Sandwiched between the two Asian giants of China and India is Bhutan, officially the Kingdom of Bhutan. Shrouded in mystery for a long time, this mystical Himalayan kingdom is slowly becoming known to the outside world. Bhutan is famous for its rugged Himalayan summits, high passes, pristine forests, deep valleys, turquoise lakes, ancient monasteries, and unique culture. Here are some interesting facts about Bhutan.
Facts about Bhutan
1. Bhutan is quite small.
Bhutan has a total area of 38,394 km² (14,824 sq mi), which makes it slightly larger than the US state of Maryland.
2. Bhutan is landlocked and shares a border with two countries.
Located on the southern slopes of the Himalayas, Bhutan is bordered by China (477 km / 296 mi) to the north and India (659 km / 409 mi) to the south, west, and east.
3. Bhutan is the most mountainous country in the world.
Over 98% of Bhutan’s terrain is mountainous, making it easily the most mountainous nation on the planet. Bhutan also lies at an average elevation of 2,220 m (7,283 ft) above sea level.
4. Bhutan is home to the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
Gangkhar Puensum, which lies on the border with Tibet in northern Bhutan is the highest point in the country. With an elevation of 7,570 m (24,836 ft), Gangkhar Puensum is the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
Not to say that summiting Gangkhar Puensum wasn’t attempted. After Bhutan opened for mountaineering in 1983, four summit attempts were made that resulted in failure. In 1994, Bhutan banned the climbing of mountains in Bhutan higher than 6,000 meters out of respect for local spiritual beliefs, and in 2003 the country banned mountain climbing completely. So, it’s highly likely that Gangkhar Puensum will remain the world’s highest unclimbed mountain for some time.
5. The origin of the name ‘Bhutan’ is disputed.
One of the intriguing facts about Bhutan is that there’s some debate as to the origin of the name “Bhutan.” Some believe that the “Bhutan” name Bhutan is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhotant’, meaning the end of Tibet. Others argue that it is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Bhu-uttan’ which means highland.
6. Bhutan is the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”.
One of the lesser-known Bhutan facts is that the Bhutanese don’t call their land Bhutan, but rather refer to it as ‘Druk Yul’ which means “Land of the Thunder Dragon”. The Bhutanese traditionally believed that the sound of thunder in the numerous mountains and valleys of Bhutan was the voice of dragons. The Bhutanese people call themselves “Drukpa”.
7. Bhutan was never colonized.
Bhutan was never colonized by the European powers largely in part due to its isolation and largely inaccessible territory. However, Bhutan once fought the British in the Duar War, lost, and had to cede 20% of its territory.
In 1910, Bhutan signed the Treaty of Punakha, which gave the British control of Bhutan’s foreign affairs and meant that Bhutan was treated as an Indian princely state. In 1949, India inherited that power and remains a powerful influence over the country.
8. Bhutan was internationally isolated until the 1970s.
Bhutan remained very isolated from the outside world until the 1970s. Bhutan only became an active UN Member state in 1971.
9. Bhutan has no diplomatic relations with the US and the UK.
Bhutan is represented in the US through its permanent mission to the United Nations. Both the UK & the US are represented through their respective embassies in New Delhi, India.
One of the most obscure facts about Bhutan is that it is one of two countries to have never hosted an American embassy with the other being North Korea. Until today Bhutan has diplomatic relations with only 55 countries.
10. The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu.
Situated in the western central part of Bhutan, Thimphu is the capital and largest city of Bhutan. Thimphu has served as the capital of Bhutan since 1955, taking over the mantle from the ancient town of Punakha.
With a population of more than 130,000, Thimphu is the closest thing Bhutan has to a metropolis and it also serves as the nation’s economic and cultural hub. Thimphu lies at an elevation ranging in altitude from 2,248 m (7,375 ft) to 2,648 ms (8,688 ft), making it one of the highest capitals in the world by altitude.
11. Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy.
In 2008, Bhutan made the transition from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The King of Bhutan still serves as Bhutan’s head of state. However, the Queen does not have a role in the day-to-day running of Bhutan. The real executive power over Bhutan lies in the hands of its prime minister.
12. Bhutan was slow to adapt to technology.
Radio broadcasting did not begin in Bhutan until 1973. In a similar vein, television and the internet did not arrive in this isolated kingdom until 1999. Up until 1960, Bhutan had no roads, no electricity, no automobiles and no postal system!
13. Buddhism is the main religion in Bhutan.
About three-fourths of Bhutanese are Buddhists. Buddhism arrived in Bhutan in the 7th century and is the core of Bhutanese culture. It is said that if you want to understand Bhutan, it is essential to have a basic understanding of Buddhism.
Hinduism commands a significant following in Bhutan, particularly within the Nepalese community. About 20-25% of Bhutan’s population is Hindu. There is a small community of Christians in Bhutan. Bhutan is tolerant of all religions, but proselytization is illegal.
14. Bhutan is home to a variety of ethnic groups.
The population of Bhutan is made up of three major ethnic groups: the Ngalops, the Sharchops, and the Nepalese (Lhotshampas). The Ngalops are the descendants of Tibetan immigrants who began arriving in Bhutan around the 9th century. They are the dominant group in northern, central, and western Bhutan. Nowadays, the Ngalops dominate the political and religious life of Bhutan.
The Sharchops share some cultural traits that link them with the peoples of Southeast Asia and they probably migrated to Bhutan a long time ago (before the arrival of the Ngalop) from Myanmar or the state of Assam in India. The Sharchops are mostly found in eastern Bhutan.
The Nepalese (Lhotshampas) can be found in the south and southwestern Bhutan. They are the most recent arrivals in Bhutan and began immigrating into the country in the first half of the 19th century. The rapid growth of the largely Hindu Nepalese population in Bhutan towards the end of the twentieth century resulted in significant ethnic conflicts with the Buddhist majority.
It prompted the Bhutanese government to ban their further immigration and to prohibit Nepalese settlement in central Bhutan. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, as many as 100,000 Nepalese fled Bhutan for Nepal when the government implemented a campaign of “one country, one people” trying to impose uniformity of religion, language and dress. Little assimilation has taken place between the Ngalop and the Nepalese, and tension between the two communities has remained a major internal problem for Bhutan.
Besides these three main ethnic groups, Bhutan is home to a number of small, isolated, aboriginal communities such as the Brokpa, Layap, Lepcha, Lhop, Monpa, and Kurukh (Oraon) tribes. There is also a small community of Tibetans residing in Bhutan.
15. The currency of Bhutan is the Bhutanese Ngultrum (BTN).
The Bhutanese ngultrum (BTN) is the official currency of Bhutan. The ngultrum was introduced in 1974, and it remains pegged at par with the Indian rupee (INR).
16. The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha.
Dzongkha is the sole official language of Bhutan. It is the mother tongue for about one-third of Bhutan’s population and the majority of the population speaks it as a second language. Dzongkha is a member of the Sino-Tibetan language family and is written in the Tibetan script.
17. A wide assortment of regional languages are spoken in Bhutan.
Nepali, Tshangla, Khengkha, Chochangachakha, Dzala, and Bumthang are the main regional languages spoken in Bhutan. Besides these, a slew of other languages is spoken in the country.
18. There is only one international airport in Bhutan.
Paro International Airport is the sole international airport in Bhutan. It lies in a deep valley on the bank of the river Paro Chhu and is about 29 km (18mi) west of Thimphu.
With surrounding peaks as high as 5,500 m (18,000 ft) and no radar to guide planes into the airport, Paro International Airport is considered one of the world’s most challenging airports. Fewer than two dozen pilots are certified to land at the airport.
19. Bhutan is the first country in the world with specific constitutional obligations on its people to protect the environment.
Bhutanese law says that at least 60% of the country be covered with forests (currently forests cover about 70% of Bhutan). Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world, which means that it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces.
20. The national sport of Bhutan is archery.
One of the more unique facts about Bhutan is that it is the only country in the world where archery is the national sport. Known locally as “Da”, archery is followed with great fanfare in Bhutan.
Bhutanese archery differs significantly from international archery. Rival teams face each other across a field, and fire sharp arrows at one another. As well as the target shooting itself, cheerleading, yelling abusive insults at the opposing team, singing, and dancing are also intrinsic to the national sport of Bhutan.
21. Bhutan doesn’t observe daylight saving.
Daylight saving has never been observed in Bhutan.
22. Bhutan drives on the left.
As with almost all countries in South Asia, vehicles in Bhutan drive on the left side of the road.
23. Bhutan was closed to foreign travelers until 1974.
In the first year that Bhutan opened up to tourism, only 287 tourists visited the country!
24. It is illegal to slaughter animals in Bhutan.
Due to the country’s traditional Buddhist beliefs, there is a strict ban on animal slaughter in Bhutan. However, it is not illegal to consume meat in Bhutan and many Bhutanese people do eat meat. Bhutan is the highest consumer of meat per capita in South Asia.
25. Tourists are not allowed to travel independently in Bhutan.
Although Bhutan no longer restricts tourist numbers and operates an open-door policy, independent travel is not possible for foreigners. Foreign tourists can only visit Bhutan by booking through licensed tour operators with packages that cost 200-250 USD per day, depending on the season. The fee includes accommodation, food, transport, and an official guide.
Only citizens of India, Bangladesh, and Maldives are exempt from this rule and can travel to Bhutan without a pre-arranged tour.
26. It is compulsory for all Bhutanese to wear the national dress.
It is mandatory for all Bhutanese to wear the national dress (Gho for men and Kira for women) in schools, government offices, and on formal occasions.
27. Bhutan’s national flag is very distinctive.
The field of the flag of Bhutan is diagonally bisected between gold and orange sections. Centered along the dividing line is a large black and white dragon holding four jewels in its claws facing away from the hoist side. The current national flag of Bhutan was adopted in 1969.
The orange section of the flag represents the nation’s Buddhist and spiritual heritage. The yellow section comes from the traditional clothing of the King of Bhutan, and it represents the state’s authority and power in the mortal world.
The dragon has been a symbol of Bhutan and its people for hundreds of years, and the image has its roots in the nation’s traditional mythology. Its white color signifies the purity of inner thoughts and deeds. The jewels in the dragon’s claws symbolize Bhutan’s wealth and the security and protection of its people, while its snarling mouth represents the commitment of Bhutan’s deities to the defense of Bhutan.
28. Bhutan is the only country in the world without traffic lights.
This is one of those unbelievable Bhutan facts. Bhutan is the only country without a single traffic light. Even the traffic flow at major intersections is directed by police personnel. Supposedly a traffic light was installed in Thimphu but it was hastily removed because the Bhutanese preferred the policemen!
29. Slavery was only abolished in Bhutan in 1958.
Before the introduction of a monetary economy and modernization programs in the mid-20th century, Bhutan’s economy was based entirely on payment in kind and in serfdom.
Most slaves in Bhutan were people from the tribal areas of the central, southern, and eastern part of the country and Indian slaves brought to Bhutan from tribal areas. As part of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck’s modernization efforts in the late 1950s, Bhutan finally abolished slavery in 1958.
30. The national animal of Bhutan is the Takin.
The Takin is the national animal of Bhutan due to its association to the Bhutanese religious history and mythology. With horns like a wildebeest, a nose like a moose, a tail like a bear, and a body like a bison, the takin seems like a character straight out of Dr. Seuss! The takin grows up to about 107 cm (42 inches) at the shoulder, weighs up to 350 kg (770 pounds), and has a shaggy yellowish to blackish brown coat.
31. The Himalayan Cypress is the national tree of Bhutan.
This large tree is native to the Himalayas and provides an essential oil and has local medicinal applications.
32. Bhutan is the only country in the world that completely bans the sale and production of tobacco.
In 2010, Bhutan became the first country in the world to ban the sale and production of tobacco products. However, the consumption of tobacco is not altogether prohibited in Bhutan, though it is banned in public places. Consumers in Bhutan can get tobacco products by importing them from India or any other foreign country (though they are subject to sales tax and import duties are imposed to discourage purchase).
33. Bhutan has an obsession with phallic symbols.
One of the most amusing facts about Bhutan is that Bhutanese people are very fond of phallic symbols. It’s not uncommon to see paintings of erect penises in Bhutan with phallic murals painted on homes, above doorways, and under eaves. Government offices in Bhutan sport large phallic dildos in the corridor and cab drivers have travel-size wooden ones on the dashboard.
Bhutan’s phallic obsession has got nothing to do with pornography. The Bhutanese strongly believe that erect phalluses help fertility, dispel spiteful gossip, and ward off negative energy and evil forces.
34. The national flower of Bhutan is the Himalayan blue poppy.
Although referred to as a poppy because of its poppy-like appearance, the Himalayan blue poppy isn’t really a poppy at all.
35. Bhutan takes care of its citizens.
Bhutan provides universal health care and free primary and secondary education to its citizens.
36. Bhutan has never won a medal at the Olympics.
Despite having participated in the Summer Olympics since 1984, Bhutan has never won a medal. Surprisingly, Bhutan has never participated in the Winter Olympic Games in spite of being a very mountainous country that sees significant amounts of snowfall.
37. Bhutan has no UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Despite its rich history, Bhutan has no officially recognized UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Eight items, however, are on the tentative list.
38. Capital punishment is outlawed in Bhutan.
Although the last execution in Bhutan took place in 1974, Bhutan fully abolished the death penalty in 2004.
39. Bhutan is the world’s only country to measure prosperity by assessing its citizens’ happiness levels instead of GDP.
This is definitely one of the most intriguing Bhutan facts. Bhutan values societal good over economic growth and introduced the concept of gross national happiness (GNH) in the 1970s as more important than gross domestic product.
However, things are not as simple as they seem. Critics say that commitment to happiness has not been evenly applied across Bhutanese people, and Bhutan’s treatment of its minority groups has been described as “ethnic cleansing’. According to the World Happiness Report 2019, Bhutan ranks 95th out of 156 countries.
40. The raven is the national bird of Bhutan.
The raven adorns the royal crown of Bhutan and represents one of the chief guardian deities of the nation.
41. The national dish of Bhutan is Ema Datshi.
Arguably the most popular dish in Bhutan, Ema datshi is also the nation’s national dish. This intensely flavorful and spicy national dish is basically a stew made from two main ingredients – hot chilis (ema) and cheese (datshi). Ema datshi is usually served with rice.