Saturday, January 18, 2014

The sacred

Pursuit of tsachu's
The reclusive Kingdom of Bhutan is well-known for it's pursuit of happiness, would this include taking time out for soaking in hot springs?

An unknown location of a hot spring, visited by a Japanese blogger who after translation refers this as Do-unman hot spring. But it does seem that the locals have a liking of their soaks ...
Kencho Wangdi in a thoroughly informative article in the Kuensel stated the following:
'Japanese love it [soaking in hot springs], if not for its medicinal value, for its warmth and therapeutic comfort. Visitors believe the thermal springs are great for relieving stress and tension too.
Traditional medicine doctors (Dungtshos) in Thimphu [Bhutan's capital], though, say that it is not good for people with high blood pressure, eye and dizziness disease, and with heart ailments.
Gasa tshachhu’s [tsachu or tshacchu are Bhutanese for hot spring] historical records are sketchy at best as it is for numerous other tshachhus in the country. Dungtsho Yeshey Dorji of the institute of traditional medicine services says that the country’s ancient traditional medicine doctors discovered the medicinal values of the tshachhus and spread the discovery. Because of their curative powers tshachhus were held sacred by the Bhutanese, many believing them to have been touched by divine hands. It is said that Bhutanese warriors wounded in battles sought tshachhus to soak in and applied the warm mud as salve for wounds. Sometimes they traveled for weeks to bathe their wounds in the water. Traditional medicine doctors have long since been prescribing the healing waters for their patients.
Observers also speculate if with modernisation tshachhus would retain their magic for long. In the west hot springs lost out to modern medications which held out the promise for rapid cures of many chronic diseases, which seemed more attractive than several weeks of bathing and other water-related treatments. Physicians were also not all convinced of their medicinal value mainly because no scientific proof existed.
But for elderly Bhutanese like Ap Lhap Tshering, 81, from Lhuentse, a regular visitor to Gasa tshachhu, the magic will never wane. "It's nature's way of healing people."
The looks like a comprehensive answer. Bhutanese must love soaking.
In the article entitled 'The Healing Springs of Bhutan'
ugina adds:
'During the winter months, many people walk to these hot spring spots or "Tsachus" as they are called. People believe that soaking in this water will cure illnesses, such as stomach ailments, headache, skin problems and the list goes on and on'.
The only scientific research I could find on Bhutan's hot springs (P. Wanchuk & Dorji, Y., 2007) includes:
'Tshachu literally means “hot water” and could include the man-made boiled water that is created in artificial conditions. However, as defined in the gSo-ba Rig-pa tradition, tshachu in this context means only that water originating from a “natural source and emanating from natural phenomena which have associated hot properties”. Given its origin, the water contains a combination of coal (rdo-sol), sulphur (mu-zi) and imestone (rdo-sho). Because of the presence of these minerals most of the tshachu have medicinal value. Spiritually, it is believed that tshachu owe their origin to the good wishes and blessings of Buddhas and Boddhisattavas. Hence, almost all tshachu are also held to be gNyes (sacred sites)'.
Which is a lot more than modern day wellness centers can give... It includes information that Bhutan plays host to 10 hot springs, though I'll be able to get references to 9 ....

The significance of hot springs and their opportunity to attract tourists has made the government to present a December 2010 overview on their tourism web site. In all they mention 5 hot springs, this blog posting will do better ...

Lhaden in the hot springs, Gasa by John Wehrheim.
But when talking about the Bhutanese love of hot water one must also mention the existence of the typical Bhutanese custom of hot stone baths. Spring water is diverted into wooden tubs to which are added stones which have been heated over a fire often for hours on end. The result: bliss!

Read more about hot stone baths in this posting.

So where are the soak sites?
tsachu (Bhumthang) is the highlight of 10-day trek traversing the Bhutanese portions of the Himalaya without it being too strenuous. The trek is actually named after the hot spring.
Despite this though there is little info on the hot springs themselves ..., that is with the exception of Wikitravel:

'A one day trek from road head. The trek is arduous, but stunningly beautiful. Blue sheep, musk deer and Himalayan bear are common in the Duer Hot Spring area'.
A short story on the keeper of Dur hotspring (my ambition) by crankygerman:
'... he will show you with a wry smile how to disrobe and make proper use of them'.
Another hot spring (known as Gasa Tsachu) is likewise known as it is en-route on the more worn out trekking trails of Bhutan. It is (or was) actually the main destination of a 11-day trek.

On a first hand account to the old site as reported by Phintsho Dorji:
'The hot springs have five ponds. Each is fed from the different springs and each treats a different ailment. Though there are bathrooms and shower rooms and a notice instructing the visitors, ‘Do not enter the pond before taking shower from this bath house’, people enter the ponds without taking bath and that too with their dirty clothes on'.
In 2009 however, it saw a washout occur when a nearby stream managed to undercut the bathing facilities as reported by Kuensel (12 July 2009):
'The healing waters of the country’s most famous hot spring now flow under the Mochu river, which has taken a new course after the May 26 flood that completely washed away the five soaking ponds and the VIP bathhouse built around the spring'.
Reports since though have reported that renovations are underway.
'This area used to be green, lush, and developed with many tubs before the flood in 2009. There is now one pool in the hut and an other outside, along with the bathing area to the lower right of the pool'.
Photo by Craig Learned.

An update on Soaking in Southeast Asia refers to a bidding war by Japanese and Italians ..., while in October 2012 the same site mentions that the hot spring is open for business again.
Though there is the reality of the conditions of the Gasa tsachu and development in general as reported by

'Gasa Tshachu trek is no more an attraction after the hot spring was washed away by the flood this year. Now there is dirt track just four hours walk from Gasa and two hours from the hot spring site'.
The former refers to the new road which now makes the trek just 2-3 hours away from the roadhead. Bhutan Observer (originally from 29 May 2009, the link now not functioning):
'Passang, 55, a horseman from Zomina, said before the arrival of the road, he used to get Nu 400 for a horse to carry a person and his luggage from the road end at Tashithang to the tshachhu [Gasa hot spring]. But now, he gets only Nu 300 for a horse. He said the coming of the road would directly affect the livelihood of about 100 horsemen'.
The road seems to be on. The Bhutanese reports (24 March 2012) on the road initiative. The locals seem to be intent on the road passing near or through the hot springs area, whereas officials are arguing that they will never get the environmental clearance. In that case the road would by-pass the hot springs by 3-4 km.
Some things never change or do they?
'In the past, visitors relieved themselves in the open and farmers brought domestic animals - pigs, horses and cows to the tshachhu for broken joints and other ailments. Animals are now banned from the tshachhu'.
That positive note from Kencho Wangdi in the Kuensel (14 January 2009).
Erik Skydive's picture on Gasa TsaChu as it was.

BBS reports (April 2013) that full development will require another two years:
'The Gasa Dzongdag [local governor] , Sonam Jigme, says works on the guest houses are not complete yet and the dzongkhag will need at least two more years for the entire hot spring site to be completed. there are plans for a medical unit, a lhakhang, and even a parking lot at the site.
The Dzongdag told BBS that confusion over the completion of the site had begun aftersome media reports claimed the hot spring had been completed, encouraging premature visits to the hot spring'.
Overall Mr. Wangdi (see above) has a very informative article not only on Gasa but on hot springs in Bhutan in general (see also above fragment in the introduction). He also mentions:
'... Nye [hot spring] in Kurtoe, Chuphu in Punakha and Dunbang in Zhemgang. They are all difficult to reach and entail more than a day’s walk through the rugged terrain'.
The already mentioned Wanchuk & Dorji (2007) have an extensive overview of what they refer to as gNye hot spring noting that it is the most sacred of Bhutan's hot springs. Actually existing out of three distinctive pools, these springs see little soaking folk due to it's remoteness.
'Many of these traditional practices described for the visitors to Kurtoe gNyes tshachu may apply to all the tshachu and their users. First and foremost, on arrival, people pay homage to the Guardian Deity of the tshachu by offering a specific prayer. The Guardian Deity of the gNyes tshachu is called gNod-sbyin-rgod-ma-kha and his homage prayer is as follows:
It continues:
'While visiting the Kurtoe gNyes tshachu, people believe that the Guardian Deity gNod-sbyin-rgod-ma-kha disapproves of the following:
1. The presence of clothes of the dead or of those
attending the delivery of babies.
2. Shouting or whistling loudly.
3. Throwing meat or blood in the source of tshachu and
its surrounding areas.
4. Burning meat or animal skin.
5. Defecating or urinating in the tshachu pools.
6. Having sexual intercourse inside the tshachu pools.
7. Bathing in pairs especially couples, and
8. Women and girls bathing when menstruating'.
Not much is known about Dunbang hot spring, though I suspect it refers to Dunmang, see below.

What a waste
Chuphu is much better known as Chubu. Or Chhubu. As stated above, it is located in Punakha, Chubu is often visited.
From recent photo's (by yasu kita) it is evidently a very rustic affair; a small cemented pool with a low corrugated iron roof over it. Already a decenium ago, local government mentioned that
'The Tshachhu, however, lacks proper pond and accommodation facilities'.
Does not look like much has changed since.
Looking further back in time, this
site comes with a plausible reason why the spring is sacred:
'Many great master visited this Landlocked country in different centuries. As well during 8th century, the great Ngingmapa Master Guru Padmasambhava (lotus born) visited Bhutan, subdued the evils and blessed whole corner of the valley where he also introduced Hot spring for the well being of the sentient [= responsive, perceptive] beings. So, with the strong believes, hundreds of people hiked to the particular places where they have hot spring to take bath, especially the victims of different sorts of diseases. And by taking bath in the hot spring, it can heals different kinds of diseases like Tuberculosis, sinus, body-ache etc'.
Sangey Tashey in a very recent blog mentions that due to a new road it's only a 2-3 hour walk.


The above photo comes from this website and contains many a detail about the place as well as daily life during the soaking season. It notes:
'The place is muddy and humid. But it’s seething with heat. It is far-flung and inhospitable. But the place is throbbing with life. Chhubu Tshachhu (hot springs) in Punakha is nature at its most bountiful. Located at 2,930 metres above sea level, Chhubu hot springs are more than two hours’ walk from the road head in Walathang from where visitors hire horses to carry their rations mostly comprising local rice, meat, butter, cheese and eggs. The mountain trail gently snakes through a chir pine forest into the cool, temperate mixed forest.
The hot springs see a chain of people from across Bhutan for more than six months in a year. In the last month of the Bhutanese calendar, the hot springs gushing out of the steep, swampy hillside are inundated with more than 1,000 visitors, says Namgay Wangchuk, 57, the caretaker of the tshachhu. Namgay Wangchuk is popularly known by the title nedag (estate owner) but he says the title is inappropriate because he believes that the ‘real nedag’ or local deities own the tshachhu and not the caretaker.
Namgay says that, during the peak season, more than 100 colourful tents sprout up near the tshachhu transforming the hillside into a vibrant village of strangers. The only guest house cannot accommodate more than 60 people.
Chhubu Tshachhu has two ponds separated by a flight of concrete steps. Measuring 43.50 degree Celsius, the first pond is found to cure skin and stomach diseases, tuberculosis and some minor ailments. The second pond, which is 145 average man’s steps below by the bank of the tumbling Tshachhu Phu stream, measures 45.60 degree Celsius.
Regular tshachhu visitors say the place surrounding the tshachhu has improved in sanitation but it has become dirtier with waste. Dorji Wangchuk, 56, from Chapcha had been to the tshachhu when he was 15. “At that time, one could hardly find a clean space to walk around,” he recollects. “Every metre of the ground surrounding the tshachhu was filled with human excreta.” After three makeshift latrines were built in 2009, sanitation has improved, but with the number of people visiting the tshachhu increasing by the year, waste management is a big challenge, says caretaker Namgay Wangchuk.
Plastic wrappers and bottles fly around. For lack of a waste disposal site, waste is regularly burnt sending fumes of intoxicating smoke into the clean mountain air. Namgay Wangchuk says burning of waste angers the deities of the place, khachep Draley Gyep and Gomo, who retaliate by causing rains and windstorms.
The tshachhu doesn’t have clean drinking water. Three outdoor taps became defunct barely a few months after they had been built by a contractor in 2009. The leaking tanks and broken pipes were never repaired.
A decent place to camp is on the top of all tshachhu visitors’ wish list.
Apart from a caretaker, who is paid Nu 100 a month by the government, there is neither an organised waste management strategy nor sanitation drive initiated at the tshachhu. A senior monk says, “The bounty of nature must be enjoyed sustainably.”
'Koma Tsachu (Punakha) is a vigorous two hour walk from the small community of Mitesgang. There are three bathing pools covered by simple rooves, and a four roomed building with solar lighting where sleeping bags and mats can be laid (there is no charge for staying in the building). Outside, there is ample room to pitch tents and rock overhangs to camp under (source)'.
Then there is an excellent report on a visit to Koma tsachu by Phuntsok Rabten published in the Bhutan Observer (26 April 2008).
'Nestled alongside the creek in this picturesque jungle were the three pools of the hot springs. Amongst the scattering of tents and makeshift camps were two public toilets, three outdoor running taps and a most decent guest house of five rooms and two attached bathrooms, facilitated with solar electricity and water supply. Here, the music of modern amenities played in rhythm with the wild beat of the jungle drums. Koma Tsachu sees revelers and visitors round the year. Spring-time sees the most influx while the student hordes invade the tsachu during holidays. There were about 30 people when we arrived'.
Back in 2006 the Kuensel reported on the bridge to Dunmang tsachu (Zhemgang):
'“A new suspension bridge will be constructed next year,” he said. Meanwhile the travellers through the tsachu zam are advised to be careful while passing through this bridge. People as far as from Thimphu and Haa in the west and from Trashigang and Trash Yangtse in the east visit the Dunmang tsachu from November till march. The tsachu’s three ponds with water temperatures measuring between 42 degrees to 52 degrees, is believed to cure diseases like tuberculosis, and sinusitis besides healing aches and wounds. A village elder from Kheng Gongphu said that the temperature of the water had been decreasing over the years. “We used to boil eggs in the tsachu not long ago,” said Ap Sangay, 90. “In the absence of hospitals in the past, the tsachu was very indispensable for us.” Thousands of people visit the tsachu every year'.
More recent info (April 2013) from this BBS report on Dunmang (sometimes referred to as Dungmang or even Duenmang), though notably mentions the lack of facilities.
Sonam describes Dunmang as marvelous. He aslo had the following discussion:
'As I went for a dip late into the night, as if in trance, I was drawn into a conversation by the meandering Mangdechhu [the nearby river!]. Of the many lessons it taught me, she cautioned me that I was already into the 25th year since I was born and that I do not have any concrete achievements to my credit. She also told me that my life was fleeting, just as her flow downstream.
Upon asking about how I could overcome this crisis, she just told me very bluntly that I would rust if I chose to rest and thereby, she put an end to our conversation quite abruptly.
I am assuming, she meant that I need to conquer complacency and work rather very hard!!!'
Seeing is believing  
Gaining in popularity Gelephu tshachu was once less well-known. Kuensel reported in 2003 that renovations were on the horizon.
'It will be the first major renovation since the hot springs were opened to public in 1962'.
Possibly the renovations were in answer to an earlier that year published report in the Bhutan Today. In the article are mentioned inadequate bathing facilities, a decrepit guesthouse and non-existent toilets.
BBS even mentions conjunctivitis outbreak at this hot spring:
'... the outbreak occurred after an old couple infected by conjunctivitis soaked in the Tshachu'.
Hot-tubbing Gulephu style ... (source)

However, possibly sine the renovation the hot springs of  Gulephu have seen an upswing in both visitors as well as reports. 
With a characteristic stone lined pool, bathers are now packed as sardines. Reports are made that this is slightly uncomfortable ...
'But in recent times, owing to the lack of separate chambers for men and women, many, who have come to soak in the hot spring, privacy, or the “lack of it”, has become an issue.'
The article continues:
'To ensure this did not lead to depriving genuine users from availing the facility, they would introduce different timings for men and women, who visited the hot spring. Pema Wangdi [Gelephu dungpa = local official] said this would also ease congestion at the site while, at the same time, help to keep the tsachu clean. He said it would prevent dirtying the area, thus avoiding the spread of “skin diseases”, which many visitors complained of, once they visited the bath. The hot spring has five tubs, including the pre-bathing tub. Each can accommodate about 20 to 30 persons at a time'.
Gulephu Hot Spring (Tshachu), Bhutan (source)

Yet, the Kuensel (February 8, 2013) reports that the staggered timings aren't working well. Massive visiting numbers has lead to some soakers not being able to soak, whereas others ended up injured from their soaking experience! See below, photo accompanying article:

Duethang in Ura, Bumthang is expected to be another better developed hot spring site.

This link goers to a photo with the caption mentioning a hot spring at Woche village.

In all, the above notes 9 distinctive Bhutanese hot springs.

P. Wanchuk & Dorji, Y. (2007) Historical Roots, Spiritual Significance and the Health Benefits of mKhempa-lJong gNyes Tshachu (hot spring) in Lhuntshe Journal of Bhutan Studies Vol. 16, Summer 2007, pp 112-128. Thimphu, Bhutan

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!