Amer­i­can rap, lo­cal whiskey: Tiny Bhutan guards tra­di­tion as it opens up to the world

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Shashank Ben­gali Con­tact Re­porter

The fresh-faced singer clutched the mic and looked con­spir­a­to­ri­ally at his au­di­ence, a few dozen young peo­ple sev­eral drinks down.

“This next one has some ex­plicit lyrics,” he said.

As a cheer went up from the front row, Youn­ten Jamt­sho, 20, and his five­man band, Yel­low Pen­cils, launched into a jaunty pop ren­di­tion of “Crazy Rap” by the Amer­i­can artist Afro­man. Mem­bers of the crowd grooved in their seats to the raunchy ditty that re­volves around smok­ing weed, oral sex and a vul­gar im­age in­volv­ing fried chicken and the wife of KFC’s Colonel San­ders.

“Yeah, that song is pretty racist,” Jamt­sho would ac­knowl­edge later. “But peo­ple don’t mind. They’re young — they just want to have a good time.”

It was just after mid­night in a bar along the com­pact main drag of Thim­phu, cap­i­tal of the Hi­malayan king­dom of Bhutan. Al­most ev­ery other es­tab­lish­ment had long since closed. In the chilly dark­ness, the howls of stray dogs echoed off the steep hills ring­ing the city.

In­side the bar, young women danced in a cor­ner while smok­ing cig­a­rettes — frowned upon by the royal fam­ily and heav­ily taxed, though not banned — and bar­tenders doled out gen­er­ous pours of K5, the dan­ger­ously drink­able lo­cal whiskey named for Bhutan’s five kings.

After a cou­ple of glasses — and with Jamt­sho belt­ing out hits by Bruno Mars and Cold­play — it was pos­si­ble to for­get this was once among the most iso­lated coun­tries in the world, one that didn’t even get tele­vi­sion un­til 1999.

Bhutan was never go­ing to be an early adopter. It is a small and re­mote place — a lit­tle more than twice the size of Los An­ge­les and Or­ange coun­ties com­bined, perched at the east­ern edge of the world’s high­est moun­tain range. The Bud­dhist con­stitu- tional monar­chy, how­ever, is steadily mov­ing into the mod­ern era, even as its 800,000 peo­ple strug­gle with how much of it to em­brace.

“Our gen­er­a­tion has been ex­posed to the world,” Jamt­sho said the next af­ter­noon on the pa­tio of a cof­fee shop, sip­ping tea with honey be­fore an­other gig. “It’s a part of de­vel­op­ment — you have to move with time.”

The Yel­low Pen­cils, formed four years ago, took their name from the color as­so­ci­ated with Bhutan’s royal fam­ily and the fact that the mem­bers — all 22 or younger — were stu­dents when they started play­ing to­gether. Some­times, the band swaps out the elec­tric gui­tar for the dramyin, a long-necked Hi­malayan lute used in Bhutanese folk songs, to achieve a more bluesy sound.

Those are the band’s only nods to tra­di­tion in a coun­try that holds tightly to its her­itage. Thim­phu can some­times feel like an open-air mu­seum, with its rows of low-slung build­ings topped with gen­tly slop­ing roofs in the lo­cal style, and side­walks filled with men clad in the knee-length robe known as the gho and women in the kira, a slim-fit­ting, an­kle-length dress.

Those out­fits are re­quired in gov­ern­ment of­fices and in most busi­nesses and schools. Western cloth­ing is seen as de­cid­edly ca­sual. An edi­tor at one of Bhutan’s big­gest news­pa­pers said he knows his re­porters aren’t go­ing out on enough in­ter­views if they show up to work in slacks and shirts.

But along the nar­row side­walks in the cen­ter of Thim­phu, Western-style ap­parel stores out­num­ber those sell­ing tra­di­tional Bhutanese wear. Cafes ad­ver­tise Ital­ian es­presso and free Wi-Fi. Traf­fic jams have be­gun to clog the main roads, and cars are pro­lif­er­at­ing so fast that a multi-story park­ing garage, the city’s first, is tak­ing shape on its south­ern edge.

Much of the in­come de­rives from tourism, and Bhutan has re­tained its rep­u­ta­tion as a quiet Shangri-La in part by charg­ing for­eign vis­i­tors a daily fee of up to $250 in the high sea­son. Bhutan wanted to avoid the fate of neigh­bor­ing Nepal, an­other pop­u­lar Hi­malayan des­ti­na­tion, where droves of Western back­pack­ers fill up cheap hos­tels and live on noo­dles for weeks at a time.

“It is our fas­ci­na­tion with con­ser­va­tion,” said Singye Dorji, a Bhutanese en­tre­pre­neur who man­u­fac­tures pa­per pack­ag­ing. “We need de­vel­op­ment, but not at the pace of some­where like China. We are not go­ing to de­stroy our en­vi­ron­ment.”

Bhutan is by some lengths the most re­laxed place in South Asia, a re­gion known for pell-mell cities and toxic pol­lu­tion. Ar­riv­ing from In­dia re­cently for the an­nual Moun­tain Echoes lit­er­ary fes­ti­val, I stared up at the sap­phire sky and did some­thing I hadn’t done in weeks: in­hale deeply.

In­dian driv­ers ig­nore traf­fic lights; Bhutan, with a frac­tion of the pop­u­la­tion, has de­cided it doesn’t even need them. One traf­fic sig­nal in­stalled in Thim­phu sev­eral years ago was promptly taken down. In the mid­dle of the city’s main in­ter­sec­tion, a white-gloved po­lice of­fi­cer sta­tioned in a pagoda-like en­clo­sure di­rects lines of slow-mov­ing cars with an al­most hyp­notic series of waves. There are no ac­ci­dents.

But many won­der how long Bhutan can re­tain its worry-free rep­u­ta­tion and ad­her­ence to “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness” — the coun­try’s guid­ing phi­los­o­phy, in­tro­duced by the cur­rent monarch’s father, that en­vi­ron­men­tal preser­va­tion and eq­ui­table growth should take prece­dence over ma­te­rial wealth.

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