Welcome to Bhutan – meet the people and the culture

Bhutan is not just a country, but a concept that was and is fascinating to us. We knew nothing about Bhutanese people but after having the chance to meet some of them, we’re amazed. So we decided to put together the most remarkable facts and opinions about Bhutan and its people and culture, so you can get amazed too!

So these are some interesting facts, answers, and stories we learned before we go to Bhutan, but mostly while we were there. We hope you find some reasons why people bother to visit Bhutan and why it’s so adorable.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, mother carrying her child

Does it really cost 250 USD per person per day to visit Bhutan?

Yes, it does. It could be even more – if you’re just a single traveler or a couple, they add some supplement. If you go in low season – it’s 200 USD per person per day for three or more people. By the way, this includes accommodation, 3 meals a day, and a guide and driver who are with you all the time. So the whole tour package costs that much money.

It looks a lot, but just for reference, when we were in Iceland, on a self-organized and quite cost-effective tour, it cost us 200 USD per person per day. So it’s nothing so stressful if you compare what you get in Bhutan with you get in other countries for the same money. We didn’t have to pay a cent more after we paid the daily rate at the Nepal tour agent. We just got some souvenirs, a local beer, a local peach wine, and tipped the guide and the driver as we liked them so much!

Bhutan - people, country, culture, Buddhists praying
Morning prayers and chanting at Memorial Chorten in the capital Thimphu

Bhutan tourism logo: “Low volume, high quality”

So the idea of the high daily rates is that people who can afford that money are “civilized” (quoting the guide). They are presumed to keep clean, respect the nature and the culture, and leave no trace after them. Makes sense, right? One thing is sure – you can’t see many tourists on the streets of Bhutan. Even touristy points of interest are not so crowded and you can enjoy the fresh mountain air in solitude (at times).

There’s just one flaw. Nationals of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives can enter visa-free and don’t have to pay the fixed daily rate. Something to be jealous of, right? We stumbled dozens of Indians during our hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. And we observed some individuals’ behavior – totally socially unacceptable and disrespectful to the environment. We can only hope that Bhutan will remain the tiny piece of heaven after the hordes of visa-free daily-rate-free visitors.

Bhutan - people, country, culture - hiking to Tiger's Nest - lots of people
Lots of traffic to and from the Tiger’s Nest monastery

Is Gross National Happiness really a thing in Bhutan culture?

Bhutanese are highly proud of being one of the happiest nations in the world. Our guide Pema told us they rival Denmark for being the happiest country on Earth. We asked how this is so. Is it the fresh air, being carbon-neutral, or is it being so closed to the external world and unaffected by other cultures for so long?

Part of our daily rate fee goes directly for free education. Healthcare is also supposed to be free. Pema joked that everything is free in Bhutan, that’s why Bhutanese were so happy. But we know happiness is defined mostly by internal factors. So even though they conduct surveys to check the socio-economical, environmental, cultural and governmental state of the population, we know it’s all about how you feel inside.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, Buddhists praying, wheels with mantras

Bhutan is a Buddhist Kingdom

The predominant religion is Buddhism, and a visitor will experience much of the religion and spirituality of Bhutan people and places. Buddhism is so peaceful, colorful and divine. The political system in the country is a constitutional monarchy, but the King is still head of the country. And the royal family is the biggest celebrity in the country. You can see photos, posters, and whatnot with them everywhere.

Buddhism is really infused into everything, and you can choose to enjoy all the stories about how everything appeared in the country. Legends, ancient tales, Buddhas – they have a lot of those! But the religion is somehow so natural and genuine, so it makes everything look more authentic and divine. People in Bhutan are the most authentic example!

Bhutan - people, country, culture, panorama of monastery in the Biddhist Kingdom
On the way from Thimphu to Paro – Tachog Lhakhang monastery

Buddhist monks and nuns live separately

Some monasteries are for male monks only. Others – like the nunnery we visited – are dedicated to female nuns only. One becomes a monk or a nun by choice in Bhutan. But it’s hard work – they have to study for years and devote themselves to the religion and to serve. It happens that some people give up monkhood or nunnery and they can return to regular life. Well, maybe they’ll have to find another job.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, Buddhists praying

Bhutan culture motto: No harm, no bad habits

Buddhism preaches that no living thing should be hurt or killed. That’s why the killing of animals is forbidden in Bhutan. The plenty of meat shops we noticed are supplied from outside countries like India and Thailand. So consumption is OK, as long as the animal is not killed in the country. Can’t say we don’t find this hypocritical. But Bhutan has the highest rate of meat consumption in South Asia.

Alcohol is allowed in Bhutan. They have several kinds of local beers (one of them being an 8% real deal), they produce the famous peach wine, and hard liqueurs – we can’t even imagine the home-made production. Smoking tobacco and drugs are forbidden. So how does a tobacco-free country look like? Well, let’s say you can see Bhutanese smoking in some dark corners or stopped at the side of the road for a quick smoke. They hide because it’s punishable by law. Foreigners, don’t worry – you can bring your own cigarettes for your vacation in Bhutan.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, Buddhists praying in Memorial Stupa

Flying in and out is an adventure

As soon as you enter Bhutan by air, you’ll feel the adventure. The only international airport in Paro is one of the top 10 dangerous airports. Our Bhutan Air aircraft had to navigate through 6K-meters-high mountains to land to the super short runway of Paro. The views were unbelievable, but we were definitely scared by all those loops we did approaching the airport.

Only 8 pilots can fly in and out of Paro airport, 3 of them are Bhutanese. There is one lady-pilot who is on that list of skillful and brave pilots. We didn’t have the chance to fly with her, but maybe next time. And by the way, the views from Kathmandu to Paro are spectacular – the Himalayas at their best, you can see Mount Everest itself, as well as tens of others breath-taking peaks.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, building in the countryside
Somewhere in the countryside of Bhutan

The election day

Election Day is on Thursday. Good to know, considering it was our only full day in Bhutan. But still, we managed to do a lot on that day. The National Library was closed, but the other places to visit were mostly outdoors so we could start super early and catch up on our schedule. It’s so interesting to know that parliamentary elections could be on a Thursday, right?

Our guide Pema and our driver Arjun were able to vote by post, so it was easy for them to do their duty. We even got a bit excited about the two parties and who will get the most votes. Need to check who won the elections. Most of the venues, shops, and premises were not allowed to work on that day. It was like a national holiday. Good, we managed to get some souvenirs the other day.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, hanging peppers to dry in Paro
Peppers hanging to dry on a house in Paro

Traffic in Bhutan could be a pleasure

We heard that the capital Thimphu was the only capital without traffic lights in the world. And as far as we drove through the city – we didn’t spot a traffic light, nor a traffic jam. Driving in town in Bhutan is nice – honking is forbidden and drivers really comply with this rule.

Driving in the countryside is not just a picturesque endeavor. You take on a curvy road, following the river, pass by people from the village roasting corn, stumble upon secluded monasteries. You will also not see any road signs with ads, billboards with whatever. There are only some signs with “don’t drink and drive” kind of messages. Understandable, as drinking is the only allowed “bad habit” in Bhutan.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, men in gho walking along the road

Sports and lifestyle of Bhutanese

We read in the in-flight magazine archery is the national sport. But we had to see it with our own eyes – men doing archery in their free time, it was obviously their favorite hobby. They had to hit a target which is, tadaaah, 145 meters away. So it’s a lot of skills and practice. Can’t imagine what happens when there’s a competition or an official celebration.

We noticed women are quite sporty, too. In hotels, it was only women who carried our luggage to the rooms. At first, we felt bad about them, but then their firm grip and beautiful smiles convinced us they are professional and can probably do better heavy-lifting than men in other countries. Do you think women should not work as piccolos?

Bhutan - people, country, culture, archery is the national sport

Communication in Bhutan

Bhutanese speak predominantly Dzongkha language. It’s very hard – we managed to learn “Kuzu zangpo la” – Hello (formal). It is said a third of the Bhutanese speak Nepali – that didn’t make it easier for us to communicate. But the good news is everyone related to tourism speaks such good English – it’s a pleasure chatting!

Money communication happens in the national currency called Ngultrum. Bhutanese Ngultrum equals the Indian Rupee and rupees are widely used and accepted. We could also use our USD – the rate was not so good though.

Wireless internet was present in hotels, but not working at least half of the time. It’s probably hard for connectivity in a country nestled between 5000-6000 meters high peaks. Our sim cards – Nepalese, Bulgarian – or phones couldn’t connect to the local operators. It was kind of a nice detox.

Bhutan - people, country, culture, prayer flags Tiger's Nest
Reusing plastic bottles with prayer flags – on the hike up to Tiger’s Nest monastery

So those interesting facts about Bhutan we learned during our first, very short, and a totally impromptu visit to the country. Do we want to go to Bhutan again? Sure! When are we going to do that? Hopefully, soon, but probably we’ll be waiting for an official press trip invitation from their tourism board or at least until we save some nice amount of money.

Welcome to Bhutan - people, country, culture, mother in kira carrying her child
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11 Responses

  1. […] people are religious and most of them follow Mahayana Buddhism (Kagyu tradition). Some of the Bhutanese traditions are different from other parts of the world, understand this and show […]

  2. […] Read more about the people and the culture of Bhutan. […]

  3. Katrina Julia
    | Reply

    Loved learning how happy they are !! So cool on the airport navigation LOL.

  4. So I am not going to lie, $250 a day for any tour…Iceland, Bhutan, the Maldives or otherwise is a bit bougie even for American tourists but for this once in a lifetime experience, it may well be worth it. I have always had hiking to the Tiger’s Nest & practice my Archery with locals of Bhutan on the Bucket List project. But Bhutan may be the ultimate quiet serenity retreat country to just escape and find your inner happiness. I do wonder how much of an underground black market culture they have since they ban everything form horn honking to cigarettes to butchering.

    • We thought it was totally worth the money! It’s not cheap but look at what “cheap” places did to themselves. There is still some underground black culture – you can smell it at every hidden corner 😉 Butchering is totally happening – the animal should be killed outside the country and then they sell it at meat shops. Which we find a bit of hypocritical, but anyway. You will definitely improve your archery out there with the Bhutanese people!

  5. uoprincess
    | Reply

    I knew nothing about Bhutan, so this was a great introduction. I assume the government runs the tour company, or is it contracted?

    • Glad you liked the intro to Bhutan! We believe the tour companies are somehow contracted and under national legislation. But there are so many of them!

  6. 52alexa
    | Reply

    I think that the cost, since it includes accommodation, 3 meals a day, and a guide and driver is so worth it. I’d love to visit. What time of year do you recommend?

    • Thank you, we agreed that the price tag is not so bad considering what you get for it. The driest months are in spring (March-April) and in fall – October, November – it’s the best time for the outdoor activities.

  7. […] A sense of warmth fills me while watching families enjoy the festival. It is a day where young children and the elderly alike don their colourful traditional ghos and kiras, enthralled by the dances and receive blessing from the monks. The huge part that religion and culture play in the lives of the locals reminds me of why Bhutan is the happiest country in the world, and the intentional steps that the country takes to preserve their unique culture. […]

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