Friday was my last full day in Bhutan. At this point, I had visited a raft of temples, stomped through a lot of meadows and had seen my fair share of the sides of mountains both on foot and on bike. I had also been able to get a glimpse into rural, farming life, but I still had not gotten a sense of city life.
Now when I say “city” life in Bhutan, I’m not referencing places like Hong Kong or Bangkok. The most populous city in Bhutan, Thimphu, has a population of 62K, and over 100K if you look at metro area. To the Bhutanese, this is a BIG city. For my point of reference, it’s the size of the small city I live near in Connecticut, Stamford. Unfortunately, I would not be able to get a real sense of Thimphu having only driven through it twice. Instead, Paro would have to do. Paro proper has a population of 4,000, but the Paro Valley (i.e., including the surrounding towns and villages) has a population of 24,000. For a country of 725,000, this is not completely insignificant.
My guide and I jumped onto mountain bikes at around 10 AM, and had a fast 14 km ride into town, virtually all downhill. [As an aside, I doubt there is a single road bike in all of Bhutan given road conditions — mountain biking reigns supreme.] I knew that the brisk ride downhill would have an evil twin on the way back, but that would be a challenge for an hour or two later. We parked our bikes, and spent the next little while strolling around the city of Paro.
My guide lives in a village that is about 10 km away. He told me that he and his wife get into the town of Paro about two to three times per month. [Again, atrocious road conditions really do make it much less enticing to go places in Bhutan as driving is not super pleasant or fast, something we take for granted in developed economies.] When he comes into town it’s usually to buy groceries, buy clothes or have dinner with friends.
Much of the layout of the town in terms of shops represents the needs of people like my guide in addition to tourists. This means that there are basically six kinds of stores:
- Bigger general stores: sell groceries, produce, and some health & beauty
- Smaller general stores: sell snack food, drinks, maybe rice and noodles, some sauces, and knick-knacks
- Department stores: similar to general stores but somewhat few groceries and more health & beauty plus the odd item like a dishwasher
- Clothing shops and a couple of shoe stores
- Religious item/handicraft stores: sell mostly buddhist items such as statues, flags, prayer wheels and other items for both locals for their homes as well as tourists
- A few electronic stores that mostly seem to fix things rather than sell things
- Cafes and restaurants, each with about 4-5 tables
hat was interesting for me was the fact that within each of these categories, there would often be four to six stores that looked exactly the same and seemed to sell exactly the same stuff. I could not for the life of me figure out why someone would visit one general store vs. the next other than habit. That said, never underestimate the power of habit when it comes to choosing a store (thank you Charles Duhigg).
The feel of the town would be similar to any small town in the US with two to three long rows of shops. You enter one side of town and are out the other pretty quickly. Like any other town, it seemed to be a place where people could run into each other, and it certainly provides for the basic conveniences of shopping and a quick bite. Again, it would have been interesting to have spent time in the bigger city, Thimphu.
Most of the stuff sold seemed to be of Bhutanese or Indian origin, but of course Western brands have made inroads. This was most evident in health and beauty (e.g., Pantene, Nivea) as well as the ever globally ubiquitous Frito-Lay and Coke (proud American exports!).
I did find a couple of fun gems during the walk about town including…
A disco (very popular!)
A movie theater. It’s now playing Bhutanese produced films which are largely Bollywood style.
A basket ball court — the sport is rapidly gaining in popularity, which is appropriate. Basketball rules!
And happily, I ran into a group of locals practicing for an upcoming dance/festival.