Bhutan – Thimphu & Punakha

Before I started traveling, the country I was most excited to visit was Bhutan. It looked so peaceful and unique, with a distinct culture and outlook on the world. They pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness, which measures the success of the nation based on the happiness of its people. This is the land of the Thunder Dragon! 

I flew from Kathmandu to the only international airport, in Paro. My cousin Steve did his cousinly duty in properly freaking me out about the flight, as only a handful of pilots are qualified to do it. I was enjoying the scenery, looking out at the mountains and valleys, when as we neared Paro I realized that we were going to fly between said mountains into the valley. 

By the time the shock subsided I had landed safely and was now faced with an airport unlike any I’d ever seen.

Bhutan is tricky to visit, partially because it is a country up in the Himalayas, and partially because the government charges a daily tourist tax in addition to the requirement that you book with a tour company. I was very lucky, a company called Druk Asia gave me a great deal that allowed me to afford the visit, thus enabling me to visit this country I’ve been so excited for.

Upon exiting the airport I was greeted by my guide and driver, who were both named Jigme, and we started driving from Paro to the capital city Thimphu.

Before checking in to the hotel, we stopped at Thimphu Memorial Chorten. (‘Chorten’ is ‘stupa’ in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s language.) It is dedicated to the 3rd Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who passed away in 1972. 

My idea of luxury after spending so much time in hostels has become getting an Air BnB or staying at a friend’s house, or just having a room to myself. Booking through a tour company meant staying at an actual hotel, and I was embarrassingly excited when I saw the Thimphu hotel and my room.

Everything looks good here. I also couldn’t complain about the view from the window.

The first day I was left to do my own thing in case the altitude caused me any problems. I had forgotten that even though you are required to visit with a tour, you aren’t restricted by the government like you would be in other countries. I was free to take pictures where I wanted and explore Thimphu without my guide. With this evening of freedom I chose to wander around and find a coffee shop. Dinner was provided by the hotel, and I began my week long chilli pepper diet. They put them in everything.

The next morning the real tour began! 

We began with a hike that brought us up into the mountains surrounding Thimphu.

I definitely felt the altitude, and got tired quickly. It was nice to take the walk slowly though, as there was a whole valley to look out on and appreciate.

I was then taken to a place that taught me about Bhutanese culture. They first gave me some butter tea, which I wasn’t a huge fan of by itself, but liked a little more with some rice in it.

They gave me some rice wine, which after one sip I was done with. It tasted like they had bottled pain.

In this room there were portraits of all 5 kings, with a white scarf indicating whether they are living. These are the 3rd and 5th kings.

There were also some dances being performed here and an artist who does carvings with his feet.

Finally and inevitably, there was also a rather interesting display that wasn’t out of place here. A ‘mad monk’ with some radical Buddhist teachings about how to keep demons away popularised the phallus as a protective symbol. As a warning from here on out, dicks abound.

Anywho, after they let me try some archery, which is the national sport, we drove to the giant Buddha overlooking Thimphu.

The Great Buddha Dordenma was completed in 2015, and is a very important site for Bhutan. The religious leader of the country was there when we visited and could be heard chanting mantras through speakers throughout the place.

In addition to the traditional gho that they wear, when entering important places such as dzongs a sash denoting rank is required, hence the long white sashes being worn.

The tour included every meal, and I was pretty happy with my first lunch, but did start wishing I had someone to share the experience with.

I then got my first good look at Bhutanese architecture and art.

I was so impressed, the detail is incredible and there was so much to learn through the art about Buddhism. Like Nepal was the last Hindu kingdom, Bhutan is the last Buddhist kingdom with the official religion of Vajrayana Buddhism.

I really wish I could’ve taken pictures inside the temples to show you what it was like, because the beauty and colour were incredible.

The day also included a visit to an art school that’s open to tourist visits. I got to see young sculptors and painters mastering the distinct Bhutanese styles.

The day ended with me continuing to be impressed by my hotel.

Soon we visited Tashichho Dzong, the seat of Bhutan’s government and the dzong of Thimphu. (Dzong = fortress)

Shirt: Macedonia, pants: Nepal, sweater: Canada, looking like you let the art school practice on your clothes in exchange for comfort: priceless.

I didn’t realize it yet, but chillis three times a day was beginning to test my ability to function. It started to feel like the thunder dragon had taken up residence in my stomach and was incinerating my food as it went down.

The next day we drove to the former capital: Punakha.

I got to try the traditional men’s “gho” for the day, which I think both entertained the locals and was somewhat appreciated by them for making the effort. It was cold on the legs when we were up in the clouds and pretty hot back down in the valley. I think the tightness of the belt may have straightened out my spine a bit too.

I must admit I felt pretty cool in the gho. Like any good clothes, it gave me confidence disproportionate to my looks.

Remember that mad monk? Well, he preached in Punakha.

What exactly does that arrow indicate?

I had a gho on, I was up in the mountains, it was beautiful, I was so close to running through the rice fields singing “the hills are aliiiive.”

Our destination was the fertility temple where the mad monk practiced. It had an impressive bhodi tree.

The monks here sure polish it well, everything was so shiny!

Some have teeth.

I’ve named this the Great Bridge of Punakha

Before checking in to the next hotel, we checked out one of the most beautiful dzongs in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong.

Looking back at these pictures, it’s hard to believe that something like this exists and that I’ve actually been there.

As you’ve probably noticed, orange is a popular colour here. The national flag, which is my favourite national flag, is divided diagonally into yellow and orange halves with a white dragon along the dividing line. Yellow represents the King’s authority, while orange represents Buddhism. On the Buddhist flag, orange represents the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.

There was a smaller temple next to the dzong that was just as ornate, and afforded a view of the covered bridge to the dzong which sits at the confluence of two rivers. 

That’s my soon to be hotel up in the mountain.

From the dzong we took a walk through the countryside to the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan.

I’m undecided as to whether prayer flags on a bridge are a good or bad sign.

Here’s the fanciest general store I’ve ever seen.

I spent the evening drinking tea on my balcony overlooking Punakha, using the kettle between power outages and enjoying the view otherwise.

This was about halfway through my Bhutan visit, and I haven’t even made it to the destination I’d been excited for for months! That’s in the next one.