Hidden Kingdom

Bhutan may be modernizing rapidly, but it’s still one of the most unspoiled places on Earth.

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.

From phallic symbols to mountain vistas, a selection of photos from Mark Jenkins's travels

Also see:

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

In 1959, when China crushed Tibet and was poised to invade Bhutan as well, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck realized that his country could no longer survive in isolation. With financial assistance from India (which views Bhutan as an essential buffer between itself and China), he created an army, a legal system, and a modern postal service. In 1972, his 17-year-old son, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, ascended the throne. He had had both a pragmatic Western education and rigorous spiritual training, and over the next generation brought his nation into the 20th century—opening it to tourism, establishing the Royal Bhutan Polytechnic, developing hydroelectric plants, and joining such organizations as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

During his first years in power, the king introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness, declaring that emotional well-being was as important as economic advancement. GNH focuses on such things as health care, education, and the environment, and in these areas the government has made extraordinary gains. For example, in the 1950s, life expectancy was 36 years, and, I’ve been told, there were only four doctors in the entire country; by 2000, life expectancy was 66, and by 2005 Bhutan had 29 district hospitals and 176 basic-health- care clinics.

Environmentalists regard Wangchuck as the most progressive leader in the world. His government has banned mountaineering and clear-cut logging, and it strictly regulates mining and even flower picking (picking without a permit is punishable by a fine and sometimes imprisonment). Unlike almost every other place on the planet, Bhutan has increased its forest cover in the past 10 years, to about 70 percent of its landmass.

The policy of promoting GNH rather than GDP may well be easing Bhutan’s passage into modernity: In the country’s first census, conducted in 2005, fully 96 percent of Bhutanese reported being “happy” or “very happy.”

After making more than half a dozen journeys across Tibet and witnessing the dismantling of its culture, I went to Bhutan in hopes of finding a country that had retained its identity. I’ve been there twice, most recently last October, and can say that Bhutan is as close as you’ll come to what Tibet was before the Communists, or Nepal before the capitalists.

Nonetheless, tourism is controlled by the state, and independent travel is prohibited; visitors must use an official travel agency, which provides a guide who sticks to you like honey. With few exceptions, tourists eat in tourist-only restaurants, sleep in tourist-only hotels, and get few opportunities to speak with ordinary citizens.

Sonam, the 23-year-old guide as-signed to me on my latest trip, began as expected: shuttling me from one dzong to another, all the while keeping up a stream of chatter about a bewildering multitude of Buddhist saints and Bon deities. One afternoon, I asked him to write down the names and patron saints of the dzongs we had visited, while I took a much-needed unaccompanied walk. When I returned, I found him cribbing from a Lonely Planet guidebook he had hidden in his knapsack.

Bhutanese view it as an honor for one family member to join a monastery. I asked Sonam if he’d ever considered becoming a monk. He gave me an “Are you an idiot?” look. “No sex,” he said, and grinned. From then on, dzongs were out, and pop culture was in.

Sonam invited me to his home, a four-room apartment in Thimphu, the capital, which he shares with 13 members of his extended family. In one bedroom was an elaborate Buddhist shrine. The living room contained a boom box and a large television; Sonam and his family spend Sundays watching HBO.

That evening, I asked Sonam what young people in Thimphu did on a Wednesday night.

“Party,” he said, snapping out of his somnambulant guidespeak. “You want to go?”

He took me to an underground nightclub. It had warm, expensive beer, a murky atmosphere, squealing electric guitars, an off-tune keyboardist—all the requisite rebel vibes. At the end of the evening, walking past the packs of dogs that take over Thimphu’s streets at night (as Buddhists, the Bhutanese can’t bring themselves to euthanize the miserable, diseased mongrels: One of them could be your great-grandmother), I asked Sonam if any young people still listened to traditional music.

“Only the village kids,” he said disdainfully.

So what kind of music did he like?

“Nirvana is my favorite band. Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I love them.”

On my last day in Bhutan, Sonam took me to an archery competition at Changlimithang Stadium, in the middle of Thimphu. At either end of the field was a target; as we approached, teams of archers were preparing to fire. They’d already said ritual prayers and consulted with a tsips, a shaman believed to have the ability to guide arrows. Wise preparation, perhaps: The targets, less than a foot in diameter, were 130 yards apart.

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan, but even here Western influences were apparent. The bows were not made of bamboo, like those used to defend against Tibetans centuries ago; every competitor had a fiberglass-and-pulleys, made-in-the-USA bow. The contestants wore ghos, but with argyle socks and Western sneakers.

The first archer stepped up to the plate. After nocking his arrow, he leaned back and aimed at the sky, as if to shoot the sun; then he drew the bowstring with a kid-gloved hand. Traffic blared and construction cranes screeched in the distance, but he remained intently focused, apparently oblivious to the noise.

The arrow was too swift for the eye to follow. All heads snapped toward the target just in time to witness the hit. A solid thunk reverberated over the field, raising a cry of joy from the archer.