Existing Member?

The Adventures Of Susan & Lars "Where are we going?" said Pooh... "Nowhere", said Christopher Robin. So they began going there...

Penises and Polygamy (Bhutan)

BHUTAN | Thursday, 4 September 2008 | Views [19562] | Comments [3]

Day 5
The next morning we came down for breakfast and noticed the fruit was peeled. Actually, I really noticed this when breakfast was brought for another table in the restaurant and their fruit wasn't. I never said anything, but they had noticed my peeling my fruit the day before. Awesome.

We were off for the Art School. As a part of the active effort to preserve the culture, all the traditional crafts are supported by a training program here; carpentry, embroidery, metal working, painting, and doll making.

We also went through the Folk Heritage museum, which had an example of a traditional Bhutanese home, complete with artifacts of daily life. It was groovy, but our mojo got a little messed up by a tour of Chinese “VIPs” (and it would seem their wives, cousins, next door neighbors etc.) who not only ignored the “no picture” signs but also happily bypassed the little ropes and “no touching” signs to pose in the display holding the various kitchen/farm/religious implements. Like a German in a uniform, a Chinese bureaucrat with a “VIP” card is an object to fear and loathe.

One cool thing about the Bhutanese homes. They all have a prayer room, a space set apart with a small shrine. This room usually has nothing but an altar and cushions, and one chair. The chair is not, however, for the patriarch or any member of the family. The chair (really a raised dais with a cushion for sitting in the lotus position) is reserved for monks of a certain level. At special occasions a monk will visit the family to perform rituals. Most of the time the monk will sit on a cushion to the side of this chair (and the family on the floor). However, on very, very special occasions (a few times in each lifetime for most people) a more senior monk will be in attendance as well, and occupy the chair. So nearly every home has a piece of furniture that by tradition gets used only every few years. And it's not like a box of Christmas decorations that are stuffed in the garage or the attic for 11 months of the year – the prayer room is used frequently by the family (perhaps several times a day by a pious family) but the chair will always be left vacant.

We were quick through both of the Folk Heritage Museum and Art School, as we also needed to get over to the city of Punakha. The road takes us up over a very high pass (4500 meters or so – basically the top of Mount Whitney) and back down, also through another checkpoint.

En route is a big new temple, one even Tashi hasn't been in yet it is so new, and a place where the former queen built 108 stupas to protect the King and the army after their campaign against Nepalese insurgents.

We were in the new temple for about three minutes before getting shooed out – some VIPs were on their way to see it.

Technically, this is a family temple of the royal family, and so when a prince, queen, or other royal wants to use it it is closed to the public. Too bad, it's a very cool place. New, and with many modern elements, like realistic faces on many of the paintings, but still very much fitting to the traditonal aesthetic and clearly a Bhutanese temple. Along the top of the walls in the main chamber are murals dipicting the history of the Kings of Bhutan. Outside (where we could still spend a few minutes) angels flew with faces of Bhutanese children.

As we made our way back down the other side of the pass we quickly pulled to the side of the road for a motorcade heading uphill – the Prime Minister and two queens (the King has four wives). Phubu quickly pulled off his hat, and he and Tashi both bent their heads to look down as they drove past. So, I guess that was the VIP. A couple of days earlier we had pulled left (slow lane – they drive on the left here) and let a big SUV pass us. Then too Phubu had quickly taken off his hat. It was a prince driving himself (you can tell by the license plate).

Sadly the weather at the pass was foul and we didn't get the vista of giant himalyan peaks in the distance. We tried to wait it out and eat near the peak, but no dice, instead a mix of rain and snow. In eight days this was pretty much the only time the weather caused us any real trouble – despite what is supposedly the “wet season”.

The climate and flora on this side of the pass is very different, on account of the lower altitude (only 1200 meters or so). They call it “semi tropical”. I don't know about that, but it was hot.

After lunch our next stop was “The Temple of the Divine Madman”. They love this guy here. There are all sorts of wild stories about him – apparently when he wasn't battling demons he was drinking and chasing skirts. Among the stories of debauchery are tales that he bedded his own mother. But whatever, I guess battling demons gets you lots of credit, cause he is a HUGE deal. Especially in this region. Apparently he figured out that evil spirits are scared off by his... well you know. So people will buy a wooden... and hang it under the rafters of their houses. But for some folks, just in case, they seem to augment this by painting phalluses on the outside of their homes (which double as fetility charms). Susan just loved this, and would have filled an entire roll of film with photos of this if I had let her.

The giant wooden phalluses continued after we got to the temple. As Tashi explained on the walk through the rice fields that surround the temple, people come here if they are having trouble conceiving. A special offering and a special blessing from the resident monk and many people find success. Susan asked if there was a reverse charm, maybe one that provided a couple of years protection?

This got us into a discussion of sexual politic, comparing American and Bhutanese ways. Tashi was surprised to learn we weren't married, and really surprised to learn that we've only known each other since November. I hadn't realized he'd missed this, but sometimes things get lost in translation.

Anyway, Bhutanese often practice polygamy, though it is slowly losing favor. Interestingly, this is not only men with many wives, but some wives with many husbands. Typically, the multiple spouses are siblings. The King, for example, has four wives, all sisters. But even a farmer's daughter might marry four brothers. The reason for this is to preserve the wealth and property. While not a hard and fast rule, husbands typically move into the homes and farms of their new wives. For a wealthy landowner, dividing his land among several offspring is not such a big deal, but for those with a more marginal bequeathment polygamy lets them keep the parcel intact for another generation. One daughter with four husbands means a single parcel, worked by four able-bodied men. Four daughters with one husband yields the same result (although multiplying the challenge for the grandkid generation). This practice is slowly being discouraged as Bhutan tries to modernize certain ways. A minister once challenged the King if he thought he was setting a good example with his four wives. His retort was that any young men should just look to him to see a great example of why not to.

The walk through the rice paddies was beautiful and bucolic, with folks cutting weeds and planting rice by hand. Our hotel sat high on a hillside overlooking Punakha.

We had a nice little balcony, where I wrote for a few hours and we watched the sunset. The whole country is like a million postcards stiched together.




Oh those spectacular colors! Drooled when I saw the yarn in those great hues.

What an awesome experience. Loved the comment that Bhutan looks like picture postcards strung together, your photos certainly show that.

Looking forward to the next postings - have enjoyed being current with flickr's photos showing your fun in Africa!


  Luuk Sep 4, 2008 4:52 AM


"Susan just loved this, and would have filled an entire roll of film with photos of this if I had let her" This literally made me laugh out loud. Lars, you have outdone yourself with this blog entry. Well done.

  Brian O Sep 6, 2008 12:29 AM


Oh, I so want to go!

  simon_monk Aug 31, 2009 5:05 PM

Add your comments

(If you have a travel question, get your Answers here)

In order to avoid spam on these blogs, please enter the code you see in the image. Comments identified as spam will be deleted.

About susanandlars

Follow Me

Where I've been



My trip journals

See all my tags 



Travel Answers about Bhutan

Do you have a travel question? Ask other World Nomads.