So one thing that you may not know is that Bhutan… … is a country! It’s time to learn Geography NOW! Hey everybody it’s your host, Paul Barbato, please, call me Barby, and today we head out to the himalayas, so make sure you strap your boots on, cause were going to Bhutan. Hahahahaha! No, but seriously. Here, let’s dissect the flag. The flag is divided diagonally into two seperate parts, the yellow and the orange. In the middle is a large black and white dragon. The yellow represents the civil tradition and the temporal authority of the king, typically kings will wear yellow scarfs on their garments, and the orange represents buddhism. The dragon is “Druk”, the thunder dragon from Bhutanese mythology, straddled between the two colours to signify the equal importance of both civic and monastic traditions of the country. Druk the dragon is white to signify the purity of inner thought and deed, and is carrying four jewels in his claws to signify the wealth and security of the country. Dude, this flag has a dragon on it. That’s a win in my book. Cool little interesting side note:
Bhutan actually calls itself “Druk Tseden”, which means the land of the thunder dragon. Alright, so let’s talk about where it’s located. First of all Bhutan is landlocked in Asia, right above India, below China’s Tibetan plateau, and close to Nepal in the west, but seperated by India’s Sikkim district. The capital is Thimphu, located in the north-west part of the country, and it is divided into twenty district or “dzongkhags”, which technically translates to “fortress areas”. Now, when you look at the map, Bhutan actually has three disputed areas with China in the west and in the north parts of the country. In the west you have the Doklam Plateau and in the north you have the Jakarlung and Pasamlung valleys. Now, here is the thing, Bhutan is actually incredibly isolated from the rest of the world, in fact, they only have one international airport: Paro Airport, in the town of Paro, known for its world famous Tiger’s Nest Monestery, build on a cliff with a 900 meter drop, located about 22 miles away from Thimphu, the airport only has one runway, but a beautiful terminal, built in the style of the traditional, Bhutanese dzhong architecture. Now, here’s the thing, getting into Bhutan is a little difficult, because foreigners are allowed to go in, but they have to pay a 250$ daily tariff. That’s right; every day you spend in Bhutan will cost you a minimum of 250 dollars. Of course this cost covers a state-provided hotel and a tour guide that will take you around. However, the cool thing is, a portion of this money goes towards funding educational facilities in Bhutan So, when you go there, and pay the tariff, you are actually kind of inadvertently helping the country as well. The only foreigners that are exempt from this tariff are Indians, Bengalis and Maldivians. All they have to do is just show their IDs, they don’t even need to bring their passports. And they don’t have to pay for the tariff. Français? PAY UP!!! Svinsk? PAY UP!!! Canadian??? Oh, you better pay up! Indian? Oh sure no sugar, come over here and have some sweet tea and crawfish. I don’t know why I made Bhutan a Cajun black guy, but just go with it. Now although there are many dirt paths that technically cross the border to Bhutan from India, there are only three main highways and roads that people typically use. The Daranga road, the 152 Bhutan road and the most common one: the Phuentsholing-Thimphu Highway, located on the border towns of Phuentsholing, Bhutan and Jaygaon, India. Most people use this road to get in. The cities and towns are almost like stepping into a time warp. Many of the buildings and towns are well preserved and over hundreds of years old. Including many of the dzongs, or fortresses, in fact the language of Bhutan is called “Dzongkha”, or the language of the fortress. This means that Bhutan has kind of maintained the ambience of a strange balance between ancient and slow, deliberate modernisation, and you can see that in pretty much every town you go. Unfortunately getting around in Bhutan can be quite tedious, because every road has to traverse the steep himalayan mountains. And these mountains are actually really important to the people, and we’ll discuss those mountains in: Now when it comes to landscape Bhutan takes things very, very seriously, in fact it is disputably the greenest, eco-friendliest country in the world. And it’s actually quite Bhutan-iful. No, OK First of, the country is located almost entirely in the southern slopes of the himalayan mountain range, and the country is almost completely mountainous with steep valleys and alpine hills, that eventually drain into the southern plains of India. In fact, at about 7000m or about 24000ft, Bhutan has the highest unclimbed mountain, Gangkhar Puensum. It is considered a holy site to the Bhutanese people and is therefore left alone. Also, as of right now, Bhutan is the world’s only ‘carbon-sink nation’, this means that they actually absorb more CO² than they produce, and this can be attributed to a lot of things. For one, it is the only country in the world with constitutional obligations set upon its citizens to maintain at least 60% of the land under forest cover. Right now, Bhutan is at about 70%. If people cut down trees to aid in the construction of their homes, they’re typically required to replace the ones that they chop down. Most of the country is powered by hydroelectric power that they receive from turbines from hydroelectric plants. In fact, hydroelectric makes up about 40% of Bhutan’s export sector, mostly as they sell it to India which also makes Bhutan the only country in the world, where renewable energy is their largest export. In recent years, Bhutan’s mission was to provide every single citizen with electricity if rural households didn’t have electricity, the government would issue free solar panels, even though sun light is kind of limited in the himalayas. Bhutan is also the only country in the world that completely banned plastic bags, as they are seen as a major source of pollution. And they also completely banned tobacco and cigarettes. Another thing Bhutan takes very seriously is its wildlife. Various animals, like langur, bengal tigers, sloth-bears, red pandas, sambars, the beautiful and rare clouded leopard, blue sheep and those strange barking deer that have fangs. – Not even joking. There is an animal called the barking deer and it has fangs. Look it up. – In fact, it is a very serious, punishable crime to kill any endangered species in Bhutan. If anybody is caught killing a black-necked crane they could receive a life sentence in prison. The food here is great by the way. Believe it or not, these people actually like really spicy foods. Let’s talk more about these people. Due to the isolation and mandated culture rules, the people of Bhutan are, without a doubt, some of the most notably distinct and intriguing inhabitants on earth. First of all, although the numbers are debatable, modern estimates put the country at a population of somewhere around 800.000 people. About half of them identify as Ngolop and 22% as similar Sharchop, or “the eastern people”. This can also include the indigenous tribes found within Bhutan. and 28% identify as Lhotshampa, or “the southern people” mostly in Nepalese origin. Most of the people in Bhutan, about 70%, identify with either the Kagyu or the Nyingma branches of buddhism, and the remaining, about 28%, identify with hinduism, mostly the Lhotshampa in the south. The official language is Dzongkha, however, there are about 53 other Tibetan based languages and dialects spoken through out the country. Bhutanese people are very intent on maintaining the nationalism and identity, so much to the point, where the king issued a culture law, that decreed all citizen to adhere to certain standards of life to maintain the Bhutanese identity amongst the citizen. This meant things like mandatory clothing laws, rituals, holidays and so on. To this day, when entering government buildings and offices and culture centres, men have to wear a Gho, and women are required to wear a Kira; the traditional clothing of Bhutan. This rule caused a lot of backlash, especially with the Lhotshampa minority, who are mostly Nepalese and refused to follow the culture and wardrobe law. Things got so bad, that Bhutan actually ended up exiled over 100.000 Lhotshampa for not adhering to the culture laws, and to this day many of them are in exile, mostly in India. Bhutanese culture, or more specifically the Ngolop and Sharchop, are heavily influenced by Tibetan culture. To put it in the simplest way I can, Bhutan is kind of like an extension of the tibetan empire, that kind of went a little rogue and did its own litte thing. The official language, Dzongkha, is actually very similar to the Tibetan language and they even use the same alphabet. The only difference is some of the letters make different sounds, but overall, generally people who speak Dzongkha can more often understand what Tibetan people are saying more often that not and vice versa. The Sikkimese people of northern India also have a similar language structure to dzongkha, but it’s a little bit more unintelligible and they write in a different way, too. To make things even crazier, due to a former ban from the former king, Bhutan didn’t even have any TVs until 1999 and internet until the early 2000s, And to this day Bhutan is the only country in the world to deliberately chooses to not have any traffic lights and instead opts for traffic guards. Even North Korea has traffic lights, although most of them don’t work. Bhutanese TV though is not restrictive and they can pretty much watch anything they want, CNN, BBC, Cartoon Network. However there are two government networks BBS-1 and BBS-2. That cover a variety of TV shows and newscasts, all in the dzongkha language. Oh and that’s the other thing, Bhutan is a monarchy, formerly an absolute monarchy but about 20 years ago the system changed, so that now the king can be impeached by a two-thirds majority vote of the national assembly. Crowned in 2008, after his father abdicated, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wanchuck is the current monarch, with his wife Queen Jetson Pema, being arguably the worlds most attractive monarchs. Bhutan is of course a very highly Buddhist influenced nation, that mostly follows the Drukpa Kagyu branch of Buddhism. This involves a palethora of colourful shrines, temples, statues and prayer wheels, that are a part of everyday life, rural or urban. English is taught in schools, making Bhutan a surprisingly English friendly country, despite the lack of relations that they have with the US or the UK. This is partially attributed to the nationals being able to speak it with their Indian and Bengali friends and tourists. However, those aren’t the only people that Bhutan speaks to. Now Bhutan may be closed off from the rest of the world, however, it’s weird because they are also kind of passively open to everybody else. Now, like mentioned before, India and Bangladesh are the only 2 countries that have embassies in Bhutan and are close partners in business and trade. Bhutan trusts India and Bangladesh up to the point where they don’t believe their country’s cultural values won’t be a threat to the presence of these people. Nonetheless there still is a stark contrast in culture between these nations, with India predominantly Hindu and Bangladesh predominantly Muslim in influence. Nepal has a bit of a bone to pick with Bhutan. Now, of course like mentioned before back in the 90s, over a 100,00 Nepalese people were forced into exile after the king made the cultural customs decree, after feeling a slight threat from the Nepalese minority that weren’t adhering to the Bhutanese customs. Bhutan was kind of harshly criticised for this. Then there’s China, which, after the seize of Tibet in 1959, effectively closed off all relations with Bhutan. Essentially they have some drama with China. It got even worse when Chinese soldiers where spotted building roads with the disputed Doklam region. China claims that this was not done for any aggression, but Bhutan claims that China did this to further their territorial claims on the region. Bhutan: “CHINA! What the…” China: “Oh no! Oh, gosh golly, Did I get too close? Well. I mean it’s already there, I may as well just leave the road. Bhutan: “Ahrrrrrrrrghh…. Which is kind of funny, because in terms of their best friends, Bhutan would probably consider the Tibet region and specifically the ethnic Tibetan peoples of China, but of course not the rest of China. After Chinese occupation, numerous Tibetans fled to Bhutan as refugees and are seen as like the close brothers of Bhutan. They have really close historical ties, religions, practices and lifestyles, taht make them get along very well. In conclusion, Bhutan is like the little Buddhist kingdom that broke away and did its own little thing, but didn’t care what others had to say, but now they kind of do care, but that’s ok. There is nothing wrong with caring about what others think of you, as long as you don’t take it to the degree of basing all of your self-worth and value off of it. Stay tuned, Bolivia is coming up next.