Getting under the skin of a country that measures success in ‘Gross National Happiness’
Tiered rice terraces reflected the vast cerulean sky like shards of a shattered mirror. Kinley Choden, my host, sat next to me on the grassy lip of the valley as we watched women plant clumps of seedlings into the flooded fields. The sun winked behind the far hills. “Let’s go home, Mum is making ara,” she said.
It was a far cry from the previous night I’d spent at a hotel in Thimphu – Bhutan’s capital – eating alone in the dimly lit restaurant. Attempts to talk to the waitress had resulted in her giggling shyly and backing towards the kitchen, leaving me alone with a looping soundtrack of wailing Hindi love songs.
I adore hotels and the delightful bubble of breakfast buffets, miniature toiletries and minibars they offer, but sometimes I hunger for a little more contact. I’m conscious that hotels can occasionally become safety blankets that allow us to explore countries without getting too close, too involved. An air- conditioned nook we can retreat to for a cup of tea. The only snag is, once inside, you could be anywhere. Homestays offer an immersive alternative and I’d come to try two in Bhutan’s Punakha and Haa valleys.
“Four or five years ago tourists didn’t mingle with local people. They just visited our temples and fortresses,” said Sonam Pelden, my guide and translator, as he pinned his mop of black hair beneath a baseball cap. We were nearing the village of Mendrelgang – two and a half hours east of Paro, the international gateway to Bhutan – to stay at Kinley’s home for two nights. She opened to guests this January.
“For the first three months no one came,” she admitted. “Word needed to spread, but now I’ve had people from India, Singapore and Hong Kong – you’re my fourth visitor.” Just 27, Kinley sported three earrings in each ear and a rebellious tattoo on her shoulder ( they’re illegal in Bhutan). Her new husband, Yonten, smiled by her side as we passed beneath the passion- fruit vine framing the stairs of the traditional threestorey farmhouse.
Entering the kitchen, I met her mother, Tshering, and father, Dorji, who shuffled me into the living room and proffered a mug of milky chai ( tea) into my hands. Wicker baskets of puffed rice and maekhu ( round puffed crackers) were laid out on the low table.
“At first it was weird having strangers in my house, I was shy – my father was more excited than me – but now I’m getting used to it,” continued Kinley. I nodded, sipping my tea, and taking in the gaggle of framed family photos, painted wooden beams and miniature cacti that curled like lotus flowers on the table.
“The thing is, I don’t like Thimphu ( where she studied). Doing a homestay allows me to live where I grew up – YHD gave me the idea.” The Bhutan Youth Development Fund, together with French NGO Aide et Action and UNDP, have set up My Gakidh Village which aims to curb rural- urban youth migration – over 56 per cent of the country is under the age of 30 – by providing sustainable livelihood skills, such as tea- making, tailoring and homestays, to youths within their own community.
Three students from India, who are assisting Gadikh, were also staying and the youngest, Avika, chipped in: “If you stay in a hotel you don’t learn much about real Bhutanese life.”
“Yes! Seeing the town’s isn’t really necessary; the countryside is real Bhutan,” finished Kinley.
And so we wandered outside. Past orange trees and fields of yellowing corn that Kinley’s piebald dog chok tu – “it means ‘ poop’,” she laughed – wove in and out of, towards the rows of rice paddies that glinted like mirrors. I hunched down and joined the women picking rice seedlings.
To be continued next week