ThimphuTech was the first technology blog in Bhutan. We started writing it in 2009, just as broadband and mobile internet started to take off. (Although internet in Bhutan was launched in 1999, it was either super-slow or super-expensive, and was only used by a selected few).

In the blog, we wrote about technology and food, but also about plenty of other stuff. The blog became popular and influential in Bhutan. A companion bi-weekly column -- Ask Boaz -- was published for many years in the Kuensel, Bhutan's national newspaper. (The complete Kuensel columns are available as an ebook, Blogging with Dragons).

We stopped updating the blog when we left Bhutan in 2014, but the information within the posts can still prove useful, and thus we decided to keep it online.

We thank all our readers.
Tashi Delek,
Boaz & Galit.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

My adventures with MMS (Part 1 of ...)

MMS Advertisement in the Kuensel
Most mobile users are familiar with SMS, the short text messages you can send from your mobile phone to other subscribers. SMS is a fat and healthy cash cow for mobile operators. The average price of sending an SMS in the world is around US$0.10, but the cost for the operator is close to nothing. In Bhutan the user pays Nu. 1 per SMS, arguably one of the cheapest rates in the world.

SMS is limited to text. You can't use it to send photos or videos. So mobile operators invented a technology called MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service), which can be used to send music, videos, photos and ringtones between phones. Sending an MMS costs more than sending an SMS, so naturally the operators would be happy if we use it. MMS has been available for quite some time now with both B-Mobile and TashiCell, but has not gained popularity in the Kingdom.

Now Bhutan Telecom is trying to change all that. On Saturday BT put a hard-to-spot advertisement in the Kuensel. Apparently they are offering free MMS for the month of September. (The regular price for sending an MMS is Nu 5 from B-Mobile to B-Mobile, Nu 7 from B-Mobile to TashiCell. It costs nothing to receive an MMS). This is a good marketing idea - let people try the new technology for free. However, unlike SMS, configuring your mobile phone for MMS can be a bit tricky, so BT generously suggests sending them a message with details of your mobile phone, and they will send you back all the instructions.

Following the instructions in the ad, on Saturday afternoon I sent an SMS with my mobile phone details (make and model) to 25252 (the advertisement mentions the number 25251, but it is a typo. The number is 25252). I immediately got a response saying:
Thank you for your request. We will get back to you soon. Bmobile.
Then nothing happened. I finally got another SMS yesterday (Monday), saying
Dear Customer, you'll receive setting shortly. Use 1234 as password.
As of now, I'm still waiting for the settings.
To be continued!

P.S.: If you managed to enable MMS on your handset, kindly share your experience by adding a comment to this post.

P.S.2: The information about the new promotion is now available on the BT website.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Free calls from Bhutan to the U.S. and Canada

You can now use Gmail - Google's free email application - to call regular phones from your computer. And calling numbers in the U.S. and Canada is free until (at least) the end of 2010. That's 4 months of free phone calls to your relatives and friends in New York or elsewhere in North America. Calling other countries is not free, but the rates are excellent (e.g., 2 cents per minute to Australia). However, this will require a credit card.

I tried this new service from Google, and it works well.

You can read all about this new feature in the official Google blog. If you don't have a Gmail account, you can get one here. It's free.

Note (1): This service is supposed to be available only to U.S. customers. However, it appears that the way Google currently checks if you're a U.S. person is by looking at your Gmail language settings. Make sure it is set to "English (US)". I previously set to "English (UK)" so I couldn't make any calls. Once I switched to "English (US)", the magic happened. You can change the language settings by clicking on "Settings" on the top right corner of your Gmail page.

Note (2): If you're using Bhutan Telecom's broadband connection (aka ADSL), the calls are not really free - you're using Internet data. According to my calculations, the new service uses up to about 1MB per minute, which at BT's rates (Nu 399 per 2.5GB) translates into approximately Nu 0.15 per minute - still much cheaper than a phone-to-phone call.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A time for technology and a time for no technology

More and more of our waking hours are being filled with "tech time": Using Facebook on computers, sending and receiving SMS messages on mobiles, browsing the web, listening to music on iPods or mobiles, and of course, watching TV. All this tech-activity comes at the expense of other activities such as working, studying, playing sports, socializing, reading, eating, sleeping, or just enjoying down time. In an recent Kuensel article on the "Hole in the Wall" computers placed in Changjiji, a 12-year old child that now uses these computers after school was quoted to proudly say "I played football and marbles, but now I play counter strike [a video game]".

In many developed countries children no longer play outside or see their friends in person. Instead, they stay indoors and play computer games, or chat with their friends on Facebook. One clear result is the decrease in physical activity, leading to child obesity and related diseases such as diabetes.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, titled Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime, another result of spending too much "tech time" is damage to our brain and its ability to absorb. They write
When people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas.
While many activities in Bhutan are still not done online, such as shopping or banking, the amount of "tech time" seems to be growing fast. Awareness is therefore the key. Parents and educators should try to explain and encourage non-tech time for their children, and should also remember to be good role models themselves.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Pen-drive attacks US military

Pen-drives are a serious threat to your computer's health. Most computers in Bhutan are infected by malware (MALicious softWARE, such as viruses, worms, and Trojan horses) when a "sick" pen-drive (also known as a "flash drive" or "USB stick") is inserted into your desktop or laptop. Malware can reduce the performance of your computer, use your bandwidth, and in general be quite annoying. But it can also pose a real threat.

It was recently revealed that in 2008, an infected pen-drive was inserted into a laptop belonging to the US military. Once the laptop was infected, classified documents could be transferred to remote servers operated by a foreign government or other covert organization. The malware also spread and contaminated other computers in the military network. This attack, which started in the Middle East, was described by a U.S. official as the "most significant breach" of the U.S. military's computers ever.

Click here for the complete story.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sonam-Tshoey's ice cream now available at 8 Eleven

Initially available only at Sharyang (Changlam Square), Sonam-Tshoey's excellent ice creams and sorbets are now available also at 8 Eleven (next to The Zone). If you're not familiar with Sonam-Tshoey's frozen goodies, give them a try. They are fresh, made in small batches, use local ingredients when available, and contain no preservatives or food colourings. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Introducing computers into schools

Yesterday's Kuensel editorial discussed the advancement of IT skills in the education systems, mentioning the plan "to empower 5,000 teachers and 50 core group teachers and equip some 168 schools or so with computer labs." The introduction of computers into schools, while now widely implemented in developed countries, has lead to some serious criticism. Does the introduction of computers improve scholastic achievements? Multiple studies have shown that the introduction of computers on its own does not improve, and can even degrade student achievement. Here are a few articles that tell the story:

  • An Israeli prize laureate in education discusses some of the issues with classroom computerization and scholastic achievement in this recent article.
  • The 2007 New York Times article "Seeing No Progress, Some School Drop Laptops" describes some of the challenges experienced by schools in the United States that have computers and Internet access.

Kids today quickly learn on their own how to type and to use basic or even advanced applications (have you seen some youngsters on Facebook lately?). The role of teachers (and ideally parents as well) is therefore to introduce students to ways in which computers can enhance their learning and their natural curiosity, as well as to educate them about "life skills" in the Internet age.

Training teachers is not as trivial as teaching them how to use the Microsoft Office package or how to use an Internet browser. Instead, teachers should be introduced to pedagogical methods for enriching their curriculum and academic materials by integrating computer assisted learning. It is not simply the addition of "computer literacy" as a subject, but rather an integration of technology into existing education programs to support developing problem-solving skills, creativity, and independent learning.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Viruses attacking our phones

If you thought that your computer was the only battleground for combating malware (viruses, worms, and the like), think again. If you have a mobile phone that has bluetooth technology, you might be prey to malware as well!
I often keep my mobile phone's bluetooth turned on for transferring photos from my phone to my computer. Today, while I was in town, I noticed that an unknown phone was trying to connect with mine through bluetooth by sending me files of type .sis with names such as irsli3wp2js.sis. Luckily, I knew not to open the files. Once you click on the file and allow it to be installed, such viruses can infect your phone and then start looking for new devices in the vicinity to infect.

A host of worms and trojans are out there that infect mobile phones and also transfer themselves through the bluetooth connection. You can read more about mobile viruses on Wikipedia.

How to protect yourself? To avoid the malware that uses bluetooth technology, you can turn off your bluetooth when it is not in use or set your phone to "hidden" or "undiscoverable" while you're not using it. When mobile phones are used for carrying out sensitive actions such as financial transactions, then it is clearly worthwhile investing in security measures such as mobile phone security software.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The hidden benefits of debit cards

I really like the convenience of using my Bhutan National Bank (BNB) ATM card for paying at participating shops. No need to carry around cash, no need to deal with checks. I recently learned of two additional reasons for using the card to pay at these shops. The first is straightforward. The second is slightly more tricky.

  • There's a monthly "Swipe and Win" draw with nice prizes (see the amounts in the shown ad). They'll even call you if you win.
  • Using your card in this way is the only way to withdraw money from your account without affecting your eligibility for interest. In particular, BNB announced that as of April 1, 2010

    BNB customers are eligible to receive an interest rate of 4.5% (effective) on saving accounts with a minimum balance of Nu.1,000.00 with no upper limit
    Sounds like a good deal. However, as we have been told at the main branch, to receive the interest you must have 4 or less withdrawals from your account per month. "Withdrawal" includes using the ATM machine, writing a check, or withdrawing directly from the cashier. Surprisingly, using your BNB ATM card at shops does not count as a withdrawal for this purpose!

Sangay Shamu

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Online ad for Acer laptop

While reading the Kuensel online today, I noticed that one of the flashing ads was for a laptop. I clicked on the online ad and found a photo and specs, but not the price.

After calling the company, Dot Com Enterprise, I discovered that the laptop for sale is a slightly different model from the one in the ad: An Acer Aspire 4740. The specs are very similar to those in the ad, except for the CPU which is Intel Core i3-330M 2.13GHz, 3MB L3 Cache, 1066MHz FSB, 35W (see here). The price is Nu. 33,000.

Doing research online before purchasing a computer is still not easy in Thimphu. Very few shops have websites with current information (one exception is Leki Dorji Enterprise). Yet, since most computer shops have a single model in stock (usually one desktop and one laptop), learning about what is available requires visiting each place or at least calling. The ad on is therefore a great new online resource.

Got information on new computers available in town? Please email us and we will cover it here.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Arunachal Pradesh to Thimphu: The Google Maps version

Google Maps, the free mapping service, is constantly improving its support for Bhutan. Search for Thimphu (see here), and you'll see that many of the lams are already there. You can use Google Maps to get driving directions, but within Thimphu city they are likely to be misleading. For example, I tried getting directions from the Post Office to the Memorial Chorten. Google sends you in the wrong direction at Norzin Lam, since the Thimphu street data does not (yet) contain information about one-way streets.

You can also get directions for long distance trips, both within Bhutan and across the border. Note that the directions don't take into account road conditions, visa requirements, etc and are likely not to be optimal, so take them with lots of salt (or better yet, ema). Still, they might be useful for various purposes, such as finding out distances between places. For example, check out the route from Arunachal Pradesh to Thimphu. Google Maps can even show you how to get your Maruti Alto from Thimphu to London...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Are viruses clogging Bhutan's information highways?

It seems that the number of "healthy" computers in Bhutan can be counted on a single hand. Many computers that I'm running into show clear symptoms of a sick machine, some of them so terminally ill that the only cure is the IT equivalent of a brain transplant, i.e., re-formating the hard disk. Most computer viruses spread when you insert an infected USB drive (also known as pen drive) into your computer. Once infected, your computer starts to slow down or otherwise behave strangely. If you have good and up-to-date anti-virus software installed, this can sometimes protect your computer.

In addition to slowing down your computer and otherwise being a major nuisance, malware (MALicious softWARE, such as viruses, torjan horses, and more) can also use your Internet connection. For example, Trojan horses can steal your files and passwords and send them over the Internet back to the hackers. Rootkits - another type of malware - often use your computer to attack other computers. All this takes place while you're online, and most likely you won't even notice it - although you might be annoyed by the apparently long time it takes for your Facebook wall to load.

Given Bhutan Telecom's consumer broadband prices - about Nu 160 per 1GB - a virus that uses a mere 0.5kB/second will cost you about Nu. 200 a month, assuming the infected computer is connected to the Internet 24 hours a day. If you have several infected computers sharing your Internet connection, your bill will be even higher. My advice: Obviously, always try to keep your computer clean. However, If you suspect a computer infection, turn off the broadband modem or computer(s) when not in use.

And on a national level: Given the increasing number of Internet-connected computers, the poor "health" of so many of them, and the finite international bandwidth, what price - in productivity and otherwise - are we paying for all those bandwidth-gulping computer viruses?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Netbooks for Nu. 14,999

For those in search of a reasonably priced netbook (a small laptop), we discovered two places in town selling the Simbook Buddy (N450) by the Indian company Simoco. The netbook comes equipped with 1.6 Ghz CPU, 10.1'' screen, 160 GB hard-drive, 1GB memory, 3 USB ports, Wifi and more. You can find the full specifications here. The netbooks are brand new, not refurbished or used.

The two shops selling the Simoco Buddy are Lepcha (Zangto Pelri complex) and a mobile shop on Norzin Lam a few blocks down from the milk booth (contact phone 77236646).

Currently this seems to be the cheapest netbook available in town. Lepcha also sell a Nu. 17,000 Samsung netbook, which I have not tested.

Disclaimer: I have not purchased or used the computer beyond a simple test at one of the shops.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

BNB texting tip

I've been quite happy with the zero-fee savings account from Bhutan National Bank. The two BNB ATMs in Thimphu spit out the right number of crispy notes, the customer service is friendly and efficient, and their debit card seems to work at plenty of shops around town (with the exception of Tashi Supermarket - where the machine never works).

I also like their SMS service, which sends you a message automatically if a large transaction is made in your account (currently "large" means more than Nu. 5,000).  Using this service, there are two ways to find your balance: you can either text the message BALA XXXX (where XXXX is your 4-digit PIN) to get the summary balance of all your accounts, or if you need the balance of just one specific account, you can use the message BAL ZZZZZZZZZZZZ XXXX (where ZZZZZZZZZZZZ is your account number, and XXXX is your 4-digit PIN).

Here's something I found out recently: Due to the intricate ways of the BNB computers, the response to the former message (summary of all accounts) takes a few minutes (even if you have just one account) while the response to the latter message takes only a few seconds. Thus, if you're in a hurry - use the second format.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sese shamu

© 2010
Delicious and packed with tons of vitamin D, chanterelle mushrooms (Dzongkha: sese shamu) are now in abundance.

Free Skype calls to the U.S.

Skype allows you to talk to friends for free, as long as both of you are using Skype ("Skype-to-Skype" calls). If your overseas friend is not on Skype, you can also use Skype to call regular phone numbers. This feature is known as SkypeOut, and costs a few cents a minute, depending on the destination, plus a per-call connection fee. A 10 minute call to the U.S.A. would cost around Nu. 13 (given today's exchange rates), which is not too bad.

To use SkypeOut you would need Skype Credit - basically a prepay arrangement - and for that a credit card is usually required. However, you might find it useful to know that you can call many phone numbers in the U.S. for free, even if you don't have Skype Credit. These numbers are known as toll-free numbers, and they start with one of the following prefixes: 1-800, 1-866, 1-877, and 1-888. Just launch Skype, click on "Call phones", and enter the phone number, starting with +1 (the U.S.A. country code). Most businesses in the U.S.A. provide a toll-free number. For example, you can call most airlines using their toll free number here (since these are U.S. numbers, don't forget to add the +1 country code). To find the toll-free number of a U.S.-based business, check its website, or call the toll-free directory (in itself a toll-free number) at +1-800-555-1212.

Skype also supports free calls to toll-free numbers in the U.K., Taiwan, France and Poland. See the complete list here.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Facebook beggars?

Question #1: Have you received an email from a friend lately saying something like: "I am in Bangkok and lost my wallet and passport. Can you please wire me urgently $200?"

Question #2: Is your friend also your "friend" on Facebook?

If the answers to both questions are "YES", then most likely your friend's Facebook account has been hacked, and your friend is nowhere near Bangkok. A few of our friends have already fallen or nearly fallen into this trap - the lucky ones tried to call their friend's mobile first, and were surprised to hear that they are in their Thimphu office.

Take a glimpse at any computer screen in Thimphu today, and you will mostly see an open Facebook page. The Facebook craze has definitely swept Bhutan like the rest of the world. Now that everyone has more "friends" that they can remember, hackers have found a way to take advantage of your social network. This same scam has been used with hacked email accounts.

To avoid getting your account hacked, make sure to choose a non-trivial password and keep it private. When you receive a "help me! please send me money" request, even if it appears to be from your cousin's genuine email address, it is best to double-check with your cousin using "low tech" such as a phone call.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Will the new iPhone 4 work in Bhutan?

(9/9/2010: See also the follow-up post)

If you're thinking of asking your friend in Bangkok to get you the latest iPhone, think again. In addition to the nuisance of unlocking the beast (so that it will be able to work with any mobile network), Apple have added an additional issue: While previous  iPhone generations use the standard mini-SIM card, the latest model uses a tiny SIM card version known as a micro-SIM. The common SIM cards sold by B-Mobile and TashiCell will not fit the new iPhone.

If you are really pressed on using the iPhone 4 in Bhutan, the web is packed with information on how to chop down a standard SIM and turn it into a micro-SIM (here's one such tutorial, which uses a chef's knife). Otherwise, sit on your hands and wait until the mobile companies starts offering SIM cards in the new format.

P.S.: The same hurdle also exists with the over-hyped iPad 3G. It also uses a micro-SIM to connect to a mobile data network. If you are thinking of getting one, I suggest you take this issue into account.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Bhutan Today's website hosting malware?

When visiting this morning using Google Chrome, I got the following warning: Visiting this site may harm your computer. It appears that the website has been infected by malware. If you happen to know people at Bhutan Today, kindly let them know. Until their webmaster fixes this issue, it's probably better to read the paper version.

Monday, August 2, 2010

A lost world

I often tell friends that those small things that make up daily life in Thimphu remind me of my home country of Israel in the 70s. Of course, Israel has "developed" since then, at least in the GDP sense. It was US$5B back in 1970, and today the annual GDP exceeds US$200B, an impressive 40-fold increase in just four decades. But what things disappeared along the way? And were these an essential consequence of "development"?

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article today (apologies, but it's in Hebrew) with a laundry list of (arguably desirable) life patterns that were taken for granted 30 or 40 years ago in Israel, and have all but disappeared. Most of these still exist in Thimphu and elsewhere in Bhutan, but some are quickly disappearing.
  • Drinking tap water. These days Israelis are addicted to expensive bottled water, although tap water is cheap and safe. Obviously, the plastic bottles create huge environmental problems.
  • Clothes lines have surrendered to electrical dryers. What a waste of energy in a a country with more than 300 sunny days a year.
  • Small vegetable gardens and fruit trees around houses and apartment buildings. These gave way to development of real estate and manicured lawns.
  • Eating dinner at home. Fast forward to 2010: Israelis eat out three times a week on the average, and it's often packaged or junk food. Preparing real, healthy food from scratch is rare.
  • Playing environment-friendly, low-tech board games for hours.
  • No shopping malls. Israelis spent their leisure time visiting friends and relatives or going out for a picnic. Today families kill time in air-conditioned shopping centers, spending money on branded goods they don't really need.
  • No traffic jams. People rode the bus, walked, or biked.
  • Public libraries, which served as meeting places.
  • Children playing outdoors for hours and roaming around freely. You seldom see this in Israel or any other developed country anymore, although it's such a basic human need. Most children are "locked" inside their homes, playing video games or surfing the Internet. Child obesity and various psychological issues usually follow.

ThimphuTech is back!

In 2008 we arrived in Bhutan. A lot was happening that year in the Kingdom: The first democratic elections, His Majesty's coronation, the centennial celebrations.

On the IT front things were also developing fast - a 3G network was launched, ADSL prices plunged, Internet banking was introduced, the IT Park project started. We thought it was a good idea to blog about these developments. Thus was created.

After a one year break in Washington, D.C., we're back to Thimphu. And so we're re-launching We'll ramble about technology, coffee and happiness. Hope you'll enjoy the reincarnated blog!

Boaz & Galit