How I Met Bhutan’s Biggest Money Launderer

I’m in the land on happiness stuck with $200,000 in local cash that I can’t do anything with. To understand how I got in this situation you need a little backstory and information about Bhutan.

Buwhat?

Bhutan is a small country of 740,000 people located between Nepal and Tibet. It’s known as the Land of Happiness because it’s the “only country that measures its progress by Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross Domestic Product (GDP)”. It’s a deeply Buddhist country run by a constitutional (recently) monarchy.

While my story is one of confusion and frustration, that’s not a reflection of Bhutan as a whole. It’s an amazing place that I’ll be writing about more in another article.

The backstory

To get into Bhutan you need to go on a tour. There is a minimum daily price set by the government that tour operators must charge ($250 USD per day). Their policy is “high value, low volume” tourism. However, this regulation means that there are a lot of tour operators who charge similar amounts and offer similar tours. So picking an agency is tough because they all seem the same.

I ended up going with one that had the best looking website (rookie error number one). So he sends over a 9-day itinerary, an invoice for roughly $4,000 AUD, and a complicated set of instructions about how to wire the money through two intermediary banks (one of which is the National Bank of Bhutan).

At this point, I know you’re just thinking; ”it’s a scam, Bootan isn’t even a real country”. That was my first thought as well, but after researching enough online, it all seemed legit.

So off I send my money, down the void of international transfer. And the void it proved to be.

I waited the usual business days to see if the money would arrive, but he said it still had not. Not only did he say the money wasn’t there but he was getting angry with me because he thought that I was scamming him.

Time was running out, plane tickets were selling out, hotels were getting full. If I wanted to make it to the magical land of happiness, I needed to act fast.

Having ruled down the error to a mistake on my behalf when entering the details in my online banking, I did the unthinkable… I sent a second payment. Another $4K down the rabbit hole.

Now at this point in the story, you have the right to call me stupid. But let me just call out that as I type this I am sitting in a restaurant in Bhutan (yes it turned out to be a real country) eating delicious Bhutanese food (it’s crazy spicy) typing up this story. So hold the judgement for a few paragraphs.

So two payments down, another few business days, and still no money received. “I’m fucked, I’ve just been scammed big time. Twice.” Not only did the agent say that he didn’t receive the money, when I paid my bank to do a trace on the money, all they could tell me was that it wasn’t with them, or the local intermediary. Thanks guys, brilliant.

My money was gone… or so I thought.

At this point, let me just say that international money transfer is a joke. “Wire traces” consist of emails being sent between banks. There is zero traceability and accountability over your money. Maybe that’s a good thing, but in my case, it was a costly one.

So at this point, I have no idea where to turn. My bank doesn’t know where the money is, the agent is still emailing me saying he is sick of making the daily donkey ride into the bank to check if the money is there (I’m kidding about the donkey, it’s Bhutan, not 5th century Egypt, you elitist).

So I do what any normal person would do. I delegated the problem to my VA (virtual assistant). His name is Ri, he lives in Bangladesh, he’s great. I said, “Ri I’m deep in it. I need you to find my money.”

Long story short, Ri played a game email pong with the Bank of Bhutan (who usually take a half-week to reply) finally confirming that they did have one of my payments.

The reason everything went to smoke was because TCB (Tourism Council of Bhutan) only release the funds to the tour agent if you put their name in the payment description field. I had put my name, “Sebastian Kade’s moolah, don’t touch”.

After another few rounds of email pong, they finally agreed to release the money to the agent. And since many weeks had now passed, they have received both payments so I finally knew where all my money was.

Great! So now all we need to do is get my first payment wired back to my account. Right?

You sweet little rose you. If only things were that simple. No, apparently that’s not possible. The agent tells me that I’ll get my money back in cash when I land in Bhutan. That’s months away, but sure.

The handoff

Fast forward several months and I’m in Bangkok for a four day stopover before heading to the land of happiness. My flight is the next morning and I need to be at the airport at 4:30am.

As you can imagine, making sure that I don’t miss my flight to Bhutan was one of the most nerve-racking things I’ve done in a while. I contemplated sleeping at the airport so that I couldn’t possibly miss the flight, but settled with 15 timers on my phone at 5-minute increments.

Four hours later, I touch down in the land of happiness, Paro International Airport, Bhutan.

The airport is nestled in amongst a massive valley making the flight in one of the most spectacular airport approaches in the world. Make sure to get window seats on this flight.

My tour guides (Bajaj and Zangpo) meet me outside the airport and take me to check-in to the hotel. After having three staff serve me coffee, two go find the wi-fi password, and another one stands there checking if “everything was ok sir”, I found out that I was the only guest staying in the hotel that night. Perfect setting for a holdup.

Bajaj and Zangpo cleared out the staff from the lobby and with a very serious demeanour asked if I wanted to “take care of the money business.” They were unarmed but there were two of them. Zangpo pulled out a large… piece of printed paper containing an explanation of what had happened, all the numbers, and exactly how much I would get back.

Essentially, they were refunding my money at the exchange rate that was used when I sent it to Bhutan. There were some strange $100 USD fees that the Bank of Bhutan deducted, but at this point, I just wanted as much of my money back and it all to be over with.

After confirming the math, Zangpo nervously reaches into his Gho (Bhutanese traditional men’s robe) and pulls out a red bag rolled up into a brick two inches thick. He unrolls it and pulls out several wads of cash wrapped with rubber bands which amounted to around $200,000 in local currency. He proceeds to count in front of me to ensure the amount is correct.

It’s worth noting, that the average yearly income here in Bhutan is around what was in that bag. Zangpo was so nervous because he was holding in his hands the equivalent of an entire years wage, in cash.

If you didn’t know anything about Bhutan, you would think that this story just took a step forward. It hasn’t. By accepting the Bhutanese cash things just got worse, a lot worse…

The Bhutanese Ngultrum

Bhutan is a small economy. So small, with such little international trade that their currency (the Ngultrum) is only available inside of Bhutan. Its international value is pegged to the Indian Rupee.

To make things clear, nowhere outside of Bhutan can you exchange Ngultrum into another currency. If you leave Bhutan with some Ngultrum, you might as well add it to your monopoly set.

At this point, I’ve got 200,000 Ngultrums. I have the world’s most expensive Monopoly set.

The plan that the travel agent had was for Banjaj and Zangpo to take me to a bank in the capital Thimphu where I can exchange the Ngultrums for some real money. Sounds legit.

A tight system

Bhutan is great. It’s a micro-economy where the controlling constitutional monarchy can tightly regulate policy to create a system that is focused on well-being. To a large extent, they do a pretty good job.

To give you an idea of what I mean about tight policy, here are a couple:

  • Smoking tobacco is banned. To do it you need a license.
  • Drinking alcohol on Tuesday’s is banned. Restaurants and bars don’t serve.
  • Eating meat for two months of the year is banned. Import of meat is stopped during that time.
  • For every tree that a logging company cuts down, another must be planted.

You get the idea. They have a focus on well-being and implement tight policy around that.

The banks

So a few days later we get to the capital Thimphu and head over to the Bhutan National Bank to convert my stack of paper to money. After bouncing from desk to desk, we finally get to a lady who is responsible for currency exchange. On her desk is a piece of paper with the current exchange rates: bingo.

Bajaj and Zangpo start describing in Bhutanese the current state of affairs to the lady. You don’t need to understand a language to know when a conversation is going south. Five minutes later Zangpo turns to me with a disappointed face and says that she can’t help. That much I knew Zangpo, but why? Apparently, she can only convert foreign currency to local, not the other way around. However, he said the other bank (there are only four in Bhutan) will be able to do it for us.

So we head over to the Bank of Bhutan.

Different bank, same problem. First, the same desk bouncing, followed by an optimistic conversation that goes south, followed by a much more worried expression on dear Zangpo’s face.

Let me throw in a quick word about the tour guides here in Bhutan. They are seriously dedicated to your best interests. They take their job extremely seriously and treat you with the utmost of respect. Sure it’s expensive to visit Bhutan, but the service from your guides is worth every dollar. I can’t give enough praise for how outstanding they are.

Back to the story, why can’t I exchange my money? In an attempt to prevent corruption, and prevent local wealth from being taken out of the country, the government only allows local currency to be converted to foreign currency under two circumstances:

  1. You are a foreigner and have a receipt showing that you converted your original foreign currency into local. So in other words, you are not taking money out of the country, only bringing money in.
  2. You are a local and are travelling to another country. You need a flight ticket and will only be able to convert to the currency of your destination.

As you can tell, I am neither of those cases and hence the banks can’t help me.

So if those two policies are known, why did the tour agent give me local currency knowing there is no legal way for you to get it out? I have no idea. To make matters easier, he is currently travelling in the USA (yes the agency is just one person) and is uncontactable. My conclusion, he is the world’s worst travel agent. Don’t book with him.

Private exchange

We leave the bank with empty hands… well actually hands full of fire kindling. I’m getting worried. I’m quizzing Bajaj and Zangpo with thousands of questions about how things work in this place, trying to find a way that we can convert this cash.

The next best bet I’m told is to go to the “private market”. This is a bunch of people who are known in Thimphu for exchanging currency, no questions asked. When I asked Zangpo whether they are legal, he said they have a “permit” from the ”government” (quotes mine, suspicions also).

The first guy we go to runs a toy shop. We walk past the toddler bicycles and kids clothes, up to the counter. A man in his mid-twenties greets Zangpo with a big smile and a friendly handshake. Call me sexist but men cut to the chase. It takes half a sentence for me to realize that we’re not in luck.

Apparently recently most of the private money exchangers have stopped. He’s out of the game. He says there might still be one left. She was up on the other side of town.

We head over to our last hope. At this point I’m racking my brain with creative ways to get this money out, here is a couple:

  • Buy $4K worth of gold necklaces and sell them outside the country.
  • Buy $4K worth of children’s bicycles and sell them outside of the country (after all Zangpo knows a guy where we can get them on the cheap)
  • Buy Zangpo an air-ticket outside the country, get him to exchange the money, then cancel and refund the flight.
  • Buy a local school… because how often can you really do that.

A big black safe

The only private money exchange left in Thimphu (and likely Bhutan) runs a shoe store. She sells Nike, Adidas, and other western brands. Amongst the shoes, she also owns a big black safe that is stocked full of foreign and local cash.

When we arrived she was sitting behind her 4×3 ft. safe with the door slightly ajar. She was middle-aged and looked a little rougher than the other Bhutanese women you see walking the streets. Dressed in western clothes, she looked approachable but not friendly. Her answers were short and decisive; she knew how to do business.

We didn’t know it yet but as fate was on our side. Not only was she still in business, but she was running low on Ngultrums and needed them badly.

As usual, Zangpo did the talking and this time the optimistic tone stayed strong. She said she would do it but didn’t have enough Australian dollars, the next best thing being USD. She listed her rates which were pretty close to the bank rates (my hunch being that she was happy to get the local currency) and we went ahead with the deal.

We took all the Australian money she had, and the rest in USD small notes. In Bhutan and other small countries like Myanmar, you get better exchange rates on small notes (because nobody wants them) than you do on large notes (50, 100).

She counted her money in an automatic counting machine, while Zangpo and Bajaj did ours by hand, pen, and paper. Bajaj and Zangpo were flying through the rates and conversions on paper, guiding here on what to do.

By the time the deal was wrapping up there were a few other Bhutanese in the store watching over the transaction. The openness made me feel vulnerable. There are places where I don’t feel comfortable exposing a hundred in my wallet, let alone a few thousand. Later when I asked Zangpo he said that a “Bhutanese would never steal from you, no never”.

When everyone was happy we half-bowed to each other and left through the back exit. No receipt, no trace, just cash for cash.

In the end

Was it all legal? Yeah, I’m pretty sure. Was she actually laundering money, doubtfully. But hey it was a hell of an adventure regardless. It was probably more of an exercise in policy hoop jumping than anything else.

And the best part about it is that between the time of sending the first tour payment to the time of exchange, the Ngultrum had risen in value against the dollar. So I may just be the world’s first foreign exchange trader to make a buck of the Ngultrum 👌

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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