Even if you don’t recognize the Kingdom of Bhutan by name, you’ve definitely seen pictures of it. The landlocked South Asian country between China, Tibet, and India straddles some epic Himalayan mountains, and the scenery is some of the most photographed in the world. While the landscape is truly spectacular, most people would struggle to list a single other feature of the country; its culture, politics, and people are almost always overlooked in favor of lush green hills, snow-capped peaks, and dazzling temples. On my recent journey to Bhutan, I tried to correct this through meeting and getting to know local Bhutanese people; it was only then that I felt I began to understand this place. Here are just some of the people I met during my travels — people who showed me that Bhutan is about so much more than its mountains.

1

This grandpa was on babysitting duty the day we walked through this small village near Punakha. He was pleased to see us, it seemed, and cracked a large smile, which is why I noticed many teeth missing. He gestured to his betel nut, which when chewed gives off a tiny buzz and thus is a bit addictive, or at least a not-so-great habit. But despite its negative effects on the teeth, it’s very common to see people nibbling on the little nut throughout Bhutan.

2

At Bhutanese schools, kids learn English from the get-go and have a very diverse curriculum that I naively didn’t expect from a rural nation. This girl was about 12 years old and her workbook title was "How we know for sure the Earth is tilted on its axis."

3

Speaking of children, these kids were - as children everywhere are - ridiculously cute. My wife connected with this little guy and played a game spinning him around by his hands. When she returned him to earth, dizzy as anything, the expression on his face - “What's happening to me!” - had his family in stitches. As we sat with them I got the sense that family was a shared experience here - not behind your fence or inside your home but with your community and the people around you.

4

Bhutan, thanks to its very popular fourth king, measures the country's success in a profoundly different way than most. Rather than Gross National Product (GNP), the classic economic indicator, Bhutan measures Gross National Happiness (GNH) to determine its progress as a nation. I don't know the rankings by heart, but from personal experience, I can imagine Bhutan is doing very, very well. In this case, my friend accidentally farted - loudly - as he walked up to me, which cracked these folks up.

5

The country’s high happiness factor is not to say that life isn’t challenging here. The mountain conditions in Bhutan can be unforgiving, especially in winter. This old farmer moved slowly, selling his vegetables at the busy Sunday market near Wangdiphodrang. Despite his shy manner, he was beloved by all the other market sellers, and there was constant conversation and laughter as fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and chilies were bought and sold.

6

As a Buddhist kingdom, Bhutan hosts a population that is more than three-quarters Buddhist. The famous Buddhist master Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, and three nights here in the 8th century. All monks in Bhutan, following their nine-year academic education (to Masters level in Buddhist philosophy) are obliged to then undertake the same three-year (or more) retreat before becoming teachers themselves. Many begin their training at very young ages; here, a young monk pops into the costume closet to try a few things on for the annual festival at the Gangtey Monastery.

7

This father and son have worked the fields all their lives and had rough, shorn hands and crooked backs, which made them groan while stretching out between harvesting. Our stay here, in the province of Haa, was ripe with a lot of belly laughs. Both men are wearing a gho, which is tied with a belt called a kera, the national dress of Bhutan. I bought a gho on the last day of our trip and wore it out to dinner with our guides. It was surprisingly comfortable and has the biggest pockets I’ve ever encountered - “the biggest pocket in the world,” the locals claimed. This particular image was my favorite from the entire trip.

8

This girl was the daughter of the Gangtey Monastery painter, who prepares the ornate framing for the temple's displays. His workroom was a real treasure trove of interesting Buddhist artifacts, and his daughter was thoroughly enjoying trying on different masks and costumes with the young monk from the photo above.

9

This is Tenzin, his mother Sonam, and his ever-smiling, laughing grandma. At one of our farm stays, we were lucky enough to spend time with Tenzin - a true madman and creative genius entirely unconcerned with social norms - and witness his mom's and grandma's attempts to keep him in line.

10

This guy offered us some of his family's antique Buddhist objects to buy; when we declined, he didn’t seem at all bothered and struck up a long, cheerful conversation with our guide. Our entire trip was full of long and cheerful conversations actually - with locals, with our guides, with our homestays. My wife and I still keep in touch with our guides, and we hope to see them again one day, as we most certainly will be returning to this magical place.

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