Cheesecake in Shangri-La, Part 1

Posted on December 12, 2016

Remember the 1978 Jimmy Buffet song, Cheeseburger in Paradise? He fantasizes about a cheeseburger while sailing in the Caribbean (which he likens to paradise), existing on canned food. Recently I had a vaguely parallel experience. I am able to spend a good amount of time in Bhutan, my own personal paradise.  I opened a cafe there 2 years ago with my good Bhutanese friend Sangay. And while we serve excellent coffee and snacks, if I can immodestly say so, I do yearn for more variety in my diet when in Bhutan. And had the idea that in this cheesecake free country, that such an offering might not only tickle my taste buds, but those of others.


Travel writers have often called Bhutan the last Shangri-La, a place that exists in their minds, though the Tourist Council of Bhutan does nothing to curtail this positive publicity. The actual country, a kingdom to make it seems more exotic offers so many impressive sights and experiences that it needs no travel writer hyperbole to impress visitors. Occupying an Switzerland sized area, located between India and Tibet, a bit east of Nepal, this actual kingdom is in many ways a place of superlatives, and now that one can visit, albeit with a few restrictions, it is high on the list of those who seek out unusual beauty and off the straight and narrow tourist track experience. My recent mission, introduce cheesecake to Shangri-La? Would it fly?


My first visit to Bhutan was so impressive that I can honestly say the country changed my life. The visit was so moving I devised a manner in which to return; begin a business bringing others to Bhutan, this venture known as Champaca Journeys now has me a regular visitor to Bhutan and this makes me a happy man. Yes I was seduced by a country and began, and continue a love affair with Bhutan. It shows no sign of abating, and while the object of my affections may be indifferent to me, I am pleased that her citizens appear to have embraced me, and me them and this keeps all parties happy. I also notice, time and again that those who accompany me to Bhutan fall under her charms; I am not alone in falling under the magic this tiny country exerts on visitors.


I’m often asked what it is that makes Bhutan such an impressive place. Beginning with the obvious, Bhutan has beauty in abundance; the Himalayas provide a good canvas upon which to build a country. Lofty and unscaled peaks, some of the highest in the world, and due to low population unsullied landscape of snowy or forest covered mountains, virgin forested slopes, stretching to valley floors each marked by a river, either flowing furiously or languidly. Dot this landscape with tiny villages, where all the homes hew to the same architectural style, large stone or rammed earth homes, that incorporate wood and painted timbers into their structures, the roofs typically large shingle slabs secured with strategically placed stones to keep them immobile. This style of building uniquely Bhutanese, as no other country every conquered or colonized Bhutan, and then imposed its influence on its architecture. These buildings reach their apogee in the numerous dzongs that occupy places of prominence in regional capitals, dzongs were constructed 400 years ago to serve as monasteries and fortresses, and used similar building conceits as do the homes, though on a much larger and grander scale. One cannot visit Bhutan and be unaware and (I’d venture to say) unimpressed with these edifices.


Nature and the hand of man make for a noteworthy landscape, but what I find equally notable, and perhaps the biggest unexpected surprise of Bhutan is the Bhutanese themselves. One meets friendly people all over the world, but Bhutanese seem to excel with this characteristic. Bhutanese charm visitors, proud yet humble, an alluring combination. Couple this with their excellent command of English, due to a 1960’s edict making English the national language and language of education, so communication is easy. Bhutanese also excel in the good looks department, and while I’d choose character over appearance any day, I’m not immune to the appearance of attractive people. Further compounding the allure of Bhutan is that while it’s not actually Shangri-La and is a real country with the same issues facing all countries, the leaders of Bhutan pay great attention to the well being of their citizens and environment, which makes for astonishing forward thinking policies that are worthy of emulation by any country. Bhutan is perhaps best known to the outside world for its policy of Gross National Happiness, formulated by the Fourth King, who opined that rather than pursue Gross National Product, his subjects might be better served by a policy that countenanced sustainability, good governance, protection of the environment and protection of the culture. Mighty notions at the time, that still reverberate though Bhutan and provide a stable, measured and intelligent basis for which to develop a country.