Bhutan: A Hidden Kingdom. The Definitive Guide
An Antipodean travel company serving world travellers since 1983
Bhutan: a journey into the Hidden Kingdom
Bhutan, a tiny and remote nation nestled within the Himalayas, has been described as a real-life Shangri-La. It is famed for its Buddhist spirituality, pristine mountain landscape, and for measuring national growth in terms of happiness. Isolated from the outside world until the 1960s, Bhutan is gradually opening up to the outside world – on its own terms, prioritising sustainability, well-being, and the maintenance of its traditional culture.
For more information we encourage you to read Hidden Bhutan: Entering the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon by Martin Uitz.
Why are there no traffic lights in Thimphu?
Thimphu, the largest city in Bhutan, must be the only capital city in the world without traffic lights. When planners sought to install lights at an intersection near the city’s main square, the city’s inhabitants saw it as too modern, and demanded it be taken down. Now the intersection has a ‘human traffic light’, a policeman smartly outfitted in navy suit, military hat, and white gloves, who directs the traffic using exaggerated hand motions.
The ‘human traffic light’ is perfectly matched to the pace of Thimphu: in a city with no traffic jams, he is able to maintain absolute control. At between 100, 000 and 115, 000 people, Thimphu is one of the smallest capital cities in the world – and the third highest, at an altitude of 2, 648 m.
Yet, it is also one of the fastest growing cities in the world, perched between preserving tradition and embracing the modern world. Thimphu does not have Starbucks, McDonalds, or any of the other American chains, but the city is home to a vibrant culture of restaurants, cafes, and bars. Inhabitants chat on mobile phones, use the internet, and watch Bollywood films.
If quiet Thimphu is nonetheless too busy for you, you can always make a day trip to the serenity of Phajoding, a monastery 3, 800 m above sea level, where monks spend years in isolation and meditation.
Visitors on foot
Isolation is a dominant theme in the history of Bhutan. Perched among steep mountains and valleys in the Himalayas, until the 1960s, Bhutan could only be reached on foot. The country received few foreign visitors and the local culture was preserved. The first European visitors, Fathers Cacella and Cabral, Portuguese Jesuits from India, arrived in 1627, and were taken hostage by the shabdrung (a political and religious leader).
In subsequent centuries, though Bhutan was never colonised, it was forced to cede control of its foreign relations to the British, a role that was inherited by India on that country’s independence in 1947.
The last important statesman to visit Bhutan on foot was the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who trekked the 4500-metre-high Nathu-La in 1958. Impressed by the isolated country’s ‘spirit of peace’, he granted Bhutan full independence. With Indian-financed development plans, Bhutan built its very first roads in the 1960s. Since then, the country has slowly embraced the modern world – legalising television in 1999, and adopting a new democratic constitution in 2005.
Located amongst the soaring Himalayas, Bhutan’s landscape is one of mountain peaks, verdant valleys and crystal-clear streams, dotted with monasteries, dzongs (fortresses), and farms still tended by plough, oxen and scythe.
This reflects the nation’s strong belief in environmental sustainability, which is central to the Gross National Happiness program. The constitution mandates that 60 percent of the land must be forest (at the moment, the figure is 72 percent). Bhutan is the world’s only carbon-neutral nation, and, thanks to its extensive forests, consumes more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it emits. It has also limited its intake of tourists in order to preserve the pristine environment and cultural heritage.
The result of this for the lucky visitor is access to a virtually untouched natural landscape. See high mountain pastures of edelweiss, mountain daisies, and blue poppies. Encounter bears, blue sheep, and even the shy takin, the national animal of Bhutan. It is believed that there are only several hundred takin left in the wild.
A traditional culture
Culturally, too, Bhutan remains distinct. Men and women continue to wear daily the traditional dress of gho and kira. Buddhism continues to be central to daily life.
The coming of Buddhism to Bhutan is celebrated at the annual nalakar tsechu (religious festivals), held annually at most monasteries throughout the country. The whole community comes out for these festivals, dressed in their finest clothing and jewellery, while monks perform dances in colourful masks and costumes.
Taktsang, also known as the Tiger’s Nest, a monastery hugging a cliff face 3, 120 metres above sea level, is said to be the holiest site in Bhutan, where Guru Rinpoche materialised some 1, 300 years ago on the back of a flying tiger. Sheltering in a series of caves, he meditated for three years before converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism. The monastery was built in the 1600s to commemorate this.
Land of the medicinal herbs
For centuries Bhutan was known amongst Chinese doctors as mejong, or ‘land of the medicinal herbs’. In particular, Tibetan healers were the founders of a tradition of Bhutanese medicine, based in the use of around 350 mountain herbs and plants with healing qualities.
Most famous is cordyceps sinensis, known in the native language Dzongkha as ‘grass in summer – worm in winter’. A fungus which grows out of a caterpillar, it is believed that the substance can enable remarkable sporting achievements, cure impotence, and restore cancer patients to health. In the 1990s, the Chinese women’s track and field athletes set more than fifteen international records at international championships. Eventually, it was revealed that these amazing feats occurred because the women had been given daily doses of cordyceps for months.
For weeks each year the nation stops as inhabitants go out to gather the fungus, which can sell for as much as $3152 Australian dollars per kilo.
Today, traditional and modern medicine work harmoniously alongside one another. Patients – particularly those with chronic illness – can visit the Institute for Traditional Medicine (located in Thimphu) for free. The Institute is also open to tourists, and is a rich cultural experience and oasis of peace and calm in the middle of the city.
Gross National Happiness
Bhutan is probably most famous in the West due to the claim that the Bhutanese people are the happiest in the world. In 1971, the current King’s father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck rejected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the only way to measure development. Instead, he created the idea of Gross National Happiness – which measures prosperity through the spiritual, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.
Though the idea has sometimes been greeted with – perhaps understandable – skepticism, recent survey results found that 97% of the Bhutanese people described themselves as ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’. Another survey placed Bhutan as the eighth happiest country in the world.
Despite relative poverty, Buddhist principles mean that the Bhutanese do not find happiness through material goods. Well-being is also enhanced by the beautiful and unspoiled mountain scenery, the strong local culture, and lack of social isolation.
The concept of Gross National Happiness has since inspired the governments of France and Britain as well as the United Nations, as a way to address current problems of climate change and global inequality.
If this article has interested you in visiting Bhutan, Odyssey Traveller runs a small group tour of Bhutan. Odyssey’s tour, designed for the active senior traveller, crosses Bhutan in a comfortable modern coach. You will visit Thimphu and the Institute of Traditional Medicine, scale the Takstang monastery, see mountains and pastures, and maybe even encounter a takin in the wild. The tour is lead by an experienced tour leader, along with knowledgeable local guides, in order to ensure an authentic experience of one of the world’s most unique countries.