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SouperChef Anna Travels | Take Me To Bhutan

by Souperchef Anna on October 11, 2015

7 Things From 7 Days In Bhutan 

 

1. You can eat chilli with every meal.

Many have asked me, “What do Bhutanese eat?” We tell you here!

 

Ema Datshi

If Hainanese Chicken Rice is to Singapore, we wouldn’t be too far off to say ema datshi is to Bhutan. I don’t think we’ve had a meal in Bhutan that isn’t served with ema datshi! The airline food was a sign of the local cuisine we were going to have for the next one week. My vegetarian set came with a dhal of sorts, but with green chillies and a hint of cheese. Chilli and cheese, the unlikely combination that is definitive of every Bhutanese meal. Ema datshi, they call it. Ema means chilli, datshi means cheese. In Bhutan, chilli is regarded more like a vegetable than a spice, and is used generously, creatively and frequently.

 

One of the many versions of ema datse we had in Bhutan. Chilli and Cheese sound odd together, but taste absolutely heavenly.

One of the many versions of ema datse we had in Bhutan. Chilli and Cheese sound odd together, but taste absolutely heavenly.

 

To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to like this traditional dish, but I rather enjoyed the subdued taste of the cheese that complemented the stronger flavour of the chillies on the airline meal. I was hooked since and this was the one of the many dishes I looked forward to at every single meal thereafter.

Every home cook knows how to make ema datshi. Curiously, as ubiquitous as this dish is in Bhutan, each version we tried exuded individuality. Most used fresh red or green chillies, the former making the ema datshi a tad spicier, especially if the seeds were left to lend a more fiery punch. In winter when there is no harvest, dried chillies are used. We had the pleasure of tasting one such version, and like the Bhutanese, I could eat this with my rice alone! Truly, you can eat chilli with every meal.

 

This version uses both the red and green chiili varieties. Equally delish!

This version uses both the red and green chiili varieties. Equally delish!

 

Cheese-wise, the choice is also entirely up to the individual cook. And this conversation I had with Ugyen’s family still makes me chuckle to this day! On my first trip to Bhutan, Ugyen brought me to his brother’s place in Thimphu for a homecooked meal. They explained that they used only a specific type of cheese for ema datse. “Craft cheese,” they said earnestly. Curious to know more, I asked for the brand of ‘craft’ cheese, assuming it was a special local artisan cheese I could hunt for during the trip. They enthusiastically went to their pantry and handed me the cheese. It turned out to be, wait for it – ‘Kraft’ cheese. Nothing fancy, but good old ‘Kraft’ cheese.

Sometimes it’s the simple things that make the boldest, most heavenly pairings. Leave the fancy elements behind, and just let these chillies and cheese shine.

Red Rice
Like butter and toast, ema datshi and rice just go. The Bhutanese eat a significant amount of rice, particularly red rice, a variety of rice that grows exceptionally well in high altitudes. With the fertile soil that Bhutan enjoys, irrigated with glacier water rich in minerals, Bhutanese red rice is highly nutritious, nutty in flavour, and cooks easily to a soft and slightly sticky texture. Unlike the red rice that I was accustomed to Singapore, we noticed that the rice we had in Bhutan took on a pretty pastel pink hue too.

 

The beautiful russet tones of the red rice in Bhutan. Some are deeper in shade, some pinker.

The beautiful russet tones of the red rice in Bhutan. Some are deeper in shade, some pinker.

 

Centenary Farmers’ Market, one of the biggest domestic markets for Bhutanese farmers in Thimphu, was a short ride away from our lunch venue, and what a field day we had exploring the red rice varieties on sale there! From the darker rustic russet hue to the lighter blush pink, it’s amazing how varied red rice can be. The friendly vendors invited us to feel the rice piled up in the sacks. The grains slipped through the gaps between my fingers, some grains broken, but most were full whole grains, a testament to the agricultural giants the Bhutanese are.

 

We dug into the sacks to feel the grains in our hands. Red gold, you know?

We dug into the sacks to feel the grains in our hands. Red gold, you know?


Surrounded by rice! There is a whole floor dedicated to red rice at the Centenary Farmers' Market!

Surrounded by rice! There is a whole floor dedicated to red rice at the Centenary Farmers’ Market!

 

Our hosts served us red rice at every meal, even at breakfasts. As we tucked happily into our toasts (toasted on their cast iron griddles!) with local freshly churned butter and beautiful organic jam, the Bhutanese dug deep into their red rice, topped with ema datshi. On average, Ugyen and our driver, Panda, take about two to three heaped bowls of red rice a meal. That’s how much the Bhutanese take to their red rice!

 

The sweet blush pink of cooked red rice, served in a beautiful copper-toned bowl.

The sweet blush pink of cooked red rice, served in a beautiful copper-toned bowl.

 

Ezay

We are not done with chilli yet! At Ugyen’s brother’s home, I learned some authentic Bhutanese cuisine in their rustic and well-equipped home. This was where I learned how to make the Bhutanese multi-use fiery hot chilli condiment, ezay. Unlike Singapore’s sambal chilli and Spain’s salsa that are served with specific dishes, the ezay is a condiment that comes with almost everything. I’ve seen the Bhutanese eat it with vegetables, poultry, fried noodles, and even on top of ema datse. Chilli with chilli—the Bhutanese truly like things spicy!

My first taste of ezay numbed my tongue with a hot so fiery I had to stop eating. But it was so good, so good I went on for more. Ezay is traditionally made with thingey, a locally-grown peppercorn known to the rest of the world as Szechuan peppercorn. The backing heat of the peppercorn and the red chillies make this condiment a perfect one to have in winter but also possibly a shock to palates that aren’t used to the level of spice the Bhutanese love.

 

My version of the eazay that I learned to make during my first trip to Bhutan. I love things spicy so this packs a fiery punch!

My version of the ezay that I learned to make during my first trip to Bhutan. I love things spicy so this packs a fiery punch!

Intrigued by ezay so much after the first trip, I busied myself in the kitchen once I came back to recreate this condiment. Prior to our second trip, I made a fresh batch as a gift to Ugyen, and I was souper stoked that he loved it! He kept the packet gingerly and took it out at every meal to savour with his rice. We had it as a topping with fresh cucumber and cottage cheese salad, as a dip for meat stews, even with plain red rice.

We made a Bhutanese-inspired heirloom tomato salad with cottage cheese and the eazay I made in Singapore for Ugyen, our guide. It packs a punch, a delight in the windy summer Bhutan enjoys.

We made a Bhutanese-inspired heirloom tomato salad with cottage cheese and the eazay I made in Singapore for Ugyen, our guide. It packs a punch, a delight in the windy summer Bhutan enjoys.

 

The beauty of ezay is that it heightens the clean flavours of Bhutanese cuisines, despite the sharpness of the spices. Enjoy our version at our stores!

 

2. Food tastes even better when you know the sources.

We couldn’t have come at a better time – during summer in Bhutan, the land is impressively shrooming with mushrooms, peaches, plums, flowers of all colours! In this post, we languish in Bhutan’s simplicity and explore her down-to-earth and back-to-basic ways in appreciating what nature has blessed her with. Bhutan has banned the sales of pesticides and herbicides, and agriculture is wholly organic, so much so that few products are labelled organic anymore. The epitome of sustainability, we have much to learn from the ambition and determination of Bhutan. Our farm-to-table theme itinerary led us through pristine greens, shades so deep. We hiked through muddy fields and grassy slopes under a sun sometimes golden and warm, and at other times, piercing and harsh. We’ve got a foretaste of what the farmers go through on a daily basis, subject to the mercy of nature. We visited factories and farmers’ markets and roadside stalls, and realised efficient food production doesn’t have to take place in fancy schmancy setups.

 

Centenary Farmers’ Market

Nature's colours in their full glory at Centenary Farmers' Market.

Nature’s colours in their full glory at Centenary Farmers’ Market.

 

As you may have already read in our earlier post, the Centenary Farmers’ Market is one of the biggest domestic markets for Bhutanese farmers. Located near the main town in Thimphu, the double-storied building houses about 400 stalls selling organic and seasonal produce of vegetables, fruits, rice, spices, mushrooms etc, as well as incense and a cozy little cafeteria.

 

This is merely a little corner of the sprawling grounds within the Centenary Famers' Market.

This is merely a little corner of the sprawling grounds within the Centenary Famers’ Market.

 

Vendors typically arrive by Thursday evening and the market buzzes on throughout the weekend. This is where you can find most of Bhutan’s colours! The sprawling grounds were clean, dry and well maintained with obliging vendors who happily allowed us to snap endless photos.

 

This smiley vendor was very obliging and helped us to pick our plums and peaches. He even gave us a few extra plums!

This smiley vendor was very obliging and helped us to pick our plums and peaches. He even gave us a few extra plums!

 

Given the sheer number of stalls in the market, we did have some difficulty selecting our produce. Being the ‘kiasu’ Singaporeans that we are, we were determined to browse through each stall before we decided on the produce we wanted and the stalls we wanted to purchase from. We certainly spent a pretty awesome afternoon in the windy market!

 

Sacks of spices with alluring smells as you approach.

Sacks of spices with alluring smells as you approach.


We love how the vendors display their produce here. This is thingey or peppercorns, commonly used in Bhutanese cooking.

We love how the vendors display their produce here. This is thingey or peppercorns, commonly used in Bhutanese cooking.


Summer's the season for these curly wurly fiddlehead ferns, also known as nakey in Bhutan.

Summer’s the season for these curly wurly fiddlehead ferns, also known as nakey in Bhutan.

 

Summer is the season for nakey, curly and tender fern fronds also known as fiddlehead ferns, as well as the highly-prized matsutake mushrooms. In Japan, matsutake mushrooms are really pricey so I was souper pleased to find them in amazing abundance and affordability in this market! Look how dwarfed my hands are compared to these beautiful mushrooms! Only two stalls had the mushrooms in these sizes, and we had to buy at least 500g of mushroom according to the vendors.

 

The legendary matsutake mushrooms that dwarved my hand! These are organic and command a high price in Japan.

The legendary matsutake mushrooms that dwarved my hand! These are organic and command a high price in Japan.


These were so beautiful! Rich hues that glisten in the market.

These were so beautiful! Rich hues that glisten in the market.

 

Druk Asia had informed us earlier that this would be the season too for plums and peaches, and indeed, every fruit stall laid the stone fruits proudly in baskets, the rich purple of the plums and velvety cream and coral tones of the peaches glowing above other fruits. Till this day, I’m still very much amazed how such beautiful produce come from traditional farming methods free of chemicals.

 

Perfect pretty peaches that we had as snacks in our long bumpy car rides across mountains.

Perfect pretty peaches that we had as snacks in our long bumpy car rides across mountains.


Hello, peach. I think we had one too many!

Hello, peach. I think we had one too many!

 

Cultural Hike

The view from the top of Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten in Punakha. Valleys and mountains and clouds. Just breathe and take it all in.

The view from the top of Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten in Punakha. Valleys and mountains and clouds. Just breathe and take it all in.

 

Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten sits grandly on a ridge high above the Punakha Valley. This is a temple built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother, and dedicated to spiritual protection for the kingdom. Once up at the top of the four-storeyed temple, you get a commanding view of the rice fields, mountainous peaks, and the wind billows away in majesty. The highlight for us though was the hike from the foot of the hill on which the chorten is built. Ugyen had told us it would be a breezy 40-min hike, but our incessant need to pause to talk to farmers, touch and snap pictures of anything edible resulted in a longish hike of almost two hours!

 

Sharing our foraged nakey with a cute little farmer's girl on the cultural trail up to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Sharing our foraged nakey with a cute little farmer’s girl on the cultural trail up to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

 

Remember the nakey or fiddlehead ferns we bought in Centenary Farmers’ Market? It turned out that they grow wildly along the trail too and with the help of Ugyen, we became fern foragers! I held a big bunch in my hands as I hiked across the muddy fields.

 

This man saved us from inedible wild ferns which we mistook as fiddlehead ferns. Thank you!

This man saved us from inedible wild ferns which we mistook as fiddlehead ferns. Thank you!

 

Along the way, we met this stout man with a dog next to him. His job was to clear the trails of fallen branches and loose stones so hikers and farmers traversing could have a safer path. He was quick to notice the ferns in our hands and pointed to Ugyen that more of half of what we picked were not nakey but inedible wild ferns! All thanks to him, we are still alive now! While waiting for us, our driver, Panda, who used to be a chef, also did some foraging for us, knowing how much we liked the nakey. In a matter of minutes, his reap was way higher than ours, and thankfully, all edible too!

 

I miss this jolly little chap who followed us all the way on the cultural trail to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten, and back down!

I miss this jolly little chap who followed us all the way on the cultural trail to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten, and back down!


We met this lovely girl who gave us directions on the easier and less muddy routes to take. Independent, polite, eloquent and confident, she left a deep impression on us all.

We met this lovely girl who gave us directions on the easier and less muddy routes to take. She even helped us to pick nakey. Independent, polite, eloquent and confident, she left a deep impression on us all.


The splendid rice paddy fields on our cultural hike.

The splendid rice paddy fields on our cultural hike.

 

Just before we ascended up the hill to the chorten, farmers were busy preparing the fields for rice planting. Look at the extensive varieties of food grown here! We even found an avocado tree uphill, the unripe avocados camouflaged by surrounding greens. It’s my first time picking avocados from the wild and they were gingerly wrapped so we could bring them back to Singapore.

 

My small bounty of wild avocados, freshly picked!

My small bounty of wild avocados, freshly picked!

 

This hike has made me think about food sustainability on a deeper level. Let us be thankful for whatever’s served before us. It’s the result of the hard work of many.

Buckwheat Fields
Once a widely-grown and prevalent traditional crop, buckwheat has been gradually abandoned by farmers for other cash crops such as rice and potatoes that provide higher yields with less effort. In Bumthang, where most of the buckwheat still grows, we were souper blessed to be able to join a farmer in his harvest of buckwheat.

 

A farmer and his helpers in their early harvest of buckwheat in Bumthang.

A farmer and his helpers in their early harvest of buckwheat in Bumthang.

 

That morning, the sun rose high and showered the russet buckwheat fields with a deeper glow. In the middle of the field sat a genial farmer in his sixties, whacking hard at the buckwheat stalks with a long stick. Ugyen spoke to the farmer on our behalf and we learned that the whacking was to ‘beat the seeds out’, after which the grain-like seeds go through a filter of sorts. The buckwheat harvests are then used as grain alternatives or milled as buckwheat flour to be made into pancakes, noodles and the likes. Now, as the buckwheat production dips into a further decline partly because of manpower shortage to beat out the seeds physically, even the husks which were typically discarded are now salvaged to be made into buckwheat husk pillows. Leftover stalks are also dried to become hay for animals during winter.

 

The farmer patiently explained to us how buckwheat was harvested.

The farmer patiently explained to us how buckwheat was harvested.

Did you know also that there is sweet buckwheat as well as bitter buckwheat and herbal buckwheat? This farmer grows the bitter ones, which looks somewhat different from the ones we get form the States. If the land is too fertile, sweet buckwheat can become bitter, so most farmers rotate crops in the same plot of land, for example, planting buckwheat after potatoes.

After a workout of buckwheat whacking on the fields under the hot sun, this was what we harvested. Indeed labourious.

After a workout of buckwheat whacking on the fields under the hot sun, this was what we harvested. Indeed labourious.


The back-breaking work at the buckwheat fields.

The back-breaking work at the buckwheat fields.

 

As a rough estimate, this farmer’s buckwheat field can yield only about 20kg of seeds or about 8 kg of buckwheat flour per harvest. According to Ugyen, buckwheat used to be food for the poor, but with its decline, prices have since gone up three-fold, and now it is food mainly for the richer ones in the community, or those who still yearn for a taste of nostalgia. Our host at Rinchenling Lodge in Bumthang, Dasho Jamphed Ngedup (Dasho is a title given by His Majesty the King to people who have been recognized for their services to the country), recalled he used to eat buckwheat all day – buckwheat pancakes for breakfast, buckwheat bread for lunch and buckwheat soup for dinner. Now, given its relative rarity, buckwheat noodles are typically served only at big gatherings, for instance, formal work functions. Even though Bumthang is a buckwheat-growing valley, production is low and yields have been underwhelming.

Those days in Bumthang after this field trip, I lingered over each buckwheat pancake we had with much thanks. The humble buckwheat has seen grander times, but its farm-to-table story is one that stirred my heart most.

 

Potato Fields

This busy field was so filled with laughter as the farmers teased one another and the children with soil-stained clothes helped around and did what they did best, run with glee.

This busy field was so filled with laughter as the farmers teased one another and the children with soil-stained clothes helped around and did what they did best, run with glee.

 

Not far away from the buckwheat fields is the potato field. And what a buzzing field it was! Children were chasing one another around with dried mud stains on their knees, faces full of glee. We asked to help harvest the potatoes, and everyone welcomed us with bemusement. We bent down, picked up potatoes big and small, and threw them into baskets spread around the fields. After twenty minutes of harvesting, I looked up with pride at my basket, only to realise how much fuller the other baskets were. I don’t make too good a farmer, do I?

 

This tractor was donated by the Japanese government, and it certainly makes harvesting a lot less arduous.

This tractor was donated by the Japanese government, and it certainly makes harvesting a lot less arduous.

 

The farmers here used tractors kindly donated by Japan to plough the land and loosen the soil so harvesting is made easier. Dasho shared that when he was a child, potatoes were mostly homegrown in a small kitchen patch for own consumption. In the 1970s, potato farming became large scale, and potatoes were regarded as a cash crop for sale to India.

 

Hello, potatoes. Still caked with soil, these are precious crops the result of much hard work.

Hello, potatoes. Still caked with soil, these are precious crops the result of much hard work.


All hatted out at the potato field with the young owner.

All hatted out at the potato field with the young owner.

 

Root Berries

 

These grow wild and taste like sweet mangoes, though they look like orange raspberries.

These grow wild and taste like sweet mangoes, though they look like orange raspberries.

 

I’m besotted with these wild orange raspberry-like berries! Ugyen said they are root berries, and throughout our three days in Bumthang, we carried with us little bottles to pluck and collect these pretty berries. They can be found almost anywhere, some even next to wild marijuana (Yes, you read right – marijuana grows in abundance here. No wonder it’s called ‘weed’!). Ugyen had a penchant for spotting the berries and would climb up high to pluck the plumpest juiciest ones for us. The best guide in Bhutan, truly! These berries may look like raspberries, but taste like sweet ripe mangoes. I couldn’t stop popping them!

 

The plump ones are extremely sweet, though harder to pick as they tend to grow higher up.

The plump ones are extremely sweet, though harder to pick as they tend to grow higher up.


Freshly-picked root berries as a dressing for our pancakes and a star in our salads!

Freshly-picked root berries as a dressing for our pancakes and a star in our salads!

 

Red Panda Beer Brewery
Not too far from Rinchenling Lodge where we stayed was this humble brewery, so small we thought it was someone’s home when we drove past it one day. This brewery makes the “Red Panda Beer”, a Weiss beer that is un-filtered and free of preservatives. Production is kept small, and goes through the traditional beer brewing method of cooking barley and malted barley from India and hops from Germany, boiling, pumping, filtration and fermentation. True to Bhutan’s sustainable and green practices, bottles are recycled, and even the processed barley are given to the cows. “Cows very happy!” quipped the factory guide.

 

The facilities in the Red Panda Beer Brewery. Humble as they are, they produce smooth, unfiltered beer that's free of preservatives.

The facilities in the Red Panda Beer Brewery. Humble as they are, they produce smooth, unfiltered beer that’s free of preservatives.


The barley that is imported from India and used for the Red Panda Beer.

The barley that is imported from India and used for the Red Panda Beer.

 

For 5USD, you get a guided tour and a bottle of beer. We chilled ours and shared with our Ugyen, Panda and our hosts ar Rinchenling Lodge. I’m not quite the drinker but the men were clinking glasses and making plans to buy more, so you know this beer has to be pretty good!

 

Even the packaging is uber cute!

Even the packaging is uber cute!

 

On a side note, we finally knew why our driver, Panda, is nicknamed as such! He loves their beer and since he also turns red after some drinks, and looks jolly like the red panda, he was nicknamed after the “Red Panda Beer”! How cute!

 

Bee Farm and Honey Factory

The office next to the Bee Farm and Honey Factory, bearing the signature architectural style of Bhutanese buildings.

The office next to the Bee Farm and Honey Factory, bearing the signature architectural style of Bhutanese buildings.

 

In July when we visited, it was honey harvesting season, but we were told that there was a global shortage of bees and production is limited. The honey factory owner almost didn’t let us buy any honey as his priority was to sell to the locals, particularly the restaurants and lodges. We were finally allowed to buy a limited quantity after Ugyen persuaded him to let us bring some back to Singapore to share with our customers.

 

This was all that was used to bottle the honey from barrels of stored honey.

This was all that was used to bottle the honey from barrels of stored honey.

 

Like many local factories, this bee farm and honey factory run a small production. There was an elderly lady using a small machine to bottle the honey from barrels, and a younger lady to cap the bottles manually before packing them in cartons of twelve. She’s also the one sticking the labels on the bottles. The modest set-up is typical of Bhutanese agricultural landscape, and it made me particularly mindful about not wasting food. Even honey is becoming such a precious commodity!

Visit www.BhutanHoney.org for more information on the honey produced in Bhutan!

 

Swiss Cheese Factory

When the car first turned into Bumthang Valley, I sat up in awe and rubbed my eyes. It is beautiful. Without the prayer flags, I could almost believe that I was in Switzerland with the expansive meadows, wild brilliant flowers and wispy clouds. So it’s no surprise Swiss cheese is savoured in Switzerland-like Bumthang! The founder of the Swiss Cheese Factory in Bumthang, Friz Maurer, came to Bhutan more than 40 years ago responding to an advertisement in a Swiss newspaper for a cheese-maker in the land of the Thunder Dragon.

 

Gouda cheese maturing in the factory.

Gouda cheese maturing in the factory.

 

We weren’t allowed into the factory when processing is underway for hygiene purposes, but the guide very kindly allowed us to view the equipment used. With basic machines, this factory produces a wide variety of cheese, including gouda and emmental. The gouda is kept for at least three years to mature in taste, and the witty guide shared, “With customer, three years, ready! No customer, another three years!” There was a small sampling station at the souvenir counter, and the lady generously served us a big slab of emmental cheese. So tasty!

 

The sampling station and souvenir store just next to the Swiss Cheese Factory. Beer and apple juice bottles are all recycled as part of Bhutan's effort to be a sustainable and responsible kingdom.

The sampling station and souvenir store just next to the Swiss Cheese Factory. Beer and apple juice bottles are all recycled as part of Bhutan’s effort to be a sustainable and responsible kingdom.

 

This culinary sojourn has certainly humbled us city dwellers as we find a slower pace in life with a deepened appreciation for the work that goes behind the food brought before us on the table. Food tastes even better when you know the sources. Let’s be thankful.

3. Traditions are for sharing.

Food transcends all boundaries, and both our trips to Bhutan were marked by this respect for food as we exchanged stories and traditions with our hosts in our cookouts and gatherings. “To zowa sho” means “come eat”” in Dzongkha, the official language of Bhutan. This simple invitation encapsulates what our journal hopes to do because it implies that you are not eating alone, that eating is an inherently communal act.

 

Buckwheat Pancakes

Bhutan gets beautiful light in the summer. Food glows here.

Bhutan gets beautiful light in the summer. Food glows here.

 

The dawn has broken, and the morning light is sneaking in through a gap in the curtains. The lodge seemed to be still in a deep slumber. Today, we are learning cooking from the Dasho’s wife, who is well-known to the locals as a brilliant chef! According to Barbara, a Swiss teacher who is on a volunteering teaching stint in Bhutan, a renowned hotel chef she knew was a big fan of Dasho’s wife cooking. We are definitely stoked we were going into her kitchen today!

At seven o’clock in the evening, Rinchenling Lodge is draped in a friendly darkness, serene and humbling. Our hosts were up early to prepare the kitchen, and I loved the rusticity of everything here, especially the dosai pan they used to make the buckwheat pancakes! During the preparation, Dasho shared that the Bhutanese believe that if you see a ‘mark’ in the pancakes when they are being cooked, it’s an auspicious sign to signify influx of guests!

 

The buckwheat pancakes ala Bhutan style on their dosai pan.

The buckwheat pancakes ala Bhutan style on their dosai pan.


The buckwheat pancakes kept in a tea towel in a pot to keep them warm.

The buckwheat pancakes kept in a tea towel in a pot to keep them warm.

 

One of the traditional Bhutanese ways of eating these slightly bitter pancakes was to make small slits to allow dollops of butter to melt right into the heart of the pancakes, then sprinkle salt to finish. We had plenty amongst us, though I eventually skipped the butter salt and enjoyed Dasho’s wife’s pancakes with their homemade strawberry jam instead!

 

Dasho making slits in the pancake for butter to slide right in!

Dasho making slits in the pancake for butter to slide right in!

 

And now’s our turn to share our way of eating pancakes —with the wild orange berries we picked and fresh lemon and mint from the garden! Here’s our pancake stack, affectionately nicknamed ‘stupa’ (a Sanskrit word meaning “to heap” or “to pile” and refers to the mound-like shape of the earliest stupas, structures that represent the fully enlightened mind of the Buddha) by a guide from another tour group! There are so many ways one can prepare pancakes, each one unique. I’m thankful for the sharing and learning.

 

Our 'stupa' buckwheat pancakes stack, with freshly picked root berries and mint!

Our ‘stupa’ buckwheat pancakes stack, with freshly picked root berries and mint!

 

Ara

A traditional alcoholic beverage, Ara is made from rice, wheat, maize or barley, fermented or distilled to form a clear looking or creamy liquor. Ara isn’t sold publicly and it is only within the home or farm confines that ara is produced and consumed legally in Bhutan. Dasho is a avid drinker and we’ve been offered at every dinner to share a bottle of his ara. I avoid alcohol as I tend to flush at my first sip, but my husband appreciates all alcoholic drinks and even tinkers with several home brewery sets back home. Imagine his delight when Dasho offered to teach us how he distilled his ara!

According to Dasho, it is typically the womenfolk in the household who makes the ara. “The quality of ara depends on the quality of the woman who prepares it,” Ngyen remarked. As Dasho’s wife busies herself preparing, Dasho patiently explained to us the process.

 

Dasho's wife showing us how to make ara. The womenfolk are typically the ones who prepare the ara in the household.

Dasho’s wife showing us how to make ara. The womenfolk are typically the ones who prepare the ara in the household.

 

Fermentation of the barley, wheat, water and yeast takes a minimum of five months. The mixture is poured into a big pot to boil, and there is another slightly smaller pot of cold water placed on top to create condensation. When the water evaporates inside the bigger pot, the steam will touch the colder pot on top. Condensation then happens and causes the water droplets to drip back. There is also a rope tied around the outer pot to keep the alcohol from evaporating. This whole process takes about two hours. Dasho’s wife added cordyceps and a few strands of saffron to flavour the ara in the inner pot. This is ara fit for royalty!

 

The setup for making ara.

The setup for making ara.


The details that go into making ara using basic equipment. Here, a rope is tied around the pots to prevent the alcohol from evaporating out.

The details that go into making ara using basic equipment. Here, a rope is tied around the pots to prevent the alcohol from evaporating out.


Cordyceps were added to this batch of ara, together with strands of saffron.

Cordyceps were added to this batch of ara, together with strands of saffron.


Wooden logs that fire up the ara.

Wooden logs that fire up the ara.


Dasho's wife has to keep adding cold water to the inner pot so that condensation can take place.

Dasho’s wife has to keep adding cold water to the inner pot so that condensation can take place.

 

Dasho has been creative with his flavours of ara – when we visited, he had just placed a pear still growing on the tree into a bottle so the pear flavour can be captured for a more intense ara. Our three nights there were spent in merry-making, storytelling, centred around food and cultures. Traditions are truly better when shared.

 

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Given her Buddhist roots and culture that discourages killing, Bhutan imports most of her meat from India. Most meat dishes are stewed or cooked with chilli, and I thought it would be nice to share our Hainanese Chicken rice with our Bhutanese hosts.

 

It's lovely to centre round the kitchen table to cook and learn. These are some of my favourite memories.

It’s lovely to centre round the kitchen table to cook and learn. These are some of my favourite memories.

 

Dasho and his wife were so excited they got their entire kitchen crew to be around to help cook and take notes. I was a little shy when I realised how quick the earnest staff were when I asked for help. I mumbled, “Hmm do we have ginger?” and many hands spread out to pass me some. Together, we deseeded chillies, blanched chicken, chopped ginger, and the camaraderie was so warmly felt. We even got to serve the chicken rice to a grateful Singapore tour group who had just arrived at the lodge!

 

The hands at work to bring food to the table.

The hands at work to bring food to the table.


Panda, our driver, was absolutely amazing in the kitchen. An ex-chef, his chopping skills are unparalleled!

Panda, our driver, was absolutely amazing in the kitchen. An ex-chef, his chopping skills are unparalleled!

 

Cookouts

Our hosts showed us so much kind hospitality and gave us free reign of their kitchens. We exchanged simple kitchen tips, experimented with new foods, partook in traditional methods of cooking and gatherings. Glasses are clinked, plates are passed around, and memories made and kept. The honest beauty of food comes alive in these cookouts.

 

Our way of giving thanks to our hosts who have been so warm to us.

Our way of giving thanks to our hosts who have been so warm to us.


The staff were rather shy at first, but very quickly warmed up and were very curious about the ways we cooked.

The staff were rather shy at first, but very quickly warmed up and were very curious about the ways we cooked.


My turn to serve!

My turn to serve!


Rinchenling Lodge's very earnest staff whom I had the pleasure of cooking with.

Rinchenling Lodge’s very earnest staff I had the pleasure of cooking with.


Dasho and I could talk for days about all things food. We are souper blessed to be able to learn from him and his wife!

Dasho and I could talk for days about all things food. We are souper blessed to be able to learn from him and his wife!


We were cooking beef stew together, and notes were taken, hands were busy, cultures are bridged.

We were cooking beef stew together, and notes were taken, hands were busy, cultures are bridged.

 

We’re all defined in some way or another by our roots and traditions, be they cultural, religious or social. Traditions are for sharing, so somewhere, someone may delight in our unique local nuances.

4. No traffic lights, no problem.

Bhutan is a land of surprises. You will probably have heard about how this Himalayan kingdom is the first country where Gross National Happiness (GNH) is measured and deemed more important than Gross National Product. Ugyen shared his experience of filling up a long survey of questions that the Centre For Bhutan Studies has designed. Pages after pages, the survey seeks to understand more about the individual’s perception of happiness in his or her religion, work and other aspects of life, and from the results, the GNH index is derived. “So, are you happy, Ugyen?” I asked casually as the car we were in jolted over rocks and mud. He responded with a smile without hesitation, “Yes, happy. Happy because of simple life. Happy from the heart,” and he thumped his chest gently. “Villagers are more happy, less exposed. But when there is modernization, they seem to want more, so they will be unhappy. Simple is good. Happy.” And Panda nodded in agreement, his t-shirt underneath his gho reads, “Gross National Happiness”.

 

The gate to Thimphu City, the capital of Bhutan. This capital has its fair share of firsts and surprises!

The gate to Thimphu City, the capital of Bhutan. This capital has its fair share of firsts and surprises!

 

At Thimphu District, where traffic is supposed to be the heaviest across the kingdom as it is the capital where most corporations, schools and government organizations reside, we saw how orderly and efficient the traffic was. A landlocked country of about 38,394 square kilometres and 700,000 people, Bhutan boasts of being one of the two national capitals in the world with no traffic lights. The capital takes pride in its traffic police from the Royal Bhutan Police that directs and controls traffic in structures akin to toll booths. We stood on the street for a while, part amused, part impressed by the traffic cops who wave their arms with assertion at the city’s busy intersections. Ugyen shared that in 1995, traffic lights were installed as a pilot test to perceive the needs on the ground, but most failed to follow, so it was back to the trusty cops. No traffic lights, no problem.

 

The signature traffic cop at his stand to direct traffic.

The signature traffic cop at his stand to direct traffic.


The view of another traffic policeman from the restaurant where we were dining at.

The view of another traffic policeman from the restaurant where we were dining at.

 

Bhutan is also currently going through a kingdom-wide road widening process in her mountains. Every day, different roads are scheduled to close for a couple of hours to allow the road widening works to be done. Understandably, the under-construction roads are not the best ones for long-distance travel now and schedules have to be worked around the road-closures as well as making allowances for longer travel time.

 

The roads in the mountains undergoing road-widening. Landslides are common, but accidents are few. Bhutanese are advised not to travel at night and during monsoon seasons.

The roads in the mountains undergoing road-widening. Landslides are common, but accidents are few. Bhutanese are advised not to travel at night and during monsoon seasons.

 

I’ll be honest here that the time on the road really was’t my favourite part of the trip. I do get motion sickness from time to time, so Druk Asia has thoughtfully prepped me ahead and I brought along my trusty neck pillow and my travel companions had stashes of sweets and motion sickness pills. Most of the trip, I had my eyes closed, letting my circadian rhythm sync to the jolting and bumping of the car on the hard road. Panda, our ever alert driver, honked gently round the bends as a signal to oncoming traffic. He slowed down to the side each time he spotted a bigger truck. In fact, the drivers we met in Bhutan were all gracious and patient, none of the frantic frenzy I’m rather accustomed to back home.

 

It's quite common to see the wild cattle chilling on the mountainous roads like this. Clearly they don't have the trepidation of falling off the roads that I had!

It’s quite common to see the wild cattle chilling on the mountainous roads like this. Clearly they don’t have the trepidation of falling off the roads that I had!

 

Here’s one little tip – don’t look down on the sides of the roads! The sides go way way way down to the bottom of the mountains, or to peaks of trees. I think my heart dived a little when our car first wound round the treacherous roads. So, take my word, don’t. Drivers there are well-primed for the hard roads and well-planned road travels by trusty agencies like Druk Asia are generally very safe, albeit long. Traffic accidents aren’t common in Bhutan, despite the mountainous road conditions. Our greatest misadventure was getting stuck in the mud, and even then, workers widening the road and the nearby drivers got together in a heartbeat and before we could even fret, our car was lifted up and out, and all was good in no time. Seriously, nothing seems to get the Bhutanese in a frenzy.

Their calmness extends to the skies as well. Do you know that the international airport of Bhutan in Paro has the unenviable reputation of being the most dangerous airport in the world with her surrounding dense terrains and cloudy conditions? Only a grand total of eight pilots are certified to fly into this airport. Pilots of domestic flights are also specially trained to navigate and fly within Bhutan only, and we heard from Ugyen that these pilots command a lot of respect within the aviation industry as the thick heavy clouds in seemingly impenetrable skies and the notoriously short runways of the domestic airports make control of the aircraft truly challenging.

 

Spotting our plane flying in to Bathpalathang Airport at Bumthang! Almost all the passengers were out to welcome the flight. It was quite a sight!

Spotting our plane flying in to Bathpalathang Airport at Bumthang! Almost all the passengers were out to welcome the flight. It was quite a sight!


Waiting for the plane to make a turn back for us. To be honest, I didn't mind the wait. The airport was simple but so scenic.

Waiting for the plane to make a turn back for us. To be honest, I didn’t mind the wait. The airport was simple but so scenic.


Hello, beautiful skies of Bhutan. In the brevity of the short domestic flight from Bumthang to Paro, we even had snacks and drinks.

Hello, beautiful skies of Bhutan. In the brevity of the short domestic flight from Bumthang to Paro, we even had snacks and drinks.

 

Domestic flights are also known to be delayed or even cancelled, mainly due to the demanding weather conditions in the high altitudes. Our flight from Bumthang to Paro was delayed for an hour, and we were all praying hard that we would be able to ascend to the breezy skies for a 35min flight rather than eight hours of jolting on the roads. All around us however, the Bhutanese were a picture of calm, totally unfrazzled. They took to the open carpark outside, hands tucked into the pockets of their gho or kira as the wind chill brought the temperature down to a summer low. Children were huddled close to their parents, drivers gathered around for a catchup. Patience, happiness in the moment – that’s what I saw, and I loved it.

We also realised how we have not seen anyone smoke throughout our trip. It was then we realised that Bhutan is the first nation in the world to have successfully banned the sale of tobacco countrywide. While Bhutanese are still allowed to smoke, they are not to do so in public. Bhutan is also one of the last nations in the world to introduce television. We heard about how a Singaporean man went from lodge to lodge, hoping to find one that has a tv in the room, only to return to the original lodge in disappointment. “No TV in any lodge in the whole of Bumthang?” were his exact words, so recalled our hosts. Ugyen was quick to add, “TV ok. Singaporeans just need two things – hot water and internet! ” We are getting to be quite predictable travellers!

 

The unspoiled gem in the Himalayas that is Bhutan.

The unspoiled gem in the Himalayas that is Bhutan.

 

One of the world’s most fabled destinations, there is so much I have learned from this country that sticks by her principles to do what’s good for her people, for mother nature. So much gentleness in the way the day to day challenges are handled, so much pride they have taken to keep the kingdom an unspoiled gem in the world of commercialization. Thank you for showing me that a problem is only a problem when you let it be.

5. You can get Dzong-ed out, but you don’t have to

Fluttering prayer flags on an iron bridge on the way to a stupa in Paro. Stupas, temples, monastries and dzongs pepper the whole kingdom, and are spectacular sights to behold.

Fluttering prayer flags on an iron bridge on the way to a stupa in Paro. Stupas, temples, monastries and dzongs pepper the whole kingdom, and are spectacular sights to behold.

 

Culturally, Bhutan is unquestionably spiritual, and it’s difficult to traverse without passing through a Dzong on a nearby mountain. Dzongkha is Bhutan’s official language and ‘dzongkha’ literally means ‘the language spoken in the dzongs and administrative centers in all the districts of Bhutan’. Such is the level of significance dzongs command in Bhutan!

More than just a temple, a dzong is a fortress-like structure that once served as defence against invaders, but now continues to be used as the headquarters of a district monastic body and administration. As you might have already known, all tourists (excluding Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders) to Bhutan require a visa and must book their holiday through a Bhutanese tour operator or one of their international partners, who will take care of Visa arrangements for visitors. Many tour operators are eager to showcase the extraordinary dzongs, monastries and temples and stupas with their rich mythical origins and architectural wonders, and here, we share some of these uniquely Bhutanese spiritual buildings we’ve had the privilege of visiting. And we show you how you can get Dzong-ed out, but you don’t have to.

 

Punakha Dzong

The captivating Punakha Dzong flanked by two main rivers and garlanded by glorious summer blooms.

The captivating Punakha Dzong flanked by two main rivers and garlanded by glorious summer blooms.

 

Arguably one of the beautiful dzongs in the kingdom, Punakha Dzong tells of ancient stories and truimphs. The Punakha Dzong has weathered several disasters like flood and fire, and much has been rebuilt in 2003. Inside one of the temples that depict the life of Prince Sidharta, you can see many pillars built out of copper hammering and walls with painted motifs. These motifs used to use mineral paint powdered from red stone that can last for many years. However, as mineral paints are typically duller in tone, chemical paint is now used to show more vibrance. Such chemical paint aren’t as lasting so regular maintenance is required.

 

The door leading into the Punakha Dzong.

The door leading into the Punakha Dzong.


Monks in Punakha Dzong.

Monks in Punakha Dzong.

 

Ugyen’s passion in his country and work shines through as he guided us through the different buildings in this dzong, rattling off numbers and dates and names committed deep in his memory.

 

We were so impressed with Ugyen's knowledge of the history of the various Dzongs in Bhutan!

We were so impressed with Ugyen’s knowledge of the history of the various Dzongs in Bhutan!

 

I was particularly intrigued by his story about the southernmost courtyard with the temple that houses the remains of Pema Lingpa, a famous saint and siddha (accomplished master), as well as of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the most important unifier of Bhutan as a nation-state. Ugyen regaled the story of how the Zhabdrung died in Punakha Dzong in 1651 and his body was preserved in the Machey Lhakhang (machey means ‘sacred embalmed body’). Due to political struggles, the local governors conspired to keep his death secret for more than 50 years, issuing orders in his name while claiming to the people that he was on a retreat. Till now, the casket is sealed and securely guarded. We saw two guards at the entrance of the temple, and apparently, other than two guardian lamas, only the king and the Je Khenpo (The Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan) may enter the room.

 

An elderly man at the large prayer wheel in Punakha Dzong.

An elderly man at the large prayer wheel in Punakha Dzong.


A close up of the many motifs in the Punakha Dzong.

A close up of the many motifs in the Punakha Dzong.

 

Be prepared to spend a while here to appreciate the spiritual dimension and the political nuances that have shaped Bhutan so significantly!

 

Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten

Climbing up to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Climbing up to Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

 

The regal Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten perched high on the peak of a hill in Yambesa, 7km north of Punakha, is a story of peace and harmony. Dedicated to the stability and peace for the kingdom of Bhutan and her people, this chorten is exemplary of the Bhutanese architecture, especially given that it was built based on the holy scriptures of Bhutan, rather than engineering manuals. The hike from the bottom of the hill is scenically green, rice paddies and produce aplenty. Each of the four levels of the chorten (a stupa, usually containing sacred relics) houses artistic creations of the deities worshipped by the Bhutanese.

 

Rice paddies and valleys of green atop Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Rice paddies and valleys of green atop Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

 

The highlight for me has to be the incredible view of the terrace atop the chorten. I took out my camera to greet the valleys of green below, but the scene was something beyond what technology could capture. I kept the camera, and took the view in. I’ve got freshly-picked avocados in my bag, stories in my book, wind-ruffled hair brushing my face, and the peace that Bhutan never fails to give.

 

Houses miniaturized at the top of Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

Houses miniaturized at the top of Khumsam Yulley Namgyal Chorten.


One of the stupas in Paro.

One of the stupas in Paro.

 

We met many fellow vistors on the way, and as a fellow traveller put it, “After a few days, I’m all Dzong-ed out!” Many Dzongs are worth visiting for their architectural prowess and artistic traditions, but don’t hesitate to speak to your tour operator if Dzongs aren’t really your entire idea of exploring the elusive Kingdom of Bhutan. Our tour operator, Druk Asia, was particularly sensitive to our needs and purpose of the visit, and has created bespoke trips customized to our requirements. You can get Dzong-ed out, but you don’t have to. We aren’t, and are souper thankful to have learned so much from our experienced guide, Ugyen, all thanks to Druk Asia! Check out also DrukAir, Royal Bhutan Airlines who have brought us safely and royally into the splendour of Bhutan!

 

* Drukair (Royal Bhutan Airlines) flies from Singapore to Bhutan thrice weekly. Find out more at www.drukair.com.sg.
To book your trip to Bhutan, contact Druk Asia, Bhutan Travel Specialist (www.drukasia.com; +65 63389909, email:help@drukasia.com).

6. Look before you leap

Our Bhutanese farm-to-table journeys were marked by many amusing stories, thanks to wonderful travel companions and a humourous guide and driver. I’m souper glad to be able to return to these photos and travel journal that cemented the light-hearted moments in our memories. Join me, please!

 

A cute tractor we saw in Bumthang, the trusty worker for all farms.

A cute tractor we saw in Bumthang, the trusty worker for all farms.

 

In Bumthang, we spent magical mornings in open fields and muddy trails. Short hikes became longish, and long hikes, oh well, became longer, mostly because we took thousands of photos and were inquisitive about everyone and everything. Our first farm trail in Bumthang was particularly memorable. The rain had just fallen the night before. Paths were muddy, rocks were loose, and the greens glistened with morning dew and rain residue. Birds swooped in, the scarecrows not quite working. I was intrigued by everything I saw. And as I got distracted by something that I really couldn’t remember now, I heard a ‘squish’ and yells of “Noooooo, Anna!”

Too late.

 

The green mines of poop that laid along all trails!

The green mines of poop that laid along all trails!

 

The cattle poop were like land mines. The cows range carefreely, and also defecate freely. I have tried my best along the entire trail to avoid these green mines, but all it took was one single moment of distraction to land in one!

 

What do you see? We see a penguin in the poop!

What do you see? We see a penguin in the poop!

 

See the artistic mark of my shoe on poop – “It’s a penguin!” my husband quipped enthusiastically. I hiked on, allowing the laughter of my travel companions ring on around me. The ever kind Ugyen led us to a stream with crystal clear water cold and fresh. “Here, Anna. You can wash your shoe here!” I looked at him, dropped my jaw slightly. “Cannot! The water is so clean, I don’t want to dirty it!” He grinned and remarked, “This is Bhutan. We use stream water to wash things, including shoes with cow dung!” Then, he dipped some tissue in the stream, and meticulously wiped my shoe clean.

All dung-free once again, we continued the hike. I was enjoying the gradual climb up when I heard a familiar cry. I turned back and saw my husband looking down at his shoe, part amused, part resigned. It was his turn to step into the mushy green cattle poop! And my turn to laugh! So back we went to the stream. And we learned a lesson alright – look before you leap. Unless stepping into poop is your thing!

 

Tiger’s Nest

Tiger's Nest is perched some 3000m above sea level, precariously clinging on to granite ridges. It's a beauty, in and out.

Tiger’s Nest is perched some 3000m above sea level, precariously clinging on to granite ridges. It’s a beauty, in and out.

 

The Taktsung Palphug Monastery in Paro valley, popularly known as Tiger’s Nest, clings to a granite cliff more than 3000m above sea level. Legend has it that the Guru Rinpoche flew here from Tibet on the back of a tigress, and this monastery was consecrated to tame the demon. Guru Rinpoche was also said to have meditated in a cave here for three years, three weeks, three days and three hours in the 8th century.

The hike up to the monastery was steep with some eight hundred or more steps of irregular height towards the end, and can be somewhat exhausting in the high altitude and thin air. I have trained for marathons before, so this hike was rather manageable, but remember my earlier lesson about looking before leaping? It applies here – the going can get tough if you don’t keep a comfortable pace! I have seen a few pale faces that have honestly shaken my confidence!

Our hike to Tiger’s Nest had to be postponed till afternoon as our internal flight back to Paro was delayed. We were advised to make the climb early in the morning actually to avoid the afternoon sun that can be mercilessly harsh in the high mountains. That day, the sun was mild, thankfully, and the skies held clear as we began our ascent up. We waved hi and bye to fellow climbers, some in small groups, some in big families. I noticed how some of them were not even wearing proper hiking gear, but skipped around in slippers and even saris. I was properly geared – surely I can conquer the Tiger’s Nest with ease!

 

Fellow climbers. It is said that every Bhutanese will make a climb up to the revered site of Tiger's Nest at least once in their lifetime.

Fellow climbers. It is said that every Bhutanese will make a climb up to the revered site of Tiger’s Nest at least once in their lifetime.

 

As the shone shone down and the air got thinner, my pace slowed down further, my knees wobbled as we passed by yet another climber on the descent, looking rather defeated. I held back my grimace as my thighs burned on. Surely the view was going to be worth it.

And it was.

 

So close yet so far - one of the views from the vantage point.

So close yet so far – one of the views from the vantage point.

 

At the vantage point, thick clouds covered the horizon – I got a little dismayed at first. Misty and dreamy as it was, the vantage point was supposed to feature the legendary monastery, not balls of clouds. But before I could be further disappointed, strong winds blew over, and in the next minute, the revered site was within clear sight again.

 

Beautiful no matter which angle you look at it from!

Beautiful no matter which angle you look at it from!

It was extraordinary. Legendary. I will go through the climb again in a heartbeat just to have this view again!

Surreally regal - our view of Tiger's Nest from the vantage point.

Surreally regal – our view of Tiger’s Nest from the vantage point.

 

As Ugyen had just guided a group who were there for a bridal magazine photoshoot, he gamely showed us the poses he learned, at the exact spot the model had posed just a week before we came! Look how coy he was!

 

"You must pretend not to look at the camera, and smile!" ~ Ugyen, the pretend-model

“You must pretend not to look at the camera, and smile!”
~ Ugyen, the pretend-model

 

The notoriously treacherous last steps before we reached the monastery took every ounce of my energy, and was I glad to have a slow tour inside!

 

A Bhutanese in her kira making the last few steps towards Tiger's Nest.

A Bhutanese in her kira making the last few steps towards Tiger’s Nest.


The waterfall near the monastery, majestic and loud, creating a comforting cool mist as we crossed the bride in front of it.

The waterfall near the monastery, majestic and loud, creating a comforting cool mist as we crossed the bride in front of it.

 

Security was tight inside the monastery. We were told by Ugyen to wear and zip up our jackets and be in long pants as reverence to the holy site before we headed in. Visitors were not allowed to bring in any cameras, phones or electrical appliances. My husband’s camera belt had to be left at the security counter as well. Interestingly, the policemen thought the belt was a pistol belt and asked my husband if he were a fellow cop! They even tried on the camera belt! You just have to love the Bhutanese sense of humour and geniality!

Outside the cave where Guru Rinpoche was said to have meditated, a picture of him was displayed, and Ugyen explained that from a particular angle from the vantage point, you can see how Tiger’s Nest was built to resemble him. I made a mental note to view that on the descent. A monk watched over the door sealing the cave. According to Ugyen, it is opened only once a year, and devout Buddhists and visitors from all over the world make early climbs up to witness the special ceremony and be blessed. In his more than 450 climbs (450!!!!!) up Tiger’s Nest, Ugyen had only witnessed the ceremony once, and he queued for about two hours to get into this cave!

After touring a couple more temples and witnessing the monks assembling together for a prayer session, we began the descent. Back at the vantage point, I struggled to make out Guru Rinpoche’s face. “There, Anna, can you see? Those are the eyes at the top,” Ugyen patiently directed me. For some reason, I thought of how Rachel Green in one of the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. episodes was unable to make out the foetus in her sonogram, and couldn’t help but laugh at this similar situation. “I can’t see! I really can’t!” 

 

The face of Guru Rinpoche appearing from this view of Tiger's Nest!

The face of Guru Rinpoche appearing from this view of Tiger’s Nest!

 

And then, I could. Unmistakably, the face of Guru Rinpoche on the surface of the Tiger’s Nest. The Bhutanese are architectural wonders!

We left the monastery in the mountain in its pristine pride. The clouds slow-danced on.

7. Green is free, but it ain’t cheap

The expansive lands in Bhutan are the perfect demonstration of simplicity and stewardship of what nature has to offer. In the mornings, the winds are strong, whipping our faces, bringing the sharp scent of the crops over. This is where we splurged hours watching cows grazing, looking up to the skies for more clouds-gazing. Here in the high lands, the sun seemed brighter than ever, and cast a glorious path of light across the green meadows. The prayer flags fluttered on, that subtle and solemn reminder of the spirituality that underpins much of Bhutan. This is the kind of place where you cast off the thread to daily life, and let yourself loose in the freedom of the greens. It’s that reminder to slow down, reel it in, and just breathe.

 

Cascading valleys of green.

Cascading valleys of green.


Fluttering prayer flags reaching the clouds.


Cows grazing freely in the fields.

Cows grazing freely in the fields.

 

In summer when we arrived, we were treated to Bhutan’s weather finery – a fair share of cool breezes and warm sunshine, even sweet short drizzles that tickled the skin. The strong summer winds can dip the temperature down to a chilly 10-14 degree Celsius. We were sitting out having coffee one late afternoon when the wind went cold suddenly.

 

Pampered always with tea and coffee and biscuits (like Marie Biscuits!), with view of rice paddies.

Pampered always with tea and coffee and biscuits (like Marie Biscuits!), with view of rice paddies.

 

I fumbled for the zipper on my parker, finally zipping it up for warmth against the early evening chill. The winds blew on for the night, an invitation for the leaves along the road to dance along. Ugyen summed up summer this way – “Bhutan’s summer, very flexible! One minute rain, one minute sun! Very flexible!” We couldn’t agree more!

 

We found this rich coral flower in Paro, so stark and beautiful against the greens of the mountains and whites of the clouds. Oh summer.

We found this rich coral flower in Paro, so stark and beautiful against the greens of the mountains and whites of the clouds. Oh summer.

 

The greens of summer and spring are surely Bhutan’s gifts to great inspirations. This is where the greens spring forth produce of all aromas and colours. A well-kept backyard garden is all you need for the kitchen table. Mint stalks are thick and firm, almost like a shrub, no kidding! The freshness of the green mint can lift the weight off any salads or sauces, a must-have in the herb garden. The pungency of coriander adds depth to many stews and soups. Homegrown limes, lemons and tomatoes take on oddly beautiful shapes, and even the unripened ones have a subtle sweetness and perfect firmness to make the most hearty meal. 

 

Centenary Farmers Market

Summer’s hue.


Summer's colours on the table.

Summer’s colours on the table.


Ugyen demonstrating how the Bhutanese men keep their produce, without plastic bags!

Ugyen demonstrating how the Bhutanese men keep their produce, without plastic bags!


A backyard garden of greens. The heady scent of herbs - that's a scent of green.

A backyard garden of greens. The heady scent of herbs – that’s a scent of green.


Nature's bounty. These apples were like jewels in the garden!

Nature’s bounty. These apples were like jewels in the garden!


Enjoying a fresh harvest of corn grilled on an open fire by the roadside! The evening wind was turning chilly and we kept by the fire, thankful for its warmth.

Enjoying a fresh harvest of corn grilled on an open fire by the roadside! The evening wind was turning chilly and we kept by the fire, thankful for its warmth.

 

Just a side note – contrary to popular belief, most Bhutanese aren’t vegetarians. Much of the meat in Bhutan are imported from India, and Bhutanese cuisines feature much beef, mutton, and chicken, propped up together with the seasonal produce. According to Ugyen, legend has it that in the past, locals used to “chop up dead bodies and throw them into the rivers so they become food for the fish”, hence till today, many Bhutanese refrain from eating fish or seafood, even though fish are aplenty in Bhutan. Once in a few days, we were served panfried fish (I don’t recall any seafood for sure!), but I really couldn’t stomach much of the fish that had been overcooked. And having heard this story from Ugyen, I couldn’t help but churn a little whenever I saw fish on my table in Bhutan!

 

Browns, greens, whites - one of the views on our 8-hour road trip from Punakha to Bumthang.

Browns, greens, whites – one of the views on our 8-hour road trip from Punakha to Bumthang.

 

I recall my first long ride in Bhutan with Ugyen masterfully identifying the different trees and plants lining the mountain roads. I could easily identify the iconic pine trees, but never did I expect so many varieties together. From some angle, they looked like Lego trees to me! The towering pines, proudly and densely clustered together towards folds of clouds, dreamy and Christmasy.

By law, at least 60% of Bhutan must remain forested for all times to come. Her environmental and cultural conservation ensures that the fragile environment does not fall prey to derelict tourists and unnecessary modernism. Bhutan’s revenue comes from mainly exporting hydroelectric power to India, tourism and agriculture. Whatever revenue it generates is intentionally ploughed back into the community, the preservation of the kingdom’s natural biodiversity and anything that promotes the country’s wider philosophy of Gross National Happiness that Bhutan has come to be famous for.

 

The swift rivers that generate power and income for Bhutan.

The swift rivers that generate power and income for Bhutan.

 

Preserving the natural environment hasn’t been easy for Bhutan these recent decades, with the bane of global warming weighing heavily on the  world. After dinner one night, the ever hospitable Dasho brought out his sandalwood ara, and poured out big glasses to share with us. How conversations flow when like-minded people meet! Dasho is a well-connected, well-read man who has had decades of experiences foraging in the forests, cooking in the kitchen. He shared that until the 1970s, the rivers in Bumthang froze up firmly and one could safely cross the rivers simply by walking on them. Half-eaten fish lying frozen on rocks by the rivers were a common sight in winter too. Otters would catch the fish, bring them up on land to enjoy by the rocks, starting first by feasting on the fish head. However, in the wintry cold, the rest of the caught fish would have frozen up before the otter could finish it, so the fish would be left half-eaten while the otter slid back into the river to fish for more. Sadly, one cannot find such frozen half-eaten fish by the river banks anymore, due to the harsh reality of global warming that has made winters less cold, and otters are now able to enjoy their prey long before the freeze takes over.

 

Bhutan's little ways of preserving the environment - many walk for hours a day, babies in tow!

Bhutan’s little ways of preserving the environment – many walk for hours a day, babies in tow!

 

This story hit me with a pang, that our worldly obsessions with consumerism, our disposable culture, our indiscriminate pursuit of modernity have consequences far more dire than we can ever imagine. So much of nature has been given to us, but have we been good stewards? As city dwellers who delight in the magic of bokeh from street and car lights, who are too quick to turn to our smartphones for the latest updates on anything and everything, this place reminded me of something. That in the majesty of nature stripped down to its raw elements, we remember we are mere nomads in this creation. That we are to take care of what’s given to us and use it in its fullest glory.

 

Green is free, but it ain’t cheap.

The fields are alive!

The fields are alive!


With our host at Lobesa Hotel Resort. He was so kindly and generous, and the resort was equally charming!


With our hosts at Rinchenling Lodge, and our amazing team from Druk Asia, Ugyen and Panda. This photo brought back so many fond memories for me!

 

The sun put on a sweet coral-hued sunrise just outside the lodge as we set off for the airport. We give thanks, for moments like this. Oh Bhutan, you’ve been so wonderful to us. Thank you for showing us the way to sustain development yet remain responsible towards our resources and Mother Earth. Thank you for showing us traditions need not be compromised in the face of modernity. Thank you for your beautiful people who value simplicity and happiness above creature comforts. Thank you for letting your seasons, your produce and your land be our inspirations. Thank you for everything, and we can’t wait to return to your mountains of green again! Thank you, Druk Asia, for your thoughtful planning and unparalleled hospitality, and the pleasant flights we had courtesy of DrukAir, the national airline of Bhutan! Tashi Delek!

 

Bye Bhutan. Thank you for showing me the finest of your complex cultural, environmental, spiritual and culinary tapestry!

Bye Bhutan. Thank you for showing me the finest of your complex cultural, environmental, spiritual and culinary tapestry!