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Gasa Tshachhu
Laya Gasa
Gasa dzongkhag is famous for its hot springs (tshachhu) known for their healing powers. In fact it's about the only attraction the country's remotest and poorest district can boast of.
Located about two hours walk down hill from the dzong, beside the Mo chhu, Gasa tshachhu is believed to cure rheumatism, arthritis, ulcers, indigestion, skin diseases, even tuberculosis and other ailments. Results come if one soaks for more days.

The healing water attracts more than 7,000 visitors a year, most visit the hot springs in winter. Bhutanese, old and young, from far and near, with weeks' rations, converge at the Gasa tshachhu to seek the curative powers. The few houses around the tshachhu are occupied to the full and many pitch tents that sometimes number as much as 60. Some visitors stay for months. Experts say that the tshachhu is rich in sodium, potassium, calcium chloride and several other minerals.

Gasa Hotspring
On a typical wintry morning, long lines of people queue up outside the tshachhu ponds waiting for their turn. The collective sound from the recitation of prayers and bazagurus from inside the ponds climb several notches along with the chatter and the banter.

Winter draws more people for several reasons. Firstly it is believed that the water has stronger curative powers in the colder months, secondly one can soak for several more hours than in summer and thirdly the two day walk from Tashithang is free from rain and leeches.

Gasa tshachhu (Gasa Hot Spring) has four main ponds of about three feet deep, of concrete and rock, all roofed, and each meant for different ailments. One pond can hold about 12 people each. There is also a pond to wash up before dipping. Regular visitors say that the Gasa tshachhu is cleaner than before. There are several toilets. 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.

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Menchhu

Next to the hot spring is the mineral spring water (menchhu) that is valued for its curative properties. Above the Gasa tshachhu is a mineral spring inside a small cave which is believed to cure sinus if a person puts his head inside and inhales the air for a prolonged period. Five hours walk to the west of the tshachhu is the ackay menchhu which heals boils and other sores on the body. There is also biagyet menchhu for tuberculosis.

The Gasa tshachhu is a popular stopping point for travellers as well. Trekking companies make sure that tourists enjoy the tshachhu. Japanese love it, 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, though, say that it is not good for people with high blood pressure, eye and dizziness disease, and with heart ailments.

Gasa tshachhu's 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 travelled for weeks to bathe their wounds in the water. Traditional medicine doctors have long since been prescribing the healing waters for their patients.

Some of the most famous tshachhus are Dur in Bumthang hidden in the mountains and accessible after about four days walk, Nye in Kurtoe, Koma and 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 Gasa tshachhu is more accessible than the others. The people of Gasa have not been blind to take that advantage and over the years small scale economic activities have sprung up around the hot springs. Shops have come up, farmers sell vegetables and other edibles to visitors including tourists and most hire their ponies to transport people and goods. For a dzongkhag with no electricity or road in any of its four geogs and has yet to catch up with the rest of Bhutan, this is small comfort although it has helped bring smiles and income to a few farmers.

With donations from the government and the donors, the dzongkhag has renovated the single guest house (visitors pay Nu 5 to Nu 20 a night), built river retaining walls and toilets, improved the water supply, and generally tried to keep the place clean. Gasa Dzongda Chencho Tshering said that the user fee for the tshachhu has also been increased to Nu 20 an individual. "The idea is to sustain the tshachhu so that it need not depend on the government for funds," he said. There are plans to build more guest houses in the future.

With the road to reach Damji from Tashithang this year and proposals of the next 25 kilometres to be built to reach Gasa in a few years time, Gasa tshachhu would soon find itself bombarded by visitors, especially town dwellers, a proposition the locals are anxious about.

People doubt if tshachhus such as Gasa's would ever find a niche in the larger scheme of economics, especially in tourism. Tourism officials, however, maintain that it features as a by product in the "wellness segment" of the traditional medicine and spa package to be sold in the future to tourists. It's uncertain when that would be.

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."

Contributed by Kencho Wangdi, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper
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