Bhutan, also known as the last Shangri la, is a perfect blend of nature, culture, religion and modernization. Healthy socio-economic balance, rich forest cover, well preserved culture, stunning Buddhist architecture and mysterious paintings are some of things that distinguish it from its larger neighbors. Here is a list of interesting facts about Bhutan that make it a unique Himalayan destination.
1. Majestic Monasteries
Bhutan is home to some of the most exquisite Buddhist monasteries in the world, perched high up on cliff-sides. They’re eye-catching, adorned with beautiful carvings and paintings of mystical creatures and terrifying deities. Every monastery has a unique interesting story and it is this story that you remember more than the architecture. According to one such legend, it is believed that Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) flew to Taktsang monastery in Paro from Tibet on the back of a tigress. This place was consecrated to tame the Tiger demon.
2. In Bhutan, Gross National Happiness Trumps Gross National Product
They don’t call Bhutan the real-life Shangri-La for nothing. Bhutan is among the happiest countries in the world and it measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness philosophy (GNH) which aims to achieve its four basic goals: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation.
‘Bhutan is happy’ does not mean Bhutanese people keep jumping in the air with ecstasy all the time or you will be able to look at them and pass your verdict immediately, declaring all of them happy. Bhutan is happy because they live the simplest life. Because they are far far away from all modern world complications and competition. Spending a few days here will make you realise that Bhutanese people are satisfied with what they have and never let complications ruin their life.
3. Abundant natural beauty
Getting into Bhutan through the Himalayas, the first thing you notice is the abundance of trees. A thick green blanket of trees wraps the mountains, a complete contrast to the denuded hills of India and Nepal. Bhutan has a rich forest cover. To preserve it’s natural beauty, the government has enacted a law in order to maintain at least 60% of its forest cover for all time. Today, approximately 72% of the total land area of Bhutan is under forest cover. Conservation of the environment is one of the four pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy. Also, Bhutan is about to become the first country in the world with 100% organic farming.
4. Prayer wheels run by natural water streams
You can easily find these water powered prayer wheels built on natural water streams, by the road. These prayer wheels (known as Mani Chukhor in local language) use the power of water to make them spin (always clockwise). It is believed that these prayer wheels spread spiritual blessings and well being.
5. You got it right, that’s a penis !
The first time I saw an erect penis painted on a wall in Bhutan, I thought a miscreant or a naughty soul must have done it. Soon I realized these paintings are everywhere in Bhutan. They come in various sizes and color schemes. The most bizarre depictions also have eyes and wings ! Wooden Phalluses can be found in every souvenir shop and at the entrance of almost all Bhutanese houses in rural areas.
It is symbolic of the teachings of Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman who was called so because of his crazy ways of imparting Buddhist lessons. Amongst many other wacky things, he peed on spiritual items, deflowered young girls and impregnated childless women in need. His main intention was to show people that one can attain enlightenment, and still not be devoid of sex. Even today, many childless couples make pilgrimage to his temple Chimi Lhakhang (near Punakha) to seek the fertility blessings, And according to locals, it works !
6. Well preserved cultural heritage
Bhutan has embraced modernization without damaging its cultural heritage. All Bhutanese people, irrespective of their age or profession, wear traditional dress with pride. Men wear the Gho, a knee-length robe somewhat resembling a kimono that is tied at the waist by a traditional belt known as Kera. Women wear the Kira, a long, ankle-length dress accompanied by a light outer jacket known as a Tego with an inner layer known as a Wonju. Bhutan has maintained its traditional art and culture in ways more than one. The traditional architecture is promoted for all the modern building and there is a visible effort to maintain a common design across all the buildings.
7. Wooden bridges
The monasteries and forts that are built near the rivers, have gorgeous wooden bridges associated with them. These wooden cantilever bridges are aggregations of massive, interlocking wooden structures that form a single bridge. These ancient bridges have supported centuries of human and animal traffic.
8. They take Buddhism very seriously
For the Bhutanese, Buddhism is not a religion but a way of life. The Buddhist faith has played and continues to play a fundamental role in the cultural, ethical and sociological development of Bhutan and it’s people. Buddhism was first introduced here by the Indian Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century.
9. Treasure house of Buddhist art
Buddhist art is still intact in Bhutan and is widely used. Patterns of the buildings, bridges, clothes and wall paintings are uniform across the entire country that represent the rich Buddhist heritage. Their sense of color combination while painting the windows or walls is really top-notch.
10. Chortens and Mani walls
It’s easier to find Chortens and Mani walls in Bhutan than to find a human being. Even if you go the remotest of the places, you will not miss those beautiful small structures blending perfectly with the pristine nature.
11. Swanky SUVs
Bhutan is not a very rich country but one will find uncountable number of expensive SUVs and pickups on Bhutan roads. If you are crossing over to Paro in Bhutan from India you will witness a striking contrast with the plush high end SUVs neatly parked in Bhutan to the modest smaller and budget cars in India.
12. No smoking
Production, sell and consumption of tobacco is completely prohibited in Bhutan. Bhutan is the first country to do this. However, someone travelling to Bhutan can carry up to 200 cigarettes after paying the taxes at custom office. Remember, do not smoke in public or you might be handed a jail sentence!
13. Sensible traffic attitude
In contrast to the traffic attitude in India which is mostly senseless and insane, I found the traffic attitude of Bhutanese drivers really sensible. They avoid honking! So if you are used to hear a honk at a blind curve as a warning that someone is driving towards you, better be careful while driving there.
14. All major streets and roads of Bhutan are on google map’s street view
Google launched it’s street view project in Bhutan in 2014 and now 360 degree view of all major roads, streets and monasteries is available on google map’s street view.
Oh boy, they do drink a lot ! You can find alcohol in abundance here, as they are sold at every darn shop ! I If you had like to try some local brew, my personal favorite is the Red Panda beer of the Bumthang brewery. Must say it tastes heavenly fresh !