Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist Kingdom in the Himalayas sandwiched between Tibet and India that clings strongly to its culture, traditions and way of life. Much of the country still looks like it did in the Middle Ages. It was only opened to tourism about 25 years ago and even now travel is greatly restricted.
Bhutan has often been compared to Switzerland. The rugged mountains make it one of the most scenic countries in Asia.
The Bhutanese are among the friendliest people you will find anywhere. Racially they are very similar to the Tibetans, Mongolians and Japanese. Like the Swiss, they endeavor to stay out of international conflicts. Their last war was 500 years ago.
Marriage and Family
Each Bhutanese I asked seemed to have a different idea about the laws governing marriage. However, the consensus was that a man can have as many wives as he likes, as long as everyone involved consents to the arrangement. Interestingly, a woman can likewise have as many husbands as she likes, again only if everyone is in agreement. The King has four wives and ten children.
There are striking similarities between Bhutan and West Virginia. One is the country roads. Although Bhutan is only 300 kilometers (180 miles) wide as the crow flies, it takes four days to cross the country by car. But the scenery is spectacular.
The King (left) is the head of the country. He has proclaimed a policy of Gross National Happiness and enjoys great popularity among his subjects. He presides over a National Assembly of 115 representatives elected by the people. However, it is understood by all that no law can be enacted that is contrary to Buddhist teachings. For this reason, the Head Abbott (right) has considerable power.
Welcome to Bhutan, Sir.
A westerner passing through a Bhutanese village will always draw the attention of the local children, who all run up to get a look. As English is a required subject for every school child, there is invariably one kid in the group with the courage and ability to start a conversation by stepping forward and saying something like, “Welcome to Bhutan, sir.”
Monasteries are ubiquitous in Bhutan and usually are the largest building in town. Even the most remote village seems to have one. They are often more than 1000 years old. This is the priest and his monks at a small monastery in the countryside.
The larger towns have forts often located at strategic passes. Generally half of the structure is a monastery and the other half is devoted to secular government.
Bhutan is a fantastic place if you like bird watching. By my accounting, fully one-third of the tourists who visit the country are there on bird viewing tours. They are the most enthusiastic group of people you will find anywhere.
Probably another third of the tourists come to Bhutan for trekking. It is certainly a great place if you like mountain trails.
Even though there are only three movie theaters in the entire country, the Bhutanese make domestic films. I attended this one in the capital, along with an enthusiastic audience, many of whom came in from neighboring villages for the screening.
High Tech Himalaya
With one foot in the Middle Ages and one in the twenty-first century, Bhutan presents many opportunities for interesting pictures. This mother is filming her child in a potato bag race at the elementary school’s sports day.
No matter how far you hike back into the mountains, there seems to be an elementary school. Although it was a national holiday, the local kids all converged on the school ground to play and pose for this photo. They were thrilled to see their picture on the display on the back of my digital camera.
The Good Doctor
I met this doctor one evening in a small village outside the capital. He is the head of what in Bhutan is referred to as a Basic Health Unit. It is a small clinic, staffed by him, a nurse and an assistant. He delivers babies, prescribes medicines and even does vasectomies. He studied medicine for two years after completing high school.
One domestic product that is especially popular with tourists is hand woven fabrics. They are quite beautiful.
There seems to be widespread disregard in Bhutan for the official government policy that families should be limited to two children.
And More Kids
Seeing the excitement among their children generated by the camera, the local mothers also wanted to get in the picture.
The town market is always a great place for photographs.
The Enigmatic Takin
The takin looks like a small cow, has a face like a moose and grazes at 4000 meters (13,000 feet). It has been chosen as Bhutan’s national animal. A few years ago the authorities decided that keeping animals in captivity was against Buddhist teaching, and all those in the Thimphu Zoo were released into the wild. The birds flew up to the forest and the monkeys headed straight for the hills. But the takins, apparently unable to find their natural habitat, lumbered down to the city and commenced living on garbage. Feeling this was too miserable an existence for the national animal, the zookeeper rounded them up and put them back in the zoo, where they can be viewed to this day.
Paro International Airport
Paro International Airport could not be anything but international. It is the only airport in the country, making domestic flights logically impossible. It is located on what is probably the only level land in the entire country large enough to land a plane. Take offs and landings are exciting experiences. Before bringing the plane down the pilot warned the passengers. The descent would be steep, he said, but not to worry. He had done this several times before. It was good he said this, as the wing tips seemed to almost touch the tree tops.
Unable to stop the communications revolution, the King of Bhutan opened the country to the Internet on June 2, 1999. It now possible to check your e-mail in one of about half dozen Internet cafes spread throughout the country. At times the connection speed is so slow that it seems the entire Kingdom is sharing one 56K modem. But the greatest hurdle to the Internet is unreliable electricity. In many locations power is out half the time.