“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.

Tashi’s Dream of Bread

For the second time master stove-setter Christof Bader came all the way from Bad Gastein in Alpine Austria to the little Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Yet again, the Austrian non-profit association Bhutan Network had planned and organized the building of a bread baking oven together with Bhutanese villagers. The oven will offer a start into new and exciting opportunities around the art of bread baking. 

Photography and original text in German by Silvia Schmid

“I hope you understand what this means to us!“ Tashi says with awestruck glance at the freshly baked bread in front of her. Christof had just pulled it out of the new bread oven.

It was the first critical test after completion of the bread oven and it was successful! Tashi, a farmer from Ura, distributes the sweet smelling bread. Everybody has earned their share because they had all worked hard to make this dream come true: Jigme (12), Ugyen (16), Kencho, a helpful and very talented neighbor, and of course Sonam, a Jack of all trades, who already became acquainted with the art of oven building in 2015 when he stayed for a while with Christof and Silvia in Austria.

Baking bread with Roswitha Huber

Likewise, Tashi spent two months in Austria in 2014 as a candidate of the Organic Farmers Exchange Programme (OFEP), an initiative by the non-profit association Bhutan Network. She was lucky to spend some time with Roswitha Huber at her mountain chalet in the Alps of Salzburg. Roswitha is a well-known bread baking expert in the region who holds workshops for school kids and adults alike, on where bread actually comes from and how it is produced. Tashi also became deeply inspired by the art of bread baking, and her big dream since had been to build a bread oven in Ura, her village in Bumthang, Bhutan. “We do not know bread baking“, she explains, “but we want to learn it, for our guests and for ourselves. It is something new and exciting and it blends in well with our culture”.

Supporting homestay tourism

Bhutan Network also supports sustainable and holistic homestay development in rural areas, similar to the concept of “holiday on farms” in the Austrian Alps. This should offer new perspectives for young people, and counter rural urban migrations, a problem Bhutan also has to face: whilst the capital Thimphu is bursting at the seams with numerous cars blocking the few roads, in rural Bhutan – the rest of Bhutan so to speak – it grows quieter every year, and villages are emptying fast.

Bumpy roads and high expectations

For Christof, the 300km drive from Thimphu to Ura village in Bumthang was a wild ride that took 14-hours on bumpy and winding roads. The oven building team endured anxious hours wondering if the material had survived the roads. They thought it a miracle when the Pick Up car and cargo reached safely at about 3200 m.
While Sonam and Tashi already knew what was going to happen over the next few days, the villagers couldn’t really grasp what was about to come. Despite having seen pictures of the upcoming bread oven they were curious and unsure about how this would take shape in Ura. Surrounded by relatives, monks, old men and young women, and while preparing food for all, Tashi eagerly explained about the ambitious project she had waited and wished for so long. Her audience was puzzled: incense ovens are needed to chase away evil spirits but a bread oven?

„In this particular case it was more important for us to build a 100% reliable and maintenance-friendly bread oven in a short time, which should enable everyone to learn how to bake bread.”

Christof was quite familiar with the situation from his last visit in 2015. Within a workshop the aim then was to explore what would be feasible in terms of oven building in Bhutan. Together with the vocational trainees of a technical training institute he built a small but functional sample oven using exclusively local materials.
However this time in 2017, thanks to the generous support of various donors the most critical equipment was shipped from Austria: a special fireclay interior application, a tool box, a cutter with diamond discs, an oven door and miscellaneous work equipment. An Austrian cargo company helped with the shipment. A pile of boulders, sand, cement and gravel was arranged locally by the Bhutanese.

„In this particular case it was more important for us to build a 100% reliable and maintenance-friendly bread oven in a short time, which should enable everyone to learn how to bake bread.” explained master stove-setter Christof. It was Tashi’s idea to train her fellow villagers in the art of baking bread “Just like Roswitha does in Rauris!”

Power outage and “plan B”

But first the oven had to be built: Often, the flapping of the prayer flags in the strong wind of Ura was the only audible sound while the foundation was dug. Calmly and steadily, in the thin air of this altitude, the team carried boulders, bags with cement and buckets of sand to the construction site. When Christof heated water with an immersion heater and put his finger inside to test the temperature Ugyen yelped horrified “if you do that with one of our devices you are dead!” Sonam started cutting the river boulders with a Flex and at once some villagers gathered, excitedly flailing their hands and discussing. “They are astonished that we can cut such huge boulders with such a tiny machine” Sonam remarked smilingly. During a sudden power outage which lasted for days nobody got angry. Later the water was also gone. In Bhutan folks are used to switch to “plan B” and from now on the boulders were cut the traditional way: by hand. Nothing can be enforced in Bhutan.

Warm hospitality

Every evening hot milk tea and ara were served, and although Tashi’s fields were still empty the pots on the mud stove were filled with fresh greeneries. Delicious fern, green asparagus and tasty tree mushrooms were already growing abundantly in the forest. These delicacies were served with hot chili sauce and cheese along with plenty of rice.

Despite thorough planning in the run-up to the project, improvisation was often the best plan. Nevertheless the oven started taking shape and after a few days the core was set up. With millimeter precision Kencho and Sonam were timbering the roof while Christof built up the oven wall. After the roof was done the village ladies gathered and offered hot ara. “Only eggs” Tashi smilingly reassured Christof when he suspiciously eyed the indeterminable substance. It was ara with honey and fried eggs and after a few sips it tasted delicious!

The fire test and happy faces

Finally, the oven was given the last touch up of paint and then the great moment arrived: the so called fire test. Again curious villagers gathered and cheered the plumes of smoke escaping the chimney ascending to the sky. In the evening Tashi prepared sourdough. The most exciting moment approached when Christof pushed the bread loafs into the oven. After impatiently waiting for a while he pulled out the bread again, a moment reminiscent of a fairy tale.

“A dream has come true for us in Ura”

A new scent of freshly baked bread was in the air and everybody sat around in devotional silence chewing pieces of bread. “A dream has come true for us in Ura” Tashi says again and again in a moved tone. “You have really come here to do this for us! It is a sign, a new beginning for us in Ura!”




Bhutan Network wants to thank the following sponsors:
artsprojects, Bhutan Homestay, Ortner GmbH Kachelofen-Systeme, Cargo-Partner, Christof Bader KG, Karl Dahm Fliesenwerkzeug, Madia Maschinen und Diamantwerkzeuge, Lagerhaus GasteinRotary Club Wien-Gloriette

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