Bhutan. Land of the Thunder Dragon. Some call it a modern day Shangri-la. I call it a beautiful country steeped in tradition that my wife and I had the good fortune of visiting on our most recent vacation. I know what you’re thinking. “Oh yeah, Bhutan…that’s where now?” The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small (around the size of Switzerland), land-locked country nestled in the eastern range of the Himalayas between India and China. Its history is rooted in protecting its sacred traditions but the last forty years has seen its monarchs slowly open the country to the modern world while simultaneously safeguarding its heritage.
Bhutan became a member of the United Nations in 1971, and in 1974 opened its doors to tourists for the first time. Before then, the only foreigners allowed into the country were guests of the royal family. To this day, the government controls the flow of tourists through the levying of a daily tourist fee. The ban on television and the Internet were lifted in 1999 and the country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. Despite these changes – or perhaps because of them – the government is taking measures to protect the country’s traditions. For example: by law, all buildings must incorporate some elements of traditional Bhutanese architecture and people often dress in traditional attire (the Goh for men and the Kira for women).
What was unmistakable from almost the moment we stepped off the plane is that Bhutan and its religion are inexorably linked unlike any country I’ve ever visited. It’s not just that there are a lot of temples and monasteries (there are).
And it’s not just that there are prayer flags all along the countryside (there most certainly are).
Buddhism can be seen, experienced, and felt everywhere – it defines the national identity and is inescapable. Interestingly, as someone who is not religious, you would think the religious undertones so prevalent would grow tiresome after a while; it didn’t. Not in the slightest. Our fantastic guide, Namgay, taught us about Buddhism as much through his actions as his words. At each temple, he explained the significance of the figures depicted inside, doing a great job giving us just enough information while not being overbearing. He also, without fail, did his prostrations and offered a small amount of money as donation at each site. He did this without fanfare or making a big deal of it; I think this helped bring this part of the Bhutanese experience alive for us. On a number of occasions, my wife and I made donations out of respect since we were visiting their place of worship as tourists.
Nothing concretizes the importance and ever-presence of Buddhism than Buddha Point, which oversees the capital city of Thimphu.
Aside from the strong sense of culture, religion, and tradition, the second thing that struck me about Bhutan was the Bhutanese people. They are friendly, always ready with a smile, and service driven. The idea of Gross National Happiness is a thing in Bhutan, tracking economic growth, preservation of cultural heritage, sustainable use of the environment, and good governance to measure the happiness of the Kingdom’s subjects. The spirit of this idea was best demonstrated by our driver, Lama, who had a great sense of humor and a wonderful sense of life.
Lastly, Bhutan is a beautiful country – with lush forests that cover 70 percent of the landscape and the Himalayan peaks as a backdrop, speckled with majestic fortresses and temples like the stunning Tiger’s Nest. Yes, this is an actual picture I took with my phone. If you want to read more about our trip, check out my wife’s blog over the coming week: https://anjviola.com