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Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon

Closed to the outside world until 1974, the mysterious Kingdom of Bhutan is quietly revealing itself to travellers. Discover a national park created for yetis, the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and a nation which gauges wealth by its citizens’ happiness levels, rather than GDP.

Bhutan: Land of the Thunder Dragon
Tiger’s Nest Monastery near Paro. Image: Mark Stratton

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Have you seen what are hanging under the roofs?” asks Chhimi as we wander by paddies of ripening red rice. I have. But given the Bhutanese are such polite people and Chhimi is female, I’m pretending not to notice.

“They’re big penises,” she volunteers, unabashed, “the symbol of the Divine Madman.” Besides these dangling wooden phalluses, the facade of every farmhouse near the Divine Madman’s hilltop temple near Punakha is frescoed with them. All are erect and most are in the act of issuing forth the seed of life — not smutty graffiti but a reference to one of Bhutan’s most revered deities.

Chhimi explains the 15th-century Lama Drukpa Kunley dispensed some unorthodox teachings that involved beer drinking, sleeping with prodigious quantities of women, and vanquishing an evil ogress by hitting her with — you’ve probably guessed — his euphemistically named ‘flaming thunderbolt of wisdom’. Women still make pilgrimages to his temple, built in 1499, to be similarly anointed by the Madman’s silver-handled wooden phallus as a fertility blessing.

Entering his shrine, the sense of bawdiness quickly fades. Crimson-robed monks spin a large prayer-wheel in the cramped courtyard, while pilgrims hold smaller cylinders shaped like German Second World War hand grenades. They listen to a lama’s throaty sutras (Buddhist scriptures) cutting through the inner sanctum’s fug of incense. They’d come to beseech the Madman to drive away evil spirits.

Such beliefs and traditions are commonplace in Bhutan, a nation known as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ and the ‘Shangri-La of the Eastern Himalayas’.

It’s here deities ride celestial tigresses and a national park has been created for yetis, despite the lack of evidence that these mythical creatures even exist. Where many people adore their King and even protested against him introducing a more democratic political system back in 2008. Where the population’s welfare isn’t officially measured by GDP but by GNH (Gross National Happiness). And where hunting and fishing are banned outright, driving is not allowed on Tuesdays, and every mountain pass or bridge is decked with multicoloured prayer-flags.

Bhutan is often believed to be somewhat inaccessible, both geographically and because it imposes a daily minimum tariff of $250 (£168), or $200 (£134) in low season, on all foreign visitors. In fact this fee covers three-star hotel accommodation, all meals, activities, guides, and transportation, which when analysed offers comparable value to neighbouring India and Tibet. Independent travel is not permitted, so every traveller must use an allocated guide. Mine, Chhimi, was fine company.

“Happiness is a way of life here,” she’d chirrup, ever cheerful and elegant in traditional ankle-length kira skirt and silk wonju blouse closed by a silver broach. I often teased her sunny demeanour: “Surely Bhutan isn’t Utopia?” I’d ask. She remained unshakably positive. “We love our King. He works hard to provide good education and health and better opportunities for women,” she’d typically respond, challenging me to spot a miserable citizen. I never did.

Yet this country closed to the outside world until 1974 is changing. “Television only came here in 1999 and mobile phones a few years later and already we can’t do without them,” she concedes. But outside the main cities, Thimpu and Paro, I find only unbridled nature and unruffled traditionalism.

Bhutan’s backcountry

Dorji, our driver, corkscrews along mountain roads, eases over 10,000ft passes, and brakes carefully down hair-raising valleys of foaming rivers. My preconception of Bhutan consisting solely of snow-capped Himalayan peaks alters as we drive into Bumthang region’s unbroken forests of blue pine, hemlock, oak, and maple, coated with mossy branches resembling furry pipes and trailing ZZ Top beards of lichen. We stop to view grey langur monkeys enjoying this pristine world.

Arriving into Bumthang’s four isolated valleys — Chokhor, Ura, Tang and Chhume — through the latter’s buttery sunflower fields, I spot clusters of white flags rippling in the thinning atmosphere, monuments to recently departed souls.

Our base for three-nights will be Jakar, a town set on the aluminium-grey River Chamkhar floodplain. Its architecture is typical of the Bhutanese style: tall houses with exquisitely carved lintels and eaves, and lime-washed walls frescoed with snow lions, garudas (large mythical birds), and a polite smattering of penises. Like all Bhutanese towns, it hosts an imposing hilltop dzong (fortress) used as administrative and monastic quarters — Jakar’s was built around 1667. These massive Tibetan-style fortifications — think Lhasa’s Potala Palace — were established across Bhutan by Ngawang Namgyal, a national hero who unified Bhutan into a distinct territorial entity in the 1630s.

Almost as large, Hotel Wangdichholing is empty, biding its time until the crowds arrive for the colourful temple festivals held between September and November. But I’m enjoying the off-season’s tourist-free shrines, although with an elevation of 8,500ft and the summer monsoon petering out, I need a warming fire in my room to counteract the onset of Jakar’s autumnal chill.

I also embrace Bhutan’s endorphin-arousing cuisine. Many hotels tend to serve rather anodyne Westernised buffets, so I ask to join Chhimi in local restaurants serving the chilli heat the locals can’t live without: ema datshi (chilli cheese), chilli pork, exotic chilli fern fronds, and momos (dumplings) dunked in chilli — all eaten with red rice or buckwheat noodles and loudly slurped butter tea.

Chhimi and I explore Jakar’s myriad temples, too, hiking along country lanes choked with wild marijuana, which monks innocently bunch into brooms to sweep their temple floors.

At the 7th-century Jambay Lakhang monastery, the music emanating from the temple is discordant and ear splitting at first. Monks are performing a ritual ceremony: blowing flutes, conch shells, and baritone horns, ringing bells, and beating drums shaped like lollipops. I struggle to process what sounds like a jumble of Indian snake charmers, ships’ foghorns, and thudding tom-toms. Yet eventually it fuses into a hypnotic harmony, making my hairs stand on end.

I can’t say I’m able to fully process the symbolism of Jambay’s artefacts into an understanding of Mahayana Buddhism. The temple was built in 659 to suppress evil spirits and was later visited by Guru Rinpoche, depicted in temples as the ‘Second Buddha’ who brought Buddhism to Bhutan.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the plethora of legends depicted in the thangka (paintings) inside Bhutanese temples, chronicling fanciful parables, so at an early stage I decide to simply enjoy the vivid exoticism of Bhutan’s shrines. Elephant tusks and three-sided ritual daggers known as phurbas; the taste of saffron-infused holy water; oily smells of burning butter lamps; and the beautiful ritual cakes the monks make from barley flour and hardened butter.

Beyond Bumthang, the heavenly, flat-bottomed Phobjikha Valley nudges the clouds at around 9,500ft. We spend a day hiking an old mule route called the Shasila Trail. Flower-rich open wetlands of asters and orchids graduate into rhododendron woodlands, and I glimpse clouds of fritillary butterflies, infamous shrikes (‘butcher birds’) who impale their prey on thorns, golden dragonflies, macaques, and soaring skylarks. But there’s one creature I’m never going to see.

We meet an old man from Eastern Bhutan, where the national government has created the world’s first reserve for the yeti, known locally as migoi or ‘strong man’.

Has he seen one, I ask. “No, they’re invisible,” he responds. “But I was in the woods once and heard one. I was terrified and ran.”

What did it sound like, I wonder.

“Like a monkey,” he says. It sounds suspiciously like he may have been running from one, too.

Turning away from rural fables in search of tales of the city, I travel next to Thimpu. It may be the world’s only capital without traffic lights but after a week in the slow-paced countryside where most people wear traditional dress, it takes a while to acclimatise to the sight of minor traffic jams, glass-fronted shopping malls and Bhutanese in Western clothing with mobile phones pressed against their ears.

We pull up outside an enormous, opulent building that from a distance I suspect is the King’s palace. But it’s my hotel, the Taj Tashi. Possessing its own temple where a monk blesses guests, this palatial complex is one of a number of five-star hotels whose extra cost — if you crave luxury — is added to your daily fee.

If fact, 33-year-old King Jigme Wangchuk lives in a far more modest palace with his beautiful new wife — the couple have been dubbed the ‘William and Kate of the Himalayas’. The royal family is highly accessible and the king is often seen riding his bicycle. That evening in Taj Tashi’s smart lounge bar, I meet two royal princesses enjoying a quiet drink.

Besides heartfelt love, I wonder about the sentiments the Bhutanese express towards their king? Despite switching to a constitutional monarchy, the king’s aura of power remains undimmed. Inside Thimpu’s mighty Tashichhoe Dzong, built in the 17th century and surrounded by beautiful rose borders, we visit his royal temple throne room. Two golden brocade thrones for the Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) and his father, who abdicated in 2006, notably rest in front of Buddha’s image.

Was he revered as king or deity, I ask. “We worship him because of his good deeds but we also believe he is the reincarnation of Pema Lingpa,” explains Chhimi. “With modernisation, we may eventually lose this belief but I hope this won’t happen soon.”

Myths & legends

Escaping the bustle of Thimpu, I return to Bhutan’s spiritual heartland on a hike along the Druk Path, following a yak herders’ route to mountain pasture between Thimpu and second city Paro. Around 20% of visitors to Bhutan book themselves on a trek, the ideal time being after the summer monsoon season ends, when the skies settle into high-definition clarity. Hikes range from low-level routes lasting just a few days to the taxing four-week high-altitude Snowman Trek.

Teaming up with a chef, mule-driver, and five mules, the Druk Path proves to be a rollercoaster yomp of mountain passes peaking above 13,000ft. The punishing ascent rises above the tree line onto open boggy moorland of pink-flowering heather around the 12,000ft Phajoding Pass. When our mules’ cowbells cease ringing, the sound of flutes wafts through the breeze; Lama Namgay Tenzing is instructing novices how to play at a lonely monastery just below the pass. He’s recently arrived at the 13th-century monastery determined to revive its fortune.

“I chose here because I was sad this monastery had few monks. Some prefer better living conditions closer to cities but that shouldn’t be important,” he says. “In this isolation, monks are not distracted from the real purpose, being both high in altitude and mind. If you want to see what is at the bottom of a pond the water must not be disturbed.”

He explains most monks come from poor families and are often forced into monkhood. “Like many poor boys I was sent to a monastery when I was seven; rich people do not send their children to this life.” This is something, he feels, that contributes to a widening divergence in spiritual beliefs between different classes in modern Bhutanese society. His intensity evaporates when his mobile phone’s ringtone bursts into a Moulin Rouge cancan.

Our second night of camping beside the windswept glacial lake Jimilangtso unnerves my crew. The lake is oily-black and Norbu the chef sleeps with his knife worrying about evil spirits. Chhimi and the mule-driver both tell of visitations in their dreams from a mermaid, the lake’s guardian deity ready to draw you into her cold embrace if you disrespect the lake’s sanctity. Even fetching water for tea from it is deemed sacrilegious.

“In the realm of hell in our Wheel of Life the lake represents cold torment from which it’s difficult to escape if you haven’t accumulated good karma,” Chhimi explains. Artistic representations of this ‘wheel’ feature in all monasteries, vividly divided into six realms of Samsara (the cycle of birth and death). Hell is depicted graphically like a torture chamber — and somewhere to avoid.

My spirits, not the lake’s, soar next morning crossing a breathless 15,000ft pass, fuelled by sweet milk tea and omelette (chillies de rigueur). In bright sunshine, wispy evaporation rises from Jimilangtso and it almost looks benign, while ahead is a sweep of distant 16,000-20,000ft frosted Himalayan peaks. During a day of gradual descent, along a narrow watershed towards Paro, I’m smitten by mixed stands of azalea, fragrant juniper, and larch forests bejewelled by alpine gentians and snowberries. I pray for views of Bhutan’s second-highest mountain, Jomolhari (24,000ft), but it never appears out of the clouds. Maybe my karma isn’t good today.

“One rock or two,” asks the bathhouse assistant whose red-stained mouth betrays a toothless grin. Not my drinks order but fire-heated stones placed inside a separate compartment of my crate-sized wooden bath.

A traditional hot stone bath is ideal for aching muscles after trekking. I take the plunge at a family homestay enjoying a unique opportunity to overnight in their traditional mud-walled, 400-year-old farmhouse, just outside Paro. The relaxing bath is ideal preparation for next morning’s final important climb to Bhutan’s most celebrated site — Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Paro’s iconic cliff-face temple complex.

After a two-hour ascent through pine forest, we cross a chasm fluttering with prayer-flags — I realise Tiger’s Nest is close. Its whitewashed walls and gold rooftops glow in the sunshine, fused to a rock-face hiding sacred caves.

“In the 8th century Guru Rinpoche came to Bhutan to convert us to Buddhism,” explains Chhimi, as we reach the gold-framed doorway of a poky cave temple open to visitors. “He flew to this mountain on the back of his consort he’d changed into a flying tigress and spent three years meditating here.”

This legend is integral to the central beliefs of the Bhutanese. In 1998, Tiger’s Nest was partially destroyed by fire. “My parents gave up one month to help carry building materials up when it was being rebuilt,” she explains. Its multiple temples are small treasure troves of symbolic objects. In one, lay-monks from Thimpu are halfway through a 15-day retreat: reading sutras daylong and striking up the same mesmerising music.

Leaning on a wall overlooking a sheer vertical drop to the forests below, Chhimi suggests we fly back down like Guru Rinpoche and his tigress consort. Anything could be possible in this remarkable Himalayan kingdom, but I accept my mortality and we set-off for the steep hike back down the mountainside.


Getting there
Travellers may enter Bhutan from Druk Air’s Asian hubs (including Bangkok, Delhi, and Kathmandu). Druk Air flies daily between Bangkok and Paro. Fly direct from Heathrow to Bangkok with Royal Brunei Airlines, British Airways, Eva Airways or Thai Airways. Fly direct from Heathrow to Delhi with Jet Airways, Air India, British Airways or Virgin Atlantic. There are no direct flights to Kathmandu but options include Etihad Airlines via Abu Dhabi, and Qatar Airways via Doha.
www.airindia.com   www.ba.com   www.flyroyalbrunei.com   www.drukair.com   www.etihadairways.com   www.evaair.com   www.jetairways.com   www.qatarairways.com   www.thaiairways.co.uk   www.virgin-atlantic.com
Average flight time: 10h.


Getting around
Independent travel is forbidden for foreign visitors inside Bhutan. As a condition of receiving a visa your itinerary must be pre-arranged before arrival. Travel is by small minibus or 4WD. From the two main cities Thimpu and Paro, one hour apart, driving to Bumthang in Central Bhutan takes approximately eight to 10 hours; far Eastern Bhutan is a two-day drive. The limited domestic flight network links Paro with Jakar’s Bathpalathang Airport and Yongphulla Airport in Tashigang.


When to go
March-May and mid-September-November are popular seasons because they take in the main tsechu (religious festivals). Treks are popular during September-November’s clear post-monsoon views. Temperatures vary from 15C in winter to 30C in summer, though mountain regions are much cooler.


Need to know
Visas: UK citizens must pre-arrange a visa via a local licensed tour operator, from $20 (£13.45).
Currency: Ngultrum (BTN). £1 = BTN80.57.
Health: Few concerns other than altitude sickness for those trekking above 10,000ft.
International dial code: 00 975.
Time: GMT+6.


Where to stay
Taj Tashi Hotel (Thimpu). www.tajhotels.com/Leisure/Taj%20Tashi,THIMPHU/default.htm
Hotel Wangdichholing (Jakar). T: 00 975 3 631369.
Ugyen Phendeyling Resort (Paro). www.upresortparo.com


More info


How to do it
Blue Poppy Tours & Treks offer a seven-day cultural tour of West Bhutan including Tiger’s Nest from £970 per person based on two sharing. Flights not included. www.bluepoppybhutan.com

TransIndus’s 16-day Bhutan Journey tour includes Bumthang and Phobjikha Valley from £2,785 per person based on two sharing with international flights. www.transindus.co.uk


Published in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)