The Chimi Lhakhang monastery sits atop a knoll in the Punakha Chhu valley in western Bhutan, surrounded by terraced rice fields and clusters of chalet-like homes. The day I arrived, villagers were scything the rice, working slowly across fields of gold. The men wore the gho, a knee-length patterned robe with long sleeves and white cuffs; the women the kira—an ankle-length wraparound dress—and a bright pink or blue vest. Beneath the broad eaves of one home, a boy gave his little brother a bath in a washbasin. A man and a woman trod along a path beneath gargantuan loads of hay. A youth with a bamboo bow and arrow shot at a target impossibly far away. Outside the monastery’s temple, acolytes with shaved heads studied their texts in the grass. A group of boys seated beneath a tree blew ineffectually on long copper horns. I felt as if I’d fallen through a crack in time.
The Travel Advisory: Traveling and trekking in Bhutan
A lithe adolescent monk unlocked the temple door and escorted me inside. It was chilly and dark, the floorboards worn smooth by centuries of bare feet. Beneath a gilded statue of Buddha lay an iron bow and arrow and a huge wooden phallus. The monk snatched up the phallus, clunked me on the head, and mumbled a blessing. He then stepped into the shadows and left.
The phallus is Bhutan’s most celebrated symbol. Homes are painted with images of 10-foot-tall penises spurting semen, monastery entrances are adorned with carved wooden erections, giant concrete fountains have phallic shapes. According to Buddhist scholars, the phallus is a cautionary symbol of the dangers of the male ego; for ordinary Bhutanese, it’s a talisman against evil spirits.
The symbol can be traced back to the Buddhist saint Drukpa Kunley, the “divine madman,” who came to Bhutan in the late 15th century. He is a contradictory hero—a holy man, degenerate womanizer, and blasphemous drunk whose behavior was intended to shock both clergy and laymen out of lazy reliance on ancient ritual. Legend has it that he shot an arrow into the sky from Tibet, followed its path into Bhutan, and began seducing his way across the country, subduing maidens and demonesses alike.
As I stood in the temple pondering this history, I studied the Buddha’s serene features—the half-closed eyelids, long earlobes, straight back. Butter candles flickered hypnotically. I felt my heartbeat slowing, my body relaxing …
Out of nowhere, a cell phone went off, emitting pounding rap music. I heard shuffling, then caught sight of the young monk slipping through the shadows, fumbling in his robes to switch off the slam-beat song. He grinned sheepishly and guided me out through the hobbit-size door into modern Bhutan.
The Kingdom of Bhutan is in the midst of an astonishing cultural transformation. TV and the Internet were allowed into the kingdom in 1999, and the country has changed more in the past eight years than it did in the previous 800. Sandwiched between the frozen Tibetan plateau to the north and the sweltering Indian valley of Assam to the south, Bhutan is slightly larger than Switzerland, but with a population of just under 700,000 and much bigger mountains (its tallest peak, Gangkhar Puensum, at 24,741 feet, is the highest unclimbed summit in the world). The country is all mountains and steep forests; about 20 percent of it lies perpetually under snow, and just over 7 percent of the land is arable. It has one airport, one highway—a switchbacky slip of pavement barely wider in places than a bicycle path—and not a single traffic light.
The kingdom’s remoteness allowed it to remain isolated for centuries. Snow-clogged passes kept out foreign marauders; the only invader was Buddhism, imported by Guru Rinpoche, the founder of the earliest school of Tibetan Buddhism, in 746. Before Rinpoche’s arrival, the Bhutanese practiced a nature- worshipping form of animism called Bon. The absorption of Bon’s earthly gods and goblins into the new religion created a uniquely environmental form of Buddhism that has defined the culture to this day.
At the center of the country’s religion are its dzongs, monastic fortresses that dominate the landscape of every valley. Until 50 years ago, the dzongs controlled all public life: Commercial decisions were made there, disputes were settled, boys became monks. With its massive walls and secret inner courtyards, the dzong is an apt metaphor for what Bhutan until recently was: a world unto itself. Other than a couple of Portuguese missionaries and several small British expeditions in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, no foreigners had been inside the kingdom. The country essentially had no military and no foreign policy; India was its only connection to the outside world.
A Happy Place