After a fab couple of days in Thimphu we were a bit sad to leave but excited to see what other treasures Bhutan had to offer. And there were plenty on route to and in Punakha – not least getting up close with the country’s handsome young king at the beautiful Punakha Dzong!
The journey from Thimphu is of course on winding mountain roads, but they are actually pretty good as there’s been investment to improve the route. Possibly because the royal family connection means they travel it quite a lot. The four sister wives of the Fourth King (the current king’s father) are from a village near Punakha. If you don’t know about them yet then read my first Bhutan post.
After a brief stop at an immigration checkpoint which controls access to eastern Bhutan you drive higher into the mountains to reach the Dochu La pass at over 3000m. You know you’re there because suddenly there’s a huge array of prayer flags and 108 chortens. They were built in 2005 to mark the loss of soldiers who were fighting with militants two years earlier, led by the Fourth King himself.
A small temple was also built by his first wife to honour his victory. It’s worth walking up the steps to take a look inside as it has some really interesting paintings. It’s a real mishmash of Bhutanese history with some showing Buddha’s life along with others depicting the king battling the rebels, monks on laptops and a Druk Air plane! There are also some beautiful carved pillars, chandeliers and thrones – and as with all of Bhutan’s temples no photos are allowed inside.
On a clear day Dochu La offers amazing panoramic views of the Bhutan Himalayas. On our way to Punahka it was too cloudy to see much but our return journey the following day was completely different. The skies were blue, the views stunning and there’s a helpful painting showing all of the peaks with their names and elevations.
Our next stop was the nearby Royal Botanical Park. It’s known for its rhododendron forests and has a lake, magnolia trees and allegedly some tigers. We didn’t see the latter and have seen better flowers at Kew, so unless you’re particularly keen to stretch your legs I wouldn’t worry about leaving it off your itinerary.
The vegetation changes very quickly as you leave the high pass and start to descend into the Punakha valley. It’s at a much lower altitude than Thimphu and much warmer, we actually discarded our fleeces and walked around in t-shirts for a couple of days. Even Kencho our guide pulled down his Gho to waist level, revealing (much to our surprise) a Metallica t-shirt!
This was after we’d had lunch at the very nice Chimi Lhakhang Cafeteria in the village of Sopsokha. This is a good place to park and eat before visiting Chimi Lhankang temple. As well as decent food the cafe has huge windows with a great view across the rice fields to the next small village Yoaka and the temple in the distance.
The walk across the fields was pretty easy and after about 20 minutes you reach the tiny village of Pana. We’d already seen some interesting wall murals in Sopsokha but in Pana there were much more prolific. What I haven’t yet mentioned is that Chimi Lhankang is a fertility temple, so the murals were all of phalluses as were many of the paintings and souvenirs for sale in the village shops.
There’s a bit of a climb up to the temple but it’s not too long and there’s a huge bodhi tree at the top with seats under to pause and get your breath back. The temple is lovely and was built to honour the saint Lama Drukpa Kunley, also known as the Divine Madman. He had fairly unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism including singing, humour and outrageous behaviour with sexual overtones.
Inside young monks from the attached monastery help to look after it. One gave us some holy wine which you have to drink from your hands and then throw over your head. Then he touched us on the head with a wooden phallus and an archery set. The first part is tradition but I think he might have improvised the second! The Bhutanese take it very seriously and women with fertility issues come here walk around the outside of the temple three times with the wooden phallus. We didn’t see any that day but there were a few people doing a circuit to spin the prayer wheels.
It’s less than an hour from there to Punakha which was the capital of Bhutan until the mid-1950s and sits at the junction of two rivers, Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River). Right where the rivers meet is Punakha Dzong, quite possibly the country’s most impressive building and certainly its most beautiful fortress.
All of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned at Punakha Dzong and it’s the winter home of the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan. We’d also seen the car of one of the Queen Mothers on route, so maybe we shouldn’t have been to surprised when the rumours started that the King himself was expected to arrive very soon. When Kencho spotted his bodyguards that sealed the deal.
There’s plenty to see at Punakha’s fortress so while we waited for ‘something to happen’ we spent time exploring the courtyards and buildings including the huge temple. Inside it has gold carved pillars with ornate painted tops and an abundance of temple decorations and red and gold prayer mats.
After we’d seen everything, the King still hadn’t made an appearance. We could tell Kencho was keen to see him and in truth we were too. So we joined a few others that were gathering and sat in the courtyard outside the temple.
The crowd grew and after a while everyone suddenly stood up and surged forwarded. Nothing happened. Then a little while later we were moved around into different positions and realised that all the entrances into the courtyard were now blocked. How would the King get in?
“Could he already be inside one of the buildings,” I asked. “No definitely not,” Kencho replied. Then 2 minutes later King walked out of one of the buildings. It was all a bit Monty Python but well worth it – if only to see and hear Kencho’s delight and multiple thank yous to us. Not just for waiting but for coming to Bhutan – if we hadn’t he wouldn’t have been there that day to see the King. As I said in my earlier posts the royals are very popular here! Needless to say photos of the King aren’t allowed but below is the building he emerged from to say hello and one of the many framed photos of him with his wife and son that we saw during our travels.
Walking back to the car (very carefully down the very steep wooden steps that lead into the fortress) we paused on the bridge for a last look at what must be one of Bhutan’s most stunning sights. But then we drove uphill to our hotel, the Zhingkam Resort and discovered that it has excellent views of fortress below. It’s not the fanciest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, but we had a nice balcony to sit and enjoy a glass of wine and a plate of momos while we relived our exciting visit to the dzong below.
View another short video below and click on an image to scroll through more photos in the gallery. And visit the Bhutan section of my blog for more posts about this amazing country.