I thought I was headed for a detox experience.
I smoke. So planning a holiday to a country where it’s illegal did put me off : A little digging, though, revealed that you are actually allowed to carry 200 cigarettes and that the local paanwalas also sell them to familiar faces : It's just that actually smoking them is at your own risk!
When it comes to Bhutan, even Google has only so much to offer. So I decided to plan all the must-dos and must-sees and take the rest as it comes - unexpectedly.
Bhutan has quirks like a 9 pm dinner deadline at restaurants and a copious growth of marijuana, evidently used as pig feed : A pot-head’s wet dream, nonetheless. Until the arrival of television, people were apparently clueless about getting high on it.
A little background on Bhutan. The country is ruled by the charismatic Oxford educated King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his gorgeous queen, Jetsun Pema. One third of the population of less than one million is the youth. The Bhutanese are fond of Indians and our Rupee is favoured over their Ngultrum. I felt very much at home as the country’s entire population adds up to just one-third of the inhabitants of my hometown of Thrissur district in Kerala. What struck me most about them was their disarming humanity.
Buddha Point as seen from Thimphu town
The unexpected came to me in the form of their vivacious night life and the hot stone bath experience (about which there’s little on the web). I didn’t know I’d be scanning hundreds of penis models and phallus-themed graffiti and paintings adorning shops and walls of houses that dotted the vast rice and mustard fields leading up to the Chimi Lhakhang temple situated on a hillock. Built in 1499 in honor of “Divine Madman” and maverick saint, Drukpa Kunley, the temple still attracts believers who offer alcohol for his blessings.
One of the numerous penis graffiti painted outside sovenior shops near the Chimi Lhakhang monastery in Punakha
Moving on, I shared stage with a local band in a popular pub in Thimphu and smoked in front of cops without being apprehended. I definitely did not imagine sipping herbal tea while munching on freshly plucked apples with random strangers inside a log and stone house in the mountains after a chance encounter. I did not know that an after-hours bar in Paro was actually a private museum and that I would end up at a late night “not-exactly-legal” after-party tradition located midway up Buddha Point that seats the majestic 169 feet bronze Buddha statue.
Bhutan was full of surprises.
Inside the Druk Home Museum
I realized that giving my instincts a free hand led me to best experience the unexpected in Bhutan - especially after the city goes to sleep at night.
I planned my days in Bhutan. But the night was what I made of it.
Outside the Druk Home museum
Based on my experiences, and in a nutshell, here’s my 101 guide to Bhutan.
Hot Stone Bath
Don’t be fooled by the name. This is no soothing spa treatment but one hardcore activity that tests your endurance. My first clue about this unique bath came when one of the two staff girls preparing the bath said that I might feel nauseous. It’s a hot bath, what could go wrong, right? Wrong!
First off, the water in the wooden tub buoying with therapeutic leaves and a couple of dead worms was scalding hot. I knew the drill. Feet first followed by knees and hands and finally the whole body, to be done slowly. After several gallons of cold water pumped in to the background of the chuckling girls, I finally managed to slowly insert myself into the bath while burning red mountain rocks were being immersed at the other end of the tub. And soon enough, the dizziness and nausea crept in. In a span of 15 minutes I staggered out of the tub disoriented and clumsily trying to slip into my bathrobe. I, even lost the way back to my room where I crashed on the mattress with a clear feeling of blood coursing through my veins. A not-to-be-missed experience!
Hot Stone Bath in Paro
Phuentsholing Night Life
I checked in to the Park Hotel perched on a curvy slope. By 10 pm I was covered in strobe and laser lights on the dance floor of a basement at Club Hangout, filled with the border town boys and girls nodding and swaying to popular club tracks and an occasional “Subah Hone Na De’. This sleepy town was all set to party way past midnight. If not for the friendly owner who tipped me about this underground joint that had opened the previous day, I would’ve missed the border town vagaries.
The amateur DJ working the consoles on his Traktor software even let me have a go at it.
I however skipped the invitation to head uphill to Peling resort where the party continued late.
Popular night-outs: Club Hangout, Peling Resort
Bars and clubs are open every day except for Tuesdays. Clubs stay open till 12 am on weekdays and 2 am on Saturdays.
A local band entertaining the crowd
Paro Night Life
Long after the restaurants and souvenir shops shut in tandem, the quaint town of Paro unplugs for the night. The unrestrained youth with their avant-garde punk hairdos and leather jackets trickle into Club Insomnia, their only source for a shot of contemporary club music. Insomnia opens its doors for patrons, most of them regulars, thrice a week and its amiable owner, Pema Thinley, surprisingly a teetotaler, has no qualms getting on the dance floor and fusing his moves while clutching to a bottle of water. A chance meeting with Thinley, led us to his uncle’s (who we came to call ‘Hermit uncle’) lodge in the mountains and a glocalised peek into Paro nightlife.
When the club winds up at 2am, some of the regulars head to a nearby watering hole which I later realized is a private museum called Druk Home Museum. Even a Rimpoche in casual attire was there exploring the nightlife.
Popular night-outs in Paro: Shari Club, Sonam Trophel and Club Insomnia.
Clubs stay open till 1am thrice a week: Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Entry charge at Insomnia is Rs 300.
Club Insomnia at Paro
Thimphu has a mind of its own. But even in the capital, diving into some Datshi curry and red rice or any food for that matter gets pretty slim after 9 pm. It’s as slim as say, Mumbai Metro III project sticking to its deadline. The local friends I made from Phuentsholing to Paro had tipped me about the graveyard shift parties on Saturdays at a place halfway up the Buddha Point overlooking the night lights of Thimphu. This part of the world gets activated long after the live bands wind up at Mojo Park, followed by the Karaoke bars and clubs such as Space, Viva City and Ace cue their closing tracks around 1 am.
The party moves halfway up Buddha Point where tipsy youngsters in their sedans and bikes settle down to an assortment of rock music amidst sounds of campfire crackle and the popping of beer bottles to wash down the steaming momos sold by illegal mobile vendors on scooters.
These gatherings are illegal, so a little bit of caution is advised against unruly drivers or brash youngsters as they can get a little over the top after a few drinks.
Illegal vendors doing business near Buddha Point
Popular night outs: Mojo Park, Space 34, Club Ace, Viva City, Om Bar, Zest Bar & Lounge
Bars and clubs shut down by 1am all week, except Tuesdays. While clubs have regular entry charge, places like Mojo Park charges occasionally.
Words and Photographs: Mohan KK