What to Photograph in Bhutan
Bhutan is one of those countries that take people by surprise. Most people would know just a little bit about the geography and the culture, but it’s unlikely that they’d have a true understanding of what to expect when they visit the country. Let this post help to guide you, and prepare you with the knowledge of what to photograph in Bhutan, one of Asia’s most welcoming and interesting countries.
When I think of Bhutan, my mind takes me to misty pastoral landscapes, with the distant sound of prayer flags flapping in the wind. And I think of centuries-old monasteries perched on hillsides, overlooking the valleys below, with burgundy-robed monks rhythmically chanting while slowly rotating massive prayer wheels.
But I don’t think of crowds, traffic lights, traffic jams, pollution, graffiti, crime, or any of the other ‘advancements’ that the world I come from currently endures. That’s because Bhutan is an entirely different type of country.
Bhutan has become known worldwide as the country that places the happiness of its people ahead of the income of its nation. The government has a policy called Gross National Happiness, that’s aimed at making sure that the citizens of Bhutan are happy, above all else. To do this, the government emphasizes harmony with nature, along with traditional values like health, education, psychological well-being, and living standards (there’s actually a long list).
But what does this have to do with photography? And how does it affect your plans to visit the country for photography? Well, it has a lot to do with it. Because each location you visit, and each person you meet is manifesting or living these values. Every experience you enjoy in Bhutan has a direct correlation to how its government, and its royal family, planned it to be experienced. Each visitor to Bhutan leaves a little bit happier than when they came.
Each visitor to Bhutan leaves a little bit happier than when they came.
On to photography.
There’s obviously a lot to photograph in Bhutan, especially for the first-time visitors. So to make it a bit simpler to know what to photograph in Bhutan, let’s break it down into categories. Basically, I see Bhutan as ideal for 3 types of photography: Landscapes, People/portraiture, and Culture. There’s little-to-no ‘street photography’ to be had, in the traditional form that you’d see in New York City or London. There’s just a small amount of wildlife/birding opportunities. And other than archery and football, there’s few sports of any large measure.
Bhutan sits at the southern foothills of the majestic Himalayan mountains. Although none of the famous Himalayan peaks that we all know are in Bhutan, it’s still a beautiful mountain range to admire from a distance and keep in the background of your photos. If mountain photography is your thing, then you won’t leave disappointed. There are plenty of outfitters in Bhutan that specialize in trekking the foothills that can help you out. Actual mountaineering is not legal in Bhutan, however. So you’d have to skip over to Nepal for that.
Other than mountains, there are countless beautiful valleys and pastures to be found around the country. Bhutan is largely an agricultural country, so a lot of the usable land is set up for growing rice, maize, and a variety of vegetables. About 80% of the country’s population works in agriculture, so you can imagine just how big farming is, and how much that can play into your photography.
There are some truly beautiful terraced rice fields carved into the hillsides all over the country. Depending on when you’re in Bhutan, you may see quite a lot of very green paddies that shine brightly in the sun. Because of Bhutan’s elevation, usually only one crop is grown per year, so your timing has to be good. The balance of the year, other crops would be grown in the same fields.
Probably the most commonly photographed landscape scene in Bhutan would be the Paro Taktsang (the Tiger’s Nest), in the upper Paro valley. Since the monastery clings to the side of a mountain at 800 metres above the valley, it takes a little bit of effort to reach it. But almost anyone can make the trek uphill, on a well-worn path. The payoff at the top of the trail makes it all worthwhile. The biggest challenge is to get a clear day with a good view. But you can go more than once, if you need to. What’s a little 2 hour hike, straight up?
People and Portrait Photography
I think most visitors to Bhutan will return home remembering the people they met, more so than any other memory of the country. Without exception, every soul I have ever met or worked with in Bhutan has been a wonderful person. Every person in the country seems truly motivated and interested in making sure you’re enjoying your stay in their homeland. They will ask you how you are and if there’s anything they can do to make your stay more enjoyable, and they’ll genuinely mean it.
Without exception, every soul I have ever met or worked with in Bhutan has been a wonderful person.
The people you meet – be they shopkeepers, hotel staff, farmers, artisans, or monks (oh-so-many monks!) – will make you feel very welcome, like a guest in their home. Even those citizens that are not directly involved in tourism will understand how they play a part in the success of your visit.
Perhaps it’s because Bhutan has always strictly controlled the volume of people that are allowed to enter the country, that tourist fatigue hasn’t hit the citizens yet. People will almost always be very willing to be photographed by a stranger, because they understand the value it brings to you, and to their country.
Because of this openness, this pleasantry, it’s a lot easier to obtain great portraits of the people of Bhutan. In many other countries, asking someone if they would let you photograph them would be met with indignation, or a request for money, or just silence as they walk away from you. Not so in Bhutan. Don’t feel reluctant when approaching someone you wish to photograph – – chances are pretty high that they will agree with your request.
For many visitors to Bhutan, they will be seeing a completely new culture unlike any other place they’ve visited. Aside from perhaps Nepal or Tibet, there really isn’t anything similar to the experience you’ll have in Bhutan.
Bhutan is a deeply religious country, with about 75% of its population identifying as Buddhist. The remaining population is mostly Hindu, due to its proximity to India, directly south. Because of this, there are a lot of religious temples, shrines, practices, and festivals that observe or celebrate Buddhism.
Of particular interest for most visitors will be the many Buddhist monasteries and temples dotted about the country. Every town and city has a main temple, called a Dzong, and it can usually be spotted from miles away. It’s also usually the administrative centre of the village, and where any of the annual festivals will take place.
Visiting the local Dzong would usually be one of the highlights of a trip to each location on your list. There are some truly spectacular Dzongs of note that are absolutely worth visiting. Most tours in Bhutan would cover them, so don’t worry, you won’t need to work hard to make it happen.
As mentioned, there are festivals in the local Dzongs every year. Each Dzong would host a yearly festival called a Tshechu, which celebrates and honours the Guru Rinpoche who brought tantric Buddhism to Bhutan. The festival lasts for about a week, and includes many masked dances, performed by monks and laymen. Each of these dances, which can last for more than an hour, tell moral stories and parables, are are considered something every villager must witness each year.
Each Dzong in each district/province holds these Tshechus are different times of the year, so there’s almost always one going on at some point. If you can schedule your time in Bhutan to coincide with one of these festivals, you won’t be disappointed.
A couple of the other elements of Buddhism that you’d be hard pressed to miss would be the prayer flags and the prayer wheels. Both of these are can be heard long before they’re seen, and are part of the continual din that plays all day, every day. But don’t let that stop you from including them in your photography – they are very much a part of the daily lives of the Bhutanese.
And probably the most surprising scene that visitors will encounter throughout the country will be the phalluses painted on almost every building (except for religious ones). For those visitors who were not warned in advance, it can come as quite an amusing shock. Some tourists find it quite funny, while others find it quite hard to look at. But look or not, they’re everywhere.
The reason that these are painted on houses and shops is that it’s believed that it would offer protection from evil and bring good luck. The practice goes back centuries, when the 15th century Buddhist teacher, Drupka Kunley, AKA the “Devine Madman”, preached sexual debauchery and wine drinking to the worshippers.
Kunley is credited with saying “The best wine lies at the bottom of the pail, and happiness lies below the navel”. It was this Madman that introduced the custom of hanging carved wooden phalluses from the corners of the home to ward off evil spirits.
Although it’s less common in the bigger urban centres, it’s still widely practiced in rural areas. Don’t be too surprised to see a wooden penis on keychains, hanging from rear-view mirrors, or on women’s jewelry. It’s part of the culture, and no one thinks twice about it.
Travel to Bhutan
Getting to Bhutan is not difficult, although it could be a long journey for some. Flights into Paro can be arranged through Bangkok, Singapore, New Delhi and Kathmandu. The flag carrier, Druk Air, provides reasonably frequent flights in economy and business class fares.
Private Photo Tours can design a completely unique photography tour for you or your family, specifically covering the areas of interest for you. Reach out to us, and let’s plan for something in Bhutan, and beyond. You’re partly prepared, now that you know what to photograph in Bhutan.