Before I go into great detail about what we did each day while in Bhutan, I wanted to provide you with some background on this fascinating country since most people have never even heard of it. In my bias opinion, there truly is nowhere else in the world like Bhutan. Not because of their landscape or their food or their people or their history but solely because of their values. Marketing campaigns read "Happiness is a Place", "Almost Heaven" and "Where Happiness Matters the Most". After spending seven days here, I can honestly say these slogans aren't just a way to lure foreigners to visit. The Bhutanese practice what they preach and what they preach, we should all start to practice.
In the age when not even a secretive communist state is spared from the Internet, Bhutan remains one of the most mysterious lands in the world. However, since allowing their first tourist to enter in 1974, it is slowly opening itself up, one smile at a time. Unlike other countries who have lost their culture and traditions to mass tourism, Bhutan is doing everything in their power to preserve what they are so proud of while still providing a glimpse into what their everyday lives entail. One has to experience Bhutan first-hand in order to fully understand how they have managed to turn a fairytale dream into a living reality. In the end, what's the point of having pockets full of money, houses full of stuff and garages full of cars if you are not happy? And happiness is all that matters in this magical place known as Bhutan.
Here are some educational facts for you to understand just how special and unique this place is:
- Bhutan is reputed for pioneering a concept, known as Gross National Happiness, that places people (and not material wealth) at the center of its developmental values.
- Only 750,000 people have the privilege to call Bhutan home.
- Surrounded by the Himalayas and sandwiched between China and India, Bhutan is a landlocked country.
- Bhutan's Royal Family is a bit different than other Royal Families. Princes don't need to wait for their fathers to pass on to become King. Princes become Kings whenever their fathers feel like handing over the throne.
- Bhutan is currently on their fifth King, who is about thirty six and is married to a woman who is only twenty six. They just gave birth to a baby son, Bhutan's new prince, in February 2016.
- The fourth King married four sisters and had ten children in total.
- The third King became King at the age of seventeen when his father, the second King, suddenly died of a heart attack while on business in India at the age of forty four.
- The Kings are worshipped as if they are Gods. Photos of them are in every house, at every restaurant, in every hotel, on roadside billboards and so forth.
- Thimphu (population 100,000) is the economic, religious and government center of the country, residence of the Royal family and one of the only capital cities in the world with no traffic lights.
- The entire country is served by only one international airport, which is located in the city of Paro.
- There only two airlines that fly to Bhutan, which are Druk Air and Royal Bhutan.
- Only eight pilots in the world are certified to fly into Bhutan, as the runway is small and the airplane cuts pretty close to the mountains during landing.
- Buddhism is the official religion with Hinduism the second popular faith.
- In order to visit Bhutan, you have to go with a tour group that has been approved by the Bhutanese Tourism Board. The tour group will apply for your visa on your behalf. You cannot do this on your own.
- There is a minimum tariff per day per person of $200 during low season and $250 in high season. This tariff includes lodging, three meals a day, entrance to most sites in addition to a private guide, driver and vehicle for your entire duration.
- In 1974, the United Nations recognized Bhutan as a country.
- In 1999, Bhutan became one of the last countries in the world to introduce internet services and lift the ban of television. Even today, there is only one state owned televised channel.
- In 2006, the fourth King declared his intentions of making Bhutan into a parliamentary democracy.
- In 2008, the first democratic elections took place.
- Today, as a constitutional monarchy, the King is the head of the State and as a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister runs the Country as the head of the government.
- In 2010, it became the first country in the world to ban tobacco and tobacco products.
-In 2014, the first major global hotel group to start in Bhutan was Starwood.
- To this day, there are still no chain establishments such as McDonalds, Starbucks, 7-11, Baskin Robbins, Subway, etc. It remains undeveloped from the outside world.
- Education is completely free from elementary school up to continued education.
- Medical services are completely free. When the doctors in Bhutan can't perform a specific procedure, they will pay for that patient to fly to India to get the appropriate attention they need.
- The phallus, or penis, is seen as a precious treasure that gives life and wards off evil. It is a cultural, spiritual and religious symbol. Therefore, big wooden red phalluses are typically hung at the entrance of traditional houses.
- Polygamy and polyandry (when a woman has more than one husband) are surprisingly legal in Bhutan, although they are not common these days.
- There are twenty different districts throughout Bhutan and twenty four different dialects.
- Bhutan is the world's only carbon sink, meaning it absorbs more CO2 than it gives out. It sells hydro-electrical power, making it the only country whose largest export is renewable energy.
- 72% of the country is forested. In fact, it is in the country's constitution to keep 60% of its land forested. Respect for the environment, the eco system and all species is a serious matter in Bhutan. Anyone caught killing an endangered species, faces the harsh sentence of life in prison.
- Thimpu, Bhutan's capital, has been drastically growing over the last decade with a lot of new modern buildings. However, all buildings are mandated to maintain the same aesthetic traditional look of the Buddhist architecture and can be no taller than six stories high.
Here are some random facts as well:
- Dzongkha, the national language (a derivation of the Tibetan language, Choikd)
- Kuzuzangpola, meaning hello and well wishes
- Log Jay Gay, meaning goodbye and we will meet again
- Men wear a gho, which is a long gown belted at the waist
- Women wear an ankle-length dress called kira, which is mostly hand woven with rich traditional patterns
- Drinking age is 18
- The average life expectancy in Bhutan is 66 years for men and 70 years for women
- Raven is the national bird
- Takin is the national animal
- Swallowtail is the national butterfly
- Blue Poppy is the national flower
- Cypress is the national tree
- Archery is the national sport
- Butter tea is the national tea/drink
- Ngultrum is the national currency (introduced in 1974 it is pegged with the Indian rupee)
- There is only one escalator in the entire country and it is in a Thimpu shopping mall.
- There is only one double lane road in the entire country and it is in Thimpu.
- In 2015, Bhutan set a Guinness World Record by planting almost 50,000 trees in just one hour. Tree
- planting is popular in the country because they are seen as a symbol of long life, beauty and compassion.
- In 2016, the first and only helicopter in the entire country made its debut.
- Agriculture is its major industry with rice, fruit and dairy industry (yaks).
- Plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan since 1999.
- Bhutan has the world's highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, a mountain so sacred by the
Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering on any peak above 19,685 feet.
"Here in this tiny kingdom where luxuries like television and Internet were only recently introduced, where villages and communities still live in a time warp of the old age and where smiling people walk down the streets leisurely", you can't help but have a warm fuzzy feeling inside. "A country where mysticism meets reality, where legend is history, magic is science and reincarnation a fact of life". Bhutan is not perfect, nothing is, but it sure has its core values in order and for that, I fell in love.
*Most of this information has been provided by Bhutan Swallowtail, the tour group we went with.