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Punakha : Sightseeing places in the winter capital - The Bhutan Odyssey

Bhutan is unlike a mediocre tourist destination. The first word that comes to our mind when we think about Bhutan is 'magical', while the second one is 'underrated'. Bhutan has remained a landlocked kingdom of constitutional monarchy, aggressively protected culture and values, deities and demons, kings and administration, monasteries and fortresses. It has a glorious past and would appeal anyone in love with nature, culture and modernisation bonding together. The former capital of Bhutan, Punakha, is one such town that has so much to offer. Right from the marvellous Punakha Dzong standing tall in between the confluence of two rivers, to the glorification of phalluses at the Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha is different than the other towns in Bhutan. In this fifth blog of the series 'The Bhutan Odyssey', we will detail out all the sightseeing places in Punakha along with some useful tips and recommendations.

Punakha Dzong surrounded by blooming jacaranda trees, Punakha - Bhutan
Punakha Dzong surrounded by blooming jacaranda trees, Punakha - Bhutan
 

If you missed out on our previous blogs of the series - 'The Bhutan Odyssey', read them by clicking on the links or the photos below:

5. Punakha - Sightseeing places in the winter capital of Bhutan (This article)

 

Punakha is a valley town located in Western Bhutan. It used to be the capital of the Kingdom of Bhutan for about 300 years till 1955 when the capital was moved to Thimphu. Owing to its lower elevation (1200 metre above the sea level), the weather in Punakha is warm in winter and hot in summer. The villagers staying at higher altitudes in Bhutan migrate to Punakha during the winter season to escape extreme cold weather. Two main rivers - Mo Chhu and Po Chhu flow through Punakha and hence it remains one of the most fertile towns of Bhutan. Red rice is hence cultivated in large quantities along the river valleys in Punakha. In fact, Punakha is the largest producer of red rice in Bhutan.


Places to visit in Punakha:

Let us now look at must visit sightseeing places in Punakha -


1. Dochula Pass between Thimphu to Punakha

Dochula Pass is not actually in Punakha valley but it is a high-altitude pass located between Thimphu and Punakha. Driving east from Thimphu, Dochula Pass lies on the crest of a ridge at 3050 metres above sea level. When we visited Dochula Pass, the sky was overcast and it was so foggy that we were not able to see anything a few feet away. However when the sky is clear, Dochula Pass offers a spectacular view of the snow-covered peaks of Mount Gangkar Puensum and other Himalayan peaks.

The Himalayan peaks that can be viewed from the Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha - Bhutan
The Himalayan peaks that can be viewed from the Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha - Bhutan

Dochula Pass is a magnificent group of 108 chortens or stupas. A chorten is basically a repository for religious offerings. The 108 chortens at the Dochula Pass were built to ward of evil spirits and to mark an important event or victory. The militant groups from India's north-eastern region had established guerilla camps in dense jungles of southern Bhutan, from where they used to launch terrorist attacks. In December 2003, Bhutan's army was successful in destroying the militant camps but also lost 11 Bhutanese soldiers to the war. The 108 chortens were built to ward off the danger, for the safe return of all the soldiers, and in respect of the lost lives.

The 108 chorten of Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha - Bhutan
The 108 chorten of Dochula Pass between Thimphu and Punakha - Bhutan

The number 108 is an auspicious number representing the number of prayers in Buddhism that make up a complete cycle. The group of chortens constructed at the centre of road crossing are also called as Druk Wangyel Chortens or Chortens of victory. The 108 chortens arranged in three tiers of 45, 36 and 27 small chortens encircling the main chorten present a magical sight. We spent an hour at Dochula Pass moving around the chortens, clicking photos of the dandelions surrounding the chortens and sipping a hot cup of coffee while appreciating the beauty of the colourful blooming rhododendrons. There is a cafe near the chortens where you can have tea or coffee and use washrooms.


2. Punakha Dzong

The first aspect of Punakha that struck us on arrival is the majestic Punakha Dzong (fortress) also called as Punthang Dechen Phodrang Dzong (Palace of great bliss). The Punakha dzong looks like a towering citadel of whitewashed stones at the confluence point of two rivers - Mo Chhu and Po Chhu. The two rivers meet right after crossing the dzong and forms Punakha Chhu river. The Punakha dzong standing alongside a row of jacaranda trees in full purple bloom, against a clear blue sky, encircled by two sparkling rivers, and wrapped in the fragrance of incense, looked painstakingly beautiful. In the winter season, the entire monastic body moves from Thimphu's Tashichho dzong to the more temperate climate of Punakha dzong; hence Punakha is also known as the winter capital of Bhutan. The Punakha dzong has been damaged by fire, earthquake and floods several times in the past but is rebuilt successfully every time.

The majestic Punakha Dzong beside the Mo Chhu River and surrounded by blooming purple jacaranda trees, Punakha - Bhutan
The majestic Punakha Dzong beside the Mo Chhu River and surrounded by blooming purple jacaranda trees, Punakha - Bhutan

The Punakha dzong was built in the year 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (The Beard Man - Refer our previous article Introduction to Bhutan to know more about him), who is the founder of Bhutanese state and who unified the country. He died at the dzong and his embalmed body is enshrined in the dzong's holiest temple. The local folklore states that Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) prophesied in the 8th century that a young man (The Beard Man) would come to a mountain that looked like a sleeping elephant, and will build a dzong at the place where the elephant's trunk rests. If one sees clearly, the mountain behind the dzong indeed looks like a sleeping elephant whose trunk forms a land where the dzong is standing.

The beautiful wooden carvings inside one of the courtyards of Punakha Dzong, Punakha - Bhutan
The beautiful wooden carvings inside one of the courtyards of Punakha Dzong, Punakha - Bhutan

One has to cross a suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River to approach the Punakha dzong. The bridge leads to a steep wooden staircase that is the entrance of the dzong. There are three courtyards inside the Punakha dzong. This also happens to be the place where the last Royal wedding took place in 2011. The current king of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck married Jetsun Pema, the new Queen in the largest media event in history of Bhutan at Punakha Dzong. One can see the hall where ceremony took place from outside through glass.


The Punakha tsechu (festival) is an annual festival that is organised at Punakha Dzong. It takes place in the first month of lunar year (usually March) and is a dramatic event that combines religious rites and prayers along with display of horsemanship and swordplay. There is also a re-enactment of the historic war between the Beard Man's army and Tibetan forces with great pageantry and dramatic flair. Punakha dzong is the second oldest and the second largest dzong in the country and is a must-visit place in Bhutan. It is advisable to take a Bhutan tour package which makes visiting as well as understanding the cultural nuances such distinguished structures so easy.

The bald monks in red robes seen going inside the Punakha Dzong that is surrounded by jacaranda trees in full bloom, Punakha - Bhutan
The bald monks in red robes seen going inside the Punakha Dzong that is surrounded by jacaranda trees in full bloom, Punakha - Bhutan

Note: Be properly dressed in full sleeves clothes and fully covered bottom to gain entry into the dzong. Your head should remain uncovered at all times when inside the dzong. Bhutanese locals have to mandatorily wear their national dress (Gho and Kira) along with a scarf to enter Punakha dzong. The dzong is open to visitors from 9AM to 4PM. An entrance fee of 300 Nu (equivalent to Indian Rs. 300) is charged.


3. Punakha Suspension Bridge

Bhutan is a land of hilly terrains and mighty rivers. Man-made walkable suspension bridges are constructed all over the country to cross the rivers and mountain crevices. Such bridges are a common sighting in Bhutan. The suspension bridge in Punakha over the swiftly flowing Po Chhu River is the longest suspension bridge in all of Bhutan. It is a hanging iron bridge and is located behind the Punakha dzong. The Punakha suspension bridge is about 180 metres long and is laden with colourful Buddhist prayer flags on both the sides that flutter continuously with the strong wind.

The Punakha suspension Bridge over Po Chhu River - the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, Punakha - Bhutan
The Punakha suspension Bridge over Po Chhu River - the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, Punakha - Bhutan