8 Things You Might Not Know about Bhutan

Posted on January 13, 2014 by

Since opening its doors to tourism in the 1970s, Bhutan has quickly risen to become one of the most talked-about country  in the world. So how did a small, isolated country of just under 800,000 people landlocked between the superpowers of India and China suddenly get so much attention’?

I came to Bhutan to search for an answer, but I left with so much more than I’d expected to find. My fascination with Bhutan only urged me to learn more and dig deeper. During my visit, I got to know its people, ask questions, observe, and learn all about their cultural traditions, beliefs, and philosophies in life. And the country truly captured me.

To share some interesting things I learned along the way – here are some things you might not know about Bhutan.

Building a strong identity

1. In Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is an official development policy that is more important than Gross National Product.

In the 1970s, the Fourth King of Bhutan came up with the concept of Gross National Happiness to measure the nation’s wellbeing as an alternative to the Gross National Product. The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing. It’s often been explained by its four pillars: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance. All of Bhutan’s governmental policies and projects have to undergo a GNH screening system before approval to make sure they do not have a negative impact of its people’s wellbeing.

Fin Novu, co-founder of Bridge to Bhutan, says that the Gross National Happiness has been very successful in helping the development of Bhutan. The policy has made it possible to include far flung villagers in the development program, further promote self-sufficiency amongst the people and reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

The idea of measuring a country’s development through happiness has gained so much popularity that the United Nations created its own measurement to apply to countries around the world. The idea has also inspired similar approaches in France and Britain.

Happy people in Bhutan

2. Bhutan is a Buddhist country with strong belief in myths and legends.

Buddhism is very much alive in Bhutan and the country is considered the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. But from what I’ve observed, Buddhism here is more of a way of life than a religion. Fluttering prayer flags, people circumambulating temples, red robed monks performing rituals are all show how Buddhism is an integral part of Bhutanese life. The entire country is punctuated with dzongs (fortresses), monasteries, stupas, and prayer wheels — all symbols of their faith.

The Bhutanese also have a strong reverence to nature and spiritual world (partly because of the pre-Buddhist animist belief) — mountain peaks are considered to house Guardian deities, lakes inhabited by lake deities and cliffs resided by cliff deities. In fact, mountains are so sacred to the Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering on any peak above 19,685 feet. Bhutan actually has the world’s highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, at 24,836 feet (7,570m).

Another interesting belief is the phallic symbol which is commonly painted on houses to ward off evil spirits and bring in good luck. The history of this symbolic image can be traced back to a revered lama named the Divine Madman who was known for his special brand of Buddhism that used shocking behavior (he was a drinker and philanderer) as a way to bring Buddhism to the masses. It’s believed that he would hit evil spirits with his penis and turn them into protective deities.

Tiger's Nest

3. Bhutan has many interesting rules as part of the monarchy’s way to build national identity.

Since the coronation of the first king in 1907, the Bhutanese monarchy has always regulated foreign influences to a great extent in order to protect and preserve the nation’s identity, culture and eco-system. Because of its small size and fragile state, the nation believes that is the key to keeping its sovereignty. The country only opened its doors to foreign tourists in 1974, the year that the United Nations recognized Bhutan as a country.

Before the 1960s, Bhutan had no roads, automobiles, telephone, postal system or electricity. The government lifted a ban on TV and the Internet — only in 1999, 15 years ago. Its capital Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. In fact when traffic lights were installed, there was such public outcry that the city reverted back to the use of white-gloved traffic police. Bhutan is also the only country to outlaw tobacco — the sale of cigarettes is banned throughout the country.

In the 1990s, the King introduced a decree to have all Bhutanese follow traditional customs including dress and conduct and as a result, riots erupted in the Nepalese community. This led to the forced exile of 100,000 Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin and the Bhutanese government was criticized for this, says National Geographic.

Today, the Bhutanese are still obliged to wear national costume – a judo-style suit known as gho for men and a silk jacket known as kira for women – to work and to monastic buildings. However, if you talk to the Bhutanese, you’ll soon realize that most Bhutanese don’t feel in any way restricted by these rules and obligations and are full of pride for their nation.

Men in traditional gho playing archery

4. All tourists have to travel with a tour operator and pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day to visit Bhutan.

Contrary to popular belief, travel to Bhutan is relatively easy these days — it’s just expensive. The Kingdom of Bhutan does not place any cap on the number of tourists who are allowed to travel there, but all visitors to Bhutan (except citizens of India, Bangladesh or Maldives) must travel with a tour operator and pay at least US$250 per person per day (during the high season which is during spring and autumn, expect to pay $40 more per day).

This fee includes everything from four-star hotel stays to all meals, transportation, guide and driver (drinks are not included). It is also important to note that $65 out of this $250 per day goes towards funding the free education and healthcare that the government provides to citizens. In other words, just by visiting Bhutan, you are indirectly doing your part to help support the local communities.

We need to know a few things to understand why the Bhutanese government came up with these restrictions. Firstly, the Bhutanese culture has always had a strong emphasis on conservation of tradition and culture. By keeping the tourism industry small, the government ensures that the impact on local culture and environment is minimal. I’ve seen what mass tourism can do to a country — from environmental destruction (such as Vietnam’s Halong Bay) to cultural erosion and loss of authenticity. The idea is not to keep the gap between the elite and the masses, but to attract more mindful and responsible travelers.

Secondly, Bhutan is a tiny country with limited resources and infrastructure, and cannot sustain large numbers of tourists. To ensure sustainability, Bhutan needs to keep its tourism industry small. With this “low impact, high value” tourism plan, Bhutan will remain an exclusive tourist destination and keep providing its visitors with quality services and authentic experiences. During my visit, I hardly saw other tourists around — which made the experience all the more genuine and intimate.

In 2009, the government actually debated if they should abolish the tourist tariff. It created quite an uproar as many Bhutanese strongly opposed to removing it. According to the Bhutanese I spoke to, they firmly believe that imposing the daily tariff is the only way to prevent Bhutan from falling victim to cultural degradation. In response, the government not only retained the tariff but also increased it further to $250 a day.

Bhutan's currency

5. Bhutan is one of the leading countries in environmental conservation.

Because of the deep traditional reverence the Bhutanese have for nature, the country has a strong emphasis on protection of flora and fauna. In fact, Bhutan is the first country in the world with constitutional obligations on its people to keep at least 60 percent of the nation under forest cover at all times. At the moment, over 72% of the country is forested.

Power is generated hydroelectrically through special turbines placed directly into rivers without the need for constructing dams. For remote villages without access to power lines, the government provides free solar panels. If someone cuts down a tree to aid in the construction of their house, they are required to plant a new tree in its place. The country also sells its hydro-electrical power, making it the only country whose largest export is renewable energy. This is the biggest industry for Bhutan at the moment.

Plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan since 1999. Instead of using plastic bags, the Bhutanese use cotton bags for their groceries to keep the environment free of non-biodegradable rubbish.

Bhutan is home to a wide range of rare animals, such as the Bengal tigers, snow leopard, red panda, Himalayan black bear and the national animal, takin. There are over 670 bird species in the whole of Bhutan. To protect all these animals, anyone caught killing an endangered species faces the harsh sentence of life in prison.

Protecting the natural environment

6. The Bhutanese government provides its people with free education and healthcare despite poverty.

Out of the 720.000 people in Bhutan, the majority of them reside in rural areas and about 30% still live under the poverty line. That said, you will not see any beggars or slums in Bhutan and there is no abject poverty. In general, all Bhutanese have a shelter and are self-sufficient to a large extent. Agriculture and livestock rearing have long been the mainstay of their sustenance. Now 70% of the population continue to live on farming  while the remaining percentage are dedicating themselves to tourism and hydroelectric power industry.

Despite the country’s low GDP, the government provides free education for all – from primary level all the way to tertiary institutes – as well as free health care through Basic Health Units. Western education and the modern system of medicine were both introduced only in the 1960s (prior to that only monastic education and traditional medication were available). Clearly, the government still has lots of work to do but it is definitely setting a great example to the world.

farming is the mainstay of their sustenance

7. Polygamous marriage is allowed in Bhutan.

Despite all the strict rules, polygamy and polyandry (when a woman has more than one husband) are surprisingly legal in Bhutan although they are not common these days. The fourth king himself is actually married to four sisters. According to my Bhutanese friend Fin Novu, polyandry and polygamy started out of necessity. In rural parts of Bhutan particularly in the north, women usually marry more than one men to delegate chores to her husbands — one husband brings the yaks out, another grows crops in the field, another cooks at home and so on. And why do they tend to marry brothers or sisters? To keep the blood within their family.

For the same reason, people also marry among distant relatives. Cross-cousin marriage was a popular tradition in the rural areas of eastern Bhutan but it’s longer popular today. Traditionally, inheritance (such as land, house, and animals) is generally passed to the eldest daughter rather than the eldest son. Husbands also generally move to the wife’s house after marriage.

Modern-day Bhutanese, especially those who live in Thimphu, are no longer restrained by these traditions. They marry for love and most couples choose to live on their own after marriage. Divorces are an accepted norm and they carry no disgrace. In most instances, divorced couples move on with their lives just like in the western world.

Phallic symbol is commonly found in Bhutan

8. The Bhutanese love spicy foods.

I wasn’t expecting much from Bhutan in terms of food but Bhutanese cuisine took me by surprise. As farming is the mainstay of sustenance in Bhutan, their diet is mainly composed of crops that are grown in the country, such as rice, potatoes, ginger and chili. Animal products such as cheese, butter and milk are staples of the Bhutanese diet—which is quite an uncommon thing for Asia. The Bhutanese don’t tend to eat too much meat as their Buddhism beliefs don’t support the sacrifice of animals.

Chili in particular is found in every meal – whether in a hotel restaurant or a farmhouse. They eat several varieties of chili: a common form is the bright red chili that’s usually left to dry on roofs and then stir-fried with beef cubes and spinach; another more popular type is the green chili that is cut into slices and cooked with cheese to form ema datshi, the most popular dish in Bhutan.

Bhutanese food is a mixture of simple ingredients, Chinese flavors and a hint of Himalayan style. I absolutely loved Bhutanese food for the variety and the familiarity. Perhaps it’s because of my Chinese heritage but I’m a huge fan of Bhutanese cooking and can’t wait to head back just to eat.

Ema datshi, Bhutan's national dish

Did we miss out any other interesting facts on Bhutan? Share with us!

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

4 Responses to “8 Things You Might Not Know about Bhutan”

  1. Stef January 13, 2014 11:34 am #

    Great post! Really interesting, I especially like the point concerning the Happiness policy!

  2. kristy January 13, 2014 11:51 pm #

    I got curious with this country while reading this article. Hopefully I can visit the place this year to see for myself how they conserve their forest and their love for spicy food.

  3. Romancing The Planet January 14, 2014 2:05 am #

    Bhutan is really a paradise on earth. No doubt I lost in this world and my heart yearns to go there again and again.

  4. Carole January 14, 2014 9:53 am #

    This was absolutely fascinating. Seems like the USA, and probably much of the world, could learn a thing or two from Bhutan. I'm curious as to how the government raises funds for their education and health programs. Could you comment on that? With such a small population I'd imagine it's easier to implement and enforce their thoughtful policies. Let's hope they are able to continue on such a positive path.

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