In Bhutan, Skateboarding is a Crime

Posted on December 07, 2009

Driving the other day we see 2 boys on a home made skateboard, I remark to Dorji this is the first such one I've seen. Oh yes, he says, the government banned them a few years back as hazardous, citing accidents involving skateboarders and cars.

Also banned, tobacco and plastic bags. In 2004 Bhutan became the first, and is still the only non smoking country. Again citing health hazards, and 4 century old statements from the Shabdrung (the father of the country) warning of the perils of tobacco. One cannot grow, sell, buy or smoke tobacco. This ban is not universally popular, and you see, infrequently people smoking in public, nonchalantly walking down the street. The penalty is big for sellers (dealers?) who smuggle cigarettes from India and sell them under the counter, they risk fines or having their trading license revoked for multiple offenses. Foreigners are permitted to import one carton, and pay a tax on this carton.

The government banned skateboards a few years back as hazardous, citing accidents involving skateboarders and cars.

The plastic bag ban is very successful. Citing environmental hazard, the country simply banned them. Most Bhutanese already took a cloth bag for shopping. Shopkeepers wrap items in newspapers, or make bags by taping torn newspapers together, or most interestingly, they fold newspapers into origami type bags or boxes so pretty you don't want to toss them out.

Also banned, missionaries. The constitution provides for freedom of religion, in this highly devout Buddhist nation. There is a minority of Bhutanese descended from Nepali immigrants a century ago, and these people are Hindu. They worship at home altars, as there are no Hindu temples, though Hinduism and Buddhism are so intertwined that most tell me they visit the temples and monasteries as well. It's the Christians that are causing trouble. I've met a number of these people, as friendly as all Bhutanese, but quick to point out they are Christian, and ask if I am also Christian. They seem to be of the born again ilk, my least favorite ilk in the USA. Swap Buddhism for Christianity, why?? The Bhutanese Christians have their church in private homes, and apparently they have sent word out to the parent church abroad they are being persecuted in Bhutan (because they cannot build an actual church, and stateside missionaries are not permitted entry into Bhutan). I'm all for Christianity, practiced humbly and as it was intended. I have little sympathy for born agains trying to ply their murky trade in the only Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom still in existence.

​The plastic bag ban is very successful. Citing environmental hazard, the country simply banned them.

We're now in Trongsa, one of the prettiest areas in a country that does not lack for pretty places. Our hotel is about a mile from town, and makes an easy walk. Though each time I do it I am stopped multiple times to talk. Those that don't stop to chat greet me, elder people speaking Dzongha, say "kuzuzampola", little kids yell out "good bye" (their way of greeting, as you are after all leaving them as you pass by), and high schoolers and young folks say, "hey man, how's it going?" In town I find the shops sell wine, imported from India. Bhutan is full of alcohol (but oddly and pleasantly enough, not alcoholics). The army makes the booze: beer, whiskey, gin, rum, vodka. Yes, make booze, not war. Home brew is a rice wine, not unlike sake. But wine is a rarity, and I'm in a cabernet mood. As wander the streets of Trongsa, with my 2 bottles of wine, making new friends I come across a truck with bars for windows. About 12 young men are inside and they call me over to talk. It's what I come to expect from Bhutan. Now maybe the altitude has slowed me down, but I assume it's public transit, and the bars are taking the place of windows. "Where are you guys going," I ask "We are prisoners being transported to jail" comes the answer. In the 5 minutes, I've talked with them, no such thought occurred to me. Then they ask for my e-mail. They motion to a cop standing a few feet away. I ask him if these guys are prisoners, and he nods. What did they do? I half expect the answer to be "skateboarding and smoking." But no, murder, larceny, and robbery. At that moment I decide I am not going to have any prisoner pen pals, so I walk on.

That night, Dorji and I polish off an unexpectedly good bottle of red wine. Who knew, vineyards in India.