On my fifth day in Bhutan hiking the Trans Bhutan Trail, I woke up in Bumthang, the spiritual and cultural heartland of Central Bhutan. Given its beautiful landscape, rich local culture, and sacred historic pilgrimage sites, Bumthang is one of the most coveted tourist destinations in Bhutan. Home to some of the oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries, and awash with breathtaking fertile valleys of buckwheat and potato fields, Bumthang is astoundingly serene. Even more so on the cusp of winter.
That morning, I rose early to a glowing sunrise and was delighted to see the entire valley covered in frost. I stepped out on my balcony and marveled at how the harvested fields were sparkling, and the low-hanging clouds were blanketing the valley. This is the coldest part of Bhutan and in another few months, it would be difficult to reach given the icy roads.
I was fortunate because this was the first and only time during my nine-day trip that I was spending the night in the same hotel. It would be the furthest east I would travel in Bhutan before heading back to Paro on the long, mountainous roads. Thankfully we were taking two days to travel back east due to the difficult nature of the roads. I don’t think my stomach could handle the long drive all in one day.
After a light breakfast, we rejoined the Trans Bhutan Trail for a half-day hike stopping for a cooking class at a local farmhouse in the remote village of Tang Bedzur and then a visit to the Pema Choling Nunnery and the sacred Mebartsho (the Burning Lake), an important Buddhist site steeped in legend and local lore. The day would end with a traditional hot stone bath and Thukpa, a spicy noodle soup at a local eatery in Bumthang.
Our hike began with a climb up the mountainside through a thick forest of juniper, pine, spruce, and rhododendron. The air was fragrant and pine needles lined the ancient trail, giving me a nostalgic sense of late autumn. The higher we climbed, the more peaceful it became and we only heard the sound of the birds. Once again, we did not see a soul on our hike and had the entire trail to ourselves.
A few hours later, we reached the valley of Tang where we stopped for lunch in the tiny, remote village of Tang Bebzur. My guide Singay had met one of the housewives there while he was working with the Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT) organization to help scope out the trail. He invited her to be one of the TBT’s Passport Ambassadors, a program in which local women open up their homes to welcome tourists for a traditional lunch and even a night’s rest. It is a great way for women in rural communities to earn an income and connect with tourists from around the world.
As we entered the tiny town, we were greeted with a huge smile by our host, Dechen Zangmo, a wife and mother of two daughters. Dressed in a purple-and-white striped kira (traditional Bhutanese dress) with a blue flannel shirt for extra warmth, Denchen was thrilled to have us as guests at her farmhouse.
After offering me a cup of suja (traditional butter tea), Denchen whisked me back into her tiny kitchen where she promptly began her cooking class making Bhutan’s staple dish, ema datshi (chili with cheese). The meal is eaten almost daily in Bhutan and is an acquired taste. It is made with cheese, butter, onion, hot spicy dried chilies, and served over rice. Variations such as the addition of mushrooms or peppers are common as well. Given how cold it gets in Bhutan over the winter months, it is no surprise that Bhutanese love their spicy chilies.
We also got to sample some of Denchen’s ara, a traditional homemade alcohol made in rural Bhutan for centuries and used as an offering to guests. It is made from high-altitude barley, maize, or wheat and is quite strong. The ara is stored in a beautiful wooden container called Palang or Jandhom.
After lunch, Singay and I continued walking down the Tang Valley until we reached the Pema Choling Shedra nunnery, the first Buddhist College for women in Bhutan. The nunnery was established in 2001 to increase opportunities for Bhutanese girls, with most of the 176 students coming from rural or vulnerable backgrounds. It is a beautiful, peaceful place. The nuns were quite shy but also warm and inquisitive with their smiles.
As we left the nunnery, we came upon a group of older men chopping large wooden beams. Singay stopped to chat and found out they were practicing their Buddhist values of good deeds. Despite all being over 70, they were helping with the construction of a prayer wheel for the nunnery. It was pretty impressive!
Our last stop of the day was at the sacred Burning Lake (Mebartsho). Legend has it that Pema Linpa (Bhutan’s famous treasure revealer and saint) discovered several hidden treasures of Guru Rinpoche (who helped bring Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century) in the 15th century. The lake became known as the “Burning Lake” after Linpa jumped out of the lake holding a statue, a treasure chest and a lamp still lit.
Chortens (མཆོད་རྟེན་དཀར་པོ།) are important religious monuments in Buddhism, symbolizing Buddha’s presence. Many miniature chortens are left as an offering. Burning Lake is also blanketed in prayer flags.
As the day drew to a close, it was time for me to experience a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath at a local farmhouse. Farmers have been practicing this tradition for centuries as a way to relax stiff joints and muscles and also help heal women after childbirth. Medicinal herbs gathered in the forests are placed into the water and have healing elements. The hot stones are heated by fire and then placed into the water on the other side of the bathtub (which is divided by a wall).
As you soak in the bath, you simply call out “more stones” to heat up the water, or else you can add some cooler water located next to the bath. I made it about thirty minutes before I was too hot and had to get out. It felt amazing!
We ended our day with a visit to tiny Bumthang where we enjoyed a steaming hot bowl of traditional spicy noodle soup called “Thukpa” at a local eatery. Thukpa originated from the eastern part of Tibet and is popular in Tibet, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. In Bumthang, the noodles are made with a special kind of buckwheat that grows only in this part of Bhutan.
When I finally got back to my hotel room and laid down to sleep, I marveled at what an experience this trip has been for me. I had finally found an inner peace. The connection with nature, myself, and the people I met along the way had done wonders to calm my restless soul. I could hardly wait to hike the grand finale, Tiger’s Nest.