Bhutan, Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. It’s a land of contrasts and in few places is the divide between ancient and the encroaching ‘modern’ so evident.
Bhutan had been largely mysterious even to its neighbours but abandoning its self-imposed policy of isolation had it grappling to find a precarious balance between modernization and the preservation of its culture and traditions. However, Bhutan has found the perfect balance between the two and now though it is making tremendous developments in all sectors, it also manages to hold onto its unique identity that makes it unlike any other country in the world with a population of just over 0.7 million.
While changes are afoot, the Bhutanese have consciously maintained many of their traditions as a way of preserving their sovereignty and unique culture. Witness daily government business being carried out in gallant national dress inside the astonishing Dzongs, the same places where Bhutan’s famous colourful tsechus, 10-day festivals unfold.
Nestled in Southern Asia, landlocked between China and India, Bhutan has a population of about 760,000 people. Area: 38,394 square kilometres. Altitude: 100 meters above sea level in the south to over 7,500 meters above the sea level in the north.
Bhutan has three different zones, the alpine zone (4000m and above) above the tree line, temperate zone (2000 to 4000m) and subtropical zone (150m to 2000m). Bhutan has four seasons and the climate varies depending on the altitude. March to May is spring when the weather is pleasant and the flowering trees blossom. June to August is summer, also referred to as the monsoon season due to plenty of rain.
National Animal: Takin (Burdorcas taxicolor)
National Bird: Raven
National Butterfly: Ludlow’s Bhutan Swallowtail
National Flower: Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis gakyidiana)
National Tree: Himalayan Cypress (Cupressus torolusa)
National Dress: Gho (male) & Kira (female)
National Game: Archery
National Language: Dzongkha
National Dish: Ema Datshi – stew made of chillies & cheese
National Day: 17th December
Bhutan is the last intact Himalayan kingdom — Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975, and Nepal’s monarchy was abolished after a civil war in 2008.
Bhutan opened to the outside world in 1952, abolishing slavery and undertaking the arduous task of reconciling its medieval infrastructure, politics and culture to late-20th-century life. For millennia, Bhutan had been isolated: a land of devout Buddhism and pristine natural beauty, cradled by the Himalayas, which served as a bulwark against both military aggressors and modernity.
Bhutan has long guarded its small population from the outside world. Before 1961, the country had no paved roads. Satellite television was introduced in 1999. And outsiders still must pay up to $250 a day to enter and stay in the country.
Bhutan’s Constitution, which went into effect in 2008 with the transition to democracy, directs the kingdom’s leaders to consult the four pillars of ‘Gross National Happiness’ when considering legislation.
The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation. Bhutan measures prosperity by taking into consideration the citizens’ happiness levels and not the gross domestic product.
In 2006, Bhutan’s king at the time, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, shocked his subjects by unilaterally ending the country’s absolute monarchy, leading an effort to draft a constitution and institute free elections, a process that culminated, in 2008, with the country’s first general election. But the former king’s most celebrated contribution is in the realm of what might be called political philosophy. It was he who formulated Bhutan’s signature quality of life indicator, Gross National Happiness, which has made Bhutan a fashionable name to drop in international development circles and among New Age enlightenment seekers.
There are now around a dozen bookshops in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and a few more in far-flung districts.
Not long ago, when Bhutan’s government tried to enrol children in school, parents hid them in the attic and bribed government agents with butter and cheese to go away. Families needed their children as field hands. The last thing they cared about were books. But flash forward just a few generations, and the situation in this tiny Himalayan kingdom has changed. Literacy is taking root across these deep green mountain valleys — it’s now around 60 percent, compared with 3 percent in the 1950s.
Archery is the national sport of Bhutan.
Its national championship, the Yangphel archery tournament, is held here on an archery pitch, which is centuries old, just as the monsoon season ends.
Archery injuries are among the most common reasons for hospital admissions in Bhutan, officials said. One possible reason is that drinking is encouraged during tournaments, as is the competitors’ near-constant chewing of pan, a mild narcotic that stains their teeth red. Taunting opponents is common, and on rare occasions, archers stand in front of the target and get shot rather than allow a competitor to win crucial points, though that has become even less common with the more powerful and accurate compound bows.
A Buddhist fatalism may also play a role. Archery and Buddhism have long been linked.
With the exception of visitors from India, Bangladesh and Maldives, all other visitors to Bhutan need a visa. Visas are issued only when a confirmed booking through a Bhutanese tour operator has been made.
The Ngultrum (Nu) is at par with the Indian Rupee and 1 US dollar is approximately Nu. 71 (2019).
Foreign currencies can be changed at the airport and from the banks. ATM and banks accept Visa International and MasterCard.
A wide variety of accommodation is available ranging from luxurious 5-star hotels to cozy little hotels and homestays in traditional Bhutanese homes and settings. Visitors can be assured of their warmth and comfort of the hotels. Similarly, the ambience and hospitality offered by the hotels are incredible.
Most of the restaurants serve Indian, Continental and Chinese cuisines in addition to other international cuisines. Bhutanese dishes are available in all the restaurants and Ema Datsi - a cheese and chilly dish is popular among Bhutanese and visitors. All Bhutanese dishes use an abundance of chilli so do order according to your palette strength! Besides the locally produced beer and whisky, the local brew, Ara that is distilled from rice, barley or wheat is also popular.
Bhutan is popular for its textiles, cane and bamboo products. There are a lot of shops and emporiums that sell handwoven Bhutanese textiles, handicrafts, thankas, jewellery, antiques, organic herbal products which the Bhutanese use for a variety of purposes.
Bhutan is well connected and virtually every town has good telecommunication services. Internet cafes are available almost everywhere. Cell phones can also be used in most places around the country. Sim cards are available at the airport and in most shops.