Long isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world, Bhutan has escaped the scourges of the two World Wars and only opened its doors to visitors in the 1970s. It was then, and it remains now that all travel and visa to Bhutan is to be organised through an overseas agent or local tour operator, and a daily tariff of USD 250 per person/night is imposed upon all travellers by the government to preserve the unique culture and natural environment. Even until recently, tourism had been limited in numbers, hiding away an incredibly beautiful, mythical and otherworldly country that seems frozen in time. Spurs of snow-capped Himalayan peaks and glaciers dominate the rugged mountainous landscapes in northern Bhutan, while the land turns subtropical towards the southern Indian border. At least 70% of Bhutan’s land mass is under forest cover – a goal that the Bhutanese government has maintained under its policy of ‘Gross National Happiness’ coined by the 4th King of Bhutan as an alternative to the materialistic pursuits of the West. The policy is based on sustainable economic development, conservation of the environment, preservation of culture, and good governance.
The main religion in Bhutan is Buddhism in the Mahayana Vajrayana tradition founded by Guru Padmasambhava (also referred to as Guru Rinpoche) in the 8th century. Buddhist values permeates across all parts of Bhutanese culture and traditions, and the Bhutanese as a people are deeply spiritual, warm, cheeky and humorous. A sparsely populated country, Bhutan’s roughly 750,000 population is mostly concentrated in the capital Thimphu – a city with no traffic lights. There are three main ethnic groups in Bhutan – the Ngalungs (often called ‘Drukpas’) of the north-western region whose ancestors originated from Tibet, the Sharchops of the central and eastern regions who are descents from northern Burma and northeast India, and the Lhotshampas of Nepalese ancestry who live in the southern foothill districts.
Western style education was introduced to Bhutan in the 1960s and since then English has been taught from primary school alongside Bhutan’s national language of Dzongkha. Radio came to Bhutan in 1973, while television and internet was only introduced in 1999. People in Bhutan most commonly wear their national dress consisting of intricately hand-woven fabric in the long robe style of ‘Gho’ worn by men, and the full length wrapped dress or skirt held in place with a woven belt called ‘Kira’ worn by women.