Things I learnt about Bhutan

A fascinating Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan is unlike anywhere else. I spent 34 days there, 28 days walking the Snowman Trek, and the remainder visiting towns, monasteries, temples, fortresses, and doing a few more walks. Here are some of the things I learnt along the way about the country. I’ll cover things I learnt specifically about the Snowman Trek in a separate post.

Bhutan is carbon negative, absorbing three times the emissions it generates, thanks to most of the country being covered in forest, and use of hydroelectric power.

There is only one international airport in Bhutan, built in Paro in 1983. There are two airlines, Druk Air and Bhutan Air, and you can only fly to Bhutan from five countries (Thailand, India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Singapore). There are three domestic airports to serve the centre, west, and south of the country. These can be a huge time saver, Bumthang to Paro is a 35 minute flight or a twelve hour drive along winding roads.

It is expensive to visit, costing USD250 a day during peak season and USD200 off peak, though this includes accommodation, transport, food, a guide, and USD85 for the government. Their explicit strategy is fewer, higher value tourists, which New Zealand and many other countries could learn from given the often negative impact of mass tourism. Bhutan used to have an absolute cap on the number of tourists each year, but that has been lifted and it is now open to as many as can afford and want to visit.

The funds the government receive from tourism help contribute to healthcare and education being free in Bhutan. Significant investment is being made in rural areas, bringing them schools, basic healthcare, electricity, mobile phone reception, and road access, to encourage people to stay rather than the usual brain drain to the cities. While good for the communities the every expanding road network is reducing the length of most the hiking routes in Bhutan, as tracks are replaced with tarmac.

Bhutan has a population of only 800,000 people in a country the size of Switzerland (which has a population ten times larger). It gets around 300,000 tourists a year, looked after by 1,000-2,000 guides (about a third are women) working for around 75 agencies. The largest number of visitors come from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, the only countries that don’t need to pay the daily USD250 rate to visit, though they still must be accompanied by a guide.

By law houses have to be traditional in design, with small windows, elaborate roof structures, and usually wonderfully decorative facades. These can cost around a third of the average annual salary to be painted by skilled artisans, who train for up to seven years.

There are twenty districts, and every one has its own festival, often involving masked dances by monks, or the national sport of archery.

Road building is a challenging in such a mountainous country prone to landslides. The road between Thimphu and Bumthang is still a work in progress in places as this photo illustrates.

If you suffer from motion sickness travelling in Bhutan will be unpleasant, I’ve been to few places where the roads are as winding.

There are no traffic lights in Bhutan, there isn’t the traffic to justify them other than in Thimphu which is full of cars. They did install a set of lights in Thimphu but removed them before they became operational, instead using traffic police to manage the traffic.

Bring sufficient money (e.g USD or Euros) into the country to last you a few days rather than rely on ATMs. ATMs and banks may not be working or open due to technology, religious festivals or lunchtime. Bring high denomination notes as it makes quite a difference to the exchange rate. In September 2019 USD100 and USD50 bills were worth 70 Bhutanese Ngultrum per dollar, while smaller notes were worth 65 Bhutanese Ngultrum. The Ngultrum is pegged to the Indian rupee and rupees are legal tender in Bhutan, but the local currency is preferred.

The sale of cigarettes is banned in Bhutan, though they can be smoked privately but not in public. To buy them legally you have to go to another country such as India, pay 100% tax on their import, and are limited to 200 cigarettes at a time. There is obviously a black market as a result but the penalties for selling cigarettes are severe.

Similar to betel nut chewing in Papua New Guinea and Myanmar, in Bhutan they chew doma nut. The nut comes from Areca palms and is combined with lime powder to take the edge off. Chewers have distinctively red teeth.

There are many street dogs around, sleeping during the day and running around and barking at night. Thankfully they seemed much better treated by the locals and therefore far less aggressive than those in India. Oddly there were almost none in the Luana region in north-west Bhutan, perhaps they’re not a good combination with the yaks that are common there.

Traditional Bhutanese dress is a common sight as all government employees, taxi drivers, and tour guides (unless hiking in the mountains) have to wear it. Any locals who want to visit government offices or temples also needs to wear gho (for men) and kira (for women) to enter.

Bhutan will soon transition from officially being a developing to a developed country (based on average gross national income, human assets, and economic vulnerability), which is a mixed blessing as it shows progress, but a lot of overseas aid is only given to developing countries.

Seemingly every major building in the country has been damaged or destroyed at some point by fire, earthquakes or flooding. Very few are older than the 17th century, when the country was first consolidated.

Buffets are pretty standard in restaurants, which makes sense given that most visitors are in groups. Expect rice (often red rice), mixed vegetables, eggplant, meat (could be chicken, beef or pork), and noodles. Bhutanese love their chilis but these are rare to find in buffet meals. Meat is a key part of the diet for most Bhutanese but you won’t see many animals around as almost all of it is imported from India to avoid killing in Bhutan itself.

There are no Western fast food chain restaurants thankfully but similar types of places are starting to appear in the larger cities.

Seemingly the most popular alcoholic drinks, judging by waste along the track, are whiskey, beer, and Barcadi Breezers. Most popular soft drinks are Coca-Cola, Fanta, and apple juice.

The hiking season in Bhutan is very short, just a couple of months in spring and autumn, due to a very long monsoon season, and harsh winters making the higher passes impassable due to snow.

Seemingly most New Zealand outdoor activities wouldn’t be allowed in Bhutan, including mountaineering, hunting, fishing (only catch and release fly fishing with permit allowed), swimming in or boating on lakes, drones (other than with a permit), bungee jumping, and sky diving.

They appear to really respect their king, despite the young age of the dynasty, with the current king being the fifth. Everywhere we went there were photographs of him and his predecessors. Both the fourth and fifth kings have walked the Snowman Trek, and visited every part of the country.

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