Bhutan, the fairy tale of the thunder dragon kingdom

The Himalayan country where the king said: “I will be happy if my subjects will be happy”. Bhutan.

Once upon a time there was a king… This is how a story about Bhutan should start. Because visiting this small kingdom nestled in the Himalayas is like being part of a fairy tale. It was 1974 and in the thunder dragon kingdom an eighteen-year-old, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, became king. At first, he encouraged his subjects to reject the conventions and habits of the majority of the world, the civilised one. In his first public speech, supported by the Lama, the spiritual leader of his country, he simply said “I will be happy if the Bhutanese will be happy”. Easier said than done. In Bhutan the GNP (Gross National Product) was replaced by the GNH (Gross National Happiness), which is more important in the king’s opinion. The GNH evaluates the needs of the people. And that’s how the king’s political action was completely steered to make his subjects happy.


In Bhutan, healthcare and education are free, suicide and homicide rates here are among the lowest globally, the environment is respected if not even venerated; forests must cover at least 60 percent of the whole territory, so it is forbidden to cut down any tree as well as it is forbidden to kill any animal; life is based on Buddhism that inspires even the laws of the country. The government, through questionnaires distributed to the population, evaluates everything: from the people’s stress sources to their sleeping and working hours, from their medical examinations to the quality of the air, from their consultations with astrologists and shamans to the local politicians they know, from the books they read to the alcoholic beverages they drink (in Bhutan it is illegal to smoke. Foreigners can bring cigarettes with them, but they have to declare them when they go to this country).

Few years ago the king abdicated, turning the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy and passed the crown to his young son. He then went and lived in a tiny house between the pines on the slopes of a mountain. It is narrated that he spends his time reading and mulling over. His son is now following the direction suggested by his father even if he opened the country to technology innovations (Internet, for example) and it is increasingly difficult to endure contaminations. So, a trip to Bhutan is mostly a great opportunity to observe closely different lifestyles and a way of facing life that can be difficult for us to practice even though it can instill serenity and peacefulness in us which we will regret once at home. But there’s more. Bhutan is a beautiful country even for its lanscapes and culture.


The landing field of the International airport of Paro welcomes the tourists. Paro is not the capital, but the strip was built there because it was the only place flat and long enough where to build it. The rest are mountains, mountains and again mountains. Covered with snow like the Jhomolhari peak (7314 m), the highest peak, which is a trekking destination between limitless and uninhabited valleys or covered with forests, pine groves, bamboo and, mainly, huge rhododendron trees. And between the Himalayan peaks there are small towns, villages and the dzongs (a type of castle fortress) and monasteries. These include the extraordinary monastery Taktshang Goemba, the tiger’s den. Perched on a cliff 900 metres above the valley floor, it can be reached with a two hour walk. Guru Rimpoche, according to the legend, got here riding a tiger, subjugated the demon of this area and hanged him on to the cliff with the dakini’s hair, the female celestial spirits. This is really an extraordinary place both for its mystical atmosphere and its location.


Besides the temples, the dzongs, which are the most typical architectural elements of Bhutan’s landscape, are absolutely worth a visit. Currently they are the administrative centres of the different districts and monasteries, the cornerstone of the secular and religious authorities. The dzong of Paro is one of the most important and famous. Its massive walls overlook the city and they are visible from everywhere in the valley. Here Bertolucci filmed a few scenes of “Little Buddha”. That of Thimphu (the capital) includes the throne room and that of Punakha maybe is the most beautiful of all. All Buthanese people must wear their traditional clothes to access the dzongs: the gho for men and the kira for women, a knee-length colourful robe tied at the waist by a belt.


Once upon a time there were a king and his subjects… and within the castle fortress, symbol of the thunder dragon kingdom there are still a king with his subjects. The fairy tale can start.


What we like


Attending an archery tournament. It is the national sport and it is played everywhere is enough space. In the valleys are still used wooden bows. Women cheer on the sides of the field. They all wear traditional clothes. Visiting the Motithang Takin Preserve in Thimphu to have a close look at the takin, considered the national animal for its unique features and the role it had in local mythology according to which a lama would have put a goat’s head on a cow’s bones thus creating a takin. So, not so beautiful but certainly curious. The weekend market in Thimphu where all local food products are sold. Among the most peculiar there are the red rice, fern and tonnes of chili pepper, which is not only a dressing here but a real food. Be careful: it is really relly hot, even if it is said to be healthy…


Not to miss


One of the Tsechu Festivals in the courtyards of the monasteries or of the country’s dzong. These are social events, during which solemnity is combined with the atmosphere of the countryside festival. They summon pilgrims from all over the country because participating in it brings people good luck. Here it is possible to see dancers performing Cham, ritual dances with masks, and observing people wearing traditional dresses and jewels. The next Tsechu Festivals will take place in Thimpu and Bumthang, respectively in September and October.


A tour of the Phobjika Valley to live the rural atmosphere of Bhutan. Between cultivated lands and pleasant farmer’s houses, decorated with the inevitable phallus paintings, which are considered good luck charms in the whole country, it is possible to walk through flat paths (a rare thing!). In this glacial valley, towards the end of October, rare black necked cranes, considered celestial birds, comes here to make it through the winter. The Gangte Goemba dominates the large stretch of grass and is home to a reincarnated lama.


Visit to the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, where the street ends, 14 km away from Paro. Built in a strategic place on the way to Tibet (with which Bhutan fought a number of wars in the last centuries) it has a false door that misleads possible attackers and leads them to a closed courtyard. In clear days it is possible to see from here the Jhomolhari in all its majesty. And the trekking tours to reach this mountain, which is the highest in Bhutan (7314 m), start exactly from here. For those who love this sport this is a great opportunity.


Good to know


Bhutan is a safe country. Bhutanese people are open and friendly. Many of them speak English, also because it is taught at school. Bhutanese currency is the ngultrum that equals one Indian rupee, but rupees are also used throughout the country. The visa to enter this country is imprinted in the passport at the airport of Paro (by the way, before leaving it is necessary to submit a request through a tour operator and wait for it to be accepted). Many lakes are home to deities. As a consequence, don’t swim, don’t throw stones and don’t dirty them. Never touch the upper part of a child’s head because it is considered a special part of the human body.


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