The trip to Punakha was was quite short, just one night in the quaint very spread out town. Maybe there was a town center, but we never came across it. What we saw were the meadows, streams, well spread our red-roofed houses and lush greenery. Besides the immense natural beauty, the primary reason for visiting Punakha is the Punakha Dzong, a stunning Buddhist temple constructed in 1637. It is remarkably well maintained and stands out in the backdrop of green mountains and the two rivers it is sandwiched between – the Pho Chhu and the Mo Chhu. These rivers eventually join the mighty Brahmaputra. This city (town) was the capital of Bhutan till the 1950s and is still the site for royal weddings and festivals.
For such an imposing structure, it is remarkably devoid of tourists. This is probably due to the several restrains Bhutan has on tourism, including very limited ability to travel without an organized trip. Inside you can see beautiful paintings, imposing temples with statues of Buddha and the Bodhi tree. The colors and the simplicity of construction make this a very unique site. The simplicity of life among the monks who live here is also visible. You can walk around quite a bit, climb to vantage points, see the galleries and check our many structures housing within the Dzong.
There are several parts of the temple not accessible to visitors and there are interesting stories about what remains hidden. The most interesting one we heard was about a small statue of Buddha (less than an inch tall) but carved out of the spinal bone of Buddha himself. I was told that only the King can go see this statue once a year.
There are several small hikes in the area to enjoy and a lot of natural beauty to absorb. Once the Sun had set and I had clicked some blue hour shots, there was not much to do but settle into the hotel and enjoy some local food and wine. The Bhutanese style pork was delicious, as was the rest of the simple meal in the basement restaurant.
The drive to Paro from Punakha was much longer as we had to go beyond Thimphu for this one. We started early on the same mountainous drive and took a stop at the Dochula Pass, just like the day before. The road got better when once we crossed Thimphu but our hotel was a little beyond Paro and on top of a hill. It was nearly 5 hours before we got to the hotel and we were famished. Fortunately, we had been able to call the hotel ahead of our arrival and they had a fabulous meal ready and waiting. When you are so hungry, everything feels great and this was genuinely delicious food.
It was then that we got around to appreciate how beautiful a hotel this was. Naksel means ‘forest’ in Dzongkha and it was very aptly named. The hotel sits nearly at the top of a small mountain that is otherwise densely covered with trees. Only a small pathway that leads up to the hotel is visible. The hotel itself beautifully blends into its surroundings and a lot of its structure is made with hand-carved wood. It has a ‘traditional luxury’ feel to it right when you enter. The room was small but very plush. Heating was through a Swedish floor warming mechanism and there was a small balcony with a fabulous view of the mountains. The food was excellent and there was a lot of variety for almost every meal they offered us.
The next day we were up early for the much-anticipated hike up to the Tiger’s Nest – a stunning monastery perched on the edge of a steep cliff. It is an amazing site to watch and is probably the most recognized landmark of Bhutan. The drive from the hotel was about 30-minutes and we were dropped at the starting point of the steep and long hike. From among the low hanging clouds, we could see the faint outline of Tiger’s Nest and excitement was growing. This is when disaster struck, in the form of rain. We had to cancel our plans to hike up and this was sadly our last day in the country. We spent the day walking around Paro. We found a local market with a local restaurant to have a wonderful lunch at. The market was surrounded by beautiful hills and the shops full of very expensive souvenirs – a great place to walk around, not necessarily to shop.
We spend the evening enjoying the amazing hotel and its facilities. The flight back was beautiful as well, especially when the captain announced that the clouds had split and Mt Everest was visible on the right side of the plane.