Our trip around the Kingdom of Bhutan was marked by unusual cultural experiences, best described as ‘authentic’, despite this word being overused in the travel industry. The obscure, little-explored Kingdom nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, famous for giving priority to Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product, is a land of rich forests, gushing rivers and spectacular mountain landscapes, sparsely populated by some of the friendliest people we’ve ever met.
During our twelve-day trip, we participated in a local festival, got hit on the head with giant wooden phalli, visited the Takin preserve (home to a strange-looking Himalayan animal that looks just like a cow with a goat’s head!), hiked up to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and last but not least, experienced a homestay on a farm in the Paro Valley, where we were hosted by some very friendly local people.
It’s compulsory to book a tour of Bhutan through a local agency, unless you’re from India, the Maldives or Bangladesh. We specifically requested that a homestay be included in our itinerary, but we had no idea of what to actually expect. We made our way to the local home via a narrow lane, winding through Paro’s lush fields. We were greeted by our hosts at the entrance to the farm, a door adorned with a large phallus and a horse shoe. Our hosts did not speak any English but our guide and translator informed us they would be preparing a traditional hot stone bath for us to enjoy.
We were then ushered to a little outhouse at the back of the farm, which contained a shaky wooden bath. It had already been filled with water and the owners were in the process of throwing stones into a blazing fire they had lit up nearby. As the rocks became white-hot, they were carefully removed from the fire with a large metal prong and thrown into one partition of the bath to heat up the water. The water sizzled and spat as the rocks were thrown in, thus steaming up the room.
Our guide explained that the water was procured from a nearby stream, reputed to have medicinal properties. We took turns soaking in the hot bath water, myself staying in the bath until the heat was so intense that it was time for Nikki to take my place. It felt very much like being at a Western-style spa but without any trace of modern luxury! We’re not really convinced that we received any health benefits from the steaming water, but the hot relaxing soak ensured that we spent that night snoring away to our hearts’ content.
After drying off, we were invited to have dinner with the family, a simple affair of rice with chunks of pork fat and butter tea. Butter tea is very much an acquired taste, and having drunk quite a bit of it during my travels in Tibet, I welcomed its thick, rich flavor. Nikki, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic about the churned brew, sipping it doubtfully from time to time until he gave up on it.
During dinner, our hosts’ son (who spoke good English) gave us an insight into local farming life in rural Bhutan, and explained the importance of the local Bhutanese people’s love towards Bhutan and their community.
After dinner, we were shown to our simple room, furnished with a mattress on the floor covered with a thick, fluffy, pink blankets.
The next morning we woke up to the sounds of farm animals. A long night’s sleep without interruptions meant that we were feeling relaxed and refreshed and ready to tackle the hike up to Tiger’s Nest. Breakfast consisted of the cold leftovers of the previous night’s dinner… and butter tea of course!
The homestay exposed us to the simplicity of local Bhutanese life, and was a much-cherished experience that we will treasure for a long time.
Article by Cheeky Passports (Michelle and Nikki).
Top image by Göran Höglund (Kartläsarn)/Flickr
Inspired to visit Bhutan? Have a look at similar trips Royal Mountain Travel can offer in this tiny Himalayan kingdom: