Myths of Bhutan Revealed

Up until recently, when I visited the tiny country of Bhutan, it remained a mystery to me. I pictured this magical place where the entire nation practices Buddhism, animals roam free through the protected forests, and everyone is happy and content all the time. Some of the movies I watched also suggested that one becomes very peaceful and all the illnesses go away when you go to Bhutan.

As an eager journalist, I wanted to find the facts for myself. What I discovered was very different from everything I knew, which is generally what happens until you actually travel to that destination.

Here are some of my questions answered…

Is everyone in Bhutan Buddhist?

Technically, Bhutan is a Buddhist country. Majority of the population is Buddhist, followed by Hindu. Though the influence of Buddhism is strong in many areas, not 100% of the people observe all its beliefs and rituals. About 15% of the population are Buddhist monks. There are both male and female monks in the monasteries.

female monk in Bhutan

Do Bhutanese eat meat?

If you look at the traditional Bhutanese menus, they tend to have a lot of meat dishes, including pork, beef and chicken. The government does not allow killing of animals for consumption. In fact, you can get arrested and fined if you slaughter an animal for food, fish from the rivers, or even accidentally kill a stray dog. Therefore, the meat you find in Bhutan is imported, mostly from India.

Though the Buddhist belief does not allow consumption of animals, many of the Bhutanese people do eat meat.
bhutan food

Is everyone in Bhutan happy?

In 2016, the World Happiness Report published by the United Nations ranked Bhutan as the 84th happiest country. According to the domestic survey done to measure Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, 90% of the population reported that they were happy. Now the definition of happiness can be subjective. In Bhutan, you will find a lot of poverty and access to very little resources. Infrastructure is undeveloped, there is high unemployment, work is mostly in agricultural sectors, and practically everything is imported into the country. One might question, how one can be happy having so little? In fact, while walking around shops, I didn’t particularly find anyone smiling or laughing with joy. Most people went about their day very seriously and responded only when spoken to.

Perhaps the people in Bhutan are happy because of their culture which embodies the teaching of Buddhism. There is strong emphasis on living as a community, helping each other, doing good deeds and finding happiness from within.

Is there any crime in Bhutan?

Though Bhutan is a peaceful country and quite safe, there is some petty crime especially among the youth. You can find instances of pick pocketing, theft, domestic violence and an occasional murder as well. When I asked one of the judicial officials regarding this, he mentioned that most cases of crime are committed by adolescent boys, perhaps overcome by peer pressure, alcohol or just hormones. Crime in Bhutan is significantly less than other countries.

Is Bhutan a mountainous country?

Given that the country is half the size of Indiana, there is unimaginable diversity in nature. Valleys, subalpine mountains, rivers, and plains are spread through the country, making it hot and rainy in the south, and dry and cold in the north. 60% of the country is protected as forest land under a strict regulation for maintaining the environmental impact. It is home to many animals including leopards, tigers, musk deer and takin. There are also some of the highest peaks in the world found in the Himalayan mountains of Bhutan, making it a great destination for trekking and mountaineering.

punakha bhutan scenery

The highest point in Bhutan is Gangkhar Puensum at 7,570 metres (24,840 ft), which has the distinction of being the highest unclimbed mountain in the world

Can you feel the monarchial presence in Bhutan?

Bhutan’s political system has recently changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. In 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck transferred most of his administrative powers to the Council of Cabinet Ministers and allowed for impeachment of the King by a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly.

In everyday life, you can feel the presence of the monarch though. Pictures of the royal family, including the current 36-year old king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema are displayed at homes, shops, museums, hotels, etc. They make ceremonial appearances at festivals and assemblies, and give motivational speeches to the kingdom on the importance of education, giving back, and following one’s customs.

How much freedom do the Bhutanese people have?

In 1999, the government lifted a ban on television and the Internet, making Bhutan one of the last countries to introduce television. They believed that exposure to the western world makes people unhappy as it encourages desire and greed.

There are few bars and clubs in Bhutan, mostly frequented by young people. Certainly not a destination for party lovers.

happiness wine in bhutan

Traditions supersede freedom of expression. The King requires everyone to wear the national costume to work, school and temples. Only during free time, one can choose to dress as they like.

Women and men have equal rights in Bhutan. Even in jobs involving manual labor, such as construction and agriculture, you can find women working alongside men. Respect for women is also an important part of Buddhist culture. Bhutanese men perform domestic duties including cooking. Traditionally the groom moves to the bride’s family home after marriage.

people of bhutan

What shocked me most about Bhutan?

The poverty in Bhutan was very noticeable from the moment I landed in Paro. There were dirt roads right outside the airport, and lots of garbage on the streets. I guess I was expecting this enchanted land with forests and mountains, where everything is squeaky clean, and the people in a constant state of eternal bliss.

Bhutan facts

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 2)

Continued from part 1…

We start our second day crossing the Dudh Kosi (Milk River) on a steel suspension bridge about 50 metres (165ft) above the river – it’s a thrilling feeling with mountains on each side and the roaring river below. As we cross, the wind pushes us to one side and you feel slightly unbalanced and we both have butterflies in our stomachs.

Crossing one of many suspension bridges

The last 3 hours of the day’s trek is a steep ascent – more than 1000 meters – just up, up, up…until we finally reach Namche Bazaar at 3,440 metres (11,286 ft). This was definitely physically the hardest day of the whole trek but the next day is a rest day to give our bodies more time to acclimatize to the altitude. Well, “rest day” – the term is a bit misleading and sounds better than what it is. The point of a rest day is to climb above the altitude you are sleeping at, spend a couple of hours and then descend. This will help the body acclimatize faster. So we climb 350 metres (1150ft) uphill, have a break while watching recreational planes land and take off. The attraction is the highest located hotel with a view of Mt. Everest at 3880m (12,730 ft). So if you are rich enough you can fly directly to this hotel spare yourself the walking, see Everest and fly back. In the afternoon we watch the movie Into Thin Air based on Jon Krakauer’s account of the fatal summit attempts in 1996.

For days we walk along narrow trails that wind around cliffs, go down to the bottom so that we can cross the river that runs through, then it’s back up the mountain, around the mountain, ascending, descending, ascending…We walk through valleys surrounded by beautiful blankets of autumn colors. The smell of pine forests remind me of walks with my mom back in Denmark where I grew up. But Denmark is one of the flattest countries on earth and Nepal one of the highest. The contrast could almost not be bigger.

It gets colder in the mornings and the landscape becomes more barren and unforgiving. At Tengboche (4,360 m/14,300 ft) we spend our second rest day. There is not much to do; the village seems to only exist for the trekkers passing through except the monastery (which must be the highest located monastery in the world!) which is now said to be home to 60 monks, reflecting its financial prosperity. However, it is also said that fewer and fewer young boys join as monks as they prefer to work in mountaineering or trekking-related activities.

It was my first experience inside a Buddhist monastery – the humming sound of about 40 monks chanting prayers was slightly hypnotic and calming and because I didn’t really understand what was going on it became all the more exotic and mysterious.

Monks chanting prayers at Tengboche Monastery

Nowhere in the world is a trek more spectacular than in the Everest region. It’s where four of the world’s six tallest peaks Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, and Cho Oyu rise above everything else, crowning the towering ridges that straddle the Himalaya.

Mountains make you feel small and insignificant – in a good way – it makes you see yourself in a different perspective. While walking you have time to reflect on so many things that you might not normally do in your everyday life. It makes trekking therapeutic experience both mentally and physically.

We are starting to feel the altitude; slight headaches and short-of-breath-ness. Our guide assures us that eating loads of garlic will cure our symptoms, so we eat cloves of raw uncooked garlic. I’m sure our breaths must have smelled really well…

Late morning on day 9 we reach Gorak Shep – a 3 hour trek from Lobuche. We are now at (5170 m/16,961ft) After an early lunch we take the trail to Everest Base Camp through the once vast Gorak Shep Lake. It’s strange to see sand and sea shells at this altitude. After a couple of hours we reach the Khumbu Icefall which is regarded as one of the most dangerous stages of the South Col route to Everest’s summit. Climbing through the icefall can be an extremely dangerous adventure as the icefall is continually moving, sometimes as much as two to three feet in an hour, and I’m happy that we are not doing that. We have reached the goal of our trek. We are standing at the foot of the tallest mountain above sea level! It’s incredible!

My husband and I at Mount Everest Base Camp.

When we arrive back at Gorak Shep, my husband is not feeling well. He is nauseous and has a headache – clear symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) and that your body has not acclimatized well. We go to our room to take a rest before dinner – he is still not feeling well after an hour and I’m starting to get a little cold. Like most lodges along the way, this one also consists of 4 wooden walls, no insulation and a little window. I go downstairs to order a hot drink and to inform our guide that my husband is not feeling so good. Our guide jumps to his feet and runs up to our room to check on my husband. Within 3 minutes he is back downstairs to inform me that we are leaving NOW! We have to pack and leave NOW – immediately. I’m too focused on leaving instantly that I don’t have time to be nervous about my husband, and I trust that we are in safe hands.

It’s 5.30pm and the sun has just set over the Himalaya and we are about to walk on a small stony path – IN THE DARK! Now that’s scary! Luckily, we have a full moon so the landscape is slightly lit up and this merciless place corresponds to what I imagine it must be like to be walking on the moon. There are no sounds in the night – only our footsteps on rocks can be heard – it’s absolutely silent, like we’re wrapped in an invisible blanket. It’s so beautiful and unreal – this moon landscape at the top of the world; it’s rough and poetic at the same time.

We finally get down to an altitude of about 4280 m (14,070 ft) and we will stop here for the night. Thank goodness the decent seems to have helped my husband’s condition; he says he feels better. Or maybe he’s just too exhausted to feel sick. I’m exhausted – it’s been a long day with a 7am start and it’s now 9pm. Last time we ate was 10 hours ago. My husband goes straight to bed and the guide and I eat a small bowl of noodle soup.

We backtrack down to Lukla over the next couple of days and it feels good to be finishingour trek. It was an amazing experience – an experience you could never have predicted. It’s definitely a honeymoon to remember – but I’m sure most honeymoon couples will tell you that. It almost feels like this was a symbolic trip of what is in store for us in our future life together – sometimes life is uphill and you’re out of breath, but after that it’s downhill and life is effortless and sometimes you don’t feel well, but by supporting each other we will make it. We started this journey together and we are going to finish it together.

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit www.friendsofvin.nl

Honeymooning at the top of the world (part 1)

First I would like to kindly thank Sucheta for letting me write a guest entry on her blog! I recently met Sucheta in Nepal where I was re-visiting VIN (Volunteers Initiative Nepal) whom I worked for last year. This year I set up a partner foundation called Friends of VIN (visit our newly launched website Friends of VIN) and I was in Nepal to catch up with VIN’s founder Bhupendra Ghimire and to check out our new project location in a remote area and rural area of Nepal; Okhaldunga.

But let’s briefly rewind to 2008 – it was a leap year…and the reason I remember so clearly is that this was the year where, on February 29, I proposed to my then boyfriend. Only 2 weeks prior had I heard about this old tradition of women being “allowed” to propose on this day. It’s believed to originate from Ireland in the 5th century when St. Bridget complained to St. Patrick about women having to wait so long for a man to propose. Tradition has it that in case the woman’s proposal was rejected, she would receive 12 pairs of gloves – so I thought: what the heck – I have nothing to lose!

Two and a half years later – July 2010 – we got married on a boat in Amsterdam– and it was a fantastic day!

We discussed a couple of options for our honeymoon – We wanted something out of the ordinary – not the Maldives or any other luxury beach holiday. So we came up with the South Pole on an old Russian expedition ship or trekking in Nepal…and since my husband knows how much Nepal means to me and since our very first conversation included Nepal, he wanted to experience it with me. And there was an extra bonus for me – my lifelong dream of working in Nepal as a volunteer would also come true.

We were greeted at the airport by Raju Shrestha – co-owner of the travel agency Himalayan Rejoice with whom we had booked our trip. The first days involved sightseeing of many of the famous sights in Kathmandu; the Swayambhunath Temple (also called the Monkey Temple – guess why…), the Boudhanath Stupa, the Kumari’s (Nepal’s living Goddess) Palace, and Durbar Square.

We rose early to go to the airport as we were on the first flight to Lukla. The airport terminal for domestic flights was quite chaotic compared to European standards…a lot of shouting and waving of tickets in the air – there was no check-in line; it was sort of just a lot of trekking tourists with sleepy looks in their eyes huddled in pairs or groups while their trekking guides were trying to get all the luggage checked in.

Finally we were on the plane – but ended up waiting outside on the tarmac as we couldn’t take off due to the mist in the valley. This is quite a common phenomenon in Nepal – and it means that many flights are delayed or cancelled. So if you are planning on going trekking in the Everest region and want to fly in to Lukla, you should give yourself a couple of days at each end of the trek to allow for changes to your flight schedule. Or maybe you don’t want to fly into the world’s most dangerous airport, but will opt for a 7-10 hour bus ride to Jiri and then start walking…In the beginning of November this year, around 3,000 trekkers were stranded in Lukla because no planes could leave or arrive for the matter due to bad weather.

Seemingly randomly, our guide found a porter that he already knew – among hundreds of men. It’s amazing how that worked. Our porter works independently meaning not through a travel agency and doesn’t own a mobile phone, so I guess we were lucky that he wasn’t on another job…

Hundreds of porters waiting for a job at our arrival at Lukla airport.

And then…After a hearty breakfast of potatoes and chili we take the first steps of the first meters of many thousands. It is like we have landed somewhere in the 1700s; cows, chicken, yaks and dogs are running among the many children who are chasing the animals with wooden sticks or playing in the shade. Men are carrying heavy loads of everything ranging from firewood to dirt to bags of rice on their backs. Women are busy tending to their farms and household chores, washing the dishes at the public water pipe or taking a shower – also at the public water pipe. A stark contrast to our urban lives back home in Amsterdam.

The route takes us through beautiful greenery and sounds of people and animals. Every now and again we come face to face with a yak train – which of course has the right of way. You can always hear them coming by the sound of the bells dangling from their necks and it’s important to go towards the mountain so that you don’t get pushed off the cliff accidentally…the yaks are carrying goods to the villages higher up as well as trekkers’ backpacks.

We pass many shrines and stupas which you must always walk around clockwise. We also pass many Buddhist prayer wheels and you are encouraged to spin them as you pass. In this way, the prayers are spun out to the universe and will save you from chanting them. In the distance we see lush forest rising high up until they eventually meet the raw grey and brown mountains with their snow-capped peaks which will dot our horizon over the next couple of weeks.

Hills, mountains and rivers make up the landscape on our way to Everest Base Camp

As you would expect we meet our first ascent of many and for about an hour our legs (and lungs) are given a good work-out – far better than any gym can offer. And the views are just stunning, the fresh air sweet and soothing, so much better than the Kathmandu smog and dust.

More coming…

~ By guest blogger, Ann Wilson. Ann is founder and CEO of Friends of VIN. She lives in Netherlands with her husband and travels to Nepal every chance she gets. To support Friends of VIN, visit www.friendsofvin.nl