Picturesque Punakha – Our Days Spent in the Old Capital of Bhutan

Punakha, Bhutan
Punakha, Bhutan

Bhutan was one of our dream destinations and we wanted to visit there for quite some time. We first attempted to visit Bhutan in October 2018, but finally made it there in October 2019 after over one and half year’s planning. Read about our itinerary and entire experience of planning the Bhutan trip in the blog - Our Quest for Happiness: Planning Our First Trip to Bhutan. We traveled across Bhutan between October 2 and 8, 2019, traveling to Punakha on the third day of our trip. In this blog we capture our journey from Thimphu to Punakha, tasting authentic home-cooked food in Bhutan and living in a homestay with the locals. You can read about the first two days that we spent at Thimphu in the blog - Terrific Thimphu – Our Days Spent in the Capital of Bhutan.

Driving Through the Mesmerising Dochula Pass

After breakfast, we started off on our journey to Punakha from Thimphu. The drive was picturesque. We stopped at the checkpoint where we had to show our permits to drive onward towards Punakha. Since everything was handled by Rinchen Ghakhil Adventures, we had nothing to worry about. Ngawang had already arranged for our permit and Thukten took care of everything at the checkpoint. We only spent our time at the checkpoint taking a few photographs. It just took about 15 minutes and we were off to Punakha.

Before entering Punakha, we stopped at Dochula Pass. Dochula Pass is a mountain pass where 108 memorial chortens or stupas were built by Her Majesty the Queen Mother of Bhutan. In a clear sky, it is said that you can see the panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain ranges from here. Unfortunately, we did not get a clear sky, it was misty and cloudy. We were not too disappointed because that gave it an eerie feel and we got some amazing photographs of the chortens.

We decided to use the rest rooms and grab a bite before hitting the road again. There is only one café at Dochula Pass - Druk Wangyel Café. The café can get really crowded so we were lucky to get seats. It is a self-service café; you will have to order snacks at the counter. Baked goods and coffee are to be ordered at the bakery. We grabbed some cinnamon cake, cookies, and coffee over here. This break was refreshing and satiated our hunger.

Entering Picturesque Punakha

After this break, we hit the road again. We drove for a while through picturesque landscapes and stopped multiple times to capture the mesmerizing views that Bhutan offers in plenty.

About 45 minutes before entering Punakha, Tashi and Thukten treated us to some roasted corn and cucumbers from one of the roadside stalls. It was an experience we absolutely loved!

As soon as we were off the highway and entered Punakha, we were greeted with the lush green rice fields of the region. Punakha was the warmest destination during our trip around Bhutan and it was not a surprise that the semi-tropical climate of the region produced the best red and white rice in the country. We were supposed to have lunch just after reaching Punakha, but our stomachs were full after eating those delicious corns. So, we decided to place our lunch order at one of the restaurants and come back after a while.

Comfort Food for the Stomach and Soul

We decided to visit Chimi Lhakhang Temple, which is popularly known as the fertility temple. People from near and far come here to receive fertility blessings. Once you enter Punakha, you will notice that the walls of houses and shops have paintings of phalluses. This is known to ward off evil spirits and keep the village safe.

After a short tour of the temple, we decided to have lunch at the place where we had already placed an order. It is a small but crowded restaurant called S.T. WiFi Restaurant. There is indoor and outdoor seating arrangement. We decided to sit out, which is basically on the terrace overlooking houses and valleys. We had ordered beef fried rice, chilli chicken and fried pork. This was comfort food for us, and it was delicious.

Exploring Punakha Dzong

After lunch we headed towards Punakha Dzong - the most beautiful dzong that we saw in Bhutan. Punkaha served as the capital of the Bhutan from 1637 to 1907 and the first national assembly was hosted at this Dzong in 1953. Punakha Dzong was built in the confluence of two rivers, Mo Chu and Pho Chu. A bridge is built over the rivers so that one can cross over to visit the Dzong. There is an entry fee of Nu. 300.

Since it is the second largest dzong in the country, there are strict security measures in place. Once you enter the dzong and climb up the traditional wooden stairs to enter the first courtyard, there is security checking. They do not allow GoPro camera inside the dzong, so we had to keep ours with the security at the gate. They gave us a token to collect it once we exit.

The Dzong has three courtyards. The first courtyard is for administrative functions and houses a huge chorten with a Bodhi tree. The second courtyard is where the monastic quarters are. The third courtyard houses the main temple.

Our Love for Suspension Bridges

After a tour of the Dzong, we collected our GoPro from the security and headed over to the Punakha suspension bridge. It is a short walk from the Dzong to the suspension bridge. During the walk you will come across a lot of medicinal plants.

The Punakha suspension bridge is one of the longest that we have crossed. It would easily be over 150m and took us over 4 minutes to cross. The suspension bridge was originally built over the Pho Chu river to provide the locals a shortcut to Punakha Dzong.

When visiting the suspension bridge we not only loved the bridge itself, but the landscape around it was equally beautiful.

The Highlight of Our Punakha Trip - The Homestay

After spending some good time at the bridge, we walked back to the Dzong, where our car was parked. Then Tashi and Thukten took us to the riverbanks where one could go rafting. After a day filled with travelling, we were not in the mood to go rafting, and decided to soak in the peace and tranquility of the ambiance by spending some time on the riverbanks with the few locals who were present.

We were very tired so headed toward our homestay - Chimi Lhakhang Village Homestay. To be honest, when we had crossed the homestay earlier on our way to Chimi Lhakhang Temple, it did not look too interesting and this had Thukten worried that we may not like it. However, we were in for a surprise. What we saw from the road was the back of the house and the entrance was on the opposite side. It had a beautiful entrance and a large outdoor seating area. This homestay belongs to Dago Zam and App Sha. We not only had a comfortable stay here, but also made some good friends. The room itself was comfortable, was sparkling clean and offered all the amenities that one needs in an overnight stay. Since we reached late in the evening, we could not really see whether our room had any view, but we were in for a surprise the morning after.

Soon after we checked-in App Sha welcomed us with some hot Suja and fresh popcorn. The Suja was delicious and unlike what we had until then. Then App Sha asked us what we would like to have for dinner. Since they must cook everything from scratch, you need to order dinner early in the evening. As we had a late lunch, we did not go for the traditional set menu, but asked for some noodles, fried rice, chicken chilli and ema datshi for dinner. Every dish was amazing, made even better by App Sha sitting with us and giving us company while we ate. He also offered us some homemade Ara after dinner. Since, we had a hectic day, we retired to bed early.

Next morning, we woke up early and were surprised to see some gorgeous views right from our window. We spent some time admiring the view and taking photographs. We decided to eat our breakfast in the porch sitting in the middle of a wonderful scenery.

Breakfast too was great, especially the jug full of hot Suja and the freshly made Khur-le (buckwheat pancake) that was incomparable to what we had earlier in Thimphu. The best part about breakfast was, after listening to Shabbir and how much he loves ema datshi, praising their preparation of it from last night and how it was the best that he had when compared to restaurants in Thimphu and also the ones that we get in Kolkata, App Sha went and got a bowlful for him to eat with his rice and egg.

After this sumptuous breakfast in the porch, we checked out of this lovely homestay. It was a scenic ride out of Punakha, surrounded by lush green rice fields. App Sha had informed us that Punakha produces the best quality red rice in the country, which we could taste in the dinner and breakfast.

Drive Ahead on Our journey

We then headed to our next destination - Haa. From Punakha, we had to take the route to Haa via Thimphu. So, we decided we would have lunch at Thimphu. In Thimphu, we decided to drop into another restaurant from our list - Cloud 9 Café, which served American and European cuisine. We wanted to have something different as we had only Bhutanese cuisine in Punakha and will have more of it in Haa. We reached Thimphu at around 11:30 am, but Cloud 9 Café opens at 12 so we decided to walk around near the clock tower to spend some time.

The Thimphu Tsechu was going to be held a few days later so a stage was being set and all arrangements were being made. While walking around, we saw a souvenir shop. I love buying earrings from each country/state that I go to and I could not find earrings at the crafts market at Thimphu, so decided hop into this shop. I found two beautiful stone earrings. Shabbir likes to collect figurines of the national animal of the country/state that he goes to. So, he bought a Takin fridge magnet to add to his collection. We were incredibly happy to be able to come across this shop and buy some beautiful souvenirs. We headed back to Cloud 9 Café and it was open by then.

We decided to order a couple of burgers, I went for a beef burger and Shabbir decided to go for a fish burger. In addition to that, we ordered onion rings, hot chocolate, and beer. At the end we decided to try out their handmade ice-cream. While the burgers and onion rings were mind-blowing, the hot chocolate and ice-cream were out of this world, and the beer was refreshing.

After that amazing lunch, we started our long drive towards Haa. Our journey to Haa started off with some picturesque views before we got into the landslide ridden section, which had no roads and was covered in dust.

What was your experience of traveling in Punakha?
Do let us know in the comments.

If you are visiting Bhutan and need any help booking hotels to stay in, looking for restaurant recommendations, itinerary suggestions or need to get connected to a local tour operator, you can get in touch with us and we will help you with the bookings.

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