Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A secret revealed

'Cassie in a hot stone bath
Cassie made a bhutanese mans day when he walked in front of the window'.
Photo by The.Adrians.Golf
There doesn't seem to be anything as a bathing culture in the interior regions of Asia. Or at least so it seems. 

Away from the scrutiny of the public eye and the need for social conditioning to create a distance between rulers (refined taste) and ruled (ignorants), the mountain folk have simply done what seems to be straightforward: clean water equals bathing possibility.

And the higher up the mountains or the more north, the more the need for a hotter bath. With temperatures so low, no one favours a cold bath, nah? 

Do locals adapt their bathing habits? Mostly no, cooler periods simply mean less cleansing ... With the exception of those in the proximity of a hot spring.

But there are exceptions to the lack of natural soaking possibilities.

One of these is the Bhutanese ancient tradition of a hot stone bath. Locally known as a dhotsho (or variations spelled differently, f.i. dotsho), this clearly is a tradition of the Bhutanese themselves and seems not to have many followers elsewhere on the globe. 

Thus quintessential to Bhutan, many a tourist is interested in partaking in this tradition. Or so it becomes more known to the general internet community.

Witness to this has been the increasing numbers of blog reports. digital shangrila describes it as follows:
'so amazing! there are probably some people who don't know what this is, so i will describe it..... a hole is cut in the ground and then the hole is cribbed with timbers. water from the stream is run into the bath which is by the fire, river rocks are put in the fire until they are glowing hot and then they are dropped in the wooden tub full of water until it is boiling hot. the minerals released from the rocks are incredibly healthy and the steam rising of the water is divine!'
A photo which was once on picasa, link seems to have disappeared.
A dhotsho? Left the men are heating the stones, right the women are bathing

What makes the dhotsho unique? 

For one, the mostly rustic wooden baths / tubs, not circular as many of us like to think, but rectangular as a regular bath in the western world. 
Ideally, they have at what would be the foot end, a (porous) separation; this is where the hot stones are placed. Mostly meant for lying in, they can also be deeper. Or more rustic without special places for where to put the stones.

The stones are river stones. Large and rounded, these are heated for hours on end over a woodfire until they may well be glowing themselves, before being rinsed (to wash off the soot) and placed in the cold water of the wooden tub. 

Water is mostly free flowing water from a river or nearby stream, but true believers put their faith in spring water, free of any possible pollution (already highly unsuspected in Bhutan. See also the following paragraph on Menchu.

Ideally herbs are added, Artemisia has been mentioned. Plant varieties from the Artemisia family are used throughout traditional Chinese medicine and are well-known for their anti-bacterial qualities. Other mentions are made of secretive herbal add-ons (source):
'Some of the herbs added are a secret known to very few families. The secret is revealed only to their close family members. Some of the families are so secretive that they bring only the root of certain herbs; which most people fail to recognize the actual plant'.
A tub-like bath with herbs floating ... (source).

The surroundings. Well, being rustic, a wooden shed seems a luxious version. Mostly soaking is done al-fresco while for foreign guests a tarp may be spun.
With the need for river rocks and water, the hot stone baths are mostly conveniently located near a river(let).

'Muffy enjoying the hot stone bath at basecamp'.
This picture from a more upmarket dhotsho? Sourced from Or alternatively Jeff's LP travel blog.

Decorum is often far from what is on the soakers mind, so locals will jump in au-naturel, no need for bathers. 
Foreign guests tend to follow their own cultural and social baggage. With possibly the fact that when heading to Bhutan, a swimming costume is not on the most essential piece of clothing required to drag over mountain paths.

'Both the trek up and down the mountain and the temple itself offer a truly mystic experience steeped in history, tradition, and sheer wonderment. And a traditional hot stone bath is a great way to soothe aching muscles after the hike – take the plunge and bath nude like some of the locals do'.

Soaking can take in anything between 20 minutes to an hour, depending of course on the comfortability of the bath water (source).

Finally some mention a glass or two of Bhutanese rice whiskey, but that need not be mandatory ...

The more rustic bath (source).

More background especially scientifically seems lacking, this seems the first concerted effort to collect anything beyond a narrative, but it must be said that most information found relays to wonders of soaking with no sources published or unpublished mentioned.

Probably the most revealing is the lack of a Wikipedia page! That's the lack of info we're faced with.

There is this, from Phuentsho's blog concerning instructions on hot stone baths, though all very straight forward:
'Before the actual bathing, some fire woods are gathered from the nearby forest. Then some stones are also collected. A wooden bathtub is also needed but most spots have readymade wooden bath tubs. This particular spot has a readymade wooden bath tub. Then they pile up stones and woods together and burn them. During this process they make sure to heat the stones to red hot. The bath tub is filled with the Menchu and some Artemisia leaves are also added. They pitch tents to shelter them from the rain, sun and from the cold in the winter. Then the water is heated by dipping red-hot stones. Then two persons soak in the water at a time. After coming out from the hot water they wrap their body in a blanket and lie on a flat surface for some time. A good and nutritious meal is taken'.
This source seems a tad more serious, but makes unsubstantiated claims:
'No scientific research has been done so far, but hot-stone-bath is popularly believed to have certain medicinal benefits. It's a fact that about 80% of skin diseases are curable. Hot-stone-bath is believed to heal many ailments like joint pains, hypertension, stomach disorder, arthritis and many other minor diseases. The addition of aromatic herbs in the water further enhances the healing power of the bath'.
It all seems so easy and spontaneous with little idea of what may or not be correct, as long as the water is hot. but I did run into this info:
'For the Bhutanese, the preparation and enjoyment of the bath is an all day event. Many families consult an astrologer to select an auspicious bathing day so as to give the bath its maximum healing power'. 
Clearly for tourists the consulting an astrologer part is skipped. 

On the other hand it's not unthinkable, consulting an astrologer. Cultural significance of water often extends beyond the day-to-day use, elaborate (and time-consuming) bathing thus becomes a more spiritual significant event, especially during the winter season.
Having lived in Nepal myself, I have been familiar with the winter day of bathing (Maghe Sankranti), while I also am familiar with Tibetan bathing festival (Gamariji, a week long affair, source). Both examples from close culturally related countries, where religion determines bathing habit which takes place depending on lunar events.

Bhutan has it's own bathing festival, Thruebab, the Blessed Rainy Day, which heralds the end of the rainy season, but has no connection to hot stone baths.

The Kuensel (April 17 2013) mentions a unique hot stone bath in the village of Domkhar. Tradition determines that before summer farming can start, villagers must take a bath in an empty rock pool along a local stream. Farmers fill the pool with river water, while the rocks are heated and later placed in the pool where all villagers take turns in bathing, men first, women last, but with darkness to hide in. 
'Apart from pampering their bodies by soaking in the menchu, it was a family feast, where villagers overindulged in meals, alternating with pork, beef, egg, butter and cheese.
The first was meant to heal villagers of any ailment for the coming farming season, and the latter to make one’s body robust for the coming hard labours'.
Despite what I would think is a very normal way of bathing, this website notes:
'Hot-stone-bath is a very popular form of medication practiced in Bhutan. There is no recorded history of its origin. In the olden times it was a luxury enjoyed by the well to do families. A whole day was spent to organize this particular event where the whole family would take part in the hot-stone bathing ceremony.
This event was very elaborate. Most well to do families consulted their chief astrologer to look for an auspicious day to organize this event. It's a general belief in Bhutan that any medication done on an auspicious day has more healing power and benefit. A team of able bodied men would make huge fire and heated rocks over it'. (March 21 2013) has this on the Jaagey menchu of Paro:
'Meanwhile, Aap Passang Namgay said that there are certain dos and don’ts in and around the vicinity of the Menchu. “There is a belief that the people cannot cut trees nearby, neither are they allowed to roast meat and fish. If they do that they will get sick. If they burn incense there will be no problems no matter how long they stay here.”  
Business pick up
Traditions are evolving. Reviving and adapting the bathing traditions are proving to be extra sources of income as baths and bathing houses provide income to local entrepreneurs, relief to local soakers, and an added attraction of Bhutan assisting the country in it's pursuit of happiness!

This recent article in the Kuensel (Dec. 14, 2013) refers to baths being managed not ad hoc for a once a while, but for more commercial reasons. It notes that during a 2 month long religious ritual hot stone baths were run for devotees:
'Called the “menchu”, the initiative was that of three friends, who wanted to “help” devotees, by making available the “medicinal bath”.
Claiming that they have approval from the hospital and Phuentsholing thromde to establish it, one of the owners, Tashi Choda, said they used the Artemisia plant (khempa) with hot water, before immersing hot stones inside the tub.
Constructed with bamboo mats covered with tarpaulin, it’s divided into two parts, for male and female, with five wooden tubs each, in which two people can sit.  A was pit dug outside to burn the stones.
“But we’re still picking up the business since most of the devotees are not aware of it,” Tashi said. “Keeping in mind the kind of customer that would visit us, we’ve kept the rate reasonable and charge Nu 150 a day.”
“Most of the customers are old people and adults,” he said.
On an average, more than 15 people visit the spot, usually in the evening, after the wang ends for the day'.
The commercial hot stone baths in operation:

Kuensel has an article (March 23) which describes the town of Mongar and it's new addition: a renovated hot stone bath bathing establishment.
'The Mongar dzongkhag administration has constructed a bathhouse, Chor Chormey, which is two km from Mongar town.  It opened to the public on March 20, coinciding with the International Day of Happiness.
Menchu, literally means medicinal waters, and at the bathhouse people soak in its waters, warmed by stones heated in a fire, which is a traditional way of taking a hot stone bath'.
Yet again an enjoyable read, A year of blue poppies adds to the subject of the increasing popularity of traditional Bhutanese bathing culture:
'In addition to its medicinal benefits, the dotsho also brings families and friends together; the communal culture of soaking in a Bhutanese hot stone bath is much like the experience of the Japanese onsen or the Russian banya. In the past, the primary function of the dotsho was for personal use, however with the influx of tourism to the kingdom over the last decade,  the dotsho have started to provide many local families a means of extra income, catering to outside guests and tourists at a cost'.
'Ugyen's family sits inside one of the four bath tubs. Grandfather and grandmother soak themselves and scrub one another inside the bath while the children amuse themselves. The bath is partitioned in a way so that the doh [?] can not enter the main bathing vessel, protecting each body from contact with the scalding stones.'
Another interesting recent article comes from the Tourism Council of Bhutan (April 27, 2013) which highlights the number of foreign tourists seeking solace from the big bad world by taking a retreat to a rustic hot spring; it also mentions that hot stone baths are gathering in popularity as Bhutan slowly (ever so slowly) becomes a boutique country.

While Kuensel (Nov. 20, 2013) wades in with more, mentioning how tourists are savouring the baths. It also notes:
'When the hot stones are dipped in cold water, they crackle and are believed to release minerals, which benefit the body.
For tourists it cost between USD 20-40'.
The above refers to Bumthang, where a home stay programme is run. The same source (but now September 4, 2013) also notes that the success of the programme is in part related to the existence of hot stone baths.

Some experiences
Over on tripadvisor there is a discussion on whether or not it's handy to have a bathing suit when taking a hot stone bath. The answer it seems lies in what each individual feels comfortable with ... 

Feeling comfy? From a Japanese website on hot stone baths.

Sabrina seems to dread the question, more so because she has no way to communicate, as she blogs from a thoroughly entertaining entry on a hot stone bath experience:
'It was sunset and I sat in the bath that was high on a mountain absorbing the beautiful colors of goldish and redish sunrays that stretched through the gaps of that old boomboo door.  Ironically, I was now thrilled that the doors had a hundred holes in it, so the tangy sunset could peak in the hut lighting it a warm amber color. , As the sun faded away, through those little holes I watched the colors of the sky slowly change different shades of baby blue until it finally turned into jet-black.  When the sky fell into darkness, like magic the candles started to slowly glow filling the hut with a dim romantic flicker.  It was so beautiful and I once again found myself falling deeper in love with the Himalayan Mountains of Bhutan'. 
An adapted tourist approach to the hot stone bath (Gal meets Globe) followed by a photo of the experience:
'They heat the rocks for 3 or 4 hours.  There is a side window with a separate area in the tub to place the hot rocks.  It  heats up the water pretty fast.  They put many different herbs in the water and the minerals from the rocks are supposed to help any ailments you might have.  Lighted candles surround the interior for ambience'.
'Once inside the tub, they open the doors so we are having our bath in nature'.
As if this is not paradisical there are more upmarket bathing (Uma Paro resort, the rooms here are US$ 400+ ...) experiences, such as this from Tiang's travels:

A Frustrated Gardener has his take on the experience:
'Hot stone baths are the traditional method of getting clean in Bhutan, and simply described are no more than a wooden tub of water heated by very hot rocks. The Bhutanese swear that the mineral filled water is more effective than any massage, and surprisingly I have to agree with them. Native herbs can be added to remedy various ills and are far more environmentally friendly than a slug of Radox. Rather than pay top dollar for the pleasure in a five-star hotel ($100, I ask you?), we were persuaded to let the gentleman farmer, pictured below, prepare us a soothing soak in his back yard for just a few dollars a piece.
Despite the very bizarre experience of being starkers in a shed, I felt surprisingly clean and serene at the end of the experience. You should try it, although I wouldn’t recommend carting about superheated rocks with flip-flops on, as shown here. It’s asking for trouble'.
David recounts:
'I quickly peel of my clothes (it is really cold outside and the shack has open windows – plus wind blows through the cracks in between the wood slats) and step into the hot tub.  Ahhh.  I think it needs to be hotter so a couple more stones are added to the “tank”.  In no time, the water is scalding so we add cold water via a small hose that flows from a stream.  Amazingly, I need to keep the cold water running for several minutes – the stones are that hot.  Several herbs are added to the water so it smells nice and minty.  As I mentioned, I’m not a bath person, but this felt great.  I sat there listening to the crackling fire and Bhutanese conversation outside the shack, body submerged, just letting the water, the herbs, and the minerals from the stones work their magic'.
The upmarket experience (Amankora, just a meager US$ 750+ abode) by Mala Barua:
'The hut inside as totally done up in true Aman style with fresh white gowns, towels, iced spring water, candlelight and anything else you might need during your bath. Its pretty paradoxical, but extremely exotic. Now comes the best part. When you get into the bath and you are ready, the therapist opens up the sliding doors of the hut and Voila!!! You have the great vista of the Phobjikha Valley before you while you are enjoying the soak and the sunset!'
Here is a video on a hot stone bath, less elaborate as you can see:

Slightly different is another Bhutanese bathing tradition which entails bathing in spring water, known as a menchu. Translated as medicinal water (or possibly mineral water with high mineral content), these are spring waters with curative powers. These are found all over the country and are best appreciated heated with hot stones, so as to make them bearable. So a menchu with a dhotsho ...?

Bhutan Times (unfortunately the original source of the article has been lost ...) has an article on menchu's near the capital Thimphu:
'The Menchu Karp smells pungent and is believed to mainly cure tuberculosis, nausea, rheumatism and boost appetite.
“The menchu is so effective that people even tried channeling it down to villages using pipes but failed,” said another visitor, adding that the Menchu Karp is believed to be under the guidance of the local deity, Changmey Phodhup'.
More insight on the significance of menchu's from this description of Aja Chhu:
'There is also a spring water (Menchu) near Aja Chhu believed to have medicinal values. People frequent the place to bathe in the pungent smelling spring for medical purposes. It is believed to have a curative effect on 18 diseases such as tuberculosis, bodyache, ulcer and whooping cough. Located in the same vicinity is another stream called Awa Chhu. Legend has it that the stream that falls from the rocky cliff came into existence after Guru's walking stick was implanted in the rock. The stream falls on a rock basin forming a pool, where it is believed the Guru had taken bath. The pool accommodates nine people and a bath in the pool is believed to purify a person. All visitors sincerely take a dip in the pool which is also believed to be warm in winter and cool in summer'.
Aja Chhu is probably the most sacred of menchu's and Kuensel has a long article on this place.


The weirdest photo for last, what are these gents doing?

Besides the aforementioned, hot stone baths are fun!

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