Bhutan – Regular Tourist Circuit

The first detailed post on the places that we visited during our two week trip to Bhutan in May, 2013. This one will be on the three cities of Bhutan that is on the itinerary of most of the tourists who visit Bhutan. The regular circuit of Thimphu, Punakha and Paro in Western Bhutan! Paro has the only international airport in Bhutan and the mystical Tiger’s Nest is close to Paro. Thimphu is the current capital of the country. Punakha is the old capital and also the cultural capital for the country. Also being next to each other, they naturally form the regular tourist circuit.

Thimphu

Thimphu, the largest city is the capital of Bhutan. It became the capital only about 50 years back and is therefore a relatively new city. The city lies next to the Wang Chhu aka Thimphu Chhu river.

Peaceful Resort

As the name suggests this resort is tucked away in the peaceful residential area of Motithang away from the hustle and bustle of Thimphu town centre. We stayed here for two nights. We had our room on the topmost floor of the two storeyed building which was ideal for me especially to scan the surrounding area for birds :) And we were not disappointed since the area around had a reasonable avian activity as I have mentioned in my birding diary post.

The staff at the dining area were pleasant and the food was pretty good. We decided to try the Ema Datshi here. Ema Datshi is a staple dish of the Bhutanese made using cheese and plenty of green or red chillies which makes it extremely spicy. Since we were in Bhutan we wanted to try this dish. When the dish finally arrived, we realized that it was way too spicy for us. We ended up hardly eating any of it and leaving the bowl almost untouched!

Ema Datshi

Ema Datshi

Tashichho Dzong

Taschichho Dzong is a Buddhist monastery as well as a fortress which is located near the river bank. It also houses government offices. The head Lama of Bhutan spends his summer here. On our first day in Bhutan we went to the Dzong around 5 in the evening to watch the flag lowering ceremony which happens on a daily basis signalling the end of the working day.

This particular day was special as the head Lama was arriving with his cavalcade from Punakha for his summer sojourn. The whole place wore a festive air and the monks were busy with their preparations to welcome the Lama.

All set to receive the Lama

Lot of people had gathered to witness the arrival of the Lama and seek his blessings. We walked around the beautiful courtyard inside the dzong for a while. The whole path leading to the entrance of the dzong had been dotted with colourful prayer flags which were fluttering in the wind adding to the beauty of the place.

Outside Trashicho Dzong

Flags signify prayers

When the Lama arrived a set of monks standing atop the roof of the dzong played the dungchen. Dancers dressed up in traditional costumes were also part of the procession. To our pleasant surprise we saw the King and Queen receive the Lama before they retreated back to their palace which is located right behind the dzong.

The wait of the monks

The dzong looks spectacular when it is lit up in the night. Photographing the lit up dzongs of Bhutan became a mini project once Nagesh started with this dzong!

Trashicho Dzong at night

Takin Reserve

The national animal of Bhutan is the Takin. It looks like a hybrid of a Yak, Goat and a Horse. It is endangered and found in the wild only in remote regions of Northern Bhutan. However there is an enclosed area for Takins which were initially captured with the intent of housing them in a zoo. As the zoo never materialized and the freed Takins began to wander aimlessly around the town, they were housed in an exclusive reserve.

Takin – the national animal of Bhutan

As per local belief, Drukpa Kunley who was popularly known as the divine madman was asked by the villagers to perform a miracle. He asked them to get him a cow as well as a goat to eat before he could perform a miracle. The villagers did so. He devoured the cow and goat and all that remained were bones. To the utter astonishment of the villagers who had gathered, he attached the head of the Goat to the skeleton of the Cow. He then clapped his hands and the skeleton was covered by a body. The animal jumped up and ran to a nearby meadow for feeding. Thus the Takin was created!

Kuensel Phodrang

A gigantic 169 feet long statue of Gautama Buddha is being constructed on a hillock on the outskirts of Thimphu amidst the ruins of the Kuensel Phodrang palace. This statue called as the Buddha Dordenma, made of Bronze and gilded with Gold, looms over the city of Thimphu. It will be one of the largest Buddha statues in the world upon completion. The statue stands upon a platform, the inside of which will be used as a meditation hall.

Kuensel Phodrang

Punakha

Punakha is the old capital of Bhutan. It is still the religious capital and home to the Lama through most of the year. More on this below as part of the Punakha Dzong. First let me cover the route from Thimphu to Punakha!

108 Chortens

The Dochula pass lies between the districts of Thimphu and Punakha. On our way to Punakha we visited the 108 chortens built on this pass. The chortens were commissioned by the Queen Mother as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the conflicts that raged with the militant outfits.

108 Chortens at Dochula Pass

On a clear day this place offers an unobstructed 360 degrees panoramic view of the Himalayas. But we were there on a foggy day making it impossible to see the valley below let alone the Himalayas! However this lent a magical look to the place and it looked like a setting out of a fairytale :) The place looked so colourful despite the fog. Clearly this place was one of the highlights of our trip!

108 Chortens at Dochula Pass – another view

We felt completely at peace walking around the chortens surrounded by lush green grass dotted with flowering plants. We saw a monk meditating here and he seemed to be oblivious to everything going on around him.

Monk at Dochula Pass

Royal Botanical Garden

The Royal Botanical Garden spread over 12,000 acres of land is located at Lamperi on the way to Punakha past the Dochula pass. The park has a Rhododendron Garden, visitor information centre, a lake and several trails. We went here for birdwatching. It turned out to be the weekend during which the Rhododendron festival was going on.

Bhutanese women in a traditional dress singing a song

The place was pretty crowded. Lot of families had come for their Sunday picnic. There were cultural performances by the local women and school children.

Bhutanese Folk Dance

We saw Yaks grazing around the lake. Some nomadic shelters had been put up to showcase how they lived in various regions. We met Mr Wangchuk Phuntscho who works in the forest department and he was glad to take us around to try and watch some birds. Though we did not see too many on that day due to the crowd, we had seen enough to determine that this place deserved a second visit on our way back.

Meri Puensum Resort

We had chosen Meri Puensum Resort for our stay in Punakha. We spent three nights here. The resort is located on a hillock in Woolakha area. The view from our room which was close to the edge of the property was very nice. The fields dotted with homes was a beautiful sight. We could do quite a bit of balcony birding. Food was pretty decent. The only disappointment was the way too greasy Aloo Parathas that we got for breakfast early morning at 5 when we wanted to go to Jigme Dorji National Park for birdwatching. We realized that it was better to stick to continental breakfast.

View from our room at Meri Puensum Resort

Meri Puensum Resort

Punakha Dzong

The Punakha Dzong aka Pungtang Dechen Photrang Dzong is one of the most picturesque places in Bhutan. It literally translates to the palace of great happiness or bliss. It was constructed by the Zhabdrung in the seventeenth century. The dzong was the administrative centre and seat of the government until the capital was shifted to Thimphu in mid nineteenth century. Today it serves as the winter seat of the Lama and the Punakha district administration. It houses the relics of Zhabdrung. It is an important place for the royal family and most of the important functions take place here. The notable amongst them being the coronation of the king and the weddings in the royal family. The current king and queen got married here in 2011 and that was an event which the whole country celebrated.

The dzong lies next to the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother river) and Po Chhu (Father river) under a hill shaped like an Elephant’s head.

Punakha Dzong at the confluence of Mo Chhu and Po Chhu

The approach to the dzong is  through a beautiful covered wooden bridge built in the traditional style. The Jacaranda tree lined path in front of the dzong enhances the beauty of the place during the blooming season.

Punakha Dzong at sunrise

It is a delight to watch and photograph the dzong at different times of the day with the light varying and making it look different. The picture above was just after sunrise. The next pic in the evening light and the one after at night. The dzong looks stunning when it it is lit in the night.

Punakha Dzong in the evening

Lit-up Punakha Dzong at night

The view from within the dzong at the entrance is fantastic and can only be described as fit for kings!

Outside view from Punakha Dzong

The dzong is possibly the most regal dzong in Bhutan and the insides of the dzong reflect the same.

A monk looks out

Bodhi tree within Punakha dzong

Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten

The Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten is a beautiful temple commissioned by the Queen Mother before the coronation of her son as king. It is located on a hill in the countryside and about half an hour away from the town.

Khamsum Yuley Namgyel Chorten

The chorten can be reached by crossing the bridge across the river, a walk through the fields and a hike up the hill.

Mo Chhu snakes along

The walk takes around 1 hour. It is more than worthwhile spending that time and effort for the superb views of the surrounding countryside that can be seen through the walk.

Lush green countryside

Chimi Lhakhang

An important figure who played a role in the Bhutanese history has been Drukpa Kunley popularly known as the Divine Madman. He was a popular poet and a teacher of Buddhism in his own eccentric ways thereby earning the above title. There is a strange monastery dedicated to him near Lobesa village in Punakha district which is called Chimi Lhakhang aka the temple of fertility. The strange custom here is to bless visitors with a wooden phallus. It is a belief that praying here has caused childless women to have babies and mothers with newborn babies come here to give offerings and choose a name for the babies.

Chimi Lakhang – Temple of fertility

Monks, a dog and a Jacaranda tree

The temple can be reached by a short walk through the village and fields. The monks were practicing the playing of Dungchen, a traditional Bhutanese trumpet, and our guide joined in!

Playing the Dungchen

Paro

The last of the three cities on the regular tourist circuit of Bhutan is Paro. In addition to being the gateway into Bhutan, Paro is a beautiful valley as well. And given the presence of Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest Monastery here, Paro is also the “face” of Bhutan for most people outside Bhutan.

Metta Resort

We spent the last three nights of our trip at Metta Resort in Paro. Located away from the hubbub of the town centre, it was a good place to relax and end our two week journey. The food was excellent and the room was cozy. The culinary highlight was ginger cake prepared by the owner of the resort. She mentioned that it was an Indonesian recipe and one of her specialties. The garden was filled with beautiful flowers and the views of the surrounding hills was nice.

Fluttering flags at Metta Resort

Paro Dzong

Paro Dzong aka Rinpung Dzong houses the administrative offices as well as the monastic body of the Paro district. The word Rinpung literally translates to heaps of jewels. The dzong and its jewels were however burnt in a fire in early 1900s. The dzong was then rebuilt. It is located next to the Paro Chhu river and can be approached via a traditional wooden bridge. As some construction work was going on when we went, we had to enter the dzong from the rear. This dzong can be seen as one lands in Paro airport! On the hill above the dzong stands an ancient watchtower called Ta Dzong which is being used as the National Museum of Bhutan currently.

Paro Dzong

Landing in Paro

As mentioned in my introduction post on Bhutan, we had taken the Druk Air flight from Delhi to Paro. The highlight of the flight was fantastic views of Mt Everest and some of the other peaks of Eastern Himalayas.

Mt Everest

Mt Everest

Our first glimpse of Bhutan from high above was the heavenly sight of mist parting up to reveal what seemed like an endless cover of Pine trees! The landing itself was one hell of an experience with the plane gliding through the valley and doing some last minute turns to land on the runway which we couldn’t see :) All the passengers started clapping out loud once we had landed!

Taktsang Monastery

The “face” of Bhutan for many. If you have to choose one view that defines Bhutan, many would choose the view of the Taktsang hanging at the cliff’s edge as that. The Taktsang Monastery is popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The name comes from the Bhutanese belief that Guru Rinpoche rode a flying tigress and landed at this place on the cliffs on his way to slay demons from Tibet. Given the importance Guru Rinpoche has for Buddhism, in Bhutan and in general, this monastery is an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists. The Bhutanese believe that their sins will be washed away if they hike up to the monastery and pray. A popular offering is butter and people carry a large load of it on their backs up the hill to the monastery and offer the same. The monastery has had it’s share of fires and has been reconstructed each time.

Taktsang aka Tiger’s Nest

The monastery is closed during lunch time and therefore it is advisable one leaves early enough in the morning to ensure that one can reach the monastery well before lunch. The monastery can be reached by a moderately difficult trek which took us about two hours one way. Frankly, we weren’t in the best of shape, so I suppose it can be done in lesser as well. Walking sticks can be obtained for a small fee at the bottom of the trail.

Start of the hike to Taktsang

There are also pony rides available. The pony will take you only on the upward journey till the point where steps begin. Midway on the trek there is a cafe where you can rest and enjoy a cup of tea watching the monastery from much closer. Through the first half of the trek the monastery is never visible and it comes into view just a little before reaching the cafe.

Us at half-way point

Just when you think you’ve reached the monastery at about the end of the trek, you turn a corner and realize that you have a set steps which lead you way down below the monastery before you can climb another set of steps leading up into the monastery. Many a tourist feels like giving up when they see this. So it helps to know about this beforehand!

Us overlooking Taktsang just before the last set of steps

While getting into the monastery one needs to leave all belongings including shoes and jackets outside. Given the Buddhist traditions, no leather items can be worn inside. For the ladies climbing, given that you will end up leaving your jacket outside, it is advisable that you wear full sleeved clothing with a collar or a shawl to ensure you cover your neck as a respect to the Buddhist traditions. This is an expectation when visiting most of the Dzongs as well in Bhutan. I was carrying a fleece jacket in my backpack during the climb for this very purpose. It also helped in the climb down as the weather had turned colder by then.

In Short

This was our trip in what is the regular tourist circuit of Bhutan. As is our wont, even in these places we covered some places which are generally not the typical tourist haunts. That said, there is so much to Bhutan when you go beyond the normal. It is nothing short of “falling off the map” and therein lies the real Bhutan. More on those in the upcoming post.

This post took a while putting together and the next may take longer as we will probably be taking a little bit of a break from the blog. Hope to see you guys on the other side of the break. Thanks for reading!

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4 Responses to Bhutan – Regular Tourist Circuit

  1. Nisha says:

    Very detailed account with gorgeous pictures. :)

    This country has been eluding me for quite a few years. But whenever that happens, I’ll read your posts again. :)

  2. deepa says:

    What a great find this blog!! I am definitely going to be back to join you guys on your off the beaten path adventures!
    we love to travel ourselves (me and my husband) so we will definitely book mark this for reference!

    stop by Aalayam (a blog I co author with a friend) – you might find it fun.

    ~deepa

    • Roopa says:

      Thank you Deepa! It’s always a pleasure to get to know like minded people like you :) will definitely check out your blog.

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