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10 Things You Didn’t Know About Bhutan

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Now that you know all about how to visit Bhutan, here are 10 surprising things you probably didn’t know about this Himalayan kingdom. Load up on these Bhutan facts before you go! (Warning: there are some NSFW photos below.)

1. The name Bhutan is a transcription

The Bhutanese call their own country “Druk yul,” meaning “Land of the Thunder Dragon.”

The English name “Bhutan” and similar European names such as “Bhoutan” and “Bután” are believed to be a transcription of the Sanskrit term “Bhoṭa-anta (भोट-अत).” “Bhoṭa-anta” means “end of Tibet,” a reference to Bhutan’s northern neighbor.

2. The Bhutanese don’t have last names

Most Bhutanese people have two names, but unlike most cultures, the Bhutanese do not have family names (save for the royal lineage).

Most Bhutanese names are also unisex, and names are often conferred on babies in temples rather than picked by parents.

Bhutan guide Pema
A selfie with our guide Pema, whom we really probably should have been calling Pema Namgay.

3. They focus on being happy

Instead of Gross National Product, Bhutan is known for its emphasis on what is called Gross National Happiness. The concept emphasizes sustainable development that covers both economic and non-economic aspects of well-being.

The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are sustainable & equitable socio-economic development, good governance, preservation & promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.

4. You can go from tropical to subarctic in one country

The country, while small in size, has very diverse climates.

The northern swatch near Tibet/China is more typical of harsh Himalayan weather and the southern swatch that borders India is tropical. The middle of the country, however, has a temperate and pleasant climate. The center is also where most people visit (and where the bulk of the Bhutanese population lives).

5. Bhutan is carbon-negative

Yep, Bhutan is super environmentally-friendly.

Its constitution mandates that at least 60 percent of the country is under forest cover. When we visited in December 2017, this was at 72 percent.

Bhutan is the world’s only carbon-negative country. Thanks to its climate diversity and conservation efforts, Bhutan is home to some of the world’s most endangered animals as well as more than 5,000 species of plants.

6. The environment is also its moneymaker

The environment also provides two of Bhutan’s largest revenue sources: hydroelectricity exports and eco-tourism. The tiny country, which is similar in size to Switzerland, provides water for one-fifth of the world’s population.

Bhutan river
One of Bhutan’s many rivers.

7. They’re Tibetan Buddhists, but they don’t follow the Dalai Lama

Vajrayana Buddhism is Bhutan’s official religion. Specifically, most Bhutanese Buddhists belong to the Drukpa school of Tibetan Buddhism (one of the main traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism).

What we typically think of as Tibetan Buddhism (i.e. Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama) is the Gelug school. Instead of the Dalai Lama, the most important monastic leader in Bhutan is known as the Je Khenpo.

8. This is where you hide your screen if you’re at work (NSFW)

Given this religious devotion, it might surprise some visitors that there are huge phallic symbols painted on buildings throughout Bhutan and especially in more rural areas.

These phalluses are believed to bring good luck, drive away evil spirits, and grant fertility. (Near the fertility temple in Punakha, it’s almost impossible to find a building that doesn’t have a phallic symbol painted on it. See photos for evidence.)

9. Bhutan has a lot of queens

Bhutan’s Queen Jetsun Pema, wife of the current king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is the world’s youngest queen. The King Father, who abdicated in his son’s favor in 2006 and is still alive, has four wives.

Extra fun fact: the four Queen Mothers are also sisters.

10. Netflix n chilling only became possible recently

TV didn’t come to Bhutan until 1999.

 

Bonus: the Bhutanese are humorous in promoting road safety. If you take a road trip through Bhutan, you’re likely to see quips like these on signage along roads in the Paro valley.

  • If you are married, divorce speed.
  • Smooth road for your smooth ride.
  • Mountains are pleasure only if you drive with leisure.
  • Life is a journey, complete it.
  • Drive, don’t fly.
  • Drive slow to avoid the grave below.
  • After drinking whiskey, driving is risky.
Bhutan road safety sign
These road signs made me smile so much.

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Bhutan 10 things you didn't know

11 thoughts on “10 Things You Didn’t Know About Bhutan

  1. Wow, this was so interesting! They provide water for that many people?! That’s amazing!! And the road signs are hilarious ? Thank you for sharing!

  2. These are so cool to know! I love places with such a diverse climate and anywhere so environmentally focused will always get my vote!

    1. I love that 1/3 of the fees you pay to go to Bhutan go toward things like environmental conservation. Definitely made the cost way more affordable in my mind.

  3. Bhutan is on my list of places to visit ASAP. I love how you mentioned the focus on the Gross National Happiness and how it’s embedded in all aspects of the country. Can’t wait to visit.

    1. Yes, go now! I really hope they can continue their “high value, low impact” tourism, but the cynical part of me can’t help but be afraid that one day it’ll just be the same as everywhere else.

  4. I loved this article. I love the road signs, the emphasis on happiness and the constitutional mandate to be green. The building graffiti gives a whole new meaning to dick pic! I am definitely moving Bhutan to the top of my travel list. Only one question, what is the official language, because you know I need to learn it! These people sound too fun not to try to connect with them in their own language.

    1. hahaha as I was putting this post together, I couldn’t help make a few dick pic jokes until my bf was like, really?? It’s so unlike me to do so but this was the perfect occasion!
      Ah, yes, I actually thought of putting that in there initially. Bhutanese, or Dzongka, is the official language. I have no doubt you can learn it before you go!
      It was great meeting you today, and thank you again for brunch and your company!

  5. Wow – SO much I didn’t know about Bhutan. It certainly seems to be a country and people that know what’s most important in life. I loved all your info. Thanks for educating me.

  6. The comments on the signboards are gone by Dantak or border road organisation of Indian army , you can see similar ones in Border areas of India where they build roads

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