Journeying Bhutan

This is a continuation post from my previous Bhutan photo-series titled Mystical Bhutan. From here on, we leave the nation’s capital (Thimphu) and begin travelling deeper into its mountainous hinterland.

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This was the bus that took us around, a Toyota Coaster with all our luggage bundled up on its roof.

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As we progressed away from Thimphu, the roads got steadily unpaved and muddy. One section between Thimphu and Punakha even had strict time curfews to follow because the roads were too narrow for traffic in two ways. With the windy, bumpy roads… road travel in Bhutan is very slow going.

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All that said, the scenery grew nicer and nicer.

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Dorchula Pass

We spent a few hours at this mountain pass 3050m above sea level.

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This pass is known for the 108 Bhutanese stupas built by the Queen in kind memory of the lives lost (on both sides) in a battle against Indian militants.

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We continued on our journey towards…

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Punakha Valley

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I think of Bhutan as a holiday destination that’s more about the immersive experience… as opposed to chasing iconic sights and centrefold-worthy monuments.

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Our guide learnt quickly that we enjoyed witnessing the locals’ livelihoods. So he stopped the bus near this village in Punakha and let us have a stroll down the private streets, catching glimpses of Bhutanese life.

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In fact, when the bus dropped us off, we were greeted by these happy smiling schoolchildren.

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It’s a lifestyle that’s so different from what we, as city-folks, have grown up knowing.

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These kids had a school examination the next day, but instead of studying, they spent the afternoon playing (with great intent and concentration) a game of carrom.

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This little walk in a village left a deeper mark in me than many of the more impressive sights that we’d witnessed during this trip.

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Chhimi Lhakhang

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After lunch, we took a short stroll up a gentle slope towards Chhimi Lhakhang, also known as the Temple of the Divine Madman.

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It wasn’t that exciting a place, but the lewd and crazy stories about the Divine Madman that our guide shared with us kept things interesting.

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After that, we left this tranquil scenecape of agrarian terraces and continued towards our next stop…

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Punakha Dzong

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We reached this fortress just before sunset, and I think it was one of the most impressive dzong (fortress) that we visited during the trip. Punakha Dzong looked amazing from a distance.

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Entrance courtyard

Punakha Dzong, built in 1637, is situated at the confluence of two rivers. It serves as the administrative and religious seat of power for the region.

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One of the more striking aspect of this dzong was the enduring presence of a vast Bodhi tree in the middle of the first courtyard as you enter.

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I was also pretty moonstruck by how intricate the decorative woodwork was.

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You may notice by now that all of my photos in Bhutan only consists of the outsides of the buildings. That is because tourists are not allowed to take photos of the interiors. In the end, I thought this was a very good thing. It allowed me to really appreciate the devout sensibilities of the temples and shrines.

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What a beautiful visit. A part of me wished we’d spent less time at (the somewhat nondescript) Chhimi Lhakhang so that we had more time to just stroll about and admire this site.

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Pho Chhu Suspension Bridge

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Our final stop was a walk across Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge.

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Even though this bridge was sturdier than the chain suspension bridge that we’d traversed across on our first day, it still isn’t a walk for the faint-hearted.

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We were greeted the next morning with a thick mountain mist that spoke of distant ancestors and benevolent ghosts.

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Pelela Pass

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It got really cold as we paid a brief visit to this mountain pass 3300m above sea level. While I wascapturing the spirit of this place, I noticed a few passing cars circling that stupa three times before continuing on their onward journeys.

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Pellet Pass is an important point that divides Western Bhutan from Central and Eastern Bhutan, it also serves as a yak herder’s station.

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I think it was at this point of the trip that I felt like I was really, really far away from the rest of the world.

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Central Bhutan

The flaxen sun began to warm the sumptuous hillsides as our bus continued deeper into Central Bhutan.

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We even caught a glimpse of wild mountain yaks.

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I noticed these clusters of white flags occasionally dotting the mountainscape. Our guide tells us that it’s a funeral rite of sorts, where close relatives of the departed would plant these flags, a hundred tall, in memory of the family member that had passed.

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We pretty much sat in the bus from dawn to dusk that day. Aside the the short stop at Pelela Pass, this was about our only other stop – a colourful local festival in what I believe to be within the district of Trongsa.

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Here’s the formal garb that most Bhutanese wear. A patterned robe of sorts with long sleeves, thick white cuffs, formal shoes and knee high formal socks. Draped across their shoulders is a blessed silk scarf that’s meant to bring good luck and tranquility.

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The festival colours were very vibrant. It also seemed like the local Bhutanese were, as a whole, always in good spirits. Maybe that’s why Bhutan’s considered the happiest country in the world, where the nation’s ‘success’ is measured by the population’s GNH (Gross National Happiness) instead of GDP.

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We eventually reached the district of Bumthang, where’d we’d be staying three nights in.

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Rinchenling Lodge

We reached our hotel past nightfall. I thought this was one of the nicer hotels that we had during the trip. Bhutan’s concept of three stars isn’t exactly international standard. But despite a few niggles here and there, I really enjoyed our lodgings here and they also served the best meals here out of the whole trip.

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I’ll end this Bhutan travel instalment here, with another glimpse of the (very memorable) Punakha Dzong. In my next instalment, I’ll be covering the places we’d explored within Bumthang.

Other Bhutan photo-series:

Mystical Bhutan
Journeying Bhutan
Faraway Bhutan
Turnabout Bhutan
10 Things Travellers Should Know Before Visiting Bhutan