The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan is a place where Buddhist traditions mix with modernity, and reverence is shown to tigers and the flaming thunderbolt of wisdom.

The edge of a forest cloaked in clouds, thick with the scent of pine and garlanded with peach blossoms, a sign reads ‘Please do not tease the animals’. Here live the takins of Thimpu.

A local legend tells how the Bhutanese national animal was created from the remains of a lunch eaten by Lama Drukpa Kunley, a 15th-century Buddhist saint also known as ‘the Divine Madman’. He demonstrated the outlandish power of his magic by taking the skeleton of a cow and the skull of a goat, theatrically combining the two before bringing them back to life with a loud belch.

And so one of nature’s more awkward creatures was born. Today, a herd of takins lives within a refuge at the edge of Thimpu, the sleepy capital of a country the size of Switzerland with a total population of just 700,000. In the 1990s, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, then king of Bhutan, granted the takins freedom from the captivity of a zoo. This gesture represented an early ripple before a wave of modernity was allowed to sweep through his secretive mountain kingdom, a world all of its own between China and the northeastern tip of India. The first tourists were only permitted to come here in 1974, democracy wasn’t introduced until 2008, and there is now a TV channel (just the one), showing a mixture of Hollywood, Bollywood and spectacularly melodramatic local movies.

The takins were poorly equipped to make the most of their release, swaggering through town, lazily searching for food and generally troubling the populace. There seemed little choice but to corral them into Thimpu’s Motithang Takin Preserve, which offered a little more of the space that their wild relatives enjoy at the opposite end of the country, in the remote east.

The job of guarding these hapless beasts now falls to Kuenzang Gyeltshen, who lives with his young family in a hut inside the boundaries of the preserve, weaving shawls and tending his garden of herbs, garlic and chilli peppers. ‘I rise early to feed the takins, around 6am’, he says. Kuenzang does all he can to prevent visitors from offering the national animal a taste of the national dish, ema datshi – a heart-quaking mix of potent chillies and melted cheese that can wreak equal havoc on the digestive systems of takins as those of unacclimatised foreigners. ‘People would be best to stick to giving them the occasional apple,’ he suggests.

A menagerie of even more peculiar animals is to be found in Thimpu’s National Institute for Zorig Chusum, also known as The Painting School. Here the traditional crafts of Bhutan are taught to a fresh generation. In the wood-carving classroom, the heads of a tiger, leopard, boar, owl, snake, deer, dog, ox, rabbit, dragon and a mythical bird called a garuda all snarl down at onlookers. Each has a fearsome set of fangs exposed – even the owl and rabbit. The students are creating masks that will be gaudily painted in the style of those worn by performers at the tsechus – religious festivals – held across the country as the grip of the long Himalayan winter releases each spring.

In the classroom next door, 21-year-old Dechen Dema gulps hard as her tutor, Dawa Tshering, presents the artwork she must attempt to replicate. This is a fiendishly complex sculpture of Avalokites´vara, a Buddhist god of compassion with multiple heads and spindly limbs that today need to be worked from soft clay. Dechen’s shyness belies her great dexterity as she sets about her task. ‘My family are very proud of my progress,’ she says. ‘None of them would know how to make something like this.’ Dechen considers herself fortunate to be a pupil; prior to 1998, tradition prevented girls from being admitted to the school.

The end of the day’s studies are signalled by the echoing clang of a brass bell being struck outside. A portrait of Bhutan’s youthful current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, looks down handsomely and sternly as pupils file past a locker with ‘I feel better when I’m drunk’ scratched in graffiti on its door.

Glorious frescoes adorn most homes and religious buildings throughout Bhutan, with creatures, flowers and intricate, abstract patterns sprawling over broad wooden beams and mud walls. One symbol that frequently looms up on the walls of houses here, with an alarming level of anatomical accuracy, is the ‘flaming thunderbolt of wisdom’ – a sturdy male member believed to protect the occupants of a building from harm.

The owner of the original flaming thunderbolt of wisdom was the Divine Madman himself, Lama Drukpa Kunley. The saint still holds much influence over fast-evolving Bhutan. He is said to have shot an arrow from his homeland of Tibet, determined to deliver his unusual form of wisdom to the lucky girl closest to where it landed. He claimed he would break down all social conventions in order to encourage worshippers to consider the teachings of Buddha with an open mind. Bawdy language, reeling drunkenness and outrageous sexual exploits were among his techniques, inspiring certain traditions that continue right to this day.

In the east of Bhutan, a practice known as ‘night hunting’ is only now being widely called into question. Young men will make a girl’s acquaintance during the day to seek her consent for a one-night stand, then break into her parents’ house to fulfil that promise as night closes in. If they leave soon afterwards then often nothing more will be said, but if they doze off and are caught by the girl’s parents after daybreak, they will be duty-held to marry her. Tales abound of queues of impatient suitors forming outside the houses of popular girls, of overweight boys becoming stuck in window frames, and of mothers being accidently approached in the confusion of darkness.

If machismo, a love of Buddhism and a certain urge to handle a weapon are long-respected traits in Bhutan, it may not seem so bizarre to learn that leathery Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal – star of Under Seige and countless similar movies – is one of the country’s favourite celebrities. In recent years, he made a widely publicised visit to Bhutan and has been proclaimed the reincarnation of a holy 13th-century Buddhist treasure hunter.

Inspired by the example of the Divine Madman, Bhutanese men still enjoy firing arrows over great distances. Just as the takin is the national animal and ema datshi the national foodstuff, so archery is the national sport. At one end of a field in the mist-shrouded countryside near Thimpu, Karma Dhendup is lining up a distant target, 140 metres away. He is a teacher turned tour guide for guests of the capital’s plush Taj Tashi hotel, and like many upwardly mobile Bhutanese men, he has foregone a traditional bamboo bow for the status symbol of a high-tech carbon-fibre compound bow. ‘Some invest half a year’s salary in one of these,’ he says.

Bhutanese archery is a highly sociable, often alcohol-fuelled affair with a hint of amiable danger thrown in. Women assume the dual roles of cheerleaders and hecklers, noisily calling into question any inaccurate archer’s prowess. Today there’s no pause in the shooting as a cow and a couple of farmhands casually amble across the middle of the field.

Karma’s work involves offering visitors cultural insights and guiding them around a baffling assortment of dzongs, the monumental fortified monasteries to be discovered at every turn in Bhutan. Close to Thimpu and accessed by a steep climb on foot – equally breathtaking for its panoramic views over valleys dense with the blooms of rhododendrons and the fight for oxygen in the thin mountain air – is the Tango Goemba. Here, a privileged glimpse can be had of the gilded statues of Buddha within its inner sanctum, and boy monks learn English grammar, Buddhist philosophy and soccer skills. Also near the capital is the Pangri Zampa, a monastic temple used as a school of astrology, where a ceremony is under way to bless the country for the year ahead. Pungent clouds of incense fill the air as groups of monks chant, blow slender trumpets and perform whirling acrobatic dances while dressed as mythical heroes. Local people spin prayer wheels and present offerings of imported snacks to the monks, building a vast mound of crisps, biscuits and popcorn.

The tour hurtles on over sinuous mountain roads to the imposing Paro Dzong, a combined magistrate’s court and place of worship, then to the ruined Drukgyel Dzong, where defensive passageways burrow off into the hillsides, and onwards to Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest structures in Bhutan, claimed to have been built in 659 AD to pin down the left foot of an ogress who had inflicted chaos across the region.

Eastwards over the high Dochu La pass, sitting at the convergence of two rivers fed by meltwater from glaciers, is the beautiful Punakha Dzong, ‘the palace of great happiness’ where wild bees make their nests in the rafters and kings have their coronations. A short way further on is the Chimi Lhakhang, the temple of the Divine Madman and a focal point for his most ardent followers. Women who’ve been struggling to conceive often spend the night here, having heard of the miraculous results the saint can deliver through a blessing known as a ‘wang’. Visitors are greeted by a boy monk offering cups of holy water, accompanied by a ceremonial tap on the head with a bow and arrow and a 12-inch mahogany phallus. Photography, though tempting, is discouraged.

The magic thunderbolt of wisdom is much in evidence on the thick-set walls of farmhouses in the surrounding rice fields. Karma says: ‘We have a saying, “Protect your house with a phallus, protect your phallus with a condom!”. This is modern Bhutan.’ For him, contemporary life means wearing the national costume of a gho – a cloak worn over knee-length socks – during the day and a tracksuit in the evening. It means a life shared on Facebook, choosing Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Three Little Birds as the hold music on his smartphone, and recalling Stephen Hawking’s teachings about space and time with the same reverence as the Buddhist philosophy his country has so long been enveloped in.

Most of Karma’s clients are eager to visit the Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest. This monastery was built at the place where Guru Rinpoche – another of the country’s favourite religious figures – is said to have arrived on the back of a consort he’d transformed into a flying tigress. Legend tells that he went on to subdue a local demon before spending three months here meditating in a cave.

We plan to approach the Tiger’s Nest the long way round, across the craggy spines of the surrounding mountains rather than up the well-made path from the car park a couple of hours below. The two-day route follows part of a smuggler’s trail that continues to Tibet, where Bhutanese men in bleached jeans and knock-off Nike trainers guide pony trains laden with Chinese medicines, radios and DVD players. The trail passes through cloud forests draped with tendrils of moss, over ridges where trees have been contorted sideways by the prevailing winds and eagles drift far above. Beyond lie the sacred, unclimbed peaks of Bhutan’s tallest mountains, rising more than 7,000 metres and capped with snow throughout the year.

The trail opens onto a high plateau where yak herders seek shelter in winter and the Uma Paro hotel establishes a tented camp in the spring and summer. Guests spend the night in these gale-shaken tents before heading to the Tiger’s Nest at first light.

As dusk settles, the smoke of a warming bonfire mingles with flakes of snow dropping all around, our lungs aching from the altitude. Whispers turn to the mythical yetis that have been given their own national park in the east, and of a population of tigers recently tracked by government rangers within sight of this camp. For generations, monks living at the peak’s summit have told of watching a ghostly tigress stalk the surrounding plateau under the light of a full moon, wondering if they were witnessing the reappearance of the flying tigress once ridden by the founder of the Tiger’s Nest monastery.

A black billy goat with horns painted bright yellow has been dragged up here by two men seeking the karmic benefits of saving him from being slaughtered for a feast. They deliver the goat into the freedom of one of Bhutan’s most sacred high places, abandoning him to the wilderness in the process. He bleats pitifully all night, fearing unseen predators, desperately latching on to our party as we descend towards the Tiger’s Nest at dawn. A few hours later, the goat appears to express joy and relief at being handed over to some monks who tend a collection of similarly abandoned creatures in their idyllic mountainside farm. He will spend the rest of his days here, safely cloaked by the comfort of tradition, looking out over a country where the wild is always close at hand.

Ahead is the Tiger’s Nest, a shimmering monument with golden pinnacles to its rooftops set over stark, whitewashed walls that somehow cling to the cliff face. From the path where pilgrims gather to look on in awe, ropes bearing prayer flags in a rainbow of colours are strung over a deep gorge towards the monastery. These carry the wishes of believers off on the breeze, spiralling them across the valley beyond – full of hope for the present and wonder at a future once unimagined in this kingdom of the clouds.