A peaceful and spiritual oasis lying in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is simply magical. Hidden between its neighbouring giants China and India, Bhutan is a similar size to Switzerland with a population of 700,000.
Exploring Bhutan is an opportunity to discover a nation that is proud of and has retained its cultural identify. It is a place like no other and visiting it feels like stepping into a magical vortex frozen in time.
You know you are in Bhutan when…
1. You are thankful for a window seat on the plane after getting up close and personal with the Himalayan Mountains on the descent into Paro Airport.
2. You are not only allowed to stay on the airport tarmac to photograph the stunning Himalayan backdrop, you are actively encouraged to by proud locals
3. You’ve organised your pre-booked tour, the only way to gain entry into the country and although you've paid the minimum requirement of over $200 a day to enter the country, you hardly spend a penny once you are there
4. You are greeted at the airport by a sign stating “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”
5. You stand with locals watching a local football game outside Thimpu Stadium, the site of “The Other Game” played at the same time that Brazil and Germany competed in the 2002 World Cup. In this game, the two lowest ranked teams in the world competed with Bhutan defeating Monserrat 4-0.
6. You find yourself eating boiled rice three times, the only alternative for someone who doesn't like spicy food
7. You spend an afternoon in an unplanned meditative state, listening to the mesmerising chants from the monks at Punakha Dzong
8. The only interruption to your picnic by the river is the ‘whooshing’ sound of an arrow shot from a local archer practising nearby
9. You spend entire days not seeing any other tourists
10. You feel you have stepped back in time as you join locals at the Sunday afternoon regional Archery event, Bhutan’s national sport. A surreal scene evolves as teenage girls hold hands and sing on the sidelines, opposing teams chant football-like banter at each other, monks and older men stand deep in conversation and a “woosh” past you signifies an archer’s attempt at hitting the wooden target from 140 metres away.
11. You take a leisurely stroll around the world’s only capital city without traffic lights and with such a low volume of traffic, wonder if the local traffic controller is decorational rather than functional
12. You purchase some local sweets and water through a window below a wooden “General Store” sign
13. You notice the majority of locals wearing the National Dress (gho for men, kira for women)
14. You are in a country whose altitude ranges from 100 to 7,500 metres
15. You face 3-5 years in jail for smoking a cigarette, and can only legally smoke by purchasing a monthly permit for those with a ‘smoking addiction’.
16. You realise the inadequacy of your fitness levels as you are overtaken by a small child on a hiking trail
17. You ponder your own spirituality at the Memorial Chorten as locals cling to prayer beads as they take the clockwise walk around the Chorten
18. You have a feeling of insignificance that a powerful natural scene like the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains evokes
19. You learn to greet locals with the Bhutanese word for hello, “kuzuzanpo-la”
20. You encounter the strange looking Takin, Bhutan’s National Animal
21. You spend your evening sitting around a fire, following a traditional story narrated via music and dance.
22. You meet locals who had to be convinced by the much loved Royal Family that the introduction of a democratically-elected government in 2008 after a century of monarchy rule, was the way forward for the nation
23. You travel through a countryside decorated with prayer flags, chortens, dzongs, stupa, monasteries…and phallic art, which is believed to ward off evil
24. You share the road to Gangte with the little black-faced Langur Monkeys
25. You see a field containing nothing but wooden goal posts, a reminder that whilst archery may be the nation’s favourite sport, football is not far behind
26. You feel you are on top of the world, both physically and spiritually after surviving the trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery
27. You learn more about a Buddhist belief that is imbedded in all aspects of daily life
28. You feel uplifted as you listen to the chatter and laughter of happy school children skipping along the road on their way home
29. You are admiring the picturesque Punakha Valley as a local girl tells you her dream is to ride on the London Underground
30. You learn that Gross National Happiness is more than just an inspiring quote, it is a way of life
There are so many things wrong with the world. There are so many countries in turmoil. There is a sense of a growing power struggle between the superpowers of the east and west. There are countries enduring violence and bloodshed to achieve a democratic, corruption-free and fair existence.
And then there is this little country called Bhutan, which many people haven’t even heard of, that seems to have got so much right. It’s not a perfect country and has the advantage of having a small population and a strong Buddhist faith, but it has a much loved Royal Family and a newly elected and respected government and experiences a relatively peaceful existence.
A monarchy that spent the first half of the last century maintaining its culture and national identify has recently begun to open its doors to the outside world, which inevitably raises some questions. Does Bhutan have something the rest of us can learn and benefit from? Will it benefit from the positive aspects of modern technology and development? Or has it created a gateway through which the negative aspects of the outside world will creep through to challenge the peace, culture and national identity that this country is so proud of. Only time will tell.