Because it closed itself off to the rest of the world for so many centuries, Bhutan is still a country shrouded in mystery and legend. Its very first visitors from abroad entered the border only fairly recently, in 1974—and even then, only a few hundred tourists were allowed as the conscientious tourism focus was “high value, low impact.” Tourism is still fiercely controlled, as Bhutan has one of the most stable ecosystems in the world and has virtually no environmental damage due to its long isolation—and the government and locals are committed to keeping it that way.
The restrictions on tourism and their protection of natural resources have allowed Bhutan to preserve not only the stunning Himalayan landscape and wildlife but their ancient traditions and cultural identity as well. The remote Kingdom of Bhutan, also known as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’, has a rich Buddhist culture and became famous for measuring its performance as a country, not in terms of a GNP, but instead in terms of “Gross National Happiness.” This is an objective measure of the well-being of its environment, communities, culture, health and wisdom.
Land of the Thunder Dragon is no casual name to slap on a country. So, where did it come from? It is a reference to the wild and dramatic thunderstorms that often strike the valleys from the peaks of the Himalayas. The dazzling light was once believed to be the fire from a dragon. Just like the United States has the bald eagle, which symbolizes freedom, the dragon in Bhutan symbolizes both enlightenment and the guardianship of Buddhist teachings. Because the dragon is revered as an important guardian, it is common to see this emblem displayed everywhere you turn in the country, from the national flag to paintings on office buildings and even on the fronts of homes.
While Bhutan is a tiny country that measures only 110 miles from the north to south and 200 from east to west and has a population of a mere 700,000 people (and is often overlooked, as it is nestled between the two giants that are China and India), its strength as a nation is never to be underestimated. The fact that the national sport is archery is telling. This is a country that has a clear target and well-planned aim in everything that they do. Its goals are followed up with focused action—none of the “talking pretty words in circles and never actually doing anything” type of politics. Since they decided that the health of Bhutanese citizens is a priority, the production and sale of tobacco products are illegal. Wildlife conservation is highly important to them, so hunting and fishing are also illegal, with the exception of catch and release. The protection of their cultural identity is prioritized, so the national dress of the knee-length wrap-around “gho” for men and the ankle-length dress known as the “kira” for women is compulsory. These measures may seem strict to foreigners, but they undeniably ensure the preservation for years to come of what is truly important to the Bhutanese.
This is not to say that Bhutan is fully against modernization. On the contrary—they have shown that they are very open to modernization, but on their terms and never at the expense of their environment or culture. The first car was allowed into the country in 1962, and today many visitors notice the impressively high quality of SUVs that are seen on the roads there. On a trip to Bhutan, your guide will be able to tell fascinating stories of how that modernization was initially received—grandparents share the history with their family of how many people stood by the first cars with handfuls of grass as an offering to try to “feed the beast.” Even today, modernization is only allowed to go so far. For example, nowhere in the country will you find a traffic light, not even in the capital city of Thimphu. The human touch is always present, with “traffic wardens” making sure that all transit goes down in a smooth, safe and orderly manner. The Internet arrived in the year 2000, but today there are only just over 53,000 internet users in the country, and less than 10% of the population is on social media. Just over half of the people have a mobile phone.
The slow, rural life is celebrated here. Over 60% of the population still lives rurally and are small-scale farmers. Most depend on the more than 600 native medicinal plants found here as their pharmacy. Because their daily lives rely so much on the land being healthy, they do everything in their power to look after its well-being. They are even constitutionally bound to protect the environment. Seventy-two percent of the country is under forest cover, and legally 60 percent of the forest shall remain untouched.
As Bhutan’s past prime minister Tshering Tobgay further explains, “Our entire country generates 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide, but our forests sequester more than three times that amount, so we are a net carbon sink for more than four million tons of carbon dioxide each year. We export most of the renewable electricity we generate from our fast-flowing rivers. So today, the clean energy that we export offsets about six million tons of carbon dioxide in our neighborhood. By 2020, we’ll be exporting enough electricity to offset 17 million tons of carbon dioxide. And if we were to harness even half our hydropower potential, the energy that we export would offset something like 50 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. That is more CO2 than what the entire city of New York generates in one year.” Yep, that’s correct. Not only is Bhutan carbon neutral, but they are carbon negative.
It’s safe to say that it’s impossible not to fall in love with this enterprising country that prioritizes the environment, its culture, and the happiness of its citizens above all else. On our Nat Hab Wild and Ancient Himalaya trip, we travel to Bhutan and get to see up close the benefits of all of this conscientious care. We are able to explore pristine Himalayan peaks, glacial rivers and tranquil villages still rooted in the old ways of farming. We visit serene Buddhist monasteries and temples adorned with colorful prayer flags, including the 12th-century Changangkha Lhakhang monastery and the Khamsun Yuelley Namgyal Chorten temple that is dedicated to the well-being of the kingdom and, of course, the world-famous Tiger’s Nest, a complex of 17th-century temples that clings to the side of a precipitous cliff nearly 3,000 feet above the valley floor. We feast on traditional Bhutanese cuisine. While it has been influenced by its neighbors of China, Tibet and India, the local cuisine—like the country itself—has been able to maintain its unique character. It’s less oily than Chinese or Indian food and spicier than most Tibetan dishes. A must-try is Ema Datshi (chilies and cheese), which is similar to a curry. It’s eaten with red rice and is heavy on green, yellow or red chilies, yak or cow’s milk cheese, onions and tomatoes—perfect for helping you warm up after a chilly day exploring the mountainside of this charming country that is sure to grab hold of your heart. Nothing sums up the hospitality of how the Bhutanese are ready to receive you like this sentiment from Tshering Tobgay. “We’re here to dream together, to work together, to fight climate change together, and to protect our planet together. Because the reality is we are in it together.”