Bhutan, the last Shangri-La and a beautiful Himalayan Kingdom, was once reclusive but now charms visitors with its unique culture, history and a whole lot of natural beauty. Earlier this month I spent a week in this magical land and was quite taken by this country and its many fascinating peculiarities. Here are 7 things you probably didn’t know about Bhutan.
One cold morning, I was languidly walking on a trail at Chele La(3700m). Prayer flags fluttered ferociously as the mountain gust forced its way over the pass. Yet I walked absentmindedly, when a brilliant blue flower suddenly stopped me in my tracks. The petals of the clearest blue were gently hanging from a yellow center and a long stem. It was mesmerising.
That afternoon, I came to know that the gorgeous flower was Blue Poppy (Meconopsis Grandis) and that it is the national flower of Bhutan! Perfectly makes sense, a beautiful national flower for a beautiful country. But what I didn’t know was that this is a super rare flower, thought to be a Himalayan myth like the Yeti for several years because only a handful had ever reported seeing it. And if you are batman fan, you know that rare blue flower that grows on eastern slopes that Ra’s-al-ghul wanted Bruce Wayne to find so he can join the Shadow of the Leagues? Yup, this is the one! But that’s not all; this plant grows only in the barren high altitudes from 3000m to 5000m for several years before blooming only once and then dies. Oh if that’s not exclusive enough, it blooms only during a short window during early monsoons (Late May to July).
Talk about luck, that I walk about on some random hilltop and find the exotic rarity, the iconic Blue Poppy! (P.S - Still can’t wrap my head around it, that I saw something so rare)
Thimphu is one of the only two capital cities in the world to not have a single traffic light. They had one installed at one intersection but had it removed and got back the traffic police upon popular demand! The residents felt traffic light was too impersonal. Now that’s a thought. If the country’s busiest city doesn’t have a traffic light, I think it is safe to extrapolate the whole country doesn’t! I’m not sure but it seems like a good possibility.
Anyhow, having seen the way people drive in Bhutan I guess they’ll do just fine without traffic lights. They easily give way to other vehicles and do not mind waiting to let other’s pass before them and when someone gives way, the driver always thanks them in return. Turns out Bhutan got the roads, motor vehicles, electricity etc only after the 60s, I wonder how long before they give in to the ways of the rest of the “developed” world like incessant honking and such. But for now, it is still the last Shangri-La.
And giving the national flower tough competition in the exotic category is the national animal, Takin! It’s a weird cross between goat and cow, both the face and the height falls somewhere between these two animals. It’s found only in Bhutan and parts of China and northeastern India.
The legend goes something like this; there was once a “Divine Madman” who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. He was asked to perform a miracle during one of his lectures, to which he obliged but only if he was provided lunch – a full cow and goat. After his sumptuous meal, he rearranged the left out bones of the cow and goat, goat’s head on a cow’s body. With a click, the strange chimera was bought to life and it started grazing the pastures. Since this animal had many references in Bhutan’s folklore, the king deemed it fit to be a national animal. It was declared so in 1995.
Also, the National Bird is a raven!
Three eyed raven anyone?
Apart from Takin, another oddity that can be attributed to the “Divine Madman”, the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley, is the ubiquitous phallus! Known for his crazy ways of enlightening others, legend has it that he subdued evil spirits and turned them into protective deities by hitting them with his erect member, which by the way is also referred to as “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom”. He is known as the fertility saint and the site blessed by him is home to the famous Temple of Fertility, Chimi Lakhang. Women from all over the country come here seeking blessings to conceive a child, and you ask how is one blessed? By being struck with a wooden phallus, of course!
This belief that Kunley’s “thunderbolt” can ward off evil spirits led to the tradition of painting giant phalluses on the walls of houses and hanging little wooden replicas on the four corners of the roof. Thankfully, we skipped visiting Chimi Lakhang, otherwise it would’ve been quite awkward with family in tow. But I did see houses with phallic paintings and shops selling wooden phallic souvenirs in plenty.
Which is why Bhutan measures the country’s growth in terms of Gross National Happiness as opposed to the Gross Domestic Product as followed by the rest of the world. I don’t know how they measure the intangibles - sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and good governance but these four pillars form the basis of GNH measurements. As part of this they have taken several noteworthy measures like it is mandatory to maintain at least 60% Forest cover! To deal with the cultural obliteration and environmental degradation that unchecked tourism can bring in, they work with a concept of “high value, low impact” tourism where visitors are charged $250 per day as visa fees. But this includes accommodation, transport, guide charges. Locals are given a yearlong training in Bhutanese culture, history and hospitality before they can officially guide tourists. At the outset, people do seem quite happy as we expect them to be in a Shangri-La!
Reportedly, a local once told a NatGeo Reporter “In our most beautiful places, we build temples and monasteries, and everybody goes there. In your most beautiful places, you build five-star resorts, and only the very rich go there.” With that attitude it's no surprise Bhutan's one of the happiest nations in the world!
One afternoon, we were driving towards Haa Valley in eastern Bhutan when a faintly familiar sight of green rooftops greeted us. Few winding curves later, we saw a group of women walking by. They were looking very much Indian. While we were wondering out aloud, quickly our driver quipped, “They are Indian wives!”
“Of the Indian Army men stationed below” he said pointing to the green rooftops below.
What I thought to be Haa Village turned out to be the Indian Army’s training mission in Bhutan. No wonder the rooftops looked so familiar, just like the ones we see in Ladakh. The Indian Military Training Team is responsible for training and equipping Royal Bhutan Army (RBA) and Royal Bodyguards (RBG) personnel. The RBA was formed in 1950s, one of the reasons being the pressure from India because the country saw Bhutan as its weakest link in its defense against China.
Roads and Telecom came to Bhutan only in 1960s, but do you who built those 1500kms of roads in the crazy mountain territory? None other than our very own experts at Border Roads Organizations! No wonder our two countries are so friendly!
Rumour has it only 8 pilots can land on this narrow strip between mountains as high as 18000ft that surround the city of Paro. When was the last time you saw a landing strip with so many obstructions in every direction? The pilots are required to navigate the valley through a series of sharp turns before landing or taking off. As you can see in the picture here, the airport is surrounded by mountains on all direction except for the narrow valley to the right, the plane will take several sharp turns during take off and landing.
Looking at the videos posted online, it’s scary how close the plane gets to the mountains. At places like this, there’s no room for error. No wonder only 8 pilots are skilled to nail the landing and take offs. In the video featured in the link below, we can see the pilot is taking sharp left and right turns at 1000ft, 500ft and even 100ft before landing! So basically we need skills like Baloo Bear from Talespin minus the crash landings. It is one airport where equal importance is given and should be given to visual judgment than relying on instruments.