It’s six in the morning and Ap Sonam is heading to the base of the Taktsang Monastery, one of the holiest Buddhists sites in the Himalayan region frequented by tourists.
He carries a bunch of walking sticks on his back and a bottle of water in his right hand. A bag hangs from his shoulder. Near the gate where the trail to Taktshang, all the way uphill, begins amidst a pine forest, Ap Sonam lays out his wares; hand crafted (wooden or bamboo) sticks coloured with red and blue rings.
He is among 28 vendors that sell walking sticks and all kinds of religious trinklets and souviners to tourists taking the Taktshang trail.
It has been nearly three years since Ap Sonam, 74, moved from Drugyel to Tshento Shari and began making walking sticks for the tourists.
Ap Sonam’s back is curved like a bow and a smile emerges from his lined face when tourists ask about the walking sticks “Yes la” or “Nu 50” is all Ap Sonam can say in English. If more questions are asked he just smiles and nods his head.
He makes about Nu 800-1000 a day, which is not enough to sustain in Paro town. “I have to somehow manage. Hopefully my brother, who is 51, might join me soon and together we might be able to earn more,” he said.
As a source of income Sonam tried started selling potato chips, chilli chop and MoMo. Then he noticed tourist guides cutting branches on the way to the monastery to make walking sticks. “So I came up with this idea to make walking sticks,” he said.
Today Ap Sonam, donning his favorite cap and earphones plugged into his ears, is noticeable from a far.
He need not have to make a walking sticks daily as ost of the tourist gives back the sticks to him when they return from the monastry. “Everybody likes bright coloured sticks and I give them that,” he said.
Behind Ap Sonam’s buisness idea is his elder son, Karma, who goes to the forest to collect the raw materials for the sticks.
Many times, Ap Sonam has to change locations at short notice because of the other vendors. “My business is not productive like others but sometimes when group of tourists comes looking for walking sticks other vendors seems little harsh on me,” he said.
Every month he sends part of his income to his family – three siblings and his wife. He is not sure when he would be able to save enough to visit them.