Travel Diaries: Buttertea at Sunrise

Come take a beautiful hike with Britta up the Kori La pass in Mongar, in the central east district of a tiny country, Bhutan, sandwiched between two giants, India and China!!

When Britta had decided to volunteer in Bhutan way back in 1997, she had no clue what she was signing up for! But her stint as a physiotherapist in a village hospital in Mongar gave her beautiful insights and lovely memories of a place about which not much is written about. Perhaps, that is how Buttertea at Sunrise was born!


In this autobiographical novel, Britta Das gives her honest thoughts about her stay and experience in Mongar, Bhutan, through her words. From being in a completely different and remote place where she is perhaps the only white person for miles around to having to adjust to her new damp quarters close to the hospital, we the readers get to see for ourselves how it must have been challenging yet exciting for her at that time.

Britta had arrived in the monsoon (monsoon season is from June to September) of 1997 and the dampness and constant rain did not help her to settle in quickly. Moreover, the language was utterly different. Thankfully, there was one person, Pema, who helped her around and knew English quite well and who eventually became her close companion during her stay there. Pema was to train under her and she had two children-Chimmi and Nima.

While most of the novel talks about Britta’s stay there and how she dealt with the patients most notably Lhamo and Choden, and how she slowly picked up Sharchop, which is the language predominantly spoken in the Eastern part of Bhutan where Mongar is, Buttertea at Sunrise also portrays through her eyes the lives of the people around her such as the Indian labourers working on the upcoming bypass road or Pema’s grandparents who live a long hike away and work on the agricultural land they own, or the lives of her patients.

It also portrays the culture of the place and the traditions she saw as part of her one year there such as the spicy food that she eats but cannot develop a taste for or the different monasteries or lhakhangs she visits, or the tsechu which is an important festival all over the country or drinking the local salty tea, called suja or buttertea in English.

Annndddd that is how the title fetish strikes once more! The butter tea referred to in the title of the novel is an interesting tea made in Bhutan in which salt and butter is added. It helps to deal with the cold of the country there.

The descriptions that Britta gives of the Buddhist altar she sees at Pema’s parents’ home helps the reader to visualise it so clearly and her fascination with the elaborate and ornate altar spreads to the readers too. Likewise, Buttertea at Sunrise is suffused with such beautiful descriptions of the place that the fog creeps in while you read or the break from the rain that one sunny day gives her makes us also heave a sigh of relief, or makes us see the beauty around and gives us an intense urge to simply pack up our backs and go in search of a haunting solitude of the mountains.

Another important character that Britta meets in the hospital is Dr. Bilkul. He was the Indian doctor who has been in the same hospital as her for three years. His initial hostility towards Britta soon turned into a hesitant and budding love for her. Their romance played out between electricity cut outs and short walks and hikes up and around the area was refreshing amidst all the technical hospital and physiotherapy details. Slowly and surely, they fell in love and in the epilogue, Britta mentions about what became of their relationship.

I am obviously not going to divulge that secret. You need to read it for yourselves.

So if you are short of money yet have a nagging wanderlust within, pick up Buttertea at Sunrise for a refreshing journey to a remote part of Bhutan and join Britta and Dr. Bilkul on hikes to Pema’s home or across beautiful rhododendron forests and high passes that show you not skylines but breathtaking mountain lines!

Buttertea at Sunrise is highly recommended as it takes you on a mesmerising journey to one part of Bhutan that no one should miss!




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