Volunteering in Bhutan
Discover volunteering opportunities in Bhutan – a small, mountainous, and land-locked country with a truly unique cultural character.
Nestled in the Himalayas between India and China, and largely isolated from the rest of the world until the mid-twentieth century, the Kingdom of Bhutan is rich in cultural and environmental diversity. Despite being one of the smallest countries in the world, with a population under 800,000, Bhutan’s cultural richness is profound.
Bhutan is known for measuring prosperity according to its own development philosophy – Gross National Happiness – which measures sustainable and equitable socio-economic growth, environmental conservation, the protection and promotion of traditional Bhutanese culture, and good governance.
Brief look at politics and society
Following a series of political reforms, the country has transitioned to a more open, democratic constitutional monarchy. The King and Royal Family continue to play an important role in Bhutanese society.
The Bhutanese economy is primarily agrarian, with a large proportion of the population engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forests has supported farmers to set up cooperatives so they can easily market their farm products. More recently, the Bhutanese economy has been boosted by tourism and hydro energy.
While the standard of living in Bhutan has improved in recent years, approximately 30 per cent of the population still lives below the poverty line. Most people in Bhutan have access to housing, and every village now has access to amenities such as schools, basic health care, roads and electricity. Plans are underway to connect even the remotest villages via a network of telecommunications.
The story of development in Bhutan strikes the careful balance of cultural and environmental preservation, with a cautious embrace of modernity. Despite the government’s active approach to development, Bhutan still faces several challenges. The kingdom is endeavouring to transition from an agrarian society to a tech-savvy 21st century country, yet a large proportion of the population still works in agriculture, predominantly in subsistence farming.
Australian volunteers in Bhutan
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of Bhutanese partner organisations to achieve their development goals since 1994.
Volunteering opportunities in Bhutan support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Food security and nutrition
- Economic diversity and productivity
- Health and social services
Life as a volunteer in Bhutan
Volunteering in Bhutan is a unique experience. Your experience will be richer if you come with patience, flexibility, an open mind, and a sense of humour.
Culture, religion and dress
Bhutan is a Buddhist country and is considered one of the few remaining countries widely practising Vajrayana Buddhism, which was first introduced in the 8th century. Approximately three-quarters of the Bhutanese population follow Vajrayana Buddhism, which is also the state religion. About a quarter are followers of Hinduism, and other religions account for less than one per cent of the population. Freedom of religion is guaranteed in Bhutan, but people are not permitted to proselytise.
Festivals provide an opportunity for you to truly experience Bhutanese culture. Every village is known for unique festivals, and the most widely celebrated is the Tshechu, where villagers visit the temples and monasteries to enjoy mask dances, songs and dances over three days. Food and traditional wine (Ara) are shared throughout the festivals.
Bhutan’s national language is Dzongkha, but over eighteen dialects are spoken across the country. The survival of such linguistic diversity is attributed to the geographical nature of the country. Volunteers are expected to learn some basic Dzongkha, but it is beneficial to become as proficient as possible.
Another striking feature of Bhutanese daily life is the traditional national dress that Bhutanese continue to wear today. Men wear a Gho, while women wear a Kira, a long dress that reaches their ankles. In keeping with tradition, all Bhutanese wear scarves while visiting Dzongs (monastery and administrative centres).
Volunteers are expected to dress appropriately at any assignment related activity – in the workplace, at training and meetings. Buttoned shirts for men, and blouses and skirts or dresses for women are appropriate attire. Volunteers working in government administration and schools are advised to wear national dress. Volunteers should always dress conservatively in Bhutan. T-shirts are appropriate for casual activities, but singlet tops, sheer clothing or low-cut blouses are not considered appropriate attire.
Climate and geography
Bhutan is a land of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers forming deep valleys. Elevation rises from 200 meters in the southern foothills to more than 7,000 meters in the north. This great geographical diversity combined with diverse climate conditions contributes to Bhutan's outstanding range of biodiversity and ecosystems.
Volunteers enjoy hiking and exploring Bhutan's unique environment.
The climate in Bhutan varies with elevation, from subtropical in the south to temperate in the highlands and polar-type climate, with year-round snow in the north. Bhutan experiences four distinct seasons: summer, autumn, winter and spring.
Recognising the importance of the environment, the Bhutanese Government has enacted laws to permanently maintain 60 per cent of its forest resources.
Dining and entertainment
There are numerous restaurants and cafes in Thimphu and Paro. The staple diet is rice which is usually accompanied by meat and vegetable dishes. The most common meats are beef, chicken and pork. Yak meat is considered a delicacy and is rare to find. Tourists often comment that most Bhutanese restaurants have the same menu.
Finding basic groceries is straightforward. If you have strict dietary requirements, such a vegan or gluten free, it will be more challenging to find some items. You should bring in a small stock of products you need immediately, and then arrange local suppliers to import them.
Night life in Bhutan is slowly increasing, particularly in Thimphu and Paro. There are numerous local clubs and bars, and you should always ask your colleagues or the in-country team about a venue you haven’t visited before.
This spicy chilli dish kept Australian volunteer Tiffany Casey warm through the Bhutanese winter. Eating Ema Datshi with her colleagues during their pot luck lunches is one of her cherished memories.
Download the recipe for Ema Datshi
Accommodation and transport
The most affordable and suitable housing options in Thimphu and Paro are apartments in building complexes. The apartments usually have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, kitchen and a storage room. Finding rental space is very difficult and bookings need to be made two to three months in advance. The country office team will help you find accommodation before you arrive.
There are inter-city buses in Thimphu and the service is improving. However, due to overcrowding and unreliable schedules we discourage volunteers from using the bus system.
Taxis are generally safe and affordable. The cost for approximately 3.5 kms is Nu.100 (AUD$2). The in-country team and current volunteers can help find taxi contacts for regular or daily use.
The currency of Bhutan is the Ngultrum (BTN) which is pegged to the Indian Rupee.
The preferred banking options for volunteers are Bhutan National Bank and Bank of Bhutan. It is easy for volunteers to open bank accounts in Bhutan and transferring money from foreign banks incurs a small fee. ATMs are theoretically able to accept Maestro, Cirrus and Visa, though they often run out of money or go offline, and some ATMs do not recognise cards. Volunteers are advised to maintain a supply of cash and avoid trying to access ATMs at the last minute. Some shops and restaurants accept Visa and MasterCard, but Visa is more common and reliable. It is not uncommon for the credit card facilities offline.
Bhutan has decent mobile and internet services. The two main service providers are Bhutan Telecom and Tashicell. Bhutan Telecom is the largest, has the most coverage and generally considered the most reliable internet and telephone service provider. There are also several internet cafes in town and some restaurants and coffee shops have complimentary Wi-Fi.
You can use any kind of mobile phone in Bhutan if your phone is unlocked. The current coverage available is 4G. Volunteers are advised to bring a mobile phone as all electronics are imported and tend to be slightly more expensive. You can buy a basic Nokia phone for approximately AUD$150.
When it comes to your safety and security you must be willing to adapt your behaviour and lifestyle to minimise the potential for being a target of crime. Like anywhere in the world, crime does exist in Bhutan.
Petty theft and burglaries are not uncommon. You should always be aware of your environment and take necessary precautions. You can reduce your risk of becoming a target by avoiding situations that make you feel uncomfortable and by taking advance precautions.
Dog attacks are common – avoid areas with large groups of dogs and carry an umbrella or stick (even a dog alarm) to protect yourself and shout for help from passers-by. The main hospital will provide free rabies shots if bitten.
The In-Country Orientation Program will address some areas of concern to help reduce risk. Here are some ways volunteers stay safe while on assignment in Bhutan:
- Making friends with your Bhutanese colleagues and neighbours.
- Ensuring your appearance is respectful of local customs (don’t draw negative attention to yourself by wearing inappropriate clothing).
- Travelling with someone trusted, such as your colleagues, other volunteers, or community members.
- Limiting alcohol consumption.
- Avoiding walking or cycling at night or after dark.
- Learning the local language.
Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Bhutan, please do some further research on living in Bhutan and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
"I have become more confident, more empathic and much more flexible in my work as a speech pathologist."