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  • Dean Bainbridge

Kinda 10 Things To Know About Bhutan

Trekking to a Himalayan monastery to discover the meaning of life'

That's how I pitched it to Nova Entertainment, whom I write for. And much to my surprise and delight, they said... 'mmmkay'.

The majestic and magical Tiger's Nest

The Himalayan monastery in question is the one above, Paro Taktsang... or the cooler title, The Tiger's Nest.

No. It's not from Lord Of The Rings. It's real. It's on the side of a cliff in Bhutan.

"Oh, cool. I love Bhutan", says no one.

Bhutan is a mystery to 95% of the world's population. And to the other 5%, it's still an enigma. So for your benefit, and mine as I need to research it, lets discover 10 Things About Bhutan.

1. Bhutan is small.

It is one of the smallest nations in the world, ironically land-locked between the two largest: India and China.

The population is estimated to be around 700,000. I say estimated because its kinda wholistic about a head count and there could be tribes deep within the Himalayan peaks and valleys that probably don't have snapchat.

It's that little bit in the middle.

2. Bhutan is green.

Bhutan's constitution decrees that 70% of its land remains under virgin forest for all time. That's a hardcore promise. It's also green in a carbon emission sense. Get this... It doesn't come close to producing enough carbon to threaten the amount it's ample forests contain and purify. Bhutan is unique as it isn't merely carbon neutral. It's carbon positive. Not impressed enough? Fine. All of it's energy is from green hydroelectricity run from its many glacial rivers. And because it isn't exactly Manhattan, it feeds clean energy into India and China, making clean energy its biggest export. C'mon - you're a little impressed.

3. Bhutan is a kingdom, kinda.

Bhutan was once effectively Southern Tibet, but it broke away to become it's own feudal system for a few centuries, which evolved into a protected kingdom in the 19th Century. The Fourth King decided to abdicate to his son in 2008, and he immediately introduced a new political system... Democratic Monarchy. The king has a say in all things, but the people must vote on key constitutional matters. So, like a lot of Bhutanese features, it has one foot in the past and one foot in a very progressive future.

4. Bhutan is slow.

The capital city of Thimpu does not even have a traffic light. This is because there's not a whole lot of traffic in peak hour. Possibly also because the commuters aren't in much of a hurry. Either way, it has the another rare distinction of being the ONLY 'Traffic Light-less Capital City in the World. Bravo. Oh, and TV... the first channel went to air in 1999.

The same year they got internet.

The ONLY roundabout in the Capital

5. Bhutan likes dragons.

The dragon or Druk is the national symbol. It's on all the official seals, flags and banners. The King's official title is DRAGON KING. This is cool but also quite bizarre because they totally believe in dragons. Most of the villagers claim to hear them regularly and see them occasionally. No, I've not heard a tropical monsoon thunder storm passing through the vast Himalayan valleys but apparently when you do, you shit yourself and duck for cover. Here be Thunder dragons aplenty.

6. Bhutan is happy.

This is something you may have heard. Bhutan is getting notoriety in economic and humanistic circles for this. The Fourth King famously told the United Nations when they officially recognised Bhutan in the 70's that they don't measure their success with a Gross National Product index. They are more concerned with Gross National Happiness. They're a very buddhist lot over there and as such are fairly detached from materialism, therefore they aren't predisposed to equate a big screen TV with their worth as a person. That didn't stop the King and his council from quantifying this 'GNH' with some metrics. There are nine indicators: psychological well-being, health, time use, education, cultural diversity & resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity & resilience, and living standards.

7. Bhutan is a myth.

There's an old Tibetan Buddhist belief in Shambala: a kinda Himalayan Atlantis. You may have heard the term Shangri-la. Same thing. Legend has it that this city is deep in the mountains and girt by impenetrable snowy pinnacles - like lotus petals. By contrast, the city itself is warm, fertile and lush. The residents of this utopia are enlightened and live in seclusion. Theories differ, but when conditions are right, or when the world needs it, Shambala's 'petals' will become traversable and the secret wisdom will be shared like blossoms on the breeze. Cool story, right? Turns out that the wise old mates back in the day may have been recounting stories told by the shamanic tribes of the southern Tibetan ranges. They may have been describing Jakar, Punakha, the capital Thimpu... or an as yet undiscovered village.

Fun fact. The Russians went in search of it in 1924 to see if they were down with communism, and the Germans mounted several expeditions in the early 30's to ask them if they were the ancestors of the master race.

The mythical city of Shangri-La / Shambala

8. Bhutan is protective.

For a nation that only opened it's doors to the world in the 70's, it's remained sceptical of the western world and it's consumerist philosophies. ( Can you blame it?) Getting into Bhutan is hard and staying there has it's own unique set of rules. The only way into Bhutan is by it's National Airline Druk Air/Royal Bhutan. It has exclusive rights to the only international air strip and it only connects to 4 or 5 destinations. I'll be connecting via Kathmandu in Nepal. Only Druk Air/ Royal Bhutan pilots are certified to make the approach or takeoff because Himalayas. So, you don't fly into Bhutan... it collects you. While you're there, a daily tariff pays for accomodation, three meals, a guide and driver, SUV and all entries and permits. This is mandatory. My guy over there tells me that once I have been dropped off at my nightly accomodation, my time is my own, but I'm to be accompanied at all times while following my itinerary. It does make them seem a little paranoid and defensive, but I'd like to think that they just believe that if you're got a good thing going on, you have to preserve it... Or it could be some cult-like North Korea.

9. Bhutan loves dogs.

So, apparently Bhutan's bigger cities have a problem with wild dogs. Well, to be accurate, we'd describe it as a problem. They don't. Dogs are everywhere. On the road. In your yard. On the front step. I've encountered dogs like this before in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The temple dogs there roam freely and are usually not a pest at all. They are a chilled lot. Why the Bhutanese love for doggos? You'll like this. According to their beliefs, dogs are the step just before human on the samsara wheel of life. So they're cherished and nurtured so that they become good humans. Awwwww.

10. Bhutan is Inevitable.

For many reasons I've been drawn to the Himalayas since I can remember. I've had moments of infatuation with Nepal, Tibet and now Bhutan right throughout my life. Recently, I rediscovered a book from early primary school that I had completely forgotten but might explain it.

'Tin Tin In Tibet'. Yep, that intrepid little guy and his sailor mate went there. I loved Tin Tin as a kid but did not consciously recall this story. Weird.

Also, the titular temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was Lhasa Temple in Tibet (exteriors), former home of the current Dalai Lama before exile. I watched that video til the tape broke!

The Potala Palace in Tibet

Tin-Tin meets the monks

This adventure is going to be extraordinary but, if I'm honest, it feels inevitable. If you've ever had a destination that you've carried in your heart and mind for a long time, and you've been lucky enough to realise that journey, you're a rich soul indeed. My wife had a genetic calling to go to London and her experience was about as religious as she's likely to get. I acknowledge that it does carry with it some pressure. There are my expectations. There's an obligation I feel toward Nova Entertainment for granting me the opportunity. I also want my family (and work family) to benefit from it because I still feel odd or indulgent about leaving them to pursue it.

I'd like to commit to a follow up to this entry, some time after September 2018, where I will share another 10 things about Bhutan which you can only learn as a traveller to this rare Shangri-la. I hope there's nothing to contradict some of the unique things we've learned so far. That it's worth the hype! Optimistically, I hope there's even more magic to be found within this 'Jewel in the Lotus'. The Om Mani Padme Ohm from where I will endeavour to discover the meaning of life.

No pressure.

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