“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

If you would like to support Bhutan Network projects you can make a donation below. Thank you very much!

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