Continuing on from Part 1, Bhutan: Journey into the Kingdom of Happiness (Part 1), here’s the remaining 6 days of our tour of Bhutan and my thoughts on our hotels and this wonderful elusive country:
Day 7: Bumthang to Punakha (8 hours)
Today, we embarked on the 8+ hours drive west, back on the same road we came from Wangdue. Our guide split the trip up by stopping at the Throngsa Watchtower after 4 hours of driving. The Tower has now been converted into the Royal Heritage Museum, which has impressive displays of royal memorabilia and Buddhist art pieces with excellent corresponding English commentary. The informative video documentary which summarized all the Bhutanese history we have been learning is worth watching There we stayed for over 2 hours, including having our lunch break at the museum restaurant, and being invited to tea by one of the monks at the Tower who happens to be the brother of our driver!! He was extremely gracious to invite us into his simple quarters, offering us tea and local snacks and answering all the questions we had on life as a monk in Bhutan. It definitely wasn’t on our itinerary but we were grateful to Sonam and Choki for giving us this cultural exchange opportunity!
Then, we continued on our second leg of the 4 hours’ drive towards Punakha. What really helped with this long bumpy road was the the fact that we recognized many landmarks along the way. By mentally ticking off the landmarks we had passed and knowing what was to come made the journey much more bearable. By the time we arrived at COMO Punahka, we had been on the road for 10 hours!! Our wonderful dinner at COMO was the unexpected reward for our long day.
Day 8: Punakha
Today, we took it easy with the driving and spent the day exploring Punakha. Lucky for us, today happened to be a festive day honoring the Buddha’s Descension Day so many locals were at the Punakha Dzong circumambulating the Dzong walls and visiting the temples within.
In my opinion, the Punakha Dzong is the most beautiful of all the Dzongs we visited. Located right at the confluence of the Pho Chuu (Father River) and Mo Chuu (Mother River), its vista is beyond grand and unparalleled; photos do not do it justice. It is no wonder that this Dzong has been the venue for coronation of all the Bhutanses kings.
After the flash floods in 1996, the buildings including the main temple inside have been refurnished to its former glory and the result is magnificent. With the gold gilded pillars, large gilded statues and bright ornate murals depicting the life story of Buddha, they brought back the air of the grandeur of the former capital of Bhutan.
In the afternoon, we went for a hike up to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chöten, perfectly situated above all the rice terrace fields 20 mins drive north of the Punakha Dzong. It was a leisurely hike through the rice fields, crossing little streams, passing old abandoned farmhouse and being escorted by the local stray dogs. At the top, the pagoda like choten was built by the Queen Mother, consisting of 4 stories, each housing beautifully carved images of deities. It was worth climbing to the top floor to capture the wide and breathtaking panoramic view of the entire valley below!
Just before sunset, we returned to COMO for some relaxation and anticipation of another sumptuous delicious dinner.
Day 9: Phobjikha Valley and the Black Neck Crane Festival (5 hours)
Every year on 11 November, the Black Neck Crane Festival is held in the courtyard of the Gangtey Goemba in the Phobjikha Valley. As there are limited number of hotels and even guest houses in the Phobjikha Valley, we drove in from Punnakha (2.5hrs one way) like majority of the other tourists.
The program for the festival was very different than the one in Bumthang – it was much more varied and was less of a religious event than a cultural one inviting participation from the neighboring villages and children from the nearby local schools. The highlights were the crane dances where young boys performed dressed in costumes of the black-necked cranes; a tag of war competition between 10 men of opposing villages; and a national masked dance of “Dremtse Ngacham” where 13 men performed wearing colourful decorative costumes and elaborate animal masks. The atmosphere was festive and it was clear that these festivals brought the local villagers together, in fellowship, in trade and in a community.
After lunch, we took a pleasant hike from the Gangtey Goemba down to the once glacial valley below towards to the large white stupa and prayer flags standing on the marshlands hoping to catch a sight of the black-necked cranes. It was a bit tricky on the marshlands as the grounds were muddy and soggy and the winds were biting. At one point, we had to jump over the freezing steam 2m wide as there were no other ways to cross! Raw rural adventure it was!
Our last stop was the Black-Necked Crane Information Centre where there are informative displays about the cranes and binoculars where we could view up close the migratory birds in the valley. They are fascinating and elegant birds that come to this valley during the winter (in summer, they fly back to the Tibetan plateau). Sadly, they are now endangered and only around 400 or so cranes migrant to this valley each year. Even sadder is the lone crane at the Centre that is kept in a cage, as its wings were injured after being attacked by aggressive wild dogs.
The Black Neck Crane Festival is one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan, and we were so glad we got to experience it!
Day 10: Punakha to Paro (4 hours)
As our trip is soon coming to an end, we continued to make our way westward back to Paro.
Before we left Punakha, we stopped by Chimi Lhakhang, a Buddhist Monastery built on the site where the maverick saint or “Divine Madman”, Drukpa Kinley, was said to have subdued a demon from Dochu la and trapped it in a rock close to the monastery. This Divine Madman was known for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism by conducting himself in outrageous behavior, including drinking, sleeping with women and advocating the use of phallus symbols as paintings on walls and driving out evil. This monastery has also become a fertility temple for Bhutanese and foreigners alike. All houses in the surrounding village have paintings of phalluses on their exterior walls, and there are many shops where tourists can buy and take home their own wooden-carved phallus.
Heading to Thimphu, we again crossed over the Douchla Pass. Luckily, on this day the entire Himalayan mountain ranges were crystal clear in sight. There is something profoundly spiritual and awe-inspiring about seeing those magnificent snow-capped peaks rising above the horizon – it really is hard to describe and put down in words.
In Thimphu, we took a visit to the vibrant weekend food market and found all the raw ingredients of what we’ve been enjoying in the Bhutanese cuisine. Almost everything sold here is organic and locally produced/farmed!
On the highway from Thimphu to Paro, we stopped by the Tamchog Monastery, which is dedicated to the 13th century saint, Thangthong Gyalpo, known as Bhutan’s bridge builder. Here stands one of the few remaining iron chained bridges he built across the Paro Chuu to provide access to the private monastery. The old bridge which could no longer withstand swinging tourists and undulating movements has now been decommissioned with a newer suspension bridge built next to it.
Finally, after another full day of driving, we arrived at the tranquil forest sanctuary of COMO Uma Paro ready for relaxation and pampering.
Day 11: Takshang (Tiger Nest) Monastery
We’ve been waiting for this day! The hike to the famous Tiger Nest Monastery is what drew us to visit this incredible country in the first place! It is usually planned at the end of an itinerary to allow guests to acclimatize to the higher altitudes. I guess the travel agents and guides know best as this 4+ hours hike up 800m to the cliffside montastery can be taxing.
Our guide, probably knowing our stamina, took us on a “short cut” where he assured us it was shorter, less dusty and had better views. The route is definitely less travelled, steeper and more demanding (usually taken by the staff of the canteen located half way up) but we did shave like 35 minutes to the uphill climb. The canteen was a welcomed sight, and with all the tourists hiking up, this was a good place for a short reprieve of hot tea and biscuits.
Just as our legs rested, it was time to continue our ascent back on the main trek. Where possible, Sonam would lead us up unmarked short cuts leading us faster towards the edge of the cliff on the opposite side of the Tiger Nest Monastery. The first sight of this Monastery was astonishing and mind-boggling! It was a mixture of “OMG, I finally made it here!” to “Who in the right mind would build a temple on the rock face over there!”.
From that point, there were still hundreds of steps down the side of the mountain, then crossing a bridge with a waterfall above, and hiking further hundreds of steps up the cliff towards the Monastery. The goal was in sight – this is what we came to Bhutan to see – there was no turning back!
The legend goes that Guru Rinpouche (the Buddhist master attributed to bringing Buddhism to Bhutan) flew to this exact spot on a pregnant tigress to subdue the demons in the Paro Valley. From this spot, his followers built this temple in the 17th Century.
On the way back, we passed by the canteen for a simple vegetarian lunch eating along the benches with the priceless views of the Monastery in full sight! We would not have asked for anything more!
Past the canteen, Sonam volunteered to carry down a large bag of empty recycled plastic bottles as there are no other ways to bring down trash. Doing our own part for the planet, Jeff also carried another bag down together with Sonam. The walk down was much quicker than up, but much more straining and tough on the knees! At the bottom of the mountain where 3 old water mill prayer flag stupas were located, our civil minded guide also paused to fix one of them and to clear out the debris of leaves and twigs to allow the water to flow through the stupas properly. Sonam explained that their country is small and everyone need to do a their part. I totally admire this mindful and love for their country.
Even though we only arrived back at COMO Paro at around 3pm, we were completely exhausted and had the whole afternoon and evening to wind down and relax!
Day 12: Onward Journey home
With sufficient rest overnight, it was time to bid a very fond farewell to Sonam, Choki and this amazing country. We leave it with treasured memories, a greater understanding of what collective happiness means and an immense appreciation of what a peaceful society looks like. It is inevitable that Bhutan will change as it collides with the outside world, but I plead that it change slowly and wisely, and not let the world at large corrupt those fragile pure values it hold dear.
- Paro – Le Meridian
On our first night, we stayed at the Le Meredian in Paro. One of the recent chains that have opened in Paro, this grand hotel is built on the edge of the Paro River a little upstream from the Paro township. Our upgraded deluxe room had all the luxurious amenities we would expect from a 5 star establishment, and the building itself is beautifully built in Bhutanese architectural style so as to capture some local cultural elements. The disappointment lies in the food – both breakfast and dinner buffets at its “Instant Recipe” restaurant catered too much for the Indian, Asian and international palates and thus, lost any sense of character.
- Wangdue – Eco Lodge
Opened for only 2 years, this Eco Lodge is owned by a Bhutanese guide and famed local photographer who was passionate about sustainability and being eco-friendly. Having only 8 rooms and built only by Bhutanese (rather than imported workers), they were large, comfortable and had a very homey local feel to it. It felt more like we were home-staying that staying in a local lodge. Most of the food was locally sourced – the vegetables from their own gardens, fresh butter and cheese from the villagers in the valley below and rice farmed nearby. The staff were extremely friendly and we spent our dinner having a wonderful cultural exchange with the owner and his Bhutanese friends. A truly Bhutanese local experience, our only regret is that we stayed one night only.
- Bumthang – Yugharling Resort
One of the largest hotels perched on the side of the mountain, this resort has a commanding view of the tranquil Jakar valley below. The rooms are clean and large though the décor is somewhat dated. The food at their dining hall was not anything to boast but it did offer an interesting local Peach wine that was quite delightful at US$7.50 a bottle! What we appreciated the most were the heaters that were left turned on for us as it can get very cold very quickly!
On two evenings, we dined at the nearby Amankora hotel. On our first night, the manager took us on a tour of their 16-room property. We ourselves were curious as to what they offered at US$1800 a night. The designer rooms were beyond luxurious, and the room rate included all 3 meals a day, most beverages, laundry and certain activities such as archery, hikes etc. However, after experiencing the COMO properties (see below) we’re not sure the whole entire package for the guests justify the hefty price tag.
- Punakha – COMO Uma
This intimate 11-room hotel is perched on a hillside 14 km from the Punakha Dzong. Even though it is a little out of the way, its location is absolutely stunning and the rooms have all the home comforts yet unpretentious. The roaring sounds of the river below brought solace and calm; and the night sky, without any light pollution, gloriously lit up with thousands of stars. In the valley all around the hotel are layers and layers of rice terrace fields all the way up the mountainside. As it is harvest time, the rice fields are in different shades of golden colour evoking a sense of majesty.
The female Bhutanese chef here is also a gem. The sumptuous breakfast starts with house-made granola, breads and muffins with local honey and homemade peanut butter, fresh juices, then a plate of cured hams and cheese, ending with a cooked breakfast with choices of eggs prepared in various ways, ricotta pancakes or even local chicken congee. We were spoilt for choices. The dinners were equally as great. We tried from both the Bhutanese and western menus. She offered similar Bhutanese dishes we have had during our trip, but her interpretation of her own local cuisine is much more refined and sophisticated (although less spicy to appease some guests). The western menus were well crafted, flavorful and beautifully presented – her lamb racks and sea bass were one of the best I’ve tasted in a while!
Without a doubt, this was my favorite hotel in Bhutan.
- Paro – COMO Uma
This property is very different than its cosy sister one in Punakha. Renovated from a once noble mansion high in the woods, this 29 room hotel is secluded and away from the main Paro town. It also boasts additional facilities like a gym, pool, traditional hot stone bathhouse and a gift shop (which we ended up doing most of our souvenir shopping!).
Whilst I preferred the COMO Punakha chef, the Indonesian and Indian chefs are also very talented. Catering for more Indian guests coming through Paro, they offered an additional India menu which came highly recommended. I also loved the chicken buckwheat noodle soup for breakfast together with the homemade chili sauce, it was hearty and warm to literally kick start the day!
One commendation to note was that Sas, the F&B manager and James, the general manager, went above and beyond to attend to a peculiar request we had in respect of their exquisitely painted rock art pieces. We are extremely grateful for their attentiveness and arrangements, and have brought back with us those pieces which are now part of our treasured memories of Bhutan.
Bhutanese cuisine is not a refined gourmet experience. If one comes to Bhutan expecting that, then it is best to alter your expectations or be disappointed. Instead, the dishes we’ve had were rustic, homely, unsophisticated yet fresh, simple and tasty. The meals we’ve had at the Eco Lodge and at the 2 local Bumthang farmhouses felt like we were eating at a villager’s home. We noticed that the Bhutanese diet isn’t so focused on meats as most restaurants served only one meat dish (usually chicken or pork) in their offerings. However, vegetables were plentiful and all farmed locally – from potatoes, mushrooms, cabbage, beans and turnips to the local delicacy of green chili peppers cooked with cheese (watch out, it has quite a kick to it!). We even tried fried broccoli which were surprisingly good!
Rice is their local staple and is farmed widely in the country. Their red grain is a little drier when cooked than what we are used to. In the Bumthang area, the climate is more suited for growing buckwheat so we were able to try their handmade green buckwheat noodles and buckwheat pancakes, and bought some honey from the buckwheat flowers as a souvenir. All in all, the Bhutanese cuisine is in a way a window into their people’s daily lives – hearty, simple and contentment.
Bhutanese Traditional Dress:
The traditional and national dress for women, the Kira, and for men, the Gho are commonly worn all over the country. Government officials, tour guides and drivers as well as children, as part of their school uniform, are required to wear the traditional dress. At the various local festivals we attended, the locals adorned themselves with their finest and most colorful wear, making the entire place a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, a feast for the eyes. It was great to witness this distinctive identity of the Bhutanese so outwardly displayed and how proudly they wear it on a day to day basis.
Sonam lent us a set each and one of the staff at COMO helped us in putting it on. It was a fun experience and I have to say that we seemed to have worn it quite well! Luckily, I didn’t have to walk very far with it as having worn jeans and hiking gear for the past 11 days, I wasn’t so used to having so much heavy textile materials wrapped around my legs all the way to the ankles! It only allowed walking in small steps and definitely does not go well with my usual speed walking!
High value low impact Tourism:
Bhutan touts a high value low impact tourism policy imposing a US$250 tariff per person per day (an additional $40 per person per day in small groups of one or two; US$200/US$30 in low season). Upon reflection, this tariff actually covers local 3+ star accommodations, our own private 4WD car, a guide and driver who travelled with us for the duration of our 12 days, all our meals in local restaurants or the hotels and all our entry fees. Although not usually mentioned, our wonderful guide, Sonam and driver, Choki, also needed places to stay and meals as well so I assumed our tariff also covered part of their costs as well. So, with what we were getting as an entire package, it felt less of a tariff and more as a set pre-payment for a trip. We did fork out more to stay at branded hotels like Le Meridian and the COMO properties as we were celebrating our wedding anniversary but local hotels definitely give off more an authentic feel and opportunity to mingle with local people.
It is also important to know that US$65 of this daily tariff is considered a “sustainable tourism” royalty imposed and collected by the government for use towards free health-care, education and infrastructure. Everything must be prepared and arranged by an approved tour operator and the entire itinerary (including the hotel stays) approved for the visas to be issued. As such, for the Bhutanese, limiting tourists to those who are able to afford the daily tariff assures that respectful travelers visit (often of an older demographic rather than backpackers and partygoers) for a short duration.