Punakha is located in the western part of Bhutan is the winter home of the Je Khenpo, the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. Punakha has been of critical importance since the time of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 17th century.
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal is known as the unifier of Bhutan as a nation state and he was the one who gave Bhutan and its people the distinct cultural identity that identified Bhutan from the rest of the world.
During 17th century Bhutan was invaded several times by Tibetan forces seeking to seize a very precious relic, the Ranjung Kharsapani. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal led the Bhutanese to victory over the Tibetans and to commemorate the triumph he introduced the Punakha Drubchen. Since then Punakha Drubchen (also known as Puna Drubchen) became the annual festival of Punakha Dzongkhag.
The Punakha Drubchen is a unique festival because it hosts a dramatic recreation of the scene from the 17th century battle with Tibetan army. The ‘pazaps’ or local militia men, dress in traditional battle gear and reenact the ancient battle scene. This reenactment harkens back to the time when in the absence of a standing army, men from the eight Tshogchens or great village blocks of Thimphu came forward and managed to expel the invading forces from the country. Their victory ushered in a period of new-found internal peace and stability.
In 2005 another festival known as Punakha Tshechu was introduced by the 70th Je Khenpo Trulku Jigme Choedra and the then Home Minister His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Yoedzer Thinley. The Tshechu was introduced in response to the requests made by Punakha District Administration and local peopleto host a Tshechu in order to better preserve Buddhist teachings and keep alive the noble deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche.
These two festivals not only play an important role in preserving Bhutan’s rich culture and traditions but also provide devout Buddhists with an opportunity for prayer and pilgrimage. They reflect the richness of the Bhutanese cultural heritage and are very special in the eyes and hearts of both Bhutanese and tourists who visit Bhutan.
Day 1: Paro – Thimphu
Elevation 2,320m | Drive time 1 hours
Welcome to Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Touching down at Paro International Airport, you will be greeted by your guide upon exiting the arrival hall. Today, we will take it easy to acclimatise to the altitude. Drive to Thimphu, check in to the hotel and let’s have your first taste of Bhutanese cuisine.
National Memorial Chorten – Meet the elderly generation in circumambulation at the National Memorial Chorten. Chorten literally means ‘Seat of Faith’ and Buddhists often call such monuments, the ‘Mind of Buddha’. Treat yourself with fantastic depiction of Buddhist teachings in form of paintings and sculptures at this temple.
As the name denotes this National Memorial Chorten was consecrated on July 28, 1974 in memory of the Third King.
Buddha Point – Located at Kuensel Phodrang, the 169 feet bronze statue of Buddha Dordenma, Vajra Throne Buddha symbolising indestructibility will be completed soon. The Buddha statue itself is competed awaiting paintings, but visitors can drive up to the Buddha point and view the tallest statue of Lord Buddha. The view of Thimphu valley from the Buddha point is pectacular and beautiful, especially at night.
Weaving Centre – Learn about Bhutan’s living national art of weaving.
Takin Enclosure – On the way to the viewpoint over Thimphu is the home of Bhutan’s national animal, the Takin, a strange looking beast some say looks like a beestung moose.
Sangaygang (BBS Tower) – Drive about 15 minutes from the main city to a hillock where the Bhutan Broad Casting Tower is stationed. From there you can relish the beautiful scene of the whole of Thimphu City. On the way up or down from the hillock, you can also see Takin the national animal of Bhutan. It is also possible to request for early morning walk up to this view point.
Centenary Farmers’ Market – Every Saturday and Sunday most of the Thimphu population congregate on the banks of the river where the weekend market is held. Here villagers from the valley and other nearby places come to sell their wide range of agriculture products. A visit to the market provides great photo opportunities, as well as the chance to mingle with local people and perhaps buy souvenirs.
Tashichhodzong (Thimphu Dzong) – The “fortress of the glorious religion” was initially constructed in 1641 and restored by the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the 1960s. Tashichhodzong houses some ministries, His Majesty’s secretariat, and the central monk body. (5 – 6 pm Mon – Fri, 8 am – 6 pm Sat & Sun, to 5 pm in winter)
Around Thimphu Town – Shop and walk around Thimphu town.
Day 2: Thimphu (Tango Day Trek)
Situated at an altitude of 2400m, Thimphu is the centre of government, religion and commerce. The capital has an interesting combination of tradition and modernity, and includes some of the most advanced and remotest parts of the kingdom. It is home to the Kings and the Royal family members, civil servants, expatriates, politicians, business persons and monks. Enjoy this cultural mix based on livelihood. Of culture we will take you through temples, dzongs, chortens, museums, handicraft stores, nunneries, parks and many more. Allow yourself to meet both traditional and contemporary artist.
Tango/Cheri Monastery [4 hrs] – Trek to Tango Goemba. The Tango Goemba site has had religious significance since the 12th century when it was the home of the Lama who brought the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism to Bhutan. Tango, a Buddhist monastic college, is named after a vision of the horse-headed deity experienced by Drukpa master Phajo Drukom Zhigpo.
While Cheri is a retreat centre for meditating lamas. Both monasteries are about an hour hike. Tango is the highest center of Buddhist learning in the country; almost every Je Khenpo (religious head of Bhutan) completed the 9-year program there. After completing that program, monks traditionally spend 3 years, 3 months and 3 days in mediation at the nearby Cheri Goemba retreat, built in 1619 by zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder or first unifier of Bhutan. It is currently the home of a 19 year old boy believed to be the seventh reincarnation of the fourth desi, or ruler, of Bhutan.
Folk Heritage Museum – If there is still time, we may visit this replica of a traditional Bhutanese house as it would have looked 100 years ago and as many Bhutanese families still live to this day. Please note museum, monastery, temple and dzong opening days and times can and do vary with national holidays and events such a visit by a member of the Royal Family or auspicious ceremonies. (Weekday, 10 am – 4.30 pm, Sat 10.30 – 1 pm, Sun, 11.30 – 3.30pm)
Institute of Zorig Chusum – Commonly known as the Painting School, or the School of the Thirteen Arts, the Institute offers you a glimpse of novices learning 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. It is a hands-on trip for you. Enjoy few moments with future artists of the country. Mon – Fri, 09.00 – 15.30, Sat, 09.00 – 12.00.
Day 3: Thimphu to Punakha
Elevation 1,300m | Drive time 3 hours
We will set off early from Thimphu after breakfast, perhaps with a visit to the weekend market first. Then proceed to Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan, about 2 1/2 hours drive from Thimphu across Dochu-la pass. Once you cross the pass, you wind down into a warm fertile valley and meander along a gently flowing aquamarine river that leads you to the Punakha Dzong, the second dzong to be built in Bhutan.
Dochula Pass – at 3,050m, this beautiful pass with its 108 Bhutanese stupas was built by Her Majestythe Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck to commemorate victory over the Indian militants and to liberate the souls of the lives lost.
Punakha Dzong – Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the dzong was built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative seat of the region. It was here that the dual system of government was introduced in the 17th century and in 1907, enthroned the first King Gongsar Ugyen Wangchuck. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the dzong has been fully restored in the recent years by the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
At the dzong enrich your trip with the opportunity to see the highest standards in woodwork. Do not miss the massive Kuenray, the Coronation Hall of all Bhutanese kings,the Dzongchung at the entrance to the dzong and the cantilever bridge over the Mochu that has been recently renovated.
The Punakha Tshechu, as all Tshechu festivals, honors Padma Sambhawa, also known as Guru Rimpoche, the precious yogi and saint who is credited with having introduced Tantric Buddhism throughout the Himalayas. The festival’s masked dances are performed by monks clad in colorful brocade attire and permeated by chants and reading of Buddhist scripts. The culmination of festival constitutes the unfolding of a huge cloth thangka, a sacred scroll, depicting Padma Smabhawa and imagery from Buddhist pantheon.
Chhimi Lhakhang – The divine madman also known, as Drukpa Kinley is a famous teacher with whom the phallic symbol is associated. Tales told by your guide would have excited you to visit Chhimi Lhakhang. The Divine Madman sits there though a statue this time. Do not miss the master’s deeds painted on the walls. Japanese and several American couples visited this temple and were blessed miraculously with children. Ask yourself, do I need this Fertility Tour or not?
Day 4: Punakha to Gangtey/Wangdue
Elevation 2,900m | Drive time 2.5 hours
The valley of Phobjikha is well known as the winter home of the Black necked crane (Grus Nigricollis). Bhutan is home to around six hundred black necked cranes with Phobjikha being one of the popular places that the birds migrate to in the winter months from the Tibetan plateau. The elegant and shy birds can be observed from early November to end of March.
Gangtey Goempa– Situated south of the road and east of Wangdue Phodrang, is Gangtey Gompa, an old monastery dating back to the 17th century. The largest Nyingma monastery in western Bhutan, it was founded in 1613 by Gyalse Pema Thinlay.
Nature Hike along the valley of Phobjikha– A short trek of about 90 minutes known as the ‘Gangte Nature Trail’ starts from the Mani stone wall to the north of the Gangteng Gonpa and ends in Khewa Lhakhang.
Black-Necked Crane Information Centre – The valley of Phobjikha is well known as the winter home of the Black necked crane (Grus Nigricollis). Bhutan is home to around six hundred black necked cranes with Phobjikha being one of the popular places that the birds migrate to in the winter months from the Tibetan plateau. The elegant and shy birds can be observed from early November to end of March.
Black-Necked Crane Information Centre, which has informative displays about the cranes and the valley environment. You can use the centre’s powerful spotting scopes and check what you see against its pamphlet ‘Field Guide to Crane Behavior’. If the weather’s iffy you can browse the library and handicraft shop, and watch videos at 10am and 3pm (Nu 200).
Remarks – For Gangtey, our first choice of Hotels is Dewachen, but due to Dewachen having only 18 rooms and a huge demand among tour operators sometimes we may not be able to host your stay at Dewachen.
In that case we shall either go back to Wangdue to spend the night there or we can arrange a home stay for you in Gangtey.
Day 5: Punakha to Paro
Paro Valley – The beautiful valley is home to many of Bhutan’s old monasteries and temples. The country’s only Airport is in Paro. The valley is also home to mount Chomolhari (7,300 meters) situated at the northern end of the valley whose glacier water forms the Pachu flowing through the valley. The following are some of the prominent places to visit in Paro.
Paro Dzong (aka Ringpung Dzong) – Explore the Rinpung Dzong which the locals call the ‘fortress of a heap of jewels’. Built in 1646 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the dzong stands on a hill above Paro Township. It is linked by the traditional cantilever bridge (called the Nemi Zam) over the Pa chu where one may pose a photograph. Experience a walk up a paved stone path running alongside the imposing outer walls. Once inside the Dzong, you will be welcomed by the monks, architecture and the ancient frescoes.
National Museum (Paro Ta Dzong) – On a ridge immediately above Rinpung Dzong is Ta Dzong, originally built as a watchtower. In 1968, Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the first National Museum, and now holds a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings, Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural History collection. Start or end your trip with a visit to this marvelous museum.
Day 6: Paro (Tiger Nest Excursion)
Clinging precariously to a granite cliff 800 metres above the Paro Valley is Taktsang Monastery “Tiger’s Nest”. The breath-taking scenery is definitely worth the challenging climb up to the viewpoint. Evening, enjoy dinnerwith Bhutan performance.
Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest) [6 hrs] – Often called the Tiger’s Nest, perched on the cliffs, has awestruck many a visitor. “Trip to Bhutan is never complete without climbing to Taktsang”, says one tourist. Indeed it’s true as the journey there fills you with spiritual bliss. For those not choosing the spiritual side it is the dramatic, artistically built monument that becomes a hiker’s delight. Take a trip to this dramatically set Buddhist relic hanging from a cliff. Experience the uphill climb as you ascend more than two thousand feet from the valley floor.
A prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and temple complex locatedon the cliff side of Paro Valley. According to legends, it is believed that Guru Rinpochhe flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a Tigress (his consort Yeshey Tshogyal) and meditated in one of the caves. Guru Rinpochhe performed meditation and emerged in eight manifestations and the place became holy. Thus gaining the name Tiger’s Nest.
Kyichu Lhakhang – Also known as Kyerchu Temple or Lho Kyerchu, is the oldest temple in Bhutan. Just like Jambhay Lhakhang in Bumthang, it is one of the 108 temples built by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo to subdue and pin down an ogress that was obstructing the spread of Buddhism.
According to legend, all 108 temples were built in a single night. Go back in time and history and visit the 7th century Kyichhu temple. As the name suggests, the temple is a reservoir of peace, where you will really feel at peace here.
Day 7: Departure
Today we will bid fond farewell to this beautiful Himalayan country. We hope by now you would have made some friends and also kept many photos and beautiful memories of Bhutan! And we look forward to seeing you again in this beautiful land of endless Enchantments! Tashi Delek!