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Bhutan - Land of the Thunder Dragon - February 2010

Next morning we left Thimpu to drive to Punakha. On the way we visited Dochu La on the high pass between Thimpu and Punakha, a unique cluster of 108 Chortens that spiral up to the main monument Chorten, all built as a celebration of the stability and progress that the King brought to the nation. On a clear day the pass offers a panoramic view of the Himalayas.

The rest of journey was driving along lovely mountain roads with views of hills and trees passing by the car window like a landscape painting. Our guide pointed out the bare trees saying that by March and April many will be covered by beautiful rhododendron and azalea flowers in red, yellow and white etc. It would be a wonderful sight.

We arrived at a small rural village called Lobesa, just a few houses and shops among acres of fields and rice paddies. In late February it is the rape seed coming into flower, rice planting taking place in later months. The houses in this village are mostly farm houses with no particularly outstanding features except the colourful and beautiful wall paintings of the usual protective animal images and many large phallus images, mostly either side of the entrance door. This is a very common sight in Bhutan, the phallus image supposed to deter evil spirits entering the house. Some even hang wooden phalluses above the entrance door or from the eaves.

We had lunch at a wonderful restaurant called the Chimi Lhakhang Café. The main feature of this café is the panoramic view of the fields and the valley below. After lunch we walked up to the Chimi Lhakhang (temple) on the hill. This was a very pleasant walk through the rustic pathway between the fields and passing the local farmhouses. On the hilltop is the golden roof of Chimi Lhakhang temple built in 1499 by a cousin of Lama Drukpa Kunley. It is believed that childless women who go to the temple will conceive after receiving a blessing from the Saint.

We walked back to the car and drove on into Punakha, checking-in at the Damchen Resort. This standard-category hotel is very peaceful, situated by the riverside. During the summer months there will be seating in the hotel gardens sloping down to the river. Our room was large, bright and comfortable. We also inspected a second hotel that we will use for our tours, the Zangto Pelri. This hotel is situated on a hillside with wonderful views of the Punakha valley. Some of the rooms have sitting terraces to enjoy the view. The hotel bar also has a patio area to enjoy a drink and the view.

This afternoon we had our first glimpse of the famous Punakha Dzong. It reminded me of the classic film 'Rebecca', the long winding drive suddenly giving way to the sight the magnificent mansion of Manderley, or in our case Punakha Dzong. We turned the corner of the mountain road and there was the magnificent sight of the large white fort with golden roofs and red and yellow windows and carved wood appearing from the mists of the river like a beautiful dream coming into life. We had to stop to enjoy this masterpiece. The setting is perfect, built on an island at the junction of 2 rivers, like a beautiful landscape painting. It also posseses an air of magic that I felt only existed in fairy tales from my childhood days. I was stunned by the beauty of this Dzong. Although we were not planning to visit until tomorrow, the beauty lingered on in my sleep overnight.

Next morning we visited Punakha Dzong. This was also one of the days of the Punakha festival being held there. We arrived at eight but the place was already crowded with local people dressed in most colourful costumes for the festival, especially the young girls and women. Whole families of all age groups come to enjoy the spectacle with their picnics and to watch the whole day's festival celebrations. This is a very rare sight in our world these days and a happy family event.

The Dzong looks as beautiful and as magnificent close up as from a distance. There is a bridge linking to the fort from the mainland over the river. This also adds to the mysterious atmosphere of entering a spiritual kingdom. The entrance to the building itself is up a steep stair to a colourful gold decorated imposing door as if climbing up to heaven above. Once at the top there are guards at each side of the door like heaven's gate.

Punakha Dzong
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Dochu La
Phallic wall images
Farmhouses at Lobesa
Chimi Lhakhang
Damchen Resort
Bar terrace, Zancto Pelri Hotel
Punakha Dzong