This was published in the first issue of Voyager which is a travel magazine, initiated by the Committee of Tourism Associations to promote tourism in Bhutan

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It was not very long ago when people had so much life and wealth in their hearts and sunshine on their faces; when doors were open to welcome anyone who knocked and strangers became friends the minute they entered homes. Of course, personal histories of many old folks has it that they knocked doors of homes that became theirs, having found a suitable love and life partner. Some who moved on after a friendly and free stay over or a brief love affair entered another home for a halt that often became permanent. As such, we have men of older generation who having been offered some dose of Bhutanese hospitality had his seeds scattered in various parts of the country and siblings who grew up to be barely aware of each other’s existence. But this was then a country, as Shakespeare would say, from whose bourn no traveler returns and truly the land of happiness where anyone was mostly happy with anyone or moved on to be happier with another.


As children, we often had strangers knocking on our door, pleading for a stay over, called Ngyep Ngani in local terminology. My parents, like any other Bhutanese, would relent and give them a room and mattresses, pillows and blankets to sleep on. They were either offered meals or provided with utensils and other provisions to cook depending on several circumstances that included my mom’s personal weather. Fortunately for them, it was mostly sunny. As for my mom as for any other Bhutanese, the onus was to keep the doors always open for a needy stranger even on dark days because Bhutanese people have a genial flame for charity fueled by Buddhist values such as compassion, a trait much coveted for but rarely adopted on God’s civilized earth with half-a-moon faced people where strangers seeking such favours are scrutinized with a severe frown before being shooed off as they would a stray dog.

Ten years back, a friend confided in me about a crossroad that she had faced that could have been the ruin of her. She was to travel all the way from the east to the west of the country with a night halt in Bumthang. She had the driver and a man she faintly knew (but treated him like a brother, a common folly Bhutanese women make) travelling with her. She was a teenager and barely had enough sense to suppress her loneliness that would only be fulfilled by being with her parents in Thimphu. As darkness fell and they neared the lodging they were to stay at in Bumthang, her anxiety escalated. The man nudged and hinted that it was necessary for her to have him around her, mainly to be the knight against the darkness of the night, little realizing that he was the one and the same. Crumbling with fear, she pleaded with the shop-woman at the ground floor of the lodging to take her in for the night. Years from then, she still talks of the woman’s timely kindness that had steered her life away from danger and ruin.

Besides providing shelter, Bhutanese people also demonstrate their spirit of hospitality through the custom of offering tea. Tea in the Bhutanese society often comes before friendship and is humourously portrayed in Linda Leaming’s book “Married to Bhutan”. Tea offerings are not ceremonial as it is in Japan and China but rather a habitual gesture of friendship. It is as simple as knocking at somebody’s door to say hello and being asked if you would like a cup of tea. You could say no but then you would be told that it’s no trouble at all, that there’s freshly made tea in the flask and she/he was going for a cup of it anyway. Well, in that case, you say you wouldn’t mind having a cup if it’s no trouble at all and then possibly end up stretching your tea session to dinner session, and by the time you have left, you’d feel like relatives from another lifetime. This custom of serving tea spans beyond homes to offices and other meeting places that a person visiting several persons a day could end up bloating like a tea barrel. Besides the usual milk tea, there is the traditional butter tea called Suja that when one gets accustomed to, can often be addicted to it. When I mentioned our much cherished Suja to a friend from Australia, he raised his brows into bizarre shapes and asked how it is prepared. I told him it is prepared with traditional tea leaves and churned with butter and salt to which he declared he would have to wake his dormant, adventurous inner self to be able to try something as queer as that. I assured him that great adventures begin from queer beginnings and this one little beginning would have to be his first test of fire for an adventurous journey he is yet to make.

For a Bhutanese, a cup of tea can be an answer to many things: for warmth in winter, for energy when drained, for brightening up dark days, for fueling the mind with creativity when the well has run dry and as an excuse to chat about life and its many vicissitudes. The Ngalops from western Bhutan are famous for their love of tea and among them, the Haaps (people from Haa) are numero uno in tea consumption – the basis of a common Bhutanese comment - Are you from Haa?

On the contrary, the Sharchops from the east have a unique way of presenting their hospitality where Ara, a locally brewed alcohol is served instead of tea, and served in many shares that one could literally end up crawling out their doors and pissing right outside your window. Refusal to relent to persistent offers for second to God-knows-how-many shares can be symbolic of hostility to the host’s spirit of hospitality. Thus, the trick in a Sharchop’s home is to never say no but if you must say it at all, say it just before the scheming mind scoots. And of course, it doesn’t help being imaginative if you enter a home of a couple where one is a Ngalop and the other half a Sharchop..

Sadly the custom of seeking and offering shelter to strangers is fast gravitating towards reserving for only friends and family due to incidents such as treachery and theft brought about by modernization although much of this tradition still prevails as one move further away from urban areas. However, the decadent custom of offering tea is still widely enjoyed.

Bhutanese people are some of the warmest people in the world with a constant smile that begins all the way from their souls to their hearts and ending up in their eyes and lips and a generous heart that shows through their amiability – a major reason beside its landscape and environment that makes Bhutan one of the most natural places to be that it is often called the last Shangri-La on Earth. Alex(name withheld), a permanent resident of Australia chimed that it is one of the happiest places he has visited but he has several complaints and much of them has to do with facilities for travelers. He then whined about the tough terrains for short treks to places like Takstang, and suggested that sky lifts and rail riders for these journeys should be introduced. He further added that these either winding or steep footpaths are mostly littered with horse manure with not a toilet in sight for travelers. Bad news first, Alex is absolutely right! But the good news is, these are some of the reasons why Bhutan is such a natural country and is rightly a place of adventure, not of comfort. And if you have a pinch of this adventurous spirit, Bhutanese spirit of hospitality will see to it you have made the right choice.
6 Responses
  1. Very nice read, I am nodding on every paragraph.
    Yes, I am from Haa, but I switched from Tea to Whisky ha ha ha...
    Put a snapshot of the Mag.


  2. Yugan Yeoman Says:

    wow...every line is amusing...great work!


  3. Kinga Choden Says:

    Passang, Whiskey is better! :D Will put up a snapshot soon..


  4. Sonam Says:

    nicely drawn! but where is that snapshot of the whiskey? keep writing :)


  5. Kinga Choden Says:

    Sonam,

    Well, don't want to entice you with a pic. You are just out from rehab, so I hear. :P


  6. Langa Tenzin Says:

    I am wondering how I have missed this article, firstly. It is a brilliant read like always, ma'am Kinga. You have covered the Bhutanese sense of hospitality from the East to West and beautifully counter-argued the complaints of some of your foreigner friends. Looking forward to more frequent updates! It's always a pleasure to read your write ups. :)


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