Book Excerpt: Bhutan

A chapter about Bhutan, from my book Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home:

Only about thirty of us were flying to Bhutan, so the back of the plane held cargo: a couple of computers strapped to the seats, a boom box, a crock pot, several unmarked boxes, a quilt. And in the back seat a flight attendant drank in sleep – I mean, she snored. She, Mirja and one more were the only women.

The river Brahmaputra wound out toward the Ganges near Dhaka. Sunlight glinted and skipped across tens of thousands of acres of flooded rice paddies, miles and miles north of the Bay of Bengal. Sometimes the clouds lifted over northern Burma and Bangladesh.

Four hundred miles north of Rangoon a bend in the river ate half a town. It was July 4th. Americans celebrated independence while South Asia grappled with the monsoon.

When time came to drop through the clouds into Bhutan, the pilot announced, “We will maneuver the aircraft in the valley. This is a little different from large commercial aircraft. It is standard procedure. You will see the houses and trees a little closer than you are used to. The scenery is beautiful. Please enjoy the ride.”

He just picked a hole in the clouds and dove through. He did a 180 into the Paro valley. The automatic sensors called out, “too low,” and for the record he kept repeating, “acknowledge, override,” into the cockpit recorder.

This was George, bluff, barrel-chested, a real dude with a wide gray mustache, and one of just fourteen people ever to fly for Royal Bhutan Airlines, aka Druk Air. We said we’d buy him a beer if we saw him in town and he told us he’d drink it.

The only airport in Bhutan is in Paro, an old west one-horse town spread three hundred feet, and no more, across the valley floor, hardly movin’ in the midday sun. Uniformed Indian soldiers lolled about drinking “Thums Up” brand cola.

•••••

Phruba and Jigme, our guide and driver for the week, gathered us up for the trip to Thimpu, the capital and main city. Irrigated rice grew just about before your eyes, and every river was a tumult.

We crept and powered around corners (all week) in a Toyota Yokohama van. Jigme and Phruba both wore traditional skirt-like wraps called ghos, a lot like Burmese longyis (chapter six). Phruba’s legs stuck out below the knee. All week long he sat in the passenger seat, the picture of Buddhism, calm, legs hairy and hands clasped.

Tall and 28, he used to play basketball with the young King.

“We would stay outside and pick teams,” Phruba told us. “When he was in a good mood the King would invite us in to play. When he was in a bad mood he would play with his bodyguards. He is very good at the three point shot.”

Being taller than the King sets up a sensitive question: Does one shoot over the King’s head? Yes. The King’s bodyguards are some of the biggest men in the country, Phruba said, so he reckoned the King was used to it.

•••••

“Phruba, is the King married?” Mirja wanted to know.

“Yes, he has four Queens” Phruba replied, and seeing an eyebrow cock, he tried to put that right by adding what must have seemed the obvious: “But they are all sisters.”

With only one newspaper in the country, Keunsel, a weekly that comes out on Saturdays, how does Phruba keep up with the world? His answer was simple, disarming and direct.

Phruba’s eyes twinkled. He laughed, “We don’t. We don’t read much.” 

The national dish is called Ema Datse, literally chillies and cheese (It’s those long not-too-hot green chillies we call “finger hot” in a bowl of melted cheese, eaten with a spoon). Discovering our common love of chillies, Phruba’s face fairly radiated. “Whenever people travel outside of Bhutan they carry chilli powder. To Bangladesh, India, Bengal – anywhere!”

Whether they travel to India or Bengal, Bhutanese bring back a lot of India. Everything not Bhutanese was Indian: The uniformed soldiers in Paro, those horrid polluting Tata buses and the big cement-truck look-alikes used for general transport, all of them spewing the same ghastly black smoke that’s already spoiled, say, the Kathmandu valley.

There’s Mysore Rose Brand soap. Dansberg beers. Indian videos – there were posters for Suraj! and Insaaf – The Final Justice! and Border! All with exclamation marks!

And rupees.

The Ngultrum (Bhutanese money) is pegged to the Indian Rupee and you can spend either of them. Bhutanese share Indian punctiliousness and an inclination to paperwork. Pads of every kind of paperwork are done in triplicate with carbons – even restaurant orders.

•••••

They’re trying to keep Bhutan pure. I think intellectually everybody knows it’s a losing long-term proposition, but good for them just the same. In a lot of ways it’s working.

Most men wear traditional ghos. Guys walk together with an arm around their buddy’s waist. You get benevolent, open stares. So few people have stuck Nikons in their faces that they still smile back.

•••••

An hour and a half from the airport the Toyota rattled up the driveway of the Indigenous Art School. Trying to keep traditional ways alive, the government brings children who show talent here from all over the country to learn to create religious thangkas, or paintings, and to learn carving and sculpting.

Here they all sat, at wooden benches, windows wide open – no electricity in the building – working in natural light. We stopped methodically at year 1 year 2 year 3 year 4 year 5 and so on up to eight.  Smiling boys in robes at dusty wood benches.  A fairy tale.

•••••

There was a football match that afternoon. You could hear the stadium cheer from every corner of Thimpu. Phruba boasted (or did he rue?) that it was up to 27,000 or 28,000 now, Thimpu was. No stoplights yet, but there were two traffic cops. A sign on the road between them advised, “Dumping Strongly Prohibited.”

I treaded mud down toward the sound of the crowd, down by the river, the Wang Chhu, admission fee 5 Ngultrums (14 cents), and sat with four monks from India, each contributing to the betel-juice-stain emergency in Thimpu.

•••••

A delicate, clean rain began as the football match let out, and for a little while the streets of Thimpu (only a few streets), teemed. At the Phuntsho Meat Shop a man stood under naked light bulbs on a table high above the buying public wielding an ancient scale, weighing skinned chickens and fish.

I walked into the bar at the Hotel Taksang, directly opposite Pelwang’s Mini Mart and below the billboard explaining the “Sewerage Construction Project – for better health.”  They already knew I lived in room 325 and they told me my wife was asleep upstairs. I was the only one there and they made french fries to go with my beer. In this bar one beer cost 54 ngultrums and two cost 104.

Stray dogs (I think about eight billion) gave a free, full-throated concert most nights. Strays are the bane of Bhutan, just like in Kathmandu and Rangoon and Tahiti.

Being Buddhist, the Bhutanese have a little problem. They can’t kill the strays, can’t even spay them. That would be taking a life. But they can appoint Indian Hindus as dog catchers, and have them kill dogs on the pretense of rabies or rash.

The Phuntsho Meat Shop, Thimpu

Neither tumultuous, chaotic nor edgy, the polite weekend market sold no disgusting pounded meats or goats’ heads or bowls full of crawling bugs. Everybody wore their traditional clothes and chewed betel.

One guy sat sorting fat green chillies. He’d pause and turn, spit betel juice in his right hand, shake it behind him, and dig right back into the chillies.

Continue reading

Weekend Reading

For your consideration this weekend:

This headline:

confirms that what Saudi rulers are considering is anything but telling the truth.

“The Saudi rulers are expected to say that General Assiri received oral authorization from Prince Mohammed to capture Mr. Khashoggi for an interrogation in Saudi Arabia, but either misunderstood his instructions or overstepped that authorization and took the dissident’s life, according to two of the people familiar with the Saudi plans.”

So, it’s all just choreography, then. A sordid little shimmy with the full, florid frames of both the United States’ secretary of state and president as dance partners. Here is your homework on MBS, as done for you by Dexter Filkins. One of those dauntingly long New Yorker articles.

– 54 University Avenue, Rangoon, may be for sale.

– I completely love this definition: “a person is … a continuum of causally related psychophysical processes that plays a role in the world.” It’s in an article titled Why There Is No Self: A Buddhist Perspective for the West from the Institute of Art and Ideas. Give yourself some time to read it slowly.

– “’You can’t out-Trump Trump,” said Terry Sullivan, a longtime Rubio adviser.’ The problem with that is after you set your hair on fire, you have to be willing to double down and keep adding gasoline to your head. And that’s not a normal human reaction to being on fire.” Here’s what that’s about.

– If you could time travel, would you travel forward or backward? Leanne Ogasawara argues for backward.

– “a glimpse into what the post-American world might look like: a chaotic stage where strongmen find themselves buffeted by Western, Arab, and Chinese forces.” Pakistan looks east.

– And finally, this would be odd: Pope will visit North Korea if officially invited.

– In travel this week, if you’re intrigued by off-the-beaten-path destinations, check out this article about China’s Nujiang valley. And you don’t see a lot of news coverage of Bhutan, but here’s a story from today’s Washington Post: In tiny Bhutan, known for its pursuit of happiness, democracy brings discontent. I’ll leave you with this link to a chapter from my book Common Sense and Whiskey. It’s about travel in Bhutan. That’s Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, in the photo. Click it for 115 more photos from Bhutan on EarthPhotos.com.

See you next week.

Royal Flight

On this US Thanksgiving holiday, here is a reprise of a story I filed after a flight out of Bangkok a few years back, destination, the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. We traveled in august company.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

•••••

Thimpu, capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan

Royal Flight

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.

Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.

We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.

The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.

HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3, there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.

HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.

HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle.

In Bhutanese culture it is customary to cover the mouth and say meshu meshu, demurring once or twice before accepting when offered food. It appears to be protocol, or at least respectful, to cover ones mouth when addressing HRH, too. The crew does so while serving the food and does a little kowtow.

HRH goes vegetarian this morning so I decide to eat like a queen and have the same: We start with standard plastic-wrapped assorted fruit on a banana leaf, coffee & cream, a wrapped Matterhorn Suisse cheese, bread from a basket with a pat of “Allowrie” butter. The main dish HRH and I enjoy is a fiery hot tofu, fungus, rice and Chinese cabbage. She gets extra chilli sauce from a silver cup, we get it in a tiny plastic pre-dispensed tub. The service concludes with four Imperial brand “Rosy” crackers, panna cotta and two chocolates.

After the food service HRH dives into the duty free magazine, first and not surprisingly stopping in the perfume section, then checking out the sunglasses. HRE continues sleeping as we fly up over Burmese ridges, or Bangladeshi, I don’t know, all of them barren of human development.

This Airbus A 319 must be old. The seat back pockets snap on and off. Not a modern look. One side of the seat back pocket behind HRH and in front of me just hangs there, unsnapped.

Coffee and tea are served in Drukair china and the napkins are linen, with the Drukair logo.

HRH buys a duty free bottle of Lancome perfume and a Bulgari perfume suspected to be Omnia Amethyste EDT from the Burgari Women Collection, and pays in cash in crisp, new Thai Baht. HRE has to wake up for all this reaching across, which is complicated by the crew having to fold their hands over their mouths while bagging up and delivering the goods.

During this period we learn HRH has a deep, raspy, smoker’s voice. In all the commotion HRE makes for the air vent above his head and apparently thinks he might have a go at some duty free himself, opening up the magazine. Finally he declines but now that he’s awake, he elects to have breakfast, making straight for the panna cotta. As time goes on HRE presents as an engaged and expressive fellow in a tight mustache.

Alas, and after all this, I learn that HRH is not a queen, or queen mother (or, in the case of Bhutan, where four sisters were married to the previous king, a queen mother’s sister). I inquire up in the galley.

Is HRH a wife of the fourth king?

No, the cabin crew tell me, she’s an Auntie of the 4th king.

(The reigning, fifth king, is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. His father, the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck abdicated in favor of his son in 2006.)

Auntie has a big black handbag with two gold handles and tons of rings on her fingers. HRE still sleeps as after the breakfast service HRH’s little standard issue airline pillow falls between her armrest and the wall and onto my camera bag. Unsure of the protocol surrounding Royal Pillows, I decide I’d better not shove it back up there, so I keep the royal pillow next to my own.

After a time HRH starts rooting around looking for it so I gingerly offer it up and get a smile, nod and Royal Thank You.

I’ve done all I can here. My day is done.

Friday Photo #15 and a Story from Bhutan

FridayPhotoBhutan

To me, this one somehow has an almost biblical feel. It’s a man selling chickens in a meat shop in the tiny Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. Click to enlarge it (and for comparison, here is the original, non-Photoshopped version). And see 115 more photos from the Himalayan Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon in the Bhutan Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

One of the chapters in my book Common Sense and Whiskey tells of our time in Bhutan. You can read that chapter in full for free, right here.

Have a look at the rest of the Friday Photos. And a good weekend to everybody.

Royal Flight

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” the captain says.

Protocol, apparently, seats Her Royal Highness in seat 1A. I am seated in 2A, so here is the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk.

We’re on a flight via Druk Air, the Bhutanese national airline, from Bangkok through Bagdogra, India, to Paro, Bhutan’s gateway airport. The check-in clerk asks if we’d prefer row one or two. She checks her screen and says whoops, I’ll need to put you in row two because row one is reserved for the royal family.

The royal family apparently gets to stay in a more exclusive airport lounge than we do, because when we arrive at the plane (via bus, about eight miles out on the tarmac) Her Royal Highness (HRH) and her escort are already seated. Her Royal Hair is jet black, held up in a gauzy clip, and from my seat directly behind her I see that it takes a while for her to get comfortable. She fiddles with the royal blue (what else?) pillow, resting it behind Her Royal Neck then putting it on her armrest and just resting Her Royal Head on the back of the seat. In the process of making this adjustment I see that Her Royal Fingers bear a number of rings.

HRP (Her Royal Perfume) is overbearing, I fear. I can’t be 100% sure it’s hers but she’s in 1A, her escort in 1B is male, then there’s Mirja and me in 2A & B and there’s a little boy behind me in row 3,  there’s a guy across the aisle in 1D and nobody in 2D. I’m afraid she’s the prime suspect. HRP is cloying, sweet and heavy.

HRE (Her Royal Escort) may or may not be much younger than me, hard to tell, but I can report that he prefers today’s Bangkok Post and Nation to yesterday’s Kuensel, the Bhutan paper. Maybe he’s already read yesterday’s Keunsel. I can also report that HRE doesn’t have any facial hair, wears a dazzling diamond ring on his right hand and a high thread count blue and white pin-striped short sleeved shirt. He also has a fine silver watch. It appears he has declined breakfast service. He’s gone to sleep, courteously not reclining his seat back into Mirja’s lap.

HRH has chosen tomato juice and will join us in the breakfast service. She has ordered coffee, served with cream. It looks like HRE will skip breakfast, as he continues to nap. The two flight attendants, young women both, keep stealing glances at 1A & B from behind the curtain in the galley and as they roll the carts up and down the aisle. Continue reading

Dalliance with Royalty

TheRoyslHairClasp

“Your Royal Highness, Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard,” captain Sen Gupta said. Clearly, this was to be a special flight.

Protocol, it appears, places Her Royal Highness in seat 1A.

Fate and a business class fare put me in seat 2A and so I shall share the story of my flight behind a member of the Royal Bhutanese House of Wangchuk. But not before we fly home from Saigon, a transit through Toyko that begins in a few hours.

For now, may I present you with the Royal Hair Clasp, as seen from 2A.