Down on the farm, Bhutan style


My farmhouse, Phobjike valley


It’s seven o’clock at night and the family has sat down for dinner. I can’t say the Jones family, because Bhutanese don’t use surnames. But to draw you a picture, there’s four generations in the room: granny and grandpa, mum and dad, their daughter, her two-year-old daughter and seven-year-old niece.

They sit in a large circle that includes me, my guide Tshering and driver Tensing. 

There are no tables or chairs in the Bhutanese house. Everyone sits on thin mats around the bhukhari (wood stove), and I admire the effortless half-lotus position that the 79-year-old grandfather, Tshewangla, adopts for his light dinner.

The white rice is sticky and is rolled with your hand into a tight ball and daubed with chilli cooked in cheese sauce. Chilli is not a flavouring, chilli is a vegetable to be eaten at every meal, including breakfast.

Until 18 months ago, the women did all the cooking on a two-ring gas burner and on the wood stove. There was some light from the solar panels, but electricity has changed all that. The warm kitchen is all very comfortable, with a fluorescent light above and a home-grown soapie on tv. A little cat sleeps by the wood stove, and I spot a rice cooker, microwave, toaster and fridge. Butter and cheese are still often wrapped in rhododendron leaves to stop it from going hard.

Namgay Pem and her husband Phub Gaytshey.
“Electricity has changed our lives,” says Namgay Pem, the mother of the house. It’s helped them to have better sanitation and everyone loves the soap opera, which won an international award for its role in educating people about the dangers of HIV.

That night, as a special guest in a full house, I sleep in the altar room. Namgay’s husband, Phub Gaytshey, is a lay monk, and the room’s walls are covered in elaborate paintings that pulsate with colour. One complete wall is taken up with a deep altar which Phub attends carefully each morning.

After Phub demonstrates his ritual of offering tea, incense, water and three prostrations to the altar, the two little girls show me their new three-day-old calf, safe in a manger attached to the kitchen, and we pop a few arrows: archery is Bhutan’s national sport, and their obsession is comparable to, say, the AFL or English league. 

We clamber in the 4WD to slip and slide up the muddy driveway, waving to the family. There is no word for ‘goodbye’ in Dzongkha, only ‘see you again’.

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