Books Set In Bhutan: Bhutan Novels
The kingdom of Bhutan is a secluded country in the Eastern Himalayas, sitting between China and India. Often described as one of the happiest places on earth, this list of books set in Bhutan explores this fascinating place through a range of stories.
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Bhutan has a rich history of oral storytelling. While there is a growing range of local literature in the national language Dzongkha and more works being published in English, it can still be difficult to source some titles abroad. With events such as the annual Mountain Echoes literary festival, hopefully even more titles will be accessible in the future.
Kunzang Choden is one of the most widely-read Bhutanese authors on this list. Her writing covers themes such Bhutanese oral traditions, folklore and women. Her debut novel The Circle of Karma was the first English-language novel ever written by a woman from Bhutan. Another of her novels Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan is part of the English literature curriculum in Bhutanese schools. Her collection of short stories Tales in Colour: And Other Stories explores the changing roles of women in Bhutan.
Another notable author included on this list is Ashi Dori Wangmo Wangchuck, the former queen of Bhutan. As the first wife of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, she is the Queen Mother of Bhutan. Her memoir Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan is part history, part biography and part travelogue.
As a country that hasn’t always been so easy to access, it’s no surprise that many of the titles included in the list below are memoirs. Many foreigners have been drawn to this remote country (to both travel and live) and have written about their transformative experiences.
Many Canadian residents have written about Bhutan. Sault-Ste-Marie local Jamie Zeppa taught English in Thimphu, as documented in Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan. Ontarian Ken Haigh taught in a small high school in the remote Himalayan village of Kahling, as told in Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan. While German-born, Toronto-resident, Britta Das was a physiotherapist in a village hospital in Mongar, as recounted in Buttertea at Sunrise: A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya.
Some American authors include Tennessean Linda Leaming, who initially taught in the small town of Thimphu and has lived on and off in Bhutan for decades since. Her experiences are told through her memoirs Married to Bhutan and A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up (which could partly be considered a self-help book). While Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-resident Lisa Napoli helped start a radio station, as documented in Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth.
English novelist Katie Hickman documents her travels through Bhutan in Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon: A Journey Through Bhutan. Australian journalist Bunty Avieson worked as a media consultant to newspaper the Bhutan Observer, as told through her memoir The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan. While British banker Emma Slade became a Buddhist nun, as recounted in Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan.
Books Set In Bhutan: The Shortlist
If I could only choose a handful of books set in Bhutan from the much longer list below:
- Beyond the Sky and the Earth by Jamie Zeppa
- The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden
- Treasures of the Thunder Dragon by Ashi Dori Wangmo Wangchuck
- Tales in Colour: And Other Stories by Kunzang Choden
- Radio Shangri-La by Lisa Napoli
- Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming
- A Field Guide to Happiness by Linda Leaming
Books Set In Bhutan
1. Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon: A Journey Through Bhutan by Katie Hickman, 1987 (NF)
Bhutan is the remote kingdom in the Himalayas, isolated from the outside world for three centuries. The western part has been opened to limited tourism, but the eastern part remains closed. Katie Hickman is one of only a handful of foreigners ever to penetrate these eastern lands. Her trip to Bhutan with photographer Tom Owen Edmunds took a year to set up. They journeyed from the capital Thimphu in the west to the easternmost borderlands and the remote mountain-top retreat of the barbarous Bragpa people. They lived as Bhutanese, they met merchants, abbots, wandering priests, lamas, hermits, a reincarnation of the Buddha and a sorceress. Katie Hickman’s account contains all the unexpected and humorous aspects of travel, but, above all, it is about the people of Bhutan.
2. In the Himalayas: Journeys through Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan by Jeremy Bernstein, 1989 (NF)
In this book Bernstein – writer, physicist, and mountaineer – surveys the people, places, and politics of some of the most enchanting territory on earth. From the doggedness of the Sherpas to the crushing force of Chinese Communism, from unforgettable vistas to hilarious mishaps in the outback, Bernstein presents the panoply of Himalayan experience in vivid, memorable detail.
3. Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World by Pico Iyer, 1993 (NF)
The author of Video Night in Kathmandu ups the ante on himself in this sublimely evocative and acerbically funny tour through the world’s loneliest and most eccentric places. From Iceland to Bhutan to Argentina, Iyer remains both uncannily observant and hilarious.
4. So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas by Barbara Crossette, 1995 (NF)
For more than a thousand years Tibet, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Bhutan were the santuaries of Tantric Buddhism. But in the last half of this century, geopolitics has scoured the landscape of the Himalayas, and only the reclusive kingdom of Bhutan remains true to Tantric Buddhism. As she travels through Bhutan and its neighbours, Crossette introduces readers to a world that has emerged from the middle ages only to find itself peering into the abyss of modernity.
5. The Raven Crown by Michael Aris, 1995 (NF)
The story of the Wangchuk dynasty’s rise and triumph moves from a picture of turmoil and chaos to one of relative peace and stability. In contrast with earlier published accounts based solely on the colonial records of British India, here the narrative is founded on the Bhutanese chronicles which offer a new perspective and bring many new details to light. The ethnic and historical context is outlined before recounting the turbulent career of the Black Regent, followed by the lives and achievements of the first two kings.
6. Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa, 1999 (NF)
At age 24 Jamie Zeppa, a Canadian who had never been outside of North America, said goodbye to her fiancé and her plans for graduate school and moved to Bhutan, a remote Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. Beyond the Sky and the Earth is an autobiographical work that details her experiences and transformations after spending three years in Bhutan. It is as much a book about Zeppa’s day-to-day life in Bhutan as it is about the personal awakenings and realizations that she had while living there. Visitors to Bhutan, an increasingly hot tourist destination, are still few and far between, largely because of tight government restrictions on entry, visa requirements, and a law requiring tourists to spend at least $200 a day there. Beyond the Sky and the Earth stands out as both an informative introduction to the people and culture of Bhutan and as a beautiful piece of travel literature set against the backdrop of one of the most remote and unspoiled places on earth.
7. Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan by Ken Haigh, 2004 (NF)
Inaccessible for most of its history, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has long fascinated the West. Today, wealthy travelers are admitted in small groups, but in 1987, when Ken Haigh arrived as a volunteer to teach in a small high school, foreign travelers were as hard to find in the kingdom as telephones or toilet paper. Under the Holy Lake describes a two-year sojourn in the valley of Khaling in eastern Bhutan. Ken learns to cope with leeches, rabid dogs, and culture shock, and in return finds his life transformed. He rents a small cottage next to an old Buddhist monastery and quickly settles into a pattern of existence that is hundreds of years removed from the world he’d known in Canada. He finds his students are polite and eager to learn, his neighbours warm and welcoming.Under the Holy Lake is a love song to a mountain valley and its people, a story of youth, and discovery, and, ultimately, of loss.
8. The Circle of Karma by Kunzang Choden, 2005 (Fiction)
The first English-language novel ever written by a woman from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, The Circle of Karma has engaged and absorbed readers from around the world since its 2005 publication. Written originally in English, it tells the story of Tsomo, a fifteen-year-old girl caught up in the everyday realities of household life and work. But when her mother dies, Tsomo suddenly feels called to travel and sets off toward a faraway village to light ritual butter lamps in her mother’s memory. Her travels take her to distant places, across Bhutan and into India, evolving into a major life journey. As she faces the world alone, Tsomo slowly begins to find herself, growing as a person and as a woman.
9. Buttertea at Sunrise: A Year in the Bhutan Himalaya by Britta Das, 2006 (NF)
Often seen as a magical paradise at the end of the world, Bhutan is inaccessible to most travellers. Set against the dramatic scenery of the Himalaya, this beautiful memoir reveals hardships and happiness in a land almost untouched by the West. When Britta, a young physiotherapist, goes to work in a remote village hospital, her good intentions are put to the test amid monsoons, fleas and shocking conditions. But as she visits homes in the mountains and learns the mysteries of tantric Buddhism, the country casts its enduring spell. Gaining insights into the traditions of this mystical kingdom, she makes friends and falls in love. Bhutan will change her life forever.
10. Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan by Kunzang Choden, 2006 (Fiction)
Dawa looks like just another scruffy Thimphu street dog, but don’t be fooled: he understand Dzongkaha, he has an urge to see the world and his bigger-than-normal brain is matched only by his compassionate heart. His is an extraordinary life; follow it from its tragic beginnings, to his ascension as the legendary Leader of Howling in Thimphu, to the miracle that saves him. Dawa’s story will appeal to all who have experienced life’s rigors – but have never given up hope on the possibilities.
11. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon: A Portrait of Bhutan by Ashi Dori Wangmo Wangchuck, 2007 (NF)
Please note: the author is the former Queen of Bhutan.
Long regarded as the Forbidden Land, Bhutan — or Druk Yul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon — was virtually closed to the outside world until the 1960s. Even today, little is known about this remote Himalayan Buddhist kingdom nestled between two giant neighbours, India and China. Often described as the Last Shangri La, Bhutan is still a country of pristine forests, alpine valleys and glacial lakes, rich in rare flora and fauna such as the blue poppy, the golden langur and the red panda. As spectacular as its natural beauty are the architecture of its towering dzongs (fortresses) and the art treasures that fill its monasteries and temples. Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck’s portrait of her country is a captivating blend of personal memoir, history, folklore and travelogue. It provides unique and intimate insights into Bhutanese culture and society, with its vivid glimpses of life in Bhutan’s villages and hamlets, monasteries and palaces.
12. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner, 2008 (NF)
Please note: this is partly set in Bhutan, along with many other places.
Weiner spent a decade as a foreign correspondent reporting from such discontented locales as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. Unhappy people living in profoundly unstable states, he notes, inspire pathos and make for good copy, but not for good karma. So Weiner, admitted grump and self-help book aficionado, undertook a year’s research to travel the globe, looking for the “unheralded happy places.” The result is this book, equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and philosophical, a journey into both the definition of and the destination for true contentment.
13. The Heart of the Buddha by Elsie Sze, 2009 (Fiction)
When Marian, an earnest romantic and idealist, goes missing in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, her twin sister Ruthie, a pragmatic skeptic, journeys from Canada to search for her. When Ruthie uncovers Marian’s passion for a Bhutanese monk and her hazardous trek over a mountain pass to Tibet, she fears the worst. And those fears only intensify when a sinister Tibetan reveals that he is also in pursuit of Marian. As the sisters struggle to reach each other, they must overcome the demands of their own hearts and spirits.
14. Tales in Colour: And Other Stories by Kunzang Choden, 2009 (Fiction)
What are the new realities that confront Bhutanese women today? What challenges do they face when their tradition-bound close-knit family life is suddenly replaced by the anonymity of an urban existence? These deceptively simple stories uncover both the complexity and irony of women’s lives in contemporary Bhutan. They show how ordinary lives, choices and experiences are both remarkable and poignant. In “I am a Small Person”, a despised woman uses her femininity as a means to control a man; the young girl in “I won’t ask Mother” suddenly feels empowered and confident when she makes a decision without consulting her mother. All the stories take place in rural settings, to which creeping urbanization brings gradual change, and tensions surface between the new and the old, or the traditional and the modern.
15. Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth by Lisa Napoli, 2010 (NF)
Lisa Napoli was in the grip of a crisis, dissatisfied with her life and her work as a radio journalist. When a chance encounter with a handsome stranger presented her with an opportunity to move halfway around the world, Lisa left behind cosmopolitan Los Angeles for a new adventure in the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan — said to be one of the happiest places on earth. Long isolated from industrialization and just beginning to open its doors to the modern world, Bhutan is a deeply spiritual place, devoted to environmental conservation and committed to the happiness of its people — in fact, Bhutan measures its success in Gross National Happiness rather than in GNP. In a country without a single traffic light, its citizens are believed to be among the most content in the world.
16. Married to Bhutan by Linda Leaming, 2011 (NF)
Tucked away in the eastern end of the Himalayas lies Bhutan — a tiny, landlocked country bordering China and India. Impossibly remote and nearly inaccessible, Bhutan is rich in natural beauty, exotic plants and animals, and crazy wisdom. It is a place where people are genuinely content with very few material possessions and the government embraces “Gross National Happiness” instead of Gross National Product. In this funny, magical memoir, we accompany Linda Leaming on her travels through South Asia, sharing her experiences as she learns the language, customs, and religion; her surprising romance with a Buddhist artist; and her realizations about the unexpected path to happiness and accidental enlightenment. As one of the few Americans to have lived in Bhutan, Leaming offers a rare glimpse into the quirky mountain kingdom so many have only dreamed of.
17. Beneath Blossom Rain: Discovering Bhutan on the Toughest Trek in the World by Kevin Grange, 2011 (NF)
In a remote kingdom hidden in the Himalayas, there is a trail said to be the toughest trek in the world—twenty-four days, 216 miles, eleven mountain passes, and enough ghost stories to scare an exorcist. In 2007 Kevin Grange decided to acquaint himself with the country of Bhutan by taking on this infamous trail, the Snowman Trek. He was thirty-three, at a turning point in life, and figured the best way to go at a crossroad was up. Against a backdrop of Buddhist monasteries and soaring mountains, Grange ventured beyond the mapped world to visit time – lost villages and sacred valleys. In the process, recounted here with a blend of laugh-out-loud humor, heartfelt insight, and acute observation, he tested the limits of physical endurance, met a fascinating assortment of characters, and discovered truths about faith, hope, and the shrouded secret of blossom rain.
18. The Breath of God by Jeffrey Small, 2011 (Fiction)
Please note: this novel takes place in the USA, India, Tibet and Bhutan.
A murder at the Taj Mahal. A kidnapping in a sacred city. A desperate chase through a cliffside monastery. All in the pursuit of a legend that could link the world’s great religious faiths. In 1887, a Russian journalist made an explosive discovery in a remote Himalayan monastery only to be condemned and silenced for the heresy he proposed. His discovery vanished shortly thereafter. Now, graduate student Grant Matthews journeys to the Himalayas in search of this ancient mystery. But Matthews couldn’t have anticipated the conspiracy of zealots who would go to any lengths to prevent him from bringing this secret public.
19. The Bhutanese Guide to Happiness: Words of Wisdom from the World’s Happiest Nation by Gyonpo Tshering, 2013 (NF)
From the country where happiness is valued above material wealth comes a treasure trove of wisdom, inspiration and humour. Collected from the tiny kingdom of Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayas, these proverbs reflect the Bhutanese people’s dedication to treating everyone with kindness and respect, and their sense of fun. Sometimes profound and often thought provoking, these simple quotes remind us that happiness can be achieved through being compassionate, affectionate and ready to enjoy life.
20. The History of Bhutan by Karma Phuntsho, 2013 (NF)
In recent years, the remote kingdom of Bhutan has increasingly attracted the attention of the world. In 2008, it emerged as the world’s youngest democracy and in the same year crowned the world’s youngest monarch. This was followed by the new King’s colourful wedding in 2011. Today, it continues to enchant the rest of the world with its policy of Gross National Happiness and has become a very popular destination for travel. But, despite its growing popularity and the rising scholarly interest in the country, Bhutan remains one of the most poorly studied places on earth.
21. Bhutan: The Kingdom at the Centre of the World by Omair Ahmad, 2013 (NF)
A small, sparsely populated kingdom at the eastern end of the Himalayas, Bhutan is often described as one of the most isolated countries on earth. In this unprecedented portrait an informed and insightful mix of political history and travel writing Omair Ahmad shows that the opposite, in fact, is true. Located at the intersection of several political, cultural and religious currents, Bhutan has been a part of, and been shaped by, some of the most transformative events in Asian and world history.
22. A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan about Living, Loving, and Waking Up by Linda Leaming, 2014 (NF)
In the West, we have everything we could possibly need or want — except for peace of mind. So writes Linda Leaming, a harried American who traveled from Nashville, Tennessee, to the rugged Himalayan nation of Bhutan — sometimes called the happiest place on Earth — to teach English and unlearn her politicized and polarized, energetic and impatient way of life. In Bhutan if I have three things to do in a week, it’s considered busy. In the U.S., I have at least three things to do between breakfast and lunch. After losing her luggage immediately upon arrival, Leaming realized that she also had emotional baggage — a tendency toward inaction, a touch of self-absorption, and a hundred other trite, stupid, embarrassing, and inconsequential things — that needed to get lost as well.
23. A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan by Madeline Drexler, 2014 (NF)
What does Bhutan understand about happiness that the rest of the world does not? Award-winning journalist and author Madeline Drexler recently traveled to this Himalayan nation to discover how the audacious policy known as Gross National Happiness plays out in a fast-changing society where Buddhism is deeply rooted — but where the temptations and collateral damage of materialism are rising. Her reported essay blends lyrical travelogue, cultural history, personal insights, and provocative conversations with top policymakers, activists, bloggers, writers, artists, scholars, religious leaders, students, and ordinary citizens in many walks of life. This book is sure to fascinate readers interested in travel, Buddhism, progressive politics, and especially the study and practice of happiness.
24. The Dragon’s Voice: How Modern Media Found Bhutan by Bunty Avieson, 2015 (NF)
This is a fascinating account of ancient culture colliding with modern media. Tucked between Tibet and India in the Himalayas, the kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most isolated and beautiful countries in the world. In The Dragon’s Voice, Australian journalist Bunty Avieson provides a glimpse of life beyond the country’s exotic exterior. As a consultant to local newspaper Bhutan Observer, she admires the paper’s strong social conscience, but finds her expectations challenged in a country where spirituality and personal happiness are prioritized over work. Avieson also witnesses the tensions that arise as a Buddhist kingdom makes the transition to democracy. The courtship ritual of “night-hunting” and the nation’s first public demonstration become controversial news items, while journalists must overcome traditional social hierarchies to keep politicians accountable. With a unique blend of memoir and reportage, The Dragon’s Voice is both a deeply personal story and a vivid portrait of a nation on the cusp of revolutionary change.
25. The Living Road by Ajit Harisinghani, 2015 (NF)
A solo motorcycle ride across India, and into Bhutan, becomes much more than just a test of physical endurance when 57-year-old, Pune-based, speech therapist Ajit Harisinghani decides to go in the pursuit of that most elusive of all human desires – Happiness. With the idea of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness on his mind, he traverses a potpourri of terrain; riding through landscapes that change daily. From arid land to verdant fields, from jungles with glimpses of elephants and tigers to tea gardens. Along the way, he meets a yogi and his singing goat, explores ancient caves, is frightened in a wild life sanctuary, sees a schizophrenic bicycle and helps a police inspector overcome his stammering problem. A variety of experiences later, he is finally in Thimpu where a Buddhist monk reveals the road-map to being happy.
26. Folktales Of Bhutan by Kunzang Choden, 2016
Folktales Of Bhutan is a collection of thirty-eight folktales and legends and is a first attempt by a Bhutanese to record in English the oral tradition of this kingdom in the eastern Himalayas. All of the stories recounted here were heard by the author when she was a child living in Bumthang in the central part of Bhutan and are the ones that she passes on to her children today, in the spirit of the oral tradition.In Bhutan’s centuries of self-imposed isolation brought about by both its geographically remote position and political considerations, the Bhutanese oral tradition evolved and thrived.
27. Set Free: A Life-Changing Journey from Banking to Buddhism in Bhutan by Emma Slade, 2017 (NF)
Emma Slade was a high-flying debt analyst for a large investment bank, when she was taken hostage in a hotel room on a business trip to Jakarta. She thought she was lucky to come out of it unscathed, but over the ensuing weeks and months, as the financial markets crashed, Emma became her own distressed asset as the trauma following the event took hold. Realising her view on life had profoundly changed she embarked upon a journey, discovering the healing power of yoga and, in Bhutan, opening her eyes to a kinder, more peaceful way of living.
What do you think of these books set in Bhutan?
Have you visited Bhutan before? Are you dreaming of a visit? Have you read any of these books set in Bhutan? Do you know some great books that should be added? Or some classics that haven’t been translated just yet? Let me know your thoughts and tips on books set in Bhutan in the comments below!
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