In Bhutan, everything has a story. The guru who established the Tiger’s Nest monastery on 3,120m-high cliffs was said to have flown up to the site in the 8th century on the back of a tigress. Dogs sleep all day because they’re busy barking all night – chasing away evil spirits to keep people safe. And, so the story goes, when a group of villagers asked a crazy monk called Drukpa Kunley (more on him later) to perform a miracle – he combined the body of a cow with the head of a goat and gave them the Bhutanese national animal, the takin.
Bhutan is also the only country in the world with a national park dedicated to preserving the habitat of the yeti… Everything in this magical land-locked Buddhist Himalayan kingdom – nicknamed ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ for its epic storms – is driven by belief and folklore.
Even landing in Bhutan is dramatic: forget soulless stretches of tarmac and space-age air traffic control towers. After the pilot – one of only a few qualified to land here – executes the notoriously difficult manoeuvre between two mountains to get to the runway, we touch down in the tiny Paro airport. It’s made up of a few traditionally painted buildings with pagoda-style roofs.
Travelling east from the airport to Punakha, via winding mountain roads with my guide KP and driver Karma, there are road signs, playfully warning, ‘If you are married, divorce speed’, ‘Eager to last, why so fast?’, and ‘Be gentle on my curves’. Other jewels of wisdom say: ‘Don’t litter, it will make your life bitter’, and ‘Self-trust is the essence of heroism’.
Strings of prayer flags in red, white, green, yellow and blue hang between trees along the roads, against a clear, blue backdrop of sky – each inscribed with mantras that, Buddhists believe, are released when the wind blows.
Bhutan has a fascinating mix of strong belief and modern technology
Four hours and a “Bhutanese massage” later – Karma’s forgiving name for the bumpy ride on the dirt roads that are still in some parts being constructed – we reach the rural Punakha valley. Women in full-length woven silk skirts or kira (see ‘bhutanstreetfashion’ on Instagram) roast corn on the roadside; red chillies sun-dry on the tin rooftops of farmhouses between terraced rice fields.
Punakha Dzong, aka ‘the palace of great happiness’, can be found deep in the valley where two unpolluted, bright blue-green rivers meet. Like most dzongs, it houses government offices and monks in training. We trundle up its steep whitewashed steps and through a huge entrance draped with bright woven fabrics, overlooked by portraits of the fourth and fifth kings.
We follow the sound of drumming into the dzong’s temple where there are rows of red-robed monks, whose progressively louder chanting – in Dzongkha, the national language – is flanked by long brass trumpets and crashing cymbals.
The drums we heard from outside are painted in blue, turquoise and green, with faces on their sides. And the walls around us are intricately painted with scenes of Buddhist legends, while huge gold pillars hold up the roof. More monks arrive carrying watercolour-painted torma – ritual cakes made from flour and butter – towards the huge gold buddha statue that has the effect of shrinking everything else in the room.
There’s a fascinating mix in Bhutan, of strong belief and modern technology. Monks walk around outside texting from large-screened smartphones, and an app called Zakar tells you which days in the Bhutanese lunar year are best to hang prayer flags, get married or start a business.
We walk to a narrow suspension bridge, laden with prayer flags – some new, others white and wind-worn. KP starts whistling to “make the wind blow”, and release those good mantras.
Bhutan's most incredible festivals
Haa Summer Festival, July
Head to the remote Haa valley to witness how nomadic herders live. Expect yak riding, singing and dancing to folk songs, home-cooked food and potent local ara liquor. Hike it off the next morning around the area’s pristine lakes and poppy fields.
Matsutake Mushroom Festival, August
Learn to identify and harvest wild matsutake mushrooms, native to Bhutan and prized by culinary types in Japan, in the forests and hills of Bumthang (pronounced boom-tang).
Jambay Lhakhang Drup, October
The fire ceremony, in which people sprint under a burning gate made from dry grass, is the biggest draw to this monastery for its festival. A ritualistic naked dance, which happens later, also pulls in the crowds.
By this point, it’s safe to say my mind has been blown wide open and I’m ready for anything. Which is just as well, because next we’re off to Chimi Lhakhang Fertility Temple, where tourist groups are being anointed by a monk with a phallus relic, attached to a bow and arrow.
It’s said to promote fertility and good luck, and is the work of the aforementioned crazy monk Drukpa Kunley, who it turns out was less of a virtuous spiritual leader, and more of a heavy-drinking lothario. Nonetheless, his influence extends far and wide, and people visit the temple from surrounding countries such as Japan.
Throughout Punakha valley, five-foot phalluses are painted on the fronts of people’s houses as a symbol of fertility. And visitors’ reactions are a constant source of amusement to locals. I explain that at home people would be offended if you drew a penis on your house. KP looks puzzled and laughs.
We spend a night on the sauce (locally brewed Bhutanese Druk Supreme beer and Bhutan Highland Grain Whisky), starting in a surprisingly fun bar with peeling pink walls, where we take turns to pick a song to dance to on stage. It ends with some provincial Punakha clubbing, soundtracked by Bollywood dance music, Dzongkha pop and western mixes featuring Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’. Then we hit the road for Thimphu.
En route, Karma plays a mantra song “to alleviate suffering” (our sore heads). And when we get to Bhutan’s capital, I take a walk around. Some delicately painted graffiti – ‘different is beautiful’ – on a wall in the Clock Tower Square sums up Thimphu, and in fact the whole country, which is most famous for ditching GDP in favour of gross national happiness.
Thimphu is utterly relaxed. There’s no Starbucks, no McDonald’s and no Colonel. Most people in the capital still wear national dress, and the younger generation linger in coffee shops that have escaped identikit global hipsterisation, fostering their own kind of Bhutanese cool. (Check out Ambient Cafe and Roastery, with its bamboo lampshades and traditional design hints.)
Pine-carpeted hills above the capital are home to one of the biggest Buddhas in the world – a 169ft-tall gold statue – the construction of which has been taking place over the past few years. And then there’s the National Memorial Chorten, a big whitewashed religious structure built to honour the Third King of Bhutan – where scores of monks and locals keep the prayer wheels turning almost constantly.
Thimphu is utterly relaxed. There's no Starbucks, no McDonald's and no Colonel
But the city can only tell you so much about Bhutan – so I head to a farmstead in Paro valley to experience a hot stone bath, which people had in the old days after working in the fields. It’s pretty, er, rustic (a wood-lined hole dug in the ground, inside a tin-roofed shack) but the minerals in the stones, from the river nearby, are supposedly good for your skin, and it’s a good way to warm up.
Choden is the grandmother in the family who own the farm – a tiny lady who reminds me of a Bhutanese version of my own gran – and she cooks us a fiery dinner, lovingly delivered by two of her endearingly shy granddaughters. It’s red rice, chilli pork with egg plant, spinach and eggs with hot chilli sauce, and the national dish – chilli cheese. “We say if it doesn’t have chilli in it, it’s not proper food,” says KP.
Over dinner, Choden’s husband is talking to Karma in Dzongkha, with KP translating: “He’s talking about how to do black magic. How to rid yourself of bad things you did in a previous life.” When I don’t think the conversation can surprise me any more, I ask, “Do you meditate?” given the trend sweeping the west. “No,” chuckles KP. “That’s just for monks.”
I can’t say coming to Bhutan has made this 21st-century agnostic believe any more in religion, but for the first time ever I’m in awe of it. I find it baffling that such a beautiful, unique, and frankly life-changing place to visit still exists in today’s world.
Tourists have to pay a tariff of $200-250USD per day to be in the country. This covers food, a guide, transport, entry fees and 3* accommodation. ABC offers tours all year round, abc.com.bt. Return flights with Drukair from Delhi to Paro start from £394, drukair.com.bt
For more information on Bhutan, visit tourism.gov.bt