Cures for Tuberculosis or Ulcers in the Steaming Waters of Bhutan
Story and photos by Tony Robinson-Smith

A collection of curing hot springs off a footpath in remote Bhutan offer as many questions as answers about the society's social norms.

A hot spring in Bhutan


For the sixth time, we step off the path to let a caravan of horses and donkeys pass, bells clonking on their necks, their loads swinging from side to side. Urged on by their child muleteers, they are clearly more adept than us at handling the slippery conditions, even heavily laden with 30-kilogram sacks of rice, boxes of tinned and packet food, packing cases, rolled-up blankets, canvas tarpaulins, steel billy-cans, and bottles of liquid gas. Slush flies up from their hooves and streaks our backpacks. The muleteers bow as they pass and giggle. Why on earth are the two foreigners carrying their own bags?

prayer flags in Bhutan

"O-hey!" cries the boy at the rear, swishing his stick.

Nadya and I are on our way to Gasa (2,770m), the largest village in Bhutan’s northernmost dzongkhag, with a stop on the way at a hot spring. A taxi took three hours to get us from Punakha, the former capital, to Damji, the last village connected by road. From Damji, it is a three-hour trek to the baths, another hour from there to Gasa.

Our path tracks the Mo Chhu, a bottle-green river coursing around rocks the size of bathtubs and garden sheds two hundred metres below. As it is January, the fir trees lining its banks are heavy with snow. Some trees further upriver are so swaddled they resemble statues. As we wait for the donkeys to pass, I train binoculars on the river and see white-capped redstarts darting between the rocks and another bird of similar size, but blue rather than red, black, and white. This one likes to splay its red tail like a fan each time it lands. On our way up from Damji, female kalij pheasants scurried across the path in front of us, their bodies plump and brown, their faces red. One stood its ground and eyed us warily from the brush, its crest curling up like an inverted comma.

A hot spring tent area in Bhutan

We arrive at the hot spring late afternoon. From above, it resembles a refugee camp: makeshift bamboo and canvas shelters crammed together, smouldering fires, towels and blankets strung up between trees, heaps of dead branches, a single faucet standing out of the dirt, crows. The shelters stand in front of four steaming bath houses with tin roofs. The path we are on winds down to the river and the park ranger’s office.

“Welcome to Jigme Dorji National Park. I am caretaker of bath. You can camp near bath, but there is many people, or you can camp near office.”

Dago, a fit-looking man of about sixty wearing a park ranger’s jacket over his gho, recommends the latter. Although you have to go down a long flight of stairs to reach the baths, there is grass and more space for camping near the office. It is also quieter. He hands us a toilet key.

Bhutan guide

“We have two rules here. Wash before get in bath and take shoe off before get in bath.”

We look down at our mud-plastered boots and wonder whether he is kidding. Then I remember the article I snipped out of the newspaper before coming. It said that, before the hot spring became part of the national park, people came here and washed themselves with soap and did their laundry.

“When can we take a bath?” Nadya inquires.

“Any time you like. Some people sleep in bath.”

Choose Your Cure… or Crowd

The next morning, we stand shivering, towels around our shoulders, and puzzle over which bath to choose. According to a sign, each has medicinal benefits. The hottest is for people with tuberculosis or ulcers, the coolest for those with skin diseases or sexually transmitted infections. Take a warm bath if you suffer from rheumatism or arthritis; take a lukewarm one for sinusitis or other respiratory complaints.

After two decades of distance running on asphalt, the third option seems like the one for us, but, after a bucket wash in cold water, we decide to cure ourselves of tuberculosis or ulcers first. It is so hot in this bath that most people are reclining on the edge with just their legs in. Plunging ours into the grainy water, I wonder whether, far from coming out miraculously healed, we will leave with some unpleasant infection to take home to Canada.

Dago said nothing to us about dress code. I wear baggy football shorts, and Nadya Lycra cycling shorts and a T-shirt. Custom seems to say that only genitals need be covered, and, through the billowing steam, I can make out middle-aged and elderly women bathing bare-breasted. The younger women, however, clearly prefer not to do this. Sneaking looks at the older ones, I am sure I have never before beheld such flaccid appendages. Their breasts resemble drained wine gourds. I imagine hard lives devoted to raising infant after infant after infant, but then realize that these women have probably never worn bras.

“This is the quiet time,” whispers Tashi, a young, bilingual civil servant from Thimphu who comes every year and is camping near us with Tshering, his girlfriend. They have already spent six days at the springs, bathing four times a day and once at night. Tsachu is busiest in the winter, he says, with most people staying for two weeks.

There are nineteen people either in the three-by-two-meter bath or sitting around it. When we go to the similarly sized warm bath in the afternoon, there are at least forty. The water is barely visible. All I can see are pink bodies pressed tightly together and some arms sticking up at odd angles. Do these people all know each other? And what if someone in the middle wishes to get out? I am reminded of taking the morning train to work in Tokyo. The carriages were so packed that the doors would barely close, and platform staff wearing white gloves had to shove till they did. The secret to survival was to close your eyes, relax every muscle, breathe regularly, and put your mind in a happy place. Maybe the same is necessary here. No one appears to be suffering. Some have fallen asleep. A woman holds up her empty plastic water bottle, and a boy in the doorway goes to refill it for her. A grizzled old man with a wall-eye grins and chants, “Om mani padme hum.” There is obviously no room for us.

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Read this article online at: Cures for Tuberculosis or Ulcers in the Steaming Waters of Bhutan

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