Bhutan

Interview with Alan Cumming about Bhutan

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Last January, four seasoned travelers who had never been to Bhutan embarked on an adventure. Back in New York, I sat down with one of my companions, actor Alan Cumming. Our conversation:

KG: When someone asks “Why should I go to Bhutan?”, what is your answer?

cumming: Because there are fewer and fewer places in the world where you can truly be adventurous, where you can see great things and experience new, sometimes mind-bending things.

Some people go there for the spiritual experience. Is it for you?

I was struck by the way time almost stood still. Maybe it’s the energy you feel from the people and the land. Bhutanese are aware of their impact on the world and other sentient beings. This infuses a sense of spirituality into your experience.

What was your biggest Bhutanese surprise?

A mix of ancient and modern. Indeed, there are cows roaming the roads and prayer flags flying for the dead, but we have all the mod cons when we need them. They’re letting technology in, but in a deliberate, tasteful and appropriate way. Just like they do with tourism. The king made sure to keep the balance.

How do you deal with the lack of identifiable facts?

I feel like we are getting a daily crash course in Buddhist mythology, but just scratching the surface. So I try to understand just one little thing in each place and let the rest go. You have to enjoy chaos.

How about Drukpa Kunley Lama?

“Dildo man”! He is the gift that keeps on giving! I see him as a bohemian rebel who turns into a fertility god. But I also think that any culture that’s not ashamed of the importance of the penis, and has a sense of humor about it, must be pretty evolved!

Remember the Shakespeare story from our guide?

Yes! Shakespeare teaching sparked nationwide protests after high schools were suspended. Astonishing. It just adds to the charm, mystery and charming weirdness of it all.

What about the blessings of our monks?

I like being ignorant of what’s going on around me. True culture shock is rare these days, so it’s magical to be part of a ritual that is both sacred and mundane to them—the candles, the chanting, and the whole drama of it.

Do you wear your gho all the time?

Haven’t gone out yet. I am waiting for the perfect event. But I hang it in my dressing room, not in the closet, so I can see it every day – a piece of clothing art.

Your hotel highlight?

Amankora is amazing. Another inspiring example of ancient (main house) and modern (bedroom wing) coexisting. The fact that you have to walk across a rickety suspension bridge strewn with prayer flags and into a small golf cart that winds its way through the woods adds to the magic.

You are vegan in the land of yak cheese and butter. What was that like?

So much easier than I thought and delicious. Dorji (our guide) made sure the restaurants we went to had dairy free items. I was pleasantly surprised at how much you can eat in Bhutan. Although a helpful hotel manager told him that he had prepared some very rare yak meat for us one evening, I was still a bit queasy!

About to board the plane home, with tour guide Dorji Bidha and driver (aka “captain”) Nima Dhendup. “

alan cumming

What are your thoughts on the chilli that other Bhutanese like to eat?

I went crazy over them and brought back tons of paste and various sachets of chili mix from the markets we went to. I have a chilipope so I’m excited to indulge in Bhutan!

We are told that Miss Bhutan is a lesbian. We went to a gay bar in Thimphu. Apparently polygamy is not unheard of and can happen both ways – a woman can have more than one husband. Are you surprised by this seemingly liberal behavior of Bhutanese society?

This is one of many things that I find confusing, but I really like it. Yes, there seem to be parts of Bhutanese culture that we would consider very progressive. But we were also told some Buddhist teachings in the temple which I found a bit disturbing – in the sense that they don’t accept the habit of being unrighteous. The overall feeling, though, seems to be one of not wanting to harm other creatures. I think this can only mean that people are accepted for their differences more than we are used to them.

How do you think your dog Lala will get along with dogs in Bhutan?

As a stray dog, I think Lala fits in perfectly. Before being brought to New York from Costa Rica, she relied on the kindness of strangers — like a Bhutanese dog.

anything else?

I also like to travel with a small group, with two people, you and Gray, who I didn’t know at all before we started this adventure. We all fall into the deep end, both in terms of culture shock and getting to know each other, and I think that adds to the whole adventure and reminds me of what the importance of travel is, or can be: accepting the challenge and meeting new people, customs, Food and habits deal. This trip really opened up my horizons and I made a lot of new friends!

This story appears in the Summer 2023 issue town and country. subscribe now

Headshot by Klara Glowczewska

Executive Travel Editor

Klara Glowczewska is town and countrycovering both specific travel-related topics (places, itineraries, hotels, trends) and broad themes (conservation, culture, adventure), formerly Condé Nast Traveler Magazine.

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