Bhutan is a unique place for many reasons. There’s the way the tourism is structured, with a set per-person fee of US$200 per day. There’s the government’s focus on Gross National Happiness. And there are the buildings.
The first buildings most visitors see are those at Paro airport. You know right then that you have arrived at a special place.
As in any place, the buildings of Bhutan are a reflection of their physical and cultural environment. With extensive forests and wide rivers that have cast up tons of stone, materials are there for the taking and in plentiful supply. Thus, Bhutanese buildings are built of stone, mud and wood, and very occasionally brick. They feature complex roof structures and elaborate door and window surrounds. They also have very wide floor boards!
Bhutanese buildings are generally square in shape, built of either rammed earth or stone between timber frames.
Houses are of several stories. Traditionally, the ground floor was used for cattle; the first floor for grain and other storage and the second floor for living space. The living space, as we learned from our visit to the Folk Heritage Museum, consists of a kitchen, a living space, and a shrine room. Roofs are raised, with open space to allow the wind to go through. In the summer time, the open area at the top of the house is used for sleeping.
Temples have the same basic form, just larger, and zhongs (religious and administrative centers) are larger still, with walled courtyards surrounding the central core. Buildings with a religious function have a band of red punctuated by circles of either yellow or white, representing, respectively, the sun and moon. The band is a clear sign a building is a temple rather than a house. The other indication is the gold top. On houses, the symbol of having conquered the evil spirits is a white flag; temples are topped with gold.
On the other end of the scale are utilitarian buildings. Water-run prayer wheels occupy similar structures, just much smaller. The continual chiming of the wheel adds yet another element of charm to your experience.