Friday, June 28, 2013


All of a sudden it seems that we are halfway through our year in Bhutan. Already we've experienced and learned so much here, but I regret how little Dzongkha I have learned and so I am making a resolution to really make some progress in the next 6 months.

Dzongkha prayers flying on the school gate.

On a daily basis I am immersed in, and surrounded by Dzongkha. Definitely the sounds are familiar, I hear words and if I know the context and an English word or two is thrown in I can make some sense of what is said. It's a good place to start!

All classrooms are signed in Dzongkha.

I'm guessing this one says 'staffroom'.

Dzongkha is not a world language by any stretch, there are next to no print or online resources available to learn, and yet perhaps my best teachers are some of my students who I walk to school with who enjoy teaching me simple phrases and are patient with my questions and mistakes.

I was inspired to really give it my best shot after watching this youtube clip about a young 'polyglot' (someone who can speak multiple languages). What a great kid and I have no doubt he would have taken Dzongkha by the horns and be fluent in the time it's taken me to learn 'Where are you going?' (the most common greeting here).

I was reading in the Kuensel this week (Wednesday June 19) that not only foreigners like me are struggling with the national language, but across the country politicians who are contesting the next election in two weeks time are faced with a dilemma. They are travelling to far flung parts of the country to share their policies at common forums in areas where one of 23 other languages are spoken. Policy dictates that these forums must be conducted in Dzongkha even though some politicians struggle to use the language or it is not understood by the audience.

This lovely shop has opened recently on the ground floor of the building where we live.

And this restaurant is also on the ground floor of where we live.

The rationale behind this push is that Dzongkha, which was chosen to be the national language in 1971 is the language of the national parliament and therefore all political aspirants need to be fluent. At a time where the medium of schools is English and Bhutanese who want to engage with the rest of the world need to speak English, some are concerned that within the next ten to fifteen years, the levels of proficiency in Dzongkha among Bhutanese could fall dramatically.

From my observations in Bumthang where Bumthap is spoken as a mother tongue by many, Dzongkha is the language most widely spoken in the school and social setting. The Dzongkha Lopen (teacher) told me that students perform quite well in Dzongkha as they have heard it spoken at home since birth and they have a natural grasp of the grammar, in contrast to their abilities in English.

Dzongkha test papers I collected.

Some Dzonglish graffiti!


Perhaps the problem with Dzongkha gets worse the further east and south you travel from the capital.

In any case I am eager to get my hands on a copy of a book written by a fellow volunteer in Bhutan and work hard to become at least conversational if not a polyglot in the next sixth months.


Kewa datsi

By far my favourite Bhutanese food is kewa datsi (potatoes and cheese) and I crave it often. My favourite way to eat it is with puri (deep fried flat bread) to mop up the cheesy sauce. I also like to dip tea momos (like steamed chinese bread) in a bowl of kewa datsi, but these are harder to find.

A particularly delicious meal of kewa datsi and puris at Hotel Choekerling, Trongsa.

And this is the dish I see myself making in years to come, for warmth and comfort and in those moments I feel nostalgic for Bhutan and wish it was as simple to sit down to this nourishing meal as popping out to a nearby restaurant.

There are different ways to make kewa datsi that I have seen, but this is how I watched the students at a class picnic make it outside on an open fire, and it works well.

Kewa Datsi
Serves 4 with rice or bread

1 onion, sliced thinly
1 large tomato, sliced into 16ths
Approx 4 large or 8 smaller potatoes, peeled and sliced into very thin rounds
2 large green or red chillies sliced (more or less to suit your preference)
1 ball datsi cheese, or substitute 150 g crumbly feta cheese
80 g processed cheese
Salt to taste
1 tbs veg oil

Colourful ingredients.

In a medium sized saucepan heat oil and fry onions until softened.
Add tomatoes and cook for 3-4 minutes.
Add potatoes, chillies and 1 cup of water and cover with lid.
Simmer for 10 mins until potatoes soften.
Add crumbled cheeses and stir through pot.

Our dinner cooking on our gas burner stove. I added some cauliflower to the mix tonight and it went well.

Add salt to taste.
Lower heat and cook, covered for another five minutes til cheese has melted to create a sauce.
Top up water if it starts to get low. You want to make a fairly loose sauce to serve with potatoes.
Serve and enjoy.

In Bhutan a simple dahl is usually made to accompany kewa datsi, and making this in my pressure cooker is a breeze. I love my pressure cooker so much I want to find a way to bring it home at the end of the year.


Collecting Kiras

My love affair with the kira, Bhutan's national dress for women began even before I arrived in the country. I remember googling images of the dress and feeling excited at the thought that I would be able to wear this colourful and elegant outfit to work everyday. I shared photos of Bhutanese women with my sister-in-law Alison who I knew would appreciate the handmade fabric passed down through generations of women.

I learned a lot about the history and tradition of weaving in this country by reading ‘Circle of Karma’, by Kunzang Choden. The main character in the story lived a hard life and suffered many personal setbacks, but through it all she was able to fall back on her skills as a weaver and make an income for herself, even when the men in her life were not able or willing to provide.

Similarly women in Bhutan are now able to weave, not only fabric for kiras and ghos, but also yathra (woollen fabric) for homewares and provide an independent means of sustaining themselves and their families.

Traditionally a kira was a large rectangular piece of fabric folded in an ingenious way to create a dress tied around the waist with a kera (belt – also handwoven and embroidered) and fixed at the shoulders with fancy metal clasps. Now days, although some women still wear a full kira, many opt for a half-kira which ties around the waist either with a kera, straps, clips or Velcro. It has taken 6 months of daily wear for me to get the hang of wearing my various kiras, and only last week I went to school wearing mine back-to-front (apparently good-luck!).

In modern day Bhutan, it may seem a bit strange to foreigners that wearing national dress is an obligation for Bhutanese who work in government jobs or visit a government office or building, or when visiting a temple or festival. To our western mind it might seem like a violation of human rights to be told what to wear, but in my experience I see Bhutanese feeling very proud of wearing their national dress and far from feeling oppressed by the requirements, feel strong and empowered by their culture and traditions.  

In the face of rapid changes coming about from influences of the modern world outside Bhutan, the simple act of wearing national dress is a way for Bhutanese to  maintain their culture. And within the confines of wearing a kira, there is still ample opportunity for personal expression – in the colours, patterns and style of kira chosen, the artful matching of wonju and taego (blouses and jackets) and the beautiful brooches that are worn to secure the blouse. Teenagers take it all a step further of course, and although they come to school immaculately dressed in uniform, I was amused when we attended a recent movie night at school and saw girls mixing it up wearing trendy hoodies over their kiras, fancy heels and all sorts of pretty things in their hair, the boys meanwhile had jeans under their ghos as a way of expressing their individuality and trendiness!

And so I may fast be becoming the Imelda Marcos of kiras in Bhutan! My collection started with the cheap machine woven kiras I bought in Thimphu when we arrived. I bought three kiras and about five blouses, and probably that would have been quite sufficient to get me through a year of wearing them to school each day, in fact some of the other teachers are perfectly happy with less.

My first time wearing a kira for our Australia Day celebrations in Thimphu - wearing green and gold!
But I love colour, fabric, patterns so it is natural that I would need to expand my kira wardrobe to include all my favourite colours. And so that is why it didn’t take long once I’d arrived in Bumthang to say hello to a red and a blue kira!

Ms Gaki and I exit the school grounds on the ladder (not so easy wearing a kira!)

Then I was offered a beautiful handwoven kira to buy at school. One of the teacher’s sister’s had made it and it was a gorgeous royal blue colour with stripes of pink, white, yellow and purple. I had to have it and also a special kera belt that is needed to tie it as it is just a large rectangle without buttons, zips or straps to fasten.

 I was more than happy to stop there until one of my students gave me some lovely fabric for Teacher’s Day to have a blouse made – and it is a mushroom colour – not necessarily one of my favourites, but that makes it all the more appealing – to try out a new colour. I was on the lookout to find a kira to match and found a simple handwoven one in a store in Trongsa. It is dusty pink with mushroom and mint green stripes – a perfect match for the blouse (and Alison this one will be coming home for you - the green is your colour!).

And surely that would be enough kiras for someone staying one year in Bhutan!

That was until I read an article recently about the new style of kiras worn by women in the south of Bhutan – that suit the climate more and reflect the proximity to India in the colours and patterns available on the cotton/blended fabrics.

Although I love the traditional stripes and checkered patterns of kiras in Bumthang, I had wondered why no one had branched out and made kiras from different patterned fabric, and it turns out they had! We’ll probably not get the chance to travel to southern Bhutan, so I was wondering how I was going to see these interesting skirts!

In the past week it has been very hot and a couple of teachers have started wearing these different patterned kiras – they are worn in the same manner but hang in a looser, more comfortable and flowing way, and as they are made from lighter fabrics are cooler to wear. When I asked they told me they bought them from the south.

And so when we went to Nimalung Tshechu I was in luck! While Tshechus are religious festivals they have a fair-like atmosphere with stalls set up selling toys, junk-food, household items and clothes. The sellers travel all over Bhutan and set up their stalls at each Tsechu to appeal to villagers who often don’t have many shops locally. A row of lovely summer kiras was on offer in the first stall I looked in. I felt the fabric: lovely and soft and lightweight, and then my only dilemma was to decide which colour to choose – in the end I chose a purple print – safety in my favourite colour. Now I am home with it on it is so comfortable, and also I feel that it is just like a wrap-around skirt I could wear once I get home to Australia. It doesn’t have the look of being ‘national dress’ which might feel a bit strange walking around the Gold Coast wearing.

Modelling my new fashioned kira.

I think I am a woman satisfied now with my varied and colourful wardrobe. The main question in my mind is what will I do with them all when we leave – a couple are favourites I’ll keep as souvenirs and for special occasions within the Bhutanese community in Australia that I hope to find, the rest I thought might make nice gifts for friends at home. They could make a nice tablecloth. Who’d like to put in a request?

Below are some style snaps from recent festivals:




And a postscript to the story: this week at school a teacher brought in some kiras for sale - handwoven by a mother of a student. They were beautiful and tempting, but for the moment I have resisted buying another...

Which would you choose?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Make Health Your New High

Yesterday was International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. To mark this day, a group of keen cyclists from the Chamkar area organised a 60km bike ride up and over the Kiki-La pass to beyond the village of Gaytsa and back, passing through Chumey on the way, highlighting this year's theme: Make Health your New High in Life, Not Drugs.

Bob has made contacts with people in this group so he was invited to join in. He started early and rode up to Kiki-La at 2980m where the group stopped for refreshments: momos and tea.

Meanwhile I had the boys with me at school as I did some work in the library and we received a call to say the pack were only five  minutes away. We climbed to the top of the ladder that goes over the school fence and watched the road until we saw the cyclists in their fluoro yellow vests appear.

Some of the cyclists have a lot of experience, but for the first timers it would have been a huge effort to make it up and over the mountain. They deserved a break out the front of the school where Xavier, Remy and I greeted them, and their support vehicle stopped to offer drinks and bandage up some sore knees.

Students gathered to see what was going on - it is not everyday that a group of 20 riders plus support staff come through Chumey. Hopefully the message of choosing a healthy life over a life of drug or alcohol addiction made an impact.

Bhutan may be known as the country of Gross National Happiness, but you don't have to look very far to see that alcohol addiction is a common scourge. Within our community, there are many people who are obviously alcohol affected on a daily basis, and in a strange way it seems to be tolerated - even to the point that people are under the influence while at work. Alcohol related disease leads to one of the most common causes of death in this country, liver failure. Meanwhile even in the highschool setting some students have been discovered taking drugs - which isn't such a surprise as marijuana plants grow wild and plentiful all around here.


After Chumey, the group continued on and stopped at the Vocational Training Institute (a technical college for building trades) a bit further up the road. Bob had the chance to take to the podium and speak to the young adults about how leading a life of moderation has allowed him to pursue a rewarding career, travel the world and enjoy a healthy lifestyle. He felt really good about having an opportunity to speak in public.

Seeing such a fit, healthy, motivated group of young Bhutanese cyclists will hopefully have an impact on the youth of this region to make good choices for their future.

"Even in a land as peaceful and sacred as Bhutan, the evils of drug abuse are slowly consuming our youth. It is a disease that is fast spreading and affecting many families in Bhutan. Therefore, let's reflect on drug and alchol isssues among youth in our country and reaffirm our commitment to eradicating the disease of addiction to drugs and alcohol"

-Extracted from a Message from Her Majesty the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Pem Wanchuck during the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on 26th June, 2011.


Kurjee Tsechu

We were spoilt for choice on Tuesday for where to go and what to do: we could return to Nimalung Monastery for the third and final day of celebrations or visit Kurjee Lhakang outside Chamkar for their one day annual Tsechu - which was what we chose.

The 18th of June is a national holiday in Bhutan to celebrate the birthday of Guru Rinpoche who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th Century AD, and the Kurjee Tsechu honours Guru Rinpoche by displaying an enormous thongdroel (banner) of his image for this one day a year.

We arrived early and it was scorchingly hot. The thongdroel was unfurled and as large as the whole facade of the huge Lhakang. We had visited Kurjee Lhakang, the final resting place for the first three kings of Bhutan, back in February when we first arrived and at that time, we were the only visitors and the place was cold, silent and deserted.

How different it was now - a huge crowd that was swelling by the minute of the most colourfully dressed Bhutanese I've seen. Tsechus are a grand social occasion here and people take the opportunity to wear their finest and most colourful clothes usually made from painstakingly handwoven cloth with intricate motifs and patterns.

Bob and I in the bright sunshine, another opportunity to wear my special-occasion kira!

Guru Rinpoche thondroel


Crowds gathered to watch the entertainment.


People were lined up way out the gate for the opportunity to touch the cloth of the thongdroel, circumambulate the temple, receive some tiny 'long-life' pills and a blessing string to wear around the neck. Xavier and I joined the queue that snaked around a chorten in the middle of the grounds, and as we got closer to the temple we were able to watch some women doing folk dances in the paved courtyard in front of the temple. We proceeded to walk under the thongdroel that was being held by men as it strained with the blustery wind. We pushed and squashed our way around and then came down the other side, made a small offering of cash and received our blessing strings and holy water.


We joined the long queue and if you didn't shuffle forward quickly, people cut in front!

We walked underneath the thondroel.

The view as we circumabulated the temple.

Nearly there...

Crowds in line, and view of the Himalayas in the distance.

A smaller, but older thongdroel was displayed at the end of the line, before receiving the blessed strings and water.

Bhutanese men wear a 'kabney' shawl over the shoulder at special occasions like this.

By the time we found Bob we were able to watch the spectacle of the thongdroel being lowered to be packed away for another year. Men in the high rafters of the Lhakang were gradually releasing the ropes that held the thongdroel and once it was down it was carefully folded and rolled for storage. In procession, elaborately dressed monks carried it away to the sound of horns and drums.

Lowering the thondroel.

If you look really carefully you can see men high up in the rafters lowering the thondroel ropes.

The women dancing were wearing some of the most ornate and intricate kiras that I've seen.



We weren't sure what to expect next, but soon a whole army of dancers emerged from the Lhakang. These dancers were unlike any we’ve seen before and the music was also different – as Bob described like a modern artistic form of dance. It was explained to me that these dancers come from the monastery at Dochu-la and bring with them the story of triumph from the conflict in the southern areas of Bhutan against militant Indian separatist groups in 2003 . The dancers wore beautiful costumes that included a warrior’s shield on the back, masks of the soldier’s faces that were all unique and expressive, and colourful embroidered cloaks. For its difference to all the other religious mask dances, we felt very fortunate to witness this performance.



Dancing continued, but the rain that had been threatening since the wind picked up suddenly poured down on the crowds and they scattered in a hurry, many leaving as we did, although by the time we had got in the taxi and were on our way the rain had eased and it would have been perfect back at the Lhakang, with front row seats now most of the crowd had left.


I snapped this pic of the masked dancers while the crowd scattered due to the heavy rain. The dancers kept performing though...

But we had two little boys who were tired and had reached their limit of tsechus for one weekend. After stopping to pick up some fruit and veg in Chamkar which was mostly deserted due to the public holiday, we went home for a very restful afternoon.

 *I have been delayed over a week uploading this post due to internet problems the past two weeks*