On Safari is where you go if you believe that miracles can happen,
Bhutan is where you go if you still believe in fairy tales.
A place where you can find a dancer with a dragon mask on the street. Where ancient, religious fortresses balanced precariously on mountain cliffs, valleys strewn with rhododendrons and awesome, forbidden peaks dressed in snow and ice. A fairy tale that is almost too beautiful to be true…
And the story itself may be one of the strangest you have ever heard.
Served with a side of yak butter tea and the Yeti!
In the beginning
Arriving by plane into Paro, on a runway that is only a touch over 1,000 meters in the midst of looming mountains where only a handful of pilots are certified to land, is an experience in itself.
Bhutan comes from the Sanskrit Bhota-anta which means End of Tibet.
The country has its own nickname of Druk Yul which translates to Thunder Dragons…due to the fierce storms that frequently roll in from the Himalayas.
Leaders of Bhutan are referred to as Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King.
Before the 1960s there were no roads, cars, telephone, postal system or electricity.
The citizens are obliged by law to protect the environment and a minimum of 60 percent of the nation must be under forest cover all the time (currently 72% of forest exists).
The country is carbon negative. Bhutan exports renewable energy to China through hydroelectric power. It is estimated that it currently produces 5% of its hydroelectric power potential.
If you are caught killing the highly endangered and culturally sacred black-necked crane you may be sentenced to life in prison. Hundreds of these migratory birds arrive from the Tibetan Plateau to winter in the lush alpine wetlands of Phobjikha. A festival dedicated to their survival involves folk song, dances and school performances and is timed to fall with the arrival of the cranes in November.
In Thimpu (like Pyongyang, North Korea) there is not a single traffic light! In 2010, Bhutan became the first country in the world to ban the production and sales of tobacco products. The sale of tobacco was outlawed in 1916 after the first King declared it. Smoking in public areas is illegal, however, tobacco can be used in private. In 1916, the first King of Bhutan called tobacco
“…the most filthy and noxious herb.”
Violators are slapped with a harsh fine: the equivalent of over two months’ salary and smoking in public has been banned since 2010. The government only lifted the ban on TV and the internet 11 years ago. Plastic bags have also been banned since1999 (a law that was reiterated in 2005 and has resulted in people washing and reusing plastic bags since long before the rest of the world realized what a scourge they are).
People drive carefully in Bhutan… which is a great relief considering a 130 km journey could easily take 5 hours along incessant hairpin bends. Of course… if there has been a landslide (a frequent occasion) it will take longer.
The country also introduced the Nissan LEAF and Mahindra Reva in 2015.
Even though Bhutan is not a wealthy country, health care and education are free for residents and visitors.
They even save on birthdays as everyone ages by one year at new year in Bhutan. Individual birth dates are not recognized.
The first foreign tourists were allowed into Bhutan in 1974.
A very large number of local people are addicted to Betel nut chewing. This is the answer to your: why am I seeing deep orange mouths and teeth everywhere?
One of the most popular mind-altering substances in the world, it is used by almost a tenth of the world’s population. Chewing the nut which is prepared with carcinogenic substances gives you the buzz of around 6 cups of coffee and it may be offered as a symbol of love, marriage and a cure for indigestion and impotence (as well as maybe life as it causes an alarmingly high rate of oral cancer)
It is thought that we have Guru Rinpoche to thank for this addiction as he introduced the Betel leaf in an effort to curb the eating of meat and drinking of animal blood.
Bhutan is also home to the rare Chinese medicine and supposed aphrodisiac known as the viagra of the Himalayas. In English, it’s called caterpillar fungus. But it’s better known throughout Asia by the Tibetan term, yartsa gunbu, which means “summer grass, winter worm.” The fungus grows parasitically in ghost moth caterpillars by killing them and sprouting from their head. It is one of the best crops in the world and is valued at a hundred thousand dollars per kilo.
We are not surprised that this nonsense has encouraged poaching in protected areas.
Not all have always been as happy as hoped in Bhutan. Especially in the early 1990s when riots erupted in the Nepalese community living in Bhutan after the King’s decree to have all Bhutanese follow traditional customs including dress and conduct. This led to the repatriation of about 40,000 Nepali-Bhutanese to Newark, New Jersey, USA in early 2010.
Bhutanese are forbidden to marry foreigners. Homosexuality is also forbidden by law. Polygamy is legal in Bhutan, however, the practice is not common.
Legends, Beliefs, and Members
The Gangkhar Pueunsum is the highest point of Bhutan and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world. This ‘awful but fascinating’ mountain eluded several mountaineering teams attempting to conquer it over a decade. Then, in 1994 the government of Bhutan decided to close all peaks over 6,000 m to any climbing out of respect for local spiritual beliefs and to protect people in their country. Bhutan did not want to become another graveyard like Everest in Nepal.
The society is very matriarchal and inheritance (land, house, and animals) is generally passed to the eldest daughter rather than the eldest son. A man often moves into the home of his new wife until he can “earn his keep.”
Buddhism was brought to Bhutan by the Divine Madman.
also known as Drupa Kunley
or the Fertility saint
or the Saint of 5,000 Women.
Drupa Kunley did not hold truck with any teachings about celibacy being the precursor to enlightenment. Instead, he accepted blessings in the form of women and wine.
To drive the message home he also popularised his phallus as a decorative motif… and this magic thunderbolt features prominently everywhere you go in Bhutan.
Invited for dinner, or offered some food? Decline at least two or three times with ‘Meshu, meshu’ and covering your mouth with your hands…before you give in.
The national dish of Bhutan is chili pepper and cheese rice. Ema datshi (ema- chili and datshi – cheese) – if fact you are in luck in Bhutan if you like it hot!
Yak butter tea is ubiquitous, high in calories and served warm…
Tip: everytime you take a sip your host will fill your cup. When you have had enough simply leave the cup full and drink it all right before you leave.
The Dragon King
Bhutan cleverly transversed the political field by ceding some border land to British India and allowing Britain to direct foreign affairs for Bhutan while maintaining complete control over its internal affairs. After independence, India took over the role of foreign affairs in 1947.
If the Bhutanese were in charge our world would be a place of peace. Exceedingly spiritual King Jigme Singye Wangchuc called for a democracy to ensure that a bad king would not have the power to destroy the country. A constitution was duly installed in 2005 and a hundred years after the monarchy was founded under the influence of Britain, the country became a democracy and Buddhist constitutional monarchy.
Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971. It was a founding member of SAARC (South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation) in 1985.
The last king also decided in 1974 that the country’s wealth should be measured by the happiness of its people. The Gross Happiness Index is an official measurement in Bhutan.
How do they measure happiness? Through preserving culture, protecting the environment, promoting sustainable socio-economic development and ‘Good Governance.’ To this end, Citizens are required to wear the national dress to school and all official occasions. The mandatory national dress code for men is a traditional, knee-length garment and women must wear ankle-length dresses. The colors give away someone’s social class and status.
The current dragon king and queen were named the Kate and Wills of the Himalayas, the King and his beautiful wife are immensely liked and revered in almost a godly fashion. All citizens can request a private meeting.
In Bhutan, the national sport of archery (Dha) consists of two teams in traditional dress competing by shooting at targets that are 140m apart.
(In the Olympics, the standard distance is only 50 m.)
It is also considered the done thing to shout rude comments to put your opponents off their game. When the Duchess of Cambridge visited Bhutan and took part in an archery competition they called:
‘You’re bald. Your nose is really big. We hope your private parts are as big’
Good monks, bad monks, brokpa
You might have seen Taksang hanging from the cliffside of the upper Paro valley in images of Bhutan. It is also known as The Puzzle of Three and created in 1692 in the spot where the Guru Padmasambhaya is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century.
If you see a religious man in Bhutan it is a bad monk. Fortresses and temples visited by travelers have caretaker monks but the real ‘good’ monks live in monasteries that are extremely hard to reach high in the mountains and connected only by narrow and steep mountain paths.
The good monks are not the only famous people in Bhutan that are difficult to find. A member of the brokpa who are yak herders in remote eastern Bhutan, continue to live exactly as they did centuries ago. Depending entirely on their yaks for food, clothing, and transportation.
Women command a high degree of respect from their husbands and children and often function as the head of the family. They are pivotal in deciding such matters as the marriage of their children, when to migrate and in taking charge of the family finance. They also engage in polyandry with one woman often married to two husbands.
They wear the Tsipee Cham which is made from yak wool with long twisted tufts to keep the rain off their faces. The yak are controlled with salt, as they crave it.
Yak hair is harvested from oxen and female yaks in May or June and then spun into wool with drop spindles.
The Wild Ones
While the people of Bhutan consume meat (most Buddhists are vegetarian or vegan) they manage to abide by the Buddhist teaching that precludes killing any animal as they import all their meat and fish from India.
No animal is killed within Bhutan.
Meet the Takin, the incredible looking national animal of Bhutan which is endemic and unique to the country and dines only on bamboo – legend has it that the Divine Madman created it … we are not arguing!
All tourists (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders) who wish to travel to Bhutan require a visa and must book their holiday through a Bhutanese tour operator or one of their international partners. The tour operator will take care of Visa arrangements for visitors.
In keeping with the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s policy of “High Value. Low Impact” tourism a Minimum Daily Package is required for tourists.
There are five seasons in Bhutan. Summer, monsoon, autumn, winter, and spring. The monsoon falls in the west while the south becomes incredibly hot and humid in the center. When the seasons are in flux the Bhutanese festivals happen and this makes Spring and Fall the best times to visit the tiny country.
One of our favorite Bhutanese stops? The Thimphu weekend market. Try yak cheese, smell incense and buy souvenirs from the nearby handicraft market.
Apart from the incredible Takim, Bhutan can also offer you Bengal tigers, clouded leopards, sloth bears, the Assam rabbit, red pandas, grey langurs, blue sheep, black bears – from the pine forests to the great Himalayan range.
Stop and smell the unique flowers
The national flower of Bhutan was only discovered in 2017. Growing high along the mountain passes it was previously thought to be a different species. There are two poppies discovered in Bhutan that are very rare.
In Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary locals also believe you might see a mogoi, or yeti.
… and if Bhutan has completely redefined your world by the time you have read this blog we doubt you will argue either!