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
Namgay Pem and her husband Phub Gaytshey.
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’.

About the author

Fear is found on a creaking glacier in the Caucasus mountains and joy is encapsulated in the perfect Shanghai dumpling. And while I love a $500-a-night hotel room (who doesn’t?), sometimes the best stories are found in a $20 guesthouse. With an eye always out for good markets and great street eats, I write the travel news and features for the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s The Age newspapers, and features for whoever else asks. I have a particular soft spot for the wilds of the Middle East, scarves and carpets. My articles and photographs have been published in a range of consumer magazines and newspapers in Australia and abroad, and occasionally I chat on radio, too, from Essentials Magazine to 3AW or the Irish Times.

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