I’ve stayed in 3 different homestays now in different parts of the country on various trips away from the capital. This has been an incredible way to get an intimate and authentic glimpse of daily life in rural Bhutan. It is also much cheaper than staying in hotels, plus you know your money is going directly to the local community.
The first one was in Haa, a beautiful valley in the west of Bhutan. To get there the drive goes over the highest road pass (Chele La) in Bhutan at almost 4000mASL. Then the amazingly scenic road winds down into this beautiful narrow valley.
Haa Valley Homestay is run by a family of 3 brothers. Two of the brothers, Ugyen and Chimi have houses set up for guests and the third brother, Dodo, speaks English and handles all the bookings. I stayed in Ugyen’s house where three generations of the family live under one roof: Ugyen and his wife, their two school aged children, and the Grandfather and great Aunty. It was fascinating to observe the interactions between the different generations; a stark reminder of just how rapidly Bhutan is changing. Great Aunt, in her full Kira, would be sitting cross legged on the kitchen floor, the soles of her bare feet hardened with years of hard work and her teeth and gums red from chewing Doma (bettlenut). She would giggle each time Ugyen answered his mobile phone and talked into this funny contraption. Ugyen’s wife, Dole Bidha, in her half Kira, was up at the crack of dawn to cook our breakfast before heading off to perform traditional Bhutanese folk dances and songs at the Archery tournament final. And then there was 11 year old Tenzin in her jeans and T-shirt (if she could get away with it!) keen to show us her dance routine to the latest pop song and doing all the translating into English for her parents.
Ugyen’s house is a traditional farmhouse which is over 150 years old. The fire wood is stacked high under the entry stairs – the main source of heating through the winter months and of course the fuel for hot stone baths.
An open attic is where maize and other vegetables are hung to dry. All Bhutanese houses have an altar room, often with elaborately decorated altars where offerings are made and family prayers and rituals are held. In Ugyen’s house, the altar room is converted into a bedroom whenever they have a homestay guest, with a heavy curtain pulled across to conceal the altar niche. Homestay accommodation is usually basic but comfortable – a mattress on the floor with sheets, blankets and towels provided.
Homestays can apply for small grants from the Tourism Council of Bhutan to make any necessary alterations to their homes to receive foreign guests such as installing a western style toilet and constructing partition walls to create separate bedrooms. The hosts also usually receive some hospitality training, sometimes with assistance from WWF or JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency).
The second homestay I stayed in was in Nasiphel, 22km north of Jakar in Bumthang valley, central Bhutan. Here, Pema was our host. She is one of 3 sibblings but the only one that has remained in the village with her parents, the other two having received a college education are now working elsewhere in Bhutan. They have a huge traditional farmhouse which they’ve extended at the back to include several guest rooms and a western style toilet. Pema cooked us the traditional buckwheat pancakes for breakfast which the Bumthang valley is famous for, with homemade strawberry jam made from wild strawberries collected from the forest.
After breakfast we watched as Pema’s parents rounded up their handful of cows for milking. Some of the milk is used to make small cubes of cheese which is threaded on a string and hung to dry outside the window.
The third homestay was in Gangtey in Phobjikha valley, another beautiful valley halfway between Thimphu and Bumthang (about 5 hours drive east of Thimphu). The community in this valley have got together and created a Community Based Sustainable Tourism (CBST) organisation. It consists of 10 homestays in the upper valley and 10 homestays in the lower valley, with an English speaking coordinator who allocates guests to the homestays. Our host was Phub who’s house is situated in the main part of the village right near the temple and surrounded by beautiful pink roses.
Her husband was away at the time as he is a traditional artist and had been asked to paint some murals in one of the temples in Punakha. Their daughter and mischievous 4 year old granddaughter lives with them and also their son, a recent college graduate who is following in his fathers’ footsteps. He showed us one of the fabulous paintings he and his father are currently working on in their attic.
The CBST organisation in Phobjikha also organised a mountain biking guide for us. Karma took us for a ride along the rough road through the beautiful Phobjikha valley stopping for tea and biscuits with the caretakers of a temple and then returning the same way. This valley is famous for the endangered Black Neck Cranes which migrate here from the Tibetan plateau in October/November. They love the large flattish bowl shaped RAMSAR listed wetland area in the base of this valley. It wasn’t the time of year to see the cranes when we were there, but we enjoyed our ride which finished up at our guide’s house where he had arranged for us to have a hot stone bath!
So what is a hot stone bath? Well, they are a large bath, made of wood, sometimes even carved out of a whole log!
They are usually in the back yard of a house , like this one pictured below at Ugyen’s house:
Communal ones might be located in a field. They have a shed like structure around them for privacy, but one end of the bath will usually stick out beyond the wall. This is where the hot stones are placed. The stones are heated up in a roaring bonfire until they are white hot (which can take quite some time!).
The bath is filled with water from a stream and the stones added to heat up the water. When the water has reached temperature, you get in! And relax …… your host will usually ask if It’s hot enough, and if not, will add more stones from the fire into the end of the bath.
If you’re visiting Bhutan, I highly recommend the homestay and hot stone bath experience!