stalks cut and tidied into conical structures on the fields. As an eminently agrarian society, Autumn marks the rice harvesting season and all the workforce is in the fields cutting the rice with hand sickles. There is not time to thrash the rice, an activity that will be done in the winter, when the rice is needed for food and the workforce is mostly idle. Nobody could even conceive the idea of stealing either.
10. Many mountains but no mountaineers
Bhutan has 18 peaks above the 7,000m mark but the vast majority have not been surveyed and could well be higher or lower than documented. Only one of the peaks is open to climbers today, although two additional ones were open in the past. But the country’s second highest peak, Gangkhar Puensum at 7,541m, visible from the Duchola Pass on the way between Thimphu and Punakha, is the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Several failed attempts were made in the past but the mountain remains closed since.
11. Never conquered
Bhutan is one of the few, if not the only country in the world, to have never been conquered. This is probably thanks to its inaccessible geography but also thanks to the able and smart negotiations of the previous kings and gurus who ruled the country when the British Empire was expanding from India and who played an important mediation role between Britain and Nepal thus carving an independent status for itself. This lack of influence from other cultures has made the country an incredible example of what one can build with independence and self-reliance.
12. Chaperoned tourism at $250 a day
You can visit Bhutan freely but you need to organise your trip with a local agency or hotel that will provide a guide and driver for you. No visitor to Bhutan can arrive freely and travel independently. Indian and Nepalese can come without a visa but need a guide. This means that all visitors are chaperoned in the same way they are in North Korea, although ones has freedom to choose where to go and what to visit and interactions with the locals are not banned. However, unlike North Korea, Bhutan imposes a “Minimum daily package” to be paid by tourists that heavily discourages long stays and which creates an aura of exclusivity. Backpackers are therefore not welcome and traveling cheaply is not possible. The package minimum price must include all expenses and accommodation at a 3 star hotel, all meals and a daily tourism fee of $65. The price drops to $200 a day during the low season of the winter and Monsoon months.
Having seen the impact of tourism in so many other countries and read books about the tourism industry such as Overbooked, Bhutan’s “High value, low-impact” tourism model is a fantastic way of preserving its traditions and avoiding the damage to its heritage. Despite the relative remoteness, high flight costs and minimum daily package price, the country still receives over 40,000 visitors a year.
13. No traffic lights
I did not realise this until I read about it but Thimphu, and the entire country, has no traffic lights of any kind. It helps that there aren’t that many cars around and that locals are well behaved, drive slowly and are peaceful and patient so traffic happens in the friendliest most Buddhist way.
14. Internet and TV at last, in 2001
Bhutan was the last country to allow internet and TVs in. This no doubt contributed to the country’s isolation from the rest of the world as the only contact was with neighbouring India through road trade and, well, read point 1 above, the journey across the 200 by 100 mile country can take days.
I am happy to report that coverage exists through the country, albeit mobile internet outside of Paro and Thimphu is sketchy and very slow, 2,5G type, so not really suitable for anything more than tweeting.
15. Carbon negative
Bhutan is the only country in the world that is Carbon-negative, it produces less Carbon Dioxide than it absorbs. This is partially thanks to the fact that factories are practically inexistent but also because Bhutan has it written in the Constitution that at least two thirds of the country must be covered in forests and that figure stands at 72% today. This also links back to the Gross Domestic Happiness index in which preservation on natural resources is paramount. Bhutan is also the only country whose main export is renewable energy in the form of hydroelectric power sold to India. It is estimated that it currently only produces 5% of its hydroelectric power potential.
16. Not a goat not a cow
Bhutan’s national animal is the takin a weird looking, almost caricaturist animal that looks exactly like the body of a yak and the head of a goat. Legend has it that the Divine Madman created it from the bones of both animals and it certainly looks like that. The takin is endemic to Bhutan and can only be found there. What makes it even rarest? It feeds on bamboo.
17. No animal is killed in Bhutan
Buddhism teachings are against killing any animals or beings therefore, most Buddhists are vegetarian or even vegan. But Bhutanese are not, they eat meat, a lot of it actually, so that is a contradiction. On my first day I asked about this. The solution? Import all meat and fish from India. No animal is slaughtered in Bhutan, in fact, the streets are filled with cows, yak, donkeys…and the rivers bloated with fish, as I could see when I crossed the country’s longest bridge and animal slaughtering is against the law. This must be the only country in the world where animals roam freely without any fears of being killed.
18. “Not a big monastery populated with happy monks”
As the Prime Minister indicated, Bhutan is not just a Shangri-la, not a huge religious place filled with monks everywhere. I was surprised to not see monks everywhere, because tat is what the media and the travel brochures were portraying: happy monks in beautiful temples. As opposed to other Buddhist countries across Asia, Bhutan’s monks are hidden and hiding up in the hills where the monasteries are located, away from any distractions and civilisation in meditation. Any monk you will see in town “is a bad monk”, tells me my guide. Scrap all those photos with monks everywhere, those, are the bad monks. Most of the fortresses and temples you will visit have some monks, but they are just the caretakers. The real monks are in monasteries that are harder to reach and often located up in the mountains only connected by narrow and steep mountain paths.