First stop for the day was Simply Bhutan, a ‘living museum’ dedicated to traditional Bhutanese culture and a fun look at how life has changed over the years. Donning a traditional kira I learnt about traditional weaving practices, the rural way of life and even tried a spot of the national sport, archery, with less than impressive results. We followed this with a visit to the National Textile Museum, an interesting introduction to the national dress and how the weaves differ from region to region before taking the switchback roads to the Buddha Dordenma, the giant 50 metre Buddha statue which sits atop a hill and can be seen for miles around. A stroll past the huge stretch of handicraft stalls near my hotel selling thangkhas, scarves and Buddhist paintings and a well earned Druk lager ended my first day and confirmed that I was very much sold on Bhutan.
The next morning dawned bright and clear, time to head out and stretch those legs! A short drive from Thimphu and a pleasant switchback trail lead us to Tango Monastery which dates back to the 15th century and is the only Buddhist College in Bhutan. The views of dense forest and distant mountain landscapes get more spectacular the higher we climb along the switchback trail. On arrival we are met by a small band of macaques eyeing us thoughtfully from the trees before heading into the monastery itself with a pause to spin large prayer wheels and study the Bhutanese wheel of life mural. Access into the temple is not always possible but I’m lucky enough to be allowed in to watch the monks at prayer, learn about the life of Buddha and enjoy some holy water.
Returning to Thimphu we pass the impressive colourful rock painting of Guru Rinpoche and the neighbouring water-powered prayer wheel before visiting the King’s Memorial Chorten. This is a popular place for older Bhutanese not familiar with modern communication to meet with friends they may not have seen for months or even years and tell the stories of their lives. The day ends with a visit to the ‘mini-zoo’ Motithang Takin Preserve. Always nervous of zoos the site came as a pleasant surprise with its large grassy compound housing the country’s national animal the unusual looking takin. This goat-antelope is a tame and docile beast and a sense of pride and amusement to the Bhutanese – there is even a takin festival held in the Jigme Dorji National Park in the remote Gasa district.
Day 3 started cold and sharp with an early start for the 3-hour drive to Punakha. A current road widening project for the route between Thimphu and Punakha has resulted in the enforced road closure on this, the only route east, at key times of the day. So it was a slight race against time to get through the roadblock in time – and Tashi didn’t let me down! Before I knew it we were atop the Dochula Pass with its collection of 108 chortens and truly awe-inspiring views of the distant snow-capped mountains across the Bhutan Himalaya. After the obligatory photo stop we continued on our way, a winding and visually stunning journey all the way to Punakha: I knew about the long journeys in Bhutan and did have concerns but I really needn’t have worried, they were simply wonderful.
En-route to Punakha we head out on foot through golden rice paddies and a local village heading towards Chimi Lhakhang, the Temple of the Divine Madman Lama Drukpa Kunley. This was an easy stroll passing local villagers harvesting and threshing rice by hand, water-powered prayer wheels and traditional Bhutanese homes adorned with the symbol synonymous with the lama – a large phallus! This popular and eccentric saint was (in)famous for the use of outrageous and sometimes obscene actions and sexual antics to convince people to put aside their preconceptions and embrace Buddhism. The phallus symbol painted on houses and hanging from the four corners of homes is said to ward off evil spirits. The temple itself is now an important place of pilgrimage for childless couples hoping children or even for singles looking for a partner. I was lucky enough to be blessed on the shoulders by a monk using a symbolic wooden phallus so I guess it’s a husband for me – whether I want one or not!
After returning through the fields we continued on to Punakha and impressive Punakha Dzong. Sat at the intersection of the crystal clear Mo and Pho Rivers the building is a truly impressive sight especially on this blue-sky day, the white-washed walls a stark backdrop to the maroon-robed monks strolling through the courtyard. Dawa talked me through the life of Buddha via the intricately painted wall murals giving me a better insight into the Buddhist philosophy than ever before. From here we took a walk to the longest suspension bridge in the country which crosses to a local village – in typical Bhutanese fashion it was festooned with colourful prayer flags and from the swaying centre offered fabulous views of the river and dzong in the distance.
Day 4 once more dawned bright and clear with the promise of a journey into the scenic Phobjikha Valley, home to the rare migratory black-necked cranes who congregate in the valley between late October and March from their traditional Tibetan residence to avoid the harsh winter. The journey takes us up to 3,200 metres and passes small villages and steeply terraced paddy fields and for a time we drive alongside the glacier-blue Punak Tsang Chhu. These journeys on switchback roads bordered by forests of blue pine and cypress trees are a major part of experiencing Bhutan allowing the chance to see the rugged beauty of the country but also everyday life of Bhutanese people in the fields and villages you pass.
Lunch was taken at a hilltop restaurant with amazing views of the distant snow-capped mountains and from here the terrain becomes increasingly mountainous with rice terraces petering out. We continue to climb…and climb….and climb until I think we can’t possibly climb anymore and eventually reach the Pele La Pass before dropping down into the Phobjikha Valley. First stop is the Gangtey Goemba which boasts a prime site overlooking the fertile valley – the central prayer hall is one of the largest in Bhutan. We stop for coffee at the luxury Gangtey Goenpa Lodge which also benefits from excellent valley views (and will be introducing balloon flights over the valley in Spring 2015) before spending the night in the Hotel Dewachen in a cosy room warmed by a bukhari (wood burning stove). Coincidentally the hotel has a special guest for the night, the Royal Queen Mother who is passing through en-route to Kurjey Lhakhang for a special ceremony. As a result there is a fairly heavy presence of Royal Bhutan Guards dressed impeccably in their uniforms giving the hotel an air of relaxed celebrity!
Day 5 and the sun continues to grace us with its presence as we start the drive towards the Pele La Pass which marks the edge of the Black Mountains. Standing at 3240 metres the pass is adorned with prayer flags left by passing drivers to bless their journey and offers views of snow-capped Mt Jomulhari. Dropping down into the Mangde Chhu we pass yaks grazing the verge and the odd roadside seller sitting under bright umbrellas before stopping at a viewpoint offering excellent views of imposing Trongsa Dzong. The building dominates the valley and always seems tantalisingly close yet seems to take an age to reach. Walking through the dzong, shadowed by the resident macaques as they jump from rooftop to rooftop, we see the roaring Mangdu Chhu like a ribbon far below – this river is the site of a new hydroelectric dam project set for completion in 2017 (an important source of income to Bhutan as the industry is the most profitable along with tourism). The drive continues to Bumthang, a further 3 hour drive past equally impressive scenery before my next hotel complete with in-room bukhari and a welcome cold Druk lager!