Kingdom of Orchids

By Dr. Heiko Hentrich

All photos ©Heiko Hentrich

Why Bhutan…

I am a tropical botanist, who has travelled to many Latin-American countries to do field studies in remote places. As a side benefit of my job, I meet people from different cultures, and I have come to appreciate the opportunity to learn about other ways of life, customs, food, and languages. On my journeys, I usually stay with locals and prefer these private accommodations to hotels, because you learn so much more about the country and its people.

My holidays are not very different from my professional activities. I am especially interested in nature and in gaining insight into foreign cultures. Usually, I plan my trips by myself and predominantly stay with friends or friends of friends. I have never travelled on organised tours by tour operators, as I have very specific preferences regarding my scientific interests and I don’t like traveling in large groups.

Many years ago, I attended an orchid conference, where Phillip Cribb, former curator of the orchid herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, gave a talk about his research in Bhutan for completing his book “The Orchids of Bhutan” for the “Flora of Bhutan” series. His presentation was breathtaking for me. He showed us pictures of untouched nature as one rarely experiences in the world today. Abundant flowering Dendrobium orchids just beside the road painting yellow curtains in the forest; deep valleys and mountain ridges bearing dense forest covered in mist. The stories about his journey to this mystical kingdom were even more fascinating: we heard about people who appreciate and protect nature because of their faith and do not harm any living creature. For example, a nice anecdote was that Phillip’s driver stopped the car each time he saw an animal on the road, even as small as an earthworm, to carry it aside and rescue its life.

All photos © Heiko Hentrich

Finding a Tour Operator

You can imagine how deeply impressed I was and how much I wanted to travel to this country to witness these things for myself. Almost 20 years later, I started to plan my trip and this is where the difficult part began.  Accustomed to traveling alone, I was faced with the problem that access to Bhutan is only possible as part of a pre-planned itinerary organized and implemented by a local tour operator. However, I had no experience with tour operators and wondered how I would find one willing to organize a tour to meet my specific interests.

One of my colleagues, who had travelled to Bhutan, recommended Bhutan Homestay as a tour operator specializing in homestays and cultural trips. So I got in contact with Ulli and explained to her that I wanted to experience the untouched nature, mainly orchids obviously, but also other plants, and of course, animals.  I also wanted to learn something about the Bhutanese people, their history, way of life and Buddhism. Ulli was very open and enthusiastic during our discussions. This was the first time that someone asked her for such a specific kind of experience and she suggested that I should prepare a list of sites that I would like to see and she contacted orchid experts in Bhutan. For my part, I started to write down data from Cribb’s orchid book.

As in most Floras, the province, the typical habitat, and the flowering time for all species was indicated, which was a good starting point for my list. As a tropical botanist, I was especially interested in the country’s cloud and rain forests and not in the alpine vegetation as many other travellers are. For orchids growing in these forests, there are three main flowering events a year. I chose the end of May for my journey since there is an overlap of orchids flowering in the dry season with those flowering during the monsoon. During that time, you can especially find many Coelogyne and Dendrobium orchids in bloom. After passing my list to Ulli, she checked for local guides and homestays at the different sites and suggested several itineraries to me. Once I had chosen one, the rest of the travel preparations went pretty easy (at least for me). Ulli and Sonam organized the trip and arranged all the necessary documents. The accessibility of both of them by email or telephone was very good so that open questions, which still came to me at short notice, were answered within shortest time.

Tour Package and Flexibility

The days until the departure passed very quickly and I was very curious what to expect as this was my first externally organized holiday. However, I was positively surprised by the great tour package I received. There was one driver and one guide only for me, who met me at the airport in Paro when I arrived and anticipated my every wish during the whole journey. Kinley was a very experienced and cautious driver. I always felt very comfortable in his vehicle and despite the many serpentine roads, I never became sick. Pema organized the tour in the background from day to day so that everything was well prepared. It was even possible to change the itinerary slightly so that I was able to visit some more Dzongs at short notice. The flexible reorganisation of the travel plan was very pleasing and is a big plus point (I can imagine how much effort that would mean for the organizers). Pema has a broad knowledge of Bhutan’s cultural and historical background. To become a tour guide in Bhutan, apprentices must complete a comprehensive curriculum where they learn everything a tourist is interested in about Bhutan. At all of the places we went, he was able to explain the history and relationships and he spontaneously arranged gatherings and discussions with local people. Since many Bhutanese people speak very basic English (especially in the countryside), Pema was an important interface to connect with the locals. Additionally to Pema, Ulli had engaged a local guide at each location we visited. This was usually a park ranger who knew the local forests, the trails, and the plants and animals that grow there. Depending on the guide, one knew more about nature and the other less, but in general, Ulli had actually managed to get guides with a good knowledge of orchids. All local guides were very dedicated, spoke very good English and gave their best to make the trips a great experience.

All photos © Heiko Hentrich

In the larger cities, I was accommodated in very comfortable hotels which was fine for me. In Paro, I even had a room with a direct view to the Tiger’s Nest. In the countryside I stayed with people in their homes. The conditions of the homestays varied from family to family. In most cases, I had the honour of sleeping in the prayer room as I was a special guest. A simple bed on the floor with mattress, pillow and blanket was prepared for me. Some homestays were already specialized in the accommodation of travellers and had rooms with western standard beds and partly with private bathrooms. Since I am very sensitive to cold and it cools down quite a lot in the humid air at night, I usually used my sleeping bag additionally. If you are unlucky, there are fleas in the accommodation that leave itchy bites. This is especially the case during the wet season in the warmer regions. However, Ulli had already warned me about this so that was no problem for me. In the morning, I usually woke up to the smell of burnt pine needles and the constantly repeated mantras of morning prayer by the hosts, but this was the fascinating spiritual part of the adventure!

Local Hospitality

When entering a host’s house, one is usually invited for a warm drink and flattened, crude rice or biscuits – regardless of the day you arrive. I always preferred to drink the typical Himalayan beverage, Suja-tea, a salty butter tea made of Viscum nepalense. The food in Bhutan was throughout very delicious wherever I stayed! It is usually served in the living room, where you sit on mattresses on the ground. You can make your own selection since the host serves several bowls with different kinds of dishes, and your tour guide asks you beforehand which food you prefer. The basic ingredients were mostly the same and rice is the most important compound of the cuisine. Bhutanese grow a special red rice. Many dishes contain medium spicy chillies, cheese, mushrooms, potatoes, and beef. On some occasions, you are served dried fish, spinach, asparagus or exotic vegetables from the forest like young fern fronds, banana flowers or Arisaema sprouts. In the restaurants you should try momos. These are dumplings filled either with vegetables or with minced beef, served stewed or fried with a chilly sauce. I really loved them! For those of you who are worried about diarrhoea, I can reassure you. From friends who had travelled to India and Nepal, I heard horror stories and prepared my first-aid kit with different remedies. But this seems to be different in Bhutan. During the entire journey, I never had any digestion problems. Great!

All photos © Heiko Hentrich

The Bhutanese people I met were all very hospitable and they treated me as an honoured guest in their homes. Since I am used to Latin-American people, who are typically very extroverted, spirited and warm, I was first irritated by the rather reserved nature of the Bhutanese people. However, if you are an open person yourself and start communicating with them, most of them usually warm up and open up themselves. What I had imagined differently was the living together with the hosts in the house. I thought there would be more interaction and insights but in most homestays, I was mostly separated from the family life. For example, we were almost never eating in the company of the host family. The host served the food for the guide, driver, and me and then went away to eat later which I thought was a pity. In other countries sharing a meal together is usually the best time to start conversation and to exchange experiences.

Tigernest, Takin and other Highlights

Let us now come to the course of my journey. The itinerary was structured in such a way that we first visited the cultural highlights in the west of the country and then got to the nature part in central and south to south-east Bhutan. Every tourist who visits Bhutan wants to see the famous Taktshang Goemba – Tiger’s nest and I was no exception. It is probably one of the most visited tourist spots in Bhutan and is therefore very crowded. Fortunately, we went there early in the morning and met very few people. On our way back, indeed many tourists on their ascent crossed our way especially many Indians. During my travel preparations, I had concerns about the altitude in Bhutan especially because we were climbing 300 m up to an altitude of 3120 m asl the first day. But to my surprise, I had no problems with altitude sickness or with sunburn. Taktshang was great! I took some nice pictures from the monastery and was impressed by the different temples inside and the mystic tales behind. As a little suggestion – you should not only take pictures of the monastery at the official photo spot where everyone does. There are several locations on the trail where you can frame the monastery within the beautiful landscape in your picture, for example, at the large prayer wheel.

The next stop was Thimphu, where we visited the Dzongs, the National Institute of Traditional Medicine, the large Buddha statue, the Royal Botanic Garden, the paper factory, the Royal Takin Preserve, and the Central market. For all of those who want to learn more about the local culture, my personal recommendation is to visit local markets! You can learn so much about a country from the crops people cultivate and the food they eat. At the market you see all kinds of people from different parts of the country and different tribes and social classes. Therefore, the Central market was definitely a highlight for me. If you are looking for extraordinary souvenirs, I found the paintings offered at the paper factory, at different prices, very original. The Royal Botanic Garden was more like a park with picnic areas – a bit disappointing to me.

All photos © Heiko Hentrich

We continued our journey to Punakha and Trongsa, where we visited the Dzongs. Punakha was the most beautiful Dzong of the country for me because of the special setting on an island in the junction of two big streams with an awesome bridge and many flowering Jacaranda trees surrounding the Dzong, and also because of the many delicately crafted ornaments on the buildings. Trongsa Dzong was also very special – spectacularly standing on a cliff above the valley and happily less touristic than the Dzongs in western Bhutan. In each Dzong there is a temple which is open to the public. The temples are decorated with colourful paintings and fabrics and often have impressively large, artistically crafted and elaborately decorated statues of various Buddhas, Guru Rinpoche and his manifestations or Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. Indeed, I felt a special atmosphere inside of the Dzongs and especially inside of the temples. If you like, you can sip holy water from your hand which is offered by a monk in a sacred vessel in front of the altar. All in all, the stay in Bhutan gave me a first insight into Buddhism by visiting the Dzongs and Goembas, experiencing everyday life and, above all, hearing the explanations of my guides. Eventually, I also realized that Buddhism and Buddhist life is so far-reaching and multi-faceted that it takes a long time to fully understand it. The trip at least gave me the impulse to continue exploring and deepening my knowledge.

In Search of Bhutan’s Orchids…

And now we come to the part you have been waiting for impatiently all along – my impressions of Bhutan’s nature. Our path led us first to the south to Nabji, Tingtibi, and Pangbang; then to the east via Pemagatshel and Goemba to Samdrup Jongkhar. To cut a long story short, my expectations of the nature experience were largely met and I was not disappointed. A great part of the country’s surface is indeed covered by pristine forest and reforested areas. If you enter these forests, you will be impressed by the abundance of wild animals and plants, especially in the mid- to low elevated forests where we saw lots of monkeys and birds. Of course, in some regions, especially in the surroundings of cities and even around smaller human settlements, the (negative) influence of man is clearly visible. As in other regions of the world, you also find deforested areas and even rice fields and settlements in national parks. Nevertheless, in general, I had the impression that the approach of Bhutanese people to nature was completely different than in most other countries of the world. Nature has a much higher value here and I felt that Bhutanese people see themselves as part of a healthy and well functioning natural environment and treat it with appropriate care. Thus, also the pollution was very low and I did not see any trash on the street. At the markets there were even signs encouraging people to bring reusable bags. Due to their Buddhist believe, people do not hunt in the forests. Surprisingly, they do not even kill annoying mosquitos. Most peasants keep a handful of cows but the animals are usually not allowed to be locked in a barn. They are moving more or less freely and, instead of the cattle, the rice fields are surrounded by an electric fence. When people live close to the forest, wild animals like wild pigs or cats sometimes cross their settlements and eat the harvest or kill a domesticated animal. In these cases, Bhutanese people try to catch the pigs to bring them back to the forest or they build an electric fence at the border to the forest to make it as difficult as possible for the predators to pass through. Amazing, if you think about the damage wildlife hunting provokes in other parts of the world!

All photos © Heiko Hentrich

With respect to the plants, when we visited habitats with an appropriate climate for epiphytes (especially between 1500-1800 m asl), we found plenty of orchids. Stems, branches, sometimes entire trees were covered with a thick layer of different orchid species but also with ferns (mostly Drynaria), Hoya, Dischidia, and Aeschynanthus. Even the trees inside the villages, for example, right next to the supermarket were full of naturally growing orchids. More than once I saw stunning scenery! As predicted by the orchid literature, we predominantly saw different Dendrobium and Coelogyne species. Above all, the sight of particularly large plants or populations that were packed with flowers, which you will never see in the same size in cultivation, was awesome. Besides these two genera, we also found Pleione in higher elevation Rhododendron-forests and, in frost-free regions, different Bulbophyllum-species, Aerides, Arundinea, Calanthe, Callostylis, Cleisostoma, Oberonia, Otochilus, Phalaenopsis, Pholidota, Vanda, and so on. My personal orchid-highlights of the trip were: a forest full of flowering Dendrobium nobile, a very large flowering plant of Dendrobium devonianum, a large population of flowering Coelogyne corymbosa, and close to that a large flowering Dendrobium candidum, a very diverse orchid trail near Tingtibi, a population of Vanda bicolor and Paphiopedilum fairrieanum, and the road from Gomdar to Samdrup Jongkhar, where we saw lots of large, beautiful flowering orchids along the roadside.

Edible Orchids

In most Latin-American countries you find more orchids in gardens and houses of the people than in the forest and the most beautiful orchids are either disappeared or encountered in a few remaining small populations. During my journey, I was told that Bhutanese people are generally not interested in most orchids growing in the forest and therefore they do not go and pick them – with a few exceptions. In almost every farmhouse as well as in the entrance of most temples, you will find plant pots with Cymbidium orchids. The reason is probably that the flowers and flower buds of the plants are eaten as a delicacy in Bhutan. Thus, the only remaining Cymbidium plants in the forest grow in the forks of tall trees. The same applies to Dendrobium densiflorum. The terrestrial slipper orchid Paphiopedilum fairrieanum is also in great demand but mostly from abroad. It is almost distinct in Bhutan and can only be found in a few remaining places.

Orchids along the Nabji-Korphu Trek

The most beautiful nature experience of my entire holiday was definitely the Nabji-trek and I am very happy that Ulli had the idea to include it in my travel itinerary. It is a four-day hike on a trail through the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. The destination of each stage is a small village of the simple living and very cordial Monpa people, who live in the national park and who offer you a sleeping place. You should be physically fit if you hike on this trail since there are several steep climbs. If you do the trek in the wet season, be aware that you will encounter leeches and fleas. During the trek, you pass different beautiful landscapes like pine forests, tropical rain forests, misty cloud forests, waterfalls, and cliffs. The remarkable detail about the trail is that according to legend, it was walked by Guru Rinpoche on his way to India. Along the way, you will find lots of memorial sites with plaques detailing the particular events that occurred at that place. This takes you back to a mystical time and makes the hike a unique experience.

All photos © Heiko Hentrich

Another field trip I was really looking forward to was the visit to the Manas National Park. I was especially curious to see all the big animals, like forest elephants, buffalos, and maybe a tiger or a rhinoceros. To my great regret, the park authorities did not allow us to enter the park even though we had an approved permit with us to visit the park. The explanation was that Manas was not listed on our road permit. Too bad, but this will be on the top of my list for my next trip to Bhutan!

Many thanks again to the whole team of Bhutan Homestay for the great trip. It will certainly not be the last time I travel to Bhutan with you!

10 Must See Places in Bhutan

By Ulrike Cokl (originally written for Gesar Travel)

It is truly difficult for me to think of only 10 must-see places and attractions in Bhutan where I have spent so much time over the past 18 years. However, I will try and choose from my long list of things, places and activities that I love, keeping in mind that it is for people who have not been to the Himalayan Kingdom before.

1 Taktsang Gonpa

There is no way around it, Tigernest monastery is undoubtedly one of the best known attractions in the Himalayan kingdom and for many first time visitors impossible to skip. I was lucky enough to hike up to Taktsang several times before it became a highly frequented tourist spot during high season. Nevertheless, the first close up glimpse of Taktsang monastery, perched on a steep cliff, never ceases to enchant me. One recommendation though: Try to hike up as early as possible, maybe start around 6 o’clock in the morning or even earlier! That way you will more likely be able to enjoy the place for what it was intended to be: a remote recluse for peaceful and quiet contemplation and meditation.

2 Dzongs – Fortresses with ancient history

I love Bhutanese Dzongs, they are great architectural masterpieces, embellishing the landscape. They were built in ancient times without the use of metal nails mainly from wood, stone and mud. Dzongs tower over every one of the 20 districts, some very historic, some rather recent. Landing in Paro and spotting Rinpung Dzong from the plane always makes me feel sentimental. Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, one of my favorites, unfortunately burned down a few years ago. It was a very authentic example of these fortresses and is now under restoration. Visiting Punakha Dzong is also impressive and offers wonderful opportunities for walks in the surrounding areas, such as to the longest suspension bridge and even further to an idyllic homestay amidst the fields and near the river. Jakar Dzong in Bumthang, as well as Lhuentse Dzong and Trashigang Dzong in the East are equally stunning and worth visiting.

3 Hike to a mountain pass

If you don’t have time to go on a serious trek, there are still plenty of opportunities to hike up to mountain passes from where you can spot the Himalayan snow giants. Most Bhutanese believe that the peaks are the dwelling places of birth and protector deities, the kyelha. Hiking to such passes can take from a few hours to a full day. The passes are often marked by a chorten (Buddhist shrine) decorated with prayer flags, and a latshe (stone pile) where you can offer a twig, flower or leaf to the local deity. When Bhutanese travelers reach a mountain pass, they will shout “lha gyelo” (“the victorious gods” or “may good win over evil”), and offer a cup of ara (local moonshine) to the local deity before drinking some themselves. Along the way you might come across cow herders, mostly the grandparents of village householders whose job it is to look after the cattle. If you are lucky you will be invited for butter tea and snacks in one of their makeshift huts!

4 Spending time in a local home

A Bhutanese saying goes: “The guest of one night is like a god.” I am convinced that you have not truly experienced Bhutan without having spent some time in a non-commercialized farmhouse. Enjoying local hospitality in a Bhutanese home is simply fantastic! Furthermore, food in homestays is much better than in the hotels and guesthouses.  You can observe the nangi aum (woman of the house) going about her chores and even join in yourself and learn how to prepare local dishes. Or you can meditate in the choesham (altar room) and have a look around the house and surroundings. Make sure to find a real farmstay and not one that has been meddled with and commercialized for tourists. There are plenty of genuine village homes who occasionally host foreign guests from far away, keeping in line with ancient Bhutanese hospitality traditions.

5 A village festival

Masked dances are grand, especially in the Dzongs where they are performed annually at auspicious dates to celebrate the victory of good over evil. They re-enact the story of how the Buddhist dharma was introduced by famous lamas and saints in previous times, leading to the subduing of demons and evil beings. I personally prefer small village festivals where you can get an idea of how such events involve the entire community and shape the relationships of humans in daily life. I know this can be tricky as the village folks often keep festival dates tentative till last minute. However, if you manage to participate in one of the smaller local festivals, you will get insights into how such community festivals reinforce community cohesion and cooperation, a sense of belonging and communal identity. Such important local socio-cultural aspects are vulnerable to a fast changing society where rural-urban migration is a huge issue.

An insider’s tip: Travel to East Bhutan in the winter months (December, January and February) and you will most likely stumble into festivals every now and then. You might also be the first foreigner to ever have witnessed one!

6 Trekking in Bhutan

It goes without saying that trekking in Bhutan is a stunning experience. The trekking routes are unique and you will not meet many fellow travellers. On ancient footpaths, you will hike through rhododendron and conifer forests, juniper shrubs and bamboo bushes, passing by chortens, mani walls and beautiful gonpas. On some treks you will encounter yak herders whose yaks graze on pastures covered with medicinal plants. Meet with villagers of distant valleys such as the Layaps during Lingshi-Laya-Gasa or Jomolhari treks, and share a cup of tea or ara with them. The flora and fauna are amazing and you will most certainly also come across wild deer and blue sheep. On a final note, in Bhutan, your luggage will be carried by mules, not humans, and overnights will be in tents.

7 A Crafts workshop

If you have time and visit the right places, take part in a crafts workshop such as bamboo or textile weaving in Central and East Bhutan, and thangka painting in the West, to mention just a few. It is a wonderful way of getting closer to local Bhutanese and you will learn more about the role of handicrafts within communities in the past and present. You will develop an appreciation for the hard work that goes into such crafts. The harvest and collection of the wild or cultivated raw materials and the further processing of the latter are tedious and labor intensive. Imagine for example the raw material for nettle weaving, a thread made of stinging nettle, difficult to harvest and peel. Similarly it takes a while to collect and process bamboo into the raw material needed to weave the beautiful bangchung (woven bowls), famous in Bhutan and available in every souvenir shop in Thimphu.

By participating in such local workshops you benefit the artisans directly. No better way to support them and at the same time immerse in local culture!

8 Zhemgang

I simply love Zhemgang. It is remote, hardly visited and sub-tropical in the lower parts with opportunities to visit the jungle of the Royal Manas National Park. There is an abundance of birds, which even I can take good pictures of by simply using my cell phone camera – the great hornbill just being one of many! The locals are lovely, reserved but very hospitable, and jolly when the ice has broken. Many houses are still in traditional style, made of bamboo and sitting on stilts. If you are adventurous at heart and not picky when it comes to accommodation, Zhemgang is the perfect place to explore! Visit some of the farmer cooperatives, venture into the jungle for bird watching or enjoy the rafting opportunities. Try the delicious local food, some ingredients come directly from the forest, and visit the bamboo basket weaving community in Bjoka.

9 East Bhutan

The East is great for those who want to enjoy less touristy places and experience more immersion in local culture and tradition. The valleys are steep and cliffy in some places and the slopes are terraced for rice cultivation. The climate is mild due to the lower altitude. Banana trees and plenty of fruits grow all over the place and throughout the year. In winter the orange tangerines dotting the trees look beautiful among the brownish dry landscape. The East has many local crafts to show, mostly located in remote areas such as Trashiyangtse, Trashigang and Lhuentse. You can use Lingkhar lodge as your “base camp” and periodically venture out to the surrounding villages. Or stay at some of the lovely homes in the region and enjoy local hospitality. In spring and autumn, visit the Brokpa communities in Merak and Sakteng, and in winter observe the Black Necked Cranes in Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary.  There are many places in Bhutan that are still rather unexplored. If you have the mind of a pioneer, you might even enjoy being our “guniea pig”, a pioneer exploring new routes, places and homes!

10 Food – picnics and cooking classes

I really like chili and cheese but there is so much more to Bhutanese food. Forget about ema datshi; if you travel to remote places at the right time of the year you will get to taste greeneries from the forest and fields, mushrooms and tasty herbs, homemade bread made from buckwheat, wheat rolls stuffed with a mix of garlic leaves, cheese and chili; home grown vegetables and potatoes and very traditional dishes such as “rice-pizza” (only prepared on special occasions), red rice and fried wild fern, the list goes on. Bhutanese cuisine also includes plenty of meat items such as sikam (dried pork), dried yak-meat and beef; beef bone soup and porridge as well as fried chicken, vegetarian sausages and homemade buckwheat noodles. Not to forget the popular momos with a variety of stuffings! Bumthang is a particular culinary hot spot but there are also places in Zhemgang and East Bhutan and wherever you move a bit off the beaten track or where plenty of produce is supplied from the forests.

Some final words for Bhutan travelers

My bucket list of highlights in Bhutan can never be complete.  Some aspects are worth mentioning in addition: Bhutan Homestay and our partners can arrange special interest tours where you can choose a particular focus during your travels. This can be anything from remote village visits and farmstays to textiles, pilgrimages, bird watching or traditional medicine, Sowa Rigpa. Let us know what interests you most and lectures and guided tours with experts can be arranged. Admittedly, additional activities may incur extra fees, but you will support local specialists and communities directly and non-bureaucratically.

Travelling off the beaten track

In Bhutan there is still a lot to be discovered. Hence it is always good to keep an open mind and remain flexible during your journey. It can be tedious to travel along unpaved roads to reach often times very remote villages. But at the end you encounter interesting activities such as cotton cultivation and cotton weaving in Chimoong, Pemagatshel. Sometimes ad-hoc changes might be necessary due to unforeseeable circumstances but you can consider that to be part of your authentic Bhutanese experience!

My insider’s tip:

Last but not least, I will share an insider’s tip with you: the Monpa communities in Trongsa, along the Nabji-Korphu trek, have incredibly rich local knowledge on medicinal plants and edibles from the forest! From leafs to roots, the selection is vast and very tasty. While normally guests stay in designated camp grounds, we put you up in the homes of the Monpa communities! They are considered the aboriginal people of Bhutan with their own language and customs. Together with a Monpa guide, you will gain insights into the rich ethnobotanical knowledge of these interesting people and at the same time support them in their endeavor to preserve their local knowledge and culture.


“The guest of one night is like a god”

By Ulrike Cokl

One evening some Bhutanese friends and I were chatting about the charm, warmth and generosity that one experiences when visiting a village home in Bhutan. Most tourists who visit the little kingdom are on a tight schedule, moving from guesthouse to guesthouse, eating the same bland food every day. They are disconnected from local experiences of commensality and conviviality so characteristic for rural life. I decided to think about ways that would allow tourists to experience Bhutanese hospitality, blending in with local ideas of “keeping good relations”, mthun lam. Among other things, mthun lam is produced and nurtured within hospitality events that used to be characteristic for the neypo (host) network. The neypo system, with its network of host and guest relationships, formed vital links between community households across different valleys. These hosting ties spun over the entire country and even beyond its borders. Whenever villagers traveled to another valley, crossing high passes on often times dangerous journeys, they would stay with their host families – neypos. Since the early sixties however, the system has gradually dwindled due to increased socio-economic- and infrastructure development. Villagers do not have to travel to adjacent valleys any longer in order to barter, trade, beg and glean. However, the neypo system might gain momentum in homestay tourism again. A new type of traveler has emerged, the tourist, a guest from far, far away who, as Bhutanese believe, must be treated with extra care and compassion.

I met many tourists in Bhutan who would have loved to experience Bhutanese hospitality in a village home. They envisioned it as authentic, steeped in tradition, without too much outside influence. Staying on farms would also offer a little niche income to the villagers whose life is still very hard. Luckily, a wise Bhutanese tourism policy so far regulates the influx of tourists and hence prevents traditional practices from rapid transformation and erosion. However, change is inevitable, as Buddhists understand very well, based on the law of impermanence. But one might as well try and avoid the pitfalls that promote greed rather than generosity and compassion, the fundamentals of Bhutanese hospitality.

But what does Bhutanese hospitality in local homes look like? Although there is always the risk of stereotyping, in the following I will offer a brief vignette of my own experiences when visiting one of my favourite neypos in Bumthang:

The moment I reach her house, azhim (older sister) is already waiting for me outside, with a warm smile and a palang (container) in her arms. I always treasure the first moments of our reunion, where I proudly fetch my little Bhutanese phob (cup) which then gets filled with ara (local wine). Azhim eagerly offers me the obligatory refill and often a third one follows, before I am ushered into her neat kitchen. I am offered a comfortable place on a cosy carpet in front of the window and near the warm bukhari (metal oven) as I must be tired and hungry from the long drive. Now azhim will serve more alcohol and a bit later she will bring out the milk tea (ngaja). We catch up while I am nibbling the local snacks, zao (puffed rice) and kabsey (biscuits). Meanwhile more family members and neighbours show up to welcome me and inquire about my well-being. We are all so happy to see each other again and warm words and witty jokes are being exchanged. All along, azhim has been preparing ema datshi (chili and cheese), rice and kuli (buckwheat pancake), my favorite dishes as she knows from my previous visits. After a while I hand over my chhom (gift) to her. But azhim will modestly put it aside and serve food first. “Eat, eat” she will insist whilst attentively sitting among the pots in front of me, ready to stack up my plate again and again. After all, she has to make sure that I will not go to bed with an empty stomach. It is believed that if guests go to bed hungry they might miss their home or parents in a country far, far away! The first evening my host and friends will only eat after I am finished following the traditional etiquette. Nevertheless we will still sit together afterwards with ara and tea flowing, exchanging news, joking and laughing while reminiscing about past times.

Traditional Hospitality and Travelling in Bhutan

“The guest of one night is like a god” Bhutanese proverb

By Ulrike Cokl

In the Kingdom of Bhutan hospitality permeates every sphere of social life, whether private or public; it infuses (religious) festivals, rituals, rites of passage from birth to death and all kinds of political and social gatherings. From the sharing of food and drinks, singing and dancing, to the exchange of gifts, goods and services, such all-encompassing traditions of hospitality are fundamental to enriching and fostering relationships, thuenlam, at every level of society. This makes them of great importance in nurturing community vitality, psychological well-being and culture, which are three of the nine domains of Gross National Happiness (GNH) the others being education, health, time use, good governance, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. GNH is, of course the unique Bhutanese development ideology which places as much emphasis upon happiness as it does upon economic well-being. Official hosting events and practices are based on the etiquette of driglam namzhag (‘system of ordered and cultural behaviour’) as formulated by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This article hopes to provide a tiny glimpse into everyday hospitality and hosting in communities and is based on ethnographic research, mostly confined to Bumthang in central Bhutan and Lhuntse in eastern Bhutan, with some examples from other parts of the country provided.

The Neypo (host) Network

The neypo (host) system, with its network of host and guest relationships, was identified in my ongoing doctoral research as the main way in which bonds between communities in different valleys in Bhutan were sustained. The neypo network once covered the entire country and even beyond its borders. Whenever villagers travelled to another valley they usually stayed with their host families – neypos. Since the early sixties the system has gradually dwindled due to increased socio-economic and infrastructure development. In more remote Eastern Bhutan the neypo system still exists, especially amongst the yak herders who have to descend from their high-elevation pastures to the lowlands every year in order to barter their butter and cheese with the rice, chilli and maize produced in the fields of their hosts. Between families, guest/host bonds were very cordial and relations were maintained over generations. The respective families regarded each other as relatives and in some cases they are still in contact even though the seasonal migrations have long been abandoned. At some point the host families themselves would travel and be hosted reciprocally in the homes of their previous guests. While the Dzongkha (national language) term for host is neypo, the Bumthap refer to it as ‘nadpo’, or ‘naspo’, depending on local accents. People from Pema Gatshel, on the other hand, used to have cross-border hosting connections with Assam, and referred to their hosts using the Assamese term ‘shazi’. However, the term neypo is commonly known and used throughout Bhutan.

Travelling Bhutanese Style

“When we reach the camp we should not make noise. If we make noise then strong wind and hailstorms will come out of nowhere. We should not roast meat and we should not let curry spill over. Nothing should be burned in the fire because this can also cause serious problems like sudden strong winds and hailstorms, which are very frightening.” (A villager in Bumthang)

Seasonal migrations between higher and lower ecological zones were important activities in the rural subsistence economy in Bhutan. One agey (old man) in Lhuntse very graphically described that the neighbouring Bumthap flocked into his valley like a “swarm of bees” to barter, beg, trade and glean!

Some of the main reasons for annual travels between Bumthang and Lhuntse included:

a) Pilgrimage, neykor
b) Barter, jesor, and trade, tshongdrel, as part of transhumance, the movement of cattle and exchange of produce between pastures in higher and lower ecological zones
c) Collecting food/begging, grendo gaisang or gleaning, saktum tum sang (‘going to pick up leftovers’)
d) Soenyum, food collection conducted by monks and lamas and as part of wider religious transactions

The Bumthap also went to the neighbouring district of Trongsa, for sharecropping and barter. Seasonal migrations of Layaps and Lunaps from Gasa to the lowlands of Punakha, thasa, in the west of Bhutan, and of Merak- and Saktengpas to lowland areas of Tashigang dzongkhag in the east, are also examples of similar food gathering and exchange.

In the past footpaths were well maintained through frequent use and some villagers referred to them as traditional ‘highways’, indicating that there was a lot of coming and going! Before embarking on a journey the astrologer, tsip, had to be consulted to identify an auspicious day, zakar, on which to begin the journey. Travellers had to be careful not to neglect beliefs relating to the local cosmologies of the sacred and spiritually inhabited landscapes through which they passed. Engendering good relations with the entire spiritual ‘landowners’, referred to as neydag (spiritual landowners of holy, sacred places) and zhidag (general spiritual landowners of landscapes such as mountain passes) is still important. The idea being that if good relations are encouraged, these local deities and spirits will, in return, not harm travellers or their beasts of burden and may even create favourable conditions for the journey. Maintaining relations with the spirits and deities can be viewed as part of the wider hospitality framework, as there are certain rules and moral obligations governing behaviour when crossing through the territory of spiritual landowners who are regarded as the local hosts, neypos. For instance, when stopping for the night, travellers must obtain the permission of the local deity; usually this is achieved by an offering of sang (incense). Some activities are considered taboo, such as burning ‘unclean’ items over an open fire, including meat and garlic, and nowadays modern pollutants such as the ubiquitous plastic. Doing so creates drib, impurities, which upset the local deities. Milk and curries that boil over and spill into the fire are also considered impure. If precautions against committing these transgressions are ignored or neglected, it is believed that harm can befall the travellers and their beasts of burden. When reaching a pass, a serkyem (an alcohol offering) will be proffered to the local deities who inhabit the area around the pass. At the same time the travellers might drink a cup of ara too, the local moonshine usually made from wheat or maize, followed by a mandatory re-fill called a dron. Thus a cup or two of ara not only appeases the local deities but helps the travellers on their way a little lighter of foot (and head).

Hospitality: Reception, Hosting and Farewell

“When we go to one host’s house then the other hosts would say, ‘Please also come to my house. Why are you not coming to my house?’ And if we go there, then another host would say, ‘Please come to my house also!’ So we have to visit every host. At first we will be offered ara as a welcome. The ara they [the hosts] will give is compulsory. But offering tea is not compulsory; sometimes they will offer tea and sometime they will not. So, first they will offer ara and then we will take rest. Then we will talk. Only after this will we give our chodma [gifts] to the host family. We would eat food and then they would give us lamju [a farewell gift for the journey]. These little lamju increase as we keep on visiting our hosts. Eventually it becomes difficult for us to carry our loads.” (A villager in Bumthang)

When the Bumthap reached their neypo’s house in Lhuntse, they received a cordial welcome as if they were a family member. The hosts helped the travellers unpack their horses and then escorted their guests inside. The sequence of beverages served would differ slightly depending on the region. Mostly ara would be offered first, then tea, ja, – if available butter tea, suja – and nowadays also sweet tea, ngaja, is offered. After snacks, lunch or dinner would be served. In between, the guests would offer their choom, a general gift one brings when visiting someone’s house. As the saying goes in Bumthangkha: ‘yag thongpa minla tsamtek’ (‘Just enough to make me not empty handed’). The term choom implies that the gift is for someone who is considered of equal status. The Bumthap, when travelling to Lhuntse, would usually bring dried turnip leaves, loma, incense collected from the higher alpine regions, sangzey, fresh cheese, phrum or dried cheese, tedpa or tespa, and roasted barley flour, thru. After their extended trips to different villages in Lhuntse they would return to their homes with rice, chhum, maize, asham, chilli, bangala, dried fruits and sometimes yeast, phab. Ideally hosts should exhibit generosity and selflessness towards their guests. Guests of higher status are expected to reciprocate the hospitality received with a soelra (parting gift or tips from someone of higher status to someone who is considered to be of lower status), and then they will again receive a lamju from their hosts; a farewell gift for the journey, often alcohol and some food.

The people from Laya and Lunana still visit the lowland areas in Punakha in the winter, bringing yak products such as butter, cheese and meat, but also ropes and blankets made out of yak fur and wool, and sangzey for bartering for rice, chili and other cereals. Some of these are offered as gifts to their hosts who reciprocate by providing some grain and other produce of the lowlands, which are either offered as a chomlog (return gift among equals) or as lamju when the Layaps and Lunaps return to their home, or both.

In Eastern Bhutan, tshogchang is a traditional welcome used by local communities to receive guests. A member from each household will come with some ara, snacks and eggs and gather where the guests are staying to hold an ‘ara session’ with them. The ara will be heated with egg and butter and then shared. Tshogchang sessions are often accompanied by joking and songs and dances, and often continue well into the night. When the tshogchang is over the guests should give some money as soelra to the members who organized and contributed to the tshogchang. The amount depends on the guests, but should be at least equivalent to the value of the offering.

This is a brief account of traditional hospitality and travelling in Bhutan emphasizing how the neypo system provides a framework for sophisticated exchange. Through the neypo system Bhutanese villagers have become experts in hosting and entertaining guests. These rich traditions have been in place for centuries and although some of these practices are vanishing, many of them have evolved and adapted and continue to be of importance for Bhutanese social relations, thuenlam, and community cohesion. Understanding the importance of establishing and keeping good relations, thuenlam, through these customs in Bhutan is of tremendous benefit in developing sustainable rural tourism. Moreover so as such practices are integrated and rooted within the existing traditions.

Ulrike Čokl is co-founder of Bhutan Homestay and Ph.D candidate at University College London (UCL), U.K., Department of Anthropology. She was affiliated in Bhutan with the College of Natural Resources (CNR) at the Royal University of Bhutan (RUB) from 2012-2015. Ulrike has been living on and off in Bhutan for over 16 years.
Additional language editing: Sally Hunt