Letter from Bhutan

by Sheilah Bright


It’s not every day you find a four-foot penis painted on a house. When was the last time you stopped by a restaurant and nearly hit your head on a foot-long phallic door knocker? As you drive through suburbia tomorrow, gaze up at that colonial brick or faux Tuscan villa and imagine, just imagine, a flesh-pink male member dangling just under the eave. No, it’s not every day you find a hydrant-sized penis painted on a general store, squirting mountain stream water into a rock basin—unless you are in Bhutan, a wee little country tucked between two big fellas, India and China.

For the first few days in this land of the thunder dragon, you search for penises like Easter eggs. “There’s one. Look at that big one. That one has hair. It’s a double header!” Two days later, you’re standing in the doorway of a “General Cum Bar”, and it takes a full minute to realize that an elongated welcome sign is about to bop you in the head. Sure, the country is bucolic with all its Gross National Happiness philosophies and mist-cloaked mountains. Who wouldn’t want to meditate about being kind to others and get into the yoga zone with a steady stream of monk chants circumambulating the air?

But honestly, how can you stop acting like a tourist and concentrate on discovering your inner self when a blister-red penis is giving you the stare down? It’s way too “I’m not in Tulsa anymore” when your bus mascot is a two-foot wooden yard ornament named “Dick.” If you planted Mr. Happy in your yard in Oklahoma, you would have to stick a Pistol Pete hat on it to keep from getting thrown out of town by the Bible Belt Posse.

Photo by Sheila Bright

But this is Bhutan, where sexual conquests are known as “night hunting,” and wooden penises are carved by monks and presented to merry travelers as souvenirs with no thoughts about how a Chicago customs agent is going to react when it glows angry-eyed in the airport X-ray machine.

Culturally, the phallus plays an important role in Bhutan as an, uh, “instrument” used to ward off evil spirits. Credit the divine madman, Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529) for creating such stiff competition in household decor. He is one of the country’s favorite saints, and his exploits of wine, virgins and full-frontal nudity is celebrated throughout the land. He reportedly once received a blessing thread to hang around his neck but wrapped it around his favorite commodity instead in an effort to give him luck with the ladies. Try that one next time you head to McNellie’s.

Chimi Lhakhang is located high on a hill overlooking a small village. It is known as the temple of fertility so thousands of visitors come here every year to seek a blessing. My husband and I were hoping the Divine Madman’s powers wouldn’t override our 1989 vasectomy and 2000 hysterectomy. We removed our shoes and pulled back a curtain just like in the Wizard of Oz. Inside a dark room, incense wafted (as writers always say it does) into a serpentine coil. We saw him then, a gilded statue of Drukpa Kunley, in all of his golden and eerily retro-1980ish glory. We think he might have been wearing a glove.

“Is that Michael Jackson?” my husband said, and it made me wonder.

A 9-year-old monk appeared to administer our blessing. Earlier in the week, we had heard of the powers of some 9-year-old monk, who had pointed to a 45-year-old engineer and told him that he was a reincarnation of his former teacher so he would have to leave his family, quit his job and enter the monastery. Then, we met the engineer, who is now spending his days chanting instead of calculating. He didn’t seem that giddy about the mid-life enlightenment. Honestly, I’ve never been more afraid of a 9-year-old child in my life, especially if you don’t count that “red rum” kid from The Shining.

We were cautious when the child approached. He had something in his hand, five things, really. Is that a bow and arrow? Yes, a bow and arrow. Are those three wooden penises? Yes, three wooden penises. Is he lifting them over our heads? Yes, he is lifting them over our heads. Are we about to get whacked? He hovered a moment, then softly bonked us on the head with each of them, and moved on to the other guests. It was a little bit of a premature articulation on my part, but I’ve been a blurter all my life.

“I think we’ve just been donged,” I said.


Sheilah Bright is a writer, photographer and world-traveler.

Note: This article originally published June 16, 2011