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Myths and Magic in Bhutan

During a week in Bhutan, stressed-out scribe DUNCAN FORGAN exhales deeply, downs firewater and tries his best at monastic life. Let the mythmaking begin.

Published on Mar 15, 2016

Lighting the way to Tiger's Nest Monastery, in Paro Valley

grown-up guides talk humorously, but warily, about the ferociousness of female yetis, and lusty holy men are honored in temples by giant phalluses and bottles of wine. Yes, in Bhutan, the line between reality and myth is blurry. 

Possibly, the conjurings of devout believers who disappear into the mountains to meditate for months on end, colorful legends come thick and fast—and often with a generous portion of ribaldry. On the way from the capital, Thimphu, to the former capital Punakha, my guide, Arun, and I stop for a tea break at the summit of Dochu La. The high pass is notable for the 360-degree views of pine-clad hills and snow-capped mountains it offers. It is also famous as the place where philandering guru Drukpa Kunley—better known as the Divine Madman—subdued a ferocious demoness with his versatile phallus, referred to as the “thunderbolt of flaming wisdom.” 

Iconic prayer flags

The guru’s enduring popularity is on show at Chimi Lhakhang temple at the head of the Punakha Valley. Built on a site blessed by the Divine Madman, the temple is visited each year by thousands of women seeking children. To consecrate the hopeful pilgrims, the presiding lama gently taps their head with a 25-centimeter ivory, wood and bone phallus.

Known as “The Saint of 5,000 Women,” Kunley was hardly a paragon of virtue, but I like his style. Certainly his unconventional approach to attaining enlightenment appeals more than hunkering down with a mantra in a remote cave.

Still, I’d come to Bhutan to immerse myself in both ends of the spectrum of devotion that permeates life in this Himalayan Kingdom. Could there be a better destination than a place where tiny slivers of road split into two so traffic can circumambulate stupas in a ritually correct clockwise direction? Not for this easily agitated Bangkok-based writer, not if he’s looking to realign himself with the natural pulses of the universe.

And so I find myself in the Phobjikha Valley, walking up to the Gangteng Monastery. Standing guard at the head of the vast U-shaped valley, an important winter roosting ground for blacknecked cranes from the Tibetan Plateau, the monastery is at once impressive and also a little forlorn. As a biting breeze blows up from the valley, I marvel at the mental fortitude of the monks who stay in this lonely place year-round.

Outside the spartan living quarters at the monastery, I corner Sonam, a novice monk from the town of Trashigang in eastern Bhutan, and ask him what life is like.

“It is very simple,” he tells me. “In my hometown, there were many decisions to take. What to do with my life? Who to marry? Up here, I don’t have to worry about such distractions. I don’t need to do any work.” A large chunk of my exhausted-from-working brain thinks, Jackpot.

BEFORE VISITING, I had a cursory knowledge of the country that conceived of Gross National Happiness that extended little beyond images I’d seen of the unfeasibly handsome royal couple, and the taste I’d had of the national dish, ema datshi (chili mixed with cheese) at a strange “foods from obscure countries” dinner party I once attended. But over the course of a week in Bhutan, I will trek to hilltop monasteries, prostate myself at numerous altars and view the country’s outstanding mountain scenery through a prism of fluttering prayer flags, while tinkling temple bells and chanting become a welcomingly familiar soundtrack. All these factors— allied to some truly sumptuous accommodation options—offer blissful respite for my busy mind. And they are just a piece of the Bhutanese jigsaw, a complex puzzle that juxtaposes old and new.

In Thimphu, markets selling beads, images of Buddha, prayer wheels and other religious ephemera coexist with galleries, hip bookshops and a lively nightlife scene. Also unmistakably contemporary is the new Le Meridien Thimphu, currently the largest hotel in the country. Although the exterior architecture is defiantly Bhutanese, things take on a more international feel inside. High-design rooms boast state-of-the-art trimmings and sweeping views of the city as well as its surrounding mountains from the higher levels.

The Bhutanese I meet, meanwhile, although resplendent in traditional dress during business hours—a government-imposed regulation—are eager to shoot the breeze on issues ranging from the state of the country’s fledgling movie industry to Manchester United’s summer signings.

Taking inspiration from its surroundings at Le Meridien Thimphu

Split personalities are ingrained in the woodwork here. Take dzongs. A type of fortress found in Bhutan and southern Tibet, dzongs traditionally multitasked as military, administrative and religious centers, with monks sharing space with soldiers and policy wonks. Whether this unusual arrangement ever caused friction among the parties is not widely documented. But at the mighty Punakha Dzong, at least, there was plenty of room for everyone.

Located at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu (“Mother and Father”) rivers, the whitewashed edifice, which served as the capital and seat of government until Thimphu got the top job in the 1950s, is about 180 meters long, 72 meters wide and six stories high.

It is beautiful rather than cumbersome. And as I walk around the deserted stone-flagged interior courtyards near dusk, dipping into giant assembly halls bedecked with murals and gold statues along the way, it is easy to appreciate the grandeur on display.

A different kind of Himalayan elegance can be experienced further along the Mo Chu at Uma by COMO, Punakha. Tucked away on a hillside overlooking the lush valley, the lowrise bolt-hole offers sleek lodgings in eight rooms and two freestanding luxury villas. With my head filled by tales of divine madmen and malevolent demons, I retire early and am lulled to sleep by the hum of cicadas and the chirping of birds.

After a few days in Bhutan’s eccentric, magical grasp, my quest for inner peace is coming along quite nicely. A grueling, yet undeniably gorgeous, five-hour drive around hairpin bends and up through yakinhabited highlands to Phobjikha Valley uses up some of my karmic fuel, however. Swift replenishment arrives at a farmhouse where the friendly owner and his equally amenable wife serve up a hearty Bhutanese meal of jasha maru (chicken curry), phaksha paa (dried pork cooked with chili peppers) and the ubiquitous ema datshi, washed down with a few glasses of ara, the indigenous firewater.

Made from rice, maize, millet or wheat, ara can be fermented or distilled. The quality of ara, which is only legal if privately produced and consumed due to a government ban on public sales, can vary widely. Fortunately, the version I partake of is punchy yet smooth—a nearly ringing endorsement for moonshine.

Punakha Dzong, at the confluence of the Pho Chu and Mo chu rivers

My chat with the novice monk, Sonam, has me inspired. But fending for myself at Gangteng Monastery is perhaps a little too hard-core for me. A hike through fragrant pine forests and huge grassy meadows followed by a night at the Gangtey Goenpa Lodge—a luxurious base with roaring fires, heated floors and an utterly sublime view over the valley—provides a much-needed intense hit of splendid isolation.

Further on from Phobjikha is the town of Bumthang, home to a Swissrun microbrewery and cheesemaker, which produces the sublime Red Panda Beer, just part of the menagerie of a country where the steamy tropical lowlands are inhabited by Bengal tigers, sloth bears and clouded leopards.

IT IS TIME to head back west to Paro to check into another flawless Uma by COMO, Paro, where a collection of spacious Alpine-style lodges peer down on the valley from an elevated perch—and to catch my flight back to the giddying maelstrom of Bangkok. Before leaving I have time to gather my thoughts on a spectacular hike above the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. As the path snakes through trees heavy with beard lichen and up past hilltop monasteries where resident monks pass the time by practicing their archery skills, Arun recites a convincing patriotic spiel.

“Why would I want to leave this?” he tells me, as we approach a crest and the Paro Valley unfolds magisterially some 900 meters below. “Some of my friends have gone to India to earn more money, but I would never follow them. Bhutan makes me happy.”

I start to concur, mentally prepping for my imminent departure feeling refreshed and healthy, full of memories of scenic wonder, genuine hospitality and respect for randy deities, and thinking—obviously—everyone must be so joyfully moved by this place. Then I remember the surprise of the grumpy holy man on my first day of this Bhutanese odyssey, which also included a brisk climb to Tiger’s Nest, or Taktsang Goemba, founded by a tigress-riding deity while in the process of vanquishing a demon.

I had been looking forward to chewing the spiritual fat with the head lama. However, when I started posing my queries—initial mild lobs about how he got his current gig at Bhutan’s top monastery—he quickly grew impatient, waving me away and chastising Arun for letting me ask such inane questions.

Bhutanese Buddhism is famous for its shape-shifting feats. Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava, the saint who discovered Taktsang Monastery and is credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan, took on many forms. I hadn’t predicted, though, that a humble monk would channel so accurately Lou Reed, the late singer and notoriously irascible interviewee.

Then again, it was Reed who sang, “I saw a man turn into a bird. I saw a bird turn into a tiger.” Maybe that’s how Guru Rinpoche got up this mountain. Maybe it’ll happen to me, on my next trip. Stranger myths have merged with reality in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

The simple life at Ganteng Monastery, in Phobjikha Valley



Bhutan Airlines
 flies to Paro from Bangkok; Druk Air flies to Paro from Bangkok and Singapore.

Government Royalty Fee 

To visit Bhutan, the Kingdom requires every foreign national, except Indian citizens, to pay a Daily Government Royalty of US$65 per person per day (waived for children under 12). This is in addition to a Free Independent Traveller (FIT) surcharge, which is US$40 per day for solo travelers, and US$30 per person per day for two visitors traveling together. (The fee is waived for parties of three or more traveling together on a single visa approval.) All fees need to be paid by guests in advance of entering Bhutan.


Gangtey Goenpa Lodge

Below Gangteng Monastery, Phobjikha; +975 1 160 666; doubles from US$425.

Le Meridien Thimphu

Chorten Lam, Thimphu; +975 2 337 788; doubles from US$350.

Uma by COMO, Paro Pro

Valley; +975 8 271 597; doubles from US$450.

Uma by COMO, Punakha

Botokha Kabesa Punakha; +975 8 279 999; doubles from US$550.


The author traveled to Bhutan with Backyard Travel. Its Quintessential Bhutan tour costs US$2,750 per person in high season (March-May; September-November) and US$2,200 per person in low season (December-February; June-August). Cost includes government royalty fees, all meals, 10 nights’ hotel stays, and tours and transfer with a private guide and driver.


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