Punakha: aka the Place with all the Penises

dscn4864Our second day in Bhutan involved a long and arduous drive to the district of Punakha. Although the distance between Thimphu and Punakha is only 70km or so, the drive took us well over three hours due to the terrible state of Bhutan’s mountainous road network. Punakha is famous for its picturesque dzong which is situated between the meeting point of two raging rivers and Chimi Lhakhang otherwise known as the Temple of the Divine Madman. There was, however, a far more juvenile reason for my excitement for this leg of the trip…

The journey from Thimphu to Punakha is not a straightforward one. You are required to steadily climb to a mindboggling 3,100m in height on extremely poorly maintained roads almost entirely made up of hairpin bends. In Bhutan even travelling very short distance can take an absolute age due to the winding and unpaved nature of the roads. We arrived just after the end of rainy season and many of the roads had been churned into almost impassable quagmires by the wheels of passing vehicles. Landslides are common and we witnessed areas where collapsing mountainsides had even taken large parts of the few asphalted sections with them leaving sections of road that are beyond perilous (these areas were rimmed with small boulders as forewarning of the fact). As well as poor surface conditions, it is highly likely you will come across dogs and cattle snoozing in the roads or taking leisurely strolls at the most inopportune of times. With the sheer drops to the side of the roads these instances can be hair-raising indeed and riding along them at times feels like an extreme white-knuckle ride. According to our guide, roads to the east can be even worse and he told us it is not uncommon for tourists to make it only partway to Bumthang before begging to turn back!

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One of the better parts of the mountain road to Punakha

Amazingly, as we were driving, we witnessed a number of brave cyclists tearing down these treacherous roads at breakneck speed or arduously battling up the road’s brutal inclines. This was the second annual Tour of the Dragon, a one day bike race in which participants must cover a gruelling 268km in one sitting. Spattered in mud, weary-looking, braving precarious turns and a constant flow of contrariwise traffic, these adrenaline junkies must surely have been questioning their sanity on having undertaken this thankless task.

Halfway to Punakha we were able to make a stop at Dochula Pass. I was eagerly anticipating the stop as, on clear days, a beautiful stretch of the Himalayas is visible from this point. This was something I had specifically told my tour operator I wanted to see. Unfortunately, both on the way to and from Punakha, the view was obscured by thick fog meaning we could see nothing but the hazy silhouettes of a few trees mere feet in front of us – my travel companion and I aptly dubbed this heavily reduced view the Panorama of Disappointment!

Dochula Pass is also famous for the Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens, a collections of 108 stupas built by Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk as a memorial to Bhutanese soldiers who lost their lives in a short battle with Indian insurgents in 2003. Beyond these stupas, situated behind the pass’s coffee shop lies Druk Wangyel Lhakhng, a temple built to commemorate the first 100 years of monarchy in Bhutan. Unfortunately, owing once again to the thick cloud cover, we couldn’t even see this structure from the stupa hillock and had to rely on our guide explaining it to us instead!

Eventually we made it to our destination without major incident. As our altitude lowered, so did the cloud cover we had found ourselves lost within. This was a stroke of luck as otherwise we would have missed out on the most spectacular landscapes we have ever laid eyes on in the small town of Lobesa. We started with a visit to Chimi Lakhang Cafeteria even though the horrendous journey hadn’t done much for our appetites! Thankfully the awe-inspiring views from the window of the restaurant were so spectacular our queasiness was forgotten and when our food arrived we were able to enjoy it wholeheartedly. The restaurant also has a well stocked souvenir shop if you want to pick up some local trinkets to mark your visit.

With our hunger quelled we were able to freely wander the town which is famous for a very peculiar reason which was also the source of my immature excitement. The town of Lobesa has a great many houses decorated with giant phalluses and also a number of shops selling phallic handicrafts and gifts. This odd symbology is in recognition of Lama Drukpa Kuenley, also known affectionately as the Divine Madman. He was a rebellious Buddhist who went out of his way to challenge the hypocrisy of how the religion was taught. Famous for his promiscuity and heavy drinking, the Divine Madman was known to subjugate demonesses using his private parts which he referred to as his Flaming Thunderbolt. It is quite a humorous experience to walk through a residential area where huge penises scrawled on the walls of houses are seen as a blessing instead of a churlish curse.

Not far from Lobesa is a temple dedicated to the Divine Madman. To reach it one must pass through any number of picturesque terraced rice paddies and pass further phallically decorated domiciles. The views from this short walk are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen and the photographs I took don’t do the scenery here justice at all. The rolling valleys, serenely meandering river and the tall mountains with peaks obscured by cloud were simply breathtaking.

Chimi Lhakhang or the Temple of the Divine Madman was built in honour of Lama Drukpa Kuenley and his many righteous acts. Most famously, he is known for subduing a powerful demoness whose bodily remains lay beneath the only black stupa in all of Bhutan. Inside the temple itself you can find young monks chanting prayers, often half-heartedly. If you pay close enough attention you might even be able to spot one or two of the lads taking a quick nap or having a sneaky peruse of their mobile phone. Hovering around inside for long enough might reward you with the most unusual blessing you will ever receive as a monk comes round and taps you on the head with the Madman’s bow and a large wooden penis. During our visit we were lucky enough to witness a festival of some sort (our guide was unaware of the actual reason for the gathering) and we watched on as a group of elderly folk sat chanting and meditating outside the temple.

After a quick stop off at our hotel we made our way to our next destination, Punakha Dzong. The dzong is anchored like a ship on the convergence of two rivers, Pho Chhu which is said to be male and Mo Chhu which is said to be female. On our way to the dzong we were forced to pull onto the side of the road as a convoy of vehicles flew by us – Trulku Jigme Chhoedra, the Chief Abbot of the Central Monastic Body of Bhutan (or Je Khenpo for short) was easy to identify in the passenger seat due to his bright yellow kabney (a towel-like garment worn over the shoulder). This constituted our second close encounter with important Bhutanese personnel in less than a day – we felt very privileged!

The fortress itself is beautifully constructed, apparently by a famous carpenter who was able to visit Nirvana to gather his ideas from the heavenly structures there. The dzong, as an extremely sacred place, is home to a number of sacred relics that only the king of Bhutan may lay his eyes upon and is the winter residence of all the monks of Bhutan. There is a gorgeous chamber inside that holds some large golden statues, most notably of Buddha and Guru Rinpoche, with walls covered in lusciously painted murals that tell the story of Buddha’s suffering and eventual road to enlightenment. Sadly, photography in this sacred chamber is again prohibited.

The best pictures of the dzong are to be found on the roads leading towards it. Be sure to ask your guide to allow you to stop at a good vantage point on your way to the temple or once you have left it for the chance of some really memorable snaps.

After an eventful day of terrifying driving conditions and strolling around in the draining heat, we were whisked back to our hotel room based at the Meri Puensum Resort. Here we were able to refill our bellies and catch up on some well earned rest. The views from our hotel, built high above the town of Lobesa afforded us some amazing views which, I should imagine, would cost you an absolute fortune if they were located anywhere else in the world.

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The view from our hotel room was spectacular

Where I stayed

Meri Puensum Resort

Located at high altitude in the valleys of Punakha, Meri Puensum Resort it a tidy little hotel with some outstanding views of the local scenery. As the hotel is built at such a great height it feels like you can almost reach out and touch the heavens. Waking early here is a treat in and of itself as you get to watch the clouds float in over the mountain peaks off in the distance.

After a night at a hotel in Thimphu where the continuous chorus of dog song barely allows for a few snatched minutes of fitful sleep we were thankful for a peaceful night here. Beds were comfortable, bedding clean and the room was easily spacious enough to accomodate the two of us. Our small balcony was an added bonus as it gave us a secluded spot in which to savour the aforementioned landscapes.

One thing which bothered us during our stay was the fact the water from our taps and shower was discoloured. This was raised by another couple in the lobby and the woman at the counter explained that this is something that regularly occurs here during rainy season but that there was nothing to worry about as the hotel had its own filter system which the water passed through before coming to our rooms. Despite these reassurances, we still found this brown tinge a tad disconcerting.

As the hotel is set within a wooded area at high altitude you should expect to encounter a number of exotic insects. There was a wide range of creepy-crawlies that inexplicably managed to find their way into our room in the split second it took for us to open our door to enter or leave. The small corridor outside our room was open to the outside world and the walls are white which acted as a magnet for huge moths, large beetles and other mindless bugs who spent all night aimlessly walking in circles outside our door or banging headlong into the lights. Those with phobias may want to avoid this location and find somewhere else to stay!

The food provided here is in typical Bhutanese buffet style where you can help yourself to second helpings if you wish. The restaurant is clean and well-maintained and there is a miniscule bar just off it if you fancy indulging yourself in some Bhutanese beer or red wine after your meal. Food here is somewhat catered to your ethnicity so my companion and I were served a slightly more western themed starter whereas an Indian family on the table opposite were offered more of an Indian flavour. Breakfast followed a similar theme as we were served with cereals and muffins by our waitresses which actually made a nice change from the omelettes and fruit breakfasts we had been eating continuously in the previous weeks of our trip.

For those who wish to brave possible mosquito bites and kamikaze insects there is a nice gazebo just outside the restaurant where you can put your feet up and enjoy the views of the surrounding valleys or watch as the sun sets behind the mountains.

Overall, Meri Puensum Resort provided us with a pleasant overnight stay in Punakha. Although the discoloured water and the insect invasions were somewhat off-putting, the views from our balcony and a night bereft of dog barks more than made up for these shortfalls.

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