Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is studying to be a teacher, a profession he has no desire to pursue. He prefers singing in clubs. His dream is to emigrate to Australia and become a singer there. The educational administrator in charge admonishes him and reminds him that he still has one year left on the contract he signed to gain a teaching certificate. So she sends him away from the capital city, Thimphu, and orders him to teach in Lunana, the most remote school in a country that is already remote.
To reach the school, Ugyen must endure an eight-day trek to a Himalayan village of 56 people near the border with Tibet. As soon as he discovers the primitive conditions, he wants to leave. However, inevitably, he falls in love with the eight children who are his students. One day a woman from an even more remote village appears with her daughter. So desperate is she to have her child receive an education, that she leaves the little girl in the charge of the Lunana villagers for the school year.
One of the students tells Ugyen, “I want to become a teacher because a teacher touches the future.” Ugyen warms to the task and convinces friends back in Thimphu to send him school supplies, which are non-existent in Lunana.
As it turns out, it is through music that Ugyen connects with the villagers because music is important to them, even if their music is completely different to what Ugyen is used to listening to and singing.
Writer-director Pawo Choyning Dorji filmed Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom in the real Lunana. The entire cast and crew made the eight-day trek. Because Lunana has no electricity, they used solar energy to power their equipment.
I visited Bhutan in October 1979 when only 150 tourists a year were allowed to enter the country. To see the city of Thimphu in Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, is disorienting. When I was there, there were almost no automobiles, and the local people had been ordered not to speak with us for more than fifteen minutes. Now, Thimphu is a bustling city with traffic and nightclubs and a population of more than 115,000. For me…unrecognizable. But when Ugyen makes the hike to Lunana, that reminded me of the Bhutan I saw in 1979. Nine-year-old Pem Zam, who plays Lunana Primary School’s best student, has, in real life, never ridden in a car. I only trekked as high as 15,000 feet. From there, in the distance, I could see the real mountains. I am grateful to Pawo Choyning Dorji for conveying the spirituality of remote Bhutan.