If you are in charge of planning the itinerary for the Bhutan tour, do set aside 2 or more days for Punakha, even if that would mean cutting down a day in Thimpu. Punakha is so beautiful and mesmerizing that we now regret for not being able to spend more time there.
Anyways after checking out form Galingkha, our group with all the baggage, began our journey for Punakha.
As per the plan, we were to halt at Dochula Pass, a place with breathtaking views of Himalayas (on a clear day), approximately 23 km from Galingkha while moving towards Punakha. The moment we stepped out from our coaster, the chilling misty breeze made us rub our hands with glee. Finally we could take out those pullovers, wind cheaters/ jackets that we kept lugging around in our bags and put them to good use.
Dochula Pass, a popular stopover while travelling from Thimpu to Punakha is known for the 108 Memorial Chortens built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers who fought 2003 war. It was built by the eldest Queen Mother Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. If you are lucky you will be able to see the mighty Himalayan ranges (we could catch some glimpses before the fog and clouds obstructed our view).
View of Himalyan Mountain range from the Dochula Pass.
The Druk Wangyel Cafe at Dochula Pass is the only café at this location and is a good place to enjoy tea/ coffee and cookies or snack around or to simply answer the nature’s calls.
Druk Wangyel Cafe at Dochula Pass, Bhutan.
After a brief halt we were back inside the coaster to continue our journey. The view kept changing as we kept moving beyond the beautiful mountain ranges, followed by valleys, rice fields, chasing clouds and sun, spotting Cactus and ferns, skipping our heart beats as our coaster took sharp turns on edgy cliffs, listening to local Bhutanese songs and hearing stories from our guide, Mr Kinley as we approached Punakha.
The ride was little bumpy in some areas due to work going on for road widening and we were told that India is financing that project. Except on this route, the roads everywhere else were really good and the travel was generally smooth.
Chimi Lhakhang Fertility Temple: Located at Lobesa, it stands on the hilltop and was built in 1499, by the 14th Drukpa hierarch, Ngawang Choegyel, after the site was blessed by the "Divine Madman" the maverick saint Drukpa Kinley (1455–1529) who built a chorten on the site. To reach the base of the temple, you can walk across the village and witness the rural life of the people residing there.
The locals are engrossed in cutting logs, harvesting rice, drying recently harvested rice grains and as you cross the mustard and rice fields, streams and muddy patches, you will reach the base of the temple.
A fleet of rocky stairs and a little hike after that will take you to the fertility temple. The beautiful view of the valleys and mountains, lush green fields, water bodies and prayer flags fluttering due to the strong gales, making strange noises, little monks moving around and smiles and greetings from the locals as you halt to catch few breaths, will stay in your memory for a long long time.
Babee Restaurant in Punakha
Our Lunch was booked already by our guide. He took us to Babee Restaurant and we had a really amazing, soul satisfying meal there. Rice, perfectly spiced Dal, Okra subzi, a potato subzi, roti, salad and some freshly made buttermilk. The food that we used to have in Thimpu was either bland or spiced up with chilies. So we went crazy with this delicious buffet meal and ate heartily.
The Most Beautiful Punakha Dzong
Two important rivers in Bhutan, the Pho (Father) Chhu and Mo (Mother) Chhu meet in Punakha valley. The merged rivers eventually meet the Brahmaputra River after flowing down the Bhutan-India border.
The Punakha Dzong or the “Palace of happiness” is situated at the confluence of the two rivers. It is a large fortress overlooking the town with some breath taking views.
It is one of the oldest, largest and most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan. It was built in 1637 and served as the seat of the government until the mid 20th century. The royal wedding was held here, in 2011. During winters, the head of the clergy and monks reside in this Dzong and during that period visitors are not allowed inside the Dzong.
The beautiful mauve Jacaranda flowers were in full bloom and the pristine white walls of the Dzong and the bridge with river flowing under it, the sunrays falling on the artistically carved and beautifully painted wooden railings, the giant prayer flags that ruffled with each strong breeze, left us spell bound. We were bit scared as we climbed the traditional, steep wooden staircase when we saw giant sized honey combs hanging from the roofs of the temple.
Crossing the central tower of the Dzong, observing the beautiful paintings, we went through courtyards, following our guide, Mr Kinley, and finally reached the Kuenrey or the congregation hall, at the far end of the Dzong. A 35-foot image of Buddha Shakyamuni, a 28-foot image of Guru Padmasambhava on his right and a 28-foot image of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on its left,adorn this place. The atmosphere was magical and peaceful!
With a heavy heart we left the beautiful Dzong but were thrilled to know that our group have planned to go for river rafting (Not included in the itinerary!).
River Rafting in Mochu River, Punakha, Bhutan The Rafting in Punakha is gentler and even kids can enjoy the thrill. You have options to commence the rafting from Pho, or Mo Chhu. Our guide arranged everything for us and those who were ready for rafting were divided into groups of 7-8. The rafting guide gave the necessary instructions as the rafting boats arrived. Wearing life jackets and helmets, holding paddles, and revising the instructions given, our group was ready to compete with others.
Rafting began near the iron suspension bridge that crosses the Mo Chhu and the trail went up to the Khansum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. As we moved towards our destination, we were thrilled to watch the mountains and forests changing colors from bright green to orange and then to dusky blue when we crossed the cantilever bridge of the Punakha Dzong.
By the time the rafting session ended, darkness engulfed the Punakha valley and with aching arms, wet clothes and rumbling tummies, we travelled for an hour to reach our cottages. It was pitch dark when we arrived in Punatshangchhu cottages, but the faint lights emitting from the tiny lamps outside the cottages gave us a hint that our cottage is located bang on the bank of the river.
After a hearty dinner we just collapsed on our bed only to wake up to the soulful chants at the crack of the dawn.