7 things you never knew about Bhutan

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By 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.

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.


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.

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.


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.

While in some cul­tures, it is com­mon for men to have mul­ti­ple wives, women tak­ing more than one hus­band is rare. This open­minded 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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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

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