You Know You Are In Bhutan When...

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A question I am commonly asked is “what is your favourite country to visit”? Having been to nearly 50 countries makes this a difficult question to answer but there is one country that will always be in my top three.


A peaceful and spiritual oasis lying in the heart of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan is simply magical. Hidden between its neighbouring giants China and India, Bhutan is a similar size to Switzerland with a population of 700,000.

Exploring Bhutan is an opportunity to discover a nation who are proud of and have retained their cultural identify. It is a place like no other and visiting it feels like stepping into a magical vortex frozen in time.

You know you are in Bhutan when...

1.   You are thankful for a window seat on a plane with the only airline that flies to Bhutan (Druk Air) after getting up close and personal with the Himalayan Mountains on the descent into Paro Airport.

2.   You are not only allowed to stay on the airport tarmac to photograph the stunning Himalayan backdrop, you are actively encouraged to by local airport staff

3.   You’ve organised your pre-booked tour, the only way to gain entry into the country

4.   You’ve paid over $200 USD a day to enter the country but hardly spend a penny once you are there

5.   You are greeted at the airport by a sign stating “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”

6.   You stand with monks watching a local football game outside Thimpu Stadium, the site of “The Other Game” played at the same time that Brazil and Germany competed in the 2002 World Cup. In this game, the two lowest ranked teams in the world competed with Bhutan defeating Monserrat 4-0.

7.   You find yourself eating boiled rice three times a day because you don’t like spicy food

8.   You spend an afternoon in an unplanned meditative state, listening to the mesmerising chants from the monks at Punakha Dzong

9.   The only interruption to your picnic by the river is the ‘whooshing’ sound of an arrow shot from a local archer practising nearby

10.   You spend entire days not seeing any other Westerners

11.   You feel you have stepped back in time as you join locals at the Sunday afternoon regional Archery event, Bhutan’s national sport. A magical scene evolves as teenage girls hold hands and sing on the sidelines, opposing teams chant football-like banter at each other, monks and older men stand deep in conversation and a “woosh” past you signifies an archer’s attempt at hitting the wooden target from 140 metres away.

Walking the streets of Thumphu, the capital of Bhutan
Thimphu, the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan

12.   You take a leisurely stroll around the world’s only capital city without traffic lights

13.   You purchase some local sweets and water through a window below a wooden “General Store” sign

14.   You realise the locals don’t all have the same fashion sense, but are wearing the National Dress (gho for men, kira for women)

15.   Are in a country whose altitude ranges from 100 to 7,500 metres

16.   You face 3-5 years in jail for smoking a cigarette, and can only legally smoke by purchasing a monthly permit for those with a ‘smoking addiction’.

17.   You discover local hair salon’s don’t need four walls and modern equipment as ladies queue for a trim in the grounds of the Memorial Chorten

18.   You immerse yourself in people watching at the Memorial Chorten as local’s cling to prayer beads as take the clockwise walk around the Chorten

19.   You have that feeling of insignificance that a powerful natural scene like the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains creates

20.   You learn to greet locals with the Bhutanese word for hello, “kuzuzanpo-la”   See More: Destination Bhutan

The strange-looking Takin is Bhutan’s National Animal
Takins are part of the goat-antelope family.

21.   You encounter the strange looking Takin, Bhutan’s National Animal

22.   You realise the inadequacy of your fitness levels as you are overtaken by a small child on a hiking trail

23.   You spend your evening sitting around a fire, following a traditional story narrated via music and dance.

24.   You meet locals who had to be convinced by the much loved Royal Family that the introduction of a democratically-elected government in 2008 after a century of monarchy rule, was the way forward for the nation

25.   You travel through a countryside decorated with prayer flags, chortens, dzongs, stupa, monasteries…and colourful penis’s painted on doors

26.   You share the road to Gangte with the little black-faced Langur Monkeys

27.   You find ear plugs an essential ingredient to a night’s sleep in Paro, the town where dogs only bark at night

28.   You stand with locals on the side of the road in the Punakha Valley as a car with the license plate “BHUTAN 6” transports members of the much-loved royal family through the village

29.   A pile of rocks in the middle of the road represents a round-about, one of two traffic control mechanisms in the country

30.   You observe the other traffic control mechanism in Thimpu with amused interest – a white gloved and suited traffic controller

31.   You see a field containing nothing but wooden goal posts, a reminder that whilst archery may be the nation’s favourite sport, football is not far behind

Tiger's Nest Monastery in Bhutan

32.   You feel you are on top of the world, both physically and spiritually after surviving the trek up to Tiger Nest Monastery

33.   You learn more about a Buddhist belief that is imbedded in all aspects of daily life

34.   You are entertained by naughty little novice monks who cannot hold their concentration during prayer time at a monastery

35.   You feel uplifted as you listen to the chatter and laughter of happy school children skipping along the road, girls holding hands and boys playfully wrestling with each other

36.   You are admiring the picturesque Punakha Valley as a local girl tells you she would love to see the grey, concrete underground network in London

37.   You learn that Gross National Happiness is more than just an inspiring quote, it is a way of life

There are so many things wrong with the world. There are so many countries in turmoil. There is a sense of a growing power struggle between the superpowers of the east and west. There are countries enduring violence and bloodshed to achieve a democratic, corruption-free and fair existence.

And then there is this little country called Bhutan, which many people haven’t even heard of, that seems to have got so much right. It’s not a perfect country it has the advantage of having a small population and a strong Buddhist faith, but it has a much loved Royal Family and a newly elected and respected government and experiences a relatively peaceful existence.

A monarchy that spent the first half of the last century maintaining its culture and national identify has recently begun to open its doors to the outside world, which inevitably raises some questions. Does Bhutan have something the rest of us can learn and benefit from? Will it benefit from the positive aspects of modern technology and development? Or has it created a gateway through which the negative aspects of the outside world will creep through to challenge the peace, culture and national identity that this country is so proud of. Only time will tell.

flickr // chris_fynn ucumari

Kellie Netherwood

No matter how we travel there is always further to go.  The world is full of open doors - new friends to make, different cultures to experience, inspirational images to capture and lessons to learn.  As I enjoy life's journey to DESTINATION UNKNOWN I am energised by the world we live in and inspired by those paving their own path in life.  Through the intersection of my travel, writing and photography passions I share my travel adventures to help inspire you to create your own.



0 # RakSiam 2012-09-10 11:25
I also agree that there is a lot of natural beauty and Bhutan is a very interesting place to visit. But don't believe all the propaganda about GNH. If you're an ethnic Nepali who was forced off your land into a refugee camp your "Happiness" doesn't count. And add in the fact that so many people are leaving rural farms for a chance at economic stability in the city and you get overcrowding and lots of unemployed young people. Not everything is rainbows and gumdrops in Bhutan.
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0 # CeeDee 2012-09-10 04:50
Hi Kellie,
Nice little article that highlights the oddities of Bhutan (may read as western Bhutan). One thing that you forgot to mention is the ubiquitous smell of 'doma' (betel nut) datshi (cooking cheese) and the ‘sha kom’ (jerky). The pervading ‘Bhutan’ odour that’s penetrates and permeates everything.
Besides, there is more to Bhutan than just the 3 valleys you have been to, most of which are out of bounds to $250/day tourists. May be you ignored to add them coz it may go against ‘tourist operators ethics’ or just emulating what Bhutan does best in its world exposure propaganda.
But, one thing is certain, Bhutan is stunningly unique and breath-taking – no second opinion on that.
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0 # Tenzin 2012-09-10 03:35
Great job and very informative article. Very happy to see this article.
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0 # Kellie Netherwood 2012-07-27 14:42
I'm happy you enjoyed it!
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0 # Simply Bhutan 2012-07-24 11:46
Beautiful written article - different from the many that one always comes across. :-)
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0 # Kellie Netherwood 2012-07-15 22:42
Yes tourism has started to increase now that the secret is out - Bhutan is incredible! Not only that, but internet and cable TV is becoming more widely available within the country so it will be interesting to see how they balance the wish to hold on to their national identity and century old traditions v the desire to modernise and synch up with the rest of the world. I hope to read about your visit one day! Definately recommend it being on your bucket list!
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0 # Derek Freal 2012-07-15 20:20
Bhutan is one country that really fascinates me..I want to visit so badly. Even more now after reading your, such an amazing country! And from what I hear tourism there has started to increase -- all the more reason to see it now, before things change. Thanks for the inspiration and reminder that I have to make it there in 2013.
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