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Visiting Bhutan

Rob Howard

Photo: Rob Howard

BHUTAN IS BUT A SPECK ON THE MAP, SQUEEZED BETWEEN India and Tibet. It is the size of Switzerland, with a population of less than 700,000. Until the 1960's it had no roads, monetary or postal system, telephones, hospitals, or schools outside of monasteries. Since then, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as it is known in Bhutanese, has slowly been modernizing but taking great care to preserve its environment and culture. By law all buildings must incorporate some element of traditional architecture, and everyone wears traditional dress in public—for women, the elegant, ankle-length kira; for men, the kimono-like gho. (The effect of the latter, hiked up to the knees and worn with high socks and Western shoes, is both courtly and endearingly goofy: the blousy fold above the belt is used to store everything from wallets to groceries. A small boy I met appeared to be carting around the entire inventory of Toys "R" Us in his.)

The only independent Buddhist country left in the Himalayas, Bhutan is routinely referred to in travel literature as the last Shangri-la. And with its miles-high mountains, Buddhist monuments, and whitewashed, wood-beamed houses decorated with fanciful designs, it does appear to be a paradise. In most families, at least one son will join a monastery, and the presence of monks everywhere adds to the sense that this is someplace special. Despite recent technological progress, most people's lives have barely changed in rhythm or habit since the Middle Ages: they pray at home altars; plow with oxen; grow their own food and cook it on wood-burning stoves in dark, chilly, smoky rooms; and walk for hours, or even days, on mountain footpaths just to reach the nearest village.

To Western tourists who breeze through on tours, all this seems exotic and romantic. Fortunately, the Bhutanese, besides being good-natured and good-looking, are charmingly eccentric—a trait that saves their country from preciousness. Consider this: though they're devout Buddhists who hold all life sacred and don't kill animals, the Bhutanese happily eat meat—and carve up and cook any animal that's already dead. In almost every house, we saw gristly strips of yak meat hanging to dry (a sight that almost turned me into a vegetarian).

Or this: there are only a few dozen personal names in all of Bhutan, and they are used for both men and women as first or last names, in any combination.

And then there's the matter of the penises. Painted in full color—and in full, um, bloom—on the façades of houses, or carved of wood and dangling from eaves, they are considered good luck, all because of one of Bhutan's most beloved figures, the Divine Madman, a libertine monk who, according to one version of the legend, vanquished a terrifying female demon by dragging her clear across the country with his you-know-what.

WHEN GURU RINPOCHE FLEW INTO Bhutan on the back of a tigress (his consort in disguise, legend has it), he landed first in Paro, which is now, fittingly, the site of Bhutan's only airport and every visitor's first glimpse of the country. At 7,300 feet, Paro's air is thin and pure, the sky a brilliant blue, and the surrounding mountains, dotted with prayer flags, dramatic. We arrived at dusk and went to visit the Paro dzong. A combination monastery and district administrative center, the dzong resembles a medieval fortress in both construction (impregnable) and location (prominent, with sweeping views). In the center of the main courtyard is a towering temple; surrounding it are the monks' quarters and administrative offices.

Bernardo Bertolucci came to this river valley, with its willow-lined paths and sleepy, one-street town, to film scenes for his movie Little Buddha. I had watched the video before my trip, and as I stepped inside the dzong's cavernous hall, I thought I recognized the fantastic painted scenes from Buddhist mythology that covered the walls. I walked through the courtyard, where the only sounds were a mysterious, low murmur coming from inside the thick walls and the plaintive cry of crows. Red- and saffron-robed monks scurried across the stone square. Even the smell—musty and acrid—seemed ancient.

After making small monetary donations, which is the custom here, our group stood in line while a monk poured holy rose water into our hands. We pretended to sip it (intestinal health taking precedence over spiritual) and then tossed it onto our heads. Sue bowed by a row of glowing butter lamps on the altar. "When I was young, I used to make offerings to Buddha," she whispered. "Now I make them to my orthopedist."

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