The trip from Thimphu to Punakha is relatively short, as Bhutan travel goes. The trip up over the pass and down into the Punakha Valley winds around the sides of the mountains and you rise from one valley floor to another.
The road between these two places is under construction and sections of the new pavement are a joy to behold and ride on. Other sections, still being shaped by Indian workers, are fascinating. The rain storm the night before made sections of this road impassible to all but the most intrepid of travelers. The ruts carved into the surface of this semi-liquid mass were ever changing as car, truck, motorcycle and mountain bike toiled up, down, and around these trails.
The normally brief two hour journey took us a bit longer. So, in light of the muddy roads and the traffic we did what sounded right: we stopped. We stopped for tea, we stopped for photos, we stopped just to look around. We made a great day out of the experience and saw pieces of Bhutan that one might normally pass by on the way to somewhere.
Our photo stops were particularly remarkable. The clouds hung over the mountains and occasionally revealed hidden houses and villages. We snapped shots as the clouds parted and found some of the most ethereal places I have ever seen.
By the time we reached the small town of Lobesa, we were ready for a rest from the turmoil of the well-traveled road. The small village of Lobesa is really just a brief stop on the way to either Punakha Dzong or Wangdue Phodrang and parts east. Everything in the village is a few feet from the side of the road. The Hotel Lobesa sits on a steep hill overlooking the Punakha Valley, the Punakha Chu River and is owned by the Panang family. These folks cater to you in a way that is unexpected. They are kind, generous, open hearted people who make you feel welcome and cared for. We were given the best rooms in this hotel (of about 10 rooms) overlooking the Punakha valley with unobstructed views of the temple of the Divine Madman.
While I am no food critic, I will say that the food at this Hotel is exceptional. The vegetable options are extensive and we had squash, cabbage, potatoes, green beans, okra, and ferns. Before Bhutan I never even thought of eating a fern. Here, the taste of these plants is delicate and wonderful. They have a nutty flavor. Combined with onions and sautéed, ferns are so tasty. (Not all ferns are eatable I’m told, so best NOT to head to your local forest and grab a bunch)
As we eat our meal and I surprised that we were served okra. Growing up in Georgia, okra is a summer staple and as a child I ate my fair share of this vegetable. The thing is, every time I have eaten okra, I feel a kind of slimy texture. That’s what signaled me that this vegetable was, indeed, okra. So, I asked, the staff, “what do you call this vegetable?” thinking that I had just uncovered some incredible secret that connected my childhood home to Bhutan. The young girl said, “Okra.” OK. Let’s chalk that one up to my idiocy and move on, shall we?
Our afternoon was spent at the Punakha Dzong. In the past, I have visited this place and have spent a short time walking the grounds and seeing the shrine room. On this day, we had the leisure to explore.
Our guide, Namgay, is a wonderful story-teller and he relayed this story to us about the dzong and the strength of the Bhutanese people. According to scholars, the dzong was built in the 1600s. The fortress was a means of protecting western Bhutan from Tibetan armies descending from the north. This valley leads to Tibet, and the rich farmland of Bhutan was attractive to Tibetan leaders. Once the dzong was completed, in the late 1600s, a Tibetan army of about 2000 marched down the valley to raid the farms and villages of Bhutan and steal recently harvested crops.
As the legend says, the Bhutanese army of only about 200 soldiers was no match for this well-armed division. As a means of fooling the Tibetans into thinking there were many more Bhutanese defenders, the Bhutanese general had his troops march, repeatedly around the dzong. The Tibetans, watching from across the river, counted the numbers of troops and decided that a direct assault would be a disaster. As the story goes, they returned to Tibet fearing that a full-scale conflict here would be a disaster.
The massive scale of the structure extends from the exterior walls to the stair cases, doors, interior buildings and shrine room. The climb into the dzong heads up a staircase not for the faint of heart. The incline is steep and you hold onto a handrail as you ascend the staircase to the guard station. Passing two giant prayer wheels, you pass through a doorway about 18 feet tall and wide. The door itself, constructed of wood, is about 16 inches thick and clad in metal studs.
Once through the doorway, you enter a courtyard. In the center is a live replica of the Bodhi tree, which, according to Buddhist legend, was where, in India, the Buddha achieved enlightenment.
Check out the photos as we upload them of the Dzong….more details to come.