Bhutan 5: Bumthang

April 10, 2011 - Jakar, Bumthang, Bhutan

The morning after my last update, we took the (probably 8 hour) 9 and a half hour bus journey from Punakha to Bumthang, in the centre of the country. It worked out really well, as Phuntsho, who's been helping organise our trip, happened to be travelling from Thimphu on the same bus, so we met him for the journey. The journey was delayed by two road blocks due to works, and involved sitting through hour upon hour of Bhutanese pop music (which is universally awful), with the odd bit of Aqua or Blue thrown in. Not very pleasant, and had a fairly sore hip on arrival from sitting awkwardly with minimal leg room.

We stayed our first night in one of the 'cabins' at the hospital - Bhutan speak for the private rooms. It was pretty depressing - cold, bare, and with a tap on the wall at about tummy-button height for a shower, with no hot water. We met Phuntsho for dinner at his guest house, and decided pretty quickly to move there tomorrow - they'd give us a twin room at a discounted price of only Nu 800, about 12 quid per night. It even had Western toilets! Mr Pema, the hospital Chief Administrative Officer, was very friendly, but didn't feel too bad shunning the hospital accommodation!

Couldn't face a shower in the morning, but we had an amazing breakfast at the guest house - toast and pancakes with Bhutan honey and jam, with tea and local apple juice. Our first morning in the hospital was spent, similarly to in Punakha, essentially running our own clinic with minimal supervision. I saw lots of people with coughs and colds of a few days, prescribed a fair amount of paracetamol, and saw lots of kids - good fun, mostly very well, but felt a little out of my depth seeing a 26-day-old! Lunch back at the guest house was a real feast of Bhutanese cuisine - more Ema Datshe (chillies in a cheese sauce), fish, vegetables, some slightly dodge pork, red rice and delicious noodles. After an afternoon nap, we met Phuntsho and Pema for an evening drinking too much K5 (a Bhutanese blend of Scottish whiskies, made to celebrate the coronation of the 5th King (hence K5) in 2008). It was certainly the nicest whisky we've had in Bhutan, and we both slept well after a bottle and a half of it between the four of us.

Having looked forward to breakfast, we were slightly disappointed that it was a rather more Bhutanese affair. However, it was surprisingly tasty and very filling - the salted butter tea not to our taste, but thick buckwheat pancakes with a chilli/egg sauce plus fried rice went down rather well. After meeting Pema at the hospital, and deciding there were better things to do with a Saturday morning, we headed to the Red Panda brewery, a brewery of Weiss Beer founded by a Swiss guy nearly 50 years ago. We'd already tried the beer, and it was our favourite of the Bhutanese beers, so it was great to have a tour of the brewery then 'some free beer'. We had thought we'd have a couple of glasses, then see the apple juice and cheese factories (also started by Fritz), but apparently they were closed, and they kept bringing out the bottles. We ended up getting through 17 650-ml bottles between four of us, with Tom & I drinking the lion's share, probably about 5 bottles each. At 5%, it wasn't exactly weak, so before we knew it, we found ourselves back at the guest house trying to sleep it off... We all met again in the evening for a rather subdued but enjoyable dinner, a brief walk, and then back to bed!

And today, we decided we'd take a day hike. Pema had sorted a couple of the technicians from the hospital (one a radiographer, the other I'm not sure) to accompany us, and we started with a steep 3 hour climb towards a monastery overlooking Bumthang. We stopped on the way when we were invited in for tea, and it was great to have our first chance to see the inside of a Bhutanese house. At the top, we met 3 Swiss doctors and their guide, who'd done the same trek as us, and were heading onwards for a for more hours. We joined them for a rather more leisurely walk (mostly level or downhill), taking in tea in another Bhutanese house, some ara (the local moonshine, pretty vicious stuff), a nunnery, and finally the Burning Lake - neither burning, nor a lake, but rather a river, some history to do with a monk and a burning lamp - didn't quite pick it up... Anyway, it was beautiful, and covered with prayer flags (see photos). We took a fairly cosy taxi ride back to the guest house, had a much-needed shower, and we're now sitting in the town's internet cafe, about to try the local pizza house (Himalayan Pizza).

So that's up to now - here, to give you a flavour of life here, are a few asides on Bhutan and the Bhutanese, some of which you may have picked up along the way:

Names & titles: Bhutanese people tend to have two names, but neither is a family name (no way of telling who's son is whose from the name), and the names aren't gendered (no way of telling whether you're off to meet a man or a woman...). If you use a title, it's title then first name, eg Tobgyal Wangchhuck is Dr Tobgyal. There are LOTS of titles, but one of the most interesting is Dasho, the equivalent of 'Sir' in English - in order to be Dasho, you must be honoured by the King with a red scarf. Haven't met a Dasho yet...

Food: just to stress that here, chillies aren't used a seasoning, but as a vegetable, with the obvious consequences. Also, all meat is imported as it's against the Buddhist law to kill animals within the country. Apparently it's a good idea to avoid beef, as it's imported from Bangladesh in fairly dodgy, unrefridgerated trucks... A national pastime is to chew 'doma', which is based on areca nuts and betel leaves, and is rather red in colour. It gives the mouth and teeth a very red colour, and if you don't know what it is you might think they've just been voraciously chewing on some raw flesh. They also spit it out onto the pavement, leaving large red splats.

Language: the national language is Dzongka, but the government operates in both Dzongka and English, and there are different languages in most areas of the country, including lots of Nepali in the South and elsewhere. Hindi is also relatively common - a lot of the construction workers are Indian immigrants, who have expertise in construction that didn't exist in the country until recently. The language of instruction in schools in English, so most young people, people living & working in cities, and anyone working with the governement tend to speak good English. The minute you step outside the cities, though, it's rather harder to find.

And there I leave you. We have one more day in the hospital in Bumthang tomorrow, then catch the 10-12 hour bus back to Thimphu on Tuesday (I can't wait, obviously). Hopefully we'll get to do some more surgery there, and we may yet even get to meet HM - watch this space...


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Picture 1088


April 10, 2011
'Bumthang' - seriously?! And you managed not to draw attention to it. Well done, sir. Miss you, buddy - haven't spoken for a while. X
Arthur Robson:
April 10, 2011
So funny to think of red splats on the pavements! Perhaps equivqlent of our chewing gum?

Can't wait to see you Tim - only a short time now!

Dad xxx
Jenny Robson:
April 11, 2011
Bhutan looks amazing! Although you seem to be pickling yourself to survive the chillifest :) can't wait to see you next week!!! Loads of love xxxx
April 11, 2011
Can't wait to see you either my amazed by your chilli + alcohol stamina! Not long now my dearest, keep well till we meet again! xxx
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