The Bhutan Odyssey - Introduction to Bhutan and why you should visit it
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Interesting things to know about Bhutan How was Bhutan named: The legend goes that when a great Tibetan saint was building a new monastery in Tibet, he heard a loud thunder in his dreams, which he believed to be the voice of a dragon (druk) proclaiming Buddha’s teachings. He named that monastery ‘Druk'. When his school of Mahayana Buddhism was introduced as Bhutan’s state religion in the 17th century, the country was named as Druk Yul (The Land of Thunder Dragon). It is said that the Land of Thunder Dragon – Druk Yul was named as ‘Bhoo Uthan’ which means High Land. But slowly the pronunciation changed and the Kingdom is finally called ‘Bhutan’ today.
Health and Education in Bhutan: Both health and education are the government's highest priorities in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Since the 1970s, free health care facilities are provided to not just the citizens but also visitors and foreigners who reside in the country. The government provides free schooling to all children until Grade 10. It also provides scholarships to students who meet the requirements for higher studies. English is the language of instruction in schools and institutions.
Environment Conservation in Bhutan: A unique aspect about Bhutanese Constitution is its pledge to have a minimum of 60% of Bhutan's total land under forest cover at all times. The government itself pledges to protect, conserve and improve the environment and biodiversity of the country. The Constitution states that every Bhutanese is a custodian of the nation's natural resources and environment for the benefit of the present and future generations. It mandates the adoption and support of environment-friendly practices and policies. It declares that it is the fundamental duty of every Bhutanese citizen to conserve, protect and prevent all forms of visual, physical and noise pollution. As a result of this law, today 71% of the total land of Bhutan remains under forest cover. Owing to so much of forest cover, Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world ie. it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it emits. Bhutan is highly environment conscious. The government has even banned tobacco and prohibited the use of plastic in the country.
National Animal of Bhutan: Takin is the national animal of Bhutan. It is also associated with Bhutanese history and mythology. Takin seems to be a breed of cattle and goat. It is a mammal having short muscular legs and thick neck. Takins are dark-black to reddish-brown in color and feed on bamboo.
National Sport of Bhutan: Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. The bow and the arrow play a significant role in the Bhutanese myths and legends. Even the images of Gods holding bows and arrows are considered auspicious. Bhutan also has an Olympic archery team. Archery tournaments are held throughout the country during local festivals and religious holidays.
National Dress of Bhutan: 'Gho' is the national dress of the Bhutanese men whereas 'Kira' is the national dress for Bhutanese women. Gho is a knee-length, robe-like cloth which is wrapped around the body and is secured with a belt. The attire forms a pouch-like area in the upper part which men use as pockets to store things like wallets and mobile phones. 'Kira' is an apron like long ankle-length dress accompanied by an outer jacket known as a Tyoko and the inner layer known as Wonju. Bhutanese accompany these attires with a scarf when visiting Dzongs (fortress) and other administrative centers. The scarves vary in color depending on the status or rank of the wearer. It is mandatory for a Bhutanese to wear the national dress by law in Buddhist religious buildings, government offices, schools, official functions and public ceremonies.
To know about the national bird, national tree, national flower, national flag and national emblem of Bhutan click here to sign up for our newsletter (3-4 mails per month) and you will be able to download a PDF version consisting of all these details.
Capital of Bhutan: Thimphu is the largest city and the capital of Bhutan. It is situated in the western part of the country. Thimphu was declared Bhutan's capital in the year 1961. Prior to that Punakha was the capital of Bhutan. Phuentsholing remains the second largest city in Bhutan and a major financial center. Thimphu is the only capital city in Asia (after Pyongyang, North Korea) having no traffic lights. You can read more about Thimphu in our future articles.
Religion in Bhutan: In Bhutan, the law provides for freedom of religion and the country ensures that religion remains separate from politics. People in Bhutan are mainly descendants of Tibet and Nepal. The ethnic Tibetan ie. 75% of the population in Bhutan, practice Buddhism. Bhutan is the only country in the world with Mahayana Buddhism as its official religion. The Nepalese ie. 22% of the population, practice Hinduism. A limited number of Bhutanese also practice Christianity and Islam. Some isolated pockets of the country follow Bon religion (worshipping trees, mountains and lakes) with its shamanistic practices.
Women in Bhutanese society: Women are treated equally as men in Bhutan. Women have the right to education, to choose their partners, to enter politics, to govern, to work and to become a leader. No discrimination exists based on gender and women are respected throughout the country. In fact, women in Bhutan enjoy more social freedom and equality compared to many other countries. Dowry customs do not exist. Inheritance is matrilineal ie. the property and titles are inherited by the daughter after parents pass away. Rural lands are registered in a woman's name. Also, a daughter does not have to add her father's name at birth and a wife does not have to add her husband's name upon marriage. After marriage, the groom moves to the bride's house (matrilocality). Quite often, the groom comes to the bride's family to work to earn the right to marry her.
Bhutan's Gross National Happiness: The Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world. In 1972, Bhutan's 4th King - Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared 'Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product'. Since then, the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has shaped Bhutan's economy and social policy. The country has a systematic method of finding of the GNH index that focuses on its nine domains.
The nine domains are:
Health (physical health, days of wellbeing, disability, mental health)
Psychological Wellbeing (the satisfactory level of life, positive and negative emotions, intelligence)
Education (literacy, knowledge, value system)
Living Standards (family income, equity and assets, housing situation)
Community Vitality (social support, social relationships, family, crime)
Ecological Diversity and Resilience (pollution, environmental responsibility, wildlife, city and urbanization)
Time Use (working time, sleeping time)
Cultural Diversity and Resilience (language, skills and artery, social culture and participation, harmony)
Good Governance (political participation, political freedom, services, government achievements)
It’s so unique that measures like ecological balance go hand in hand with education and good governance. And 'time use' is defined so wonderfully.
Every few years a countrywide survey is conducted to measure GNH index where each family has to fill out the survey and submit it to the government. Through GNH Index, people are segregated into four categories - unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy.
Is Bhutan truly a happier place because of GNH? There are many ways to look at it, but whatever way one may choose, a visit to Bhutan will surely prompt you to think more on the idea of happiness, refining or even redefining our understanding of the word 'Happiness'.
Nature Tourism, Bhutan
How did we get most of the above information? We booked our trip to Bhutan with Nature Tourism based in Thimphu, Bhutan. Nature Tourism - Bhutan is a ecological and cultural tour operator that offers tailor made itineraries to meet individual agendas - from birdwatching to botanical tours, mountain biking to cultural tours, art to architectural tours. Our customised tour was led by a highly qualified Bhutanese guide who helped us understand Bhutan in a unique way.
Nature Tourism - Bhutan is a tour company that operates since 1999 and we highly recommend booking a tour with them to make your trip most worthwhile and affordable. We are indebted to Mr. Karma Jamtsho, the founder of Nature Tourism - Bhutan and Dorji, our tour guide to offer us a chance to get closer to local people and know more about their ways of life, their places and their history, art and architecture. You can book your tour with Nature Tourism through their official website.
There are so many other interesting facts to know about Bhutan like their national how do get a citizenship as a Bhutanese or how to marriages happen in Bhutan or facts behind the design of national flag of Bhutan and many more. If you are interested in knowing more, you can sign up for our newsletter and download full PDF version of this article
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In the next article - Plan your trip to Bhutan, we will be giving you a good idea of places to visit in Bhutan and how to go about planning your trip to Bhutan. Did you find our article on 'Introduction to Bhutan' interesting? Have you visited Bhutan or is it in your travel bucket list? Do let us know in the comment section below.