BhutanCulture & TraditionFood

The Alps of Asia in Bumthang, Bhutan

The verdant rolling hills, cows grazing in the valleys and the plate overflowing with Emmental cheese at your homestay would lead you to believe you’re vacationing somewhere in the Swiss Alps. But this is a common scene here in Bumthang, Bhutan. It is the perfect place for farming, and the valley’s rich permaculture provides an even more ideal space for livestock, like dairy cows, to live. With four main valleys in Bumthang, trekking in the region is some of the best and most beautiful in Asia.

Dairy itself isn’t anything new in Bhutanese cuisine. It has such a prominent culinary place that the national dish of the kingdom is Ema Datshi, a chili cheese dish. The primary source for cheese here is yak milk, but when Swiss cows were introduced in the 1970s the process of making Emmental and Gouda-style cheeses began. The royal family commissioned a cheese maker to come and assist with production, and now there is a locally run factory wheeling out production.

Konchogsum Lhakhang; Chokhor Valley, Bumthang. Photo by Richard Mortel/Flickr

Konchogsum Lhakhang; Chokhor Valley, Bumthang. Photo by Richard Mortel/Flickr

Even with this small Swiss influence, because Bhutanese traditions are so strong, the people of Bumthang have maintained their culture while incorporating a sliver of European taste within their cheese production. Bumthang cheese has helped shape tourism in the valleys. A small local brewery makes Red Panda Lager, and through its traditional beer brewing, the barley post-production is given to the cows, which in turn produce milk for the local cheese makers. Visitors can also stay in a Swiss-style guesthouse, a perfect fusion of the common cuisine and landscape the two countries share. In addition to cheese and beer, apples and honey are two other locally sourced foods.

Bumthang is often considered the religious heart of the kingdom. This area has some of the oldest, most sacred temples in the country. A popular pilgrimage site, you’ll find temples perched comfortably within the hills of the four valleys. Jambe Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, is in the area’s main town, Jakar. Many of the temples, or dzongs, are in this section of Bhutan, so a hiking exploration can turn into a temple trek, visiting the historic dzongs.

Chokhor Valley in Bumthang. Photo by Richard Mortel/Flickr

Chokhor Valley in Bumthang. Photo by Richard Mortel/Flickr

Spend a day strolling through the grassy farmland, smelling the fresh spring air in the orchards. Meditate in the most reverent buildings of the kingdom. Swing across iconic iron-chained bridges and explore the sacred pool of Mebartso, also known as the “burning lake”. It’s said that the creator of Himalayan Buddhism performed miracles at Mebartso. Finish the day with a crisp local cider and a few slices of artisanal cheese.

While Bumthang may be dubbed the “second Switzerland”, it has its own Himalayan character. Bumthang is a rich region of Bhutan that gives you insight into the past and future of the kingdom. Jakar in particular is a great base for a culinary vacation, a trekking holiday or a cultural immersion trip.

Article by Abbie Synan.

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