It was my first official day of hiking along the 500-year-old Trans Bhutan Trail (TBT). We had set off early in the morning from Dochula Pass, at 3100 m (10,171 feet) walking through thick Rhododendron forests and whistling to scare off Himalayan bears and tigers. While thankfully we didn’t run into a bear or worse, a tiger, we did see a pack of gray-faced Langurs, a species of monkeys that live in the forests of Bhutan. Today’s hike would bring us along a special part of the TBT that is known as the “Divine Madman’s Trail” and of course like all things in Bhutan, there was a famous legend behind it. “Bhutan is a land of stories,” Singay told me while we descended through the forest to a beautiful verdant valley. “What I love most about the Trans Bhutan Trail is that is a walking museum of history, legend, and culture. And this hike is no exception. Now we are following in the footsteps of the Divine Madman, Tibetan lama Drukpa Kuenley, who arrived in this part of Bhutan in the 16th century to fulfill his legacy of suppressing evil energies through his dharma teachings”.
As I looked down the lush valley at the legendary arrow house in Thinleygang, Bhutan, I thought about the tiny trinket that has laid next to me on my bedside table gathering dust for over a decade. Follow your arrow it says, reminding me of a long-held promise to be hiking in Bhutan before my next milestone birthday. I couldn’t believe that just like the Divine Madman who had shot an arrow traveling through the high plateaus of Tibet to Bhutan, I’d ended up halfway around the world as the last guest of the season on the Trans Bhutan Trail, just before my 51st birthday.
“I have driven near this valley many times as a child alongside my father to return to his maternal village each year,” said 28-year-old Singay Dradul, my guide. “I had heard the legend of the Divine Madman and the infamous Chandana Lhakhang which means house where the arrow landed. But in all those years I had never actually visited the Arrow House until I became a trail guide.”
“And here we are” he smiled as we looked down the valley at a 16th-century traditional farmhouse. “Are you ready to meet the owner and her brother and learn the history of the arrow house?”
It would be the first time since breakfast that we had seen anyone. As we approached the lone farmhouse, there was not a soul in sight except a farm dog who didn’t even lift his head at our arrival.
Then we saw her.
Tashi Delek. Welcome, said a silver-haired woman dressed in a black and gray plaid Kira (a traditional Bhutanese dress worn by women). Standing on the balcony with a warm smile crinkling to the edges of her face, was the 74-year-old owner of the Arrow House. She and her younger brother were all that remained living at the 600-year-old family home that had been passed down to the eldest daughter per tradition, for generations.
The conversation continued in Dzongkha, the national language, and after a few minutes, Singay turned to me and said she was surprised to see us.
“We haven’t received many tourists. In fact, we have only seen a few since the reopening this fall. What brings you here”?
I wasn’t quite sure where to start with my story but it seemed ironic that I too had followed my arrow in a sense to get to Bhutan.
The idea of traveling to Bhutan hatched over eleven years ago after my dad and I, both celebrating milestone birthdays (70 and 40 respectively), hiked the Annapurna trail in Nepal. As cliché as it sounds, the trip was life-changing putting me on a trajectory to pursue my dreams of becoming a travel writer. As a stay-at-home mother of two young kids, I began a travel blog that took me to places I’d never imagined I’d go. From the remote corners of Ethiopia to Haiti, Nicaragua, Kenya, and India. It opened my eyes even further to the world and I longed to see more. It also taught me to be fearless and never stop pursuing my dream of becoming a travel writer. The more I challenged myself and caved into my wanderlust, the further I explored.
Over the years of raising my kids, between driving them to soccer practice, helping with homework, and running the house, I kept a promise that I’d return to the Himalayas for my next big birthday, 50. I set my sight on Bhutan. My friends thought I was crazy. But for me, traveling to the far corners of the earth was when I felt most like myself.
Then the pandemic hit shutting down the world as we knew it and closing the door on my wanderlust. As someone who had basically built their identity after mother and wife as a traveler, what would I become?
I pushed my dream of Bhutan aside, turning fifty with little fanfare. In the summer of 2022, I received the surprising, unwelcome news that all the cartilage in my right hip was gone and I’d eventually need a hip replacement. Fortunately, a cortisone shot was able to numb the pain.
Then, on September 23, 2022, I read the news that after one of the longest pandemic closures in the world, Bhutan was finally reopening to tourism. I felt a spark. Could I go?
Then I remembered that nagging charm next to my bedside.
Follow your arrow. This little charm is special with a little arrow to say follow the path of your heart and enjoy the journey along the way. Not all who wander are lost so be brave and know that you’ll always be happy if you follow your arrow.
I booked the trip and the rest is history.
“Are you ready to learn more about the arrow house”? Singay asked with a smile. “Of course!” I replied as I grabbed my pen and paper.
“So I told you there are many stories in Bhutan” Singay continued. “Now it’s time to learn about one of Bhutan’s most favorite saints, the Divine Madman”.
Drukpa Kuenly (1455–1529) was a Buddhist monk known for his unconventional teachings and often outlandish behavior earning him the nickname of the “Divine Madman”. He is one of Bhutan’s most famous Buddhist figures and his teachings live on today throughout Bhutan. Legend has it that a deity came to him in his dreams one night while he was living in Tibet, telling him to shoot an arrow southward at dawn. This prophecy sent Drukpa on a journey from Tibet to Bhutan to “follow his arrow”.
The arrow landed in the valley below Thinleygang at the house of a wealthy man named Toeb Tsewang. According to legend, you can still see the preserved wooden ladder that the arrow struck in the farmhouse where the family has cared for its shrine for generations. (Unfortunately, the arrow house was closed for renovations so we were unable to go inside).
When the Drukpa arrived at the house, he was entranced by the beauty of Toeb Tsewang’s wife and took matters into his own hands. In an angry fit of rage, Tswewang attacked Drukpa with a sword. Drukpa grabbed the sword and folded it into a knot proving he was not an ordinary being. Tswewang surrendered and gave Drukpa his wife. The pair went on to have a child who became a legend in his own right. Today, you will find many depictions of Drukpa holding a bow-and-arrow, and many more legends of his outlandish behavior remain.
After hearing the story, we met the owner’s brother who gave us a tour of the family temple. As Singay opened the large wooden door to the Buddhist temple outside of the Chandana Lhakhang, my mouth dropped agape in disbelief. Never had I seen such an exquisite temple with such amazing works of art located right next to someone’s home. I was stunned that these masterpieces were still hanging inside the family’s temple and not relocated to a museum. The owner informed me that the paintings – covered in a sheet of plastic to protect them – dated back to the 16th century.
“Right now, the trail is a walking museum. We get to live it, walk through it, visit it, and learn from it. But if we are not careful, it might die out in a few years’ time. We must never lose our identity,” Singay says.
With these words, my thoughts return to my unrelentless quest and perseverance to follow my arrow to Bhutan. With so many obstacles along the way, I’d finally made it here just three days shy of my 51st birthday and was the official last guest of the year on the Trans Bhutan Trail.
When I returned, I also fulfilled another long-held dream. I finally became a published travel writer and my story, “Farm-to-cushion dining along the Trans Bhutan Trail” was published on BBC Travel.
It is never too late to follow your arrow.
Nicole, I thoroughly enjoyed your storytelling and images. You followed through with your dream and this place sounds truly magical. Congratulations on your published article and I hope you have healed well!
Thank you Jane! I hope to do another post in the coming months when I’m ready. Hope you are well!
Gorgeous pictures to go along with the wonderful legend.
Thanks so much! Are you still in Brazil? I’m a little behind these days!
No we’re home but leaving for another trip soon.
We all know how it felt when the world was suddenly closed, and international borders shut. I remember how at first I was feeling kind of hopeful that the pandemic would last just a few months, one year at the most. But as days and weeks went by, realization eventually sank in that it would take a while — a couple of years — before we could dream of traveling abroad again. I’m so so happy you decided to follow your arrow, Nicole. It’s so great that you were able to visit a country you had been dreaming of seeing for a long time just a few days away from your 51st birthday. So, technically you were still able to fulfil your dream of going to Bhutan by the age of 50. Also, congrats for the published article!
Thanks Bama! Yes I did make it just before turning 51. The last month has been pretty crazy. I had no idea what to expect with the surgery and it has been way harder than I ever imagined. I’ve learned to walk again and go up and down stairs. I can walk 22 minutes around the house ok but have only left the house 3 times in 26 days for the doctor as I’ve been so incredibly tired. Another two weeks and the fatigue should be gone. 6 months and I will have the hip of a teenager! I’ve been sharing a lot on IG stories as it has been helpful to get support and not as hard as blogging. I’m looking forward to resuming a normal life. Will need another hip done but at least it is an option to get this kind of surgery as many places in the world you wouldn’t be able to. Can’t imagine not being able to walk and always be in pain!
Wishing you a speedy recovery, Nicole!
Thanks! It has been a journey!
Congrats on all your accomplishments with this trip! Now I wish you good luck with that hip … I think I remember that surgery is very soon. I’m sure you’ll be back on another trail in no time.
It has been a hard month! Wednesday is one month out. But as I type despite the exhaustion, inability to sleep well and lack of appetite, I am sitting for the FIRST TIME in 9 years without pain! Wow, how did I ever live like this for so long?
I will need the left one done. But now I know what to expect. The recovery has been nothing like the pain I felt over the years. But it has been hard in different ways as I am always so darn tired, I’ve lost a lot of weight because my appetite is messed up making me even more tired, and I am so emotional. But at the end of the day, I am so insanely grateful that this surgery was possible for me. In so many countries and even here, without insurance, good doctors and sadly enough to pay the insane deductible, I couldn’t have done it. I can’t imagine living decades longer in the pain I experienced.
Such a wonderful story Nicole. So happy for you that you finally got to live this dream.
I really loved Bhutan. I like the culture in this part of the world and Buddhism fascinates me.
Congratulations, Nicole 🙂
Thanks Heather! Finally getting around to responding to my comments.