Bhutan : #3 Paro to Punakha

Bhutan is divided into twenty districts as shown on the map below.  Our itinerary would take us to just three of those districts: Paro and Thimphu, marked in purples; and Punakha in aqua.  Of course, there is so much more to explore  in Bhutan.  However, being a mountainous country, one can’t presume to travel in a straight line and, in any case, the sparse road infrastructure is not conducive to getting from point A to point B in a short time.  There are no trains.  There is but one airport, at Paro.  So one would need a good amount of time to be able to explore other parts of the country, and tours into many areas are strictly limited.  Special passes are needed to get to some areas, and others are almost never visited by tourists.  If you are prepared to walk, there is more of Bhutan available to be explored but only on selected tracks with a set itinerary and with Bhutanese guides.


From Google Map Images

From Google Map Images

Bhutan is the only country in the world, I believe, to measure its wealth in Gross National Happiness.  This is one reason why the numbers of visitors to Bhutan each year are strictly limited.  The Bhutanese like their peaceful, Buddhist lifestyle and have learned many lessons from watching what has happened in Nepal as a result of almost unbridled tourism.  As well as limiting numbers, the Bhutanes place a levy on the cost per day for each tourist. This is used to help pay for schools, hospitals and other infrastructure.


P1250317  map 1

P1250317 map

I’m fortunate to have been able to visit Bhutan twice.  Back in 2003, when my legs were ten years younger, I trekked for twelve days covering 217 kms to get from Paro, north along the Tibetan border to the northern of  District of Gasa and back down to Punakha.  We camped out each night in all sorts of weather; there was no electricity; the only water was in the icy cold mountain streams; and we saw only three other westerners in all that time.  It was a most wonderful experience which I would recommend to those who are fit, who don’t get altitude sickness and, above all, who love to trek through stunningly beautiful wilderness scenery.

The map above shows our 2003 trekking route as well as other possible trek routes available to those who wish to walk.  In 2003, we went north-west from Paro, past Drugyel Dzong to near the border with Tibet at Takenthangka; then north- east following the river to Lingshi; from there we walked up and down from one pass or la to the next – Gombu La (4280m), Jhari La (4747m), Sincha La (5005m) – until we came to Laya.  A little further on, we turned south and trekked through Jigme Dorje National Park to Gasa before following the river further south to Tashithang.  There we finally came back to a road-head and were taken to Punakha in a small bus.

This time, on a more leisurely visit, we drove by small bus from Paro to Punakha along made road.  I had planned to take Jennie with me to experience the beauty of Bhutan and meet the wonderfully friendly and gentle people – without the need to trek.  But a knee operation put an end to Jennie’s hopes of finally getting to Bhutan herself.  So my good friend Trevor came to share the experience with me.  I always think that one needs to share such experiences to make the most of them, so I was very pleased that Trevor was able to join me for the journey.


P1250322  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1250322 © DY of jtdytravels

Just before we begin our photo journal for the day, let’s take a brief look at the road map from Paro to Punakha.  If we had wings and could fly with the crow on a direct diagonal route, it’s not such a long distance. But there’s just one problem with that in Bhutan; mountains and lots of them.  The road journey takes about four hours to cover 140 kms.  Leaving Paro we followed the Paro Chu (River) south-east, then turned north-east along the Thimphu Chu to Simtokha.  We bypassed Thimphu for now and would come back there later in the tour.  We continued on cross country, to Dochu La, a mountain pass of 3116m, where we had a rest and enjoyed the view.  Then on again, with many twists and turns on a rather slow and torturous road until we finally turned north along the Mo Chu to Punakha.  Here two tributaries meet, the Mo Chu and the Po Chu, in one of the most beautiful settings you could ever hope to enjoy.  Now, let’s take that journey to Punakha.


P1000287  ©  Dy  of  jtdytravels

P1000287 © Dy of jtdytravels

The area between Paro and Thimphu is rather dry and the vegetation is sparse.


P1000289  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000289 © DY of jtdytravels

The road, cut into steep banks above the river, provides some breath holding moments for passengers. This is not a drive for the faint hearted even though the roads are better than when I was first here in 2003.


P1000290  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000290 © DY of jtdytravels

At a river crossing on the road between Thimpu and Punakha, there is a check point for goods and people, but not tourists – our bus is suitably marked!  A decorative gateway spans the road.  A photo of the young king and his queen is also tastefully displayed but cannot be missed.  My photo, above, is taken looking along the top of a “T” intersection, the stem of the “T” is the bridge itself which is to the right of the picture.


P1000317  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000317 © DY of jtdytravels

These trucks show the type of colourful decorations displayed on even the most utilitarian of transport.  These are Indian made Tata trucks; a very common sight in this part of the world.


P1000292  ©  DY  of  jdytravels

P1000292 © DY of jdytravels

Travel along the winding road beside a river seemed to go on forever; slow going.


P1000297  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000297 © DY of jtdytravels

At the top the 3116 m pass of Dochu La, we had another chance to stretch our legs.  In this delightful spot, in the midst of trees, stands one of the King’s homes.  Not a large palace, but a tasteful Bhutanese style home, a very pleasant rest stop for the King and Queen on their way between the major centres they need to visit in this country.


P1000330  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000330 © DY of jtdytravels

And why wouldn’t the King want a house here with a view like this to the Himalaya!

Just imagine this scene in winter with snow covering all those hills.

And for those who love flowers, this sunflower is your flower for today.


P1000323  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000323 © DY of jtdytravels

With a tele photo view of the mountains, you can see why roads wind alongside rivers.


P1000322  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000322 © DY of jtdytravels

Beside the road at Dochu La, there’s a very interesting monument, the Druk Wangyal Khangzang Chortens. There are 108  decorated chortens or stupas in the group – 108 being a very important number to the Bhutanese.  This monument was commissioned by Her Majesty, the Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck in memory of all soldiers of both sides and others killed in a war on the Indian/Bhutanese border in late 2003.

It’s amazing to think of these peace loving people going to war against anyone, but in 2003, they were pushed into a war they did not wish to fight.  For many years, rebels of the Assam Independence movement in Northern India, had made their camps (about 30 of them) across the border inside Bhutan.  From these camps, they made guerrila like skirmishes into India against the Indian army.  Finally, India had had enough of the rebels and gave their Bhutanese friends an ultimatum to either drive the rebels out of Bhutan or the Indian army would be forced to cross into Bhutanese territory and do the job themselves.  This forced the King’s hand.

With his people against war of any kind, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, father of the current king, decided to ask for volunteers to help him to drive the Indian rebels out and keep the integrity of Bhutan’s border.  Against tens of thousands of rebels, the King and one of his sons, led an army of only 7,000 volunteer soldiers into an unpopular war.  It was a short battle with the Bhutanese victorious.  Some Bhutanese wanted to erect a monument to the victory.  But the King believed that war should never be glorified.  Instead, his eldest queen (he had four wives, all sisters), had this rather understated monument erected in memory of everyone, from both sides, who had lost their lives because of this battle.


P1000312  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000312 © DY of jtdytravels

Each of the chortens is decorated in traditional Bhutanes style.


from the web

Image from the web

Carved and painted slates depicting Buddha sit inside alcoves in the sides of chortens.


P1000308  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000308 © DY of jtdytravels

The top of each chorten is covered with stone shingles.


P1000299  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000299 © DY of jtdytravels

It’s sobering to find, in this peaceful place with its wonderful views to the Himalaya,

a reminder of war!


P1000331  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000331 © DY of jtdytravels

Driving on down a very windy road from the high pass at Dochu La, we finally came to the more fertile Punakha Valley.  Here the climate is warmer and more temperate, the vegetation more lush (bananas can even be grown here) and rice fields are more productive. Both red and white rice is grown here.


P1000335  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000335 © DY of jtdytravels

Down in the valley, we followed the icy cold Mo Chu towards the village of Punakha.


P1000334   ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000334 © DY of jtdytravels

Here, in a stunningly beautiful setting, the waters of the two main rivers of Bhutan meet; the Po Chu meaning male, or father river and the Mo Chu, meaning female, or mother river.  It’s clear to see where the differently coloured waters of these rivers meet.


P1000339  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000339 © DY of jtdytravels

On the banks of the Mo Chhu, sits the most beautiful of all Bhutanese Dzongs.  Its name, aptly, is Place of Great Happiness; or in Bhutanese, Pungthwang Dewachen Phodrang.  This building was the seat of government when Punakha was the capital of Bhutan (until 1955) and there’s much more to see and learn about this Dzong in a later story.


P1000340  ©  DY  of  jtdytravels

P1000340 © DY of jtdytravels

But, a visit to this very important Dzong had to wait for another day.

We still had further to drive up the valley to our hotel

and there, a late lunch awaited us.

But more of that anon.


All Photography Copyright ©  David Young of  jtdytravels

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