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!
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: Gesar tours can arrange specialized 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” 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