Punakha and Wangdue Valleys, Bhutan
So we left Thimphu early Monday morning heading east and up, up, up towards Dochulaa Pass, which at 3,150 meters (10,344 feet) would be the highest point of the day. Piece of cake after the over 18,000 feet I experienced a week ago at Everest Base Camp.
Now supposedly on a clear day you can see a number of the mountains in the Himalayan range. However, as we climbed higher along the very narrow and very windey road, we became surrounded in fog. The likelihood of seeing anything today was zero.
Once we reached the top of Dochulaa Pass, we did a little hiking around. First up was a little climb to the top of a hill where 108 stupas had been constructed in 2005. From there, we wandered across the parking lot and up the hill through the fog to the Druk Wangyel Lhakhang (temple) that was apparently constructed by the former Queen Mother to honour her husband, the King.
We wandered around the temple, which contained the standard icons and images of Buddah. However, what I found ironic was that within the temple there was a smaller temple that prohibited woman from entering. HUH? So you had a temple built at the direction of a woman, but women could not enter part of the building. I don’t get it.
Anyway, after the hike around the top of Dochulaa Pass, we stopped in the little coffee shop by the parking area for some chai tea and cookies while we watched the fog roll around the valley below. It was not lifting any time soon, so the hope of seeing the Bhutan side of the Himalayas was gone.
We next set out for the Royal Botanical Gardens which was about a 20 minute drive down the hill from the Pass (even though it was only about 11 km away). It wasn’t until we neared the gardens before we finally broke free from the fog with sunshine poking through the otherwise cloudy day.
The Botanical Gardens unded up being a bit of a mystery to me. While the sign advertised lots of beautiful gardens and wild animals, I did not see a single flower or any wild animals. Instead, we wandered down a path through very thick vegetation, saw a nomad’s tent and a little lake as well as a playground area, and that was about it. Now the walk through the vegetation was actually quite nice in the sunshine as lots of birds were out and about singing, cawing, and generally making a racket. It was quite lovely, but I still wondered where were the gardens and animals.
So we left the gardens and began the very long windey trek down the remainder of the hillside to the Punakha Valley below. For the most part, the drive took us through thick vegetation and tall trees that literally closed in on the road. We drove past cows (on the side of the road and wandering on the road … oh and 3 dead cows on the side of the road stiff as boards), cars pulled over with people getting sick (it really was a motion challenging road), and monkeys. Yep. A whole bunch of monkeys were wandering along in the middle of road and sitting on trees beside the road. Cute little things.
We finally reached the end of the back and forth curves as the road straightened out a bit as we neared the Punakha Valley and our first stop the Chime Lhakhang aka Fertility Temple. However, before we reached the valley, we pulled over to the side of the road where a woman was roasting corn. We bought 3 ears and munched on the ears as we continued on to the Chime Lhakhang. The corn was very firm and smokey tasting with a hint of popcorn flavour (no surprise there). A perfect little treat before our next stop.
So a little bit about Chime Lhakhang. The temple was constructed in 1499 to honour Lama Drukpa Kunley, one of Bhutan’s favourite saints. Lama Kunley used music, humour, outrageous behaviour and sexual exploits to aid in his teachings. As a result, the lama became known as a the “Divine Madman” and his followers adopted a “flying phallus” as a symbol of the lama. Bhutanese continue to use the phallus as an ode to the lama and to protect the fertility of men and women. You see the phallus literally everywhere and most particularly on the side of houses.
The temple honouring Lama Kunley or the Divine Madman became known as the Fertility Temple because childless women started coming to the temple to pray for a baby. In fact, while we where visiting the temple a women appeared carrying what I can only describe as the largest wooden phallus I have ever seen. (She cradled it like a baby, but is was easily twice the size of a newborn … unfortuanately I did not get a picture). She circumvented the temple carrying the wooden phallus (which I soon learned belonged to the temple), she was then blessed by the monks after which she sat down and began to pray.
Anyway, in order to get to the temple, which sits high up on a hillside overlooking the valley, you can either walk to the temple through rice paddies and then up the hillside, or you can take a car to the base of the hillside and walk from there. I opted to take the 20 minute walk through the rice paddies and then the 10 minute walk up the hillside.
The walk turned out to be a great deal of fun as we walked in the sun past some shops and houses with the flying phallus symbol before hiking down into the rice paddies past flowing streams and then up onto the hillside on the other side of the valley.
Once at the temple, we walked around the circumference, went inside and saw the lady with the big wooden phallus as well as a statute of the divine madman and a photo album with pictures of all the babies that were conceived following a visit to the temple,
By the time we walked outside the weather had turned. No more sunshine. Instead the wind had picked up and it looked like rain. Yikes. We started the walk back down the hill, but I decided that I wanted to visit a couple of the local handicraft shops before heading back across the rice paddies and … good thing I did because I found … Christmas ornaments! YES. Cute little handmade Bhutanese women in traditional costume. Perfect.
Anyway, while I was shopping the rains hit. Ugh. We waited for bit and when there was no end in sight my guide called the driver and asked him to walk across the paddies with an umbrella for us. Good grief. I said not to bother because by the looks of the sky the rain was not going to last long. And right on cue as the driver arrived with the umbrella, the rains stopped. Of course.
We began the walk back across the rice paddies and ran into a group of men and women harvesting one of the paddies. It was fascinating to watch. The folks would take a huge arm full of stalks and beat the stalks against a round stump like object. The rice grains would split from the stalks as the stalks were beaten against the stump. Once all the grains were extracted, the stalks would be tossed aside for animal feed while the grains were sifted and loaded into bags. And yes, this was all being done by hand. Talk about hard work.
By now, it was close to 2:00 and we had not eaten lunch. So once back to the car, we drove about 10 minutes to a lovely little restaurant bordering a fast moving little river. As usual, I ate alone as my guide and driver insisted on eating in the kitchen.
Lunch turned out to be spectacular. Battered eggplant, steamed veggies, rice, noodles, fries (which I did not eat) and the best chicken I have had for long time. Spicey, grilled goodness. And if all that wasn’t enough, they brought out watermelon for good measure. Little wonder I have been opting out of dinner with the size of the lunches they keep serving me.
Anyway, after lunch we drove to the Punakha Dzong aka the Fortress of Great Bliss. Now my guide kept telling me this was the most beautiful Dzong (fort) in all of Bhutan and his description was in no way an exaggeration. In fact, it may have been understated. This place was gorgeous sitting on the side of a river with a wooden bridge you had to cross to access the fort. The design was simply stunning and rather than go on and on, I will let the pictures do the talking.
We wandered around the two different sides of the fort (the administrative side and the monastic side) taking in the beautiful architecture and setting. The carvings were amazing as were the paintings, layout and design. There was simply nothing bad about this place.
We finally left the Dzong and drove across the water for a short hike to Bhutan’s longest iron suspension bridge. We walked along a narrow path, joined by a myriad of school kids on the way home as well as a herd of cows that we had to dodge.
Now I don’t know what I was expecting of this bridge, but when I saw it I almost turned around. It was really long, really high above the river and really “swingy”. Uh oh. My fear of heights was already kicking in when I took my first steps acrosss on the little metal flats that I would be walking on across the river. I kept looking in front of me and the end looked so far away. The river roared below me as we continued forward reaching the halfway point.
We finally, finally reached the other side and after a quick refreshment break and a couple minutes spent watching 3 crazy guys ride bicycles across the bridge, we headed back. At one point I got up the nerve to take a picture and when I looked at it once I reached the other side, I started laughing. My guide had photobombed me. Classic.
I was thrilled to reach the other side and even more thrilled to learn we were heading on to our last stop. I was close to exhausted at this point as we had added a couple extra side trips today, and the two additional sites had left me done in.
Anyway, 20 minutes and a ride all the way to the top of a hill later, we reached the Sangchen Dorji Lhendrub Choling Nunnery at just after 5:00 p.m. The nunnery was financed by the fourth king’s father-in-law to serve as a Buddhist college for up to 120 resident anim (nuns).
Now while the little temple was lovely, what really attracted my attention was the stunning view from the top. You could literally see the entire Punakha and Wangu Valleys. Stunning.
After the visit, we made our way back down the valley to the my lovely hotel for the evening. The place was really gorgeous and had spectacular views of the valley. It was a shame we did not arrive until 6:00 p.m. I could have enjoyed a lovely afternoon sitting on my deck overlooking the valley.
I declined dinner as I was still full from lunch, but opted for a small bowl of pumpkin soup before calling it a night. I was done, done, done and tomorrow was going to involve more hiking so it was time to get some rest.