Golden rice terraces ripple in the sun as our Jeep bumps northward along the Gelephu-Trongsa Highway, weaving through the forested hills of Trongsa district in central-southern Bhutan.
I’m here to scout off-the-beaten-track locations in (already offbeat) Bhutan for tour company Gray Langur. This southern road, rarely traversed by travelers due to its remote location, poor infrastructure, and lack of well-known sights, certainly qualifies.
Peering out the window, the steep drop-off from the poorly paved road gives way to a sweeping view of the rice terraces and deciduous forests blanketing the Mangde Chhu river valley.
I spot an older man, in a bronze Bhutanese gho (traditional men’s clothing), waving down cars by the side of the road. Always happy to help fellow hitchhikers, I ask my tour guide, Karma, if we can give him a ride.
Delighted to meet a curious foreigner, the man tells me about Kuenga Rabten (pronounced kinga rabten), his home village several miles down the road. Forest used to blanket the entire valley, he tells us as we drive, but rice replaced trees as the village grew into a town. Pointing to the other side of the river valley, he shows us where he used to live before a landslide forced him to this side of the valley.
His clouded face brightens when he points to a large white building on a nearby hill: Kuenga Rabten Palace, constructed in 1929 as the winter home for Jigme Wangchuck, Bhutan’s second king (1926-1952).
We drop the hitchhiker off at his home on the town’s outskirts, and he dashes inside, reemerging with a bulging bag of guavas. He smiles and bows in thanks for the ride, giving me the guavas and welcoming me to Kuenga Rabten.
My jaw drops at the view as we drive into Kuenga Rabten, which sits surrounded by Himalayan foothills as high as 5,280ft (1,774m). White painted houses are scattered across the mountainside, enveloped by leafy trees and snaking rice terraces. Karma’s cousin, Dechen, lives in the village, and we stop at her house to say hello and take tea.
We’re supposed to carry on to a roadside hotel, but as I sip tea in a bright blue living room overlooking undulating green and gold, I realize I’m not ready to leave.
“Karma, can we stay here for the night instead?”
Bhutan’s tour requirement may make it seem like itineraries are set in stone, but guides in Bhutan are usually happy to adapt tours to people’s interests when possible. Karma disappears to discuss with Dechen, then quickly returns.
“No problem." he says. “I arranged for us to stay here tonight. Want to walk around town?”
Kuenga Rabten Palace is a stone’s throw from Dechen’s house, and is now used as a Buddhist monastery. A monk lets us into a room filled with antique weapons and intricate paintings of the 35 Buddhas of compassion, while curious young monks peer at us from the windows.
Our calves strain on the 15-minute walk up a mountain road to Karma Drubdey Nunnery, a great spot to see the spectacular sunset views looking over town. The nuns are quiet, but equally as curious as the palace monks, and a teenage nun in red robes approaches me shyly. She doesn’t speak English, but wants to show me the nunnery pet: a wild mountain goat the nuns found and raised themselves.
Night falls, and we return to Dechen’s house for a simple, delicious dinner of steaming rice, a hearty beef stew, stir-fried vegetables from her garden, and the Bhutanese staple, ema datsi (chilis in cheese sauce). I top up my mountain of food with homemade ezay (a kind of chili sauce).
Using my fingers to scoop rice and mix it with the dishes, the way Bhutanese people traditionally eat, Dechen’s bubbly seven-year-old daughter laughs and dangles off my arm. Tea follows dinner, then Dechen turns on the TV to watch what she says is one of her daughter’s favorite shows. Instead of the Bhutanese or Indian television I am expecting, it’s Australia’s Next Top Model! They laugh at my excitement as I explain the concept of “guilty pleasures” with Karma translating.
At the start of the day, I had no idea Kuenga Rabten existed, and certainly no intentions to stay here. Yet here I am, feeling welcome in a family’s home in the most idyllic town I’ve seen in Bhutan.
Sometimes an open mind and no plans are the best itineraries of all.
Kuenga Rabten town is a good day trip from Trongsa when traveling around Central Bhutan. The town is 14mi (23km) south of Trongsa, and the winding route takes about an hour to drive due to poor road conditions. Once there, the town is very walkable.
Kuenga Rabten doesn’t have any hotels. Women travelers may be able to arrange overnight stays at Karma Drubdey Nunnery by contacting the nunnery in advance. Ask your guide or tour agency.
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