About 39km (24 miles) west of Tsetang, on the northern banks of the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra River), stands Tibet's first monastery (late 8th c.), famous for its striking mandala design and as the site of the "Great Debate" (792-94) between the Indian Mahayanists and Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhists from China. This intriguing and protracted religious debate, held in the Western Temple (Jampa Ling), ended in victory for the Mahayanists. A predictable result, as Tibet was at war with China on several fronts. Chinese records claim that they won the theological battle, but the numerous Chinese monks and translators were nonetheless expelled from Tibet, and Mahayanist orthodoxy was established. Although Samye has been razed several times, the mandala symmetry is intact. The main temple, Samye Utse, symbolizes Mount Meru, the center of the universe, surrounded by the four temples of the continents, the eight temples of each subcontinent, and the sun (south, ruined) and moon (north) temples. The best view is gained from Hepo-Ri to the east of Samye, where Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) is said to have subdued the local demons, making the site safe for construction. The secular support of King Trisong Detsen, who proclaimed Buddhism the state religion in 779, was perhaps more crucial.
Samye Utse demonstrates the classic principles of Tibetan architecture. A solid barnlike first floor tapers to refined and intricate upper tiers. To left of the entrance is an original 5m-tall (16-ft.) obelisk that proclaims Buddhism to be the state religion and urges future generations to obey Buddhist law and support the temple. Many of the murals on the first and second floors are original, but the lighting is poor, so bring a flashlight.
Basic dorm beds are available at the Samye Monastery Guesthouse (tel. 0891/736-2086) for ¥30 ($3.90/£1.95) and the East Friendship Hotel (¥40 ($5.20/£2.60). English menus and adequate fare are offered at both.
Transportation: Buses for Samye depart from Barkhor Sq. at 6:30am, but at the time of writing foreigners required an ATP, driver, and guide to visit the monastery. Jeeps charge around ¥500 ($65/£33) for the trip if you have a permit
Cost: Admission ¥45 ($5.85/£2.95)