Of all Himalayan countries, Bhutan is the most alluring to Westerners, especially to those with a romantic vision of the past. Bhutan is also the ideal place for trekking through/across beautiful landscape of sacred mountains, lush valleys, remote temples and fortress-monasteries. Tucked between China and India at the eastern end of the Himalayan chain, it is the most remote, the least touched by modernity, and the least affected by violent political conflict. Its survival into the present century as an independent country is something of a marvel. With the neighbouring kingdom of Sikkim swallowed by India, and Tibet taken over by China in the 1950s, Bhutan is the only remaining Buddhist state in the region. With less than a million inhabitants and about a dozen languages it is also, arguably, the most varied, both in its terrain and human geography.
Bhutan, also known as ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ has a rich history filled with legends and stories of prophets riding on the backs of tigers, slaying demons and dragons. But at the core of the history is its spirituality as ‘the last stronghold of Vajrayana Buddhism’. Values that permeate every aspect of Bhutanese life; colourful festivals and rituals, temples, monasteries and fortresses that dot the landscape. Although a new king was crowned in 2008, democracy has replaced the country’s medieval system of absolute monarchy.
As the fourth King, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, is also known around the world for a term that has become synonymous with Bhutan, ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). Coined by His Majesty in the 1970s, this concept is based on a sustainable development model where Gross Domestic Product (GDP) alone cannot ensure the holistic wellbeing of a nation and its people.
Today, visitors can experience GNH in action with the harmony of modernization and history in Bhutan. Opening to the world with TV and internet introduced in 1999, this tiny nation has had centuries to develop a distinct cultural identity that is seen in its people, food, traditional clothes, art, literature and music.
A significant contributor to the country’s happiness comes from having 71% of forest coverage, giving it a reputation as a biodiversity hotspot. Many unique species of birds, animals, and flowers are found in the country. Agriculture is also a vital part of the Bhutanese economy which can be seen in the variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
Over its history, Bhutan has had many names, but the essence of this ancient country and its people remains unchanged. Bhutan’s story is constantly being written, but peace and happiness runs through all its pages. You can smell it in the clean air, see it in the smiles of children going to school, and taste it in the heat of a spicy chili in the country’s unofficial national dish of ema datshi (chilies and cheese).