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The diabolic hospitality of the Kingdom of Bhutan

Feeling the pinch of danger usually experienced only by fugitives and spies, I hurried out of the lobby of the Druk Hotel and into the chill night air. I put my hands into my pockets and walked quickly down the sidewalk, through the crowds of idle youths and past the nonchalant officers, their black jackets covered from one shoulder to the other by the word “POLICE.”

Streetscene, Thimpu, BhutanFeeling jilted, cut off from the country I had come to experience through the very nature of the diabolically comfortable tourist infrastructure, I was now skipping the dinner buffet that I had paid for as part of my tour package and venturing out on my own. I had resolved to spend hard currency (in the form of Bhutanese ngultrums) in order to try an authentic meal.

I was on my way to Shelse Restaurant, one of several establishments in low buildings on the main street of Thimpu, capital city of the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as the Himalayan kingdom is also known. The restaurant was a place I’d scouted out earlier in the day: while gazing at the pictures of various dishes on the windows, I had met Jigme, the friendly, spiky-haired owner.

The walls of the restaurant were painted lavender, my only dining company two empty tables and a TV tuned to Bollywood music videos. Jigme helped me order several small dishes, including koow – powerfully spiced, moderately chewy slices of cow skin – and then asked where I was working in the city. Our conversation turned awkward when I revealed myself to be a tourist on the lam. It turned out that this restaurant proprietor was himself a former tourist guide, and the guides in Bhutan serve as the main enforcers of the country’s strict tourist codes. Granted, Jigme didn’t seem to hold a very high opinion of Bhutanese guides himself (“when they bring tourists to the Takin preserve they don’t bother to take them to the area in the back to see the barking deer”).

For decades, Bhutan has upheld a tourist policy designed to exclude all but the top spenders. Government policies have led to an efficient system of visitor micromanagement, and locals tend to regard foreigners with hesitancy and reserve. In its approach to the outside world, in fact, the country is just about as insular and closed off as such hermit kingdoms as North Korea and Turkmenistan.

Bhutanese landscape

Hostage to the Buffet

Tourists to Bhutan are forced to visit through a tour company. This company, based out of Thimpu or Kathmandu, handles the visa and all the logistics of the trip, including a guide, transportation in a private vehicle, lodging in a luxury hotel, and meals that usually revolve around the buffet restaurants of these very same tourist hotels.

Before I had arrived at Paro International Airport, the sum total of my knowledge of Bhutanese food amounted to only one or two vague rumors, either heard from a highly obscure original source or concocted from scratch by the imagination. Somehow, I had become fixated upon the idea that the Bhutanese ate an incredibly spicy red soup. None of the locals I talked to had any knowledge of such a dish, though the true national dish does happen to be spicy: most people in Bhutan eat something known as “chilies and cheese” for almost every meal. Green, red, and orange chili peppers are boiled then mixed with cow, yak, or processed cheese, and the concoction is served on rice. Like dal bhat in Nepal or kimchi in Korea, chilies and cheese is a nationwide dish yet can vary by region or cook.

Food, BhutanWhen I first stated my desire to try as many different local specialties as possible during my short stay in the kingdom, my guide, a young Bhutanese dandy named Pema, became silent and withdrawn. Later, I heard him talking on his cellphone to someone from the tour company about my tricky dining proposition; it wasn’t until the following day that he broached the subject again, explaining that only meals at officially designated buffet restaurants for tourists would be covered by my tour package. “We can go to a local restaurant for dinner on your last night,” he finally conceded, “but you’ll have to pay with cash.”

Meanwhile, though, the days were passing and my understanding of Bhutanese cuisine was limited to being able to recognize chilies and cheese in a buffet dish line-up. One afternoon, after completing our four-day trek, Pema met me in front of the Druk Hotel with our driver, who whisked us around the block to a typical Thimpu building, dragon, tiger, snow lion, and garuda painted on the wall for protection. Walking up the stairwell, I wondered at the print-outs that warned, “No Smoking or Spitting Doma.”

On the fourth and final floor of the “high-rise” was Orchid Restaurant, empty save for a few curious, blue-gowned servers and yet another buffet table. Noticing my look of frustration, Pema brusquely said, “Enjoy your meal,” turned, and hurried toward the back room where the guides are fed. From the window was a view of the sports stadium, the Buddha statue looming over the periphery like a giant referee. The mild sounds of Thimpu traffic filtered into the large room as I waited for the buffet dishes to be brought out.

While the buckwheat noodles, dumplings, and red rice from Paro were well prepared and tasty, it was evident that this was Bhutanese food with a certain affectation to it. I suspected that the chilies and cheese were normally a bit spicier and that the man on the street enjoyed heartier dishes than these. The buckwheat noodles contained a spice that numbed the mouth, screening the flavor and contributing to the evasiveness of the dining experience.

The highbrow catering, along with other elements of the Bhutan travel experience, was beginning to make me feel caged in. Used to staying in hotels of dubious propriety and stepping into local diners and teashops wherever I went, the buffets ultimately drove me out onto the street seeking genuine experience. But my rebellious meal at the Shelse Restaurant still left something to be desired.

Bhutanese landscape

The Real Bhutan

Whether or not tourists are in fact a type of foreign contaminant that can be beneficial in small, rich doses but needs to be contained (and sometimes I suspect that this is in fact the case), Bhutan’s policy of extreme cautiousness vis-à-vis the outside world and modernization has certainly benefited the natural environment. The landscape just outside of Thimpu, or nearby Paro, is pristine and unblemished. The wilds are uninhabited save for the occasional camp of yak herders, and trekking groups are even rarer. From a high ridge, views extend to the western and northern borders, where walls of high peaks maintain a geographical insularity that matches the political and social inwardness of the country. It is a country of purity, real and imagined, and even the high peaks – all those above 6,000 meters, I learned – are off-limits to mountain climbers. Gangkhar Puensum, on the northern frontier, is the world’s highest unclimbed peak.

Rock engraving of the Buddha, BhutanThe killing of sentient creatures is abhorred in this Buddhist nation, but most people do eat beef, pork, and chicken. To make this possible, the butchering of animals is outsourced to India and the meat imported across the border. In exchange, as it were, Bhutan exports hydroelectric power to its huge neighbor in the south. Yak meat too is enjoyed, as it is in Tibet, but only if the animal dies from accidental causes.

I learned through the case of my guide that many young locals have aspirations toward the outside world. Pema hopes to visit Bangkok within the next year, and during a candid chat he told me his goal of sleeping with women from every country. “But there are more than two hundred countries,” I blurted out, somehow impressed by the misguided ambition of this dapper youth.

True to his word, Pema did in fact take me to a local place on my final night in Bhutan. An Ultimate Fighting Championship match was playing on the TV in the Dorji Trozey Restaurant, hidden away on one of the upper floors of the Zangdopalri Complex. There were no tables, just benches against the walls for sitting and chests in front of them for eating on. Filled predominantly with male customers in jeans and jackets (they’d changed from their office attire, the kilt-like robe known as the gho), the restaurant had the air of a communal living room. It could have been somewhere in Mongolia.

A cat sauntered into the restaurant and took a look around. I scanned the menu: a whiteboard listing fifteen dishes and drinks. Pema, after some brief explanations, ordered frothy butter tea (much better than the tepid cup served that day at a buffet lunch), a heaping bowl of rice, and several small dishes. There was sikam paa – thick strips of fatty pork with radish medallions and red chili. There were also beef ribs with onion and tomato – also tender and saturated with red chili. Of course there was chilies and cheese, though here it was known by its indigenous name, ema dashi. And in case the chili content was felt to be lacking, there was even a side dish of red chili paste. Pema explained that, because of the food they eat, the mouths of the Bhutanese are always as fiery as a thunder dragon’s.

Plate of food, Thimpu, Bhutan

I glanced over at Pema’s tattoo – a Chinese character meaning “happiness” – then returned my attention to the remarkable food before me. It was my last night in the country, and I had only just arrived in the real Bhutan.

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