First Month on the Job in Bhutan: Trial by Fire

This page in:

ImageAfter our rest at the Home Minister, Lyonpo Minjur’s rural ancestral home, the team embarked on the long journey back to Thimphu the next day -- only a couple hundred miles as the crow flies (if even that), yet a two day adventure across high mountain passes and along narrow endlessly winding roads with precipitous drops below. We reached the Swiss Guest House in Bumthang around 7pm, looking forward to hot showers and a meal.

Upon pulling up to the lodge, I received a call on my mobile from my friend Tashi, who was recently appointed by His Majesty to serve on the National Council (senate). Tashi was in eastern Bhutan to support earthquake relief efforts on the part of the National Council. Tashi called to inform me that, Wamrong, the town I lived in 21 years ago when I first came to Bhutan as a volunteer teacher, had mostly burned to the ground that afternoon.

The fire started with a short circuit for a television hook up in a bamboo hut below the main bazaar. It spread and burned down half the town. Wamrong has always had a water shortage. On the day of the fire, there was very little water available. A fire truck was dispatched from Tashigang, but as it took over two hours to reach Wamrong, the fire had done most of its damage by the time it arrived. I was stunned to hear this news, and immediately felt deeply saddened for my former neighbors and friends, who had been so kind and welcoming to me all those years ago, and who now were left with nothing but the ashes of their former homes.

ImageI decided within a couple of hours to turn around and make the long journey back to eastern Bhutan so that I could go to Wamrong to see what I could do to help. I started early the next morning, while the rest of the earthquake assessment team returned to Thimphu to start preparing their report. One colleague from UNICEF suggested that I take some UNICEF emergency kits, which were stored with the local dzongkhag administration. I called the deputy dzongdag who confirmed they had some in stock and that I was welcome to take them. My driver, Gem, skillfully managed to get 14 of the emergency kits (one for each of the destroyed households), packed in large blue duffle bags, into the back of our vehicle and tied on the roof. There was barely any room left our small bags of luggage. About two hours along the road outside of Bumthang, I received a call from the friend who'd called me the night before to inform me of the fire, telling me that the affected households had already received UNICEF emergency kits, but that what really was needed was clothes, as most people had lost the entire contents of their homes and were left with only the clothes on their backs.

I decided, therefore, to leave the emergency kits with the local administration in the next dzongkhag over, Mongar, and to buy clothes in the bazaar there. I phoned ahead to the representative of His Majesty's welfare office in Mongar who agreed to go to a shop in the bazaar that sold wholesale clothing from Bangladesh. He rang back an hour later to inform me that he was in the shop putting together a couple large bundles of clothes. I was somewhat taken aback when I reached Mongar and discovered that the bundles amounted to almost US$1000, which was more than I had on me at the time. So we reduced the quantities, I paid, and we continued on our 12-hour journey to Kanglung, a town about two hours from Wamrong. Kanglung is the site of Sherubtse College, which for many years served as Bhutan's only degree granting institution -- now one of several affiliate colleges under the newly formed Royal University of Bhutan. We stayed in a bare-bones guesthouse run by SNV, the Dutch volunteer organization, arriving late and departing the next morning early for Wamrong.... or at least what was left of it.

ImageTraveling down the road from Kanglung to Wamrong brought back memories of my many bus journeys two decades ago along the same road when returning from the main eastern town of Tashigang, where our little band of Canadian volunteer teachers, scattered over eastern Bhutan, would occasionally converge to shop for all the luxuries which were not available in our villages (like tomatoes, Indian processed cheese, tins of baked beans and ketchup!). These days were chronicled in Jamie Zeppa's book, Beyond the Sky and the Earth; A Journey Into Bhutan.

Knowing that at the last bend in the road before Wamrong I'd be able to view the destruction left me with a sort of sickening and sad anticipation. Sure enough, as we rounded the corner, there it was below -- half the market was gone -- the charred ruins of my former neighbor’s’ houses protruded into the air, creating a disfigurement that was difficult to comprehend. I arrived in front of what was left of the bazaar where the local Member of Parliament who was on a visit to his constituency when the fire occurred greeted me. He gave me a quick summary of how the crisis had unfolded only 36 hours earlier. None of the residents who lost their shops and homes had insurance as their homes were located on government-owned land and, therefore, the buildings on them were technically considered to have been illegally built. The Member of Parliament gathered together those who had lost their homes. I spoke to my old neighbors and friends, mustering up what little of the local language I could recall. I told them I was very unhappy to see what had happened. Many were in tears, which got me choked up as well.

I said that I had brought some clothes for them, and that I would leave whatever money I could – unfortunately, I spent most of what I'd had on clothes, only to learn later that what they really needed was cash. I stayed for a couple of hours and visited, drank tea in one of the remaining shops. One house had been purposefully knocked down in order to stop the fire from spreading. In the end, the fire didn't reach that far, but the house was knocked down as a precaution .

ImageAbout mid-morning I started the long journey back to Thimphu. We drove from Wamrong to Bumthang in one shot -- a 15-hour day on the road, and the next day to Thimphu. After I checked back into my comfortable room at the Thimphu's hotel, Taj Tashi, I ran a bath and thought about what I could do for my Wamrong friends. As my birthday was during the following week, I decided that I'd host a birthday party where I would ask for people's 'presence', not 'presents', except for a donation for the victims of the Wamrong fire.

The following Saturday night at a local restaurant run by a very entrepreneurial Bhutanese woman who prepares fantastic Italian cuisine I hosted a party for about 60 friends -- mostly Bhutanese, with a scattering of colleagues who happened to be in town, and a few local foreign residents. I prepared a display of enlarged photos from Wamrong after the fire along with a couple clippings from the national newspapers, and a cardboard box wrapped in traditional Bhutanese white scarves, with a large slit in the top of the box for donations. I set up the bar in front of the donation table, and made sure everyone donated something before I'd give them a drink. The evening went well with a good feeling among friends, great food and relaxing ambient music. I made a short speech to share with people what I saw when I visited Wamrong, and the enormous amount of distress being felt by people who had lost everything, and how much everyone's contribution will help.

Please take a look at Bhutan Slideshow to see the beauty and extent of the damage in Bhutan. 

How you can help:

I'm still collecting funds for the disasters. Bhutan's national newspaper describes how vulnerable the affected families have been rendered. Some have children enrolled in school elsewhere in Bhutan and have to pay fees, others are left to wonder how they will feed and clothe themselves and their children over the coming winter. I was interviewed for the article having visited the town within 36 hours of the tragedy.

If you can give even a modest amount (e.g. like what you might spend on coffee in a week), it will mean very much to the people of Wamrong. Funds will be channeled through His Majesty's welfare office, with a specific request to assist those most affected by the Wamrong fire (I have received a detailed list of the affected families and the extent of their loss).

Bank Fund Credit Union Account #: 374080 S8
First letters of surname: LAP
Please indicate "Bhutan fire" in the transaction information field.

Donations can also be made for the Wamrong fire victims through the Bhutan Canada


Mark LaPrairie

Representative to Bhutan

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000