Last Updated on February 21, 2022 by Nellie Huang
Bhutan, the Land of Thunder Dragon, is one of the most intriguing places I’ve visited. Read these interesting Bhutan facts to learn why.
Since opening its doors to tourism in the 1970s, Bhutan has quickly risen to become one of the most talked-about country in the world. So how did a small, isolated country of just under 800,000 people landlocked between the superpowers of India and China suddenly get so much attention’?
I came to Bhutan in search for answers, but I left with so much more than I’d expected to find. My trip to Bhutan definitely opened my eyes and piqued my interest in Bhutanese culture. During my visit, I got to ask questions, observe, and learn all about their Bhutanese traditions, beliefs, and philosophies in life. And the country truly captured me.
To share some interesting things I learned along the way – here are some Bhutan facts that might surprise you.
Interesting Bhutan Facts
1. Bhutan prefers happiness to wealth.
In the 1970s, the Fourth King of Bhutan came up with the concept of Gross National Happiness to measure the nation’s wellbeing, as an alternative to the Gross National Product. They take a holistic approach towards progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.
It’s often been explained by its four pillars: sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance. All of Bhutan’s governmental policies and projects have to undergo a GNH screening system before approval to make sure they do not have a negative impact of its people’s wellbeing.
The idea of measuring a country’s development through happiness has gained so much popularity that the United Nations created its own measurement to apply to countries around the world.
2. Bhutan is a Buddhist country with strong beliefs.
Buddhism is very much alive in Bhutan and the country is considered the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism. But from what I’ve observed, Buddhism here is more of a way of life than a religion.
Fluttering prayer flags, people circumambulating temples, red robed monks performing rituals are all show how Buddhism is an integral part of Bhutanese life. The entire country is punctuated with dzongs (fortresses), monasteries, stupas, and prayer wheels — all symbols of their faith.
The Bhutanese also have a strong reverence to nature and spiritual world because of their Buddhism beliefs — mountain peaks are considered to house Guardian deities, lakes inhabited by lake deities and cliffs resided by cliff deities. In fact, mountains are so sacred to the Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering on any peak above 19,685 feet (6000m).
3. Bhutan is famous for its colorful, vibrant festivals.
Bhutan is well known for holding some of the most vibrant and colorful festivals in the world. In fact, many travelers time their trip to Bhutan to coincide with the famous Paro and Thimphu Festivals.
Bhutan’s festivals, known as tsechu, are ancient expressions of their Buddhist culture. Most of these festivals are dedicated to Guru Rimpoche – the saint who introduced Bhutan to Buddhism in the early 8th Century. They celebrate with mystical dances, engaging performances, brave fire events, mysterious naked dances, enlightening re-creations.
Behind the scenes, the monks prepare themselves for weeks ahead with deep prayer and meditation. The monks perform special masked dances that are inspirations of enlightened beings in history; and the Bhutanese believe that watching these mystical dances is essential to gain enlightenment.
4. Tourists need to pay a minimum of US$200 per day to visit Bhutan.
Contrary to popular belief, travel to Bhutan is relatively easy these days — it’s just expensive. All visitors to Bhutan (except citizens of India, Bangladesh or Maldives) must travel with a tour operator.
Tourists need to pay for a minimum daily package that costs US$200 per person per day (during the high season which is during spring and autumn, expect to pay $50 more per day). This fee includes 3/4-star hotel accommodation, all meals, transportation, guide and driver (drinks are not included). Traveling Bhutan on a budget is impossible, but you do get your money’s worth.
It is also important to note that $65 out of this $200/day goes towards funding the free education and healthcare that the government provides to citizens. I can highly recommend Bridge to Bhutan, a social enterprise committed to designing eco-friendly and responsible tours through Bhutan. The brothers who founded it are all about protecting their country’s ecosystem and culture.
5. Bhutan has a low impact, high value tourism policy.
By keeping the tourism industry small, the government ensures that the impact on local culture and environment is minimal. I’ve seen what mass tourism can do to a country — from environmental destruction (such as Vietnam’s Halong Bay) to cultural erosion. The idea is not to keep the gap between the elite and the masses, but to attract more mindful and responsible travelers.
Secondly, Bhutan is a tiny country with limited resources and infrastructure, and cannot sustain large numbers of tourists. With this “low impact, high value” tourism plan, Bhutan will remain an exclusive tourist destination and keep providing its visitors with quality services and authentic experiences.
While it’s impossible to travel Bhutan on a budget, I personally think it’s a fantastic way to retain their cultural heritage and keep tourism sustainable in Bhutan. During my visit, I hardly saw other tourists around — which made the experience all the more genuine and intimate.
6. Bhutan is one of the world’s leading countries in environmental conservation.
Another one of the most interesting Bhutan facts: it is the only country in the world that is carbon-negative, which means it takes more greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere than it emits. According to its own figures, this nation of around 750,000 people removes nearly three times as much Carbon Dioxide as it produces.
The fact that Bhutan is relatively undeveloped — most people work in agriculture or forestry — also means it emits less than 2.5 million tons of CO2 each year. Luxembourg, for example, with a smaller population, emits four times as much.
7. Bhutan opened to tourism only in the 1970s.
Since the coronation of the first king in 1907, the Bhutanese monarchy has always regulated foreign influences to a great extent in order to preserve the nation’s identity. Because of its small size and fragile state, the nation believes that is the key to keeping its sovereignty. The country only opened its doors to foreign tourists in 1974, the year that the United Nations recognized Bhutan as a country.
8. Bhutan lifted a ban on TV and Internet only in 1999.
For the same reason, Bhutan had no roads, automobiles, telephone, postal system or electricity until the 1970s. The government lifted a ban on TV and the Internet — only in 1999.
This was the Bhutanese government’s way of preserving their national identity. But as a result of it, Bhutan has retained a lot of its traditions and remained an isolated Himalayan kingdom shrouded in mystery.
9. There are no traffic lights in Bhutan.
Another amusing Bhutan fact! Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu, is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. In fact when traffic lights were installed, there was such public outcry that the city went back to using white-gloved traffic police until today. I only saw this at one road intersection in Thimphu, but that was a pretty interesting sight!
Other than that, the entire country has no traffic lights. It works because there are not many cars around in Bhutan, considering how mountainous and isolated it is. The Bhutanese are also very calm and laidback, even when it comes to driving in an orderly fashion.
10. It is mandatory for the Bhutanese to wear their national costume.
In the 1990s, the King introduced a decree to have all Bhutanese follow traditional customs including dress and conduct. As a result, riots erupted in the Nepalese community. This led to the forced exile of 100,000 Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin. The Bhutanese government was criticized for this, says National Geographic.
Today, the Bhutanese are still obliged to wear national costume – a judo-style suit known as gho for men and a silk jacket known as kira for women – to work and to monastic buildings. However, all of the Bhutanese I spoke to don’t feel in any way restricted by these rules. In fact, they seem genuinely full of pride for their nation.
I tried on the kira in a traditional costume shop in downtown Thimphu and even bought one home. It’s such a beautiful traditional costume and I can see why the locals are so proud of it.
11. All of Bhutan’s buildings must follow the traditional architectural style.
For the same reason, traditional architecture remains alive in Bhutan. By royal decree, all buildings in Bhutan must be constructed with multi-colored wood frontages, small arched windows, and sloping roofs (a little similar to the Tibetan style). Traditional architects do not draw up plans, nor use nails and iron bars in construction.
While the designs vary from region to region depending on the topography and available materials, there is an architectural consistency across Bhutan. And the country is studded with magnificent dzongs (fortresses), monasteries and beautiful houses that spot traditional architecture.
12. Bhutan’s largest export is renewable energy.
Bhutan’s biggest export is hydropower, which accounts for 32.4% of the country’s total exports. Bhutan is able to generate hydroelectricity through special turbines placed directly into rivers without the need for constructing dams. Most Bhutan households get their electricity from the hydropower. For remote villages without access to power lines, the government provides free solar panels.
13. Bhutan has banned plastic bags since 1999.
While many countries are now adopting the no-plastic policy, Bhutan has banned plastic bags since 1999. The country has always had a tradition of protecting its environment, flora and fauna. They use cotton bags for their groceries to keep the environment free of non-biodegradable rubbish.
14. Bhutan has banned smoking since the 1990s.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that completely bans the sale and production of tobacco and tobacco products. Under the law, anybody found selling tobacco can face imprisonment for a period of three to five years.
The Himalayan nation has a long history of tobacco control. In 1729, a Bhutanese king banned the use of tobacco. In the 1990s, many of the 20 districts of Bhutan began declaring themselves smoke-free zones. By 2004, the government banned the sale of tobacco as well as smoking in public places. It became the first country in the world to go entirely smoke-free.
15. Bhutan’s government provides free education and healthcare.
Despite the country’s low GDP, the government provides free education for all – from primary level all the way to tertiary institutes – as well as free health care. Western education and the modern system of medicine were introduced only in the 1960s (prior to that only monastic education and traditional medication were available). Clearly, the government still has lots of work to do but it is definitely setting a great example to the world.
16. It is legal to have multiple spouses in Bhutan.
Despite all the strict rules, polygamy and polyandry are surprisingly legal in Bhutan. That means both men and women can have more than one spouse.
According to my Bhutanese friend Fin Novu, co-founder of Bridge to Bhutan, polyandry and polygamy started out of necessity. In rural parts of Bhutan particularly in the north, women usually marry more than one men to delegate chores to her husbands — one husband brings the yaks out, another grows crops in the field, another cooks at home and so on.
But why do they tend to marry brothers or sisters? To keep the blood within their family. For the same reason, people also marry among distant relatives. Cross-cousin marriage was a popular tradition in the rural areas of eastern Bhutan but it’s longer popular today.
17. The phallic symbol is everywhere in Bhutan.
One of the most hilarious Bhutan facts is that the Bhutanese are simply obsessed with the phallic symbol. In Bhutan, it is common to find phallic symbols painted on the walls of houses and in temples and other monastic bodies. Yes, I’m talking about explicit images of penises complete with hairy testicles and layers of foreskin tugged around them.
For the Bhutanese, the phallus is simply of sign of good luck and an instrument to ward off evil spirits. This belief traces its roots back to the 14th century when “Divine Madman” Drukpa Kunley made generous use of his penis to fight demons and convert the masses to Buddhism. As a philanderer, the revered Lama preached in the way unlike the stiffness of the society at the time and dramatized the teachings using outrageous sexual humor.
18. The Bhutanese love spicy foods.
I wasn’t expecting much from Bhutanese food but Bhutanese cuisine took me by surprise. Bhutanese food is a marriage of Chinese flavors and Himalayan style. I absolutely loved Bhutanese food for the variety and the familiarity.
As farming is the mainstay of sustenance in Bhutan, their diet is mainly composed of locally grown products, such as rice, potatoes, ginger and chili. Animal products such as cheese, butter and milk are staples of the Bhutanese diet. They don’t tend to eat too much meat as their Buddhism beliefs don’t support the sacrifice of animals.
Chili in particular is found in every meal – whether in a hotel restaurant or a farmhouse. The most common form is the bright red chili that’s usually left to dry on roofs. Another more popular type is the green chili that is cut into slices and cooked with cheese to form ema datshi, the most popular dish in Bhutan.
19. Bhutan’s national animal is the rare takin.
Bhutan has an incredibly rare and interesting national animal known as the Takin. The Takin is a bizarre-looking animal that seems like a cross between a yak and a goat. It has a thick neck, a long shaggy coat, adorned with a dark stripe along the back. They secrete a strong-smelling oil substance covering their entire body.
The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan because of its association to the Bhutanese religious history and mythology. Legend has it that the “Divide Madman” Drukpa Kunley (same one who created the peni obsession) created this unique animal in the 15th century.
Besides the takin, Bhutan is home to a wide range of rare animals, including the Bengal tigers, snow leopard, red panda, and the Himalayan black bear. To protect all these animals, anyone caught killing an endangered species faces the harsh sentence of life in prison.
20. Bhutan has poverty issues despite being a modern-day Shangri-La.
Out of the 720.000 people in Bhutan, the majority of them reside in rural areas and about 30% still live under the poverty line. The causes of poverty in Bhutan are due to family size, lack of education and limited jobs. Large families with a high dependency ratio (children and adults who cannot work) experience more poverty.
That said, you will not see any beggars or slums in Bhutan and there is no abject poverty. In general, all Bhutanese have a shelter and are self-sufficient to a large extent. Agriculture and livestock rearing have long been the mainstay of their sustenance.
How to Travel Bhutan
As mentioned, it is not possible to travel Bhutan independently. You will need to book a guided tour with a tour operator in order to get a visa for Bhutan.
- I traveled with Bridge to Bhutan, a social enterprise committed to designing eco-friendly and responsible tours through Bhutan. The brothers who founded it are all about protecting their country’s ecosystem and culture and they operate in a very responsible manner. I highly recommend them, especially if you are looking for a custom, private tour.
- For those interested in trekking, this 11-day Bhutan Trekking tour will bring you on the Druk Path. This active tour will get you out and about to visit some of the most gorgeous temples and monasteries in Bhutan. Trek sacred mountain passes of the celebrated Druk Path, ascend to the profound Taktshang Monastary (Tiger’s Nest), and explore the unique beauty of the city of Paro.
- A good budget option is this 4-day Bhutan tour that will show you highlights of the country (Tiger’s Nest, Paro, Thimphu and Punakha). You will have limited time in Bhutan but you won’t be spending more than $1500.
What do you think of these Bhutan facts? Which of these Bhutan facts did you find most interesting? Share with us!
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