And we thought we had common names.
Our leisurely trek to the monastery.
On our first full day in Thimphu, we visited a monastery where many residents get their names. When a baby is born, it’s customary that parents bring the newborn to a monastery to be blessed and given a name. A small number of names are associated with each monastery. To get the name, parents draw a slip of paper from one of two small tumblers (one for males and one for females). As a result, there are about 50 odd names that apply to nearly all Bhutanese people. Dorji is a common name that means “thunderbolt.” Our guide’s name, Chador, means power.
Speaking of Chador, it seemed that everywhere we went, he had friends. Other tour guides would accost him, shake his hand, and sometimes sit and joke with him. I was mildly surprised to learn that Chador had been the tour guide for the first Lonely Planet author on Bhutan.
For lunch in Thimphu, Chador brought us to an Americanized bar/restaurant to meet Sonam, his boss and the owner of our tour company, Yu Druk Tours and Treks. She greeted us with a smile, “I thought you might be missing western food after all of that rice up on the mountain.” We ordered a large pizza plus individual entrees of burgers and fries; so she was right. (Editor’s note: only Kevin and Haley actually missed western food. Josh would’ve been fine to eat more rice with chilis and cheese. It should be noted that Josh’s burger was a yak burger.)
Chatting with Sonam was definitely a highlight of our time post-trek. We talked about the tourism industry, her career, her Swiss architect husband, healthcare, Gross National Happiness (a reference point for Bhutan’s success, more so than a determinant, according to Sonam), and her few trips to the west, which included San Francisco and Jackson Hole. While we were eating, Sonam had several friends and family walk in, including a well-dressed woman who was one of the five royally appointed members of parliament. While Thimphu is the capital and Bhutan’s biggest city, we started to get the feeling that everyone knew everyone, in some way or another.
The wonderful Sonam, owner of Yu Druk Tours and Treks
We visited more sights that day, but our second most memorable moment was drinking at a nearly empty bar. As we parted after lunch, Sonam recommended a bar for the three of us to get drinks at later, it being Kevin’s last night with us. At Benez, a bar/restaurant just a few blocks from our hotel, 750ml beers were $1.25 USD (much larger than a US beer) and the cheapest beer, called Druk 11,000, was 8% ABV.
Drinks at Benez
Even though they were so inexpensive, we were getting to the end of our cash, so I offered to get some more from an ATM. Our waiter told us the nearest ATM was two blocks away — would I like him to escort me? I jumped up before the boys could protest and offer to go in my place.
The waiter was very kind, and made small talk with me while we walked. He told me the US seemed like a dangerous place (“Because you have guns. But here, people will use knife to fight”), that he had a daughter (“age 2 point 5”) and that he and his wife fight sometimes (“but that is how marriage is”). He then asked me, “Are you married yet or are you still a spinster?” I stifled a laugh because he sounded so sincere. Besides, making conversation in his non-native tongue was more than I could do. “I’m still a spinster,” I said with a hint of amusement in my voice, “but I have a boyfriend. Marriage costs a lot of money,” I added, thinking that was something he could understand. He nodded. “Oh, yes, marriage is different in Bhutan. Very easy, not expensive.” (Chador later told me that when two common people are in love in Bhutan, they simply get a marriage certificate, and that’s it.)
Back at the bar, another single patron walked in a placed his motorcycle helmet on the bar. Kevin asked what he was riding. After some small talk, he asked where we were from. (“Oh! Trump’s place,” he said. Kevin asked if he had watched the election. “The whole world was watching. It’s amazing! The country with so many literate people elected the biggest idiot in the world.”) We’d made a friend. His name was Thinley Wangchuk (the Th sound isn’t acknowledged, as Thimphu is pronounced Tim-poo. Thinley lead us through the pronunciation of his name: “TIN, like the metal, and then I lay“), he was from Bhutan, and he had opinions about everything. We spent the next hour or so talking about politics, Bangkok, urban development, Bhutan’s government (“The people — we didn’t want a democracy! We wanted a monarchy! But the exchange — completely bloodless.”), and his friend, the prime minister of Bhutan (“When I see him, we don’t talk much, we just huh!” he said, miming a fraternal chest bump).
“What brought you to this bar?” he asked at one point.
“We had lunch with the owner of our tour group, Sonam –,” Josh began.
“Sonam Wangmo, Yu Druk.” The bartender (and owner of the bar, we later learned), silent before that point, finished his sentence. Josh looked at her, “Yeah! Do you know her?” he asked Thinley.
He shrugged, “Yes, but I know her business partner, Rinzin, much better. He’s a good friend of mine.”
That extra cash I withdrew was completely unnecessary, as Thinley insisted on paying for all of our drinks.
So long, Kev! We’ll miss you and your ideas, like “Let’s take one with our hands in our pockets.”