Our next stop was the lovely Punakha valley…..The weather was wonderful for our drive from Paro to Punakha. While it is only 120km, it would take 4 hours on the ‘main highway’ of Bhutan which was built by Indian workers 40 years ago, and is still managed by them to this day. I was looking forward to the drive, as we were heading over the pass at Dochu La – at 3000 metres, this pass has stunning views to the Himalayan range on a clear day. And it was a stunning clear day, and it seems every day in Bhutan in December is like this!
From the pass, we headed down to the Punakha valley. At 1200m in altitude, it is a lush green valley in comparison to Paro and Thimpu, where they grow great fruit and vegetables. The first thing you see is Punakha dzong, situated at the confluence of the Mama and Papa rivers in the Punakha valley. Apparently the Mama river is calm and zen and the Papa river is a bit violent. This fits nicely with what I have been learning about buddhism from our guide – women apparently stand for wisdom and compassion, and men stand for power and energy. We didn’t stop at the Dzong, but headed on to the Uma Punakha, further up the valley. It is a stunning tiny resort with 10 rooms and an amazing view up the green river valley.
We had another huge lunch (chicken wings, a club sandwich and ice-cream), and then summoned up the courage to go for a stroll. We headed up the hill to Chorten Nibu which is famous for when Drukpa Kunley (the ‘divine madman’ – more on him later) observed a witches coven plotting to hurt some villagers so he threw a stick at them from a distant hilltop. The stick eventually turned into a beautiful tree where they built the monastery Chorten Nibu. We then strolled down through the rice fields back to the hotel for more food and a big nights sleep.
The next morning, it was another glorious day and we took a stroll along the Mama river in the Punakha valley. We started from the ‘Aman bridge’, so named as it is near the Aman hotel, which doesn’t have a road, the guests get shuttled up from the bridge in golf buggies. We were met by a gorgeous fat dog who lives at the Aman (apparently he used to live at the Uma Punakha, but he upgraded a few months ago to the Aman, where he appears remarkably well fed). He guided us across the rice fields and through a little village full of friendly Bhutanese, including some cute kids who showed us their bows. They couldn’t have been more than about 6 years old but they were pretty good shots.
The dog then took us up the hill to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. It is a lovely temple dedicated to the current king and built by his mum, who lives just behind, and it was consecrated in 1999. The paintings were some of the nicest we saw in Bhutan. From the Chorten we wandered down the hill and through some more fields, helping ourselves to some delicious tomatillos and guavas from the trees on the hillside farms. I did ask our guide whether this constituted theft, and in true buddhist style, he responded that it was fine as the farmers had an abundance.
We wandered along the glacial Mama Chu river, which reminded me of the rivers in NZ, and found some illegal fishing nets in the river. It is technically against the law to kill any animals in Bhutan (all meat is imported from India or Bangladesh), and fishing in the national park is completely outlawed. We took the nets out of the river and shredded them, popping them in the backpack to dispose of later.
Heading up from the river to the hotel we met some cool young boys playing cowboys. They told us how many cows they each had. Like most young bhutanese boys they had knives tied around their waists and were ready for anything. Within a minute or two they had denied all knowledge of the fishing nets but one of them scurried off to the village to find the culprits, two entrepreneurial teenagers who had been selling fish to some of the locals and who were very upset that we had ruined their fishing nets. But like most bhutanese, there wasn’t an ounce of aggression. After a chat about the fishing rules we were back to the hotel for another enormous lunch…., beef skewers, amazing Caesar salad and more cake and ice-cream.
In the afternoon we headed down to Punakha to see the fortress. – Punakha Dzong. Its winter, so the fortress is home to all the monks who decamp from Thimpu during the winter. As a result, opening hours were really curtailed and we had to wrestle a scrum of Indian tourists to get in the door. Punakha Dzong was the second fortress built in Bhutan and it is definitely the loveliest.
The light was magical, and husband and I were forced to pose in front of the famous window in the Dzong where the king and queen had their photo taken.
After a strenuous day of sightseeing, we had a fabulous massage overlooking the river, followed by another enormous meal. At this rate I will be rolling home.
The next morning, fortified by a breakfast of French toast and bacon, it was time to head back to Thimphu. Our last stop in Punakha was at Chimi Lakhang (no dog temple), built in 1499 to honour Drukpa Kunley – the divine madman.
Drukpa Kunley apparently had a creative way of practising buddhism through sex and alcohol – the rock n roll buddhist! He apparently slept with over 5000 women, but it was all honourable as his outrageous behaviour encouraged people to think about things differently. He is still very honoured today, and there are souvenir phalluses galore for the tourists. Apparently it is a great place to go for a fertility blessing.
After that we headed back to Thimphu….to be continued