Girl #1: “See you under the big dick on the corner at ten.”
Girl #2: “The one with the kink and the hairy balls?”
Girl #1: “No, waxed nuts, curved helmet - the one with the green and orange ribbon around the shaft.”
Girl #2: “Oh, that one. Right, ten it is.”
I can only imagine how they arranged to meet. But right now the two young Bhutanese women are chatting away underneath a wall painting of an enormous penis.
It’s big enough to put a randy bull elephant to shame. Yet the handiwork is no schoolboy doodle, furtively sketched with a Magic Marker between giggle fits. This is a work of art - religious art, no less - carefully planned, measured, traced and coloured in for maximum effect. As home improvements go, it’s a little off the wall. But it’s not the only one in the mysterious and remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan - they’re bloody everywhere.
I’m in the Land of The Thunder Dragon, the last shangri la, tucked among the peaks and bluffs of the eastern Himalayas. Since all foreigners must be accompanied by local guides, I’m touring the town of Paro in a car with Tshering and our driver Jigme. We pull up opposite the phallus in question. Both men are giggling like the aforementioned schoolboy - more at my reaction than at the tadger itself.
“Go on, take a picture,” says Tshering, egging me on. A trifle embarrassed, I wind the window down just enough to poke my camera lens through it. The women look over and smile knowingly. I feel like a perv. Keeping as straight a face as possible, and not wishing to appear too puerile, I take my pictures. I nod my approval as sagely as one can while in the presence of a five-foot knob. At last I can empathise with Debbie McGee.
As far as these women know, I tell myself, I could be conducting important research on religious symbolism in south Asia for the Smithsonian Institution. But by the way Tshering and Jigme are grinning at them like a pair of loons, I suspect they can see me for what I am - an Englishman with the mind of a deviant 12-year-old, who thinks pictures of giant comedy penises are a right old hoot.
That’s not to say the history doesn’t interest me because it does. Honest. The proliferation of penises in Bhutan has its roots in Buddhist folklore. From Paro and Thimphu in the west, to Bumthang (snigger) and Trashigang in the east, there are ornately embellished bell-ends slapped on walls across the country. They are put there in honour of a religious teacher, monk and holy man, who was born in Tibet in 1455. His name was Lama Drukpa Kunley, and he is worshipped as a saint in Bhutan.
Disillusioned by the hypocrisy that pervaded everyday life, he turned his back on conventional society as a young man, and set off on a journey of spiritual enlightenment and downright debauchery. As a roaming ascetic, he crossed the border into Bhutan where he dispensed his teachings on tantric Buddhism, along with lashings of alcohol and a healthy dose of sexual abandon.
"I nod my approval as sagely as one can while in the presence of a five-foot knob. At last I can empathise with Debbie McGee."
He challenged accepted behavioural codes through his own outrageous and immoral deeds. Perpetually tanked up on his tipple of choice - a variety of Bhutanese grog known as ‘chung’ - he would deflower virgins with what he called his “divine thunderbolt of wisdom”, which is a much better name for it than “willy”. When he wasn’t pleasuring young women, he’d drive away evil demons by bashing them about the head with his trusty John Thomas. This guy would give Tiger Woods a run for his money.
Aside from the all-day drinking sessions and sex marathons he would tell filthy stories, with the occasional snippet of wisdom thrown in for good measure. Stuff about how to boost your karma rating and achieve enlightenment. He once summed up his philosophy on life, thus: “The best chung wine lies at the bottom of the pail. And happiness lies below the navel.” As if to keep his hosts sweet - the wives of whom he would routinely defile - he would perform miracles, such as turning small quantities of tea into pots of the stuff. It’s a wonder what you can achieve by putting the kettle on.
For all Drukpa Kunley’s licentious ribaldry, he was loved by the people. They revered his uniquely chaotic brand of “crazy wisdom”. Whenever he entered a home, they would place a blessing cord or scarf around his neck, which he would quickly tie around his tackle for good luck. In return, he would bless those families he deemed worthy, and curse those he found wanting. Both curses and blessings probably involved his meat and two veg in some nefarious way. Nevertheless, to this day he is known as The Divine Madman, and tributes to him can be found wherever you look in this fascinating country.
Today’s Bhutanese may be outwardly conservative, but they still go for willies on walls in a big way. Not only are they a nod to The Divine Madman himself, but they also ward off evil spirits and bring good luck and prosperity upon the house. There are phalluses to be found elsewhere, from knob-ended roof beams to dick-shaped drainpipes. No gift shop worth its salt is without its selection of lucky dildos, from key-ring tiddlers to torpedo-sized dongs. And in temples, the monks brandish hefty wooden wangs to bring fertility to childless women.
“Did you enjoy the pienish?” mispronounces Tshering, after my first close encounter of the phallic kind. “We can show you some more,” he adds. And before I can reply, we set off on a mini-tour of the penises of Paro. Although it’s the only town in Bhutan with an international airport, Paro is a small collection of farms, houses, shops and religious buildings occupying a lush valley that huddles beneath the sacred Mount Jomolhari. We traverse its narrow lanes, scanning the whitewashed walls of its abodes for suitable schlongs.
One house has a fat pink one with ridges, like some kind of penile telescope. Another has one that bends wickedly to the right and is festooned with flowing ribbons. Certainly an improvement on stone cladding. Yet my favourtie has to be a double-header, one either side of the doorway to a handicraft shop. An old woman sits outside the shop, oblivious to my mirth as I howl at the pair of pricks, each standing proudly on a spacehopperesque pair of bristly gonads. Both penises are dispensing a healthy sprinkling of jizz. You don’t get that at Habitat.
Our morning taken care of, we decide to up the cultural ante in the afternoon by attending the Paro tsechu. The festival is held annually in honour of another rather less lascivious holy man, Guru Rinpoche. In fact, this is what I’ve really come to Paro to see. Villagers from far and wide assemble in the grounds of the stately Rinpung Dzong, an imposing old monastery and fortress, to mingle and watch ceremonial performances by brightly costumed devotees.
I catch the dance of the stag and the hounds, a recreation of the hunter Gonpo Dorji’s conversion to Buddhism by the great saint Jetsun Milarepa. In the early stages of the dance, a pair of masked clowns goad and ridicule the hunter’s servant with a red cylindrical object about a foot long. “What’s he poking in the other bloke’s face?‘ I nudge Tshering. “A phallus,” he replies. Silly to ask really.
"Perpetually tanked up on his tipple of choice, he would deflower virgins with what he called his 'divine thunderbolt of wisdom', which is a much better name for it than "willy'."
The tsechu may be a religious festival, but it’s also a social gathering. People dress in their finest silk robes for the occasion. While children chase each other around with toy guns, and old timers chew the fat, many young men and women take the opportunity to find a spouse. But since festivals only come around once a year, there’s another perennial activity that comes in handy if you’re a youngster looking for a partner in Bhutan: night hunting.
I learn all about this ancient and somewhat bizarre courting ritual when we drop into an old farmhouse for a late lunch. After a simple meal of stewed beef, plain rice and a local (and lethal) combination of chillies and cheese called ema datshi, the farmer recalls his teenage night-hunting exploits with starry-eyed relish.
Under the cover of darkness, while everybody was sleeping, he would go on the prowl in his village, and climb up the runged windows of farm houses in pursuit of young girls. When he spotted one fast asleep in the communal family bedroom, he would climb in through the window and sneak into bed with her. The girl’s parents would apparently turn a blind eye. “I was only 13 or 14,” he says with a chuckle.
He shows me the tapered rungs on his first floor windows, which have been worn down over three centuries of underage nocturnal shenanigans. He assures me that although night hunting is less common these days in towns like Paro and the capital city of Thimphu, it’s still rife in small and remote villages across the land.
Then the farmer takes me on a tour of the house. The family and guests sleep on the first floor, while at night time the animals occupy a space on the ground level, the idea being that heat will rise off them and keep the family warm. There’s a shrine upstairs, richly decorated with colourful tributes to a host of deities and saints. And there are even a couple of rooms available for tourists who want to experience the real Bhutan.
We return to the dining room, and the farmer asks if I enjoyed the food. I tell him it was very good, and while we’re talking he reaches into the pot of leftover rice and starts moulding it in his calloused hands. His fingers move deftly across the grains as he nimbly fashions a faithful likeness of an object that’s all too familiar in Bhutan: a penis. It’s a little fat and stumpy, but it’s a penis nevertheless. He hands it to me like he’s offering a fine Cuban cigar. “For good luck,” he says.
I should be immune to it by now. But with girls meeting under giant penises in broad daylight, ejaculating erections lurking above shop doorways, masked clowns brandishing foot-long phalluses and now a farmer handing me a rice penis, I feel like I’ve walked onto the set of The Wicker Man. A little overwhelmed, I imagine being burned alive in a towering wicker willy, and decide that the best course of action at this stage would be not to upset the farmer.
I accept his good luck gift, but politely decline the offer of a room for the night.
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