Punakha, Bhutan | The Ultimate Guide to the Land of Thunder Dragon
17th January 2019
We checked out of our hotel, found a great spot to feast on some beef momos, strolled through the streets one last time, and finally boarded our 2 pm bus to Punakha. After a solid dose of luxurious Bhutanese city life, and all things fancy, it was time for us to get back to our more modest way of travelling, and explore the rural countryside of Bhutan. Our bus took the same route as we had taken a few days’ ago to Dochu La Pass, but this day was a bit different. There were no clouds playing hide and seek with us, we weren’t running up and down the street to just catch a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas. This day the sun shone nice and bright against a crystal clear blue sky, with the entire range of the Himalayas standing tall to bid us goodbye as we proceeded further on with our journey. We just calmly sat inside our bus, quietly looking out our window at a beautifully sunny winter day, as we journeyed through this pass and exited the Thimphu district to be welcomed into Punakha.
What's In Here
how to reach punakha
Punakha is a district adjoining Thimphu, located just about 72 kilometers from the main city. One can either board a bus from Thimphu to Punakha, or take a shared taxi. A private taxi can also be booked, but this might prove to be heavier on the pockets.
The bus drops you at Khuruthang, which is the nearest town to Punakha. From here, one can hope onto a shared taxi to the town. There is no direct bus service available from Thimphu to Punakha town.
places to stay in punakha
Having spent some time in the hotels and city life of Thimphu, we were now looking for a more local experience, living in the village, and experiencing the Bhutanese countryside as traditionally as possible, and boy were we in for a jackpot! Located about an hours’ drive away from Khuruthang was our homestay in a small village of Yusakha that even Google map does not know about! After crossing an old iron bridge, and driving through narrow winding roads ride by the Pho Chhu River, our taxi driver cut to a dirt road trail and in a few moment’s time we were standing in front of a big yellow structure, being welcomed in by Tenzin, our host for the next three days at Namgay Zam Homestay.
This homestay is run by Tenzin, a sweet lady, and her year old boy, Kinga. Her mother and father also help her around but the family’s primary occupation is farming and all that is cooked in their kitchen is sourced fresh off their farms! Their main crop is paddy, and they also have a few cows that give fresh milk every morning. Their house is a massive wooden building painted in yellow, with the twelve Buddhist Zodiac animals adorning its walls. Everything from its eave to its staircase to its door handles is intricately carved, making the experience as traditionally Bhutanese as possible! The house has a kitchen, a common living area, a Buddhist shrine, and quite a number of bedrooms. They don’t have attached toilets, and there are no geysers but authenticity can only be experienced once you let go of such unnecessary luxuries.
things to do in punakha
This one is, I’m sure, a no-brainer. If Punakha is known for anything, it has to be this ridiculously massive fortress sitting right by the banks of the Pho Chhu River, looking like it is straight out of a fairy tale. Perhaps Bhutan’s most beautiful dzong, this is also one of the largest, and oldest dzongs. It was built by the First Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the founder of the Bhutanese State, in 1637. The Dzong also houses some relics that He got with himself from Tibet. The Dzong was built in a very strategic location in the erstwhile capital of Bhutan- situated between the Pho Chhu on one side and the Mo Chhu on the other, to protect it from a possible Tibetan invasion.
Pro Tip: The Dzong remains open from 11 am to 1 pm and then from 3 pm to 5 pm, so make sure you plan your visit accordingly. The ticket also has a flat 50% on valid school/ college ID cards so make sure to carry yours if you’re a student!
traditional bhutanese hot stone bath
Hot stone baths are ancient Bhutanese rituals being practiced since the beginning of time. Constructed outside the houses, tubs made of wood are filled with water and sprinkled with several plants serving medicinal and herbal purposes. Stones collecting from the riverside are then heated in fire, until they turn a blazing red, and are then dropped into the tub, which subsequently heat the water in the tub. These stones are said to release minerals in the water, and these combined with the herbs, are said to be good for joint pains, stomach aches, arthritis, and hypertension.
Tenzin was kind enough to prepare a traditional bath for us, complete with the herbs, as soon as we reached the homestay. The one hour long dip felt nothing short of a spa session and definitely took our travel fatigue away. The process of heating stones if in fact quite cumbersome, and her father was busy with the process for several hours to make sure we have a good time. It was truly a one of a kind experience, and if I’m ever to visit Bhutan again, I will not leave without another hot stone bath sesh!
Pro Tip: Most hotels and boutique resorts also offer hot stone baths but these are often highly mechanized renditions of what once used to be a very homely, manual task. I have heard these are not even close to what the traditional bath feels like, so make sure you book a bath at a homestay to have a completely authentic experience!
The longest suspension bridge in Bhutan is about 2 kilometers long and hangs over the fierce Pho Chhu River. With a riot of colourful flags fluttering from the bridge in the air, this is a picture perfect spot with astounding views of the valley on both sides!
The bridge used to be our gateway to civilization while living in the tiny village of Yusakha, with hardly any people around. The bridge is about half an hours’ hike down hill through some insane paddy fields and panoramic spaces. From the bridge, it is another 20 minutes’ walk to the Dzong, and from here one can take shared taxis heading on to Khuruthang, the nearest town.
Pro Tip: The bridge remains crowded almost the entire day, so if you’re looking to get some beautiful pictures of the bridge in isolation, you can either stand for hours waiting for the bridge to be clear of people, or you could just pay a super early morning visit and you’ll be set!
Located about 13 kilometers from Khuruthang, Sopsokha is commonly known as the Phallus Village of Bhutan. This village follows the teachings of Drukpa Kunley, a Buddhist monk and missionary, also famously known as the Divine Man. Amongst his other teachings, he is most famous for his revolutionary belief that it is possible to be enlightened and impart enlightenment without needing to be celibate. He encouraged people to lead a normal sex life and is also the man behind the ritual of painting phalluses on buildings to ward off evil. These painted phalluses now remain a tradition only in some parts of Bhutan, the most prominent being Sopsokha! Wherever you go in the village, you will come face to face with colourfully painted and decorated penises- whether on the walls of shops and houses, or as souvenirs throughout the entire village.
Pro Tip: Take a shared taxi going towards Lobesa from Khuruthang, and get off at Sopsokha on the way. This is the easiest and cheapest way to reach the village.
Chimi Lhakhang is a Buddhist monastery built by the Divine Madman, Drukpa Kunley himself. The original wooden phallus symbol that he brought with himself from Tibet is stored here and is used to bless women trying to conceive children. The lhakhang looks like just another monastery amidst that plenty that Bhutan is home to, (for reals though, there’s one almost every few kilometers, even on the highways, in the middle of nowhere!) but its historical importance- as bizarre as it may sound- is quite interesting! What’s even more interesting is the way to the temple. About a 20 minutes’ hike from the main village, one must walk amidst tall grasslands and massive paddy field to reach this monastery, and the entire way is a complete treat to the eyes!
things to eat in punakha
The nearest eating options to the Punakha Dzong are at Khuruthang, about 5 kilometers away. Google will tell you about one odd cafe right in front of the Dzong but the woman usually does not stay in, and so it’s not certain whether you’ll get any food or not (we didn’t). Even in Khuruthang, the eating options are just about decent to fill your stomachs, but not for a good heavy enjoyable meal. So well dependent on Tenzin to feed us day in and day out, and oh boy did she feed us well!
Our breakfast was always a lavish spread of tea, fruits, eggs and bread on a mat sprawled out in the garden over looking the Himalayas. What could have been better than that to kick start your day!
As soon as we used to come back to the homestay from our daily adventures, we would be welcomed with a warm cup of tea, along with some traditional Bhutanese snacks- some puffed rice mixed with butter and sugar, and maize mixed with butter and sugar. Every evening tea was like a pre-dinner feast!
And for dinner we would be served a massive spread of all sorts of Bhutanese dishes ranging from ema datsi to red rice, and beef jerkey to saag datshi.
Tenzin’s mother even cooked some homemade wine for us, and even set it on fire! The finished product was a bowl full of scrambled eggs soaking in a very strong white wine that knocked the senses out of our brains!
If you haven’t been able to tell already, I had the best time in Punakha of all the days I spent in Bhutan. The rustic village life, the happy warm faces everywhere, the unspoiled beauty of nature, and of course Tenzin’s incredible hospitality made it for an utterly unforgettable experience. If you want to have a similar experience, you can book Namgay Zam Homestay on Airbnb or just contact Tenzin at +975 17703871.
We love transparency! My stay was sponsored by Namgay Zam Homestay in Punakha, but my excessive gushing about the place and its hospitality is truly heartfelt and sincere!
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A twenty-something solo adventurer, Avantika finds comfort in learning about various cultures, its people and listening to age-old folk tales. When not on the road, she can be found cuddled up with her dog in her room, with a book in her hand.