The Kingdom in the Clouds. The Happiest Country in the World. The Last Shangri-la. Mystical. Magical. What a fascinating country.
Bhutan is a (virtually completely) mountainous country roughly equal in size to Switzerland. Half the size of Indiana. Go ahead, Google it; I had to. (Indiana is 36k sq miles, Bhutan is 18k sq miles, Switzerland is 16k sq miles.) This tiny country is bordered by two behemoths: on the north, China (the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China) and on all other sides, India. As one blogger quoted a local regarding its neighbors and politics: “If India sneezes or China farts, we get blown away.”
Bhutan’s neighbor to the west would be Nepal except for a very narrow finger of India (Sikkim) that reaches up between the two. Perhaps not surprisingly then, of Bhutan’s population of 700,000, 25-35% are ethnic Nepalese.
Map of Bhutan relative to its contiguous neighbors – India and the Tibetan region of China.
A more regional map of Bhutan. Our travels took us from Paro to midway between Wangdue and Trongsa.
Though called Bhutan by the outside world, since the 13th
century the country has called itself Druk Yul, or “Land of the Thunder Dragon”
and the Bhutanese call themselves Drukpa.
Bhutan is the most unique country we have ever visited:
- The Bhutanese life and Buddhism (i.e. secular life and religion) are inexorably intertwined. More than any other country we’ve visited. (Admittedly, we haven’t been to any Islamic countries yet.)
- Bhutan is one of the few countries in the world that has never been colonized. They had conflict with British India in 1864-65 and ceded some disputed territory, but that’s the extent of it for all practical purposes.
- Until the mid-20th century, this tiny landlocked kingdom was virtually unknown to outsiders. Telephones, electricity, paved roads, airports, hospitals, formal education and foreign relations were nonexistent. Business was conducted on the barter system. It was only in the 1960s that these elements of infrastructure were put in place, and only in 1974 were tourists allowed into the country. Television and internet were first allowed in 1999.
- A hereditary monarchy was established in 1907, and the reigning king is from its 5th generation. The third king (r. 1952-1972) is known as the ‘father of modern Bhutan’; he ended Bhutan’s political isolation and started development of the country (road-building, etc) in earnest. The fourth king (r. 1972 – 2008), who became the youngest monarch in the world (age 16) when his father died, transitioned the country to a constitutional democracy. The fifth king, age 32 and Oxford-educated, rules as chief of state now.
- The 3rd, 4th and 5th kings have skillfully and successfully transformed an absolute ruling monarchy into a democracy where the monarchy still plays a very important role. This benevolent monarchy reflects servant-leadership at its best. The Bhutanese people adore the monarchy with a zest approaching worship. They have great respect for them, and are tremendously proud of them.
- Law requires maintenance of 60% of the kingdom’s total area under forest cover – for all time. Currently, 72% is forested. The country has been named one of the ten ‘biodiversity hotspots in the world’.
- There is a ubiquitous effort to preserve the country’s culture, traditions and history, sometimes by legal mandate. All Bhutanese must wear the traditional national costume (kira for women, gho for men) in government and religious buildings. Some companies, like tour companies and hotels, also require this of their employees. All buildings, private and public, must follow traditional architecture and design protocol. There continues to be a massive project of restoration and renovation of dzongs (fortresses) and monasteries.
- This preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s unique cultural heritage is just one tenet of the 4th king’s well-publicized philosophy for the future development of his country, Gross National Happiness (GNH). Shortly after his coronation in 1974, he announced that Bhutan’s growth and progress would be guided, as well as measured, not by its GDP but by its GNH. GNH is based on the conviction that material wealth alone does not bring happiness, nor ensure the contentment and well-being of the people. Further, economic growth and ‘modernization’ should not be at the expense of the people’s quality of life or traditional values. To achieve GNH, priority is given to: equitable socio-economic development across regions and social strata; conservation and protection of the pristine environment; preservation and promotion of the cultural heritage; and provision of responsive and participatory governance.
- Bhutan does not have a single stoplight, not even in the capital of Thimphu with almost 100,000 people.
The first week of our visit was largely in rural areas and small villages; just last night did we arrive in the ‘big city’ of Thimphu. We have experienced a very strong sense of stepping back in time
: barefoot farmers plowing small fields by oxen; construction workers using sledgehammers, blow after back-breaking blow, to break rocks into usable fragments; firewood being carried on villagers’ backs in huge bamboo baskets; clothes being washed against rocks in streams; children walking an hour, or two, to and from school each day.
Our entrance into Thimphu gave glimpses of the modernity that is making its way into Bhutan: an expressway, a multi-pump gas station and convenience store, the emporium shopping mall, private schoolyards full of uniformed, English-speaking children and, last but not least, our very modern and well-appointed hotel, the Taj Tashi. As you might guess from the name, the Taj Tashi is a joint Indian-Bhutanese venture. India has played a major role in Bhutan’s development, especially in the construction and upkeep of roads, communications, hydroelectricity and the advancement of technical and administrative skills.
Finally, a little teaser from our next post…. Who has hiked with a member of the Royal Family of Bhutan?
(or of any other country for that matter??) We had a very special day yesterday… a truly serendipitous once-in-a-lifetime experience.
In the immigration line at the airport. On the wall, the five Kings of Bhutan (beginning with the first King who was coronated in 1907) watch over the Johnny Walker duty free banner.
We happened to arrive in Paro during one of the national festival days, a terrific introduction to this colorful and proud country.
Our guide, Jigme Tenzin, showing us how to add a sash to the traditional gho that Bhutanese men wear. Wearing the sash is akin to donning a tie in western dress.
A family at a picnic on the festival grounds.
Hopefully, they aren’t talking to each other.
The crowds fill the hillside in their colorful dress, the women in their very best kira and toego, or jackets, often made of silk and quite expensive.
A Falcons fan in the crowd.
Shauna found a perch among the locals from which to view.
Traditional dancing at the festival.
Accompanied by traditional trumpeting horns.
And more dancers.
From the Paro Valley, our first view of the Himalayas to the north.
Our first view of the Taktsang Palphug Monastery (famously known as Tiger’s Nest), a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. We will be hiking to the monastery when we return to Paro.
A closer (borrowed) view of the Tigers Nest Monastery.
A view of the Paro Valley.
Crossing one of the many suspension bridges in Bhutan, ubiquitous prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
Typical Bhutanese house – the new next to the old. The top section under the eaves is open air for drying grains and storing goods.
Painted on many houses, Garuda is a large mythical bird-like creature that appears in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Buddhists believe that it protects against evil spirits. As an aside, Garuda is the national symbol for both Thailand and Indonesia.
The Grandma of this house invited us in for tea. Notice the meat drying into jerky.
The altar room in Grandma’s house. 99.9% of Bhutanese houses have an altar room, by far the most elaborately decorated room in the home.
Shauna and Jigme having sweet milk tea – nga ja – at Grandma’s house.
From the Dochula pass, we had a stunning 360 degree panoramic view of Himalayan mountain range.
We’d love to come back after the summer rainy season for green views like this.
Suspension bridges abound in Bhutan.
At one of our hotels. Somebody forgot to set the minute hands.
Overlooking the Paro Chhu river in the Punakha valley. Terraces blanket the hillsides and will reap wheat, rices, potatoes and other vegetables.
A picnic by the Paro Chhu river.
By the beautiful Paro Chhu river.
The sunshine and the nga ja (milk tea) were warm. The water was cold – snow melt from the Himalayas.
Bhutan is an outdoor-lover’s paradise. We’ve seen rafters, hikers, mountain bikers, birders, motorcyclists. This group are chillis – (white) foreigners.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyal stands majestically on a ridge above the Punakha valley. Bhutanese craftsmen including carpenters, painters, and sculptors consulted holy scriptures rather than engineering manuals to construct this 4-story temple. It is a lovely example of Bhutan’s architectural and artistic traditions. It was built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and is dedicated for the well being of the kingdom and the benefit of all sentient beings.
No long pants, no admittance, but cheerful nonetheless.
Looking across the paddy fields to the village where Jigme first met his wife 5 years ago at an archery match. She was a ‘cheerleader’. Too cute.
Our hiking route took us within a mile of our Jigme’s in-laws. They were gracious in hosting us, and Dad was an enthusiastic conversationalist (translation via Jigme).
Jigme’s mother-in-law is making seudja – butter tea. Tastes like soup. If butter could be soup, that is. We didn’t need to use chapstick the rest of the day.
The winter house of the Third King happened to be along our hiking trail. The royals’ houses are very modest.
Most of the valleys were gouged by rivers; this is one of the few carved by glaciers.
Building a house in Bhutan – the women are pounding mud into a rectangular wooden frame to build the walls of a new house. The harder they pound the mud, the stronger the house will be. Hard work to say the least. The thick mud walls retain heat in the winter and repel heat in the summer.
You can easily see each section that resulted from one session of mud pounding.
These wooden frames are planed by hand.
This rafter was shaped with a chain saw.
Hand planing a board… teamwork.
The house isn’t in great shape, the the satellite dish looks nice.
The site of a scene from Travellers and Magicians, a Bhutanese film made in 2003.
Part of the same site from Travellers and Magicians.
A valley view that was included in the Travellers and Magicians film.
We place our prayer flags, consecrated by a monk earlier in the week, to bring happiness, long life, prosperity, good luck and merit to all sentient beings. Prayer flags are hung outdoors, in high places, overlooking towns, rivers and where people usually gather to give the wind the opportunity to move them and activate the blessings.
This was a very special view for us. The sun was streaming through the hole in the cloud, and was filtered by the haze.
Yakkity yak…. they did look back. Yaks are primary sources of milk, butter and cheese, especially for the remote region nomads.
Vista of the Himalayas from the south.
The regional Bhutanese bus, sometimes known as the vomit comet.
I don’t even know what to say about this picture which was painted on the side of a restaurant.
Bhutan has initiated a program to upgrade all of its major roads by 2020. In the meantime, there are some traffic holdups due to construction.
Mark leaning out of our van’s window. It was as steep as it looks.
These young women were carrying huge loads of wood….and smiling about it!
Bhutanese have very flexible knee joints – they often sit cross legged for hours at a time. Based on this baby’s head position, we’ll bet she ends up with a flexible neck as well.
Small village movie theater showing today’s feature (one showing only) with English subtitles.
Offering of vegatables at a small market.
These fish were not yet dried. You can’t imagine how badly they smelled.
This was a beautiful little stream at the bottom of a narrow gorge.
Shauna got recruited to help plow the field.
Our hikes have been well rewarded – too well rewarded – with traditional Bhutanese meals. Shauna’s favorite is the national dish of Ema-datshi – chiles in a light cheese sauce.