When visiting a family home in Bhutan

By Ulrike Čokl

Ulli has lived in Bhutan on and off for many years. She has
conducted ethnographic research on traditional hospitality practices,
travelling & gift-exchange in rural communities. Thus she is very
familiar with village livelihoods all over the little kingdom. She loves
developing unique itineraries that offer a glimpse into the rich
cultural traditions and practices of Bhutanese society.

Photo: Marina Beck Photography

The load of merit that is accumulated through pleasing a single guest cannot be carried by a horse.
(Bhutanese saying)

“Come in, come in!” This is how I am usually ushered into a village home in Bhutan. Depending on where I am regionally, ara (local moonshine) or tea will be served together with snacks. Usually a meal will be prepared or at least offered. The reception, donglen, and the way guests are managed, goemgi shongzhag, depends on the type of guest one hosts. From official visits and high level guests to a neighborly stop by, a good host must always be generous and compassionate. However, there are variations in regard to etiquette depending on the degree of familiarity and status of the guest. Lamas and high level officials for instance, will often be met on the way and given offerings of ara and snacks sometimes accompanied by the sound of trumpets. They will be directly escorted to the choesham (altar room) and seated on a soft mattress. However, here I want to talk about how you, a tourist from a foreign country, will be received and treated, so as to help you understand some basics about Bhutanese hospitality.

Ara – the welcome drink. Photo: Wulff Hoerbe

Taking a meal at a Bhutanese home

When you arrive at a village house, your guide will approach the door and call the nangi aum’s (housewife’s) name, or, in case he or she has called the family in advance, they will come and greet you outside. We usually arrange for you to be seated in the kitchen area as you will be able to observe the family going about their chores. Additionally it is the warmest room in the house due to the mud or metal ovens where, in many places, the fire is kept going throughout the year. There are no chairs or tables in traditional homes and you will be seated on the floor on flat cushions or carpets. Some wealthier families do have separate rooms with sofas and low tables to accommodate guests. Nevertheless it is nicer for tourists to sit in the kitchen where the family is always engaged in some activities such as butter churning, food preparation or other tasks. We encourage our guides to properly introduce the family by name but this doesn’t seem to be a tradition in Bhutan. Don’t hesitate to remind your guides in case they forget. While taking a seat do not worry if you cannot sit cross-legged. Again, just ask you guide or, if the family speaks English, ask them which direction to stretch your legs without offending anyone. Usually the soles are not shown towards the alter room or towards other people. However, Bhutanese are flexible and understand that sitting on the floor in such a position is tough for most foreign guests and they will be happy to make you feel comfortable. Ultimately, treating guests with compassion is more important than being fundamentalist about traditional etiquette. In general you should always feel free to ask your guide about anything that you might feel doubtful or insecure about.

Prior to your arrival, our guide will have organized a gift, chom, to offer to your hosts upon arrival. It usually is something that is needed and depends on the time of the year and location of the home. From oil, sugar, salt, biscuits, vegetables, candles and meat to incense and oil for butter lamps, it can be a variety of items. Of course you can bring your own gift from your home country which will be highly appreciated. Gifts must not be handed over the threshold of the house as this is considered bad luck and will turn you into enemies. Wait until you are seated and ara or tea has been served before handing over your present. Most likely the family will take it and put it aside, not showing much interest in front of you as this would be considered immodest. One should not show too much excitement about gifts or else it might seem greedy. Of course in contemporary Bhutan such rules are not written in stone, as they may have been in the past. So, in case you experience such behavior it has nothing to do with your hosts not being happy about your souvenir. On the contrary, once you have left, they will look at it with curiosity.

When food is being served you will encounter your next surprise. The variety and amount of dishes are amazing but moreover the family will not join in and share lunch or dinner with you. This has nothing to do with your hosts feeling inferior as is often assumed by guests. It is strictly in accordance with local traditional etiquette and ideas of politeness. No need to feel bad or weird. You can make it a point that the family join in during your next meal in the same house, in case you stay overnight. Bhutanese eat with their hands, and you, too, can have a try with your fingers if you want but you can also use a spoon or a fork which is available in most households.

It is a very important aspect of Bhutanese hospitality that the host encourages, even forces, guests to eat more. However, most homestay hosts have noticed that many tourists cannot eat as much as the average Bhutanese, especially rice and chilies. Nevertheless they might still insist on re-filling your plate and cup. True, the more you eat the happier the hosts are but they also will understand if you eat less. I personally would recommend taking less the first time and going for a re-fill as that makes them happy. Similarly with drinks one or two re-fills are a must. The trick is not to empty your cup completely before your host offers the re-fill. Just take a little sip instead and don’t do bottoms up.

After you have completed your meal some guests feel the urge to jump up and help clean the dishes, but don’t do it! It might make the family feel awkward as you are the guest and not supposed to help with such tasks when newly arrived. This will be different for the guide and driver as they are not new to the householders and are familiar to them. As mentioned above things might be different after you have stayed a night or two and etiquette will loosen up a bit. But during your first meal, just go with the flow.

Whilst in many European societies, people relax after food and continue with drinks and chatting, this was never really a tradition in Bhutan. There you would chat and drink before dinner or lunch is being served and bid your farewell rather quickly after the meal is completed. However, this is also slowly changing.

The traditional farewell gift, soera, is usually a tip to the householders for the received hospitality. In your case the guide will handle this but if you wish you can tip the family directly while squeezing a bill or two into the nangi aum’s hand during good byes. She might refuse but you have to insist, that is the game. In return they might present you with some local produce such as cheese, butter or fruits.




Foreign countries, foreign customs. Whenever you travel, always try to research in advance about the local customs at your destination. This will help you avoid awkward or unpleasant situations, and make friends quickly. Kyrgyzstan is no exception, and it has a few rules worth knowing. Of course, small faux pas and unintentional mistakes can happen, but the hospitable Kyrgyz are quick to forgive them. So don’t worry too much.

1o Rules for Kyrgyzstan

1 Gifts make friends

If you are invited to a Kyrgyz house, it is a nice touch to bring a small gift. Fruits and/or sweets from your home country are always well received.

2 Proper handling of bread

Bread is the most important food for the nomads. Never put it upside down on the table; that is especially disliked. Bread is preferably hand-torn, not cut with a knife, and it is usually put on the center of the table so it can be shared among all diners. Above all, do not throw bread away! If you are satisfied or consider it no longer edible, at least give it to the animals. There is an ominous saying whenever bread is thrown away: “kesir bolot”, which means “famine comes”.

3 Accepting and tasting

If you are invited to dinner with a Kyrgyz family, try tasting a little bit of everything. This shows that you appreciate their hospitality. Besides the bread, the butter is especially important. So try them (if you can). Often, a family member will offer you something from his or her own plate. Take it. It would be rude to refuse. This is especially true when coming from the elders, because it is a sign of affection.

4 Eating with the right hand

Even though nowadays cutlery is widely used, many Kyrgyz still eat with their hands. It is important to eat only with the right one!

5 Empty plates are refilled

If you eat everything on your plate, your Kyrgyz host will give you more food. So, if you’re satisfied and don’t want anything else to eat, it’s good to leave something on your plate.

6 Shoes off!

In Kyrgyzstan you take off your shoes before entering a house. Take them off, put them nicely next to each other and never with the soles up! Superstitious Kyrgyz assume that upside down shoes bring bad luck into the house.

7 Spit

Sometimes an elderly woman will greet you with a bowl of water and ask you to spit in it. Then she’ll move the bowl over your head and empty it or put it in front of the house. Water has a purifying effect and when you spit into it, evil spirits and their negative aura are chased away and dissipated. This is a custom in Kyrgyzstan with people who come from a long journey.

8 Alcohol

The Kyrgyz people like to drink. A lot. As a guest, this is also expected of you. The most common drinks served are vodka and Kymyz (fermented mare’s milk). If you don’t want to drink, it’s better to say so from the beginning and not accept a single glass. As soon as you accept a shot, it will become harder to refuse the following. A “no” coming from a woman will be easier to accept than the denial of a man. And if you are the one serving, always fill the others’ glasses first, before pouring yourself something.

9 Toasts

When Kyrgyz people sit together to drink, they also toast. The longer the toast, the more respected the speaker. It signals the desire to express big, deep wishes. So try to come up with a long speech!

10 Offer and insist

If you offer food to Kyrgyz people, they will usually politely refuse at first, even if they really feel like tasting what you have to offer. If so, insist. Only then will they accept it and enjoy it.




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To lead a healthier and happier life, one doesn’t necessarily have to visit a therapist or a doctor. According to Ayurveda, there are a few very simple practices that can help you improve your life. You don’t even have to know what your ayurvedic constitution is. If you follow these rules, you will soon notice a massive improvement in your life’s quality.

 

By Daniela Luschin-Wangail

 

10 simple Ayurvedic tips for a better life

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1 Start the day with oil and water

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The first thing you should do after getting up: oil pulling. What is that? Put some oil in your mouth and swill it back and forth for about 10-20 minutes. 20 minutes would be ideal, but modern life sometimes makes this a bit difficult. So simply do it for as long as you can. Then spit it out. The oil removes toxins from the body. You can use different oils: sesame, sunflower or olive oil are all good choices. I personally prefer coconut oil.

While you are oil-rinsing your mouth, you can boil some water and let it cool down. Drink a large cup of boiled, warm water every morning! This helps in two ways: boiled water cleans the body, and it also helps to stimulate the digestive fire. People who have difficulties with a good digestion should especially take this practice to heart.

 

 

2 No snacks between meals

Many people believe that it is better to eat several small meals than a few large ones. The Ayurvedic tradition says otherwise. The Agni (digestive fire) plays a very important role in Ayurveda and it is crucial in a healthy life. The Agni can only burn properly if it doesn’t have to work unceasingly. Give it time enough after every meal to fulfill its task, and don’t put it constantly to test. This means that you should consider a resting/digesting time of about 4 hours after each meal. You’ll be pretty hungry again afterwards. Many people find this very difficult, but practice and routine will make it something natural. If you can’t avoid it, eat something very light, small, such as some nuts, or even better, drink a sweetened tea or milk.

 

3 Fresh, warm & cooked

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Ayurveda is no fan of raw food, because everything that isn’t cooked is usually harder to digest. Many raw food aficionados suffer eventually difficulties with their digestion and are often victims of constipation (those who don’t have a really strong Agni). Especially people who have problems with bowel movements should pay attention to this point and eat as little raw food as possible. In Ayurveda you eat warm, fresh and cooked. Optimally, this should apply to all three meals of the day: a warm porridge for breakfast, for lunch a good satisfying meal made with fresh ingredients, and in the evening something light and warm, for example a soup. The freshness also plays an important role. Ayurveda doesn’t have anything to do with frozen food and microwaves. Use fresh ingredients – preferably seasonal, and from the region, because they’re easier to digest!

 

4 Don’t eat too late

Don’t feed your body too late in the evening. You should take the last meal 3 hours before sleeping. Forget the salad in the evening, which is low on calories but difficult to digest since it’s raw. Also pizza is less than ideal at this time: it is too heavy for the stomach. The best options are soups and light stews! Do not use the following foods in the evening: cheese, yoghurt and sour foods!

 

5 Don’t go too late to bed, and wake up early!

It would be ideal to be in bed by 10 pm at the latest, and depending on how much sleep you need, to get back up 6-8 hours later. According to the Ayurvedic doctrine  the body regenerates itself best between 22 and 2 o’clock in the morning. The sooner we get up, the fresher we start the day! Sleeping too long makes you sluggish, so you shouldn’t exaggerate.

 

6 Savor milk like an expert

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In the western world, milk has recently been put aside or even vilified as the cause of many stomach problems, but in Ayurveda it is still considered a precious nutrient. One needs only to know how to use it and combine it properly, since milk is incompatible with many foods! In many other cultures, not just the Indian one, tradition dictates that milk shouldn’t be mixed with certain other foods. The following foods are not intended to be used together with milk (and milk products):

Fish, meat, salt, leaf vegetables, legumes/beans, fruits, eggs, garlic, mustard.

Think about how many meals we have in which milk (or milk products) are combined with these foods! Pancakes, muesli, fruit yoghurts, banana milkshake, several sauces… the list goes on. And maybe many people who suffer from lactose intolerances owe their intestinal problems to these unfavorable connections only!?

 

7 The right amount

The amount of food you should take depends also on your constitution, but in general it can be said that you should find a good middle ground. Too little can be as bad as too much. Often one speaks of two handfuls as a right quantity. So not really that much.

 

8 Take your time

This applies to many aspects of life, but it plays an important role here: eat in a quiet and pleasant atmosphere. Not standing, and not in a rush! Chew slowly and concentrate on the food. Don’t play on your mobile phone, don’t read the newspaper! Also in everyday life: give yourself time to rest. Moments to do nothing. Just sit down and look around, contemplate. Or go out into the fresh air and just walk and enjoy.

 

9 Treat yourself to a massage

You don’t have to necessarily look for someone else. You can do it yourself. Take a lot of good, slightly warm oil and massage your body and your head (even your hair, do it well). Do not be frugal with the oil, and take plenty of time to do it! Finish it with a shower or take a pleasant bath! You’ll see how good it is for both your body and your soul.

 

10 Meditation

The best time to meditate is usually in the morning, but of course it also works in the evening. Meditate daily – or at least as often as possible. This is time for you, time to disconnect. You don’t have to be a meditation expert. Just sit down, close your eyes, focus on your breathing and nothing else. 20 minutes would be ideal, but every single minute counts.

 

You may not be able to apply all 10 rules to your life right now, but the regular practice of even just a few of them will improve your life quite a lot. Try it!

 

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villageMore Ayurveda?

If you are interested in a more comprehensive Ayurvedic experience, we can fully recommend you a stay in one of our Ayurveda-Resorts in Southern India! There you will learn a lot about yourself and your Ayurvedic constitution, about what is good for you and what isn’t! As an entry into Ayurveda or as a next logical step to improve your life: To the Resorts