I have to confess that as our minivan bumped endlessly along the winding mountain roads from Thimphu to Bhutan’s Haa Valley I wondered why on earth I’d added it to our itinerary. But as is so often the case, the road less travelled reaps the best reward and for me the Haa Valley was a real trip highlight.
Obviously the scenery on route is spectacular and we made a few stops to admire the stunning Himalaya views and even walk a stretch of the road. Though I stayed away from the edge as looking down is quite stomach churning!
Then you eventually get to the town of Haa which is split into two parts, one of which is dominated by an Indian military training camp and is the reason the area was closed to tourists until 2001. We carried on through Haa town for another six miles or so to a tiny village called Lechuna where we were staying the night at Lechuna Heritage Lodge. It’s a wonderful converted farmhouse with buildings on either side of a courtyard.
It turned out we were the only guests that night, so we were given a large room with three beds and the run of the place. But before we could explore we had to quickly change for our hot stone bath. We’d been promised this was the ideal way to end a long day of travelling. So we headed back down the rocky path that leads to the hotel and across a small river to the wooden cabins where they are housed.
Outside the baths is a covered fire where the stones are heated after being washed in the river. The hot rocks are then put into a water container that feeds the baths on each side of it. There’s a grill in between so your skin doesn’t come into contact with the stones.
We went into a room each and found there was a shower and changing area as well as the bath itself, which is not unlike a large wooden coffin. The water was very hot but fortunately there’s a cold tap at the end where you can add more water. We managed about half an hour although that did include some sitting on the side of the bath. And even despite that my friend Miriam who is very fair skinned still had bright red legs when we went to bed that night!
Back at the lodge we had a really good meal served by a lovely young woman who unnerved us a bit by standing and watching us eat each course! Our guide Kencho and driver Mr Dawa ate there later and Kencho told us the next morning that he’d wasted no time in telling her to go away. We’d been far too concerned we might offend her. The biggest surprise was that they had a bottle of white wine for sale at the not too excessive price of £25. It was a Jacobs Creek Semillion Chardonnay which wouldn’t be our usual choice, but when in Bhutan you take what you can get!
An even bigger surprise was waiting for us the next morning. After arriving in a rush and dashing off to the baths we hadn’t opened the curtains in our room and it was dark when we got back. When we opened them in the morning we were floored by a breathtaking view of the snow capped Himalyas. That alone made the long bumpy journey worthwhile.
But then it just got better. After an early breakfast we left the hotel and turned the other way up the path and about a minute later we were walking into Gechuka Lhakhang, a local temple dedicated to Chhundhu, the Haa Valley’s protective diety. It has a small monastery attached and as we arrived the novice monks had just been called to have breakfast. I asked if I could take a photo and its probably my favourite of the whole Bhutan trip.
The temple was recently rebuilt after suffering damage in an earth tremor. It’s small but has a beautiful prayer wheel and as with every temple in Bhutan an interesting tale to tell. In this case its that troublesome Chhundhu was banished to Haa by the protector of Bhutan’s capital city Thimphu. He then had a row with the guardian of Paro who stole all of Haa’s water, which is why there is no rice grown in the Haa Valley. True story. Well the bit about no rice is at any rate.
Walking back through the village I was struck by how even in a tiny rural place like this the homes are decorated with wooden carvings. When we were in Thimphu we visited the arts and crafts school where Bhutanese students spend years perfecting crafts like carving and painting and you can see the results in temples and on buildings everywhere.
Driving out of the village on the road back to Haa town we stopped to look at the valley views. Arriving tired and late the previous evening we really hadn’t appreciated just how gorgeous it is. It’s well worth taking the time to get out of the car and just take it in. A great example of living and appreciating life in the moment. And then taking a photo of course, especially if you’re a travel blogger like me!
Our next stop was to see Haa’s white and black chapels. The town’s 50 or so monks are housed in the Lhakhang Kharpo (White Chapel) complex. This was quickly evidenced by the sight of more novice monks sitting in the huge courtyard learning to play the trumpet.
Lhakhang Nagpo, the Black Temple is one of the oldest temples in the Haa Valley and there’s a story of course. Evidently the Tibetan king was looking for two new locations for temples and released one back and one white pigeon. You can guess which one landed where.
Haa town was really interesting to walk around as it has lots of general stores and other practical shops, but none of the handicrafts and other tourist fare we’d seen elsewhere. Of course even these simple shops are beautifully decorated and the local people seemed to like the idea of being in a photo. Sometimes deliberately standing in front of of a building until I’d taken my pic.
There was a one very modern hotel built in the local style, so it looks like development is slowly coming to Haa and with it maybe more tourists. But we liked it just the way it is – a more rural and traditional way of life than we’d seen so far in Bhutan and in a stunning setting.
Our route out was on a much better road as we were heading to Paro and if you’re thinking of going to Haa it’s worth figuring out if you can do that route there and back. It includes travelling on Bhutan’s highest drivable road, the Chele La Pass. The sign says its just under 4,000m above sea level but we were told its more like 3,800. Either way its extremely high, the air is thin and the mountain views are amazing.
Our itinerary included hiking from here to the Kila Nunnery which is made up of a series of buildings built onto a cliff. Kencho told us it would be a fairly easy hike and we could probably wear trainers. As we got started and meandered up the path under the many prayer flags fluttering in the breeze we thought yes, this is going to be a nice easy walk.
But half an hour later we were very glad we’d opted for hiking boots as suddenly we were walking through snow. It was bizarre really as the sun was shining and at times we were so warm we stripped down to t-shirts. But the snow was deep in places and it was a very challenging hike, particularly when we were going along a ridge. I tried not to look at the steep descent into the valley below and once we were through that part we stopped for a rest and posed for a photo looking more cheerful than we felt!
Eventually we reached the nunnery a good hour or more later than expected. Mr Dawa was waiting and had already eaten his packed lunch. We were desperate for ours having only shared an energy bar between the three of us during the extended hike. Unfortunately the packed lunch involved a white bread sandwich and cold chips, but as I said earlier, when in Bhutan you take what you can get!
The nunnery itself is in a stunning location hugging the cliff face and after lunch we summoned enough energy to climb higher to visit some of the buildings and admire the temple and its decorations.
But then we were done and despite Kencho’s attempts to persuade us into more sightseeing we went straight to our hotel in Paro to relax and reflect on our adventurous couple of days exploring some of Bhutan’s less travelled roads.
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