Situated in the Himalayas, the construction of roads does not come easy to a developing country. On the other hand, what you meet in the Punakha Valley on the other side of the Dochula Pass is worth the effort of getting there.
The road from Thimphu
For the sake of nation building, transportation and logistics are basic elements. Language, traditions, religion and power are among the other. We had left the present capital of Thimphu to go to the previous capital city of Punakha, situated in the valley of the same name.
After having watched a spectacular folklore show in Thimphu we set out on a 72 km drive that should have taken 2.5 hrs. It took us 4 painful hours from mud hole to mud hole. An Indian construction firm had been awarded the contract to build a proper road on the very important east-west highway. They had removed the tarmac that was left almost the entire distance across the mountains and then disappeared.
Only a few workers were behind, doing some basic construction work here and there. There was a rainy season coming up some months ago, but as a result of that the road had turned almost impossible to drive, unless you had a proper 4WD as we did. Nonetheless, buses were zigzagging between the holes, small cars were jumping in between and to our left there was a deep abyss of dense forest plunging several hundred metres down to the next river.
The Dochula Pass
The highest point has been turned into a most welcome resting point, complete with a fabulous view of the north-eastern Himalaya mountain range in days of good weather. The fog was heavy when we arrived. There is also a restaurant and rest-room facilities. We lunched somewhere else a bit later.
There is also a memorial to be seen here. 108 memorial chortens (stupas) have been built at the initiative of the eldest Queen Mother. (The former King had four wives, the present has modernised the royal principles and keeps only one.) There is also a Botanical Park here, which we dropped.
The stupas are interesting, most of all because of their significance. In 2003 there was an insurgence in the Assam province of India. It was a bloody insurgence and many fled across the border into neighbouring Bhutan setting up camps from where further attacks into India could be launched. Squeezed in between India and China, India has always been Bhutan’s best strategic partner.
In this case Bhutan sent soldiers to fight the Assamese insurgents, helping their ally. 108 Bhutanese soldiers were killed in the battle, and the insurgence was quelled. In Thimphu I witnessed packs of stray dogs terrorizing the locals and foreigners alike, after nightfall. It was un-Buddhist to kill them. There are obviously exceptions the the rule of not killing.
The Punakha Valley and its Dzong
The valley itself is wide and fertile with rice paddies covering much of the area near the river which flows in a north to south direction. The mountains do not look very tall around here and one would expect the valley to be quite populated. It is not. There are a few villages here and there, even some newly built residential areas but it is not densely populated in any way.
Turning north on a decent road we reach the confluence of two rivers. Here we find the Punakha Dzong, perhaps the mightiest and best looking of all fortresses in Bhutan. Punakha used to be the capital of the country until it was moved to Thimphu in 1955.
The dzong was such a marvellous place to visit, beyond imagination and description. Like the dzong in Thimphu it houses both administrative and religious functions. This is in essence what Bhutan is about, a religious state, waging ancient traditions while trying to cope with modern ideas and systems.
The Chimi Lhakhang monastery
Stopping for a photo shoot I noticed a group of youngsters emerging from a building across the road. The were wearing school uniforms, Bhutanese style. There are also, for foreign visitors, several lodges scattered around on the hillsides but I saw no hotels.
That was Day 3 in Bhutan. The next day, leaving the valley, we went to a monastery. A very special one.
Chimi Lhakhang was built on the site where the “Divine Madman”, the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529) built a chorten (stupa). He is said to having subdued a demon with his “magic thunderbolt of wisdom”. That thunderbolt has been interpreted as his penis. Consequently there are phalluses painted on the buildings lining the streets were we park, there are phallus souvenirs for sale and much more. There are actually Bhutanese pilgrims coming here seeking aid for their infertility. In addition, in Bhutan, an erect penis is used to drive away the evil eye and malicious gossip.
I suppose this is one large tourist trap as well. Of the 60,000 foreigners visiting Bhutan a year, I would guess 50,000 of them go on this short hike across the paddy fields and up the hill to the monastery. It is not large, and on the whole only a short stop on the way somewhere else. On the other hand, there is not yet much more to see in Punakha.
I found the monastery itself not so very interesting, apart from looking at the devout Buddhists inside the prayer hall and spinning the prayer wheels. The walk across the fields was much more interesting in addition to the feeling of being at a place that was only just beginning to develop as a tourist destination.
This is also the reason I came to Bhutan now, tourism is expanding and will expand quite rapidly in the years to come. Unfortunately 2015 saw a setback because of the earthquake in Nepal, and people tend to combine Bhutan and Nepal. If there is no visit to Kathmandu, Bhutan is dropped too. Read my special article about this.
The map below shows the places I visited and the roads I travelled during my week in Bhutan, August 2015. You may expand the map into another tab or window, or zoom in and out here and now.
This series from Bhutan consists of the following chapters:
(1) Thimphu and surroundings (days 1-3)
(2) The Dochula Pass and Punakha Valley (days 3-4)
(3) The Phobjikha Valley (days 4-5)
(4) The holy Taktsang Lhakhang (Tiger’s Nest) (day 6)
(5) The city of Paro (days 5-7)
PICS – Bhutan (all images from the country in one place)