Words AURELIA FERNANDES
Photographs T KRISHNA PRABAKAR
(Out of Kolkata 930km)
When it comes to exploring Bhutan, the travel circuit is rather defined – Phuentsholing, Thimpu, Punakha and Paro. If Phuentsholing is the gatekeeper, then Thimpu is the metropolitan hub and Paro the spiritual centre. This leaves Punakha as the ideal place, at which to just relax.
Located 85km from Thimpu, Punakha is famed for its dzong and water activities. Start your vacation by driving down to the Dochula Pass to marvel at the 108 memorial chortens (pillars). No matter how early you get here, it’s always buzzing with tourists, but don’t let that stop you from combing through the chortens (pillars). If the crowd gets overwhelming, escapeto the quiet Royal Botanical Park nearby. With a gorgeous lake, an abundance of flora and fauna and sambars stalking the area, the park is perfectly suited for a mini picnic and some bird-watching. Take in the fresh, crisp air and gaze at the clear blue skies above. Once you’re well-rested and ready to go, gear up for an exciting history lesson at the Punakha Dzong. Located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (Father River) and the Mo Chhu (Mother River) river, the dzong houses government offices and a lhakang (monastery), much like its Thimphu counterpart. While the dzong seems like a sombre place, with government officials running around, it’s also home to the annual Domche Festival, which sees a host of activities and religious performances, breathing life into the otherwise quiet fortress. As you walk around the dzong, it truly is mind blowing to think that the Punakha Dzong was built in just a year.Whether or not you’re a believer, you can’t possibly deny the fact that this dzong is shrouded in an air of magic. Post this, go back to appreciating Bhutan’s natural beauty and pay a visit to the Punakha Bridge. Covered in prayer flags, this 200m-long bridge is the best place from which to appreciate the river rapids and prep you for a rafting adventure. Punakha has plenty of river-rafting services, so round up a group of six to nine people and take on the river rapids. With most rafting services open all year round, slap on that safety jacket and get ready to paddle.
If you’re in the mood for some more exploration, make your way to the bustling little town of Lobesa, located 10km from Punakha. Complete with red rice paddy fields, thangka shops and the famed Chimi Lhakang, Lobesa is the perfect place for a day of sightseeing. Trek up to the lhakang, which pays homage to the saint Drupka Kunley, popularly known as the “Divine Madman”. Known for championing sexual liberation, the saint is worshipped with much fervour at Chimi Lhakhang, where barren couples come to pray, in the hope of a miracle. While there is no sure way to confirm the success rate, the inner sanctum is always filled with devotees whose undying faith leads them here. Spend some time watching them take charge of the prayer service, while monks carry on with their daily chores. Once you’ve offered your respects, head back down and don’t forget to smile at all the local children who will bid you farewell as you make your way back to Punakha.