Getting Caffeinated In Bhutan

Posted on January 25, 2017

While I was raised in Massachusetts, I now live mostly in Bhutan, the Switzerland sized Himalayan kingdom that is wedged between India and Tibet and home to 800,000 inhabitants. The feel and aesthetic of Bhutan could not be more different from that of Wayland, or any other place in the USA, but it’s an aesthetic so comfortable, that each time I step off the plane there I feel more at home than anywhere else.

On my first visit the country so captivated me I established a business leading tours there which became the vehicle for my frequent returns. Traveling to Bhutan is not difficult, but each trip requires a visa, a pre-arranged itinerary, and payment of the daily tariff; obstacles meant to limit visitors. The Bhutanese have noted the deleterious effects of mass tourism elsewhere; erosion of the culture, pollution, increase of crime, and overdevelopment and seek to avoid these problems in their country. Avoiding mass tourism is also part of Gross National Happiness. Proposed by the king in 1972, Gross National Happiness consists of 4 pillars: sustainability, good governance, protection of the environment and protection of culture.

Bhutan is an unusual place for many reasons; it is one of the few countries never colonized, and it only opened its doors to the outside world in the 1970s and did not have an airport until 1984. About 50,000 people visit yearly, the same number that Venice receives in one summer day. The uniqueness of Bhutan is also evident in the traditional clothing worn by all, men in their ghos, a dress like garment, women in kiras, an ankle length skirt, and the many red robed monks who outnumber police and military.

Visitors all comment of the beauty of Bhutan. The country is all mountains, including some of the highest in the world, and due to low population one sees unsullied landscapes of snowy or forest covered peaks, and virgin forested slopes. Tiny villages dot this landscape, where all the homes hew to the same architectural style, they are stone or rammed earth houses, incorporating painted timbers into their structure, the roofs large shingles held in place with strategically placed stones. Buildings reach their apogee in the numerous massive fortresses, known as dzongs,

constructed 400 years ago; architecturally not unlike the homes, though on a much larger and grander scale.

But there was one problem: no good coffee. On my many visits I’d made do with instant coffee, the only available version. When I complained to a Bhutanese friend, she suggested I visit Ambient Café in the capital of Thimphu. It was just several minutes walk away, and with my clients occupied for a few hours, I made it my next stop. The friendly owner, Letho greeted me. I ordered a cappuccino and drank it while talking to him about what a blessing I found his café to be. It may seem a minor issue, but I am a guy who needs his caffeine to come from coffee beans treated in such a way to coax them into releasing their maximum flavor.  Letho’s coffee did all that.

Not long after this discovery, I met a young university graduate, Sangay. He was working at Thimphu’s Folk Heritage Museum, and impressed my group with his knowledge and youthful optimism. He became the new employee of Champaca Journeys, accompanying my groups as an assistant guide. His first taste of coffee at Ambient Café was not a success, he gagged, it was too strong and bitter. Sugar corrected this and he soon became a caffeine fan.

Not long after Sangay’s conversion to caffeine, he suggested that we open a café. Initially hesitant, Sangay’s business plan appeared solid and excitement about having my own cafe in my adopted home won me over to the idea. As foreigners cannot own businesses in Bhutan, I was to be the silent partner. We spent a month looking for a site. We were partial to Paro, 90 minutes from Thimphu, (we did not want to compete with our friends at Ambient).  We found our venue in the center of town, an old traditional building, exactly what we wanted. We secured the lease and then Sangay used his skills to design the cafe. His next task was to supervise the renovation of the building. All appliances were purchased and shipped from India (an eight-hour journey from Paro). I was grateful for Sangay’s ability to handle all of this, it was more work than I’d anticipated, but he assured me he was on budget in regards to time and expenses. My task was to purchase and bring an espresso machine from Bangkok.

I left Bhutan and when I returned 3 months later the remodel was complete. Champaca Café’s grand opening was scheduled after I finished touring Bhutan with eight clients. I handed the espresso machine over to Sangay, leaving him to get everything ready for our opening. The party would occur on the day before we were to leave Bhutan, after climbing to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan’s most holy site. It is a pilgrimage site for Bhutanese people, and a magnificent hike for visitors. After the hike we would have lunch and a party at the café.

All was going to according to plan, then we hit a snag. Bhutanese are reluctant to undertake any large endeavor without consulting a lama, (a Buddhist priest) to determine an auspicious day. The lama told Sangay the day I desired was not auspicious. Unfazed, Sangay said not to worry.  Next day he phoned to ask if departure morning would be suitable. No, we’d be rushing to the airport, not enough time for a party. In another call he suggested another day. Apparently Sangay was lama shopping, consulting various lamas to find one who would deem the day we wanted auspicious. Four days before the party, Sangay phoned to say the day I desired is now an auspicious one. I felt enormous relief.  Sangay I asked “How did this happen?”  “I kept consulting lamas until I found one who said OK,” he replied. All of this might leave one dubious about the sanctity of auspicious days, but it left me happy.

The big day approached, I bought wine and champagne. My group climbed the mountain, visited the impressive monastery, descended and we drove to the café. Everything was ready, the refrigerators were stocked, the pastry cases were full of pastry for next days official opening, and Sangay, his wife, and the staff were ready for us. Platters of food graced the tables, all my favorites; ginger fried potatoes, cheese and meat dumplings, vegetables cooked in local cheese, pork marinated with star anise, and bowls of red rice.  We toasted a successful ascent to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, a successful Bhutan trip and to the future success of the café. For Sangay and me this was an emotional moment, our dream brought to fruition after 2 years of work. The only unexpected occurrence was the arrival of paying customers at Champaca Café, something that we hadn’t anticipated, though with goods ready to consume, Sangay took a break from the party to welcome them, serve them coffee and pastry.

An hour later, Sangay returned to the party shaking a fistful of money, and giving me a big hug, exclaiming, “we did it bro!”