Bhutan goes Bonkers for St Andrews bags

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ANYONE visiting the tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan might be surprised to spot bright, lime-green bags from Bonkers, the award-winning gift shop in St Andrews, being carried around by locals.

However, seeing is believing and they shouldn’t rub their eyes in disbelief for a large supply of the distinctive carriers have been handed out there by businesswoman Claire MacLeary, who formerly owned Loot and Claire’s Country Store in St Andrews.

Some 5000 miles from the UK and sandwiched between Tibet to the north and India to the south, Bhutan has only allowed entry to foreigners for the past 40 years or so, and for Claire it was the realisation of a long-held ambition to visit there with her husband, Alistair.

As part of her preparations for the trip, she established that, although education and healthcare in the small country of 700,000 inhabitatants are free, and begging frowned upon other than in a religious context, schools are grateful for small gifts of stationery, pens and pencils, monasteries for reading glasses and the entire population, it seems, for small flashlights.

She told the Citizen: ”According to our travel agent, it is customary in Bhutan, in addition to making monetary donations to monasteries, to offer a small gift in return for hospitality. These were the most practical - and portable - gifts she could suggest.”

Having being able to purchase wind-up torches and reading glasses elsewhere, Claire visited the well-known St Andrews gift shop, Bonkers, where owner Lindsey Adam was delighted to supply a stock of its distinctive carrier bags, from which to dispense the original gifts and stationery for which the shop is so renowned.

Speaking of her trip of a lifetime, Claire said: ”Bhutan is not a poor country, yet its hotels do not have central heating and sometimes no hot water. Furnishings can be very basic, beds hard, and food is invariably buffet-style, lukewarm and comprising mainly rice and vegetables, meat and fish being imported from India.

“However, the grandeur of the scenery - soaring cypress trees, tiered rice paddies, rushing rivers, all with the backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayas - and the magnificence of its historic buildings far outweighed any discomfort we endured.”

The couple visited majestic Dzongs - the defensive forts now used for religious and administrative purposes - remote monasteries and colourful village festivals.

At the temple of Lama Drukpa Kunley, they gave gifts of stationery and torches to tiny boy monks, while at the Kila Goempa Nunnery they drank tea with giggling nuns as they tried on the gifts of reading glasses.

Claire added: ”In the remote Haa Valley, we shared our lunch - plus some souvenirs from St Andrews - with a teacher from the village school.

“We drank local whisky sitting on the floor of someone’s ‘front room’ in the weaving village of Khoma, were invited into the VIP tent by the local lama at the Gyelposhing festival, exchanged pleasantries - and a couple of torches - with the husband and wife in charge of a pack train high in the mountains and sat in the sun watching an archery competition.

“We were overwhelmed by the gracious welcome we received from the highest lama in the land to labourers picnicing by the roadside. And everywhere we went our guide, Tashi, was able to delve into the boot of the car for the bright green Bonkers’ bags.”

Lindsey Adam said: ”Claire is one of my customers and contacted us to ask if she could have some of our carrier bags to take on her trip to Bhutan.

”They are made of paper in Fife, so are environmentally friendly. I imagine they would last for a while in Bhutan, but once they are worn out they can be composted or used for lighting a fire.

“It would be amazing if future Scottish visitors to Bhutan came across a monk or someone else carrying a Bonkers bag. Imagine their reaction.”