Bhutan – Land of the ‘Thunder Dragon’

The Bhutanese lovingly call their country ’Druk Yul’ in Bhutan’s official language, Dzongkha. Bhutan is a small kingdom in the Himalayans, bordered by is large neighbours China from the north and India from the south. It ranges from the Indian lowlands with 200 m altitude to snow-covered mountains that are over 7500 m high. The country is about as large as Switzerland, but only has about 750,000 inhabitants, who are open-minded, laid-back, and laugh a lot.

Bhutan has isolated itself from the outside word for some time now and was able to preserve its unique culture. It was not until 1999 that TVs and internet were made available to its population. In 1962 the first car rolled over a street in Bhutan that was built for this sole purpose. To this date you will not find a traffic light in this country; however, police officers respectfully guide the traffic at the few intersections in the capital where traffic jams could develop, and sometimes even at pedestrian crosswalks. Most people of the small kingdom wear traditional clothing even today: women wear ‘Kira’ and men wear ‘Gho’. Without these dresses, you are not allowed to enter official state offices or schools. In terms of food, Bhutanese have a unique taste as well. They love chili, not just as a spice, but also as a vegetable. The national dish is ‘Ema Datshi’, chili peppers in cheese sauce, served with red rice.

Dzongkha (dzong = monastery-castle, kha = language) is the national language. In addition, there are plenty of regional dialects or even languages, and not all Bhutanese speak the country’s official language. However, more and more people speak English, especially the youth or the inhabitants of the country’s cities.

Buddhism is the country’s official religion and thus monasteries and monks in their red gowns are a prominent sight. In addition, in many places you will find the traditional blue, white, red, green, and yellow prayer flags. Bhutanese are very religious: youth and elderly all visit monasteries or other spiritual sites to pray. Especially the elderly have a desire to live in a monastery for months or even years to meditate after retiring.

Another dominant sight in Bhutan is it architecture. New buildings have to follow stringent regulations, which is why they all look very similar, no matter where you are in Bhutan. This creates a very harmonious feeling in this country. And even if westerners cannot believe what they see, it’s true: giant penises on some house walls. However, they are no phallic symbols of fertility of the house inhabitants, but rather are intended to repel bad ghost or influences from the house. In addition, Bhutanese often use their houses to dry chili, which also is very decorative. Particularly impressive buildings are ‘Dzongs’ (monastery castles), that serve both as spiritual centres and administration of the district they are built in. Even most bridges are built with typical Bhutanese building styles and generally are decorated with prayer flags.

Not only is the architecture very artistic, the crafting skills can also be seen in the products of the country’s 13 galleries. Handmade wood masks are skilfully painted, and the colours and patterns of the woven fabrics are magnificent.

Lately, Bhutan started to open its borders to the world. Tourists are allowed into the country on guided tours for USD250/day. The introduction of TV and internet is influencing the younger generations and is leading to noticeable changes. And the small kingdom has gained international recognition for using the metric of Gross National Happiness instead of Gross National Product to measure its success. Since 2008 Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected parliament. The path to democracy was made possible by the 4th king of Bhutan (Jigme Singye Wangchuck), who voluntarily abdicated and before turning 60 handed the crown to his son, the current and 5th king (Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck).

Yes, the country of the Thunder Dragon is something special and will hopefully keep its charm for a long time to come.