Bhutan’s remote and little-visited eastern valleys beckon with jaw-dropping Himalayan scenery and rich religious traditions.
The river below thrashes with snowmelt as our car winds along Bhutan’s east-west highway, here a narrow road carved into the side of a steep valley. About 20 kilometers out from the pretty market town of Trashigang—the largest settlement in far eastern Bhutan—we turn off onto a country lane, navigating switchbacks through maize fields and pine forest en route to the mountaintop monastery of Drametse Lhakhang.
The rugged terrain and rough, stony stretches of road make for a heart-thumping ride, but I’m in good hands. My guide and driver is Phuntsho Dorji of local tour agency Bridge To Bhutan. He’s skilful at the wheel, fluent in English, and well versed in the region. “I spent eight years of my childhood in the Trashigang area,” Phuntsho tells me.
Eventually the climb tops out at around 2,000 meters, with a straggle of traditional wooden houses leading toward the monastery’s front gate. Stepping through an archway into the flagstone-paved central courtyard, I’m struck by what appears to be a brand-new building, its cantilevered “flying” roofs, whitewashed, inward-sloping stone walls, and brightly painted woodwork gleaming in the high-altitude sunlight.
But in fact the story of Drametse Lhakhang began five centuries ago, after Ani Chhoeten Zangmo, a grandchild of Bhutan’s foremost saint Pema Lingpa, fled the harassment of her local lord in central Bhutan and took refuge in this remote place. Joined by her brother, Kuenga Gyaltshen, she founded a temple here in 1511; it eventually grew to become the spiritual center of eastern Bhutan. I’ve come just in time to see its historic structures emerge from a complete restoration.
On the main building’s ground floor, I hardly know where to look first. There’s an altar with a massive gilded Buddha flanked by Bhutanese saints and a ceiling painted with multicolored clouds and golden dragons. Three of the walls are covered in dazzling depictions of Tibetan Buddhist lore—a phantasmagoria of angels and demons, saints and sinners, leaving me both transfixed and bewildered. A young monk stands riveted by an image of a dancing red figure. Phuntsho tells me it’s Dakini Dorje Phagmo, the mother of angels.
Upstairs, the second-floor balcony is where the head lama presides over an annual three-day festival, the Drametse Tsetchu, which draws thousands of people each December. The great spiritual and social occasion reaches its climax as monks don vivid costumes and fearsome animal masks to perform the Drametse Ngacham, a Tibetan-style sacred dance created by Kuenga Gyaltshen when he arrived here in the 16th century. Recent decades have seen the Drametse Ngacham spread throughout the kingdom, to the point where it has unofficially become Bhutan’s national dance.
Though it’s August and the courtyard is bereft of dancers, I do get to see their masks. After some cajoling, the caretaker monk unlocks the door to a special room holding the richly painted heads of 16 animal deities—among them the mythical garuda, snow lion, and dragon.
Incredibly, Phuntsho manages to snag us an audience with the head lama, His Eminence Sungtrul Rinpoche, and is visibly moved upon meeting a holy man revered throughout Bhutan as the eleventh reincarnation of Pema Lingpa himself. I ask about the dance, which UNESCO inscribed on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2008. “There are now different ways of doing the drum dance in other places,” the head lama rues, “We give training here to monks from around this region, so that they can preserve the Drametse style.”
Soon, we wind back down to the main highway and up the valley to Trashigang. Above the town looms its namesake fortress and monastery, Trashigang Dzong. Higher still lies our elaborately decorated lodgings at Druk Deothjung Resort, where dinners feature Western dishes spiced with Bhutanese touches like the chili-and-cheese concoction ema datshi, all of it heartily welcome after long days on the road.
Drametse isn’t the only draw card of Bhutan’s least-visited region. A 45-minute drive from Trashigang brings us to the yellow-roofed temple of Gom Kora, whose sacred rock bears imprints believed to be of the eighth-century Buddhist master Guru Rinpoche. We also visit the village of Radhi, famed for its raw silk textiles woven on back-strap looms and dyed with natural ingredients. Then there are the dramatic views: of thick coniferous forests and fast-flowing rivers, farmhouses clinging to vertiginous mountainsides, rocky summits peeking through the clouds. And because this is eastern Bhutan, there are few other visitors to share it with.
The writer used the services of Bridge To Bhutan, which offers both fixed and bespoke itineraries in Eastern Bhutan from US$185 per person per day. While there are thrice-weekly domestic flights between Paro and Trashigang, the service is weather dependent. A more reliable way in is via Guwahati in India’s Assam state, whose airport is served by nonstop flights from Singapore and Bangkok. From there it’s a two-hour taxi ride to the Bhutanese border town of Samdrup Jongkhar, where you’ll be picked up for the half-day drive to Trashigang.
From Drametse, the views stretch down to the Drangme Chhu valley. Opposite: A Drametse Ngacham dancer wearing the mask of the ox deity.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Eastern Promises”).