Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Creating a coffee culture in Bhutan

I'm sitting in one of the three cafes in Thimphu located on the main road, not far from the 'traffic' which in local jargon means the main junction where a policeman controls the ever growing traffic of cars. Once there were traffic lights installed there, but people reclaimed the policeman making Thimphu the only capital in the world without traffic lights.

But not a city without good coffee ! I regularly go to two coffee houses here, one next to the Loden office called Karma's Coffee run by Karma himself trained in Australia. The other I like is Ambient Cafe run by a family: Letho (28), his wife, Junu, and their 4 years old Jigme. Letho's wife makes excellent home-made cakes, Letho is the self-made coffee barista using an Italian coffee machine, and I'm not really sure about the role little Jigme plays.

Having run a restaurant and a small hotel for some time with limited success, Letho decided to change and launch Ambient Cafe in 2009. He was not sure if there was a market for another cafe in Thimphu given the lack of coffee culture with an estimated 70% of residents associating the word 'coffee' with instant nescafe.With his best friend who gave some good advice and came up with the name Ambient, they calculated that they had to serve around 12 cups of coffee a day to break even. Nowadays, on a good day, they sell even 100.

Letho had his first cup of coffee in India when studying at college in Bangalore. It was not love at first sight or neither first slip. The espresso they could afford in a coffee house chain was very bitter and quite strange for a Bhutanese who had got used to drink suja butter tea or tea with milk. A more positive influence came later from a Japanese guest at his hotel who brought good quality coffee with him and explained how to taste it and what made a good coffee. Letho got interested.

Letho, who has never visited any cafes outside India, instinctively and through his intensive Internet search follows the European way in his institution: laid back atmosphere, nice background music, Haiku contest for guests, WIFI, no rush. The only difference that he doesn't serve alcohol saying that it would increase the noise level too much.

When asked about his future plans, the young cafe owner is quick to state that he doesn't want to create a chain or become a millionaire. He just needs some money for his son's education and for travelling to Europe one day to check the old continent's cafés to improve his own. His business attitude seems to be perfectly aligned with the principles of Buddhist Economics.

At Ambient Cafe, you can have an espresso for 40 ngultrum when a suja costs 15 in the next local bar. However, avantgarde pioneers always pay the price when creating a new culture and here they apparently do it happily: guests voted the coffee shop to be the number one among Thimphu's restaurants.

Letho and little Jigme at the king's birthday celebration

Monday, February 21, 2011

The King's Birthday: he is young, bright, handsome and single

His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is 31 years old today. He is young, handsome, down-to-earth, very popular and ... unmarried. He is the 5th king of Bhutan and his photo is found in every home, office, monastery, and restaurant. He lives near Thimphu in a valley in a modest cottage house surrounded by forest and military guards. He studied in the USA and Oxford, he is a sports man and he spends lots of his time visiting his subjects around the country. He has been the king since 2006, crowned in 2008 by his father, the same year when the first democratic elections were held in the country. Today, Bhutan is a democratic constitutional monarchy where the king has a very important symbolic power.

Each year, there are two birthday celebrations of the king: a private one organized for a selected group of people and another public one held in the national stadium. Today, I went to see the second one. It was nice with dance performances of school children and a speech of the prime minister. I was a bit disappointed, though, because as it turned out, the kind doesn't attend this event. I really wanted to see and hear him.

Would you like to know more about the King? It is not easy to get information directly from him. Last time, I was asking his press officer if he could give an interview for my blog. He said it was not possible because his Majesty decided not to give any interview for five years following his coronation due to his need to spend sufficient time accumulating knowledge and wisdom before communicating with the press. Another unusual and unique decision of a Bhutanese king.

Looking at the pictures, you can have a flavor of today's event:

Security check: kira left, gho right
This is the nation's only football stadium
Full of school children and families

This dog arrived without invitation. No one seemed to be bothered.

A Thai lady who has a picture of me.

Security guard. Much more stylish than in Europe.
Dignities arriving.