Before we start, let me mention that the Bhutanese (very rightly so!) are extremely proud of their king and country. Much of the following “Travel Trivia Bhutan” can be found on official Bhutanese websites. Some of these trivia might (intentionally) sound strange to the average Western ear. However, in my opinion, it is very important to take them as what they are. Beautiful, unique aspects of a beautiful, unique country. A country that has been completely isolated from the rest of the world until very recently.
The world’s highest unclimbed mountain – Travel Trivia Bhutan #1
Gangkhar Puensum (7,570m), the country’s highest mountain, is the tallest mountain in the world that has yet to be summited. Since 1994 the mountain has been off-limits to climbers. So this might never happen. Bhutan is now banning all mountaineering activities above 6,000m. This is to protect the sanctity attributed to these mountains and the deities thought to reside there.
Gangkhar Puensum (c) Druk Jorpel, where not credited: free stock photography or BSqB
Dressed for success – Travel Trivia Bhutan
By law, citizens have to wear the national dress to schools, government buildings and on all formal occasions. Bhutanese working in hospitality are expected to wear the traditional gho for men or kira for women at all times.
Men are not allowed to wear any trousers or leggings underneath their gho. Not until the country’s most senior Buddhist abbot declares winter. When we visited in early March, winter had already been declared over.
No man’s land? Nope.
You would imagine that Bhutan is very near the top of the least densely populated countries? I get your point. This country is approximately the size of the Netherlands. But instead of the latter’s population of 17 million, it has just 750,000 residents.
Surprisingly, Bhutan is nowhere near the top of the list. With its 19 persons per square kilometre it ranks somewhere around 35th place. Way behind leader Mongolia (1.9 ppsqkm). Or other well-known countries like Australia (3 ppsqkm, #3), Iceland (3.5, #5), Canada (4, #10), Russia (9, #14), or Finland (15, #20).
Unless you are a yeti, Bear Grylls, or any combination thereof, then vast parts of Bhutan are completely uninhabitable. So the population density in the inhabitable parts of the country is much higher than 19 ppsqkm. Naturally, this makes the relative lack of infrastructure even more extreme.
A landslide takes out a road here in Bhutan? A serious national problem. Not like when a wisdom of wombats waddles across the A2. Blocking the stretch between Cloncurry and Mckinley for a while.
In terms of absolute numbers, Bhutan is South Asia’s second least populous nation after the Maldives.
Phalluses for Fertility – Travel Trivia Bhutan
You are planning to visit the Temple of Fertility, just outside Punakha? Prepare yourself mentally to see enormous depictions of ejaculating, erect penises on every house wall in the village. The tradition goes back to the Divine Madman, also known as Saint Drukpa Kunley.
He is well-remembered for defeating a demon with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom” where the temple stands today. Moreover, he is also said to have been rather fond of farting. Burping. Getting gazeboed on wine. And having fun with the ladies.
Since 1974 the country has measured its Gross National Happiness the way other countries measure Gross National Product. Nearly everyone, not just the government, is very serious about the concept. As a matter of fact, the United Nations have jumped onto the band wagon and started to measure happiness.
Bhutan is ranking #1 in Asia. Sadly it didn’t make it into the top ten worldwide. This is mainly because the U.N. index still attributes a lot of importance to aspects not considered or given less consideration by Bhutan. Such as material wealth, state effectiveness, and high-end infrastructure.
Even by U.N. standards, Bhutan is the world’s most egalitarian country. Everybody feels vaguely equally happy. With every few exceptions.
Plastic bags – Travel Trivia Bhutan
Bhutan banned plastic bags nearly 20 years before most everyone else started thinking about it: in 1999.
No traffic lights
Thimphu is the only capital city in the world that does not have traffic lights. Equally, Bhutan is the only country in the world without them. A few years ago the government introduced a couple of traffic lights. The authorities were quickly forced to uninstall them, following public protests.
Highest capital in Asia
Thimphu is the highest capital in Asia at 2,334m. Way behind South America’s highest capital La Paz (Bolivia) at 3,640m. And still below Africa’s #1 Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) at 2,355m. But narrowly beating North America’s #1 Mexico City (2,250m).
Paro, at 2,235m elevation, the country’s only international airport. Moreover, it is Asia’s highest national airport. No wonder it is generally considered to be one of the most difficult airports to fly into. After all, the surrounding mountains reach 5,500m in height. Only 23 pilots are licenced to land in Paro at time of writing. Until 2011 it was the kingdom’s only airport.
The revered and endangered birds spend the summers in Tibet and winters in Bhutan. They have been recorded on many occasions circling around Gangteng Monastery in the Phobhjikha valley on arrival. Then again when they depart. As if they were practicing circumambulation.
Anyone caught harming a black-necked crane faces a lengthy prison sentence.
You are breaking the law if you do not actively protect the environment
The constitution and various major acts of parliament impose legal obligations on the government and every citizen. Obligations to actively protect the environment. Among others, the rules stipulate that at least 60% of the country have to be covered by forest. This is despite the fact that there are vast parts of the country where no tree can grow. Due to elevation, climate, and/or rocky terrain, etc.
Extreme land surface
The term “land surface extreme” refers to the difference between a country’ highest and lowest point. Bhutan takes a pretty decent fifth place at 7,473m. The distance between the top of Mount Gangkhar Puensum (7,570m) and the lowest point of the Drangme Chhu which feeds into the Brahmaputra (97m). Can’t beat China, though. It boasts Mount Everest (alongside Nepal), but also features a depression of -154m at Ayding Lake. This brings its land surface extreme to a mind-baffling 9,002m.
Blow my fuse – electricity
Until 1960 Bhutan had no electricity except for a few government buildings and commercial enterprises. As recent as 2003, only 20% of the population had access to electricity. It was only in 2019 that 100% of the country’s villages (not necessarily all individual households) were “plugged in.” The government supplies free solar panels for remote villages, where necessary.
Today Bhutan’s biggest export is electricity, from its hydro-power stations, which is sold to India. This makes Bhutan the world’s only country whose biggest export is renewable energy.
World’s only carbon-negative country
Partially due to its focus on renewable energy, Bhutan is the only carbon-negative country in the world. It removes more carbon dioxide than it produces. Undoubtedly, it also helps that it has so many forests and next to no industrial manufacturing. The relatively few residents live modest lives, for the very most part.
Horse and carriage
Polygamy, including polyandry, is legal in Bhutan. So both men and women are permitted to have more than one spouse. However, the practice is no longer common. Up in the Himalayan mountains there are still some isolated instances of this once common practice. Women having several husbands. Each assigned to a particular task, such as guarding the yaks, or farming, cooking, and guarding the house.
Because of the remoteness it would have been close to impossible to live in those regions otherwise in the olden days. It could take many weeks to get supplies or trade produce with other villages. And you couldn’t just lock up the yaks or leave the house and family unguarded.
The current King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has publicly announced that he will only ever have one wife. However, his father is not only married to the current King’s mother, but also to three of his mother’s four sisters.
Perhaps surprisingly, divorce is common and carries no stigma whatsoever.
By the way, horse and carriage is Cockney (London) rhyming slang for marriage, to avoid confusion.
Motorhead logo (c) Motorhead
Motorhead? Oh no.
It was only in 1961 that the country started to build paved roads. In order to keep tabs on things, they started with one single road from Thimphu to Phuentsholing, a distance of less than 150km. It was only from that point onwards that the first few cars and trucks started to appear.
None of the one-week tour the Barbarians did earlier this year with Bhutan Norter was involving that first road. Even Paro and Punakha were not properly connected to near-by Thimphu back then. Today Bhutan has approximately 4,000km of paved road, compared with similarly-sized Netherlands’ 140,000km.
The King introduced democracy, then abdicated – Bhutan Travel Trivia
King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the current King’s father, realised that Bhutan may not always have a good King. So he decided that democracy should be implemented. Out of the blue, without any pressure from his subjects, he had a constitution drawn up, which passed in 2005, and called national elections in 2008. He abdicated and passed the reins over to his son. Bhutan is now a stable Buddhist constitutional monarchy.
Not for you, Marlboro Man
You will serve up to 5 years in jail for selling tobacco anywhere the Dragon Kingdom. The minimum sentence equates to three months’ salary. You can bring small amounts into the country strictly for personal consumption, though.
At least until a few years ago, the rule was that the packages must have health warnings. On the same token, they were not allowed to have misleading advertising on their packages such as “mild” or “light”.
The depiction of puffing in film and television is also banned, which basically means death for Die Hard.
Bhutan has a long tradition of smoking bans. In 1729 it was one of the first countries to introduce tobacco smoking regulations.
Colonialism? Thanks, but no thanks.
Bhutan was never conquered or colonised. Partially due to its inaccessible terrain, but also largely due to its ruling Kings’ and gurus’ negotiating skills, the country stayed independent, even though it did at times sign over its foreign relations to the British Empire, then later to India, to this day.
How to double a population in a wink
The United Nations finally recognised Bhutan as a country in 1977, but only after the local government had generously estimated their population size at one million. Coincidentally, this was also the mandatory minimum requirement for full membership back then. The actual size at the time is now presumed to have been less than half that number. Even today’s population is only 750,000.
The CIA World Factbook, of course, gradually stated even crazier figures until 2002, when the reported number of residents was 2,094,176. This was solely based on extrapolation from the erroneous ancient government figures. Funny folks.
Thank you for stopping by and hope to see you here again at Trevor’s Travel Trivia or in any other section of our blog.
For Part II of Bhutan Travel Trivia click here.
Generally looking for more information? Check out our posts about our one-week stay in Bhutan, about Punakha Festival, or about Tiger’s Nest. For other travel inspiration and adventure, feel welcome to eyeball our posts about our camel ride in the Sahara, our trip to the North Pole (Spitsbergen), or the time I jumped out of an airplane mid-flight.