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Introduction to Bhutan and why you should visit it - The Bhutan Odyssey


Bhutan? Isn’t that the place they call the Land of Thunder Dragon? Bhutan? Isn’t it considered the last Shangri La? Bhutan? Isn’t it the happiest nation in the world? We got to hear so many such questions before our trip to Bhutan this spring. But after our visit, we are short of words to describe the beauty of Bhutan. To us, Bhutan is like no other place in the world! We are awed by its spectacular natural beauty, its living spiritual culture, its pristine environment and most importantly by its wise Kings who measure the country’s progress and development not by ‘Gross Domestic Product’ (GDP) but by it's Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). Bhutan is a fairytale mystical kingdom that has striked the right balance between tradition and modernization. It is a Himalayan land where Buddhism strives and happiness grows. Returning back to the plains of India, our souls still seek the Bhutanese hills and mountains, and pine for the colorful Bhutanese flags fluttering at the hairpin road bends. Our hearts ache for being so far from the people who are complete strangers to dishonesty and falsehood and our eyes itch to see the beautiful rhododendrons and jacaranda flowers in bloom. In this blog – ‘Introduction to Bhutan’, we introduce you to the magical kingdom of Bhutan, the country’s making and some interesting facts.

The white Bhutanese flags with mantras are placed in memory of the ones who have passed away - The Bhutan Odyssey

In this travel series – ‘The Bhutan Odyssey' we give you a glimpse of the people, the culture and the ways of life in Bhutan in detail. This series should serve as a one-stop travel guide which gives you all the information required along with recommendations on stay, activities and itinerary so that you can plan your own trip to Bhutan. The first article in the series – ‘Introduction to Bhutan’ is where we introduce Bhutan to you and give you a basic understanding of this beautiful country, people and culture of this state. At the end of this article you would be convinced that Bhutan is worth travelling to and can move on to the next article where we show how you can plan your trip to Bhutan.

 

Read other blogs of the series - 'The Bhutan Odyssey', by clicking on the links or the photos below: 1. Introduction to Bhutan and why you should visit it (This article) 2. Plan your trip to Bhutan 3. Places to visit in Thimphu 4. Travel to Phobjikha (Gangtey) Valley of black-necked cranes 5. Punakha - Sightseeing places in the winter capital of Bhutan 6. Paro Taktsang (Tiger's nest monastery) – A complete travel guide


 

Location of Bhutan

Bhutan is a landlocked country in South-East Asia. It is bordered by China’s Tibet Autonomous Region in the north, and India in the west (Sikkim), east (Arunachal Pradesh) and south (Assam and West Bengal). Bhutan is the second least populated country in Asia after the Maldives. It has an area of 38,394 square kilometers – about that of Switzerland - and stretches 306 kilometers from east to west and 145 kilometers from north to south.

Bhutan is sandwiched between China's Tibet Autonomous region and India - The Bhutan Odyssey

Geography of Bhutan

Bhutan is a small country located in the south-eastern slopes of the Himalayas. The Kingdom of Bhutan is mostly covered by steep and high mountains with rivers flowing in between forming plains and deep valleys. The area of Bhutan is like a steep staircase, which rises from 100 meters above sea level in Southern Bhutan to snow peaks of 7500+ meters in Northern Bhutan. Within a distance of only 145 kilometers, one can pass from semi-tropical to temperate to freezing alpine areas.

Landscapes with mountains and valleys in Bhutan - The Bhutan Odyssey

Bhutan has 20 districts which are called as Dzongkhag. Every district of Bhutan has a dzong – an enormous fortress – which houses the official monk body, administrative offices and several temples. Dzongs are also one of the main tourist attractions in Bhutan apart from monasteries and temples. The main cities that the tourists visit lie in the districts of Thimphu, Chukha (Phuentsholing), Paro, Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang (Phobjikha) and Bumthang.

Districts and Areas of Interest in Bhutan divided based on geography - The Bhutan Odyssey

Bhutan can be divided horizontally into three geographic zones:

  • Foothills of the south – This area rises from the plains to an altitude of 1500 meters. It has high population density, evergreen forests and fertile farmland. The financial and trading capital town of Phuentsholing lies in this area.

  • Central, temperate zone – This area consists of the higher ranges of the Inner Himalayas with altitude ranging from 1500 meters to 3500 meters. The hills are thickly forested and several valleys can be seen dotted here and there. The capital city Thimphu and most major towns like Paro, Punakha, Phobjikha and Trongsa lie in this area. As a tourist, you would be spending most of your time in Bhutan in this zone.

  • Subalpine and alpine highlands – This area’s altitude ranges from 3500 meters to 5500 meters and above. The northernmost part is covered by year-round snow. The towering snow-clad peaks of Mount Chomolhari (7300 meters) and Mount Gangkar Puensum (7541 meters) lies in this area.

Weather and Climate of Bhutan

The climate in Bhutan depends upon the altitude. Perennial snow is found in the northernmost part of Bhutan where mountains rise up to 7000 meters. Here the weather condition is similar to the Arctic. Western and Southern Bhutan which are closer to India has hot and humid summers, cool winters and heavy rains. The Central and Eastern Bhutan has warm summers, cold winters and fewer rains.

Bhutan experiences five different seasons:

  • Summer (June, July)

  • Monsoon (July, August)

  • Autumn (September, October, November)

  • Winter (December, January, February)

  • Spring (March, April, May)

Read about the best time to visit Bhutan in our next article in the series.

Bhutan has 5 seasons

Brief history of Bhutan

At the beginning of the first millennium, Bhutan was inhabited by semi-nomadic herdsmen who followed the Bon religion (worshiped trees, lakes and mountains). In the 7th century, a Tibetan Buddhist King built first temples in Paro and Bumthang region by subduing monsters that terrorized the region. In the 8th century, Guru Padmasambhava popular as Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan and started spreading Buddhism. He is revered as the second Buddha by the Bhutanese and one can find his picture or statue in all the monasteries across the country. From the 9th century to the 15th century, many people from Tibet fled their country and settled in Bhutan. Among them was Drukpa Kinley, also known as ‘The Divine Madman’ who further spread Buddhist teachings. In the 17th century, Zahbdrung Ngawang Namgyel (commonly known as The Beard Man) came to Bhutan and changed the course of their history. He is regarded as the founder of the Bhutanese state and was the one who unified the country. He built Dzongs (fortresses), introduced laws and cultural and religious traditions. By 19th century, Bhutan fought several battles with the British. During this time, the Bhutanese army fought fiercely and ousted the Britishers. In these troubled times, a new leader emerged in Bhutan – Jigme Namgyel – who reinstated peace and stability in the country. His family, the Wangchuk family has since ruled Bhutan and the current King of Bhutan is from family's 5th generation.

This brief history will make it easier for you to understand and connect what you see in Bhutan. These are revered figures you will find in almost every tourist destination across Bhutan.

The noted Gurus and Saints of Bhutan who shaped the country's history - The Bhutan Odyssey

Government of Bhutan

Monarchy prevailed in Bhutan since more than a century till democracy was enacted in the year 2008. Today, the kingdom of Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary form of Government. The King of Bhutan or Druk Gyalpo remains the head of the state of the Kingdom of Bhutan; whereas the Prime Minister of Bhutan acts as the head of the government in a parliamentary democracy.

The current King of Bhutan (5th King) is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk who ascended the throne in 2008. Khesar married Jetsun Pema in 2011 during which he formally proclaimed Jetsun Pema as the Queen of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Every Bhutanese has utmost respect for their Kings and Queens. You would find their pictures everywhere from school classrooms, shops, hotels, public places and houses.

The 5th King of Bhutan - Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk along with his wife and child - The Bhutan Odyssey

Interesting things to know about Bhutan