There is a story that Brokpas are people who have become real humans from Tormas – religion ceremonial cakes. When there was no rain for quite a longer period, people from lower parts of Bhutan conducted a Rimdo. During that ceremony, number of uniquely decorated humans-like Tormas were offered to protective deity of mountains in lieu of real human bodies.
When the deity was pleased with the offerings, he promised to send rainfalls on time thereafter. In courtesy, he cast a spell converting those Tormas into real human beings. They later became the unique ethnic tribe of Brokpa in Bhutan.
I am sure anybody would find this story very much unreliably arguable. In many parts of Bhutan, still anything to do with Brokpa is seen as a source of fun and entertainment. So this joke also must have come up looking at the eccentricity and complexity of their dress codes.
However, now with modernization I can tell these people are lucky. They live in the best nature of Bhutan and even that of world, closer to serene mountains and lush pastureland. They get to breathe fresh oxygen luxuriously. Brokpa community represents an oasis of Bhutan’s ancient tribal cultures and traditions.
Anthropologically speaking, people from Merak, Sakteng, Laya and Lingzhi belong to this ethnic group. I have always wanted to visit one of those places and experience cultures, traditions and living styles of them.
My wish is now fulfilled with the recent visit to Trashigang Merak, another community of Brokpa in Eastern Bhutan. So, this article is to take you through my journey to Trashigang Merak sharing my experiences I had with them. Hope it will prove helpful when you design an Eastern Bhutan Itinerary.
Travelling to Eastern Bhutan – Trashigang Dzongkhag
If you see Eastern Bhutan map, Merak is under Trashigang District. This means first you must be at Trashigang Bhutan to travel Merak. If you are in Paro, you can probably take domestic flight from Paro Airport to Yonphula Airport. It won’t take you more than an hour. And from Yonphula Airport, it’s a ride of about 1.5 hours to reach Trashigang town.
You can also take Bhutan public bus service from Thimphu to Trashigang. But this bus will take two days with one night halt at Bumthang. You can get bus tickets at Thimphu Public Transport Service Counters. If you are to start journey from Samdrup Jongkhar, there is also a bus that takes you till Trashigang town.
There are also daily bus services between Trashigang and Mongar Bhutan. Only thing is Trashigang doesn’t have direct bus services from any of central Bhutan district. If you are starting journey to Merak from central Bhutan, I think you need to hire a private vehicle or taxi for the trip.
People travelling from Thimphu and Samdrup Jongkhar in a single journey have to hold a night at Trashigang town. But there are hotels and restaurants having lodging services. As you prepare your travel to Merak, you can visit Trashigang Dzong, Rangjung Woesel Choling Dratshang and other tourist attractions of eastern Bhutan.
Transportation cost and services to Merak and Sakteng
There is a road connectivity till Merak village. However, peace road ends somewhere at Phongmey village – 45 KM from Trashigang. This means it would be quite a difficult experience if you drive a small light vehicle. I would recommend you to get a Bolero Taxi from Trashigang town at Nu.2,500-3,500.
They journey is mostly through rough and uneven road that is strewn with pebbles and monsoon water debris. The vehicle would travel almost at 0 speed. However, low speed actually helps in enjoying magnificent views of lofty mountains, hills and valleys. You can experiment landscape photography.
The vegetation starts to change from Phongmey. Tall deciduous woods gradually give their ways to short rhododendron and then to short bushes. Occasionally our vehicle was plying through a lush grazing ground with distant picturesque views of cloudless blue sky in contrast to mountaintop leafless trees.
We came across yaks – strange looking animals with hairy bodies. Occasionally we were greeted by red-cheek and cold beaten young boys and girls who were looking after their family yaks. We had short breaks for shooting Brokpa photos and enjoy serenity of high altitude landscapes.
Guest houses, Hotels and homestays in Merak for Tourists
Merak is a community of Bhutanese nomads who depend their livelihoods on dairy products of domestic animal yaks and zom. So you must keep your expectation low. There are no high end tourist hotels, restaurants and guest houses.
However, the best part of this is you can stay with a family of Bhutanese Brokpa in various homestay to experience unique culture and tradition. Brokpa people of Merak in general are just like any other Bhutanese – poor ice breakers yet humble.
Things tourists can do at Trashigang Merak and Sakteng
Merak has that majestically beautiful surroundings which will leave you spell-bound. Its uniquely remote and silent community will hit you, especially more if you’re coming somewhere from a big and busy city. I wondered if even Lonely Planet Guides or other international travel magazines have captured its beauty.
The bewitching scene of the village, under clear blue sky, surrounded by mighty mountains with fluffy cloud ribbons, was like a great elixir after travelling on uneven bumpy road. It was very easy to romanticize in this unblemished corner of Bhutan.
If you hit Merak when their Yaks and zoms are at village or nearby pastures, you get to experience real lifestyles of Bhutanese Brokpa who move their homes according to the migration patterns of their animals. You can have few sips of Yaks’ milk or buy few balls of cheese.
There is a practice of storing fresh yak cheese in air-proof leather pouch for at least 5 months. It’s the charm of being at Trashigang Merak. The Ema Datsi curry from it is a symbol of great hospitality. The fermented cheese would smell bit pungent but curry from it turns out very delicious. You can also purchase them at Nu.2,000-2,500/KG.
You can also visit Merak school where students will be dressed in traditional dresses of Merak and not in Bhutan’s national dress Gho and Kira. It’s also quite a fun to be in Merak dresses and take a walk through village interacting with people and taking photos. Merak children love being photographed.
Visiting the village temple and listening various stories of Merak Bhutan is a good experience that you won’t find in any Western Bhutan Tour Package. Some tourists also play archery before they leave Merak and get in Merak Sakteng Trek Bhutan – the next best tourist attraction of Eastern Bhutan.
Merak and Sakteng Bhutan – Best Bhutan Culture Tours
The next settlement beyond Merak after crossing 4000m+ Nakchungla Pass is Sakteng. Merak people underestimate Sakteng being a group of weak people who couldn’t cross this pass when they first came from Tibet together. However, both share almost same cultures and traditions.
However, there is no road connectivity till Sakteng either from Trashigang or from Merak Village. In most of the cases, tourists first travel to Merak and then go Sakteng in a tour package of Bhutan Merak-Sakteng Trek. There is a road to Sakteng from Phongmey but to end it halfway. Therefore, people recommend visiting Merak first and then from there to Sakteng.
Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary and mystical story of Yeti
Trashigang Sakteng is also popular with cultures and traditions of nomads. Unlike Merak, it’s popular with Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. People still tell story about Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary Yeti – a mysterious large hairy Himalayan creature resembling a human or bear.
Travelling to Sakteng will be quite an exhaustive task. But it’s an explorative expedition of walking in Bhutan for nature, animals and landscape photography lovers. During early spring and late autumn, the journey would be through mountains of rhododendron flowers. But foreign tourists have to get permit in advance to enter Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary from park office.
Best times for Bhutan Merak-Sakteng Culture Tours
Travel to Merak and Sakteng of Eastern Bhutan isn’t taken by all the tourists given its entailment of long journey. It’s only tourists who really want to experience the culture and tradition of Brokpa community, take interest.
The ongoing Bhutan’s East-West Highway Widening Project has reduced travel ease. So now such tourists also seem less interested in travelling to Merak and Sakteng. If the road widening is done, Merak and Sakteng are best places in Bhutan for unique culture tours.
If you want to travel Trashigang Merak and Sakteng solely to experience culture, traditions and living styles of Bhutanese Brokpa, spring and autumn would be better. During summer, frequent road block will not only disturb your travel but also Brokpa will be away from home with their animals.
During winter, temperature in these two places will be unbearably below freezing point. People of Merak and Sakteng would be in lower land with their animals. So spring and autumn are good times to have different cultural experiences with Bhutanese Brokpa of Merak and Sakteng. Many tourists also undertake Merak-Sakteng Eco Trek during these seasons.
Merak Bhutan Travel – Worthy Bhutan Culture Tour?
Trashigang Merak is truly a surprise for me. If you want to believe my statement, you have to go there and live with Bhutanese Brokpa for few days. Their living styles inspired by respect for nature are something unique you won’t find anywhere.
Bhutan is often called as land of Polyandry Marriage System. But it’s rarely practiced in any parts of Bhutan except in this unique ethnic group of Bhutanese community. Travel to Brokpa Communities of Merak and Sakteng to see Polyandry Marriage System of Bhutan in real.
You can also get an up-close-and-personal look at Instagram-worthy natural beauties of Bhutan at Trashigang Merak. Therefore, many parts of Merak and moments spent with Bhutanese Brokpa still remain with me. In all, it was a different experience for me. Therefore, I feel which places would be better than them for Bhutan Exclusive Culture Tours.
Recommend to read following travel experiences and exciting travel stories from Bhutan:
- Tango Monastery and Drolung Goemba – One day’s Hike in Thimphu.
- Tachog Lhakhang – Temple of Bhutan’s 900+ years old iron Bridge.
- 13 Arts and Crafts of Bhutan – Journey through Zorig Chusum.
- Taktsang Monastery – Seeking Smiles from a Familiar Face.
- Interesting walk over the suspension bridge of Punakha Bhutan.
- Dochula Pass – Travel Experiences with Indian Tourists.
- Royal Botanical Park in Lampelri – A good tourist Place to Rest.
- You want to travel Bhutan for Free? Here is how you can do it.
- Romantic Getaway at Paro Dongkola Temple.
- Trekking to Great Dungtsho – Bhutan’s Lake amidst Rocky Castles.