Bhutan: A week in the land of happiness from the comfort of a Birmingham couch

I’m wearing a pained expression for a reason!

If you move in hippy circles, you’ll have heard much about Bhutan. It’s a kingdom that believes in Gross Domestic Happiness over Gross Domestic Product. Somewhere that has banned cigarettes and committed to going 100 per cent organic. A land where slaughterhouses are illegal and tourists are kept at a minimum. The only carbon negative country in the world, with free education, healthcare and more…

No. Just no.

It sounds like heaven, but having drunk its national drink (butter tea), I can tell you it is not! This vile concoction was only the second thing I have thrown away on this whole trip. I like butter, salt, cream and tea, but together they just don’t work. Neither the vegan nor the dairy version.

Chillis are a vegetable. Who knew?

That’s right, following last week’s non-vegan cake, I decided to try a few non-vegan Bhutanese treats. I was convinced after finding out that their national dish is Ema Datshi — Ema meaning chilli and Datshi meaning cheese. Now dairy dodgers will know how hard it is to find a good vegan cheese, and so we decided to go for it, having chilli cheese scrambled eggs for breakfast and chilli cheese for dinner. This is, after all the only place in the world that defines the chilli as a vegetable rather than a spice!

Chilli-cheese scrambled eggs: It’s not what I expected from Bhutan either!

My children on the other hand, take their veganism seriously so, the main bulk of our food continued untainted by dairy thanks to the wonderful Nepalese restaurant which happened to have momos and more, and our local health food shop which sells red Bhutanese rice! Sadly I think we were the last people to ever eat from the restaurant as its website has disappeared and its phone was already cut off when we tried to order.

Ema dashi, momos and something else delicious!

As we ate we listened to this playlist which was far better than salty buttery tea!

Another fascinating Bhutan fact is that the internet and TV were banned until June 1999. This is the background to the first film we watched Happiness. It begins with the Bhutanese King telling a crowd that the first time he has received a round of applause is when he announced he was bringing in TV. He warns that TV and the internet can bring joy but that people need to be careful as there are also down sides. The story then follows a village family as they wait for TV to arrive and try to deal with the stresses of poverty, rural life, and the desire to become a monk…

Red rice and various curries, it tasted nicer than it looks!

Several of the interviewees say that they will be happy once TV arrives… I’ll leave it to you to guess whether they find it by watching American wrestling…

The second film The Next Guardian starts a decade or two later when teenagers all have smart phones and no-one wants to be a monk any more. It centres around one family and the father’s desire to get his son to take over the running of their monastery. But the star of the show is his child who “was born a girl but who still has the spirit of a boy from their former life.” They play a LOT of football, which is one of the things hippies don’t tell you about! Nor do they tend to point out that until this year gay sex was illegal. Thankfully now the penal code states: “homosexuality between adults shall not be considered unnatural sex.” Another lesser known fact is that Bhutan is the highest consumer of meat per capita in South Asia. It may be illegal to kill animals, but it isn’t illegal to consume meat as long as its imported…

Attempt #2, just as tasty, just as ugly!

So they still have some work to do before Bhutan can truly become heaven on earth, but reading one of their most popular novels really drove home that this is still a special land. Dawa is the story of a stray dog and his experiences trying to cure mange by visiting a holy cave. It is a gentle book, and so different from the traumatic stories I’ve read on the rest of my travels that I could forgive the Bhutanese virtually anything. Even butter tea.

But even a week in semi-heaven must come to an end and so I pack up for our trip to Bolivia!



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Armchair traveller

Zero carbon lockdown travel through books, drinks, food, films, music and the magic of living in multicultural #Birmingham.