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

Tips for Visiting the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan

Taktsang Palphug Monastery (also known as Tiger’s Nest), is a prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex, located in the cliffside of the upper Paro valley, in Bhutan. It was said to have been built in 1692, around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Guru Padmasambhava meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century. Padmasambhava is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan and is the tutelary deity of the country. Today, Paro Taktsang is the best known of the thirteen taktsang or “tiger lair” caves in which he meditated.

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan is perhaps the most visited site by tourists to this country. It is also a backdrop in pictures you may find about Bhutan. Buddhists from all over the world especially come here to make the pilgrimage.

bhutan tigers nest

Getting to Tiger’s Nest requires some preparation.

You can only drive until the car park area, from where you must do a 8-mile trek up to the monastery and back. From the parking lot, you can see the temple perched high up on a cliff. It appears to be very far and your first instinct maybe “How the hell will I get up there?” It is a steep ascend to the mountain top but it’s well worth it!

bhutan tourismSpare at least half day for the visit. Start early in the morning, as it gets hot once the midday sun arises. The roundtrip can take 4-6 hours, depending on how fast you walk and how many breaks you take.

There is an option to ride on ponies or mules to the halfway point for a small fee.  It seemed to me that this is discouraged unless there are kids or adults with limited mobility. The sanctity of a pilgrimage is diminished if you use another animal to help you through.

Dress in layers. In the morning it will be chilly, so you may need a wind jacket, hat and gloves. But as you get warmed up, only a long sleeve t-shirt would suffice. Also, carry water and snacks, as there are not many places to buy anything. Apply lots of sunscreen as you will be going up to high elevations where sun rays are stronger.

There are two places along the way where you can purchase tea and snacks. One restaurant also offers buffet lunch.

Picture spots are ample as you approach the temple. Be careful of sharp drops along the cliffs as selfie deaths are gaining ground in the tourist world. Also note that cameras are not allowed inside the temple. There are lockers available just before you enter and you also will need to take your shoes off. Carry some change to deposit in the prayer/ donation boxes.

Tigers nest bhutan

Once inside the temple, you will find peace and tranquility, having stepped into an auspicious place where monks have been meditating for hundreds of years. Take your time and enjoy the fruits of your long journey here.

Secrets Behind Bhutan’s Happiness

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist country located between two emerging superpowers, China and India. How is it that it manages to retain its stance on measuring the country’s progress based on GNH (Gross National Happiness) vs GDP (Gross Domestic Product)? Are the people in Bhutan truly happy, and why? These are some of the questions I was eager to get answers to during my recent visit to Bhutan.

At first glance, I saw a lot of poverty, undeveloped infrastructure and lack of resources even in the country’s capital, Thimphu. There were a few hotels and restaurants, the shops were selling television sets one found in the 1980’s, cars were freely emitting exhaust, and people throwing garbage out their windows. When I walked into souvenir shops, I wasn’t greeted or welcomed, and attended to only when I asked something. On the streets, people had serious faces and went about their daily business. From an outsider perspective, I would say these were not signs of happy people.

people of bhutanHowever, when I had one-on-one conversations with people and asked them about the meaning of happiness, they gave me a refreshing response. The Bhutanese people grow up in a Buddhist lifestyle. They pray everyday, believe in karma (which includes doing good, not harming animals, taking care of the environment), and furthering their lives collectively. They live as a community and everyone comes forward to help each other in times of need, be it death, birth or illness. There is a strong sense of culture which is reflected through their lifestyle, costumes, and celebration of festivals.

bhutan prayers

I also interviewed Mr. Saamdhu Chetri, executive director at Gross National Happiness Centre. He told me that the idea of GNH was started by the 4th king of Bhutan who studied at Cambridge and traveled extensively. The King realized that people in the western world had much too consume, but weren’t really happy. He decided to create a new framework for his own government, in which he would focus on the well being of his people and the country’s resources, rather than how much they can produce. He appointed a team of statisticians, psychologists and ministers to create standards of measuring happiness i.e. GNH index based on 33 questions. The index surveys all citizens of the country on psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. They survey does not measure income.

Saamdhu Chetri bhutan

Here are some of the results the GNH Index reveale about happy people of Bhutan:

  • Men are happier than women on average.
  • Of the nine domains, Bhutanese have the most sufficiency in health, then ecology, psychological wellbeing, and community vitality.
  • In urban areas, 50% of people are happy; in rural areas it is 37%.
  • Urban areas do better in health, living standards and education. Rural areas do better in community vitality, cultural resilience, and good governance.
  • Happiness is higher among people with a primary education or above than among those with no formal education, but higher education does not affect GNH very much.
  • The happiest people by occupation include civil servants, monks/anim, and GYT/DYT members. Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.
  • Unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.
  • There is quite a lot of equality across Dzongkhags (districts), so there is not a strict ranking among them. The happiest Dzongkhags include Paro, Sarpang, Dagana, Haa, Thimphu, Gasa, Tsirang, Punakha, Zhemgang, and Chukha.
  • The least happy Dzongkhag was SamdrupJonkhar.
  • The ranking of dzongkhags by GNH differs significantly from their ranking by income per capita. Sarpang, Dagana, and even Zhemgang for example, do far better in GNH than in income.
  • In terms of numbers, the highest number of happy people live in Thimphu and Chukha – as do the highest number of unhappy people!
  • Thimphu is better in education and living standards than other Dzongkhags, but worse in community vitality.

bhutan female monkThe results are used by the kingdom and the government to make decisions regarding administrative policies, planning, resource allocation, monitoring and evaluation of development. They use the survey results to prepare strategy for the country’s development with values that includes equality, kindness, humanity, screens policies and measures sufficiency in every Bhutanese life. As a result, education is now freely available to even the remotest locations of Bhutan.

When compared to other happy countries of the world (such as Denmark, Finland), Bhutan doesn’t compare as those ranking account for economic prosperity as well. Bhutan being a small third world country, where hardly anything is manufactured or exported from, does not stand a chance.

According to my understanding, happiness is a difficult thing to measure. When you ask someone, “Are you happy?” most people respond “Yes”. It is also subjective. On the other hand, mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing are more reasonable measurements that defines if the environment hold all the factors that would enable someone to be happy. It is good to know that the basic principal of Bhutan is to govern based on the citizen’s well being and many countries are now looking towards Bhutan for advice on the same. Mr Chetri himself has been meeting with global leaders to consult them on how to implement the concept in their own countries.

What You Need to Know Before Traveling to Bhutan

Not many tourists think about the kingdom of Bhutan as a top travel destination. This is mainly because Bhutan does not advertise itself among global vacation spots and is perhaps still, a well kept secret. Those who do know about Bhutan’s rich culture, beautiful scenery and colorful festivals, make it a bucket list item. Traveling to Bhutan is very different from other countries, so it is important to make yourself familiar with it’s policies and procedures.

Paro bhutan

There are Limited Flight Options

The tiny country is located between China, Nepal and India. There are flights only from four countries into Bhutan. These are from Singapore, Thailand, India and Nepal.  Flights are generally very expensive. For example, New Delhi to Paro on Druk Air can cost between $400-700 round trip.

Bhutan is Not a Cheap Country

Bhutan has consciously remained closed off to the world, as they don’t want to flood their attractions with bus load of tourists. To keep travel to Bhutan exclusive, Bhutan Tourism Council maintains a minimum per day fee. You must pay a $250 per person per day royalty fee to the government. In return, they provide visa, accommodations (in basic 3 star hotels), 3 meals daily, guide, car and sightseeing. If you want to upgrade to a 5-star hotel, expect to pay additional $400+ per night. This does not include the “++” taxes, that amount to another 20%. You can also choose to camp or stay at farm houses, though this will not lower the price of your visit. Low budget travel and backpacking is out of question in Bhutan. Citizens of SAARC countries are exempt from the minimum royalty fees.

Bookings Must be Done in Advance

Because you need to obtain a visa well in advance and pay the royalty fee, it is best to contact a travel agent. You can book hotels online as well, but you cannot enter Bhutan unless you have all other documents in order (including guide, itinerary, visa approval). Bhutan Tourism Council also books trips directly or can recommend you a company.

Buddha point bhutan

Coincide Your Visit with Festival Season

There is really no bad time to visit Bhutan, though summer months tend to be wet. Winter runs from November – March and some of the places can get quite cold. Depending on which part of the country you visit, you can see freezing temperatures, as well as snow.

Punakha festival bhutan

There are several festivals taking place throughout the year, the most famous being the ones in Paro and Thimphu during spring and fall. Festivals are a great way to indulge in Bhutanese culture as families dress up in their finest traditional dressed and spend days enjoying history and storytelling. Here is a list of all Bhutanese festivals.

Though a Small Country, You Will Need Some Time

Thought Bhutan is a small country, there is much to see, and getting around is not very easy. Road conditions through the mountains are not so good, making travel time consuming. There are a few domestic flight options too.

You should plan to spend 1 week in western Bhutan, visiting the main cities – Paro, Thimphu and Punakha. In Central Bhutan, visit Bumthang Valley and Gangtey to see origin of Buddhism and Royal history. Eastern Bhutan may require another week to see the agricultural lands, rainforests and local artisans in Mongar, Tashigang and Trashiyangtse.

There are also trekking routes spanning 1-10 days, for those looking for outdoor adventures.

tigers nest paro bhutanTips on Safety, Money, Language, etc.

Bhutan is a very safe country. Men and women are treated equally and there is very little crime. Tourists should not feel threatened when traveling through Bhutan.

The local currency is Ngultrum, though most shops will accept US dollars and Indian rupees as well.

The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, but everyone also speaks English quite well and without any accent. You won’t find any Bhutanese going out of their way to make friends, but if you stop them for a question or ask for any help, they will pleasantly oblige. The locals keep to themselves for the most part, but are not unfriendly.