Aug 17, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Thimphu

Thimphu Valley
The gorgeous Thimphu Valley
The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, about an hour's drive from Paro. Although it's a lot more urban than the rest of the country, it's very much a quaint and charming Bhutanese town. Here are a few of my favourite things from Thimphu :)

The Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway. After landing in Paro, we drove down to Thimpu where we spent the first two days of our journey in Bhutan. On the way, we stopped at this historic temple built by Bhutan's famous iron bridge builder back in the 15th century. He also built an iron link bridge leading to it. It was washed away however, and what you see now is a replica. A less shaky and more photogenic (IMO) bridge runs parallel to it, for cattle to cross without getting their feet stuck in the iron links:
Tachog Lhakhang
A bridge to help cattle cross the river, lined with prayer flags 
Tachog Lhakhang
The Wang Chhu river under the bridge
Thimphu's main river is Wang Chhu, and you can see it in the above picture. This little river is no little river, actually - it flows through three countries (Bhutan, India, Bangladesh), and becomes a part of the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.

Thimphu has two dzongs, both of them are magnificent in their own ways. The Tashichho Dzong is the seat of the Bhutanese government, and the Simtokha Dzong is Bhutan's oldest surviving dzong. As I mentioned earlier, dzongs are like fortresses, but they also house a monastic section and the local district administration. Ngawang Namgyel, known as the Shabdrung or the unifier of Bhutan, brought the whole country under one rule for the first time, back in the 17th century. He is worshipped as a deity all over Bhutan and all of the dzongs that you see in Bhutan today, were built by him.
Tashichho Dzong
Tashichho Dzong
Tashichho Dzong
Tashichho Dzong
Tashichho Dzong
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong
Tashichho Dzong
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong
Simtokha Dzong
Simtokha Dzong
The Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point is probably Thimphu's highlight - it is a colossal statue of Lord Buddha that appears to magically rise out of the mountains! The statue is 51 meters tall, and you can see it from almost everywhere in Thimphu.
Buddha Dordenma
Buddha Dordenma
Buddha Dordenma
Buddha Dordenma
We did a bit of window shopping at a small handicrafts bazaar on the river bank, The prices vary wildly from stall to stall, so it's hard to know if you're getting a good deal!
Bhutanese Handicrafts
Shopping for handicrafts in Thimphu
Bhutanese Handicrafts
Shopping for handicrafts in Thimphu
People come to the old Changangkha Lhakhang (Temple) to get their little children blessed, and also to get lucky names picked out for their newborns. Or if they are like me, to check out the incredible view from the back of the temple.
Changangkha Lhakhang
Changangkha Lhakhang
We went to the National Institute of Zorig Chusum to watch students learning Bhutan's traditional arts and crafts. There are 13 specific arts that the Bhutanese consider very important - together they are called Zorig Chusum. Below, is a painting class in progress:
Institute of Zorig Chusum
School of arts and crafts
Institute of Zorig Chusum
School of arts and Crafts
Thimphu has some really nice cafes and bars. If you drink beer, try the Druk and Red Panda beers - both are brewed locally in Bhutan.
Druk Beer
Druk Beer
The Zone, Thimphu, Bhutan
A cozy cafe called The Zone
These were just my favourites - there's a lot more to do in Thimphu, like the National Memorial Chorten, a cluster of lovely museums, the post office where you can get custom stamps printed with your face on them and the Takin zoo. After getting our fill of Thimphu, we drove eastwards past the picturesque Dochula Pass to remote Phobjikha. A three hour drive from there took us to historic Trongsa, from where we squeezed in a day trip to Bumthang. We then turned around, and headed westwards to warm Punakha. Finally, we returned to Paro, where we began our trip. This wraps up my series of posts about the towns that I visited, but I'm not done with Bhutan - there's more coming up :)

Aug 10, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Punakha

Punakha is a beautiful warm valley at an altitude of about 1200m above sea level - you can tell by the warmth that it isn't very high up. Covered with lush green terraced paddy fields, the fertile district is Bhutan's biggest producer of rice.
Paddy Fields in Punakha
Paddy fields outside our room in Punakha
Punakha attracts hordes of visitors for two main reasons - this is the first one:
Punakha Dzong
Jacaranda blooms at the Punakha Dzong
Good reason, right? The Punakha Dzong is widely considered to be Bhutan's most beautiful fortress. And it's very hard to disagree, especially during spring - the front of the fortress is covered by gorgeous purple jacaranda trees in full bloom. No wonder the present king and queen chose to get married in this idyllic setting.
Punakha Dzong
The gorgeous Punakha Dzong
The second reason is a 15th century saint named Drukpa Kunley, or the Divine Madman. He was an absolutely outrageous teacher who used his phallus (yeah, you read that right) to tame demons and bless followers - he called it his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom!! I want to keep my blog family-friendly, so I won't go into any more details, but you should totally google him - he's an utterly fascinating character! Since he subdued a demon here at Punakha, there's a temple called the Chimi Lhakhang, dedicated to him. It's also called the temple of fertility. It is reached by a beautiful 20 minute hike through the village and past paddy fields. On the way, almost every home or shop has a phallus painted on it - this is actually very common all over Bhutan. The paintings are believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Phallus themed souvenirs are very popular too.
Phallus paintings in Punakha
Phallus paintings in Punakha
Phallus paintings in Punakha
Punakha is also home to Bhutan's longest suspension bridge that hangs over a gushing river:
Punakha Suspension Bridge
Punakha Suspension Bridge
We stayed at the Drubchhu Resort in Punakha. It is pretty modern, but it's very charming and beautiful. It's a family run resort, and the mom is a very passionate gardener. Every time we ran into her, she was in her hat and boots with a shovel in her hand - that is exactly what I want to be when I grow old!
The Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
Our room at the Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
The Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
Nasturtiums from the garden at the Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
One of my favourite things in Punakha was hanging out with the young monks sitting on the grass outside the Chimi Lhakhang - some of them were doing their homework, some were practicing playing the dungchen, a kind of horn from Tibet. We couldn't understand one another too well, but it was really fun to watch them learn magic tricks from Tenzing, our guide :)

Jul 20, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Trongsa

The Trongsa district in central Bhutan is the ancestral home of the Wangchucks, Bhutan's royal family. The kingdom's first king Ugyen Wangchuck was actually the twelfth governor of Trongsa. He managed to bring the whole country under his control and was elected as the first Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King of Bhutan. So, in a tradition that is continued to this day, the crown prince of Bhutan serves as the governor of Trongsa, until he becomes the king.
Mangde Chhu River, Trongsa
The Mangde Chhu river flowing through Trongsa
It took us about 3 hours to drive to Trongsa from Phobjikha. As we approached the town, the majestic Trongsa Dzong (fortress) came into view, nestled in the middle of lush greenery.
Trongsa Dzong
The Trongsa Dzong
The town of Trongsa has just about two small streets, and they are crammed with tiny restaurants, bars and grocery stores. 
Trongsa Town
Trongsa town
We stayed at the Tashi Ninjay guesthouse run by a wonderfully warm family.
Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The room was adorable, and the view from the balcony was just jaw-dropping.
The dzong is Trongsa's main attraction, and we didn't even have to step out of our room to see it! It was surreal to stand in the balcony with a cup of tea, watching the dzong disappear every now and then as clouds BELOW us ran in and engulfed it.
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The most perfect balcony ever!
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The view of the dzong from our room on a sunny morning
View from Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The dzong all lit up at night
Shot from the room - notice the rainbow? :)
Some pictures from the inside of the fortress, featuring Tenzing, our awesome guide :)
Trongsa Dzong
Trongsa Dzong
Trongsa Dzong
The Royal Heritage Museum housed in a watchtower close to the fortress is amazing - a must-visit if you're a history buff, or just want to quickly understand the history of Bhutan. We took a small walk on the outskirts of the town, and found fiddlehead ferns (delicious ferns used in Bhutanese cuisine) and hundreds of wild strawberries growing all along the trail.
Strawberries in Trongsa
Strawberries in Trongsa
While Phobjikha was my favourite destination in Bhutan, Trongsa was a very close second. We managed a short day trip to the Bumthang district, and that was as interior as we went. I wish we could have gone further east - I bet the remote eastern districts are even more spectacular, but I'm glad we left ourselves a reason to go back to Bhutan :)
The mountains of Trongsa
The mountains of Trongsa in the late afternoon sun

Jul 13, 2015

Bhutan Diaries : Phobjikha

Soooo I was planning to do my Bhutan posts in a west-to-east order, but I was really dying to tell you about Phobjikha, my favouritest of the lot, so I decided to dump that plan!

After landing in Paro, we drove to Thimphu, about an hour away. We spent a couple of days there, and then drove to Phobjikha, an insanely gorgeous glacial valley in central Bhutan. The drive was pretty bumpy, and took about 8 hours, but it was an experience in itself - on that one day alone, we saw more beauty than we'd seen ever before!
Dochula Pass
The stupas at Dochula Pass
We drove through two gorgeous high mountain passes - the first was the Dochu La Pass  at 3100 meters. 108 little stupas stand at the pass, commemorating the successful eviction of  Northeast Indian insurgents by Bhutanese forces. The cafe up there is an awesome place to enjoy a cup of tea with a view. We actually ran into a Bhutanese Rajnikanth fan there! It made us realize once again, how well the Bhutanese know India. From Bollywood music playing in cars and cafes to Indian food even in remote towns, India's influence on the tiny kingdom is really visible. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing?
The cafe at Dochula
Shortly after we crossed Dochula, it started raining, and continued to rain almost all day. The entire route was wet and misty and incredibly beautiful.
Phobjikha
The rain thinned down to a light drizzle by the time we reached Lowala Pass, the entrance to Phobjikha. At an altitude of 3360 meters, with the clouds and the valley far below, and surrounded by yaks and rhododendrons, it was the most picturesque stretch in the entire drive.
Lowala Pass
Lowala Pass
Lowala Pass
Lowala Pass
Since we still had a little daylight left, we went straight to Gangtey, a little village overlooking the valley. It is home to a beautiful monastery called the Gangtey Gompa. We were lucky to be there during a festival - the huge crowd gathered there was singing together and a masked dance was going on. The spiritual head of the monastery was going around blessing everyone. The village is really charming too, with traditional Bhutanese wood houses and gorgeous views all around.
GangteyGangtey
Phobjikha seen from Gangtey
Quite exhausted after a long but most EPIC day, we headed to the Gaikiling Guesthouse where we'd be spending the night. And there was more awesomeness waiting for us there!
Gaikiling Guesthouse
The Gaikiling Guesthouse
Gaikiling Guesthouse
Our wonderfully cozy room
Gaikiling Guesthouse
The view from our room
Gaikiling Guesthouse
Where we had breakfast the next morning
There isn't much to 'see' in Phobjikha. During winter, black necked cranes come visiting from Tibet, but that's about it. It's a great place to soak up the jaw-dropping natural beauty all around, disconnect from the world (Phobjikha is so remote, it didn't even have electricity until recently), and go on long, stunning hikes. 
PhobjikhaPhobjikha
PhobjikhaPhobjikha
We only had time for a short hike called the Gangtey Nature Trail, but I know for sure that if I ever return to Bhutan, I'll skip everything else and go straight to Phobjikha. After Phobjikha, we drove deeper into central Bhutan, to our next destination, Trongsa. But that's another story for another post :)