Exploring mountain monasteries in Bhutan

Bhutan is a unique, unspoilt pocket of Himalayan majesty, where myth and reality blur and time often stands still. And it’s home to the most magical pilgrimage post of all

5 mins

The brow-beaten young man sitting alongside me was taking a tongue-lashing. “When you drink, you think you have the heart of a tiger,” his chastiser barked at him, punctuating each outburst with a wild swing of the arm. Well, I thought, who doesn’t enjoy a Red Panda beer of an evening?

“On your second bottle, you have the heart of a monkey – your behaviour becomes foolish,” he continued. OK, two beers...

“You drink a third, and before you know it you have the heart of a pig – you pass out and you’re snoring.” Ah. Yes. Possibly a valid point.

This tirade on temperance wasn’t being delivered by some long-suffering wife. I’d stumbled into the thick of a debating session at Kenchogsum Lhakhang (temple) in Bumthang, central Bhutan. On a gallery overlooking the central courtyard, a platoon of red-robed trainee monks were demonstrating reasoning skills and mastery of holy teachings with high-decibel harangues. Elders assessed their efforts while their peers sat meekly cross-legged, buffeted by the Buddhist equivalent of hellfire-and-brimstone sermons. I was cowed – and riveted.

During the previous ten days spent traversing Bhutan, I’d visited my fair share of the lhakhangs, dzongs (monastery-fortresses) and goembas for which this long-cloistered Himalayan kingdom is famed. Inevitably, my route between Paro, site of Bhutan’s only international airport, and Bumthang, spiritual heartland and gateway to the little-visited east, ticked the tourist-brochure checklist: temple, archery, festival, fortress. But I was aiming to mix the must-sees with a few more low-key local experiences. And I was hoping to scratch beneath the well-preserved surface of Bhutan’s culture just a little – which is what saw me, with my guide Phub Tshering (known as PT), exploring the Chokhor Valley and dropping in on those monologuing monks.

What made Kenchogsum most fascinating, though, wasn’t just the debates, nor its historic architecture – in fact, it’s a building site. The central temple burned down three years ago and, while worship and study continues around the construction, across the road artisans are diligently carving intricate designs into the wooden framework for the phoenix now rising from the ashes.

That’s the thing about Bhutan’s venerable Buddhist edifices. Yes, they’re eye-catching, adorned with exquisite carvings and paintings of mystical creatures and terrifying-looking deities. But it’s not the architecture that’s most memorable; rather, it’s the back-stories. Call it heritage or history, folklore or psychogeography, but these legends are the weft through which Bhutan’s culture is woven.

The temples and monasteries are the tales made solid – but not necessarily permanent. Each owes its existence to a holy vision or a supernatural act: a goddess appearing in a blue flame, a saint vanquishing a demon. Kenchogsum, for example, means ‘three divine beings’ – it’s named for a trio of Buddha statues that flew here from eastern Bhutan. Or so the legend goes. It’s a recurring theme that became apparent on my first day in the country, on the trek up to its most famous sight: the ‘Tiger’s Nest’.

The top temple

There are many reasons why a temple might be built in a lofty, inaccessible nook – isolation from secular society and protection from attack being two. But a less prosaic explanation applies to Taktsang Goemba. In the eighth century, a vertiginous cliff some 10km north of Paro was chosen as a meditation site by the region’s foremost guru, who arrived here on a flying tiger. Ergo: a temple.

It may also be no coincidence that pilgrims must undertake a lung-bursting trek up a steep, rocky track to reach it – giving us tiger-deprived mortals a chance to earn merit (and some cracking photos) in the process. And plenty do. Taktsang is Bhutan’s Machu Picchu, its Taj Mahal – the cliff-face that launched a thousand postcards. Fortunately, since tourist numbers are relatively puny, the path is hardly overrun.

At the start of the trail, PT donned the traditional robe called a gho, like a baggy dressing gown with built-in manbag into which necessities (prayer beads, mobile phone) can be tucked, and we strode between chiming prayer wheels into the pine forest. Two hours of huffing, past crimson rhododendrons and scampering grey langurs, brought us to the highest viewpoint. By now, I was in no state to scamper – at 3,000m, it’s not just the photogenic mountaintop monastery that takes the breath away.

But while a head for heights is useful, a superhuman memory for names – plus an ability to suspend disbelief – is also handy. “Guru Rinpoche – we call him Padmasambhava – introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in AD746,” PT explained as we made the final approach to the temple complex, underneath tangled webs of prayer flags and past clusters of many-hued tsatsas, miniature clay stupas.

“He flew here on the back of a tiger, then meditated in a cave for three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours.” Confused? I was.

The religious complex was built above that sacred cave in 1692, and still seems wreathed in the solemn mysteries of the ages. But though the temple looks ancient, it’s mostly little more than a decade old. Taktsang burned down in 1950 and again in 1998 – a common hazard in Bhutan’s wood-framed temples, which are hung with lavish textiles and flicker with unshielded butter lamps. Perhaps the physical fragility of Bhutan’s historic sites helps explain why its people put so much store by culture.

The national sport

Culture, of course, isn’t just religion and art; sport, too, plays its part. In Bhutan, archery isn’t merely the secular national obsession – it’s what defines men. If you’re born a boy, you’re born an archer.

A visit to Paro’s archery ground made the point. Here, teams of gho-clad contestants, identified by coloured and numbered sashes, gossiped and chanted. Where’s the target? I asked. Smirking, PT pointed at a vanishingly distant white blob at the far end of the field. I could barely see the metre-high target at 140m away, let alone dream of hitting it. In fact, the only way I could tell a successful shot was from the competitors’ reactions. When an archer hit home, he would bow to the target while his team erupted in what appeared to be a morris dance (actually an imitation of the black-necked crane’s courtship leaps), crooning a special ditty.

As PT and I retreated to the garden of our guesthouse, where a pair of targets had been erected for us, I asked how boys learn to shoot. Did he have lessons in school? 

“Lessons?” he snorted. “No – it’s in our blood. A boy will receive his first bamboo bow, made by his father, at the age of six. Then it’s all down to practise.”

My blood, it seemed, was sadly archery-free. We started with the targets only 20m apart – which proved more than far enough. Wrist stinging from the bowstring’s snap, elbow aching, ego trembling, after half an hour I was ordered to dance like a donkey – penance for losing.

The festival

Two days later, music of a very different kind was soundtracking our arrival at Thimphu’s mighty Trashi Chhoe Dzong. As we queued alongside what seemed like (and probably wasn’t far off) the city’s entire population, from inside the high stone walls came the beating of drums and the drone of the temple flute. We passed the thoroughly untraditional security scanners and joined the masses filing in through huge, gilded doors.

“It is the anniversary of the day Siddhartha Gautama was born and took his first seven steps,” PT explained, “which was also the day he attained enlightenment and, later, passed from physical embodiment.”

Cometh the day, cometh the deity – and this dzong is certainly worthy of hosting the event. It’s not merely a vast stone bastion. Housing government ministries, Bhutan’s main monastic body and the king’s throne room, it’s the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace combined. The importance of that latter aspect can’t be overstated: although (or perhaps because) Bhutan’s monarchy is just over a century old, the royal family is universally revered. I’d guess 90% of the people I encountered wore badges depicting the Fifth King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and his young bride. No wonder the dzong was thronged.

We shuffled forward, incense curling and billowing from burners alongside the snaking queue. People broke off to whirl prayer wheels set in a nearby wall before returning to the line, murmuring mantras. As we rounded the corner of the central tower, we finally caught sight of the big draw: a vast, vividly embroidered thondrol (wall hanging) depicting the Sakyamuni (historical Buddha) and disciples, reputedly 200 years old and unfurled for just a few hours on this day each year.

“Families come to pray for an end of suffering for all sentient beings, now and in the future,” explained PT. Devotees placed offerings – money, fruit, packets of instant dried noodles – at a groaning table tended by monks beneath the thondrol. Then they paid their respects at a parasol-shaded case containing relics (tooth and bone) of Buddha, before climbing to the main temple to genuflect before looming statues of Buddha, Padmasambhava and Shabdrung Nawang Namgyal, the 17th-century Tibetan ruler credited with unifying Bhutan.

As mid-morning came and went, the volume – of both the temple instruments and pilgrim crowds – surged: time was running short. At 11.30am sharp, before the sun’s rays hit the fabric, the thondrol was rolled away to be stored in the temple for another year, and a collective breath was released.

The homestay

Phobjikha, a broad glacial basin in central Bhutan, is strikingly different from the steep-sided, paddy-lined valleys farther west. Tiny hamlets are scattered around the edge of a marshy central area dotted with primulas, wild strawberries and ferns, and grazed by a few cows. One of Bhutan’s most important nature reserves, it’s best known as the wintering ground of some 350 rare black-necked cranes, known locally as thrung-thrung or lhub-bja – ‘heavenly birds’ – that arrive here from Tibet each October.

I arrived too late to see the cranes – they depart in March – though a stroll was rewarded with sightings of hoopoes, skylarks and red-billed choughs, plus a pugmark that PT swore was a leopard’s. But even in the absence of cranes, Phobjikha offers a compelling alternative to the standard tourist itinerary, with a handful of farmstays allowing visitors to experience rural life at first hand.

Phub Gyeltshen’s farmhouse, nestling at the upper end of the valley, is every inch the typical Bhutanese home, its timber frame beautifully adorned with traditional motifs. Inside, though, things have been reshuffled to accommodate first-floor guest-rooms. The family – four generations, from septuagenarian grandparents to toddlers – now sleeps on the ground-floor, where previously potatoes and pine needles (used for cattle bedding) were stored, and new outbuildings house a kitchen and guest lounge.

I joined Sonam Wangmo, my host’s English-speaking daughter, in the lounge to warm up with a mug of sud-ja – butter tea, which tastes much as you’d expect tea mixed with salty butter to taste. “Life is changing rapidly here,” she told me. “New roads allow farming communities to transport crops – we’re increasingly a cash economy. We used to grow buckwheat for noodles and animal feed, but now we produce mainly potatoes to sell to India, and buy in rice.” Electricity arrived a couple of years ago, brought in through underground cables to avoid interfering with the cranes’ migratory flights, and mobile phones and TV satellite dishes are proliferating.

But change is kept in check by both tradition and climate. “When winter comes, snow blankets both the fields and our satellite dish, so we can neither tend crops nor watch TV,” Sonam said. What do you do then, I asked? She smiled. “We do as we’ve always done. We huddle around the bukhari (wood-burning stove), eat and listen to my grandfather and grandmother telling stories.”

As dusk drew in, we joined the rest of the family seated cross-legged around the glowing kitchen stove. The TV was chuntering, but only the kids were really watching. The adults passed around a tub of betel and lime paste, broad smiles revealing red-stained teeth. Namgay – Sonam’s mother, head of the household – wielded a frightening-looking cleaver to hack apart a lump of dried beef, which she simmered with chillies and nakey (fern fronds).

After dinner – beef stew with rice and the ubiquitous national dish ema datse (chillies in cheese) – Namgay proffered a bottle of clear liquid: arra, the local barley firewater. Sipping the dangerously smooth spirit, a TV on one side and the traditional stove to the other, I pondered the impact of the changes sweeping across Bhutan.

In that cosy kitchen, PT dug out some telling recent stats: 93% of the population now has a mobile phone, up from 39% in 2007, yet only 35% has a sofa; 58.5% own a TV – but 60% have a choesum (prayer room) in their house. Things change, but they don’t, too. Electricity, TV, phones and roads spread fast, but it will take much longer for the country’s attitudes and values to be affected.

“As a citizen, I think it’s important to uphold our culture,” mused PT. “That doesn’t just mean national costume, festivals or dances. It’s about our sense of being Bhutanese.”

Paul Bloomfield is an award-winning travel writer and photographer with a love of the great outdooors. Follow him on Twitter @paulbtravel

The trip

The author travelled with Mountain Kingdoms on a bespoke trip exploring the west and centre of Bhutan. A sample private 14-day itinerary visiting Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Phobjikha, Trongsa and Bumthang, and including the Paro Tsechu, a bike ride from Dochu La and two nights in Kathmandu, costs £3,566pp, including flights based on two people sharing. Specialist cycling tours are also available.

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