7 things you never knew about Bhutan

7 things you never knew about Bhutan
Punakha Dzong, also known as Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong, is the administrative centre of Punakha region in Bhutan.
PHOTO: Karen Lim

You’ve probably heard about Bhutan. That mysterious landlocked region between India and China that has been dubbed the “Happiest Place on Earth”.

In fact, it has been decades since the fourth king of Bhutan came up with the notion that the kingdom should benchmark its progress and development by “Gross National Happiness”, instead of gross domestic product.

Ever since then, much has been written and analysed about the magical land that thrives on quality of life and love of nature over materialistic wealth.

The formula has seemingly been successful in preserving Bhutan’s traditional culture. It has also been a great piece of marketing for the country’s tourism, because seriously, who doesn’t want to travel to one of the happiest and safest places in the world?

So I ventured forth to the world's "Last Shangri-La" in end-August to see if the people there are truly happy.

Of course, not everyone is. There are neighbouring political tensions and low standards of living. But what I found was that behind the smiling and weathered faces is a general contentment with life, status and wealth.

At the same time, they're also bracing against modernity and pop culture as the country gradually emerges from the misty hinterlands.

That face you make when you're at the happiest place on earth.Photo: Karen Lim

Besides being unconditionally happy during my seven-day stay there, here are some other things that I found out about Bhutan. And you might want to read this before things change.

1. THE MEAT YOU EAT THERE ISN'T FROM BHUTAN

Being a Buddhist nation, killing is one of the big no-nos and to be avoided. The Bhutanese will not officially kill or butcher animals, but this doesn’t mean that they are vegetarians.

They do eat meat but they’re mostly imported from India.

Spread of Bhutanese dishes at a restaurant in Thimphu.Photo: Karen Lim

This non-killing of beings also means it’s impossible to get your hands on pesticide to kill any bugs or insects you might encounter in your hotel room. And yes, this was a first-hand encounter: I had to leave a flying cockroach alone - and alive - one fine night because there was no means of killing it unless I smacked it to death.

2. BHUTANESE WOMEN CAN HAVE MORE THAN ONE HUSBAND

Yes, you read that right. It’s not just the men who have multiple wives - women can have more than one husband too. Polygamy where men and women also wed their husband's or wife's siblings is allowed and legal in Bhutan. It was customary to do so in the olden days in order for property to be kept within the family.

Bhutanese women preparing for a trek up Tiger's Nest in Paro.Photo: Karen Lim

While in some cultures, it is common for men to have multiple wives, women taking more than one husband is rare. This open-minded acceptance makes Bhutan unique and seemingly less conservative than developed countries, where monogamy is the de facto marriage status among couples.

However, there are signs that polygamy may be a thing of the past as the tiny Himalayan nation progresses. Polygamy now exists in small nomadic communities throughout Bhutan. These days, modern Bhutanese marry for love. Divorce is accepted and is not seen as a disgrace.

Equal rights, FTW.

3. BHUTANESE DO NOT HAVE SURNAMES

It may be difficult for some us to grasp this concept of not having surnames. In Bhutan, everyone has two names, but they are not their first and last names - it's simply two names.

Some parents do not name their children and wait for an auspicious date to take their baby to the temple to be blessed by a monk and bestow a name.

In other words, Bhutan is a country with no family names. Because there are no surnames and each child can have an entirely different name altogether, this means the entire family can have varying names without outsiders ever knowing that they are related to one another.

King Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema pose at Paro Ugyen Pelri Palace in Bhutan on Jan 5, 2016.Photo: Royal Office for Media, Bhutan

For example, Bhutan’s current queen Jetsun Pema’s father is called Dhondup Gyaltshen and her mother is Sonam Chuki, while her two brothers are called Thinlay Norbu, Jigme Namgyal and two sisters, Serchen Doma and Yeatso Lhamo.

This is when nicknames become useful.

4. CHOPPING TREES AND FISHING ARE NOT ALLOWED

Bhutan government stipulates that the country must have at least 60 per cent forest cover.Photo: Karen Lim

Besides a no-killing policy, Bhutan’s constitution also stipulates that the country must have at least 60 per cent forest cover. This means that chopping of trees, unless special permission is granted, is not allowed and the government imposes heavy fines and even imprisonment.

Bhutan also encourages its citizens to grow trees for firewood and construction timber. Fishing, as well as hunting, is prohibited and anyone caught is liable to a fine and imprisonment. But this doesn’t mean there are no secret night-fishing activities going on.

5. TUESDAYS ARE "DRY DAYS"

No, I’m not talking about the weather. I’m talking about alcohol.

Contrary to what many might think, the Bhutanese love to drink. In fact, the Bhutanese have a per capita adult consumption of 8.47 litres of pure alcohol, which is higher than the average global consumption of 6.2 litres. Also, there are over 5,400 bars across Bhutan and even a few clubs in the capital city of Thimphu.

Druk Beer is one of the locally-brewed beers and contains 8% alcohol.Photo: Karen Lim

For a small country, it manufactures everything from beer to red wines and dessert wines, and even whisky.

Just like how the government has imposed strict measures by banning cigarettes and smoking in the country, a stop-gap initiative to curb drinking was to introduce “dry Tuesdays”, where no bars are allowed to sell alcohol on that day.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Many places circumvent “dry day” by serving alcohol in tea cups. Pretty much like how Westerners hide liquor bottles in brown paper bags.

6. BHUTANESE LOVE THEIR CHEESE

It’s not just the Europeans who love cheese, the Bhutanese do too - especially if it’s spicy.

The Bhutan national dish is ema datshi, or chilli cheese, where chilli peppers are cooked with locally produced cheese to form a nice, warm gooey bowl of goodness.

Different varieties of chillis may be used but most of the ema datshi dishes I encountered were made from long green chillis.

Ema datshi (bottom left) is Bhutan's national dish and is eaten almost every day. Photo: Karen Lim

They love chilli cheese so much, it’s eaten every day and at almost every meal too. Occasionally, other vegetables or potatoes are thrown in for variety but chilli cheese remains the ubiquitous Bhutanese dish.

Ask any Bhutanese if they cook at home and they’ll tell you that even if they don’t know how to cook, they’d definitely know how to make ema datshi.

And because their love for cheese is so strong, they even preserve them into super hard jaw-breaking cubes called chogo that’ll take hours to consume.

Chogo, or hard cheese, are preserved in milk and hung on strings at local stallsPhoto: Karen Lim

As for me, it took a whole 45 minutes to get through one piece, while my guide and driver chewed through the whole thing in a matter of minutes. Talk about strong teeth.

7. THEY STILL WEAR THEIR TRADITIONAL NATIONAL DRESS - HERE'S WHY

While we have long stashed our ethnic costumes in our wardrobes to wear them only on special occasions, wearing the national dress in Bhutan is almost a daily affair.

Their traditional dress, called gho for men and kira for women, are worn at work, monasteries and temples, government offices and during formal occasions. Wearing the national dress is stipulated by the government too. Bhutan is one of the few countries where you can still see men in skirts.

Bhutanese men in their traditional dress called a gho.Photo: Karen Lim

The gho was introduced in the 17th century and is a spin-off of the traditional Tibetan dress. The baggy pouch in front is not only a good way of hiding that beer belly, it has a practical use too - forming one of the largest pockets in the world, where everything from phones to wallets to keys are kept there, and even babies are carried in the front pouch too.

All tour guides will don a gho while accompanying their visitors as it is often seen as a formal work event, and they are also required to wear a white sash when entering the fortresses. Even school children wear traditional dress as their uniforms every day.

Schoolgirls in the kira.Photo: Karen Lim
Schoolboys wearing the gho.Photo: Karen Lim

But on days where visitors are trekking in the mountains and the weather gets a bit hotter, the guides can be seen removing the top half of their gho and tying the sleeves around their waist.

You may also spot trendy and fashionable girls along the streets one day but also find them in a kira the next, which is something that makes Bhutan a unique cross between tradition and modernisation.

Me dressed in a kira at Chelela Pass, the highest motorable pass in Bhutan at close to 4,000m elevation.Photo: Karen Lim

Now that’s a dress code I don’t mind having while in the cold mountains.

Singaporean photographer captures gorgeous scenes in Bhutan

klim@sph.com.sg

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