Yetis, flying tigers and a monk's magical manhood: Myth and mystery reign in the Kingdom of Bhutan

Francisca Kellett
New luxury lodges, such as Six Senses Thimphu, have added to the allure of travelling through Bhutan - ©Christopher Wise

In the 15th century, a Tibetan monk named Drukpa Kunley flew into Bhutan by twirling his penis like the blades of a helicopter. This skill allowed him to travel great distances at speed, to spread his message of enlightenment. That’s not all his penis could do. It also fired out flames to subdue demons, and he used it to “help” troubled women (yes, that means what you think it means). It was an all-round wonder tool, a sort of mystical Swiss army knife.

I’m not telling you this to be shocking. I’m telling you this because travelling in Bhutan is so strange, so otherworldly, that stories like this – which come thick and fast, by the way – are just a part of being here. Yetis, thunder dragons, flying tigers, floating statues: they’re an added layer, a thread that stitches the mystical world to the everyday.

Just visiting the country has a near-legendary quality, thanks to a clever high-value/low-volume tourism model. Make them pay for the privilege, the thinking goes, and the backpackers and package tours will stay away. For the lucky few that do come, there’s now a new place to stay: Six Senses, which has opened three luxury lodges this year, with two more launching imminently, creating a clever circuit linking the valleys of Paro and Thimphu with tropical Punakha and remote Gangtey and Bumthang.

Six Senses currently has three lodges spread throughout the kingdom, with another two due to open soon

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But back to the monk and his penis. Today, Drukpa Kunley is revered and at his temple, Chimi Lhakhang, I watched a young woman being tapped on the head with a giant wooden penis by a crimson-robed monk – a blessing for those wanting to conceive. In the village nearby, I wandered past houses painted with big, colourful phalluses, the shops selling penis souvenirs.

Tiny, orderly Thimphu felt more anodyne, the buildings whitewashed, the roofs painted green, red or yellow. But the Tashicho Dzong, the capital’s huge 17th-century fortress, seemed hidden and mysterious, like stepping on to an abandoned film set. It is the seat of government and houses the king’s office, but I had the place more or less to myself, strolling across the cobbled courtyards past soaring stone walls and elaborately painted colonnades, just the odd monk hurrying between buildings. 

In the throne room and temple, the colourfully painted ceilings, golden pillars and flickering butter lamps gave weight to my guide’s stories of gracious deities, angry demons and hungry ghosts. She told me how the Je Khenpo, the country’s religious leader, was just the latest reincarnation in a long line of Je Khenpos, how Bhutan is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, and that the king is the Dragon King. 

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is hugely popular, perhaps because education and healthcare are free, or because Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, or maybe it’s that gross domestic happiness trumps gross domestic product. Then again, that could just be another story (there is still serious poverty, especially in the more remote valleys). 

Tashicho Dzong, the capital’s huge 17th-century fortress, is the country's seat of government Credit: getty

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Either way, his picture is everywhere, including at our first stop, Six Senses Thimphu, high up in the clouds at the end of a winding road. It is a dramatic arrival, the vast, glass-walled lounge providing a ringside seat to the rolling hills outside, a giant, golden Buddha gleaming on the other side of the valley. Bedrooms are huge and wooden-clad, the walls painted with swirling clouds to mirror the outdoors. There is a large spa, a smart restaurant (don’t miss the intimidatingly hot national dish, chilli and cheese) and a Prayer Pavilion that hosts meditation sessions and yoga.

The lodges are all big on wellness and sustainability, as is the Six Senses way, although each one is different to match the location. In lush and tropical Punakha, an area known for its farming, the lounge is built to resemble a farmhouse, cantilevered over the infinity pool, with views over glowing green rice paddies. The area is also known for its yetis – tales of them carrying off little girls on their backs didn’t sound as mad as they should as we hiked through the dense, dripping forest to the ancient temple of Chorten Nyingpo. At Paro, the lodge is again high up on a hillside, again with clouds skidding past outside, but the feel is more intimate, cosier, the sort of place to kick off your shoes in front of the fire. Just next door are spooky ruins, and we strolled up between the trees behind the property to a little monastery for a candlelit meditation session. Meditation: something I’d never considered but here I was, trying to empty my mind and experience something strange and new. 

Bhutan does this to you. Everything is strange and new and somehow believable. I found myself nodding at the story of the eighth-century Guru Rinpoche, who flew in from Tibet on the back of a tiger. I wished I had time to see the temple, with the floating, gravity-defying statue. I listened to details about the prized mushrooms that turn into caterpillars (and back again), and gazed at the mandarin tree that bore fruit year-round, no matter the season.

The Tiger's Nest monastery clings to a cliffside in the Paro Valley

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The climb to Tiger’s Nest felt real enough, leaving before dawn to hike up to the magnificent 17th-century monastery, clinging to the rock face at 10,240ft. Two-and-a-half hours’ steady climb, through a skirt of pine and oak forest, up ancient stone steps, past a thundering waterfall – and there I was. I padded around in my socks, sat in front of golden Buddhas, stared over the steep drop to the valley below as the monks completely ignored me and my group, going about their business, reading from prayer books, banging drums, meditating. 

As we made our way back down, our guide told us about the monk who once collapsed on the way up, exhausted by the walk. When he awoke, he discovered he was floating, carried up by mysterious forces, until he made it to Tiger’s Nest. We all nodded. Of course he did. We’re in Bhutan, and we’ll believe anything. 

Lightfoot Travel (020 3950 5105; lightfoottravel.com) offers a seven-night trip to Bhutan from £5,109 per person. Includes flights from London Heathrow to Paro via New Delhi, six nights full-board in Six Senses lodges, one night in Taj Palace New Delhi, all transfers, the services of a guide, visas and the mandatory Sustainable Development Fee.