I was daydreaming in the doorway of the milking shed when a brown cow nosed me out of the way and squeezed inside. As the cow searched for scraps of food, I flapped about trying to shoo her out again. My host, Aum Lhamo, gave the interloper a thwack on the rump, sending the animal trotting back into the sunlit yard and barely breaking the rhythm of her hands as she milked.
Back in the spring during my month-long stay in Bhutan, I spent a week staying in local homes and farmstays in Bumthang, Central Bhutan. Aum Lhamo’s farm in the beautiful Chhumey Valley was my last stop.
While the details of the houses and families differed, my stay at each followed a similar pattern. I would arrive at dusk to find kitchens filled with children doing homework and stirring pans, adults chopping vegetables and churning butter. The only creatures with time to relax were cats – who lazed by the stove – and me, as I settled cross-legged on the floor with a cup of tea. After eating a home-cooked dinner we would sit and drink ara (homemade barley liquor) before falling asleep under piles of blankets. The next morning each family would wake early to start the day’s work – milking cows and making lunch – while I drank more tea and tried to be helpful.
A time-honoured way of life – one in tune with the seasons and nature – is worn into the fabric of village life in Bhutan. “When our guests do a homestay after visiting Folk Heritage Museum [in the capital Thimphu], they come back amazed that families are still using the same things they’ve seen on display in the museum,” says Sonam Choeden of Bhutan Homestay, which organises homestays in central and eastern Bhutan. Household items are often handmade, food is largely homegrown and organic, little is wasted, and people retain an intimate connection with both their food and environment – something long since lost in many places.
In addition to offering visitors a rare and intimate glimpse of Bhutanese life, homestays also enable rural families to benefit directly from the country’s tourist industry, which would otherwise bypass them. In 1980, 95% of Bhutan’s population lived in rural areas. Today, this proportion has dropped to around 60% as young people turn their backs on the grind of country life and head to the country’s growing towns. “We hope that homestays will help our own people to value rural traditions and livelihoods, at the same time as augmenting their household income,” says Sonam Choeden.
A homestay in Bhutan might see you putting up in a rambling farmhouse with multiple guest rooms or bedding down in the altar room of a small family home. While some are run along more commercial lines, most homestays are clean and simple – your bed might be a mattress on the floor, and hot water comes from a pan on the stove, rather than flowing out of a faucet. In return for embracing the conditions, whatever they might be, you will be rewarded with warm hospitality and a rare glimpse of Bhutanese home life.
“We say that you’re a guest for the first couple of days, and after that you’re family. People used to travel long distances on foot, and – as Bhutan had no inns or hotels – travellers would stay with other families on the way to their destination,” explains Sonam Choeden. “We’re trying to revive this old practice, as well as to adapt it to modern circumstances.”
Community-based tourism is great
Community-based tourism initiatives encourage visitors to connect more deeply with their destination, whether through a village tour or nature walk, by sharing a home-cooked meal, or by staying overnight in a local home. Thanks to its unique cultural heritage, Bhutan is a fascinating place to join one of these activities, although many are still in their infancy. As they establish themselves, one of the main challenges faced by these small-scale operations is how to get the recognition they deserve in a market crowded with larger hotels and businesses that command serious marketing budgets.
More than anything else that I did during my stay in Bhutan, the families that welcomed me for a night or two left the deepest impression on me. I returned home with a newfound appreciation for something as simple as butter, having seen how much hard work goes into churning it from a pail of milk. I came back with fresh respect for the farmers who produce our food and cooks who make everything from scratch – even their own ara. I know how to handle inquisitive brown cows, even if I’m still unsure how to milk one, and I returned refreshed, having experienced a way of life so wonderfully and utterly different from my own. Which is what travel is all about, isn’t it?
Top 4 Community Tourism Initiatives in Bhutan
- Bhutan Homestay: This specialty Paro-based tour operator has developed a network of homestays across Bhutan, which they incorporate into their standard itineraries. Other tour operators are able to book the homestays for a small fee, much of which is put towards a rural development fund. http://bhutanhomestay.com/
- Community-Based Sustainable Tourism Phobjika: Run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature, this project offers a range of community-run activities in the beautiful Phobjika Valley. Hire a bike, take a hot stone bath, join a craft workshop or stay overnight in one of the village homes. http://communitytourism.bt
- Alpine Organic Homestays: With twenty homestays inside the Wangchuck Centennial National Park, the park authorities, the WWF plus several international and national organisations have worked together to support homestay hosts and attract visitors to this beautiful mountain environment. http://wwf.panda.org
- Nabji-Korphu Trek: A moderate six-day hike, the Nabji Korphu Trek loops through the Black Mountains of central Bhutan, traversing an area of incredible biodiversity. Campsites along the trail are maintained by local communities, with the villagers providing porterage and village tours – fees go towards supporting community projects in this remote area. http://www.tourism.gov.bt/trek/nabji-korphu-trek
A version of this post first appeared in Kuzuzangpo La, Bhutan Airlines’ inflight magazine.
Soundtrack: Got it going on, by the Deadbeats (click here to listen on Youtube)