Thanks to Kuenga, I managed to attend two family Chokus in the span of a week. One in Punakha and the second in Lobeysa (Thimphu). Choku is an annual religious ritual that each household performs to give thanks and pray for blessings for the family. Monks are invited to the house during Choku to pray and perform rites. In addition to its religious significance, Choku is also a time to meet up with family and friends. Extended family and friends are typically invited, and neighbours join in the feasting on the second day.
Being invited for Choku was my chance to experience a little of life in the village. For this Singapore-bred city slicker, the traditional Bhutanese village was an experience like no other. To get there required a morning on winding moutain roads, sometimes over iced-over patches (snow wheels? doesn’t exist) and another hour on unpaved feeder roads. Despite the numerous bumps, the newly-dug feeder roads were a god-send, allowing us to drive right up to the house instead of a 2-hour hike uphill from the main road.
As we travel eastwards from Thimphu, a different landscape met my eager eyes. Instead of the brick and mortar apartment blocks found in Thimphu, traditional Bhutan houses made from mud and wood dot the green mountainsides and valleys. The air warmed up and the fragrance of Daphne (a local woody plant used to make paper) blooms drifted by.
When we arrived, faces young and old filled with warmth and sometimes a little curiosity greeted mine. “Is she a chillip? But she looks Bhutanese…” Looking on as I struggle up the steep and narrow wooden steps to the house, it didn’t take them to long to figure out the truth. Thankfully, this chillip (foreigner) eats like the Bhutanese for the most parts. Except for suja (butter tea) which is just too rich to drink 6 times a day and sometimes over-fatty pork, I eat most of everything put before me. And sometimes a little more. An ezay-eating chillip (chilli-eating foreigner) is understandably rare and I have a feeling my enthusiasm for ezay won me a couple of brownie points.
Talking about food, oh how I ate. These Bhutanese sure know how to feast; we pretty much ate non-stop from 8 in the morning until 9 at night. The pre-breakfast meal of meat and cheese porridge was one my favourites. “Pre-breakfast”, breakfast, “pre-lunch”, lunch, tea, dinner, and lots of snacking in between. I lost track of the meals after a while, but was contented to eat when I was told and happily snack in-between.
Sitting around the bukhari in the evening, sharing in the chat and laughter as much as a chillip can, a sense of realisation hit me silently. Man, I lucked out. This is it, this is why.
In the heart of that countryside village, the magic of Bhutan finally began.