Fabuwood CabinetsFabuwood Cabinets

Along the newly reopened Trans Bhutan Trail, a network of farmhouses has sprouted, offering travellers a taste of Bhutanese cuisine as well as a rare glimpse into rural life and culture.

It was midmorning when my guide, Singay Dradul, and I arrived at a lush valley in the Wangdue Phodrang district. We’d come from Pele La, one of Bhutan’s highest passes at 3,407 metres, which separates the western and central parts of the Buddhist Kingdom. Except for a group of semi-nomadic yak herders who had recently descended to lower elevations for the winter, we hadn’t seen a soul in the previous two hours of hiking.

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We passed a farmer who smiled and said hello. “La Kuzuzangpo (hello). Have you noticed my calf? “In Dzongkha, the national language, he inquired. It had vanished earlier in the day, and he suspected it had been attacked by a swarm of wild foxes. Or, worse, a tiger.

For the past few months, a female Bengal tiger had been roaming the area, attacking livestock and putting farmers on high alert. Even though she hadn’t been spotted in the exact area where we were hiking, I was still concerned. Was she hiding behind the dense forest cover, ready to pounce?

Fortunately, the village of Rukubji, where we would stop for a hot farmhouse lunch, was only a half-hour drive away. We kept going through the wide-open fields, finally getting away from the forest. It was my second day hiking with Dradul on the 500-year-old Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT), and I knew I was in good hands.

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The TBT dates back to the 16th century, when it served as the only mode of transportation for rulers, pilgrims, monks, traders, and legendary trail runners known as “garps,” who delivered political messages to the country’s dzongs (fortresses). The TBT had significant socioeconomic, political, and spiritual significance at its peak, uniting communities into a nation. The TBT traverses 27 gewogs (villages) and nine dzongkhags (districts) of Bhutan, stretching 403 kilometres between the towns of Haa in the far west and Trashigang in the east.

The trail was no longer used as the primary mode of transportation after the construction of Bhutan’s first national highway in 1962. Bridges, footpaths, and stairwells collapsed over time as trail maintenance was neglected. The restoration of the ancient trail after 60 years of neglect was His Majesty the King’s vision to protect Bhutan’s unique past from the threat of growing modernisation, which has rendered the old trail and its history almost forgotten.

“It’s like a walking, living museum,” Dradul said of the TBT. “It’s full of stories, myths, and legends. I’m concerned that if we don’t protect it, it will vanish.” Locals, tourists, and future generations are encouraged to use the TBT to hike, mountain bike, trail run, and, most importantly, connect with rural Bhutanese culture and history.

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Dradul was one of two guides who hiked the entire TBT before it opened in September 2022, working as a trail inspector for the Trans Bhutan Trail organisation, a non-profit social enterprise. Dradul began establishing a network of farmhouses along the way, offering tourists a rare glimpse into Bhutanese rural life by welcoming guests into their homes to eat and stay. Dradul and other guides are collaborating with the Trans Bhutan Trail organisation to launch a Trans Bhutan Trail Passport programme in which tourists can get their trail passport stamped at participating farmhouses along the way. To date, more than 60 “Passport Ambassadors” host visitors across the kingdom, with the majority of them being women. Local farmers open their homes to tourists as part of the Passport Ambassador programme to serve them a traditional meal while also sharing their culture and heritage. Some provide cooking demonstrations, while others pamper visitors with traditional hot stone baths. Travelers can even spend the night for a more immersive experience. This grassroots collaboration not only empowers women to work in tourism and earn a sustainable income, but it also provides visitors with a deep cultural understanding and connection with some of Bhutan’s most remote communities and people.

We were greeted by Rinchen Dema, the owner of the traditional mud-rammed farmhouse in Rukubji, who lives there with eight members of her extended family. She has been in charge of the household since her mother died, as is customary for the oldest daughter.

“It’s good to have you here,” Dema said as she poured us a cup of hot suja, a traditional butter tea dating back to the 7th century. “The tiger had just killed another cow in the neighbouring field the day before. It is best to end your day’s hike here.”

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I sipped my suja slowly, allowing the surprisingly satisfying taste of yak butter, salt, and tea to warm my soul and assuage any remaining tiger fears. Dema and her sisters arrived a few minutes later with plates piled high with food and a huge bowl of red rice, which they placed next to us on the floor. “This is jaju (a traditional Bhutanese soup made of spinach and milk), chicken curry, and buckwheat pancakes grown organically on our farm,” Dema explained.

Dema handed me a fork as we sat on large colourful floor cushions. Dradul and the others picked up a small piece of rice, rubbed it between their fingers to clean their hands, and started eating. I quickly realised that, aside from tourists, no one eats with silverware in Bhutan. I took a bite of chicken curry and was blown away by its delicious, spicy flavour. The meal was filling and filling, satisfying my hunger from our morning hike.

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Following a tour of the Rukubji community farm, our driver Dorjee drove us to our next destination, Trongsa, where we would spend the night. We wouldn’t be continuing our hike to Chendebji’s next village that day. Dema wouldn’t be seeing her married sister, who lives a 30-minute walk away, anytime soon. “Living with tigers is dangerous for a farmer, especially now that a mother and cubs are nearby. But that is the way of life in Bhutan. One with the natural world, “Dradul elaborated.

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