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31 October 2015

Ugyen's house

There is a 200-year-old house in Haa Valley, west Bhutan. It has three spacious rooms under a very tall ceiling, a dormitory, two toilets, a lawn with enough space for a large bonfire, three cows, one hen and one dog. A brown cat occasionally comes, and tourists mistakenly assume the feline is a resident. Inside the old house the floor is made of wood, waxed every month, and the walls are hard clay.

Forty-nine-year-old Ugyen, the owner, speaks some Hindi and Dzongkha, Bhutan's national language. His wife helps him in running the homestay. To communicate with visitors, the couple brings out their bright daughter, a primary school student who speaks fluent English. The girl listens patiently to people who have come from halfway across the globe and passes the message to her attentive parents. Prices are fixed, requests for hot water are taken, food preferences – pork, beef or dal – are noted down.

Ugyen is many people rolled into one. No amount of luggage (thanks to weary tourists) is too tiresome for him to carry. He also cooks, tends to the garden and runs a sauna. One of the activities that he insists visitors must do here is to take a "stone bath". "I put hot stones in water with some herbs, very good for health, no common disease for next six months," he says in broken Hindi. "The stones come from the stream that you crossed while walking up till here from the main road."

Those who have taken Ugyen's stone bath say the herbs give a dizzy effect, and for some time after coming out from the sauna the person feels happy-high, as if she has had a drink or two.

The family works tirelessly from dawn to dusk. Ugyen's wife wakes up at five in the morning to prepare tea for guests while he goes downstairs to arrange firewood. Their daughter is also up, seeing off tourists to waiting vans before getting ready for school. Looking at them work, some visitors even asked Ugyen to increase the room rates and hire a help to manage the harder parts of running the homestay. Hauling heavy bags of tourists when a person is about to hit half century in age might alarm city dwellers. But it's not that he hasn't thought of it. "All the boys have left town," he says. "Maybe in summer I will get help."

Haa Valley is a silent town. Visitors won't get much to see or do here. It appears that the few tourists who visit the valley end up walking inside Ugyen's house. And leave with unforgettable lessons in humility.


See: Part-I, Part-II and Part-III

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Journalist. Taking a walk in India. | Email to journeybasket[at]gmail | Special thanks to M.S. Gopal | All rights reserved. No commercial use.

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