The road from Thimphu to Punakha was winding and juddering in many places due to the road works. Things in general do not proceed at a cracking pace in this country, and road travel is no different. It is only 89 km between these two cities, but the journey took over 3 hours (not counting our stops). Easily one of the worst stretches of road I’ve ever travelled on. Glad I slept for over an hour of it!
Bhutan’s National Sport – Archery
Upon leaving Thimphu, we swung by the Changlimithang Stadium and Archery Ground where some archers were practising the national sport of Bhutan. Since 1984, Bhutan has participated in the Olympic games, but it was only in 2012 that they sent any competitors other than archers (and then it was for the air-rifle event!).
People often turn up to watch the archers practise, and there were a handful gathered on the side of the range. These men were very impressive in their skill, and very brave (or experienced!) with their proximity to the target. One archer would stand 145 metres away and take aim at a narrow board that had a bull’s eye on it of only 30cm in diameter. The other archers would stand near the target, some only one metre from possible peril. They stood, squinting into the sun at their teammate as he prepared to fire, and would only dance away if they were at risk from the lethal projectile. Otherwise they would just stand and watch the arrow land. When the board was hit, what followed was a ritual of dance and song in celebration.
Dochu La Pass
We stopped on the journey at Dochu La Pass (3,140m) for one of the finest panoramas of the Himalayas anywhere. From here we had a perfect view of Gangkhar Puensum – the highest unclimbed mountain in the world (in Bhutan it is forbidden to climb any mountain over 6,000m, this one is 7,570m).
The 108 memorial chortens (or stupas) known as Druk Wangyal Chortens (chortens of victory) are another feature of the Dochu La Pass. The eldest Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, had them built as a memorial to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against the Assamese insurgents from India. We savoured the time out of the car wandering amongst the chortens and enjoying tea in the sun while gazing at the snow-covered peaks.
Stopping at Dochu La Resort Restaurant for lunch provided the usual fresh and healthy fare we had begun to expect in Bhutan – beans, chillis, eggplant, red rice, bread, potatoes, all delicious. Located along the highway at a top vantage point, the views of the mountains continued to amaze and made the perfect spot for lunch.
We descended into the Punakha Valley, which was vastly different to the cooler climes and higher altitude of most of our journey so far. This area is fertile and beautiful, almost tropical, and is where oranges and bananas are grown in abundance (the low altitude also allows for two crops of rice a year).
The focus of fecundity continued with our next stop, a fertility temple called Chimi Lhakhang located in the centre of the valley. There were some cafes and shops in the vicinity, a few with honking big pink penises painted on the outdoor walls. No confusion about the focus of this temple at all!
It was a pleasant walk to the top of the hill where Chimi Lhakhang sits. It is home to a small monastery, and it was lovely to see the boy monks playing soccer and watching TV on their ‘day off.’ This temple is a popular destination for couples trying to conceive, and our guide was full of stories of those who had been unsuccessful for many years before visiting this temple, making an offering, receiving a blessing, and becoming pregnant within a year. Maybe the wang-covered gift shops down the hill are justified.
We drove to the junction of Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River), where the gorgeous Punakha Dzong commands the auspicious spot. This dzong was once the seat of government before Thimphu became the capital in the mid 1950s. I was glad that this was the final dzong to see in our short trip, each fortress we have visited has trumped the previous for size and beauty. Its architecture is the finest in the country and the fortress is the most majestic and beautiful. Truly stunning, but also simply delightful to be in!
Our night was spent at the Meri Puensum Resort. Sprawling in tiered construction on the side of the hill, it was a combination of rustic and charming (if a little old in the bathroom area – green ceramics all over, toilet, bath and basin included!). The bedroom balcony and covered communal terrace provided choice views of the valley, farms and river below – the perfect spot to enjoy a local beer and watch the sun set (a daily spectacle that we have not missed in our time in Bhutan).
Cost of visiting Bhutan
Most people are under the misapprehension that Bhutan has a cap on the number of visitors per year. This is not the case – they do have a daily fee of $250 USD pp for being in the country, but that covers your accommodation, meals, guide and driver, as well as contributions to the health and education of its citizens. The accommodation is of a 3 star quality, and you can pay an additional supplement if you are interested in staying somewhere more luxurious. Tourists are not permitted to ‘go off’ on their own (for activities such as trekking), and your guide and driver take you wherever you wish to go in the country, following an itinerary planned with you prior to travel. The cost and these restrictions are Bhutan’s way of preventing the country from becoming a ‘backpacker ghetto’ – they have no desire to be the next Nepal, and in fact, it is illegal to climb any mountains in Bhutan higher than 6,000m (they have the highest ‘unclimbed’ mountain in the world – Gangkhar Puensum, 7,570m).
Our Bhutan story continues…
Read our full Bhutan story here:
Part 1: Paro
Part 2: Paro Tshechu Festival
Part 3: Thimphu
Part 4 (current): Punakha
Part 5: National Highway
Part 6: Tiger’s Nest