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When you tell friends you're going to Bhutan, chances are they'll be completely baffled. Why go there? And just where is Bhutan anyway? Geographically, Bhutan is a small landlocked country in the Himalaya. It's bordered on the south by India and on the north by Tibetan China. Culturally, Bhutan is like nowhere else. It is the only country on the planet where Buddhism is the state religion. It's a place where "gross national happiness," in the king's own words, is more important than Gross National Product. You can see the difference on the faces of children. These are people who are genuine, content, and happy.
Nobody really knows how many people llive in Bhutan. Estimates range from as low as 600,000 to just under two million. No matter where the truth lies, the population figures pale in comparison to its neighbors. When asked why, a guide suggested that maybe it's because so many boys become Buddhist monks and don't have families. Traditionally, parents would send their first-born to the monastery. Any other children would eventually have their own families. But monks are known to take good care of their parents, and families often send more than one child to the monastery. It's a possible explanation for the lack of significant population growth.
With so few people in a country about the size of Switzerland, Bhutan has a largely rural character. It's capital Thimphu is small, and there are no traffic lights. There used to be a stop light, but residents preferred to have a real person direct traffic at the town's only busy intersection. All other towns in Bhutan are little more than small villages, usually built around a dzong, which is a combination of monastery and government center. There is no separation of church and state. All Bhutanese know the story of how Guru Rinpoche descended from the heavens and brought Buddhism to the people. This event is to have occurred at Taktsang (the Tiger's Nest) -- a holy site that should be on an traveler's Bhutan itinerary.
Bhutanese people wear traditional dress, although the men may wear a pair of jeans and a t-shirt underneath their colorful gho. Closer to the Indian border, this fashion edict from the king has caused much consternation among thousands of Hindu Nepalese living in Bhutan. The situation between the two groups has been tense at times and it may be the country's biggest political problem. The country is taking the slow road to modernity, much as the king would have it. He would prefer that Bhutan's modernization not come at the expanse of the country's national character. The first television station only recently signed on. Before then, most people rented videos. The country doesn't need to be in a hurry. Depite an average income per head of just $500 USD or so, 95% of the Bhutanese own their own homes. They are largely self-sufficient and hunger is not an issue. Most of all, they're happy.