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BRAND BHUTAN

‘Am I here now?’

‘Where?’

‘Bhutan. Am I in Bhutan?’

My guide looked at me like I was really, really stupid.

‘Yes,’ he said and kept on walking. He wasn’t giving much away. We’d crossed from India to Bhutan with no formality at all, just walked under a big multicolored arch and that was that.

‘Aren’t you supposed to say ‘Welcome to Bhutan?’

He stopped dead, turned slowly and with a look of perfect blankness, said:

‘Welcome to Bhutan.’

I didn’t like him already.

*

Bongo oozed around like an unctuous Uriah Heep, full of grovel and suck, endlessly telling me he was at my command, that should I need anything he would provide it, if I had an itch he would scratch it.

‘It is my privilege to serve you.’

He spoke very quickly.

‘I am your guide.’

He stood too close.

‘You can trust me…’

I saw his mouth opening and closing. I saw his little pointed Cocky’s tongue darting to and fro.

‘I will show you Bhutan as if you were a guest in my home…’

He was scaring me.

‘Anything you want, anything you need, just call me…’

On and on he went; the grovel of grovels, words tumbling from his lips like shit from a goose. The more he talked the less I listened.

‘What I mostly need,’ I mumbled at Bongo, trying to shut him up, ‘is not a guide – it’s a bodyguard.’

I saw movement in the thin strip of flesh between the sunglasses and the beanie which may have been enthusiasm.

‘Bodyguard…’

This was a concept he liked very much.

‘Yes,’ he said brightly, ‘I will be your bodyguard.’

I think he took his instructions rather too literally.

*

My Bhutanese Bongo was built like a sumo wrestler, wearing a beanie and wrap-around black sunglasses, a big solid lump of a lad, a boy who clearly liked his mo-mo’s. Usually guides are whippet-like, darting creatures: a weight-challenged guide is a rarity – a young lumpen Bhutanese one even more so. He was the most unusually shaped guide I’d ever had – and, come to think of it, the first in a ‘gho’.

A gho is a heavy knee-length Bhutanese housecoat tied with a belt, folded in such a way to form a pocket in front of the stomach into which a notebook, a mobile phone, a wallet, a set of keys, a pen, hand-wipes and a small dog could be stuffed with ease. Consequently all Bhutanese men appeared to be overweight, carrying around huge pot-bellies – but really, it was just the stuff they stuck down their gho. It was impossible to tell where Bongo stopped and his luggage started.

He was dressed in a crisp cotton gho, a pleasing earthy brown number with thin blue stripes that just came to his knees, sensible shoes, long white socks stretched up over bulging calves and, of course, that bloody beanie. Bongo’s beanie seemed to be glued to his head – along with the sunglasses. He looked like a burglar in a bath-robe.

I don’t recall ever seeing his eyes, instead made an instinctive choice not to look in them, for fear of what I might see.

We had a long drive ahead of us to Thimpu. Traditionally, my job as tourist is to sit in my correct position in the back seat while the guide and driver sit in front, ignore me and chat. The Dog can then be thrown a bone or two of information over the guide’s shoulder when he feels like it and spend the next six hours staring sideways out the back window. This is the way of the known tourist world. So Dogster sat in the front passenger seat. Neither Bongo nor the driver liked that at all.

We set off in silence – a long, long silence. The road was smooth and new and empty, winding up into the hills in a series of hairpin bends through pleasant scenery. I loved the change from the constancy of India. Bhutan was pristine and beautiful, I thought, clean and calm in comparison to the madness just over the border. Phew, what a relief. I relaxed and settled in to the drive.

It was about thirty minutes into the trip when the first road construction appeared. The road from Phuntsholing to Thimpu was being dug up. For the rest of the time, a stop/start grind of bumps and turns, the wonderful view was obscured by dust. It was a long six hours. Where was Shangri La?

My guide wasn’t being very guide-like. Unless I asked, he didn’t offer, instead sat glowering over my right shoulder like a giant cane-toad. It was difficult to tell just what he was thinking. As his face caved out, rather than in, any expression was already botoxed by lard; he looked perennially innocent and slightly surprised.

Bongo was no thudding fool – he was stupidly smart, which in a young man is far more dangerous. He thought he was an excellent tour guide – but he wasn’t. He thought he had it all worked out – but like most young men of twenty-three – he didn’t. He thought he knew about the world – but he’d never set foot outside the Kingdom. He knew of no world but Bhutan – nor, as became clear, had any interest in it.

Dog was from outer space. Outer space was foreign. He didn’t like it. He didn’t approve of it. He certainly didn’t want to go there. Bongo looked down on his clients through a gormless provincial nationalism that smacked of piety, a righteous certainty that was beginning to crawl right up my nose.

He knew only three things; all tourists are really rich, old and stupid. Here was another one of them.

*

It’s a tough life being a tourist guide. He told me all about it. There are seven hundred and ten of them, mostly freelance. They are not an overly handsome group of men – you can go see for yourself. On The Tourism Council of Bhutan website each comes complete with his details and a passport mug shot; all except one. My ‘cultural guide’ is license number 0775. Unlike every other one of his seven hundred and nine associates, his photograph is missing.

For seven months a year there are more guides than tourists in the Kingdom – literally. For three months a year there are twice as many guides as tourists. The bread and butter comes in the festival months; September, October, November and March/April – then the punters flood in. This is the feast. Everybody gets a Guernsey, even the worst of the worst guides get a gig; hotels are booked, over-booked, double-booked and then some more; tourists are camped out in the back shed, complaining bitterly as they usher the chickens out of their bathroom – it’s a feeding frenzy in Bhutan. The rest of the time it’s famine. I guess a freelance guide has to maximize his opportunities.

‘I had one client who was a good tipper,’ he chirped up, ‘she gave me a thousand pounds.’

My jaw dropped.

‘A thousand British Pounds!’

I swiveled around in the front seat to face him. ‘I don’t believe it. How long were you traveling for?

‘Ten days, ’he said.

‘That’s a hundred quid a day!  You must have slipped her a pink mo-mo or two, pal, to get a tip like that.’

I knew where this was leading. This was no accidental conversation – already it was clear that I was expected to cough up a similar amount – in fact, these figures were just a ball-park – I was to be with him for seventeen expensive pre-paid days; my tip would logically be much, much more – with not even the debatable consolation of Bongo’s weeny mo-mo to save the day.

I thought he was lying.

‘I had an old man who left me eighteen hundred dollars after two weeks.’ he lied some more.

I laughed.

‘I saved his life.’

‘How did you save his life?’

‘He was falling from a thousand foot cliff. It was certain death.’

Was this why Bongo stood at my left shoulder all the time – just that little bit too close? I thought he was being my bodyguard. Was he standing prepared to rescue me if I stumbled and fell – or push me off? Where were these thousand foot cliffs, anyway?

Lying, Bongo, lying, lying.

I don’t like liars. I’ve had to tolerate many liars in a previous life. I don’t do that anymore – now I trap them, kill them and eat them. Bongo was a good liar; he was educated, glib and could lie like a Trojan – but Bongo hadn’t met Dogster. Dog had once been the bullshit artist supreme – he knew an apprentice bullshitter when he saw one. But Bongo couldn’t lie with his eyes. That’s why those sunglasses were surgically glued to his face.

We were an hour out of Phuntsholing with sixteen days to go. Oh dear, I thought, this isn’t going to be fun at all.

We drove and drove and drove some more, ploughed on through the dust to our first destination.

‘All this roadwork will be finished in three months time,’ the spirit of Bhutan said expansively

‘And what makes you say that, Bongo?’

‘The new King has decreed it.’

‘Ah-h-h-h, of course.’

I was starting to collect his lies.  There were little lies, damn lies, lies of omission and lies of faith. The new King’s mystical powers to solve the Kingdom’s transport problems I would put in the ‘lies of faith’ category. In matters of the monarchy no superlative was too extreme, no perfection more perfect, no wisdom more wise – Bhutan seemed to hover somewhere between Thailand and North Korea in its adoration of the latest, greatest leader. Bongo led the pack.

I think he actually believed it.

He worked on the principle of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ so his lies of omission were manifold and various. They happened all the time. Bongo kept all information to himself. Where we were going next, what was there, how long we would stay, how long the drive was to be… nothing. This was his way of control. I was to be told what he wanted me to hear – and nothing else, maneuvered into an attitude of dumb compliance. With no other avenue of information I was effectively in his hands.

This gets a little creepy after a while, once you work out what is going on. He was body-guarding me within an inch of my life. Whichever way this pans out, I thought, I’m on the losing team; one of me, two of them. The driver is going to remain silent for sixteen days – its Bongo and me, into infinity. I stared out to the pine-covered slopes all around me. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

*

Next morning we were off to see the sights of Thimpu. There was a nice enough temple up on top of a hill that may, or may not have had some importance – but my guide failed to mention it in any coherent form. I still don’t know what it was. We walked around the outside very rapidly then I was shoved inside into the dark. No photographs. Then it was down the hill and out. I managed to grab one photograph of some ancient graffiti in the ancient concrete on the ancient floor.

I love you Namgay

‘Wow, isn’t that incredible. That must’ve been here for thousands of years,’ I said to Bongo.

He stared at me with that ‘you are a really strange man’ look he’d been practicing. Obviously I could strike ‘irony’ off my list of accomplishments. He was anxious to get to the next stop on our tour – the radio tower.

Thrill piled upon thrill as I observed the radio tower – and the pretty view. We even opted for exercise and walked down the hill to see the ‘zoo’ – an enclosure with three of the national animals standing stupidly under a tree. The guide grunted and said ‘Taxin‘ – or something like that. I wasn’t listening. Apparently these animals, a cross between a goat and a very confused moose, had been liberated from their cages by Young Prince Bhutan the Magnificent when he took over the throne but, having been freed, they just stood in much the same spot anyway, completely content to look at the same three trees and munch on the same bamboo as they always had. Eventually the Prince had to put the cage back up to stop people feeding them mo-mo’s.

I felt there was some profound Bhutanese metaphor here, but I couldn’t quite work it out.

I stood and watched these three odd things for as long as I could reasonably feign interest. They just kept standing there. One looked around. Then he looked back. That was about it. Bongo was lost in the magnificence of it all.

‘Very special,’ he said but as I was realizing, he was a Bhutophile. Everything in Bhutan was very special – the more special it was, the more special he was.

‘Mmmm-m-m,’ I replied, ‘can we go now?’

Thimpu was a construction zone. We toured the many building sites. Bongo couldn’t understand my lack of enthusiasm. To him all this newness was thrilling. I took to taking pictures of stray dogs and workmen. The National Memorial Chorten, built in 1976, was being renovated. That was covered in scaffolding. His Latest Majesty Young Prince Bhutan the Magnificent was going to get crowned sometime soon but he wouldn’t say when. Auspicious signs must be calculated. Seven hens must lay seven green eggs on a day beginning with thunder and lightening – that kind of thing. The new road from Paro to Thimpu must be finished. Bhutan was getting ready. Everything old was gonna be new again. Now even the famous river-side markets were being relocated and enclosed in traditional Bhutanese surroundings, just near a very beautiful old covered bridge.

‘Stop!’ I gasped.

I liked this bridge. Finally, this is what I came here to see, I said to myself, old stuff – it was a perfect photo opportunity, so naturally, I took many photos. Bongo was bemused. We walked across, admiring the prayer flags – the dappled sunlight; so old, I thought, so unique, so… Bhutanese.

‘When was this built?’ I asked Bongo.

‘Last year,’ he said proudly.

I sighed and went back to photographing the dogs. As it turned out, they were older than the bridge.

*

On an open-cut face of rock on the road I saw more graffiti.

‘Do you know about Karma, Bongo? I mused.

*

PART TWO

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