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When in a new city, I try to explore the same place at different time zones. So, when I have some spare time, I try to visit the same place at early morning, afternoon, evening, night and even late night. Every time zone reveals different characters of a place and has different charms, surprises and secrets which start spilling once you dig deeper.
In a quest to discover the split personality of Thimphu, I ventured out from the comfort of my cozy hotel room 10 p.m. to discover the nightlife of the Bhutanese capital city. Though not as lively as the night scene of Mumbai or Delhi, the Bhutanese youth sure know how to enjoy in own unique style.
Strolling past Norzin Lam, the main shopping street in Thimphu; lonely and at age 31, I miserably tried to fit in with the Bhutanese youngsters who for a change had shed their traditional Bhutanese dress for the trendy western outfits. They talked, shared jokes, romanced, laughed, ‘openly’ smoked (Contrary to the clandestine puffs! Smoking is banned in public places!) and hogged on the Thukpa ( A Tibetan soup) from one of the many Thukpa sellers.
It was a cold April night and thukpa was just the right thing for my soul. It was a strange version of Thukpa prepared with pureed rice and cheese. As I continued walking, my hands warmed by holding a hot cup of Thukpa, all kind of songs escaped the night clubs and found their way on the main street.
Some were Bhutanese songs , some English but what amused me and intrigued me was an Akshay Kumar-Sonakshi Sinha Bollywood song “Chinta ta ta” playing at full volume. I swallowed the sticky soup in a jiffy and chased the sound and ended up at the stairs leading to a basement night club. I gingerly approached the 3 men in their 30s cocooned in Bhutanese dress Gho and smoking outside the club.
Me : “Is this a Drayang?”
He : “Yes”
Me : “Hi, I am from India. Can I go inside? (I don’t even remotely look like a Bhutanese!”)
He : ” Yes, why not? Just make sure you don’t take pictures upfront. Just melt in the crowd and shoot. Enjoy” (Thumps me up and gives a naughty smile and a wink, I have no idea why!)
My pre travel research on Bhutan taught me about the concept of Drayangs in Bhutan. I stumbled upon the blog of travel blogger Richa Gupta who has explored drayangs. And ever since I badly wanted to ‘discover’ one. Earlier on the same day, I tried to locate one but failed. Guess, it’s easier to find one in the night. These are similar to the infamous dance bars of Mumbai.(Yes I have been to some. Fine, judge me!) There is booze , there are pretty dancing girls. But the similarity ends there.
What makes Drayangs different from Mumbai Dance Bars is that :
1) In Mumbai dance bars, all kind of pervert gentry throng the bars. Police, politicians, your neighborhood lech, professionals are the regular patrons. While in Drayangs, both men and women, mostly middle class, educated , young , urban Bhutanese frequent. I was the only Indian there apart from an odd nervous looking European tourist brought here by some local guide , perhaps, to reveal to him the little secrets of Bhutan.
2) Unlike the Mumbai dance Bars, the dancing girls do not wear outrageous and revealing clothes nor do they resort to titillating, vulgar moves. They are modestly dressed in their tame traditional dress Kira. But that doesn’t mean they are boring. Once on stage, they are naughty, precocious, cheerful and energetic, some even interacting with the live audience.
3) The songs played may not necessarily be all dancing songs. Though that’s the norm, but at times you can catch one dancing on a slow Bhutanese romantic song.
4) There is no secret room behind the doors where you can take the party to ‘next level.’
5) Though Drayangs are often accused of being a hub for sexual networking, I failed to find any obvious signs. There will be no pimps to approach you, neither will there be any doorman to hold your hand and snatch any leftover money from you as tip.
However, one thing which is eerily reminiscent of Mumbai’s dance bars is that the dolled up girls will approach you all by themselves (No tout handling them) and sit next to you. The similarity ends here. She will come with a diary and try to make small talk with you amidst all the high decibel music. While the bar dancers in Mumbai will apply the same modus operandi to make you sleep with them and basically rob you of all your money, all Bhutanese dancers want from you is to request a song and pay a paltry Rs.100 for it.
But they are as pushy as their Mumbai counterparts to convince you for the same. Again very unlike Mumbai’s dance bar girls, Drayang’s dancers are not sullen faced or sad nor do they wear the depressing “I , the exploited, want to run away from here!” look. They are rather genuinely cheerful, upbeat, friendly, unapologetic and rather enjoy their work. Most are Bhutanese or Nepalese born and brought up in Bhutan (Mostly South Bhutan is known for Nepalese). And they stand/sit very close to you while making conversation without being sexually suggestive. They sure know how to take your breath away. So, a spare oxygen cylinder is a must!
I hesitantly entered the cool looking disco and perched on one of the wooden benches.
‘Hi, you from India” (20 % oxygen deficiency!)
“Yes” (Me, smiling but eyeing her diary knowing pretty well that it’s not me which has charmed her to me but the money I can bring to her bank account!. At this age, I can’t afford delusions.)
“Do you speak Nepali?’ (50 % oxygen deficiency!)
“No!” (though I actually wanted to say, “Babes, you are absolutely gorgeous!”)
“What? Why? Don’t tell me you can’t speak Nepali. Thoda sa to aata hoga? (You must know at least a little Nepali.)
“No sorry! Really sorry.Sirf Mohani lagla hai aata hai” (Me apologizing profusely as if I am born a Sherpa and still can not speak Nepali! Mohani Lagla hai is Nepali My Heart Will Go On! Yes, I have picked some Nepali.)
” You have come here alone? (90 % oxygen deficiency! Help!)
“Yayy, And I am missing my friends badly.” ( I actually did, the booze, music, dance made me wish I had come here with close friends.”)
“That’s sad. Aaawww. Aaawww. AaawwwAaawwwAaawww. (Girls everywhere have the same language. OK, crucify me for sexism.” )
“You want me to dance to a song? You choose the song and I will dance on it. (Eyes sparkling with excitement.But yet businesslike) You want Hindi song?”
“Yes, why not. You choose any Hindi song. How much to pay for 1 request?
Diary entry done. Business rendezvous over. Time to honor the deal.
She jumped on stage vivaciously. And waved to the in house DJ, sitting right behind me, next to live Bar. “HINDI, HINDI!’
Being a minority, I sat at the last bench to avoid any attention! But the screams of Hindi Hindi drew all curious eyes at me. (Woo Hoo, I am feeling like a foreigner!)
I looked odd, old, foreign, incongruous, lonely. Basically I stood out. Embarrassed, I pretended to behave and look like a Bhutanese. Just as my act was culminating into an epic fail (My face simply refused to mutate into Danny Denzogappa’s face!), the hit Bollywood ‘item number’ ‘Munni Badnaam hui” blared from the speakers and the attention shifted. I gave a constipated smile to no one. And I breathed.
The local Bhutanese, still gulping down their Red Panda beers and Druk 1000 beers, seemed to enjoy the Hindi songs more than the slow love songs in Dzongkha (Bhutanese). The stage had a huge mirror as its background with gaudy decorations (like cheap plastic flowers).The dancers looked like diva in their own right, their fair skin changing color in the reflected glow of flickering multi-hued lights and disco balls. I sat back and enjoyed the strange atmosphere I landed up in while politely declining other dancers who approached. Of course with a false promise of returning back the next day. Ah, the pain of ‘pardesi babus’ and their false promises.! They created a genre in 90s’ Bollywood.
As I complimented ‘my’ dancer for her spirited performance, I sensed a commotion as the clock inched towards 11:00 p.m. , the closing time. On weekends the drayangs are open from 6:00 p.m. to 12:00 p.m. It was the time for the last song which was a slow paced Bhutanese song (almost a lullaby!). Two semi-drunk (but still very well behaved) local Bhutanese boys joined the ladies on stage and merrily danced away till it was time to call it a day! Bhutanese sure know how to share bonhomie and good times!
It was one of my weirdest night. And I loved every moment of it. It was odd to see Bhutanese damsels dressed in a traditional ‘Kira’ and dancing gracefully on some crass Bollywood item numbers. The contrast was striking and amusing. As soon as the song ends, I stood up, avoiding eye contact, looking and feeling awkward. My disappearing act could beat that of a superhero. I emerged from the basement bar to face light drizzle and cool breeze. I gave a constipated smile to no one. And I breathed. Once again.
How to locate a Drayang :
Asking around might or might not help you. Most Bhutanese will be either unaware of it or will want to not discuss it. Avoid asking women about the location of a Drayang. They may get uncomfortable or may make you uncomfortable with their ‘You pervert’ look. But despite the fact that the drayangs are not sleazy or vulgar places, you will get stares and winks if you ask for one. These dance bars are rather innocent community clubs where young people just hang out and have a great time. (Though, there is always some reservation against it as being the hub of clandestine sexual networking, but I could not find any obvious signs) Best option is to ask college going young boys strolling on the Norzin Lam, the main shopping street in Thimphu. Don’t beat around the bush. Be honest, say, you are a tourist and simply want to see a Drayang.
Best time to visit a Drayang :
Most Drayangs are open from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. on weekends. If you are not a local, it’s best to visit at around 9 p.m. or 11 p.m. on a weekend since there is more crowd at that time and its easier to get lost and avoid awkwardness of being the centre of attention.
Some Drayangs I managed to locate:
1- Gaa Teen Trophel Khang Drayang : Face your back towards Chula restaurant on Norzin Lam, opposite Taj Tashi. Now move inside the first narrow lane at your right. You will see some bored, grumpy youth playing snooker. Ignore them and take a left. The Sign board is very visible and you may even hear faint music. Take some 10-15 steps at the 1st floor in the building number 40.
2- Wangyal Drayang : Located at Norzim lane, bang opposite the RICB office (Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan Ltd) near Taj Tashi. It’s easy to miss it since the sign board is not really flashy and it’s in a basement, though on the main road only. It’s lively and a popular choice for most. Easier to locate since its on the main road and the music often escapes the closed door.
3- Tashi Tagay Drayang : Located opposite the Taj Tashi on the Norzim lane.
Check out the short videos on Drayang I shared on my You Tube Travel Channel. Click link below to view:
You can read Richa Gupta’s version of Drayang here
I explored Bhutan with Bhuatn Bookings. Check them out for a hassle free vacation.
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