Today is the third day of my Bhutan trip and I’ll be going from icy Thimphu to tropical Punakha. So my last day in Thimphu involves visiting a couple of museums and then traveling to Punakha, a different province in Bhutan that requires a travel permit. To avoid waiting in a queue, my travel guide Pema had already arranged for my travel permits, before he came to meet at my hotel at 9am.
After making sure I had not left anything behind in my room I checked out. It’s important for me to check and double check because I am known for forgetting things. I stayed at hotel Phuntsho Pelri translated as the “Place of Great Contentment”, a neat establishment equipped with all the basic facilities. It is nothing fancy but has a good spa. I must say that they took great care of me in terms of food by preparing 100% vegetarian meals.
Simply Bhutan Museum
First stop on my last day in Thimphu was the Simply Bhutan Museum which features the culture, lifestyle and art of Bhutan. It displays the Bhutanese art of preservation and drying of vegetables, information about local cuisines and wines, archery ranges and much more.
Local rice wine is offered for tasting here, I tasted it and found to be very bitter and I think extremely strong, my friends also thought this. I do not drink because of religious reasons and so this was my introduction to alcohol. After one sip I do not think I would ever want to drink again.
After the wine shock I had another very visual surprise. To my utter amazement there was a display of penis’s in various sizes and colors. I found this to be crude, but my guide informed me that the penis is considered a good omen in the Bhutanese culture. While most of the world would find this kind of art obscene, here it’s part of the Bhutanese culture.
Moving on, the museum also hosts many local artisans who display their art and craft work at the museum. I tried my hand at archery, according to me I was very good for a newbie, but as per Pema, I could have done a lot better. In the central hall of the museum, they perform a local dance and I tried my leg there too. One interesting thing, I got to know while talking to museum staff was Pema, Sonam and Tashi are very common names in Bhutan. So much so that everyone I met in Bhutan had one of these three names. The educator in me was worried about how would a teacher call names in her class.
Folk Heritage Museum
Next I visited the Folk Heritage Museum. I found this very similar to the previous museum to be honest. The main difference is this museum is housed in a heritage building unlike the Simply Bhutan Museum so you get to see a traditional Bhutanese building. The almost vertical wooden stairs, narrow alleys, loft rooms were different and nice to see.
Here I tried my hand at traditional cloth weaving. This museum also doubles up as a vocational training centre for the locals. After looking around, talking to museum guides and clicking a couple of pictures we decided to leave for Dochula Pass.
I was really excited to visit Dochula Pass because it’s so famous for its beautiful scenery. It’s about 20 miles away from Thimphu and 10,200 ft above sea level. While the height guarantees awesome views, it also comes with a noticeable drop in temperature compared to Thimphu and chilling winds. Dochula pass also has a victory memorial with 108 Chortens, built to mark Bhutan’s victory on Aseemes insurgents in 2003. The cold is biting but the view will take your breath away. It is like mountains layering each other and the sun playing a shadow game with them. After spending some time introspecting, I decided to leave for Punakha.
Dochula Pass separates the Thimphu region from Punakha, and as the Punakha city is in a valley it is a steep 27 miles downhill drive. While the distance sounds very normal in writing, it is a two-hour drive because of the narrow winding roads, a lot of hairpin band turns and considerable traffic. Bhutan has no other form of internal transport except roads.
While the drive may be slow, the journey will never tire you because looking out of the car window is like a meditation. While all this is super fun, if you have motion or travel sickness, do not travel in Bhutan without proper medication. The roads will have your head spinning and you regretting your breakfast in no time.
We reached Punakha at around 3 pm and went directly to Punakha Dzong. This fortress houses the administrative buildings of Punakha district. It was built in 1637 and is one of the most beautiful Dzong in the county.
The Dzong is built on the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu river and has a cute wooden bridge for visitors to cross the river to enter the Dzong. The building strikes a more than perfect pose for your camera lense. Right behind the Dzong is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. It is about 180 meters long and is built over the swift Po Chhu river.
Bhutanese people tie a line of colored flags to mark happy occasions like weddings, the birth of a child etc which give the bridge a very festive look. Crossing the bridge provides a great adrenaline rush, you feel like you are floating on air and not walking. After floating to and fro on the bridge I decided to leave for my hotel.
Tea, Chilli & New Friends!
Upon first impressions my latest hotel, Hotel Pema Karpo, is a decent sized property, with a huge foyer and dining room. Upon reaching the hotel I realized that I had not accessed internet in the whole day. I had clicked thousands of pictures which I wanted to share and thus while my guide did the check in formalities, I got busy with social media. While I was busy on my phone, I was served with piping hot jasmine tea, and despite not being a tea person, the hot tea felt like nectar in the cold weather. While Punakha is relatively tropical in climate, it gets really cold in the evenings.
After sipping my hot tea I went to my room and had a long hot bath which was a pure luxury for my cold soaked body and I almost fell asleep in the tub. My growling stomach woke me up and I went down for dinner. The dining room staff had cooked Ema Datshi which is a traditional Bhutanese dish made from chilli and cheese. I am a cheese lover and so I took a generous serving of it thinking only of cheese. And don’t get me wrong the dish has lots and lots or cheese like a sinful amount of it which makes forgetting chillies easy. This got me exited, but OMG the first bite made me see the stars. Spicy cannot describe how hot the dish was. Think about a whole lot of Tabasco sauce and red paprika in your curry, now multiply this by 10, this is how spicy Ema Datshi is. This is a national dish in Bhutan; people here can really eat spicy food. I am an Indian, we are known for our spices and spicy food, this dish got the better of me, I can’t even imagine westerners eating this.
The spice woke me up so I lingered in the foyer for a while and I got chatting to a group of Indian travelers. We connected over our motherland, they were from a different part of India but away from home anyone from my motherland feels like home. While chatting they mentioned they were going white water rafting the next day and they asked me join them, of course I agreed! With the rafting decision made I retired to my room and to my Kindle to read and relax. I fell asleep to rafting dreams.
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