5 mins

What I learned in Bhutan

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, reflects on her time in Bhutan and the valuable lesson the small nation taught her

Bhutan picnic (Marie Javins)

Ugyen Dorji, my tour operator, and Tsering Penjor, my guide, were taking me to the Haa Valley for a picnic on my last day in Bhutan.

I could barely comprehend what a Haa Valley was, because I was overwhelmed and tired. Hadn't I just gone the length of Africa’s west coast only a few months ago? On the bus? Why did I tire out so easily?

Then I remembered... I had been completely exhausted in Africa too.

Non-stop new cultural input is an assault on your senses. Travelling this way is fascinating but it's sure not relaxing. I wasn't retaining anything I'd learned from the last few days. I took photos, hoping to jar my memory later.

Ugyen had helped me digest a bit of what I’d seen last night. He'd taken me to a tasty little upstairs cafe in Paro for dinner, while Tsering took a break to go home to see his dogs and do his laundry. Ugyen had a foot in Bhutan and another in my world, as he'd attended university in southern India and started out as an IT professional. That explained his sleek Bhutan Your Way website and internet-savviness. He'd Googled to learn I was a writer before he'd responded to my first web inquiry, when I'd initially approached three operators based on personal testimonies I'd found on web forums. Over dinner, I'd asked him for his opinion on many things, including the way forward for this fledgling democracy and the impact of popular culture on today's kids.

"With all this modernisation," Ugyen explained, "of course Bhutan has some problems with the youths. Even I did it for a while, with my jeans falling down and my underwear showing, a gold chain, and earring. It's embarrassing now but I did it too when I was a teenager." But he'd grown out of it and embraced his heritage. The kids would too, I figured, and anyway, showing your underwear is hardly the worst thing a kid can do. It's not like they were joining gangs and mugging old women. Change is, of course, inevitable, and Bhutan seeks to manage its transition.

The way forward wasn't clear to me, I thought, as Ugyen drove us up mountain switchbacks toward the Haa Valley after breakfast. Bhutan isn't the Shangri-La of popular myth, and it sure wasn't the simplistic kingdom in the clouds we read about in so many articles. Those make me laugh, but I can see why writing about Bhutan is such a challenge. I barely had a grip on the official policy of Gross National Happiness, the road in front of us, and didn't even understand the guide I'd just spent all week talking to.

Bhutan doesn't exist without the influence of the outside world – it has Bollywood, MTV (often incorrectly reported as not existing in Bhutan), Western porn and violence via internet and movies, snack foods imported from India and Thailand, easy access for the upper class to retail therapy in Bangkok, and Bhutan too has diplomatic and human rights challenges. The military routing of the Indian separatists in 2003 had been traumatic for the country (not to mention the Indian separatists), and then there was an ongoing conflict over who is and isn't a bona fide resident of Bhutan, with over 100,000 cultural-Nepalese living in border refugee camps or resettled abroad by the UN. I'd even met a Tibetan in India who had left Bhutan because she wanted to be free to practice her own traditions. Gross National Happiness clearly had its share of challenges.

Ugyen drove Tsering and me out of Paro and up to a mountain pass covered in fluttering prayer flags, where we pulled over.

"Time for tea!"

I'd noticed that prayer flags weren't everywhere as in Tibet, and asked why tour operators didn't have tourists put up prayer flags for fun.

"To put prayer flags up randomly is actually bad for the environment,"  Tsering explained.

True. I hadn't thought about that before. People don't litter much in Bhutan either, though the gum I'd gotten on my shoe in Punakha was still on my mind.

We sat on small mats, under the flags on top of the mountain, sipping tea. We were lucky to be graced with a beautiful day.

I drank too much tea. I knew it at the time.

We then moved on to drive down into the Haa Valley for our picnic.

All that tea I drank was bound to catch up with me.

We drove an hour down the mountain. Ugyen asked me if I wanted to see a school.

"I’d rather see a toilet stop. All that tea, you know."

He looked worried.  Haa Valley only opened to tourists in 2002 and doesn't have many places catering to them.

"There is a toilet at the school."

Ugyen then drove us 8 kilometres to the school, where we dropped in on a schoolteacher friend of his. The teacher took me into his house to patronise his porcelain squat toilet. It was all a bit embarrassing, but the school was interesting to see, though the kids barely took notice of me.

The students learn in English as part of Bhutan's modernisation plan. And there were signs saying "Say no to junk food," which is a good message even though there isn't that much junk food to be purchased in Bhutan to begin with.

We left the school and went to a stupa for our picnic. The food was delicious: homemade pasta, a chicken dish with curry, pumpkin in a slight mustard-y sauce, mixed vegetables, rice, and potatoes. The food here had been simple but outstanding. Once the chillies were taken out of the equation, I mean. Both Tsering and Ugyen had their chillies on the side.

Bhutanese normally eat with their hands, but they use forks in front of tourists. They know we prefer forks and they go out of their way to make us comfortable.

"It's considered better to eat beef than chicken because if you kill a cow, it will feed more people, so its sacrifice is more worth it," explained Tsering, though we were eating chicken rather than beef.

We finished our afternoon picnic and drove on.

"We will go to a monastery and then back to Paro," said Ugyen.

I looked pained. Tsering intervened. "I think she just wants to look at the market in this village and then we'll go back to Paro and do some souvenir shopping. Marie is all dzonged and monasteried out."

We walked through a small town, then headed back up to the pass and down the other side to Paro.

Finally, I could get in some souvenir shopping! I owed a few souvenirs to patrons in myMariesWorldTour.com souvenir programme. People would send me money and I’d buy them a souvenir.

We browsed some shops, purchasing some prayer beads from Eastern Bhutan. I bought a few small masks, replicas of those used in the Marcham festival. I bought a few tigers for others, but for myself, I purchased a mask of the white lion.

Because I love the Bhutanese white lion. He's a complete work of fiction, an imaginary animal that exists only as part of local mythology. And he's the source of one of my favorite sayings here, which is "You need a silver bowl to milk a white lion." That is, the impossible is only possible with great commitment, skill, the right tools, and luck.

We walked out of the souvenir shop, me with my white lion and tiger masks ready to send home from Bangkok. This was it, my bittersweet final evening in this weird and fascinating country. Tsering wouldn't ditch me for his dogs tonight, but instead took me to a final dinner.

"Tsering?" I was done with yeti jokes but couldn't resist one final smart-alec remark as we headed back to the car.


"I just spent your tip on souvenirs."

He allowed himself just the tiniest smile.

"So long as you have enjoyed Bhutan," said Tsering Penjor.

And in the morning, when it was still dark outside, the guys dropped me off at the airport.

I waved and pushed my cart in through the glass doors as the Hyundai pulled away.

On the plane, I tried to make a list of things to do when I got home. I caught myself and laughed. So home was now Sakul House near Bangkok’s Khao San Road? Yes, it was.

Let's see, I'll put in my laundry right away, I thought. I'll have to run downtown to the hair colourist. I needed a new zebra T-shirt. And... and... my mind drifted off. I couldn't think straight.

My brain had been overloaded by Bhutan. It's not the idyllic, remote kingdom in the clouds we're taught that it is. No, it's actually a scenic, clean, socially responsible, budding democracy where plastic bags are illegal, everyone recycles, pigs eat pot that grows by the side of the road, penises in blue ribbons are painted on buildings, dogs run freely in the streets "telling their stories at night" and everyone knows what to do should they see a yeti.

And soon, just a short aeroplane ride later, I was back in huge, familiar Bangkok. Back in the sort of urban environment I belong in. I was immensely relieved – now I could clear my head a bit and process what I'd just seen.

It was going to take me a lot of mango-and-sticky-rice in Thailand to help me sort through my last week.

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