While Laya remain a dream destination, as a nomadic community still enveloped in medieval beauty and mystery, the coming of roads heralds a new challenge to its exquisiteness and rural charm
| Rinchen Dorji, Thimphu
Koena, in Gasa, is attached to a legendary folklore, as the place where the Zhabdrung had taken a night’s refuge en route his passage to central Bhutan. The, otherwise, quaint settlement consisting of a lone house on the banks of a gushing stream, today awakes to the rude squeals of heavy machinery and excavators drilling and hacking through its unruffled landscapes.
Back then, travelling to Laya from Gasa was a pleasant two-day trek through sub alpine forests and cascading rivers and waterfalls. The only mode of transportation, then, was through horses that would snake in convoys across the dusty ancient mule tracks and along the meandering Mochuu.
Save for the turquoise Mochhu River, which still flow alongside the trails like an old faithful guide, and some tales of adventure from the remote past, everything will soon turn out to become a distant memory.
Today, the road has reached Koena, about two-hour’s drive from the district headquarters at Gasa, and Laya, located about 20 kilometers to the distant north, will soon be connected with a motor able road.
“We must accept that change is inevitable,” says Gembo, a Layap in his mid forties leading a pack of ponies. “These beasts can, atleast, dream to live and lead a better life in their old age,” he adds. The jingle of bells and rhythmic sounds of hoofs reverberates into the chilly autumn air as a file of horses approach from the other side making the men, leading the caravans, send occasional fits of yells and whistles to warn the approaching horses.
At present, the trek to Laya takes about seven hours from the last road-point at Koena however, with the coming of roads the journey will be squeezed to little less than an hour, and approximately three hours from Gasa—bringing an end to a fairy-tale trail that Laya is so much admired for.
My brief travel mate Choki, 24, from Sephu a highland community in neighboring Wangdiphodrang and who is headed to Laya for the Royal Highland Festivals, says Laya would have been much better off with a road connection.
“We could travel in a bolero pick-up truck and save the sweats on our brows for some good occasions…Sir!” Choki adds, as she chuckles and dashes ahead with a 20-kilogram backpack strapped on her tiny, yet sturdy, back. A few more strides and, like the horseman Gembo, Choki and her two other Sephu friends disappear into a maze of shrubs across the bend.
The eight-hour Laya trek from Koena takes you along muddy mule tracks often making your journey seem laborious, yet again the glittering Mochhu and citadel like mountain peaks gives you brief visionary respites. The final destination, Laya village, is simply out of the ordinary. It resembles that of a painting straight out from a fairytale adventure book.
But Laya is in the cusp of change. Except for a road, it is today connected with electricity, an agriculture and livestock extension centre, health facilities and a school. The harvest and trade of cordyceps has also greatly enhanced the lives of the mountain community that today every single household boasts of having enough money to charter a chopper ride and buy cars.
“Most of the people of our community are looking forward to the road connectivity. In fact they are already excited and are planning to own cars and experience the thrill of driving,” says 36-year-old Dorji one of the most affluent Layaps in the community.
Dorji adds that they, and their forefathers, have lived a life in isolation and it is time they enjoyed the fruits of development and modernity. Asked if they had any qualms on losing their livelihood earned through rendering pony services, Dorji says financial security has never been an issue as they earned enough through the sale of cordyceps.
The Layap women, with their eccentric hand woven yak-hair and woolen dresses complete with conical bamboo hats, are one of the most well-built and good-looking ethnic races in the planet.
However, elder Layaps agree that the younger generation hardly wore these dresses as they preferred the more snug and trendy tracksuits and trousers. The arrival of road threatens to possess an altogether new challenge for the Layaps—of the survival of their unique tradition and culture.
“It would be a sad thing if Laya was to transform into a modern village like any other town in Bhutan,” says 46-year-old Gary from Germany. “While they deserve all the right to be absorbed into the mainstream economy Laya is simply exquisite as it is today and any tourist would love to visit it.
I wonder if their tradition and culture can withstand the test of time. The Laya we know of today will only be in photographs and memories then.”
The words of this guy from Cologne rings close to my ear as we descend along the last trails back to Koena. The sound and fury of the excavators once again becomes more pronounced dimming the gushing sound of the stream into a low hum.
The winds of change are blowing. Will Laya be able stay rooted to its grounds? Only time can tell.