Seated astride a flying tiger, Guru Rimpoche entered Bhutan in the year 747 AD, to conquer demons and introduce Buddhism in this isolated area of the Himalayas. In this far off kingdom, mythology and history intermingle and ghosts, yetis, and demons are part of daily life.
The name Bhutan is probably derived from the Sanskrit word Bhotant meaning “the end of Tibet” or Bhu-uttan meaning “high land.” The Bhutanese, however, refer to their country as Druk Yal, “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” and the Bhutanese flag, with its rampaging dragon, proudly reflects that.
Bhutan is nestled in the Himalayas between China and India. On its southwestern border is the Indian state of Sikkim. To its north is Tibet. Almost the entire country is mountainous. The southernmost part begins in the humid jungles of India’s Assam Plain, but soon climbs high into the Himalayas.
There is only one airport in the country and that is in Paro, a deep valley at 7,300 feet elevation, surrounded by 16,000 foot mountains. Only one airline flies into Paro, Druk Air, the Royal Bhutanese Airline. The flight to Paro is one of the most spectacular in the world. Flying over the Himalayas, the plane descends steeply between snow capped peaks flying through the narrow valley to land at the tiny airport.
Bhutan’s capital is Thimphu (pronounced “Tim – Pu”), a thriving metropolis of around 40,000. The population of the entire country is only 750,000.
The country is a monarchy, ruled by His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 31 years old, making him the world‘s youngest monarch.
Being a tiny country sandwiched between two of the largest countries in the world, Bhutan makes it a top priority to maintain its traditional culture. For all business, official, and religious occasions people dress in the traditional costume, men wearing the gho, a long attractive robe made out of wool or silk and tied about the waist, and women wearing the kira, an ankle length dress made from fine woven fabrics with traditional patterns. School children all wear their school uniform ghos and kiras. The schools, incidentally, are required to teach their students in English as well as the official language which is Dzongkha.
Houses and other buildings in Bhutan are built in the traditional style, as dictated by religion and law. The houses are generally two stories, constructed of wood and mud and elaborately decorated with carvings and paintings of Buddhist symbols. The roofs are made with wood shingles held in place by stones. On the top of every house is a colorful prayer flag.
The major towns are dominated by the dzong, a huge white fort which serves as a combination government headquarters and monastery. The system of dzongs began in the twelfth century and the newest dzong was constructed in 1998. There have been many fires in the dzongs over the years due to the hundreds of burning yak butter lamps.
According to the Buddhist religion, when a person dies he is reincarnated. When a great lama dies his reincarnation is identified and the child is taken and educated so that he may continue the good work of his previous incarnations. Lamas may marry, but only in every other lifetime.
On a recent trek in this beautiful country, I was accompanied by a Bhutanese guide, a Tibetan cook, two village lady “wranglers,” and four horses. As we headed up into the mountains, the clean air and pine forests reminded me of California’s Sierra Nevada. Unlike other Himalayan countries, Bhutan’s mountains have not been deforested. Soon, the sight of shaggy yaks grazing in the high meadows, the colorful prayer flags blowing in the wind at the top of each mountain pass, and the red-cloaked monks wandering the dirt paths, reminded me that I had come a long way from California—perhaps I had found the real “Shangri La.”