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.