Playing Basketball in the Clouds in Bhutan

Tim Price
4 min readOct 19, 2020
The Basketball Court in the capital Thimpu
The court, Thimphu Bhutan Pic by Shutterstock

Bhutan is a country that is hidden away between India and China and opened itself to tourists in 1974.

It is 1983 and I’m travelling with a group of five teaching colleagues. We are met at the border by a smiling man who checks our passports carefully and stamps the number 400 in the middle of a new page in mine. That’s pretty cool I thought, I’m the 400th tourist to ever visit Bhutan!

We are handed over to a young Bhutanese guy named Dorjii, who speaks excellent English and he will be our guide for the next 10 days.

To get a tourist visa in those days you needed to be in a group of six and so myself and the five others (4 male and 1 female) set out to see the sites of mystical Bhutan.

We chat pleasantly with Dorjii, who is as curious of us as we are of him. Questions bounce back and forth as we get to know each other. Four of us males are over 180 cm (6ft) tall and after a while Dorjii makes the statement “you guys are all pretty tall, you should play basketball”. I answered him with “three of us do and we all play in the same team back home”.

He gives us a mischievous grin and says, “you know the King loves basketball and even has his own team”.

In total jest I say, “maybe we should play a game against the Kings’ team”. Dorjii smiled broadly and says ‘Ok, I’ll give the King a call when we get to the hotel and arrange it”.

I really thought he was pulling our leg. You mean you can just get to a phone and you have the Kings phone number and ring and say, “Hi King, fancy a game?”. We all laughed as one.

We arrive in Thimphu, the capital and sure enough as we were signing into a brand-new hotel that had no one else staying besides us, we see Dorjii on the phone chatting away.

“Good news and bad news” he reports. “The King is out of the capital, musk shooting, but the team are keen for a game tomorrow”.

Wow it’s game on, unbelievable!! “What are they like?” I ask. Dorjii tells us, “they are all in the army and they are the fittest guys in all Bhutan and they have never been beaten…ever”. We look at each other and know immediately that we have been stitched up, but whatever, its game on.

The next day we arrive at the outdoor court in the middle of the city that is 2648m (7600ft) above sea level and its cloudy. I mean the court is in the clouds. It is January, it’s winter and we are in the Himalayas and we can’t see the end of the court. Thankfully the cloud gods take pity on us and it clears… eventually.

The Bhutanese army team wander onto the court. There is not an ounce of fat on any of them. Chiselled, in fact would be an apt description. Five are shorter than us and one is a giant and he doesn’t smile when I say “G’day”.

We quickly come up with a strategy, take it slow and shoot over the top of them and most importantly, keep it away from gigantor. For three quarters, the scores are close. Then in the last five minutes, we collapse and they win by 11. They are smiling now, we are gasping for oxygen. No sign of an oxygen tent, so we shake hands, but we can’t talk, we can barely breathe.

“We want a rematch”, I blurt out, without consultation of my teammates. Dorjii passes on the challenge. The army boys smile and nod.

We have time to plan for this one, a new strategy is needed. They beat us on the break, they could run, we couldn’t run. There’s no air at 2600 + metres. So, we decided we will play one person right at the back, one in the middle and hope the rest of us can out-shoot and out-score them.

So, we roll up the next day. There are no clouds. But the word had got around town and there is probably 300 people in the stand and they are all barracking for us. They are cheering us, clapping, yelling, waving. This is very cool, we wave back like the sporting heroes we had always wanted to be.

So, the game. It is close. We are smarter this time and pushier. They don’t like it and try to run us into the ground. We give them the breaks and we get shots at our end. With three minutes to go, we are actually winning by 3 points. The crowd is going absolutely wild. It is so noisy. They desperately want to see the army guys lose.

We tried every trick we knew to slow the game down but gigantor pulls it out for them and we lose by 3 points. The crowd is disappointed but gracious. We entertained. A handful come up and ask for photos with us. They would be funny pictures, them with these tourists with bright red faces and mouths open like goldfish.

The army team give us a nod of respect. Their lungs beat our lungs. It was fun and a great memory. Dorjii was full of praise for us. It turns out the King plays with the army guys and they play a student team. The students lose every time and the King gives them all gifts. Nice… pity he wasn’t here.

That afternoon, we struggle to a café and I get asked for autograph in the street. I feel like Michael Jordan. I sign two basketballs and three pieces of paper. We are all smiling and are all happy. It’s a happy place, Bhutan.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to make my day by clicking on the clapping hands or the response bubble to share your thoughts.

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Tim Price

Based in Adelaide, South Australia, Tim has been a lifelong traveller and likes to share his experience, stories and tips.