I’m traveling in Bhutan, the country I knew so little about. After only two days, I’ve learned a lot about the country and really appreciate this opportunity to come and explore one of the least visited countries. Bhutan struck me in a lot of ways, but I want to share the first impressions I got from my first few days here.
The journey to Bhutan started from Phuntsholing, the border town next to Jaigaon, India. During our journey to Thimphu, the elevation changed from 200 meters to 2,200. Bhutan’s 38,394 square kilometers are almost entirely mountainous (it’s in the Himalayas). Not just that, approximately 72% of the total area is covered by forest. The smell of pine trees, fresh air, endless color green along the way; the five hour drive through in the mountains wasn’t so bad. I’m happy back in the mountains.
‘Druk’, the mythical thunder dragon is featured on the national flag, the national emblem, and in the national anthem of Bhutan. The thunder dragon is an important part of Bhutanese culture. Not only in the official national signs, you will see a lot of them featured everywhere in Bhutan. On the pillars of buildings, brand names (there’s a beer called Druk), paintings in temples, Bhutanese Ngultrum notes, and many more. The dragon is also close to Korean culture. I’m secretly loving it.
Pictures of the King (and Queen) are hung up on the walls of most of the buildings and stores. It is common in many countries, but I’ve sensed that the King is really loved by people. I’ve noticed folks are wearing badges of their King on their gho (traditional Bhutanese attire for men). It’s not hard to sense that the people of Bhutan truly respect their King. People here say he is a people’s King, and he (including previous four Kings) has great foresight. He meets people often through out many occasions. Everyone is invited to national celebrations (such as the Royal Wedding), and royal family members participate activities with common people. They make time to listen to people who live in remote areas by visiting them individually. Moreover, the Royal family (including the King himself) lives in a surprisingly modest house.
The first thing I noticed on the other side of the border was the vibe. The way people were dressed, style of buildings, people’s attitude, and something more changed dramatically.
Bhutan, maybe because they saw it from other nearby countries, has strict rules to protect their cultural heritage. Even the most modernized city, Thimphu, is a real city with real character. I wished Korean government had this foresight decades ago.
The people of Bhutan need to be dressed properly when they enter the government buildings. Gho for men, Kira for women. Although people wear western style clothes in casual occasions, it’s not hard to notice traditional attires on the streets. (Bhutanese men think women are sexier in traditional kira.) The King himself is very serious about protecting the heritage; he even plays basketball and rides his bike in a gho.
Any kind of building that is erected in Bhutanese land has to meet the rules. Houses, hotels, even farm houses are all in the same style of Bhutanese architecture.
“Do you have any freedom there?”
This was among one of the many questions I received regarding Bhutan.
I admit, I didn’t know much about Bhutan before this trip. The country has been closed from rest of the world for centuries until 1962 when they built the first road connecting to the outside world (connecting Thimphu and Phuntsholing). To this day, Bhutan is one of the least visited countries.
Maybe because of the strict visa rules, Bhutan remains a mystery to the world. Most of the misconceptions started from here. Because of the visa regulation, geographic proximity, and cultural similarity, people often misunderstand Bhutan with Tibet. I haven’t been but heard a lot of stories from people who both succeeded and failed to enter Tibet. Bhutan is not the same as Tibet. Here, the mandatory guide is for the visitor’s benefit, not for controlling them. Visitors can have freedom to make their own itinerary. But yes, independent travel is not possible (your guide has to present the visa at immigration check points).
I hope I can clear those misconceptions through my experience and series of posts.
Chili (ema) will appear on your table, in one form or another. It is the most important ingredient in Bhutanese cuisine. Several kinds of chili peppers are sold in the local market. It is often used in (many) dishes, and a bowl of chili is always presented on the table. Ema datshi, cooked chili peppers with local cheese, is one of the Bhutanese comfort food. Be careful of ‘the fire ball’; apparently it is the hottest chili pepper they have.