Curiosities in Bhutan

by Keith on April 22, 2010 · 6 comments

During our nine days in Bhutan, Amy and I were often presented with the striking architecture of ancient Dzongs, the jaw dropping Himalayan vistas and the tremendous warmth of the Bhutanese people.  There were some surprises though.  I have listed out my top 4 below. If you have been to Bhutan and there was something else that was a surprise to you, please let us know in the comments.

1. Best Friends
Looking at Bhutan on a map it appears to be a small country wedged tightly between two of the biggest superpowers on earth, India and China.  With that geographic proximity, I expected that there would be significant influence from both countries within Bhutan and thought that the Chinese would have a larger presence due to their strong influence throughout the rest of the region.  I quickly saw that while Bhutan has its own unique culture, it is strongly linked to India.   This is due somewhat to geographic constraints; the road south to India is an easy one compared to the one north to Tibet and China.  The other factor is China’s annexation and treatment of Tibet.  Bhutan witnessed this and knew that strong regional alliances were going to be critical if it wanted to maintain its independence.   So Bhutan prioritized the development of strong trade, commercial and even military alliances with India.  India’s military even has multiple bases within Bhutan, which is quite surprising for a country that is so fiercely independent.

2. Critical Use of Hydroelectric Power

Notice the PV Panel on the Roof

Bhutan not only generates 100% of it domestic electricity from hydro-power, but by exporting the excess to India hydro-power generates the single largest source of revenue for the government, at approximately 30%.  Many of these projects are initially funded by India and are repaid by Bhutan by supplying cheap hydroelectric power.  The Bhutanese government promotes this cheap and environmentally friendly electricity source as an alternative to the use of wood or other carbon-dependent energy sources.  Our guide mentioned that there is a goal of moving to nearly free electricity for the rural Bhutanese.  And for the most remote yak herders at the highest elevations in the mountains the government provides free photovoltaic panels.  And while this free electricity initially sounded like an amazing idea, I worry that providing any limited resource for free is not a sustainable course.  Eventually Bhutan will run out of hydro capacity and will then need to begin focusing on efficiency.  Instead of waiting until that day comes, why not create an incentive structure that promotes the initial adoption of electricity while also encouraging efficiency from the beginning?

Six Levels of Reincarnation

3. Where’s the Beef?
There is plenty of meat on the menu in Bhutan – beef, pork and even fish.  So learning that no animals in the country are raised for their meat was peculiar. Where does all the meat come from?  Turns out it is all brought in from India already butchered as Bhutan is a strict Buddhist country and prohibits the killing of any animals within its boarders.  As we learned in the Punakha Dzong, in Buddhism there are 6 states of reincarnation: Nirvana, God-like, Human, Animal, Hungry Ghost and Hell.  The goal is to move towards Nirvana, but if you lead a life filled with lies, murder and deceit then you risk moving down a state and being reincarnated as a cow.  With these beliefs I can understand the desire not to kill a pig that has a chance of being the reincarnation of your nasty old uncle.  But outsourcing to India seems to be upholding the letter but not the spirit of the law.

4. No nacho chips?
With the amount of chilies and cheese that are consumed in Bhutan you would think that there would be a huge market for nacho chips.  The national dish is a condiment/topping/spice that in the words of our guide, “without chilies and cheese the Bhutanese would die.”  So no surprise that they have a bowl of the spicy concoction at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I came to really enjoy it on the meals of rice, vegetables and imported meat.  The cheese is a soft cow’s cheese that is cooked into the sliced chilies.  The biggest challenge with this dish is the huge variability in heat.  Just when I thought I had figured out the exact amount to add to my meal I would get a surprise with a batch that was twice as spicy as the last.  The green chilies they use seem to be pretty variable in how spicy they are thus keeping me on my toes.   But I am convinced that a business selling crisp corn tortilla chips to the tourists would make a killing.  It would be a great snack along with the local brew, Druk 11,000, whose tagline is “Super Strong Beer”.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

donna July 20, 2010 at 11:47 AM

Thanks for the helpful insight. I am planning on going to Bhutan in early September 2010. I am a solo traveler with limited time this trip of just 10 days. Could you provide any details or assistance concerning travel, specifically flights in/out of Paro from Europe that are most convenient, dependable, affordable and once I arrive how to begin an sojourn that isn’t mapped out but rather allows for spending time with the people. Any help, gladly accepted.

Reply

Keith July 21, 2010 at 3:59 PM

Donna – I sent you an email directly with some ideas and contact info. Let me know if you did not get it.

Priyank February 15, 2011 at 8:09 PM

Hi Keith! These observations made me curious too especially one night when I was at a restaurant talking to a local person. While munching on fried pork chips he told me how Buddhists prohibit animal killing. Quite ironical, but hey I am just a visitor. I also thought that their emphasis on traditional design and architecture was helping a lot to preserve and build in a sustainable fashion rather than erecting glass buildings which are nothing but energy blackholes. Thanks for the post, I hope to visit Bhutan again soon! -Priyank

Reply

Keith February 28, 2011 at 9:25 PM

Priyank – Thanks for leaving a comment. I agree that the traditional architecture in Bhutan is going a long way to help maintain their unique cultural identify. I do think that they could adopt some energy efficient moden building techniques though. Maybe it was all those chilly nights we spent huddled under mounds of blankets to stay warm in the drafty traditional rooms.

Ellie A. March 14, 2011 at 11:02 PM

Hi Keith & Amy!
I’m a student at Wheaton College in Norton, MA and found out just this morning that I have been lucky enough to be chosen as one of the few to study abroad during my fall semster in Bhutan! With a visit to the library gleaning books about Bhutan only as recent as the mid-eighties it was really refreshing to read your posts. Your slideshow/video not only amped up my excitement even more, but gave me some inspiration as to how I’ll try to capture pieces of my four months for my family to enjoy! (May I say you two lead a very cool life?) Thnks for providing such a great travel blog!
Sincerely,
Ellie

Reply

Keith March 18, 2011 at 7:20 AM

Ellie – that is incredibly exciting. I can say that one of my biggest regrets from college is not taking the opportunity to study abroad, and you get to spend a semester in Bhutan! Enjoy it and be sue and take lots of pictures and come back here and leave a link to them.

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