Kinda Learned 10 New Things About Bhutan
So, before departure I shared a list of 10 Things To Know About Bhutan. Now, with the benefits of a great adventure and generously informative guides, hosts and locals, I now present you with the stuff you won’t find in a blog or brochure.
Before I left, I researched Bhutan thoroughly. From the standard Lonely Planet style information through to blogs and opinion pieces, I thought I’d covered enough to be comfortably familiar with the culture and surroundings, but so much that I wouldn’t be surprised and challenged by the real Bhutan.
Wrong. Here's what I discovered.
Bhutan is not so snowy.
Granted, I travelled just outside their summer/monsoon season, but it was hot. Really hot. Days got to mid 20’s but with very high humidity. Bhutan’s deep valleys and varying altitude can generate storms and showers very quickly. Go south toward Tsirang and you get a typical South East Asian climate. Up north, the old capital cradled in the Punakha Valley is comparatively low in altitude so the temp increases. Winter however brings in typical Himalayan snows, sub zero temps overnight and howling winds. I SO want to see the sleepy white frosted version too.
Bhutan loves dogs… and cows.
Okay, so in my original entry about ‘10 things about Bhutan’ I mentioned that dogs are loved and cherished there because the samsara wheel of life dictates that if they are good doggos, they’ll be humans next. Turns out that cows are also quite the traffic stopper. They have the right of way in EVERY SCENARIO. Two heavily laden trucks approaching each other on a tight hairpin corner… A cow strays into the middle of the road. BOTH TRUCKS WILL STOP. And wait. If they are in a real hurry, one of them might choose to toot the horn. And wait some more.
Bhutan is powerful.
One of the most sensible and lucrative things Bhutan has done was to tap into it’s powerful glacial rivers with hydroelectric power stations. There were some doubts over the environmental impact of construction, but ultimately the long term view won out. Once up and running, hydroelectric power is just about as low impact as you can get. The decision to set up several plants on the same river is also a long-game play. It means the same water can be harvested multiple times and other rivers can remain pristine.
Bhutan is green… in very particular way.
Drug use in Bhutan is not anywhere like the problems most western countries endure (they have a rice based moonshine called ara are fond of chewing betel nut concoction called doma) but the usual vices just don’t seem to rate a mention. Cigarettes and tobacco were totally banned decades ago so there’s no apparent counter-culture of rebellious smokers. However, it was pointed out to me that a common roadside weed bush around Paro might look familiar. It did. Turns out Bhutanese are so chilled, wild marijuana grows on every corner and they couldn’t care less.
Bhutan would be ideal as a post apocalyptic hideout.
If you’re like me and spend a good deal more time than you should theorising about the likelihood of an end to civilisation as we know it, then the perfect place to start over is Bhutan. Sheltered by the Himalayas and high above the usual weather patterns and trade winds, it’s isolated from almost any pathogen, contaminant or nuclear winter you can throw at it.
Technologically, it’s quite simplistic and a progressive government has fitted out villages with self sufficient solar and wind energy solutions, so they’re a lean mean prepping bunch, these Bhutanese. They’re also very calm and philosophical which is going to come in handy if we’re to rebuild the world’s population. Also, their palaces and parliamentary buildings are all in huge fortresses so if the zombie scenario played out, I think we’d still be fine.
Bhutan’s shops are all the same.
It appears to the casual tourist that every shop in Bhutan stocks almost exactly the same thing as the shop next to it. And that stock is clothing, trinkets, mobile phone credit, packaged food and snacks. It’s like every store is a 7 Eleven corner department store.
“Want to specialise in shoes, or kitchenware?’. ‘No thanks. I’ll just stock a bit of everything.’ says every single store owner.
Bhutanese names are gorgeous and confusing.
Tashi, Dorji, Tenzin, Namgay, Pema, Karma… If you’re Bhutanese, you have a 50% chance you have one of these names in your own. I’m serious. There are approximately 50 traditional names in the kingdom. Most of these names are unisex, so guys and girls can have them. They are also both first and last names. You will likely take your mother’s or father’s first name as your second name. Confused? Tenzin Dorji (father) could marry Tashi Pema (mother) and their male child could be Namgay Tenzin. His sister could be Karma Tashi. Then along comes a baby sister called Dorji Pema. First names become second names. Names switch genders. And a family of five could have five individual second names.
Bhutan is changing. Fast.
As I write this, the primary election has just taken place and the current leadership party (and it’s Prime Minister, the inspiring Tshering Tobgay), has failed to land enough votes to defend its position. This means that the Bhutanese people are seeking change from a party that by most accounts, had to do very little to remain in power for a third term. The Bhutanese are flexing their democratic muscle in one of the world’s most unique systems of governance, a constitutional monarchy. 2019 may see a bright new future for Bhutan… and a new direction.
Bhutan doesn’t like goodbyes.
As one of my hosts explained on our farewell, there is no word for goodbye in Bhutanese. None. They are not big believers in the concept of parting company in any permanent way with anyone. This could stem from their belief in reincarnation and the samsara wheel of life… or because their communities are so tight, there’s a good chance you’ll bump into that person again before nightfall.
Bhutan’s guides are the key to continued prosperity.
If Bhutan’s chief export is the green hydroelectricity produced by its powerful glacial melt rivers, its next biggest resource must be its proud ambassadors. The tourism industry is unique in Bhutan. Over 20,000 guides are employed by the kingdom through a network of government approved operators. As the doors open and hotels, cafes and day spas crop up, so too will the revenue. None of this can happen without dedicated professional guides ensuring their guests are catered for and kept in a constant state of awe, as I was.
One day, a top the figuratively and literally breathtaking Dochela Pass, we saw two buses filled with trainee guides begin drills on their knowledge of the area. That, my friends, is the future of the kingdom.
And here’s my plug for INSPIRE BHUTAN and the amazing Mr Anup Monger.
Everything you could need on a Bhutanese adventure, can be found here.
Bhutan is not to everyone’s tastes. Despite its charm and culture, it is a developing nation and many westerners might find its simplicity confronting. But if you’re curious about an enlightened kingdom, or you’re a seasoned traveler and you want to recapture that genuine feeling of exploring the frontiers of this amazing planet, GO.
This little jewel of a nation is an underdog with the tide of time and progress sweeping in quickly. It needs our support to remain true to itself.
While it holds desperately to it’s unique culture and it’s old world traditions, I can’t help but feel that the outside world could change it before it’s wonder can change the world. And that would be a travesty. Ecological protections, green energy exports, the commitment to national happiness, free education, free healthcare and medicine and so many more great achievements. Any government would proudly boast any one of these but Bhutan has them all. They can give us this knowledge… and we can give them…. Um, big screen TV’s.
(I don’t begrudge the locals I saw at the airport baggage claim hauling big screen TV’s purchased from India. They deserve the spoils of international progress too.)