Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Thimpu stray dogs
A few strays gather in Thimpu's iconic traffic control centre

People say dogs are man’s best friends.

Unintentionally, Magellan and I made some new best friends in Bhutan.

Everyone we know who’s been to Bhutan talks about the huge number of stray dogs, especially in Thimphu, the country’s capital.

“They’re not really a bother during the day,” our friend Marsha told us, “but they bark all night long. If you can, stay in a hotel that’s not in the centre of town.”

Just how many stray dogs are barking in Thimphu?

All 5,000 of them. In a city with fewer than 100,000 people. And there are 10 times that many strays countrywide!

In Thimphu, they call them “solar dogs.”

On every street we travelled, we saw solar dogs lying in the middle of the pavement snoozing in the sun.

“Charging,” said Tashi, laughing as he carefully slowed to drive around them. The solar dogs reminded us of rock stars, sleeping all day to charge up for the night’s performance. Thanks to Marsha, we never did hear any “Nocturnal Canine Concerts.”

As always, Namgyel, our guide, explained the situation to us.

Buddhists, as you probably know, believe in reverence for all life and in doing no harm to any sentient being, be it a stray dog or one of its fleas. The government realized the problem with the growing number of noisy stray dogs, many suffering from malnutrition, mange and scabies—some of them rabid. (A doctor at the travel clinic in Vancouver told us only about 10% of the stray dogs in Asia are rabid.) In 2009, the government started a nationwide capture/neuter/vaccinate/release program in conjunction with Humane Society International. It’s been successful but the problem hasn’t gone away.

Solar dogs also hang out in Bumthang in central Bhutan, as Magellan and I discovered during our three days in “Little Switzerland.”

To avoid returning from Bumthang on the only east-west road across Bhutan—which takes eight hours to travel the 300 kilometres from Jakar to Paro—Magellan and I had booked a flight. Namgyel and Tashi, however, had to drive the precarious, twisting, mountain road. We insisted they leave us on our own for our last afternoon in Bumthang and get a head start on the drive. “We’ll be fine,” we reassured them. “We’ll have lunch at the Swiss Guest House; it’s a place we wanted to visit. And then we’ll walk back to town via the monastery. Don’t worry. We know the way. And we don’t want you driving so much of that road in the dark.” Reluctantly, they dropped us off at the Swiss Guest House at Karsumphe.

We felt like stray dogs, free to roam on our own.

Don’t get me wrong. We loved every minute with Namgyel and Tashi. But as independent travellers let loose for the first time during the day in Bhutan, we were like frisky pups.

Under the shade of an apple tree, we ate a big Swiss lunch. Basil and carrot soup, pesto spaghetti, vegetarian lasagna and banana cake. We indulged ourselves even further: Magellan ordered a beer, I drank a glass of white wine. Under our table lay the inn’s lead dog, guarding us from canine pretenders who sauntered over.

The trouble began when we got up to leave.

We couldn’t get rid of the Guest House’s two main dogs. “Go home!” meant nothing to “Fritz” and “Heidi” no matter how many times we said it.

It got worse when we reached the Lhodrak Kharchu, one of Bhutan’s newer (1984) and most prestigious places for monks to study, where we’d listened to their chanting earlier that day. As we walked through the monastery, its own band of stray dogs appeared and began gnashing their teeth and lunging at Fritz and Heidi.

Lucky for us, there were more than 300 monks in residence and a handful of them immediately took care of the situation.

Fritz and Heidi followed us all the way down the mountain path into Jakar. We were worried about a confrontation between the solar dogs of Jakar and Fritz and Heidi—with us in the middle of it. We had gotten rabies shots but even having taken that precaution, within 24 hours of being bit by an animal you suspect has rabies, you have to get a Human Diploid Cell Vaccine. Which means leaving Bhutan—not easy to do quickly with its mountain roads and limited flights. Not a good scenario for us, or one we wanted to have to explain to Namgyel and Tashi….

We went into an ATM at the edge of town; Fritz and Heidi waited outside. We slipped into a shop across the street that we’d been in earlier that day and told the owner about our unwanted companions. He went out and spoke to them in Dzonga; Fritz and Heidi stayed. Not wanting to walk through the main part of town with our new best friends, we decided to wait them out in the shop.

About 10 minutes later after we’d examined every brooch, every piece of weaving and every scroll in the small shop, an English-speaking couple came in and overheard our conversation about Fritz and Heidi. “We know those dogs—we’re staying at the Swiss Guest House and we’re on our way back there. We’ll try to get them to follow us.”

“How was your drive back?” we asked Namgyel the next afternoon when he and Tashi met us at Paro’s airport.

“With the road construction, it took us more than 11 hours. We’re very glad you insisted we leave early,” said Namgyel. “How was your afternoon?”

We thought it best to let sleeping dogs lie.


Drexler, Madeline Drexler. A Splendid Isolation.

You can read more about stray dogs in Bhutan here and here and here.

The Swiss Guest House is a great place for lunch.

Wind Horse Tours is a company we highly recommend for arranging your trip to Bhutan.

9 Responses

  1. Dogs are indeed friends of mine, our two have given me immense joy as you never know what they are going to do to entertain you, best of all we go for daily tours of our property, a huge benefit to my mental and physical health, irreplaceable.
    Solar dogs, eh, reminds me of our summer “Sun Dogs” we see in the Canadian prairies when conditions are just right.

    Perhaps the Buddhists are showing us the way, harmony within all species, man did not get where we are without animal help, perhaps there is a lesson here.

    Interesting story.

  2. Interesting story. I remember meeting a young vet woman on our flight to Bhutan who was volunteering to assist with the dog situation for a year.

  3. Tackled the situation very well…..I could
    not go through your write ups immediately because I was on tour. Anyway hoping good health from both of you.

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