By Jonathan Evans
18 March, 2018

Prayer flags fly high in the wind across steep valleys and roads in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Many visitors remember seeing Bhutan's Buddhist religious centers and stately looking defenses called zhongs. Others might recall large water-powered prayer wheels spinning near waterfalls or farmers watching over long-haired yaks in the countryside.

Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. The country lies between India and China, but it has never been captured or colonized.

Bhutan still has much of its ancient culture. But it is attempting to become more modern without sacrificing its independence, culture or natural environment.

Bhutan advertises itself as an "exclusive" place to visit through "high value, low impact" tourism. Foreign visitors usually travel there by way of India or other nearby countries. Tourists can only visit Bhutan by signing up with licensed tour operators. The cost is between $200 and $250 a day, depending on the time of year. The government uses some of that money to pay for health care, schools and public services.

In the 1970s, the fourth king of Bhutan proposed an unusual method for measuring the country's success. Unlike traditional measures, like the gross domestic product, the king suggested what he called gross national happiness. Gross national happiness means efforts in support of sustainable development, education and health, and valuing societal good over economic growth.

The smoking of cigarettes is banned in the kingdom. In addition, Bhutan is the world's only carbon-negative country. That means it produces less carbon than its forests and other plants take in.

In 2016, the fifth and current king created the Laya Royal Highlander Festival, an event designed to bring tourists. The celebration takes place in October. It includes events like yak judging, wrestling competitions, pony races and native dancing.

Tribal Buddhists from the India-Bhutan border areas.
Tribal Buddhists from the India-Bhutan border areas.

Tourists attending the highland festival have to travel a total of 58 kilometers, from a height of 1,830 meters to more than 3,800 meters above sea level. Many paths along the way are rocky. Tour groups use donkeys to carry fuel, tents and other supplies. Rain can make those trails dangerous for both the animals and festival goers.

But the difficult conditions did not stop Bhutan's king from attending the event last October. He made the trip in only a few hours. Most tourists, however, compete the trip in two days.

One popular festival event is a race called the nyagay. Six women wearing yak-wool skirts pull large pieces of wood halfway across a field. They then drop the wood and place 23 kilogram sacks of grain on the backs of their male partners. The women then climb on the men's backs. The men pick up the wood, then race back to the starting line.

Festival organizers covered a tent with gold and set up a throne-like chair for the king. But he spent most of his time greeting people. Before the start of the pony race, food was served. Hundreds of villagers and visitors sat cross-legged as helpers served rice, vegetable curries and hot butter tea. All of the food was provided by the king. And everyone seemed very happy.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Ellen Hale reported this story for the Associated Press. Jonathan Evans adapted her report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

exclusive adj. not shared; available to only one person or group

gross domestic product n. the total value of the goods and services produced by the people of a nation during a year not including the value of income earned in foreign countries.

promote v. to make people aware of something; to make something more popular

steep adj. almost straight up and down; rising or falling very sharply

license – n. an official document; a card or paper that gives you permission to do something

impact – n. a major influence or effect

tourism – n. the custom of traveling for recreation

throne – n. the ceremonial chair of a ruler

yak – n. a large, long-haired animal

ponyn. a small horse