My Stay in a Bhutanese Home
Sarah Cahlan | Photography by Michael Marquand
In Bhutan, a South Asian country known for its 70% forest cover and belief in Gross National Happiness over GDP, a stay in a remote, off-the-grid homestay offers solace for technoholics weary of buzzing devices, the soft blue hue of the computer screen and the tip-tapping of fingers parading across a keyboard.
"It offers an authentic experience of Bhutanese family life," said Matthew DeSantis, the founder of MyBhutan, an online travel platform that promotes homestays. Travelers go wifi-less and without a plug to charge their phone; yes, phones die. No, travelers do not.
Hotels in Bhutan range from modest wooden two-story buildings to luxury suites with king size beds and tubs that can fit a small family. Bhutanese homestays, on the other hand, usually don't have wifi, a TV or a telephone.
Instead of room service, an indoor pool, a gym and a professional waiting staff, homestays offer home cooked meals, hot stone baths, daily exercises on the farm and a hospitable family. And instead of a hotel surrounded by the bustle of the capital city, homestays are inconspicuous, and built deep in the Himalayas. Some constructed on the base of a mountain, others on the top.
DeSantis of MyBhutan encourages travelers to stay in homestays. Having spent many nights around a Bhutanese family's bukhari - a wood-burning stove that doubles as a heater - he believes it's the best way to experience the country. His new travel platform is one of the first to allow travelers to find and book a homestay.
When I needed to visit an especially remote homestay that couldn't be reached online, he managed to set it up. He called a local hotel owner, who gave him the homestay manager's daughter; she lived in the US. She called her father, confirmed the stay and told Matt the directions to the house.
From Thimphu, to the homestay in Bumthang, I could have flown or hired a private car. I opted for the local bus (nicknamed 'vomit comets' for its tendency to make even the most hardened stomachs turn). The bus takes ten and a half hours to get to Bumthang. It's 168 miles from Thimphu to Bumthang. On a freeway, cruising at 60 MPH, that would be about two and a half hours. The reason the trip is eight hours longer than it should be? The roads are built around the mountains and are closed for a few hours every day for construction.
The day I left, I packed a tiny bag and walked to the bus station at dawn. The driver's second in command threw my luggage on top of the bus. The pile of bags and sacks of furniture, rice, and goods were just as high as the bus. Tied off by a few well-worn ropes, a strong wind rocked the luggage; the bus groaned under the weight.
Squished between mothers holding newborns and men with large bags full of rice, I sat and rocked for ten hours as the bus maneuvered through the half-built roads up and over and around the Himalayan mountains. Babies cried, Dzongkha music blasted from the radio, sixteen people packed themselves in a twelve-person van and I stuck my head out the window, embracing the brisk mountain air.
Most travelers opt for a private van booked by their tour guide. But the confused (secretly impressed) looks I received from Bhutanese when I told them I took the local bus was well worth the trip. And for the most part, I really enjoyed the ride. The views of the mountainside were unmatched and my fellow passengers shared snacks with me.
My usual road trip survival kit of store-bought chips and carrots palled in comparison to my fellow commuters' foods. From seasoned cucumbers to large bags of maize (bought from farmers seated on the side of the road) the snacks were filling and tasty.
When I arrived at my homestay, I met with the family, talked about their farm and the archaeological site next to their home. They provided butter tea and snacks from their gardens.
While organic or home gardening are trends in the rest of the world, it's just how it is in Bhutan. Food is fresh, picked or grown from the fields. When at a homestay, you can try these local eats and are even encouraged to help the family gather them. Although the matron of the home has total domain over the kitchen, most homestay moms are happy to have guests take on sous chef responsibilities; including cutting vegetables, herding animals, milking livestock and supervising children.
Cooking a meal in a homestay is a family affair. The women of the house bustle around the kitchen tending to the fires usually with a baby slung around their backs while the men bring in ingredients from the farm. Children are delegated to chores befitting their age: toddlers help with the vegetables and the older siblings lay out on the floor working on their homework packets.
When the meals are ready, everyone sits cross-legged around the bukhari on a textile rug. The women place wooden bowls (dhapa) and woven rice bowls in a single line on the floor. The men fill guests' glasses with ara, a home-made Bhutanese alcoholic drink (alcohol content is unknown), and scoop generous portions of food into guests' dhapas. Sculpting a bite of rice and veggies into a ball, everyone eats with their hands.
Guests and the family dig into meals of cheese, veggies, rice and chilies. And while Bhutanese are aware that foreigners aren't as accustomed to chilies as they are, if not told otherwise, the meals will be especially hot for the less than heat-seasoned taste-buds.
Other than the potentially lethal heat of the chillies, a night in a homestay is filled with comfort - from the family, the butter tea and the piles of blankets awaiting guests after a day hiking or exploring the homestay's neighboring villages. The combination of hometown hospitality, little to no access to digital devices and the smells and sounds of an untouched mountain landscape, makes the decision to stay in a homestay a no-brainer -- at least for me.