Catching a Buzz in Bhutan

Posted on July 13, 2010

Biggest complaint about Bhutan? The coffee sucks. Many groups heed my warning and bring their own stash of good stuff from home. Filter paper and cone, only hot water needed. The ritual, so mundane at home always attracts the attention of the waiters, and with their curiosity aroused we offer them some. They react with the same shock as we do when we dip into the fire laced chilies and cheese, pretty much the national dish. Are we guilty, is this a slippery slope to heavy duty caffeine dependency? These Bhutanese, some of the toughest while at he same time gentle people you'll ever meet, walk for days across mountains, cannot handle Peets Coffee. However, good news for visitors is that Thimphu now has 2 places, both run by Bhutanese who import coffee from overseas and with typical Bhutanese expertise brew it better than what you'd find at home. And for a fraction of the cost. Ambient Cafe and the Art Cafe. I tend to direct my groups to Ambient Cafe, as I've become friendly with the owners. With good coffee available the last obstacle to visiting Bhutan has been removed.

While we're on the topic of stimulants, the roadsides, and every patch of empty land in town is overgrown with marijuana. About 8' tall, it makes a pretty sight with its graceful leaves. Dorji says the government organizes groups of school kids to chop it down, as they think it gives a wrong message to foreigners. Bhutanese seldom use it, though I've witnessed a few lighting up, inhaling too (wasn't that the whole point Mr. Clinton?). So what do they do with it? They feed it to the pigs, because as everyone will tell you, the pigs enjoy it, and it makes them even hungrier and lethargic, putting on weight quicker. Of course in the ever so advanced USA we resort to growth hormones for the same purpose. Ask a Bhutanese why they don't feed it to the cows, and they look at your like you're a dim wit, and respond, "why everyone knows cows don't like marijuana." Right.

More stimulant talk, lots of people chew Betel nut. The seed of a palm tree, imported from India is mixed with lime (the mineral, not the fruit) and wrapped in a leave, inserted in the mouth where it stimulates the saliva gland to produce an incredible amount of saliva, which is not good to swallow, so the only alternative is to spit (I write from observation, and experience, the stuff I do for a story). The saliva is bright crimson, so soon the tongue, teeth, gums (and lips of the inexperienced chewer, that's me, are also crimson/orange in color). Drag queen lips, I tell you, not pretty on me. The government has campaign to discourage this, as it's bad on the teeth and gums and throat and mouth cancer are also implicated. The buzz, you feel a bit warmer, that's all, still fine to drive, operate heavy equipment, probably not a good idea before a first date. Unlike cigarettes which were outright banned 5 years ago, this is seen as part of the culture, so the hope is to diminish its use though education. Fewer and fewer young people use it. While still popular, it's gaining a reputation as uncool.

Biggest complaint about Bhutan? The coffee sucks

The most exotic substance we've encountered is Cordyceps sinensis. A 2"-3" caterpillar living only at high altitudes, said caterpillar gets attacked by a fungus that grows an inch long out of its head. Fungus kills the caterpillar. Rare and valued in Chinese medicine, as a general tonifier, and no doubt due to the phallic like fungus growing out of its head, said to have a Viagra like effect. In neighboring Chinese controlled Tibet it is widely over exploited, and until recently has been entirely protected in Bhutan, though harvested meagerly for traditional Bhutanese medicine (not so much for its reputed Viagra qualities, Bhutanese will tell you they need nothing of the sort). But poaching from over the border has lead the authorities to create a short harvest season, the idea being nomads will derive income, and their presence will deter poachers. The worms are wildly expensive, $3000. per pound. There are 3 cordyceps auctions in central Bhutan, and we find ourselves in the towns where they occur. So of course we go. It's a county fair type atmosphere. Many locals have come to sell goods and produce, and prepared food. We are not permitted entry to the actual auction, the goods are so valuable and we are deemed unlikely buyers. At our hotel in Phobjika there is a group who have come to the auction. They've bought 20 pounds of cordiceps and are pleased to show us their loot. Packed in the back of their Toyota Prado's, in plastic bags are the equivalent of a kings ransom of dried caterpillars. They freely distribute them to us, and we fall upon them as might junkies were their dealer offering free smack. Our new best friends are very nice people, they export them to Hong Kong, China and Canada, where they fetch double the price. Remarking it must be a good business, they say not so much, as the season is short. We learn they've sent their kids to Canada for schooling, and meet their engineer daughter back from U. of Pennsylvania. She liked the USA, but loves Bhutan and could not wait to get back home. Like many affluent Bhutanese, nothing in their demeanor says they have money. Their card indicates they own hotels, schools and businesses, but their manner is strictly humble and friendly, and we share a pleasant evening with them. Dorji pretends (?) to be eager to get ahold of our cordiyceps, always offers to hold them for us, delicate as they are. None of the women is willing to relinquish a single caterpillar, we've never held this much valuable exotica in our hands.

The final stimulant we encounter: the demon alcohol. The home brewed ara, made from barley and tasting of sake I can do without (I don't' like sake). The red panda beer, a local wheat beer is great, and among our group it's a toss up which we prefer, Red Panda or Druk 1100, subtitled 'super strong beer.' Also top ranked, Special Courier Whiskey. All the booze, and there's lots of it (though I've yet to see a drunk Bhutanese; can't say the same for those who accompany me, no names of course), are made by the army. Now that's what I call putting the military to good use.