The erstwhile capital of Bhutan, Punakha is one of the most beautiful regions of the Himalayan kingdom. Two of the main rivers of Bhutan – the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu (Chhu means river in Dzongkha – the language of Bhutan) converge here. There are more plains here and the temperatures moderate to warm – making it ideal for farming.
After our stop at Dochu La, we made our way to Punakha. The road snaked its way down the thick forests and opened up into paddy fields. We stopped at the side of the road and Karma asked us to join him as he walked onto a narrow path in between the fields. We were close to Chimi Lhakhang – the temple of the Divine Madman. Yup! The same one who created the national animal. We made our way through the village of Sopsokha and then the rice fields till we reached the old temple.
Now that we’re at the temple of the Divine Madman himself, who was he? Lama Drukpa Kunley was a Buddhist monk from Tibet and teacher who was known for his eccentric ways and unconventional teaching methods. It is said that a local demoness from Dochula used to harm the people there. The Divine Madman killed her while she had taken the form of a dog with a flaming thunderbolt of wisdom while shouting Chi Mi (meaning No Dog!). The thunderbolt was a reference to his phallus and from then on, it became a protective symbol. The temple has been built over the spot where the demoness was supposed to be buried.
This temple is known as the Fertility temple and it is said that childless couples visit here to be blessed with a baby. Inside the temple was a wooden phallus which women had to carry and walk around the temple thrice. We even saw a photo album of people who couldn’t conceive, visited the temple and had successfully borne children afterwards. We’d never been to a temple like this before and it was a unique story and experience.
It is common to see wall murals and paintings of phalluses in the buildings in this area. In fact, phalluses are worn as charms. You can pick up some souvenirs from the shops in the village on the way back.
We said goodbye to the Divine Madman and proceeded to the Punakha Dzong.
This is easily the most majestic dzong we saw in Bhutan. Sitting right at the confluence of the rivers Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu, you can spend hours admiring the beauty of the dzong and its backdrop. We had to cross a wooden bridge to get to the dzong.
Punakha Dzong is the second oldest dzong in the kingdom and was the administrative centre till 1955 – that’s when Thimphu became the national capital. Karma told us about its legend – Guru Padmasambhava proclaimed a prophecy that a person named Namgyel would arrive at a hill shaped like an elephant. Ngawang Namgyel indeed arrived here and ordered an architect to build a palace for Guru Rinpoche. Namgyel went on the become the founder of a unified Bhutan (about whom you’ve already read in the blogs on Paro and Thimphu).
The dzong is six storeys high and has 3 huge courtyards. The first one is for administrative functions and has a bodhi tree as well.
The second one houses the quarters for the monks. The last one has a temple where the remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel are preserved. The area where the remains are preserved can be accessed only by the main monks and the king himself. Punakha Dzong is indeed a marvel and a must-visit in your trip to Bhutan.
It is one of those structures which you can never get enough of no matter how many times you look at it. Another such structure for me is the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.
The next morning, we proceeded for a trek to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. We passed by Punakha Dzong and followed the Mo Chhu upstream till we arrived at a bridge to cross the river. The hike took us over a suspension bridge, along a creek, through rice fields and finally a steep climb up to the top.
The temple is dedicated to bringing peace and harmony to the kingdom. The temple has four storeys, each dedicated to certain deities, and we walked all the way up along a narrow staircase. We got a magnificent panoramic view of the valley from up there. Have a look!
The trek prepared us for the mega trek that was coming up for us the next day. Read all about it here. And that brings us to a wrap of our Punakha adventures. Punakha is definitely a do-not-miss if you’re visiting Bhutan. Check out our complete itinerary here.
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Thimphu is the capital and the largest city in Bhutan. It is home to the Royal family and is the commercial centre of the country – it is a place where you can experience a blend of Bhutanese culture, tradition and modern lifestyle.
We arrived at Thimphu on Day 2 of our trip (check out the complete itinerary here). Our first stop was the Simtokha Dzong – the oldest dzong in Bhutan built in 1629.
We had arrived in time for a prayer session and got to experience it in one of the halls. The hall was decorated with beautiful multi-coloured victory flags hanging from the ceiling. Butter lamps were burning on one side of the hall in front of the 3 statues – Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (the founder of Bhutan). The chanting of the monks reverberated inside the hall and it was a truly mesmerizing experience. I had witnessed one such prayer session in a monastery in Ladakh and it was equally amazing. Karma, our guide, took us around explaining the legends and stories.
We then went to the gigantic Buddha Dordenma – the golden statue of Buddha stood on top of a hill overlooking the city.
It is likened to the image of Buddha Shakyamuni. The statue is over 50 metres tall and was opened in 2015. In 2018 when we visited, work was still happening in the complex surrounding it. You can visit the halls inside which has over 100,000 statues of Buddha!
Next up, we were off to visit the national animal of Bhutan – the Takin. Legend goes that the Takin was created by Lama Drukpa Kunley, aka the Divine Madman (more about him in the Punakha post) by placing the head of a goat on a cow’s skeleton. That is pretty much what it looks like as well.
We stopped at the National Textile Museum and the Changlimithang Archery Ground. Archery is the national sport of the country. If you see an archery match going on, do take out some time to watch – it is a spectacle! The targets are so far away that they are hardly visible to an average person. Teams celebrate bullseyes with dances and songs!
The grounds also have an important history – it stands at the site of the decisive battle from 1885 which led to the unification of Bhutan and ended years of wars.
In the evening, Karma informed us that the founder of Bhutan Travel Guru, Mr Tsheten, would be taking us out to dinner to a traditional Bhutanese place. We were super excited to try out the local delicacies! We were even more amazed at the amount of personal touch being added to our trip – a testament to the Bhutanese hospitality.
Wow, where do I begin? Let’s start with the butter tea. As the night gets colder, this warm cup of happiness comes to your rescue. Enjoyed with crunchy rice either as a topping or a side, it is the perfect way to start. We also had some dumplings, pork and ara (locally brewed rice wine) as starters.
For the mains, we had a huge spread – almost all of them containing good amounts of chillies and cheese – both staples in Bhutan. Here are the dishes we had:
Ema Datshi – chilli with cheese
Phakshe Paa – Pork Bacon
Jasha Maru – Chicken curry
Shamu Datshi – Mushroom with cheese
Khaktem – fried bitter gourd
Azey – chilli paste with a mixture of green chilli, onion, tomatoes, salt and cheese
Khuli – buckwheat pancakes
Druna Ghu – nine different grains found in Bhutan mixed together
Let’s see if you can identify them in the pics below!
As we found with other foods we ate in Bhutan, it was simple and delicious! My mouth waters as I attach these pics.
Early next morning, we started on our way to Punakha. On the way, we had to cross the mountain pass of Dochu La. On a clear day, you can see the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas from here. But we were greeted by a thick sheet of fog. This gave the place a mystical other-worldly look!
Right in the middle of the road are 108 chortens (or stupas). These stupas were built as a memorial to Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in a battle with rebels.
Near the chortens, a short walk up will take you to the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang – a beautiful temple with flowers on both sides of the steps leading up.
On the other side of the road, we saw signs pointing towards hidden meditation caves. The mist added to the experience as we climbed up the slope looking for the caves.
Tip: If you happen to be in Thimphu during the weekend, do check out the weekend market!
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Our Bhutanese adventure started at Paro’s international airport. Landing here is, in itself, an adventure as it is considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The plane spirals into the valleys with no flat land in sight – it is almost like a video game! Finally, seconds before the actual landing, with the plane still tilted, we catch a glimpse of the runway. Before we know it, we touch down at the Paro airport. After we got down the plane, we could see tall mountains on both sides of the runway – no wonder it was considered to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world. In fact, only a handful of pilots in the world are certified to fly to this airport! Truly an adrenaline pumping start to the trip.
Our guide, Karma (we booked our trip with Bhutan Travel Guru), was waiting for us at the arrival hall. We checked into our hotel and took a power nap (much needed – we had started the trip from Bangalore with an overnight layover at the Kolkata airport!). We headed straight to a restaurant for lunch. We had some fried momos and buckwheat noodles – not recommended.
As soon as we were done, we asked Karma not to take us to any “tourist-friendly” restaurants. We wanted to eat local food at the places where they would go to eat – this is something we do wherever we go and have found it to be better tasting than anything else.
The Oldest Temple in Bhutan and the beautiful Paro Dzong
Our first stop was the oldest temple in Bhutan – Kyichu Lhakhang. The temple was built in the 7th century by the Tibetan king of the time, Songtsen Gampo. A beautiful structure surrounded by giant prayer wheels and ancient trees, it was a good place to start the trip.
We then drove to the Rinpung Dzong – the monastery we saw while landing in Paro. Perched at a height above the Paro valley, the monastery cannot be missed. The architecture here is amazing and the murals contain stories from legends. Karma never missed explaining any of these paintings and their relevance to Bhutanese culture and folklore. As we visited more places, we could identify some of the deities and stories from here – it was quite an immersive experience. Karma mentioned that everywhere we went in Bhutan, we would see the statues and paintings of the three most significant people – Buddha Shakyamuni, Guru Padmasambhava and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. While Buddha Shakyamuni is the founder of Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava (or Rinpoche as he is known) was the one who brought the tantric form of Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan. You can recognize him by his characteristic moustache. Zhabdrung is known as the founder of Bhutan and the one who originally unified the kingdom.
After going through the stories, we strolled along the corridors and out into the courtyard. We got some beautiful views of the valley from the Dzong and spent some more time in the courtyards.
We closed the day back at our hotel with some simple dinner and local peach wine.
The next morning, after breakfast, we proceeded to Thimphu.
We got back to Paro late in the evening on Day 4. The next day would be the grand finale of our trip – the Paro Taktsang, popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest monastery.
The Epic Trek to Tiger’s Nest
The morning view from our hotel was a beautiful panorama – the valley with the river winding through it, mist rising from the distance while the mountains towered all around.
I really enjoyed watching the morning planes emerge from the mist and swerve down towards the airport.
After a quick breakfast, we were on our way to the foothills of the mountain to begin our trek. We had just finished a trek the previous day in Punakha to visit the Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten. We hoped that would serve as a warm-up for what was to come.
First up, the legend behind the monastery
It was built in 1692 around one of the caves where Buddhist master Guru Padmasambhava used to meditate. Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, is said to have brought Vajrayana Buddhism (a tantric form of Buddhism) to Bhutan from Tibet. Legend has it that the Guru arrived here on the back of a flying tigress – hence the name, Tiger’s Nest.
The Trek Begins
Now, let’s get to the trek! When you get your first glimpse of the monastery, it seems almost impossible to get to – it looks like it has been etched into a steep cliff with no path visible. The monastery is perched at a height of over 10,000 feet (3000 feet from the valley). The total distance of the trek is estimated to be around 6km.
At the parking, you can find people handing out sticks for a nominal price (these came in handy at the steep parts of the trek especially on the way back!). We recommend you pick up one of these before heading out.
We first passed through a pine forest and some clearings to reach the base of the cliff. You can choose to take a horse to the halfway point – we chose to walk as the real satisfaction of completing a trek comes when you do it on your own.
The Real Trek Begins!
We were now getting into the steep part of the trek. The dirt trail wound its way up with boulders and roots of trees acting as footholds.
As we gained altitude, it got harder to climb. There were spots where the path was winding around the hill – some people had made steep shortcuts to cut across. While it is fun to pull yourself up a few of them, you end up huffing and puffing pretty soon. Our guide Karma, however, was skipping ahead with ease as this was routine for him. About an hour into the trek, we spotted the monastery and it seemed as far as ever! But the beautiful views, the prayer flags (and adrenaline) kept us going steadily.
In about an hour and 10 minutes, we reached the cafeteria – the rest stop midway into the trek. We re-fuelled with some tea and biscuits while enjoying the view. This is also the last point till which the horse/mule can carry you. After this, it is you and your legs all the way.
The climb continued and the monastery disappeared from view. We were starting to take more frequent breaks as our legs started protesting. Our biggest motivation was a group of elderly people who were making their way to the top – we were amazed by their stamina and how they consistently kept walking without taking any breaks. But even they stopped a bit ahead at the next turn. We understood why when we got there – the monastery was right in front of us! In fact, we were looking down at it from a height.
We were finally down to the last part of the trek. We were done with the trail and now, in front of us, stood Nam’s biggest enemies – STEPS! To make things more interesting, we had to climb DOWN before climbing back UP to the monastery. Thankfully, we spotted the elderly folks and the thought of giving up vanished quickly.
At the bottom of the stairs was a waterfall and a bridge covered in prayer flags. The ambience here literally injects energy into you – this is exactly what we needed to make our way up the final set of steps. It took about another hour and 10 mins from the cafeteria to get here.
We Made It!
At the entrance, we had to keep our shoes, cameras and phones with the security. The most powerful feeling you get as soon as you enter the monastery is PEACE! Karma took us on a tour of the temples here. We spent some time sitting on the cold floor next to the windows looking out towards the valley below. It was so quiet and peaceful – you have to experience it to know it! What’s even more striking is the fact that this was despite the place being full of monks and tourists. Being from cities with a busy lifestyle, we savoured every moment we spent in this ancient cave etched into the cliff of a remote mountain in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.
The way back was tougher as we struggled to find a grip on the slippery dirt. This is where that stick comes in handy – when your knees give way, the stick comes to the rescue! After a two-hour downhill trek, we were back at the parking! We made it!
We were glad it was November and that the sun didn’t beat us down. Check out more about the best time to visit Bhutan and our itinerary here.
Tip: Do not do this trek on the first day of your trip. Remember – you are at a high altitude and your body needs to get used to the oxygen levels. Even though you will manage to complete it, it might force you to take the next day off to rest and rejuvenate.
A Happy Ending to an Amazing Trip
We reached Paro, had lunch and went back to our hotel. Later in the evening, we went to a farmhouse for a traditional hot stone bath. Can’t ask for anything better after the Taktsang trek! The bath was made of wood and had a partition which led to the area outside where the stones were dropped. As the water got cooler, the operator (who was also the owner of the farmhouse) would drop a couple of red-hot stones into the water. The sizzle of the stones as they dropped in was as much a stress reliever as the herb-infused water.
We then went into the home and joined the family for dinner. They started us off with some butter tea – a pink tea which really warms you up from the inside! The food was a reflection of Bhutan itself – simple yet delicious. Rice, scrambled eggs, boiled potatoes, chillies, dried meat and some soup.
The warmth and hospitality of our hosts continued to make us feel at home. Karma helped translate our conversations as they told us about some of the photos hanging in their hall. It was a happy ending to our last full day in Bhutan.
We bid farewell to Karma and Bhutan on Day 6 at the Paro airport as we boarded our flight back home the next morning. Our expert pilot went round and round and brought us out of the valley and soon we had Mt Everest once again for company for the rest of the flight. It had been an unforgettable trip.
Check out our itinerary and tour details here. For more on the foods of Bhutan and the capital of Thimphu, click right here. Our other trek of the trip in Punakha can be found here. Do check out all the blogs to complete your virtual Bhutan experience.
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