Living as a Student or Expat in Bhutan
Another view of the beautiful Paro Dzong.
Kuzuzangpola! It’s three in the afternoon on a warm spring day, which means taking a break from studying the political structure of the Bhutanese government to escape into the sunshine with a mug of warm masala tea and biscuits, courtesy of the college cafeteria. Sometimes they substitute suja for the masala tea; this is received favorably by the Bhutanese but isn’t so popular among the American exchange students. Suja is full of caloric energy that makes it an ideal beverage for those living at high altitudes because it’s brewed with yak butter and salt. It’s savory rather than sweet, so it’s easier to drink if you don’t think of the beverage as tea and start thinking of it as soup, but it’s still an acquired taste. As a student whose days are spent in classrooms, the most energy I expend is climbing the steep driveway up to my college (which sits at the top of a mountain overlooking the Thimphu valley), so I’m happy drinking my tea without butter.
The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan, known as “the Land of the Thunder Dragon,” is a fabled tiny country tucked in the Himalayas between China and India. The mountains divide the country into a series of parallel valleys, each with distinct languages, culture, and dress. In 1907, the first King of Bhutan unified the country under the rule of the Wangchuck family, who established Thimphu as the capital city and standardized the national language and dress according to the culture of the Thimphu valley. Over 100 years later, I’m living in Thimphu, learning dzongkha, wearing a brightly colored kira, and meeting Ugyen Wangchuck’s great great-grandson, the current and fifth king, at Bhutan’s first liberal arts college.
Wheaton students with the current and fifth king.
The Bhutanese people love their kings, and it’s easy to see why. In 2006, King Four abdicated voluntarily from the throne to let his son usher in a new political era. The monarchy relinquished their power to the people and created a democratic system, which is remarkable not only because it was symbolic of the compassion the rulers have for their people but also because the Bhutanese people never wanted a democracy and had to be persuaded to accept their king’s abdication. The current King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, is one of the world’s youngest leaders (and a bit of a heartthrob) at only 34 years of age, and though his political power is limited, he has helped lead Bhutan towards something great and noble: the pursuit of happiness.
The Paro Dzong, or "Fortress on a Heap of Jewels."
Gross National Happiness
Living in a Buddhist country, the people of Bhutan are more concerned than most with ideals of compassion, mindfulness, and awareness of the effects of your own actions. They value environmentalism, generosity, and wellness at both the physical and spiritual level, and they are deliberate when making decisions that affect these core values. This is why the residents of the Phobjika valley rejected all offers to have electricity installed in their communities; they worried that it would interfere with the conservation area where the black-necked cranes live in the winter. It’s also why the government shut down a plan to build a major highway through Bhutan that would have cut through a red panda habitat. And it’s why the Fourth King declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
Today, GNH isn’t just an idea; it’s a method and practical theory of sustainable development that helps drive Bhutan towards holistic growth by constantly asking the question, “Will this make us happier?” For a country that prides itself on cultural integrity rather than consumerism and commodification, it means that Bhutan is striving to balance economic development with cultural preservation. And so far, they’re doing a good job by shutting out international fast food chains, rejecting companies who want to implement cheap but environmentally destructive businesses, and limiting advertising and marketing campaigns. The lack of billboards lets you see the mountains and the pristine forests (over 70% of the country is forested), and who would want to eat a burger when you could have a meal of red rice, ema datse, chili paste, and sautéed fiddlehead ferns that grow wild in the forest?
Mother and child gazing over the farmlands in Bhutan.
The Bhutanese love their chili paste and eat it with every meal (even breakfast), so foreigners should be warned that most meals will be very spicy. We often heard this refrain, told with a tongue-in-cheek attitude by tour guides and restaurant owners: “Water runs from eyes—this is a holy thing. Water runs from nose—this is a holy thing. Water runs from head—this is a holy thing. Water runs from ears? Too hot!”
A typical food spread in Bhutan.
There are a few other things that foreigners should be prepared for: breathtaking views of the Himalayas (including the hundreds of prayer flags waving over the landscape)—when we hiked to the Tiger’s Nest Temple, a religious site built into the sheer cliff at 10,000 feet above sea level. I tried to count the prayer flags as we walked on so I could impress my peers by confidently declaring a number by the end of our hike. Five minutes in, having hurriedly counted and estimated over a thousand strings, each bearing about eight flags, I gave up counting. I learned how to tie and wear the beautiful fabric and textiles as traditional kira and gho. I attended religious festivals with intricate costumes, animal masks, and group dances presented by members of the local community (don’t miss the unfurling of the holy tongdrel in the early hours of the morning, the appliqued fabric that is several stories tall and as wide as a building. Merely viewing it will wash away your sins and bring you closer to enlightenment). I witnessed sturdy senior citizens who can climb steep mountains so much faster than oneself that it’s disheartening. There was a scarcity of violent crime. There were yaks. There was so much more. Be prepared for the breakneck pace of the taxi drivers who speed confidently along wildly twisting mountain roads. Be prepared for the fundamental kindness and compassion of the Bhutanese people.
The rightfully famous Tiger's Nest monastery in Bhutan with prayer flags.
Governmental Controls and Change
It’s notoriously difficult to be a tourist in Bhutan. With the ideals of GNH in play, the government carefully controls the amount of foreigners in the country at one time because they don’t want to dilute their cultural values. The price of a tourist visa is $250 for every day spent in the country, and tourists are forced to register for a complete tour guide that means that their movements are limited and they can’t explore the country on their own terms. However, with the sudden availability of study abroad programs (primarily that of Wheaton College) and the demand for foreign workers, it’s becoming more feasible to live in Bhutan as a student or an expat. Any qualified professional might be able to find work because Bhutan has a relative lack of trained workers in many areas. As they carefully modernize and develop more of the country’s infrastructure, they need people who can train their own native workers.
Expats in Bhutan
Every type of expat can be found. I’ve met single women working on grassroots initiatives, young married couples working as teachers at the college, retired couples, couples with children, and everything in between. Yes, you can raise children in Bhutan. You may have to help them dress in gho and kira in the morning to go to school, but they’ll probably learn the Dzongkha language faster than you. Thimphu is a child-friendly town. Though the sidewalks are a little cracked and treacherous, the roads are safe, especially during the festivals and monthly pedestrian days when cars aren’t allowed into the city. Thimphu is the only capital city in the world that still has a human traffic guard instead of lights. You can find him during rush hour standing in the middle of the traffic circle, directing cars with the controlled, fluid motions of a dancer.
There is a thriving community of expats in the capital city Thimphu. Take a foray downtown on the City Bus and be prepared to meet new people every time you enter the Ambient Cafe, a popular meeting place and Wi-Fi hotspot for local expats. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with any person you see on a laptop nursing an espresso drink or a homemade watermelon smoothie; you’ll often find people swapping anecdotes and recommending local hair salons. There are plenty of restaurants catering to expats. But don’t be afraid to check out the cramped hole-in-the-wall eateries—they often offer the best food. However, Thimphu isn’t limited to American and Bhutanese cuisine; they also feature several Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Italian restaurants, many Indian restaurants, and even one Mexican place. Check out Seasons Pizzeria for great pizza and artisan salads, Salsa Fiesta for fresh pineapple margaritas and soft tacos, or Chula for a sit-down meal with the best Indian food in town.
For those who love camping, Bhutan is full of beautiful (and undiscovered) sites. Visit the hot springs above Gasa or the misty farmlands and forests in Haa. Hike up to the impressive Dzong buildings in every district—once used as military fortresses, these now house bureaucratic and monastic bodies. Or visit Taktsang, the famous monastery known as “Tiger’s Nest” which was built (and then rebuilt after a devastating fire) on the sheer face of a mountain.
Buddhist Traditions and Tolerance
Mother and daughter at a prayer wheel in Bhutan.
It would be a mistake to believe—in a country dotted with temples, monasteries, water-powered prayer wheels, and religious carvings in rock walls—that Buddhism stands apart from Bhutanese culture. In reality, the two are inextricably linked. Religious festivals mark a happy deviation from daily life. Families and individuals regularly go to temples to give donations and receive blessings. You can often find elderly men and women circumambulating the temples to spin the prayer wheels or sitting in the middle of the town square contemplatively rubbing mala beads between their fingers while they whisper Om mani padme hum, the mantra that extends compassion to all sentient beings. In a country unified by and founded upon Buddhism, these religious values have become cultural values that permeate even the political system, as seen in the example of Gross National Happiness. But Bhutan is a tolerant country, so it doesn’t mean that people with other religious beliefs aren’t welcome. However, expats should be aware that the Bhutanese are very proud of their religious heritage (because it is so fundamental to their own culture and history), and you will hear many stories about Guru Rinpoche, Drukpa Kunley, and other notable saints from tour guides and friends.
Buddhist Nuns chanting.
The Bhutanese believe that Buddhism is compatible with other worldviews and that no religion discredits the other. They recognize that people from different cultures have different perspectives and stories to tell which are just as important as their own. So enter Bhutan with an open mind, a sense of adventure, and a willingness to learn about their values. In return, you’ll find loyal friends, a beautiful country, and experiences that will never make you want to go back to your home country.
Resources for Living in Bhutan
For students who are interested in studying abroad, check out the Wheaton in Bhutan program. Wheaton College in Massachusetts has a partnership with Royal Thimphu College. Wheaton was the first to offer a study abroad program for American students to study, travel, and work in Bhutan. The program has recently been opened up to non-Wheaton students so any undergraduate student is welcome to apply. Find out more information see the Wheaton study abroad program in Bhutan.
Find job offers, housing accommodations, and hear other expats’ stories.
There is are key resources and information found on health and vaccines for travelers to Bhutan.
Few foreign embassies reside in Bhutan. (The nearest American embassies are in New Delhi and Bangkok.)
Kuensel, the popular Bhutanese newspaper, is available online in English.
Here is a basic Dzongkha phrasebook.
Have fun, and tashi delek! (Good luck!)
Catherine Joy Perkins is a freelance writer and world traveler.