This is an interview I did with Sangay Wangmo, a woman from Bhutan, for the new edition of my book Vegetarian Asia: A Travel Guide. Bhutan is a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. I like what she says, and can relate to being struck by the beauty of animals and not wanting to participate in their slaughter.
TLB: How did you come to be vegetarian?
SW: I don’t come from a vegetarian family. I started giving up eating meat not too long ago. When I was 18, I walked by a few beautiful yaks to school and when I returned back, the yaks were gone and I saw some blood drippings. I knew the yaks were going to be slaughtered but somehow that day it made me really sad and I gave up eating yak meat from that day onwards. As times went by I avoided eating fish, egg and pork. In Bhutan some people give up these fish, egg and pork because of their religious belief.
Slowly, I began avoiding eating meat at all for a few years, until I became very weak. So I began to eat just beef and chicken occasionally. I came to the US and then resumed being a vegetarian and even a vegan for a year. I stopped the vegan diet before I went home for the summer because in Bhutan you eat chilies and cheese if you are vegetarian. I had never heard of being vegan when I was in Bhutan and most people are not aware of vegan diet. I think now vegan diet is starting to be recognized.
Anyway the reason why I do not eat meat is because I have read and received teachings of the Buddha that all sentient beings once have been our mother in our past life, or will be in future lives. The sentient beings include all living beings, not only humans, but also animals. Also, like you mentioned, I don’t want to be killed to be consumed and likewise I respect all animals and don’t think that they should be killed either.
TLB: How do the Bhutanese regard vegetarianism?
SW: In Bhutan, as a Buddhist kingdom, being vegetarian is highly regarded. People do observe vegetarian meals on auspicious days and during some practices. The head of the monastics in Bhutan, the Je Khenpo, is also vegetarian and he promotes vegetarian meals during religious ceremonies in the monasteries and during cremation.
Also, recently some local government officials along with the people are trying to cut down on meat consumption and go totally vegetarian during the annual pujas ( religious ceremonies).
So yes vegetarianism is widely accepted in Bhutan even if you don’t practice it.
TLB: Do you have any advice for vegetarians traveling to Bhutan? Or vegans? It seems especially hard for a vegan to avoid cheese there.
SW: For vegan food in Bhutan, the Indian and Nepali vegetable dishes are sometimes made without cheese or milk. The Indian and Nepali food such as “dal” or lentil soup is a good choice and potato called “alu dam” made with onions, oil, potatoes, turmeric, salt and chilies.
Avoiding cheese is not easy but it is possible. I think you could ask for local organic cheese where families raise the cattle like their own children. These cattle graze freely and actually are part of the family.