The Kingdom of Bhutan is an adventurer’s dream. Hidden in the Himalayas between India and Tibet, this isolated and practically crime-free nation is fiercely devoted to maintaining its ancient cultural heritage, earning the nickname “The Last Shangri-La”.
Bhutan was first inhabited as long ago as 2000 BCE. Buddhism was first introduced into the country in the third century BCE, and has had a tremendous formative impact on Bhutanese culture. The modern state of Bhutan consolidated from a number of feudal fiefdoms in the 1700s. Two wars and several border skirmishes were fought between the new kingdom and British India in the 18th and 19th century, but Bhutan was never colonized, although it was nominally subjected to British and, later, Indian suzerainty. The late 1800s saw a series of civil wars and rebellions, following which Ugyen Wangchuck ascended to the throne, founding the current dynasty of Bhutan. Successive monarchs have gradually instituted democratic reforms and modernization, culminating in the country’s first parliamentary elections in 2007 and 2008 under the auspices of the new king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, currently the world’s youngest reigning monarch at age 28. Bhutan experienced some violence in the 1980s and 90s surrounding the forced deportation of illegal Nepali immigrants and reports of persecution of ethnic Nepali citizens by the royal administration; aside from this, the country has mostly been known for internal and external tranquility.
Bhutan’s economy had the world’s second fastest growth rate in 2007; nevertheless, it remains one of the world’s smallest, and is dominated by agriculture, forestry, tourism, and hydroelectric power. Bhutanese leaders have responded to disparaging reports of their country’s per capita income by insisting on a domestic policy based on Gross National Happiness. This somewhat nebulous term, coined by former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, defines a country’s success in terms of cultural, environmental, and democratic progress, rather than purely fiscal concerns. While it remains problematic as a quantitative measurement, GNH’s success as a policy approach is clear; independent studies consistently rank Bhutan’s people among the happiest in the world.
Getting into Bhutan can be troublesome, as one is required to have pre-booked a tourist package or received an invitation from a citizen or organization in Bhutan; therefore, anyone hoping to move to Bhutan must begin looking for work before leaving. Paid positions may be scarce, except in old standards like English teaching, but Bhutan has a long tradition of volunteerism, and opportunities are plentiful. Most visitors are confined to guided bus tours, so arranging a long-term stay is a great way to experience this beautiful country of ancient monasteries, quaint villages, and awe-inspiring scenery in a way that few tourists can.
The national language is Dzongkha, a distant relative of Tibetan, written with the classical Tibetan script. It is the first language of approximately one quarter of Bhutanese; about 24 others are also spoken, many of which have received little academic attention. English is the language of education, and Nepali is spoken by about 25% of the population, concentrated in the south.