I’m walking around Thimphu, sightseeing, and my shirt is soaked with sweat. It is a surprisingly sunny monsoon day so it could be the perspiration shooting out through the pores on my back. But it could also be the ema datsi I had for lunch—the national dish of chillies and cheese—clawing its way out of my body.
My life instantly turns for the better when I spot a handful of bars just north of the Chubachhu Roundabout, at the far end of the main street. They are… how should I put it… the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Not only because I’m so thirsty, but because the row of tumbledown houses are incredibly quaint: old wooden structures with about two bars each, plus a couple of tiny shops, strikingly different from the otherwise controlled and coordinated architecture of Thimphu. Each of them stares back at me as if they have been waiting for me for a very long time.
We fall in love.
It helps that the first bar I step into (no name on the outside) is run by a couple of ladies. And while I sit there, a Buddhist monk drops in for a can of Druk, the most popular brand of super strong beer. I couldn’t be in better company, I think to myself and order a Red Panda, a brand which I’ve heard much of since my arrival in Bhutan. It takes me a few sips to get accustomed to its distinctive yeastiness, but by and large my philosophy when it comes to booze is this: If it can be drunk, I’d like to get drunk on it.
Red Panda calls itself a weissbeer, which suggests that it is brewed of wheat, unfiltered and without preservatives. Produced in Bumthang, a district also known for its fine cheeses, the beer is named after an endangered species—the raccoon-like red panda. Distantly related to the Chinese giant panda, it is recognizable by its pale face, dark eye patches, chestnut hair… a bit like a drunk you might encounter in a shady bar. But it is a seriously good beer, I concede after a few chilled mugs.
After a monsoon drizzle cools the city, I move on to another bar (again no obvious name) that catches my fancy in an alley off the Clock Tower Square in the centre of town. The building looks like it could be five hundred years old, although, from a purely scientific perspective, I know it can’t predate the 1960s when Thimphu was built to be the capital of the country. The bar is manned by a gorgeous girl with sharp features, while some lads rest after yesterday’s party on mattresses on the floor, and one aunty sips on her grog. This time I buy a Druk Supreme: a crisp, smooth beer brewed with Himalayan spring water.
For a barfly, Thimphu is like being in heaven. It has more quaint drinking dens than you’d expect in a city of 91,000 people, and as opposed to back home in India, where cheap bars are frequently seedier than Dicken’s nightmares, here in Thimphu, I spot girls gossiping, teenagers on dates, cheerful uncles and aunties having lunch, and yes, even the odd Buddhist monk.
Some 14 out of the 20 drinking spots I sampled in an intense weekend were run by ladies, who kept the premises tidy. They generally offer an array of remarkable snacks such as yak-skin chips and what looks like a sausage but turns out to be an unbearably spicy black pudding. I try to slip whatever is left on my plate to a dog that drifts in to the bar—by this time I’ve found yet another nice but nameless joint in one of the winding bazaars—but the stern lady who owns the bar admonishes me. One must not share food with random animals, she says, then pours a mug of water on the stray, which until then has been leisurely gobbling up whatever morsels had fallen to the floor.
Spending an afternoon bar-hopping in Thimphu is a highly sensible activity, since most of the nice bars wind down by 9pm and there’s not much of a late night scene (except in some very shady dance bars known as drayangs). An interesting story I hear from a talkative man in one of the bars is about the many practical uses of alcohol in Bhutan—though I’m not sure how factual it is. Apparently, until the 1970s when the country got its own currency, taxes were collected in kind. It could be farm produce such as dried meat or rice wine distilled from various types of fermented grains. Due to the fact that the meat, as you might expect, got infested with maggots when stored for too long in the treasury, booze was preferable as a currency. However, this caused another problem as taxmen were frequently found dead drunk in the royal treasury. So the unavoidable decision was that Bhutan must start using money and hence the ngultrum was born to replace booze as a currency. But up to this day 10 ngultrum will buy you a drink—as I am soon to find out.
It’s all downhill for me from here. To clarify, I mean that I walk down towards the riverside weekend market, which is known to be a haven of vice. Not that most shoppers will notice the supposed drug and flesh trade (I certainly don’t) as it is one of the tidiest markets in South Asia. I decide to sample momos at an eatery by the vegetable market with a menu hanging on the outside wall, suggesting by far the cheapest rates in town: Here, drinks start at ₹10. (The Bhutanese currency, Ngultrum, has exactly the same value as the Indian rupee and every bar will accept payment in rupees.) This joint even has a name: Rignam.
I settle down by a glass counter with a rack of bottles behind it, including Thunder 15000, the strongest beer of the country, the slogan of which reads ‘Happiness for All’. At a table nearby, a girl of about ten years old chops green chillies. She turns out to be the bartender—I kid you not—and calls out to her dad, who is a bald wrestler-type manning the kitchen, to steam me a plate of momos. Then, she brings me a bottle of Thunder 15000 and a sample peg of sonfy, the deadly green aniseed liquor. As a connoisseur with a refined taste in booze, I estimate that each peg of the radioactively coloured sonfy nukes about 10 percent of one’s brain cells. No wonder it only costs 10 ngultrum.
But I still have 70 percent of my brain left. So I seek out other local tipples. The peach wine, I find, is less sweet than you might expect and very refreshing when chilled (the Zumim brand isn’t bad). I sample K5, which, according to a local chemist I met at another bar, is a Bhutanese whisky created to celebrate the coronation of the fifth king. It’s actually blended from various Scottish whiskies, he explains (even giving me the chemical formula for it), but bottled in Bhutan, and good enough to sate a whisky expert. If you want to go local, try Special Courier, the staple whisky, cheap and abundant like a waterfall.
In order to make my exploration seem more scientific, in the next few days I also do try some mid- to high-end establishments—the cool nightclub Mojo Park, the fancy Ara at the Taj Tashi with its signature cocktails, and the lounge at the legendary Druk Hotel—but it is in the seedy bars that I find what I like best: light, freshly cooked Bhutanese fare, heady drinks, and a slightly better understanding of why the Bhutanese people measure life quality not by GNP but GNH… Gross National Happiness.
One final tippler’s tip: When you’ve had enough of sonfy, or whatever else you’ve had too much of, rotate your hand before your mouth clockwise while you murmur “Me zhu, me zhu” (no, thank you) and they’ll put you either in a taxi or in an ambulance depending on your physical condition. If you are sober enough to walk out on your own legs, say “Kadrinchhey” (thank you) and pay your bill. If you find that you must spell out the Bhutanese word letter by letter, or you cannot find your legs anywhere in the bar, then revert to the previous alternative and ask for the nearest hospital, “Menkhang ga tey in na?
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).