In Bhutan, Prayer Flags and Birds From Heaven

“Watch out for the land mine!” Phuntso joked, as we dodged cow manure on our hike through the forests above the wetlands. The cranes were white dots on the valley floor, black necks bent down as they feasted on dwarf bamboo, their main sustenance. We couldn’t get much closer because of park regulations; the cranes don’t interact well with humans. But all day and all night, their unsteady, high-pitched calls echoed across the valley as if on a loudspeaker.

It wasn’t until I’d been there for hours that I realized what was really different about this place: the total lack of above-ground wires. Back in 2008 when the government proposed a plan to bring electricity to the valley, the R.S.P.N. stepped in to pay for solar paneling and convinced the government to do all of the wiring underground, to guard against the cranes running into electric poles.

Threats still abound, though, from predators like foxes, leopards and feral dogs. One of them attacked a juvenile crane, rendering his left wing unmovable and keeping him grounded, unable to fly back to Tibet in summer. The R.S.P.N. named him Karma. He has spent the last four years in a protected enclosure at the crane center, and is the only crane you can see up close.

More pernicious, of course, are the human threats, particularly from farmers illegally encroaching on the cranes’ habitat to grow more potatoes, the area’s cash crop. The worry is that someday the people are going to want more than sporadic underground electricity. For now the R.S.P.N. is working hard to convince residents that it’s in their interest to keep Phobjikha a place where cranes will come. Schoolchildren help with scientific fieldwork. The government also encourages certain locals to earn income by offering home stays to tourists. I went to one called Aum Passang Zam Farm House for a delicious dinner and a bath in a wooden shed, heated with stones straight from a campfire.

One valley west of Phobjikha is the city of Punakha, famous for a temple dedicated to the worship of a Buddhist leader known as the Divine Madman, or Lama Drupka Kunley, who had a magic phallus he used to fight off evil spirits. Penis imagery is everywhere: Painted on walls in great detail, sometimes wearing a sash. More subtle versions include the giant wooden penis that graced my hotel room mantle, and the red-painted wooden penises with airplane wings that hung off each corner of the hotel roof as a form of spiritual protection.

But I had come to Punakha not just for penis imagery, but also to visit what Phuntso and my other guide and driver, Kinga Tenzin, said was the best dzong, or fortress in all of Bhutan. It’s a vast complex with both administrative offices and monastic spaces, including temples that tell the story of Buddha’s life. The week I was there, it was hosting the Moenlam Chhenmo (The King of Aspirational Prayers), an annual festival for the faithful in which the Chief Abbott, the top religious officer in Bhutan, recited blessings and prayers for world peace over a loudspeaker.

For miles heading to the dzong, the road was lined with pilgrims: men in traditional gho outfits (a knee-length robe tied at the waist, with a colored sash across the chest to show societal rank) and women in their brightest silk jackets and ankle-length wrap skirts called kiras. When we arrived, a field was filled with thousands of devotees, along with tents where they’d sleep for up to two weeks. Some were taking a break to see the country’s longest suspension bridge nearby. They’d traveled days from other parts of Bhutan, and had never seen this part of the country.