Balkans                                          2016

Balkans 2016 Albania Kosovo Macedonia




After yesterday’s cold and damp conditions, we were blessed with clear skies and sunny weather for almost all of today – Easter Sunday – for our 125 kilometre drive north-east from Paro to Punakha.

The drive represented a great opportunity to see Bhutan’s countryside at a variety of altitudes as we drove through river valleys and across mountain passes.  Starting at an altitude of 2200 metres at Paro, we passed through altitudes as high as 3090 metres at Dochula (where we needed jackets) and as low as 1240 metres at Punakha (where short-sleeved shirts were the appropriate attire).

The drive from Paro to Punakha is supposed to take a little more than three hours, and the fact it took us from 8:20 am to 4:00pm tells you a little about the twisting, winding, narrow nature of the road, but more to the point, that we had four excellent stops along the way before our fifth stop upon arrival in Punakha.

Our first stop was at Tamchog Lhakhang, a 14th century temple that is apparently still occupied by the spirit of its founder, the great master architect Thangtong Gyalpo.  He built a suspension bridge that still spans the Paro River, although officials have had to protect the bridge from people who had started souveniring some of the auspicious 14th century ironwork to make earrings and other items of jewellery.  A small cave above the bridge is said to be the remains of Thangtong’s iron mine that he used to build the bridge.  Like many Bhutanese bridges, this one is bedecked with prayer flags that flutter in the strong breezes that blow along the river valleys.

Our second stop was a brief one at Chunzom, which is the point marking the confluence of two rivers (the Paro Chhu and the Wang Chuu) and the intersection of four main roads.  In traditional Bhutanese culture, the meeting of two rivers is considered to be inauspicious, so to overcome this problem, three chortens (stupas) and a large prayer wheel have been built to ward off evil spirits.  Each chorten is in a different style – Bhutanese, Nepali and Tibetan.

Our drive took us around the outskirts of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, after which the road started climbing through thick pine forests before reaching the highest point of out drive, Dochula.  This mountain pass was marked by an impressive array of 108 chortens built in 2004 to honour the deaths of Bhutanese soldiers who put down an armed rebellion of  Assamese militants in southern Bhutan who were campaigning for separation from Bhutan in December 2003.  More specifically, the chortens were built by the Queen Mother, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, for the safety and security of the 4th King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

Being a clear day, there were wonderful panoramic views of the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas from Dochula.  We enjoyed these views over a welcome cup of coffee at the cafeteria that has been strategically located across the car park from the chortens overlooking the vast valley below.

As we began the long, winding descent from Dochula, the weather warmed noticeably with the decrease in altitude.  The pine forest we had driven through on the approach up to Dochula gave way to a mixed forest as we proceeded downhill to the north-east.

At a little after 1pm, we reached the small village of Sopsokha.  The stupa built in the middle of the road told us in no uncertain terms that spiritual matters take priority over road safety in this part of Bhutan, despite the wonderful road signs we had been passing all the way with messages such as “After drinking whiskey, driving is risky”, “If you are married, divorce speed”, “Darling I like you, but not so fast”, “Safety on road is ‘safe tea’ at home” and “Be gentle on my curves”.

Sopsokha is the centre of a region that decorates its buildings in a somewhat unusual manner by painting stylised phalluses on the exterior walls.  Apparently local people believe that these large murals ward off evil spirits.  The murals are supplemented by carved wooden phalluses, sometimes decorated in bright colours and on occasions with multi-coloured stripes and even what appear to be eyes and grinning mouths.  The carved wooden phalluses are on sale in many shops and stalls in Sopsokha and other nearby villages, offering visitors an eyebrow raising and uniquely Bhutanese souvenir (and talking point I presume).

We had a buffet lunch in a small restaurant which featured a one and half metre high carved wooden phallus (varnished, not coloured) at the end of the servery.  Perhaps more interestingly (for some), it (the restaurant, not the phallus) offered panoramic views overlooking rice padis and terraces of nearby farms.  Beautifully illuminated by the clear sunlight under bright blue skies, we walked across these same fields after lunch, through another small village called Teoprongchu with houses that were beautifully decorated with intricately painted window surrounds (and phalluses), to Chimi Lakhang.

Set on a hill overlooking the nearby river, Chimi Lakhang is also known as the Divine Madman’s Monastery after Lama Drukpa Kunley, whose cousin founded the monastery in 1499.  Originally from Tibet, Drukpa Kunley was known for his weird songs, lurid humour and widespread, obscene, sexual practices and immorality to dramatise Buddha’s teachings to the ordinary population.  He was clearly not a fan of one of Buddha’s teachings, that of moderation and following the Middle Way, but as it was explained to me today when I asked about this apparent paradox, “Buddhism is a very inclusive religion”.

Despite his unorthodox approach to teaching Buddhism to the masses, he is regarded as a saint – and the phalluses that decorate homes in the region stem from his ‘impact’ and testify to the esteem in which he is held.  The monastery (Chimi Lakhang) is known as a fertility shrine.  Infertile women come from many parts of Bhutan to receive a blessing from the resident monks, after which many miraculously fall pregnant, as testified by a photo album in the monastery with baby photos and notes from grateful parents.  Traditionally, babies who have been conceived after their mothers have received a blessing at Chimi Lakhang are named either Chimi or Kunley.

Returning to Sopsokha, we took the short 10 kilometre drive north to Punakha, Bhutan’s former capital that is located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (Male River) and Mo Chhu (Female River).  This confluence was marked not by chortens, but far more spectacularly by what is commonly regarded as Bhutan’s most impressive building, the Punakha Dzong.

Like the Paro Dzong that we had visited several times over the previous few days, the Punakha Dzong was built as a fortress.  In the case of the Punakha Dzong, it was built in 1637-1638, and was used as the seat of Bhutan’s government until the mid-1950s when the administration was transferred to Thimphu.  Today, about 800 monks live in the dzong, and it remains the location for the coronation of every Bhutanese king.

The dzong’s reputation for architectural quality is well deserved.  The huge whitewashed walls rise above the surrounding river plain as a towering fortress that is 180 metres long and 72 metres wide, topped with a gold dome, and decorated with the finest quality of carved woodwork imaginable.

The courtyard of the dzong is entered by crossing a covered bridge that spans the Mo Chhu.  It looks ancient, but was built in 1958 to the same design as an earlier 17th century bridge that was washed away in a flood in that year.  After crossing the bridge and traversing the courtyard, the main buildings of the dzong are entered by climbing a very steep flight of stairs at the northern end of the complex, which open up into the first of three inner courtyards.

The buildings become progressively more ornate towards the south of the dzong.  At the southern end of the third courtyard, the ‘hundred pillar’ assembly hall is entered after removing one’s shoes to reveal a huge room with exquisitely painted murals, artefacts, lines of benches that used as seats during ceremonies – but only 54 pillars.  Unfortunately, like the inner sanctums of all Bhutanese monasteries, photos were not permitted in the ‘hundred pillar’ assembly hall.

By the time I had finished exploring this part of the dzong, it was almost 5pm and the skies had suddenly darkened with thick grey clouds that seemed to convey a sense of grim foreboding.  Being closing time, we left the dzong exhilarated by the wondrous architecture we had witnessed and grateful for the brilliant sunshine we had experienced all day to that point.

Our accommodation for the night was not in Punakha, but about 12 kilometres to the south in Lobesa, which made the name of the hotel – Hotel Lobesa – fairly easy to remember.  This new hotel was far superior to the Hotel Drukchen in Paro.  We were greeted upon arrival by a team of staff who insisted on carrying our luggage – fortuitously as it turned out, given that the stairs down to our room from street level were extremely steep and the rain had started – while we were given mandatory cups of coffee as a gesture of welcome.

Overlooking the valley of the Mo Chhu, our room was large and comfortable, and dinner provided was perhaps the best we have yet experienced in Bhutan.  The only downside is that we will be here for just one night – tomorrow we move on to Thimphu.

Day 4 - Paro to Punakha

Sunday 1 April 2018