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
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?
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”.