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Bhutan Monasteries: where phallic symbols aren’t rude (or funny)

1/5 Courtyard inside Trongsa Dzong
Courtyard inside Trongsa Dzong
2/5 The formidable Trongsa Dzong
The formidable Trongsa Dzong
3/5 Walking in the Bumthang Valley
Walking in the Bumthang Valley
4/5 Courtyard inside Trongsa Dzong
Courtyard inside Trongsa Dzong
5/5 The formidable Trongsa Dzong
The formidable Trongsa Dzong

Crossing over mountain passes, you’ll discover fortified Bhutan monasteries and towers in virgin forests protecting the old Silk Road from Tibet – and village houses decorated with a giant phallus

It’s not long since the only way to reach this region of saints and demon slayers was to cross the Black Mountains on horseback or on foot. There is still only one east-west road across Bhutan, often temporarily closed in winter when snow blocks the mountain passes. Leaving Paro and Thimphu behind, as you traverse the 3420m (11 220ft) high Pele La, marked by a large wind-blown prayer flag, on a clear day you can catch a glimpse of snow-capped Jumolhari (7219m, 23 685ft) in the high Himalaya. Stands of dwarf bamboo carpet the hillsides, the young shoots grazed by horses and yaks, before the road descends into the large and fertile Mangde Chuu valley with its fields of mustard, potatoes, barley and wheat around tiny villages that seem lost in time.

With your own car and guide you can stop to visit Trongsa, perhaps choosing to reach the impressive dzong (fortified monastery) in the traditional way - on foot to the western gate where taxes on Silk Road trade were once collected. Inside, there are 23 temples with beautifully painted murals of demon slaying saints to explore off the dzong’s narrow passageways and young maroon-robed monks to chat with between their lessons and prayers. If you climb to the top floor of the nearby watch tower there are far-reaching views over the surrounding area.

Along the way you can’t fail to notice some rather rude looking symbols on obvious display but here it’s nothing to giggle or be embarrassed about. Carved from wood and hung from the eaves, or painted big and bold on house walls these phallus ward off evil; they’re the symbol of Lama Drupka Kunley or the divine madman from Tibet who, after subduing the female demons of Bhutan with his “flaming thunderbolt” used bawdiness and sexual exploits to bring a more lively teaching of Buddhism to the common man.  

Continuing over the Yotung La pass lies one of the most sacred and captivating areas of Bhutan. Buddhism was brought to the four valleys of Bumthang in the 8th century by Guru Rinpoche and wherever he meditated a body print, handprint or some other sign of his visit are holy pilgrimage sites. The many shrines and temples make excellent focal points for walks through the valleys.

One of the reincarnations of the guru is Bumthang’s own saint, Pema Lingpa who founded more monasteries and created numerous sacred dances. After a glass of Panda beer from Jakar’s micro-brewery take a walk through pink flowering buckwheat to the Burning Lake from which he magically retrieved treasure fromt he water. The sight of the wooden bridge festooned with a multitude of fluttering  prayer flags is enough raise a flicker of spirituality in even the most cynical.

See our itinerary suggestion for an idea of how a trp to central Bhutan might look.


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Who's The Expert?

Andrea Hulme

Andrea Hulme’s travel experiences could fill a small novel; from a bit-part in a Tamil movie, to leading expeditions in Kyrgyzstan and negotiating landslides along the Karakoram highway.

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