Going local in the kingdom of 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: 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