Schlong, Dzong, Fondue – Why Bhutan Ain’t What it Seems

Bhutan is a country that creeps into your soul in slippers, unlike India’s hobnailed tap dancer. Our first day here was weird; flying in over the Himalayas, we passed Everest and I was all ginned up for a kind of mini-Tibet or Ladakh, something stark, mysterious, dramatic, slightly sinister, closed to tourists for so long then opening gradually to the determined, the permitted, the – let’s face it at $200 per day just to be here – well off. But it’s not really like those places at all, despite the Buddhism, the costumes, the stupas (gompas, dzongs etc), the butter tea. It’s much more… Swiss. Paro is relatively low (our hotel is at 2400m) so despite it being Autumn, it’s warm like summer in the Alps. Instead of grape vines in the valleys there is rice (people were chopping it by hand in the paddies next to the runway as we landed at Paro airport).

But the buildings are distinctly chalet-like, whilst also having that unmistakeable Tibet/Ladakh thing going on with the deep red and white, the distinctive roofs. The piles of chillies drying on so many of the lower rooftops isn’t particularly Swiss, to be fair.

Blog_BhutanArrivalFirstDay - 12 of 26

Although one of Bhutan’s most famous dishes *is* chillies cooked in a cheese broth, a use SO NOBLE AND MAGNIFICENT for the already superlative cheese fondue that it must ratchet the famous Gross National Happiness Index up by several hundred points in and of itself. 

All Photos - 1 of 1

But on that subject… this is meant to be Happy Valley, right? Since the early 70s, when Bhutan famously ditched GDP as the only way to measure progress and instead championed measuring gross national happiness, the outsider’s perception is that everyone’s gaga and giddy like fish 24/7.  Now I’ve only been here a few moons so I’m no expert. I’ve also been sick for quite a bit of it so I might be slightly skewed. But on that I would say… SORT of. What they are is unbelievably laid back. It’s the most chilled out place I’ve ever been. It makes your average yoga centre look like a hotbed of neuroticism (but then in the West it’s basically Twister for posh hippies so why shouldn’t it be secretly all contest?*) We watched an archery match in Paro centre the other day and even the nation’s most beloved sportsmen, the archers, treat victory and defeat with exactly the same arm-waggling consternation/celebration, as though there was very little to choose between them. Kipling would be delighted. 

And the schoolchildren at Oluthang Primary School school were supremely unmoved by the armfuls of lollipops we bestowed upon them when we paid a visit – we’d been primed to ‘bring things they don’t have much of’ and suggestions were made as to what that entailed. But it was an absolute SEA OF WHEVS. The headmistress, Sanjay, was an utter darling but I swear our reception from the kids was a tiny bit like Michael Gove touring a biscuit factory in the Midlands.

After we’d cleared off, I imagine Sanjay opened an outhouse door and threw in our 20 colouring books and sets of felt tips where they joined the avalanche of stationery goods already donated by other fatted outsiders. After all, far from being short of felt tips, the entire classroom was plastered in felt-tip drawn posters – every square inch.

Hahahaha. Hilarious. They probably made up the whole ‘dancing around the school yard in track suits’ literally so we could have something to put on our Instagram feeds (amazing threads, though, they were). 

Blog_BhutanArrivalFirstDay - 2 of 3

Another final eye-opener of a first impression: the PENISES (although strictly we say ‘phalluses’ … or if you’re Alice, ‘Phyllis’s’). There was an article about Bhutanese penis-art in the inflight magazine (above – ‘Exuberant, slightly askew and sometimes frothy’), so we were primed, but STILL. There are apparently tonnes of them in Bhutan – obviously about half a million real ones – but at least as many again in art form. The Bhutanese believe they bring a household good luck so often paint them on buildings or carve them out of wood and hang them from the rafters. We had a ‘First to Spot A Phallus’ competition (the first of many I’ll wager) and Adam won it easily with this beast:

Blog_BhutanArrivalFirstDay - 21 of 26

So here we are, a Buddhist, Chilli and Willy worshipping Switzerland. Who KNEW?

*I stand behind this. I love yoga but your average California yoga centre is about as Zen as the triage unit at the Royal Free.

Planet-Potter-Deep-Red-Small

Love to hear from you, if you loved the post!