From Bhutan, With Love
I’m sitting on the balcony of my Paro hotel room overlooking the city in the valley below, watching the evening rays turn the paddy fields to a glowing amber the same colour as the beer I am about to call down and order, when there’s a knock at my door.
“Excuse me, sir?” calls a young woman from the hallway.
This is excellent, mind-reading service, thinks I.
“A Red Panda, please,” I reply with a smile as I open the door.
Only it’s not a room service waitress at all but our plump and crafty guide, Chimi1, standing there grinning. Sneaky bugger got me again with the falsetto. Still it’s good news. Tonight we’re ditching the old folks and going for a bit of a boys’ night out on the town.
Some background. I’m on a group tour in Bhutan, the small Himalayan country wedged in between India and Chinese Tibet like a Timex stuck between two sumo wrestlers’ bellies. Takes a licking? Anyway, the group is my mom and her husband and their two friends, all over 60, and me. Yeah, it sounds like it might not be the wildest bunch, but so far we’ve had a beer every evening and sometimes one and a half!
The good news, for me, is that tourism is a major industry here and that creates jobs and regulations, so we’ve ended up with a mandatory guide and 2 drivers. One driver, Wangchuk, is over 50 and doesn’t speak English past “good morning” but used to drive a bulldozer and is a pretty solid dude. Chimi2 is our other driver, so named because we met our guide first and they have the same name. Chimi2 is 40ish and divorced, and lived in New York for a few years so he’s a pretty interesting guy. Chimi1 is 30 and has been guiding for about 10 years. He’s still married and has a young son living in the capital, Thimpu.
OK, back to the story.
The night is young so I’ve still got a meal with the oldies to sit through before party time. It’s a 7-dish buffet, and the food is pretty good, but I still take it easy, especially with the chilli and cheese dish ema datse. You don’t want to hit the club in the middle of a food coma, and certainly not with the runs. Trust me, I’ve seen the toilets.
I do, however, get that Red Panda I was daydreaming about. Nice unfiltered beer brewed locally by a Swiss German guy in Bumthang.
A shower, a shave, and a wardrobe change later I’m downstairs with the Chimis two. By law, they have to wear gho, traditional Bhutanese men’s tunics, when they take tourists around but now they’re decked out in jeans and slick shirts and are looking suave. When did they both get haircuts? By comparison, I’m doing OK but I am wearing the only pair of shoes I brought on this trip. They’re dusty and stinky sneakers, but I figure they’ll be fine. Who’s going to get my shoes off? Into the car we go, ready for trouble.
Paro is, just for reference, the second biggest city in Bhutan but that means a population of only a few thousand people. There may actually be more tourists here than residents, but the tourists are almost all over 60 and don’t exactly paint the town red. Still there’s a snooker bar, a couple of Bhutanese nightclubs, and a dance hall in town. After nearly 2 solid weeks with the ancients, I’m excited.
First stop, a nightclub called Paro Nightclub or something equally memorable. Downstairs in the basement of some building I’ll never find again, this place is about the dullest bar I’ve ever been to, and I’m from Canada. The plan with the nightclub goes like this. You sit down in one of a row of sofas facing a small stage. You get a drink. Ladies dressed in long-sleeved jackets and skirts to the floor ply the room looking for sponsors. For 100 Nu (about $2) they will sing or dance to a song of your choosing. It all sounds like a decent deal, except that we’re the only people in the place except for the staff, and the only people exuding any sort of energy whatsoever, including the staff. After a quick whisky and few songs, salvaged only by an incredible drummer using a Yamaha beat machine, we’re out the door.
None of us plays snooker, so that’s quickly scratched off the list. Chimi1 remembers a great little bar from his year living there in 2007. Down a dark and seedy alley, we find that it’s now a barber shop and though I need a haircut, it’s also locked up tight.
Next stop, the dance hall. Arriving at 8:30pm isn’t too early, insists Chimi2, who is instantly proven wrong by a stray dog running out the door of the otherwise deserted place. The bar next door is open, though, and we have a couple of drinks together while Chimi1 ditches us to go play cards with some old friends. So much for boys’ night. Chimi2 talks about America, and mostly about a little place he calls ‘Heaven’, but is just a strip club.
“Bhutanese women,” he insists, “don’t take off their clothes with the lights on.”
I’m having local Highland whiskey cut with lime cordial, and though it tastes quite strong, it takes quite a few to work. Strangely, one beer got me wobbly at the end of our walking days so I theorize that it’s some strange interplay between the bubbles and the altitude. And, wait, is that..? No it must be the whiskey. Hold on, Chimi2 sees them too. Other people! And not just any other people, but a big group with <gasp> a handful of girls in tow. Chimi2, hungry for a new wife, quickly invites me into the dancehall. I’m allowed my drink in there, says the barmaid, but only if I take it in a plastic cup. This party must be off the hook!
The universal grouches at the door inform us of the cover, which we pay grudgingly as it’s equal to 4 drinks and we haven’t even seen the inside. What the hell. The door opens and we’re blasted by some techno dance beat that I recognize from Bangkok clubs. We slide in cool as cucumbers, then sit down against the wall like turds. There are about 10 people in the whole joint, and most of them look about half my age. People start to trickle in, but we’re still sitting there for more minutes than there are people in the place.
Bhutan girls having lunch.
I get up and try to dance with a group of 2 girls and 1 guy who seem to have some rhythm, but the act sends them scattering like rice at a wedding. “Maybe cuz you’re tall!” laughs Chimi2, dragging me out the door. It’s now 9:30, and by the sounds of things (a dog barking), the whole city is indoors. “I knew we should have taken you out in Thimpu,” says Chimi2. “This place is deader than dead.” He says some really American things.
We track down Chimi1 who is having the time of his life gambling under the stairs of his friend’s hotel with 5 or 6 other guys. We watch for a bit but the game, marriage, is too fast and furious to puzzle out the rules. Chimi1 cuts out after one last round, looking pained to leave, but once outside he bursts out laughing.
“I made $100,” he proclaims. “Let’s have a drink!”
We protest but he can’t hear it, telling us how those dolts played cards worse than monkeys, and we ride his win into the last option for a fun night in Paro. Finally, we’re not disappointed.
A dollar to get in, live music, and promised cheap drinks pull us toward the Something-or-Other Club in another dingy basement. Inside the drinks are a different price and the music is played through a laptop by a live human, but in spite of all that we’ve actually found where Paro goes for a good time.
Squeezing onto the last sofa at the back of the hall, we’re immediately assaulted by a bevy of beauties asking for us to sponsor them to do a song. A bit of joking and playful defence seems unlikely to work, when a pregnant older girl shoos them away and takes our drink order. Don’t worry, smoking in public is illegal here. Chimi1 buy me a double whiskey and some weird sort of Indian milk to mix with it that tastes like my grandmother’s soap and goes down as easily. Instantly, the hostesses are back, and sitting in the middle I get to see how it works.
Crouching down near your feet, a lovely gal stares up at you, fluttering her eyelashes, and moving their hands ever so tantalizingly close to your knee. She says she hasn’t seen you before and would certainly remember because you’re so handsome. No, she loves a well-bellied man, who doesn’t? She’s extremely good at singing and dancing. Wouldn’t you like to sponsor her?
Done – she had you at crouching.
Despite the fact that most people you meet on the street switch regularly between Dzongkha and English, the girls don’t speak English at all. But they’re asking about me, insists Pema1. Why is he always laughing? One gal insists that she can sing English songs (but can’t speak a word?) and pulls out her cartoon covered notebook for me to put my sponsorship in writing. Ah, but I’m not so easily beaten.
“He will sponsor you only if you sing, “translates Chimi1, “Jodo Jodo!” Then he bursts out laughing, never expecting me to suggest a Bhutanese pop song. Hey, I’m not James Bond, but learning a few sneaky tips about the country can pay off. We’re all giggling (I don’t know really why but I’m feeling a bit pleased with myself), but not the hostess. She’s staring at me, waiting. She tries to pull my hand, but I don’t get it, until Chimi2 finally reveals that Chimi1 has told her I would perform the song with her!
Luckily for everyone, I negotiate my way out of it and we get back to watching the place. Unfortunately, a big pack of drunk boys is starting to fill up the place and walk back and forth past us, stepping on our shoes. The Chimis look cool, so I don’t let it bother me. And then my girl takes the stage and on comes Jodo Jodo, which is a silly pop song about a man getting ready to woo a wady. But she dances to the song with more grace and sincerity than I could have ever imagined and gains a healthy round of applause for it.
The boys are getting drunker and rowdier, trying to pinch at girls’ bottoms and looking for a fight. Even one young fellow getting up and break-dancing to a weird remix (yep, you can get up and perform yourself if you want) does little to dispel the growing dark mood. Hostesses and older gents are getting annoyed. And then, just like that, the magic is gone. The music cuts out, lights turn up, and the mystery and glamour is replaced by grime and tiredness. Closing time. It’s 11:00pm, and not a minute too soon.
Policeman in Bhutan
We’re out of there quickly, back to the car, and up into the hills in minutes. There is, I discover, no late-night place. But we’re happy, sedated by some flirting and a bit of drink. What now?
“I’ll meditate a while,” says Chimi2, tying his 108-bead strand back on his wrist.
“Watch wrestling with me!” suggests Chimi1.
But I’m bluffing. It’s nearly 11:30pm and I’m shattered.
As I tromp up to my room, Chimi2 asks what I thought of the big night out. I confess I had fun but felt it was a bit of a slow town. He says it’s good this way, rather than staying up all night polluting your body and your mind and then ruining your happiness the next day. Everything in moderation, the Buddhist way.
“And anyway, there’s not even a strip club so why bother?”
This post is also available in: French