Shrouded amidst the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas, Bhutan feels like country preserved in a time warp. The culture, traditions and way of life are still a true reflection of past centuries even in the face of the relentless onslaught of modernisation riding on the wings of the 21st century. Bhutan fames itself for being a country where development is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness versus the capitalist measure of GDP. It is a country where Buddhism is not a religion, but a way of life. Where hearts are big and the days are colourful. Where modernity meets history in simple yet unexpected ways. And I found all of this to be true during the week I spent in this gorgeous part of the globe.
The Government of Bhutan is focused on preserving the country's cultural and religious heritage and moderates the number of tourists at any given time in the country. We witnessed testaments to the will of a country to preserve the environment when there is an adopted state policy according to which 60% of the country’s landmass will remain forested for all of eternity. What’s even more brilliant is that they currently have 72% of the landmass under forest cover which makes it the only carbon-negative country on earth.
Having experienced its beautiful people, colourful festivals, awe-inspiring location and deep-rooted beliefs, I came away from Bhutan with one very important take-away: Happiness really is the best parameter to measure the life we lead.
Everyone I have spoken with since returning seem to have so many questions regarding this elusive part on the world map. I have tried answering the most frequently addressed questions in this post.
GETTING THERE : The only airport in Bhutan is in the Paro valley. The state-owned Druk Air and Royal Bhutan Airlines have flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Singapore and Bangkok to Paro. To say the least, this is a flying experience that one will remember considering the sheer size of the aircraft navigating between the mighty mountains to reach this isolated kingdom.
Imagine, the small valley of Paro is at an elevation of 7382 feet and the surrounding Himalayan range roughly ranging between 18,000 to 22,000 feet in altitude is the setting for one of the tightest airplane landings on earth. Apparently there are only 8 pilots qualified to land here. TIP: Try and get a seat to the left side of the aircraft. On a clear day you might get to see the majestic Himalayas towering over the clouds and if luck favours you, you might fly over Mount Everest!!
ATTIRE : The chic traditional dresses KIRA and GHO are the national dress and is even today the most common attire worn by the locals. Visitors are expected to wear full sleeved and full length clothes while visiting the Kingdom.
LANGUAGE : Dzonkha is the native language but almost everyone speaks basic English and a lot of them can speak Hindi.
CUISINE : Three foundational elements act as the cornerstones of Bhutanese cuisine - chilies, rice, and cheese! In Bhutan, chilies are considered a vegetable and not just a spice. They form the main ingredient in most, if not all dishes, so much so that Bhutan’s National Dish, Ema datsi, is a preparation of just chilli peppers and fresh yak cheese, and is available in almost all restaurants. If you are afraid that the dish may be too hot to handle, you can ask the local chefs to cut down on the spice. Pair the dish with native red rice for a complete meal. The rice is mostly red rice (a variety of rice that grows in high altitudes); and other cereal include buckwheat and maize. Meat is common in most dishes and includes chicken, dry beef and pork.
Red chillies hanging to dry on a traditional, ornate wooden window frames or rooftops of houses is a common sight in Bhutan.
RELIGION: Bhutan is the only country in the world where Buddhism is the official religion and is endorsed by the government. It is considered one of the last bastions where Tantric Vajrayana form of Mahayana Buddhism is maintained as the state religion. However, the Bhutanese constitution guarantees freedom of religion and citizens and visitors are free to practice any form of worship so long as it does not impinge on the rights of others.
ARCHITECTURE : As you travel through the country you notice early on that the most striking feature of a Bhutanese house (and most buildings for that matter) are the highly decorated rustic windows. Wood is largely used to build houses especially for windows and balconies. The dzongs too seem to be built with wood with stone beams for support. There seem to be three main types of building:
• The Dzongs (fortresses) which are the municipal and religious headquarters in each district.
• Houses that are predominantly 2-3 floored large rural farmhouses.
• Religious structures of various kinds (from large temples to small chortens or stupas).
WEATHER: Bhutan is a country of mountains and valleys, and the climate varies with elevation. The mountains are extremely cold and snowy, but it is humid and subtropical in the hills, and temperate in the valleys.
ECONOMY: Bhutan’s economy is largely agrarian. There seems to be a healthy tourism industry too. I heard from our guide that there is a good mountaineering industry too. Bhutan is home to the only unclaimed mountain in the world- Gangkhar Puensum and since the Bhutanese believe that the high mountains are the abode of the Gods, scaling any mountain higher than 6,000 meters is banned by law. Unlike Nepal where mountaineering is a mega industry, Bhutan does not seem to share its enthusiasm to capitalise on its unique presence on the face of the globe. And though it may sound conservative, that belief in a nutshell explains the Bhutanese ethic.
It is a rustic, removed, remote, pure country which strives to retain its cultural heritage and has avoided becoming globalized like so many others and refuses to use money as a benchmark to compare itself with the world at large.
CURRENCY : Bhutanese Ngultrum is the currency of Bhutan but Indian rupees is also accepted everywhere.
May the winds making the prayer flags across this beautiful country flutter, carry our prayers to the God’s spreading goodwill to all in the world.
Tashidelek and safe travels!!!