Go­ing lo­cal in the king­dom of hap­pi­ness

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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: the 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. The only snag is, once in­side, you could be any­where.

Home­s­tays of­fer an im­mer­sive al­ter­na­tive and I’d come to try two in the Pu­nakha and Haa val­leys of Bhutan, the coun­try that first in­tro­duced the con­cept of Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness.

“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-ahalf 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 three-storey farm­house.

In the kitchen, I met her mother, Tsh­er­ing, and fa­ther, Dorji, who took me to 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 – more than 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 towns 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 Emma Thom­son trav­elled with Wild Fron­tiers (wild­fron­tier­stravel.com; 020 8741 7390) which of­fers small group tours and tai­lor-made hol­i­days to Bhutan. A 10-day pri­vate tour, in­clud­ing Paro, Thimphu, the Haa Val­ley and Pu­nakha, us­ing a mix­ture of small ho­tels and home­s­tays, costs from £2,690 in­clud­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion with most meals, trans­fers, sight­see­ing and a pri­vate guide (ex­cludes in­ter­na­tional flights). It is cus­tom­ary to bring small gifts for your homes­tay host and to tip at the end of your stay. De­spite stay­ing in es­sen­tially “lower grade” ac­com­mo­da­tion, trav­ellers must pay the oblig­a­tory daily rate of US$250 (£197) stip­u­lated by the gov­ern­ment, but should feel good about dis­tribut­ing in­come more evenly and al­low­ing lo­cal fam­i­lies to ben­e­fit. hunched down and joined the women pick­ing rice seedlings. Shak­ing the dry soil from their frag­ile roots and col­lect­ing them into bun­dles to cast down to the flooded ter­races where younger women stood, an­kle deep, plant­ing them into the wa­ter with flat backs and legs spread wide. Their lips cracked into smiles when they saw me, re­veal­ing stained red teeth. “Be­tel nut – Bhutanese lip­stick!” laughed Sonam. “It staves off hunger and gives you a boost.” The tin­kle of cow­bells echoed from the val­ley be­low and the set­ting sun warmed our backs.

A wooden house stood on stilts over­look­ing the pad­dies. “Let’s say hello to my neigh­bour,” sug­gested Kin­ley. Lemo Zam was in her twi­light years and wel­comed us with a wide white smile. The walls of her sparse two-room home were black­ened by cook­ing-fire soot, and neatly piled in the cor­ner were her sleep­ing blan­kets. “Her sis­ter was married first, then she stole her hus­band, so they share him,” re­lated Kin­ley, watch­ing to see if I was shocked by the com­mon oc­cur­rence of polyg­yny in Bhutan. With the light fad­ing, we headed home and I fell on to my tiger-grass mat­tress and lis­tened to the dogs bark at the dark­ness.

“They keep the demons away,” Sonam told me the next morn­ing.

“Mum is pre­par­ing mangey – Bhutanese pizza – for break­fast,” en­thused Kin­ley, as their blind house dog, Kamba, shuf­fled and wheezed across the kitchen floor like a grey shag-pile car­pet. We spread the gelati­nous rice-flour pan­cakes with a paste of poppy seeds, chilli, gin­ger and co­rian­der, and poured shal­low bowls of but­ter tea for each other. “Zhim tok tok [de­li­cious],” I mouthed.

Af­ter­wards, Kin­ley led me into the bed­room and asked me to strip. “We need to dress you to visit Pu­nakha Dzong (Bhutan’s most beau­ti­ful fortress).” Her mum en­tered and started ri­fling through the wardrobe. She pulled out an em­broi­dered kira (skirt) and started wrap­ping the 10ft-long swathe of fab­ric around my waist, bind­ing it so tightly with a wo­ven belt that I gasped for air.

Next came a fuch­sia wonju (long-sleeved blouse) and pur­ple toego (cropped jacket). I sashayed into the liv­ing room and saw my homes­tay dad’s chest swell with pride.

It was that af­ter­noon we re­turned to find Tsh­er­ing brew­ing ara – a lo­cal tip­ple made from fer­mented rice or wheat – in the out­door shed; shards of fire­wood stok­ing the flames un­der­neath. I took a ten­ta­tive sip, ex­pect­ing it to strip my wind­pipe, but it was warm and smooth. She poured small glasses for each of us and then cracked some eggs into a saucepan, slipped in a knob of but­ter, a squeeze of honey and glugged the re­main­der of the bot­tle into the mix. We sat in the liv­ing room, the con­ver­sa­tion slow­ing with each sip of the sweet con­coc­tion.

Head­ing higher, the air sharp­ened. Tall, white prayer flags flut­tered on the hill­sides for souls de­ceased. “Most tourists don’t travel be­yond Thimpu, Paro and Pu­nakha. Tourism only opened up in the Haa val­ley about six years ago – it’s the re­motest part of western Bhutan,” said Sonam, turn­ing to face me in the back seat as we wove along the sin­gle-track moun­tain roads to­wards my sec­ond homes­tay. At 8,900ft, we’d en­tered the alpine zone, where rice fields had been re­placed with buck­wheat, maize and pota­toes. Just two miles shy of Haa town – a col­lec­tion of quiet gen­eral stores and (oddly) a golf course – Mama Chimi’s home felt very dif­fer­ent.

Nearly 50, with rosy cheeks and red teeth, she’s been host­ing guests for four years and runs it more for­mally. There were no ara par­ties or dress­ing up in ki­ras. We hud­dled around the stove qui­etly mas­sag­ing hand­fuls of rice into balls to dunk into bowls of ema dat­shi (chill­ies and cheese), Bhutan’s na­tional dish. On the grainy tele­vi­sion a lo­cal singing com­pe­ti­tion was show­ing; the con­tes­tants read­ing lyrics from their smart­phones on stage. Oc­ca­sion­ally, Nokey, my homes­tay grand­mother, would mut­ter some­thing, all the while spin­ning her prayer wheel.

There were no wash­ing fa­cil­i­ties, so Sonam sug­gested a tra­di­tional hot stone bath. With a wooden screen shield­ing my mod­esty, he pin­cered a hot rock that had been smoul­der­ing in the fire and slowly low­ered it, hiss­ing and spit­ting, into the foot of the bath. “The min­er­als will help your back ache, old lady,” he teased. I soaked in the dark­ness with clumps of freshly picked herbs.

Pink as a prawn, I re­turned up­stairs and set­tled cross-legged on the floor with a cup of chai. I asked

The Pu­nakha Val­ley, main; Emma in tra­di­tional cos­tume, be­low; the Pu­nakha Dzong, bot­tom

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