A River Running Through A Valley

The Legend of Bhutan’s Yeti


Destination 5 minute read

It might be known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, but Bhutan’s mythical associations don’t stop there. Bhutan’s fiercest guardian protector is neither the flying tiger of its Buddhist foundations, nor the dragon rumoured to cause the lightning storms that light up its valleys; it’s the yeti.

A Forest Of Trees

The yeti is a hairy, ape-like creature, said to live in the remote forests of the Himalayas. Its presence is strong in Nepalese and Tibetan mythology, but nowhere is its existence so fiercely believed as in Bhutan. In the country’s east, there’s even a 750km² conservation area — the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary — dedicated to protection of the yetis. Since the early twentieth century, generations of explorers and scientists have tried to capture a yeti or prove their existence, without much in the way of results. Sometimes, a few strands of hair have been found and sent for analysis, but DNA sequencing has proved inconclusive.

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A country that is home to so many near-mythical creatures

The problem is that the yeti or migoi — as it’s known locally — is an elusive being. While every Bhutanese person will have heard community folklore, or tales passed down through families, it’s rare to find a yeti for yourself. But the Bhutanese don’t mind; their Buddhist religion is full of unseen forces that maintain harmony. And after all in a country that is home to so many near-mythical creatures — from takin to snow leopards and red pandas — why should a yeti be any harder to believe in?

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The yeti’s role in Bhutanese culture is perhaps best represented by a local legend, about a shepherdess whose hunt for a lost lamb leads to an unlikely friendship:

There once was a young shepherdess called Pemma, who lived high in the snow-capped peaks of Bhutan. She spent her days traversing the alpine meadows in search of fresh grass, her loyal flock of sheep trailing after her. But one day, soon after lambing season, one of the newborns disappeared from her herd. Pemma was determined to find the lost lamb. She struck out into the mountains, venturing further than she ever had before. On and on she walked, listening for the faintest bleat. But there was no sign of the lamb. The day wore into evening and the temperature cooled. Pemma began to search for shelter, eventually drawing up in front of a cave, its entrance shrouded in mist. She’d heard stories of these caves. They were home to monstrous creatures, towering yetis with fur the colour of midnight and eyes that glowed like embers. But with night setting in, there was no other choice.

This might be a yeti — the midnight fur and glowing eyes confirmed as much — but its eyes were intelligent, its features gentle.

Masking a shiver, Pemma set her shoulders and stepped inside. First one foot, then another. It took a second for her eyes to adjust to the low light, only for the breath to seize in her lungs. Just a few paces in front of Pemma was a monster, a hulking beast so tall it had to hunch over in the cave’s small confines. Though the beast had its back to her, Pemma couldn’t run, couldn’t even scream; she was paralysed with fear. And then the beast began to turn. Falling to her knees, Pemma waited for the face of evil to turn on her. But the beast’s face wasn’t monstrous, as the legends had described. This might be a yeti — the midnight fur and glowing eyes confirmed as much — but its eyes were intelligent, its features gentle. Pemma’s heart calmed and a sense of wonder washed over her. Sensing no threat, the yeti observed her with quiet curiosity. Pemma gathered her courage, and explained about her lost lamb. The yeti listened patiently.

Touched by her plight and her bravery for venturing so far alone, the yeti decided to help. Motioning at Pemma to follow, the yeti began to climb the icy mountain paths, guiding Pemma across deep ravines and over treacherous drops. Finally, just as Pemma was starting to tire, the clouds parted and the moonlight illuminated a meadow ahead. There, cocooned in the tall grass, was the lost lamb. Shedding tears of relief and gratitude, Pemma scooped the lamb into her arms. She turned to thank the yeti, but it was already fading back into the shadows. Pemma knew then that the stories were wrong: the yeti wasn't a monster, but a protector, a guardian of the mountains who watched over their fragile ecosystem.

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After Pemma’s return, news of her encounter with the yeti spread like wildfire throughout the mountain villages. Fear turned to respect as people realised that yetis weren't creatures to be hunted, but protectors to be revered. Pemma, forever grateful for yeti’s kindness, left offerings of milk and honey at the mouth of the cave every year. The legend of the yeti transformed from one of fear to a heartwarming tale of an unlikely friendship, reminding everyone of the importance of compassion and understanding, however mysterious a creature might seem.

For more folk tales, mythological stories and in-depth conversations on Bhutanese spiritual beliefs, speak to our knowledgable guides while discovering Bhutan at COMO Uma Paro or COMO Uma Punakha.