Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Sarah Crichton & Tristan Kennedy
They draw penises on their houses in Bhutan. Not scrawled, spray-painted penises, this isn’t graffiti. No these are lovingly crafted, anatomically correct and shockingly graphic in their detail – real works of art. They’re not seen as obscene here, they’re symbols of fertility, and it’s believed they help ward off evil spirits. The Bhutanese also protect their homes with hand-painted pictures of tigers and intricately drawn dragons too, but for some reason it’s the penises that tend to stick in tourists’ minds.
Even without their penchant for painting phalluses in public places, it’s perhaps no wonder that Bhutan has a reputation as a somewhat fantastical, otherworldly place. After all, this is a country that only got its first TV network in 1999, a country which has a national park dedicated to preserving the habitat of the yeti, and perhaps most famously, a country where they measure their development in terms of Gross National Happiness instead of GDP.
“Bhutan only got its first TV network in 1999, and has a national park dedicated to preserving the habitat of the yeti.”
It’s often described as a sort of Shangri La (after the mythical mountain kingdom from the 1930s novel) and according to the high end hotel brochures, it’s “The Happiest Country on Earth”. But can the place they describe actually be for real? Even if it once was, surely the 21st Century would have changed it beyond recognition?
Flying into Paro airport – situated in one of the few Bhutanese valleys flat enough to land a modern jet aircraft – certainly feels like entering a hidden kingdom. “There are only nine pilots in the world who are qualified to land here,” our guide Sonam, aka SP, says as he meets Sarah the photographer and me. It’s easy to see why – the approach involved winding our way through an impossibly narrow valley with the wingtips seemingly metres away from the hulking great Himalayas on either side.
The drive from Paro to Thimpu, the nation’s capital, does little to dispel the fairytale feel of the place. The paddy fields are neat and well-ordered, and the houses look like something a Disney animator might have drawn, their corrugated iron roofs spattered crimson with chillies spread out to dry in the sun.
“There are strict rules about the buildings in Bhutan,” explains SP. “You have to build in traditional Bhutanese style, and you can’t build like a skyscraper. It can only have a few floors.” You can see what he means as we enter Thimpu. With their elaborately carved eaves, even some of the capital’s most modern buildings look several centuries old. When we get to the centre, our driver Passang chuckles and he points out “Thimpu’s only traffic light” – a white-gloved policeman standing in the middle of the road directing cars.