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What is Bhutan?
Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. (Ish Consul)

What is Bhutan?

The tiny South Asian nation only has diplomatic relations with a small number of countries and measures its success based on a national happiness index

Israel on Saturday announced that it had established diplomatic relations with Bhutan, the fifth country to do so in recent months alongside United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. But Bhutan is not an Arab country, and most people who heard the news about the normalization agreement probably asked themselves, “What is Bhutan?”

Israel’s Ambassador to India Ron Malka and Bhutan’s Ambassador to India Vetsop Namgyel signed the normalization agreement on Saturday night. The signing of the agreement came after secret talks between officials from both countries, including reciprocal visits, in recent years toward establishing diplomatic relations, according to the foreign ministry, which noted that it works with Bhutan through its Mashav Division, the Agency for International Development Cooperation. Through this, students from Bhutan have come to Israel to receive agricultural training.

According to a joint statement about the deal, the countries plan to cooperate on economic, technological and agricultural development. It also said that cultural exchanges and tourism would be “further enhanced.”

“This agreement will open up many more opportunities for cooperation for the benefit of both our peoples,” Malka tweeted.

The South Asian country of Bhutan, known as “Land Of The Thunder Dragon,” is a small landlocked country located on the eastern edge of the Himalayas. It is bordered by Tibet to the north and India to the south and has a population of less than 800,000. Its capital and largest city is Thimphu. The country’s area is 14,824 square miles (38,394 square kilometers), making it about the size of the US state of Maryland.

The official state religion of Bhutan is Vajrayana Buddhism, practiced by up to three-fourths of the country’s population. Another quarter of the population practices Hinduism. Freedom of religion is guaranteed and proselytizing is forbidden by royal government decree.

Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy when it held its first general election in 2008. Before that, it was an absolute monarchy. The king’s official title is Dragon King.

The country has official diplomatic relations with only 53 countries, and became a member of the United Nations in 1971. The United States and the United Kingdom, for example, are among the countries that do not have official relations with Bhutan. The country has embassies in only seven of those 53 countries, and only India, Bangladesh and Kuwait have embassies in Bhutan. Other countries maintain informal diplomatic contact through their embassies in nearby countries. Internet and television were only allowed into the country beginning in 1999.

Bhutan maintains strong economic, strategic, and military relations with India, and has strong political and diplomatic relations with Bangladesh. Its main export is hydroelectric energy to India. The country is mostly closed to outsiders especially from outside of South Asia, as a way to maintain the country’s culture and to preserve its natural resources. Though the country limits tourism, Indian and Bhutanese citizens may travel to each other’s countries without a passport or visa. Bhutan closed its border with nearby China after China’s 1959 invasion of Tibet

The official language of the country is Dzongkha, also known as Bhutanese, which is one of the 53 Tibetic languages spoken throughout Central Asia. English, however, is the language of instruction in schools in Bhutan.

Bhutan is known as the happiest country in the world and, indeed, measuring the country by the Gross National Happiness Index was instituted in 2008 by the government of Bhutan in its constitution and is ranked as even above the gross domestic product in the country. This actually makes some sense, since Bhutan is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a poverty rate of 12 percent.

For the foodies among us, Bhutan does have some of its own traditional dishes. The most recommended national dish reportedly is Ema Datshi, a combination of chilies and cheese. Other traditional foods include Jasha Maroo, or Maru, which is spicy chicken, and Phaksha Paa, or pork with red chilies.

While Bhutan is known as a very safe destination and theft is rare, Lonely Planet says there are dangers and annoyances to look out for, including: street dogs make a lot of noise at night and rabies is a risk; roads are rough and winding; Indian separatist groups are active across the border from southeastern Bhutan; and rain, cloud, snow and rockfalls can affect travel by road and by air.

Bhutan is known for its monasteries, fortresses – known as dzongs – and dramatic landscapes. Visitors must either be tourists on a preplanned, prepaid, guided tour, or guests of the government. They can also enter the country as a guest of “a citizen of some standing” or with a volunteer organization.

A dzong, a traditional Bhutanese fortress, located in Bhutan. (Ani Modak/Wikimedia Commons)

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