1. Land of the Thunder Dragon… or Southland of the Herbs?
Bhutan is only referred to as such in official English-language correspondence. Its official name is “Drukyul” (or Druk Yul), which name refers to the Drokpa, otherwise known as the “Dragon People”. The name “Drukyul” has been in use as an official name since the 17th century, and it means “Land of the Thunder Dragon” (in reference to the branch of Buddhism prevalent in Bhutan - or possibly to the ferocity of the storms that affect the country). It has numerous other names in local dialect, too, including ‘Cambirasi’, ‘Mon’, ‘Broukpa’, ‘Potente’ and - my personal favorite - ‘Lho Men Jong’, which means ‘Southland of the Herbs’.
2. It’s the only country that measures its prosperity by how happy people are
Bhutan is unique in measuring its economic prosperity not by how wealthy its people are, but by how happy they are. Their official equivalent of our ‘Gross Domestic Product’ or ‘GDP’ is ‘Gross Domestic Happiness’. This measure incorporates numerous metrics that each contribute to well-being, such as infant mortality rates, pollution, consumer debt and so on. Read more about Gross Domestic Happiness in our previous post on the subject.
3. Bhutanese belief in the yeti is waning
As a Himalayan kingdom, Bhutan falls in prime yeti territory. This mythical hominid creature - known in other parts as “Bigfoot” or the “Abominable Snowman” - is said to inhabit this mountainous region, and expeditions to Bhutan have identified hairs from an unknown creature. Things got less exciting when it was revealed that the hair probably came from a bear, but that has done little to dampen general interest in the mysterious beast. Not for the Bhutanese, however. Though the Bhutanese belief in the yeti used to be commonplace (indeed, in 1966 the country released a stamp with a yeti on it), this belief has been on the decline since the 60s.
4. There are no traffic lights in the capital city
It seems inconceivable that a busy capital city could function without traffic lights, but Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, manages it - and is the world’s only traffic light-free capital. In place of these ubiquitous traffic controls are men wearing white gloves, who direct the traffic in person using hand signals. Apparently a set of traffic lights were trialled in Thimphu, but they were quickly abandoned after locals complained they they were too impersonal.
5. Rice in Bhutan is red
The staple rice in Bhutan isn’t the white rice we’re used to, or even the brown rice loved by health fanatics. It’s red. It has a nuttier flavor than other types of rice, and cooks more quickly, producing a sticky texture and deep pink color when cooked. It’s an important part of the Bhutanese diet, but it may come as a surprise to the western visitor.
6. Bhutan is home to the highest unclimbed mountain in the world
At more than 7,500 meters, Bhutan’s Gangkhar Puensum is the world’s highest mountain that hasn’t yet been climbed. But, if you were hoping to claim the title of first to climb it, you’re out of luck: the peak is sacred, and, just to throw a further spanner in the works, mountaineering is banned in Bhutan out of respect to local spiritual beliefs.
7. Smoking, skateboarding and plastic bags are all banned
Quite a few things in Bhutan are banned. It’s officially the only non-smoking country in the world, although plenty of people defy the law when at home or in nightclubs. Plastic bags are, understandably, banned for environmental reasons, but the country’s motives for banning skateboarding are a little harder to discern. Apparently the government decided that they were too dangerous, after a few too many accidents involving skateboarders and cars.
8. Bhutan is Carbon Negative
In case you’re wondering what that means, it’s nothing to do with anything you’d find in B&Q. It means that as a country, it gives out less CO2 than it absorbs - in keeping with the country’s tough stance on all things environmental. It manages this not only because it’s densely forested (72% of the country is forested), but also because it generates a lot of hydroelectric power; it’s unique in that its largest export is renewable energy.
9. Bhutan’s national animal is allegedly the creation of a saint
The national animal of Bhutan is called the “takin”, and it’s sort of like a cross between a goat and an antelope. Bhutanese legend has it that this bizarre creature was created in the 15th century when a saint called Lama Drukpa Kuenley (known as the “Divine Madman”), asked to perform a miracle, proceeded to consume a goat and a cow, leaving only the bones. He then put the goat’s head on the cow’s skeleton and is said to have brought the creature to life.
10. Everyone appears to have the same birthday in Bhutan
The song “Happy Birthday” may be among the most played songs of all time here in the west, but it’s not such a big hit in Bhutan. That’s because birthdays aren’t celebrated in Bhutan, and most people don’t even know their date of birth or how old they are. For administrative purposes, therefore, Bhutan’s citizens have the same birthday: 1 January. So, if you’re planning a birthday trip to Bhutan, don’t expect them to sing Happy Birthday to you - just enjoy the fact that you’ll be in a country that genuinely believes that leading a happy life is more important than how many years you’ve been on the planet for.