Sounds heard in Bhutan in the 1990s before modern life began making serious encroachments included women singing while they worked in the fields, monks chanting, children playing. There were no — or at least very few — boom boxes or televisions. Nomads still migrate with their animals — yaks, dzo (yak-cow hybrids) and sheep) wander the Himalayan plateau as the have for centuries. From time to time, they descend into the valleys to trade yak meat for grain.

Some Himalayan people in remote areas are so poor they make offering of water rather flowers and food. Barter is still used rather than money. Yak products are traded for salt, tea, wheat, rice and cookware. In the morning men cut firewood and bring anything of value (such as berries or mushrooms) that can be found along the way. The most valuable commodity is Cordyceps (caterpillar fungus), which is collected in the mountains and is worth over US$100,000 a kilogram.

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”: ““Bhutan historically remained isolated from the outside world, and it was only in the 1960s that the country embarked on a path of modernization. Bhutan is a predominantly rural country, with” much “of the population living in villages scattered throughout the country. Although there are a handful of small towns in Bhutan, only Thimphu” would be considered a city. Domestic architecture in the north is Tibetan in style, while southern areas show Indian influences in house types and construction. Bhutan's mountainous terrain makes for difficult land communications. No railroads exist in the country, and there are only 2,418 kilometers (1,502 miles) of road providing links with India. Bhutan's national airline, Druk Air, links the town of Paro with India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Thailand. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life”, Cengage Learning, 2009 *]

Household income or consumption by percentage share: lowest 10 percent: 2.8 percent; highest 10 percent: 30.6 percent (2012). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

A 100 percent of the rural population and 99.3 percent of the urban population has access to safe drinking water. About 72.1 percent of the rural population and 87.5 percent of the urban population has access to improved sanitation facilities. About 27.9 percent of the rural population and 12.5 percent of the urban population has access to unimproved sanitation facilities. In 2000, 80 percent of urban and 60 percent of rural dwellers had access to improved water supplies, while 65 percent of urban and 70 percent of rural dwellers had access to sanitation services. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Modern Life Come to Bhutan

Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: “A generation or two ago, the people of Bhutan lived in a medieval, feudal bubble. When the first jeep arrived in Thimpu in the 1960s, locals ran in fear of the fire-breathing dragon. Television was legalized in 1999. Now, roads, schools and hospitals have been built. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, October 30, 2011]

“One of the greatest challenges facing Bhutan is that universal education has proved a double-edged sword. Children who complete secondary school — and watch television when they are not studying — do not want to spend their lives tilling the fields. Instead, they have poured into Thimphu and into an economy that can barely support them.’

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “Bhutan “was the last country in the world to introduce broadcast television. It did, however, later ban MTV and the World Wrestling Entertainment channel. “Apparently it was making the youth too violent, since they were wrestling each other all day. The government felt this violence was not Buddhist and goes against our gross national happiness philosophy," Namgay Zam, 22, a disc jockey at "Kazoo FM: The Voice of the Youth", said with a laugh. She said she opposed the ban, but also saw the reason for it. "Maybe it was a good thing to be able to understand our Bhutanese identity first, and then open up to the world," she said. [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 4, 2008]

When asked how change has affected his country, American- and Oxford-educated Prince Dasho Jigyel, brother of the King, told CBS News: "It is both a plus and a minus, with globalization and us opening up our doors. We can't really swim against the tide. Back in the day we didn't have something called shoes. We didn't even have socks. So this is an evolution of it, sir." [Source: Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert, CBS News April 17, 2016]

Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert of CBS News wrote: “ Even without fast food, the incoming tide of technology is changing Bhutan, as we learned when we stopped at a local archery tournament. Archery is Bhutan's national sport; women dance to cheer their favorite team. But the younger generation is losing interest. School teacher Sonam Dorgi's father taught him archery at age ten. He says today's children don't like to play the game. Does that mean that in Bhutan archery might go away? “Maybe. We are so worried about that," Dorgi said. A 14-year-old Bhutanese boy told CBS News he had “a passion” for computer games. When asked if he has tried archery, the teenager laughed. "No, I didn't try."

Urban Areas of Bhutan

Urban population: 42.3 percent of total population (2020) (Compared to 83 percent in Great Britain and 21 percent Ethiopia). Rate of urbanization in Bhutan: 2.98 percent annual rate of change (2015-20 estimated). Major urban areas: Thimphu (capital, also spellled Thimpu), population: 203,000 (2018) (spread over a large area). Other cities (large, dispersed towns really): Paro, Punakha, Tongsa. Phuentsholing is the primary commercial center on the Indian-Bhutan border). [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]

Punakha is the traditional capital; Thimphu is the official capital and largest city. The UN estimated that 21 percent of the population lived in urban areas in 2005, and that urban areas were growing at an annual rate of 5.83 percent. Thimphu had a population of 35,000 in 2005 and 31,000 in 2000 and 22,000 in 1987. Phuntsholing had an estimated population of more than 18,000 in 2005. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]

Bhutan’s mostly Hindu Nepalese live mostly in the south near the Indian border and are primarily settled around Phuntsholing,. Bhutan's most important commercial centers — Phuntsholing, Geylegphug, and Samdrup Jongkhar — are located in the south in the Duars, reflecting the meaning of the name, which is derived from the Hindi dwar and means gateway.

Thimphu is centrally located towards the country's western border with India. As late as the 1980s, Bhutan had no real towns, banks or anything that qualified as a proper shop.Thimbu was built up with Indian aid, and was just a cluster of houses around the dzong, a fortress monastery sort of like the Potala in Lhasa. [Source: Brenda Amenson-Hill, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 3: South Asia,” edited by Paul Hockings, 1992]

According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”: “It is expected that the urban population will grow by about 50 percent over the next two decades, with government taking a harder look at options for new and improved housing construction and utility services. As of 2002, the housing shortage has been most serious in urban areas, where most housing is rental property. It was estimated that in Thimphu alone, 600 new dwellings would need to built each year in order to keep up with rapid population growth. In 2002, about 10 percent of the residents of Thimphu were living in hut villages and squatter settlements. [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007 =|=]


Thimphu is the capital and largest city in Bhutan. It is the only capital in the world without a traffic light; instead, a white-gloved traffic officer directs cars, pedestrians and the occasional yak, cow or sheep. It is also one of the last places on earth without a McDonald's. The city had a zoo, but decided it wasn't in the Buddhist spirit to cage the national mammal, the takin, and set up a spacious area for them outside the city.. [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 4, 2008]

Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert wrote for CBS News: “There is still no hurrying in Bhutan. Rush-hour weary Americans can marvel that in” Thimphu “a traffic jam is about a dozen cars Roundabouts feature statutes of Buddhist goddesses, and the main intersection is controlled by a policeman who is a maestro of motorcars. Bhutan had one stoplight. But people thought it was too modern, so they took it down. And they also rejected those symbols of America's global reach, so there are no McDonalds or Burger Kings ... not even a Starbucks. [Source: Barry Petersen and T. Sean Herbert, CBS News April 17, 2016]

Gardiner Harris wrote in the New York Times: “Thimphu is a pleasant walking city, with none of the chaotic warrens present in many Indian cities. Its people are cheerful, its merchants show none of the pushiness common in South Asia, and even its stray dogs seem benign. There are no slums. [Source:Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 4, 2013]

“Between 2005 and 2012, more than 1,300 apartment buildings were built in Thimphu, and they now house nearly two-thirds of the city’s 116,000 residents. Unlike most cities in South Asia, Thimphu is being developed within strict guidelines, which include adequate roads, sewers and schools. The city requires every building to incorporate elements from traditional Bhutanese architecture like pitched roofs, distinctive windows and upper-story projections, making the town feel like a downscale Vail, Colo.

Urban Life in Bhutan

Emily Wax wrote in the Washington Post: “The growing number of day-care centers in Bhutan is just one of the ways in which this ancient civilization is modernizing, often at rapid speeds. More Bhutanese are moving to cities and away from their extended families, traditionally a vital part of the social structure here. In the capital, Thimphu, young Bhutanese are wearing Western-style jeans and tuning in to satellite TV for the first time, watching programs such as "Desperate Housewives." [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 4, 2008]

Thimphu's central square is filled with teenagers strumming guitars and wearing buttons with the names of rock bands such as Metallica. A transvestite recently went out in public to a disco — a sign, the DJs at Kazoo said, that youth culture is open to previously shunned ideas. Many younger Bhutanese have started to fuse their culture with the tastes of the West. The Zone Cafe in Thimphu, for instance, serves yak burgers and pizza with yak meat. [Source: Emily Wax, Washington Post, April 4, 2008]

Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: In Thimphu, “teenagers in jeans and hooded sweat shirts hang out smoking cigarettes in a downtown square, while less than a mile away, other adolescents perform a sacred Buddhist act of devotion. Archery, the national sport, remains a fervent pursuit, but American fiberglass bows have increasingly replaced those made of traditional bamboo.“ [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: At a bar in Thimphu owned by their mother, 12-year-old Jigme Lhendup and his sister Sonam, 9, show off their hip-hop moves. A part-time movie actor, Jigme says his favorite subject in school is social studies: "I'm learning about the world."... Blasting from the speakers is not a Buddhist incantation but the opening riffs of Shakira’s risqué pop anthem, “Hips Don’t Lie,” piped in from a sleek white Macintosh laptop. And when Norbu twirls to a stop in a no-hands headstand, his shirt rides up to reveal his homage to global youth culture: red Nike high-top sneakers, baggy Adidas sweatpants, and a temporary tattoo that spells out, in jagged English letters, the name he and his homeys have adopted — “B-Boyz.”“ [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

“When the song fades out, Norbu struts away with an impish smile and a crooked-finger gang salute. His fellow B-Boyz whistle and cheer. The monks break into befuddled red-tooth grins. And the sun-burnished peasants? They just gape at the boy. If he were a masked festival dancer, spinning toward enlightenment, they might understand. And yet, for all the mutual incomprehension, the moment still binds them together. For in one mind-bending performance, Norbu has captured the essence of a country that is attempting the impossible: to leap from the Middle Ages to the 21st century without losing its balance.”

Rural Areas of Bhutan

Rural population of Bhutan: 57.7 percent of total population (2020) (Compared to 17 percent in Great Britain and 79 percent Ethiopia). This a much smaller proportion than in the past. According to some estimates, 90 percent of the population was still rural in the late 1990s.

Many Bhutanese live in small agricultural villages scattered around the mountain valleys. Villages are often made up of only a dozen houses that are several hour walk from the nearest road. Many of the people in Bhutan’s remotest villages have never seen an automobile, an airplane or a foreigner. Many people lives in villages more than a day’s walk form the nearest road.

According to Geo-Data: “Most Bhutanese live in small rural villages in the Inner Himalayan region. Settlements are spread out among the valleys in this region, with farmers living in houses on the lower mountain slopes above their farmland. At higher elevations, population distribution is more concentrated because the lack of level land forces inhabitants to cluster together in smaller areas. The upper reaches of the Himalayas are largely uninhabited except for scattered Buddhist monasteries in valleys. [Source: Geo-Data: The World Geographical Encyclopedia, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

The majority of males are farmers, animal herders or monks. Most Bhutanese own and work their own small farms. Traditionally, the laboring population was not grouped into towns but rather lived in the countryside near monastery-fortresses called dzongs. Dzongs served as religious centers and regional or district government seats. They often housed — and many still do — a large number of Buddhist monks along with government administrators [Source: “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Nations”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

Rural Life

In rural Bhutan, Buddhist prayer wheels sit in streams and village squares. Centuries-old dzong emerge from pine forests. Some have said that Bhutanese villages look like something out of Bruegal painting: peasants working in golden fields with neatly stacked stacks of hay. Arthur Lubow wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “On rural highways in Bhutan, trucks hauling huge pine logs rush past women bowed beneath bundles of firewood strapped to their backs. While it seems that every fast-flowing stream has been harnessed to turn a prayer drum inside a shrine. “ [Source: Arthur Lubow, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2008]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Boys fill sacks of potatoes — setting some aside for an elderly woman — near the village of Zhangkhar in eastern Bhutan.” Many “people survive by raising crops and livestock, but less than a tenth of this rugged land is arable. Villagers gather at a water pump...The nearest road is a half day's walk away. Such rural isolation is still the rule in Bhutan. Electricity and cell phone service is steadily making it way to these places. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

Few places on the planet can be more rooted in tradition than rural Bhutan. Villages like Nabji, are cradled by virgin forest and vertiginous mountains, six hours on foot from the nearest road. Nabji’s terraced fields are empty today. It is a holy day on the lunar calendar, and the rough-hewn villagers circumambulate the temple in their finest robes — bright floor-length kiras for women, patterned knee-lengthghos for men. The only signs of modernity are two solar panels installed on the temple roof to power a wireless telephone — and they don’t work. Nabji’s farmers put their faith in another kind of wireless communication: the prayer flags fluttering in the cypress trees above. “Every time the wind blows,” says Rike, a former village headman, “it takes our prayers straight to the heavens. No machines required.”

“Nabji’s isolation diminishes by the day: The booms reverberating across the valley are the sounds of a road being blasted through the forest several miles away. A rotating crew of 15 villagers from Nabji contributes labor, hauling 150-pound bags of plastic explosive up the mountain slopes. The new road won’t reach Nabji for another year or two, but when it arrives, electricity, television, and commerce will follow. Some elders worry that Nabji’s innocence will be lost. “

Duties Performed by Women in Bhutan

Women are often in charge of fetching water, cooking, watching over the children and tending the family animals. In the past many were too busy taking care of these tasks to attend school. But that is no longer really the case. Girls still do a lot of chores but they also go to school. Rural women often throw their young children in slings and toss them on their back when they perform chores such as butter churning. They wash clothes in the river. Children bath in water-filled drums. Babies are washed in a pot on the porch.

“Women play a significant role in the agricultural work force, where they outnumber men, who were leaving for the service sector and other urban industrial and commercial activities. Up to 90 percent of all Bhutanese women are involved in agricultural work (70 percent of the land registered in Bhutan is owned by women), although this figure is decreasing as more opportunities become available for women in other sectors of the economy.

According to the OECD Social Institutions and Gender Index: “ A 2001 study found differences between rural and urban areas. Women were more likely to be responsible for unpaid or reproductive work in urban areas. In more than 80 percent of rural households, women cooked, washed clothes, worked in the kitchen garden, preserved food and collected manure. More than two-thirds of rural women took care of children, fetched water, looked after domestic animals and distilled alcohol. Men and women were equally engaged in collection of fodder and in buying food, clothes and other items. However, in more than 90 percent of households in urban areas, women cooked, purchased food, washed clothes and cleaned the house, while between 60 and 80 percent of women in urban areas took care of the sick and children, and preserved food. In both rural and urban areas, more than two-thirds of women engaged in primary reproductive tasks. [Source: OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Development Center, genderindex.org, 2014]

Migration to the Cities in Bhutan

The urban population in Bhutan rose from around 10 percent in the late 1990s to over 40 percent in 2020. The Rate of urbanization in Bhutan was around three percent a year between 2015 and 2020 and almost six percent a year in the mid 2000s. If you piece some data together the population of Thimphu rose from around 30,000 in 2000 to 100,000 in the early 2010s to over 200,000 in 2020.

Gardiner Harris wrote in the New York Times: “The country’s major industries are hydroelectric power, which it exports to India, and tourism. While most of the population is still involved in subsistence farming, a growing number of people are abandoning their traditional single-family mud-and-wood homes in isolated villages and moving to the country’s towns and cities. “Who wants to do subsistence farming and get up at 4 in the morning and carry water if you don’t have to?” asked Paljor Dorji, a member of the royal family and a longtime close adviser to the former king. “Once you educate the people, nobody is going to live the same miserable life their parents did.” [Source: Gardiner Harris, New York Times, October 4, 2013]

Brook Larmer wrote in National Geographic: “Younger villagers” listen “to Karma Jigme, a 26-year-old painter in baggy NBA-style shorts who recently returned to Nabji after five years working in the towns of Paro, Punakha, and Trongsa. Jigme’s tales from the modern world have all the magic of Bhutan’s traditional legends. The first time he saw television, he says he hid under his bed, fearing that the angry pro wrestlers on screen “would jump out of the box and hurt me.” A bigger shock came when he and his crew were repainting Taktshang Goemba, the famed Tiger’s Nest monastery above the Paro Valley. Perched on a plank of scaffolding some 2,500 feet up the cliff face, Jigme heard a deafening roar and then, not 300 yards away, “I saw a house in the shape of a fish flying through the air.” The airplane terrified him so much he almost tumbled off the platform. [Source: Brook Larmer, National Geographic, March 2008]

“Life in Nabji brings no such drama. Jigme toils long hours in his family’s rice and potato fields, earning extra cash painting traditional scenes on village houses — including, yes, a few thunderbolts. He needs the money to buy an ox. But what he really wants, he says, “is a Nokia.” It doesn’t matter that, for now, mobile phones don’t work in Nabji. He just wants a little piece of the modern world.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism Council of Bhutan (tourism.gov.bt), National Portal of Bhutan, the Bhutan government’s main site (gov.bt), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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