Bad Habits in Bhutan

Posted on April 30, 2009

This is the country where cigarettes and tobacco are illegal. Where crime is close to non existent, and where courtesy and friendliness seem to be epidemic. So what's not to like?

For a visitor, the only bad habit seen is betel nut chewing. The seed of a palm tree, grown in India and imported by the truckload. The macadamia size seed is split in two, then wrapped in a leave on lime paste (the mineral not the fruit) is smeared. Into the mouth it goes, and you suck and chew away. A minute later you've got a mouthful of soupy crimson saliva. As swallowing the stuff is unpleasant, you spit it out. With plenty of Thimphu chewing, the streets are stained red (it quickly dries, but does not wash away), and the telltale signs of a betel nut chewer are red gums and teeth. According to Dorji, it's pretty much a down market activity, and most of those we meet have pearly white teeth. I suppose this means we are meeting a more upmarket crowd.

It not only colors Thimphu but scents the city as well, as it has a sourish smell. Not the grossest thing you ever smelt, but no perfume either. And it wreaks havoc on ones teeth and gums. Yet we seldom see a person without a full set of choppers. There is a campaign underway (this is the land of government campaigns: anti litter, anti drug, anti obesity (in a place where I have not seen a single heavy person); pro education, pro health, pro family planning, pro environment, promotion of traditional culture, arts, and on and on) to deter people from betel nut chewing, but not to ban it, as it's a traditional part of the culture. For the benefit of my readers (what I'll do for a story), I have chewed the evil nut, and have pictures of my reddened mouth to prove it. Felt nothing, certainly no gateway drug. It's a mild stimulant, as mild as tobacco, so drivers and office workers are free to use it with no restrictions being placed upon it.

I have chewed the evil nut, and have pictures of my reddened mouth to prove it. Felt nothing, certainly no gateway drug.

Coffee is pretty dismal here, only instant available. I warn my group in advance, and they bring Peets coffee, filter and filter papers. We begin morning with requests for hot water. the staff always intrigued by the ritual, we offer them some. They always accept, this might be a gateway drug for them, more caffeine they've ever had in one cup. The verdict is generally mixed, some find it undrinkable, some enjoy. They reciprocate (retaliate?) by bringing us butter tea. Very strong black tea, brewed with milk, butter and salt. Unlikely to arrive at Starbucks anytime soon.

While alcohol is everywhere, I've yet to see anyone drunk (the anti alcohol campaign), or even tipsy, excepting some members of my group (not going to mention any names). And they make good booze, couple types of beer, plus gin, run, vodka, and several brands of whiskey. The best whiskey, is made by the army. Now that's what I call putting the military to good use. Make booze, not war. It's 50 cents a shot, $5. a bottle and stands up well to stuff 6 or 8 times the price in the USA.

Gotta go, it's happy hour