That time I played football in Bhutan

by Matt Brazier
Football match in Bhutan

I don’t like football. Not in an indifferent kind of way, I mean, I really dislike it and to be honest, just don’t get it. The number of times I’ve had to exit stage left when the conversation turns to the inevitable at a party…more than I’m willing to admit.

You need to know that before I tell you this story about that time I played football in Bhutan.

We’re driving along towards the capital, Thimphu and Jamyang asks me what size shoe I am? I cautiously reply “a 10”. “Good good” he replies. I look over to James and mouth “oh my god”. It’s happening.

Matt and James getting ready for the football match in Bhutan
How do these things work...

Let’s rewind slightly here. I met Jamyang (JC) in 2018 when I completed the lifelong dream of the Snowman Trek up in the very remote northern Himalayas in Bhutan. It was magical. An insane experience and you can get a feel for my journey here. JC was one of our guides on the 25-day trek. We developed this incredible friendship, and we just laughed every day. We were cheeky chappies, and people joked we were brothers from another mother.

We kept in touch and ETG launched Bhutan in early 2019. I couldn’t wait to go back. I let Jamyang in on the news over WhatsApp and told him I was going to be coming for two weeks to explore the east and central region with my colleague James in Dec 2019. Straightaway he asked what James liked, and I said he’s obsessed with football…

Matt and Jamyang in Bhutan high in the himalayas on the snowman trek
Developing long lasting friendships is part and parcel of a great holiday
Travellers and guides taking a break from archery at Aman Bumthang in Bhutan
Me, James, Pemba and Jamyang playing archery

Cut to James and I at breakfast in Thimphu. I look at him straight up. “I need you to teach me the rules of football”. He looks back at me. I don’t drop the stare for even a second. He picks up the salt and pepper. I know I’m making this sound like the movies, but it actually happened. I’m a 35-year-old guy and honestly, I really don’t like football, and I don’t know the rules.

There is an obsession with football in Bhutan. A pattern emerges. You’re jumping in the car, meeting a guide, going to a local restaurant, you get asked where you are from, you say London, they say Chelsea with a slight smile and a raise at the end as if it’s a question (I still don’t know what the answer is, but I can confirm they aren’t talking about the King’s Road). So here I find myself with James in a sports shop in the capital trying on football boots ready for the impending doom, I mean, fun football match that Jamyang has organised for us later that evening.

Buying football boots in Bhutan
It's not everyday someone comes in for size 10 football boots.

Now let’s get clear here; this isn’t a causal knockabout. I’m starting to realise that this is a full-on, actual game on a full-sized pitch with goalposts, a referee and everything…in Bhutan!  The CEO of our local partner company is flying in to play, our rival team is a scratch group of athletes from a lovely hotel group, and there is A LOT of excitement that two British football-mad guys (they didn’t get the memo) are going to be playing later. I don’t want to spoil the fun here, but this isn’t a story about some profound life-changing experience, and you can just scroll to the bottom and see me coaching a five-a-side football team at home. No, this is a story about letting go.

James playing football in Bhutan
James (thank goodness) lived up to his reputation
Playing football in Thimphu, the capital city in Bhutan
Quite surreal to be honest. Is this even me?!

I like to keep people on their toes about how long I was on the pitch. I’m sure it’s a bit of a legend somewhere. Did I enjoy the ‘actual’ football? No. Did I run away from the ball? Argh, it’s coming towards me. Am I terrible? Yes. Did I have fun? Of course. It will be etched in my mind forever. James played the full 90 mins, and I’m not even sure who won. It was one of those experiences that’s hard to put into words. My team’s sudden realisation that I was crap at football, the sunset over the mountains, the other teams coming over to watch, James passing me the ball to see the fear, the after game picnic. The kit. The personalised Kit….how could I forget! James La and Matt La.

A football match in Bhutan
Someone's taking it a bit more seriously than me....

If you want an in-depth match analysis, you’ll be disappointed. I wanted to write this because it resonates strongly with why we exist as a company and why I get out of the bed every morning and love my job. I’ve spent 12 years travelling, exploring different ideas, and questioning why I/we travel and one thing I’ve learnt at ETG is about allowing yourself to push your comfort zone. I was so out of my depth in this, but I did it for Jamyang, and for James and ultimately to have a laugh and do something I never dreamed of doing. A football game wasn’t in our itinerary – “today at 3.15 you will go to a football shop and buy some boots, etc etc”..you get the picture. I just had to let go and let things happen. I’m not naturally good at this, but working in travel and understanding when you need space for discovery is everything.

Two teams after a football game in Bhutan
A memory for life

So, will there be a football game on your next holiday itinerary? Probably not. But, we hope there will be an equivalent, your own ‘football game’, a surprise moment or serendipity which pushes you past your comfort zone and creates an unforgettable memory. Making your own story is the magic of travel. At ETG, we have set out to challenge the norms of the tailor-made travel industry. I know it sounds cliche, but some guided travel has become a bit prescriptive and forced, and although we’ve done as much as we can to push away from this, the market dictates a certain way to ‘travel’ and we got guilty of falling into this trap. If you google things to do in Bhutan, it’s going to tell you about the Tigers Nest Monastery and ‘Gross National Happiness’. Not their love of football, or even that they basically can’t taste food unless it has chilli in it. But that’s another story…

I’m not going to go into the Covid-19 situation right now, but it has naturally put a lens over everything we do. Out of all of the bad stuff, I’m happy we’ve had a chance to reflect. We’ve had some time to step back and look inwardly. We’ve built a range of holidays called The Revitalise Collection. They are about connecting to a destination, but with space for discovery. They are bold and not formulaic. They have the opportunity for chance encounters and happy accidents (football anyone?!). They will push your comfort zone but will allow time for yourself. They are stripped back and include our signature experiences where we see fit. They aren’t box-ticking holidays. They miss key sites deliberately. They include our fabulous guides who can’t wait to start meeting our guests again. I am so excited to have been part of creating this collection, and we can’t wait to share the trips with you…. watch this space for lots more to come.

So you’ll be wondering where the football boots are? They’re still in Bhutan – I gave them to Jamyang’s oldest son as a present. They looked brand new. Funny that. And me? I’m still not too fond of football but perhaps I can understand a little more how it can bring people together.

We don’t believe in standing still. Watching the world go by through a window. Hearing it through the stories of others.

You want to be in it, out there. Asking questions and finding answers. Finding yourself in worlds unknown. Finding the path less trodden. Meeting people with a different story to tell.

Just ask why, what, how, who? We’ll never stop helping you find the answers.

Our travellers come home with stories to tell, memories to keep and new ways of seeing their lives around them. That’s what happens when you truly connect with a destination.

FREE YOUR CURIOUS SIDE WITH EXPERIENCE TRAVEL GROUP

FREE YOUR CURIOUS SIDE WITH EXPERIENCE TRAVEL GROUP

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