Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan lies in a hidden corner high in the eastern Himalaya between Tibet to the north and the Indian states of Sikkim to the west, Assam to the south and Arunachel Pradesh to the east. It forms a giant staircase from the grassy floodplains and ieverine forests in the south through semi tropical and alpine forests to some of the highest unclimbed Himalayan peaks on earth. It offers some of the best trekking in the Himalaya. It’s one of the world's smallest countries with an area that is about the size of Switzerland and total population of 1.7million. Most of the population live in small, isolated farms and hamlets surrounded by terraced fields of rice and cereal crops. At higher altitudes, in isolated valleys, people still live in tents woven from yak-hair, spending part of the year in alpine pastures, grazing their livestock. Everyone walks everywhere. There is no use of a horse even, a walk to Paro or Thimbu and back takes a day. Cultural preservation of the language, dress and architecture are required by law. Many people wear traditional costume and it is compulsory for all officials to wear it. Men wear a gho and women wear a kira. The roofs or houses are striped in red and green with drying chillies, Bhutan’s favourite food. Bhutanese often eat them raw – perhaps a reason why the people are not affected by the cold. The houses look like Alpine chalets with steep roofs, brightly decorated walls and space for the animals underneath. Many places still don't have power, many others have only had it for a few years. satellite dishes are banned. The King only allowed TV to be introduced a few years ago. (Will this be the beginning of the end of their very unique culture?) Much of Bhutan is still covered in thick forest which sustains a wealth of plant and bird life. Above the tree line the country is wild and rugged and the mountains are largely unexplored and offer some of the best trekking in the Himalaya. The King, along with his cabinet, have committed to keep 60% of the country forested forever and hunting is prohibited. The Government don't care about Gross Nation Product, Their aim is Gross National Happiness – there was a conference on this subject during our visit and much coverage in the newspapers. The national sport is Archery and this can be seen in many of the towns and villages. English is taught in all schools. Like Switzerland the country was isolated by mountains all around and so if was nearly impossible to invade. That's why the culture has survived as it has. I don't think they were ever invaded actually. To this day there is only one main road into the country - tourists have to fly in to the single airport. The people are deeply Buddhist. Prayer flags are everywhere: white are for the dead and coloured for other prayers. There are many temples with prayer wheels around them. You must walk clockwise around them, spinning each prayer wheel as you pass. Even if you come across a small Buddhist structure, such as a prayer wall you must go clockwise around it. Buddhists do not kill for food. But if it's dead they'll eat it (although generally it means they are a vegetarian society). Meat is brought in from abroad for tourists. The Wheel of Life is a detailed representation of the basic Buddhist belief - it explains the theory of rebirth. Everyone worshiped the King (Jigme Singye Wangchuck) and his picture was in all the Dzongs and stupas and temples. At the time of our visit he was the youngest reigning monarch in the world – he was 41 and had come to the throne at the age of 17. He had 4 wives, all sisters - all married on the same day. He has been called a King of the people by those that watch Bhutan. Ruling over the national assemblies he encourages the people's participation and has decentralized much of the government while keeping his royal control. His Majesty has never been known to refuse a citizen's request for an audience. Few leaders in this modern world are accessible to their people he. He is the symbol of Bhutan which inspires and leads the people. (You see his portrait in all the Dzongs and stupas.) People worship him.

The Takin and the Wild Yak

The national animal of Bhutan is the Takin, with a goat like head and body of an ox - the takin's nearest relative is the arctic musk ox. They are mostly found above 4000 ft. These massive creatures travel range from Bhutan eastward along the slopes of the Himalaya to Burma and into China. In addition, takins migrate seasonally, moving from Alpine areas in summer to forested valleys (bamboo and rhododendron) in winter. The wild yak was once numerous and widespread on the entire Tibetan plateau north of the Himalayas. Currently, it is found in remote areas of the Tibetan plateau and adjacent highlands, including Gansu Province, China, Uncontrolled hunting by natives and military personnel is the main reason for the wild yak's decline. Its range has been reduced by more than half during this century.

Postage Stamps

The first postage stamps of Bhutan were issued in 1962, the same year that the first motorable road was opened. Before that there was only a mail delivery system for official mail using mail runners, and between 1955 and 1962 revenue stamps were accepted as payment for internal mail. With the opening up of Bhutan in the early 1960s, a formal postal system was introduced. The American entrepreneur Burt Todd assisted in establishing a postage stamp program in the country and Bhutan became known for the unusual designs and materials of its stamps which were chosen by Todd specifically to attract attention. I purchased some very unusual 3D stamps.


Very evident were the painted phallic images on most houses - positioned on either side of the main door or suspended from the rooftops and in the corners of the eaves. They were in various sizes and colours and are often larger than me!  Some have ribbons tied around them, some are wrapped in dragons and some have eyes. Most feature hairy testicles, some neatly trimmed and some a full hairy bush. In all cases the penis is fully erect. The Bhutanese paint these phalluses on their homes to protect their families from evil spirits, to promote fertility and to bring good luck. The phallus is also used in an interesting ritual performed as part of house warming ceremonies for new homes. Baskets of wooden phalluses are placed at the four corners of the eaves of the house and one inside the house. The owner of the house hires groups of men and women to help raise the basket to the roof. In the process, the men and women sing phallic songs and get free alcohol from the homeowner. (Who knows what happens next!) Apparently, this symbolic image goes back to the 14th century when Drukpa Kunley made generous use of his penis to fight demons and convert the masses to Buddhism.  As a drinker and philanderer, the revered Lama preached in this way, and he dramatized the teachings using outrageous sexual humour, unlike the stiffness of the society at the time.