The Bhutan Odyssey - Punakha : Sightseeing places in the winter capital
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
Crossing this suspension bridge is a unique experience one can indulge in Punakha. The suspension bridge can accommodate several people at a time and keeps on swaying with the strong wind giving an adrenaline rush to the tourists, but it is perfectly safe and well-built. The bridge connects the town of Punakha and the Punakha dzong and is often used by locals to cross the Po Chhu River. The bridge provides a perfect spot for nature photography and bird photography. We crossed to the other side of the bridge appreciating the spectacular view of the river, Punakha valley and mountains while enjoying the cool river breeze.
Note: The suspension bridge in Punakha can be visited at any time of the day.
4. Chimi Lhakhang
Chimi Lhakhang is a Buddhist monastery or temple located in the village of Lobesa near Punakha. The temple is also famous as 'Fertility temple' as praying there induces fertility to couples who wish for a child. Chimi Lhakhang stands on a small hillock and can be reached by hiking the gradually ascending hill for about 15 minutes. The entire path to the temple is dotted with colourful Buddhist prayer flags and purple and orange jacaranda flowers in full bloom. The Chimi Lhakhang is elegantly designed with golden roof and white walls. The temple is located in the centre of a big flat ground with a large Bodhi tree on one side which is said to have been brought from Bodh Gaya (India). Prayer wheels keep whirling as one enters the temple. A large statue of the Divine madman is placed in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple along with statues of the Beard man and 1001-armed Lord Avalokiteshvara.
Chimi Lhakhang was built by Ngawang Chogyel, who is believed to be the 14th Drukpa hierarch. A chorten or stupa was laid at the temple site by Drukpa Kinley (The Divine Madman). The Divine Madman was known for his unconventional methods of teaching Buddhism by way of songs and comedy that displayed sexual connotations and absurd humour. The local folklore states that the Divine Madman subdued a demon in the form of a dog with a phallus called as 'Flaming thunderbolt of wisdom'. He then captured the demon in a chorten and said 'Chi Mi' that means 'No dog'. Since then, this chorten has been positioned at the Chimi Lhakhang temple site. The temple also safeguards the original wooden effigy of the Divine Madman's thunderbolt (phallus) which is used to bless the visitors.
Do visit the back side of the temple to get a spectacular view of the Punakha river and the entire Punakha valley surrounded by hills and mountains. While the background of monasteries and stories around it are interesting, it was the view at the back of monastery which made our day. We also got a chance to play football with red-robed child monks in the playground surrounding the temple. It was amusing to see colourful wooden phalluses being sold at the shops lined up from the parking site of the Chimi Lhakhang. Even the exterior walls of all the houses in the village were painted with colourful phalluses. It is said that these paintings bring good luck and prosperity. We also got to see large and beautiful Thangka paintings displayed in the shops near the parking lot. If you are lucky, you can even spot artists making live Thangka paintings.
Note: The Chimi Lhakhang remains open to visitors from 9AM to 5PM. No entry fee is charged. Photography is not allowed inside the temple. Be properly dressed in fully covered attire while visiting the temple.
5. Sangchen Dorji Lheundrup Nunnery
Perched on a hilltop, overlooking the valleys of Punakha, Lobesa and Wangdue Phodrang is a Buddhist nunnery cum temple named Sangchen Dorji Lheundrup Nunnery or Wolakha Nunnery. The nunnery has a Nepalese styled white-washed stupa similar to the Boudhanath stupa in Nepal with eyes of Lord Buddha painted on all the sides.
The 14 feet tall statue in the adjacent nunnery temple is Bhutan's tallest statue of Lord Avalokiteshvara also known as Chenrezig or the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The 11-headed statue has 1000 hands with an eye painted in between each palm. Statues of Guru Padmasambhava, Lord Buddha and the Beard Man can also be found in the temple. The temple is extremely beautiful with intricate wooden carvings and lively colourful paintings - all work done up manually by the local artists. Along with teaching the ways of living a spiritual life, the 120 nuns staying at the nunnery are also taught tailoring, embroidery, crocheting, statue making and thangka painting.
The construction of nunnery was financed by the father-in-law of the fourth King of Bhutan and the site now serves as a Buddhist college for nuns. It is considered to be the first college that allows nuns to pursue higher Buddhist studies up to master's level. The tourists are allowed to participate in meditation and immerse in the tranquillity of the peaceful calmness. We were intrigued that we got a chance to peek into the daily life routines of nuns where some were reading and preparing for exams while others were washing utensils or soaking up the warm sunlight or circumambulating the stupa and praying. We also bought a few handmade Buddhist dharma wheels as souvenirs that were crafted by nuns. The site offers a splendid panoramic view of the nearby valleys and mountains and we enjoyed photographing pretty birds.
Note: The nunnery is open to visitors from 6AM to 6PM.
6. Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
This chorten or stupa was built by the third wife of the fourth King of Bhutan with the intention to bring peace to the world and to ward off evil. The chorten is located on a hill that can be reached by hiking for 1 hour on a trail. After parking the vehicle on the western banks of the Mo Chhu River, one has to cross to the eastern side walking on a long suspension bridge. The trail that leads to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten starts from here. The trail slowly ascends from the narrow path through paddy fields. Once the paddy fields end, a big prayer wheel can be seen where one can take some rest. Elderly people can be seen sitting near the prayer wheel chanting mantras. From here, the trail narrows down and steeply ascends over a hill that is covered by pine trees. At the top, we were welcomed by a large Bodhi tree, two huge prayer wheels in a shelter and the chorten.
The chorten is surrounded by a well-manicured garden. From inside, the chorten or stupa is a 4 storey temple with statues of wrathful deities on each floor. The temple is colourful from inside and has beautiful sculptures and paintings made by the local artisans. Each floor has enough space to sit, meditate, pray and light butter lamps.
The fourth floor is the roof of the temple from where we got a fantastic view of the zig-zag Mo Chhu river and the surrounding valley. A statue of future Buddha sits on the topmost floor. Accessing the highest level of the temple and soaking in the gorgeous views of the Punakha valley made the whole tiresome climb worth it!
Note: The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten is open to visitors from 9 AM to 5 PM. No entry fee is charged.
7. River rafting in Punakha
Did you know you could do river rafting in Punakha? After a tiring hike in April heat, most of us were eager to take a dip in the cool waters of Mo Chhu river. But why just take a dip when you could experience the thrill of rafting. So we did a 10 kilometre Grade 2 white water rafting which even the first timers could enjoy. We even stopped to take rest on a beach like stretch which had lovely fine sand! A definite recommendation if it is not too cold in Punakha.
Nature Tourism - Bhutan:
Nature Tourism - Bhutan organised our customised trip to Bhutan. We had specifically asked them to include some not too difficult hiking to suit the physical abilities of our group. The tour guide, Dorji, appointed to us by Nature Tourism - Bhutan was an expert in cultural and nature trekking. He was the one who suggested that we do the short hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. On the way, he helped us spot and identify various beautiful flowers and birds. He is also a birding enthusiast and helped us click wonderful bird photographs. Again, Dorji was the one who insisted that we do white water rafting in Mo Chhu River and negotiated a discounted rate. The rafting experience was thrilling and we were happy that we indulged in this adventure activity. The resort in Punakha (Drubchuu Resort) where we stayed for 2 nights was amongst the best resorts of our trip to Bhutan. We are highly grateful to Karma Jamtsho, the founder of Nature Tourism - Bhutan, who made all the arrangements and bookings of our remarkable trip. You can book your trip with Nature Tourism - Bhutan by connecting with them through their official website.
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As you may have felt while reading this article, Punakha is a must visit in Bhutan. It has many interesting sightseeing places that you should not miss. Have you been to Bhutan or is it still in your travel bucket list? How did you find our detailed article on Punakha? Do let us know in the comment section below.