On day four post a fabulous lunch at the Gangtey Goempa Lodge, we started on our journey to Punakha. En route we drove by Lobesa where we noticed that the local homes done up in the typical traditional Bhutanese style, had one glaring difference. They all had paintings of phalluses on the outside walls. Vijay our guide explained that we were in the fertile valley of Lobesa which borders Thimphu, Punakha and the Wangdue Phodrang districts. He said, that in the village of Sosokha, lay Chimi Lhakhang, the temple revered by many and dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenley, the divine madman. Chimi Lhakhang was popularly considered to be a temple of fertility. From far and wide, believers thronged to the temple and prayed to be blessed with a child. Vijay said that we too were scheduled for a visit the next day and that the temple was a short 20 minute walk through the rice and mustard fields of the village of Sosokha.
After a long drive, we reached Punakha. At the market place, Laveena asked Topgey our driver if we could stop to buy some local guavas. The guavas in Bhutan are sweet and delicious and Laveena was keen to buy a few for us to snack on.
A 15 km drive from the Punakha market is the Uma hotel by Como. The hotel is located at the far western end of the lush Punakha Valley. When we reached the doors of the property, a staff member greeted us and walked us through the courtyard into a lounge area and out onto the open verandah where he said we would be checked in and served our welcome drink. From where we stood, nothing lay between us and the staggeringly stunning Punakha valley. We had uninterrupted views of the breathtakingly beautiful mountain range, rolling soft lush green fields wonderously juxtaposed with the golden yellow rice fields of the region and the serenely flowing blue Mo Chu (female) river. When put together it all looked like a perfect painting. For this miracle of a view there could only be one artist – God. As we were soaking in the beauty of the place, a young smartly dressed man walked over and introduced himself as Thamu Krishnan, the lodge manager. I thought he looked rather young to be the manager, but when he told me his age, I immediately attributed his fresh and young looks to the purity of the air he was lucky to breath in this part of paradise. As far as the eye could see, there was only beauty. I imagined that this part of the valley had to have been modelled on the lines of the garden of Eden. This truly was heaven on earth. Thamu welcomed us and said that if we appreciated the views the way we did from where we were, we would be further enchanted when shown to our room. Not wanting to waste another minute, we asked to be directed to our home for the next two nights. The Uma Punakha has nine rooms with valley views. A few of these have terraces. There are also two villas on the property with captivating views of the valley. When the door to our room was opened, we were left tongue tied. The floor to ceiling glass windows brought all of the exceptionally beautiful outside, right into our bedroom. It made us feel like we had almost coalesced with the beauty outside and that we and nature had now fused into one single entity. If there was a paradise for humans to experience on earth, this had to be it. And even though in my past blogs I may have possibly praised other destinations to the skies, the view from the Uma Punakha, truly was the ultimate in beauty for us. We were simply beguiled, in awe and in love with what we saw and we hoped that just for today, God would delay the setting of the sun by a few extra minutes, allowing us to feast on this natural piece of paradise for a bit longer.
Dinner that evening was impressive. The chef at the Uma Punakha, Dewa Wijaya, is from Indonesia and has immense talent. We were told that much of the produce used in the Uma kitchen comes from the local farmers. And since Punakha is fertile and one of the most bountiful valleys in Bhutan, I vouch for the freshness of the vegetables and fruits. That evening, while Laveena ordered the tender leg of lamb, I couldn’t wait to try the Nasi Goreng. Well you couldn’t blame me could you? The moment I heard the chef was Indonesian, I knew his Nasi Goreng would be spot on. Spiced up with some local chillies, the dish packed that perfect punch with tender chicken, shallots, sweet soy sauce, ginger garlic paste and the fried egg resting on the rice. Post dinner we retired to the terrace. The temperatures had dropped and the hotel staff got a fire going for us. Thamu asked if he could join us and as we sipped on our tea, he shared with us many stories about the region, some funny, some educational, but all very very interesting.
The next morning we had a delightful breakfast on the lower terrace with enrapturing views of the valley. We were unsure whether to eat or meditate given the peace and tranquility surrounding us. Post breakfast we drove to Sosolkha. On reaching the village we started our walk to the temple through the muddy fields. The temple stands on a hillock and was built in 1499 by the 14th Drukpa hierarch, Ngawang Choegyel. There is a Chorten on the site built by the maverick saint Drupka Kunley. It is believed that a demon was struck down by Drupka Kunley and was trapped in the rock at a location close to where the chorten stands. When we arrived at the temple we could hear monks reciting some prayers. We were told that these were special prayers being conducted for a Bhutanese family who were seated around the monks. We also noticed that in the temple there was a wooden phallus with a silver handle. The monk tapped this on our heads as a blessing. One cannot help but feel spiritually cleansed on visiting a place which reverberates with the intense chanting of prayer. Although we do not understand Dzongh, the local Bhutanese language, we did leave the temple with a strong sense of inner tranquility.
On our drive back we stopped at the Punakha Dzong. Constructed in 1637–38, the Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and the second largest dzong in Bhutan. It is located at a point where the majestic Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers meet. While the source of the Mo chu river is in the northern hills of Lighsi and Laya in Bhutan and Tibet, the Po Chu River has it’s source in the glaciers of the Lunana region of the Punakha valley. Once the rivers merge, the main river is called the Puna Tsang chu or Sankosh River. This river flows down through Wangdue Phodrang, crosses the Bhutan–India border at Kalikhola and eventually meets the Brahmaputra River. The dzong is part of the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism in Bhutan. To enter the dzong we walked across a covered wooden cantilever bridge built over the Mo Chu river. Vijay informed us that although the original bridge built in the 17th century was washed away by a flash flood in 1957, a new one was built in the traditional style in 2008.
After our visit to the Punakha Dzong, we returned back to the Uma Punakha. Before dinner we decided to visit the Como Shambala Retreat for a holistic signature massage. Nestled in a woodland glade within the property with breathtaking views of the Punakha valley, the treatment rooms are luxurious and naturally comfortable. There is a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath which we planned to use post our massage. For the next hour we allowed our therapists to work their magic on us with a treatment clearly inspired by Asian influences. Rejuvenated we returned to our rooms and showered before dinner.
Yet again we were treated to some of Chef Wijaya’s gastronomical wonders. We started with a soup, the valley & forest vegetable potage with herb pistou. This was followed by the tagliatelle with tuna & olives in rich spicy tomato & pepper sauce and the warm roast beetroot & pear salad, braised endive with blue cheese. For the mains I ordered the beef cheek & red panda pudding pie while Laveena chose the roast pork chop with provincial herbs, tomatoes & garlic puree. Our dishes were accompanied with sautéed spinach & golden garlic and silky truffle potato puree. Dessert that evening was a pre-birthday gluten free cake surprise for Laveena followed by apple & cinnamon pie with vanilla bean ice-cream. After an enjoyable meal we decided that we would delay returning to the room as we wanted to enjoy the outdoors, the fresh crisp night air, the sounds of nature and the cold mountain breeze. The day was so perfect and beautifully complete, that night the two of us slept like babies. The next morning we were scheduled to depart for Paro.
( The last leg of our holiday to the Last Shangri-La was spent in Paro. This I shall write about in the 4th and final part of my Visit to Bhutan)