Places to visit in Punakha and Day Hikes
Punakha is the old capital of Bhutan and the valley lies at an altitude of 1242 m. The beautiful Dochu La Pass at 3100 m is on the way to Punakha is a beautiful spot and has 108 stupas. One can get the most spectacular view of the Himalayan range from this pass. Punakha Dzong was built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1637 between two rivers and is the winter residence of the Je Khenpo. Several fires that ravaged the building through the years. The Dzong still houses many artifacts and the preserved body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. In the early spring, an annual festival is held in Punakha Dzong. Some distance from the Dzong, on a hilltop stands the Temple of Fertility.
1. The Dochula pass:
Dochula pass at an altitude of 3100 M is located on the way to Punakha from Thimphu. The pass is a popular location among tourists as it offers a stunning 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayas. The view is especially scenic and clear in winter days with snowcapped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 stupas.
Bhutanese families enjoy visiting the pass during holidays and weekends to picnic and simply enjoy the scenery. It is common to see families and groups of friends seated amongst the chortens, enjoying a packed lunch and hot tea. For tourists this is an ideal location to capture beautiful pictures of the Himalayan mountain range during clear, warm days.
2. Lam Pelri Botanical Park:
This is the country’s first nature recreational park, established in 2004 to preserve the rich natural biodiversity of the area. The area has been delineated for protection and development into a site for ecotourism and nature education. Despite its small size. the park has a very good assortment of wild flora and fauna. A unique attraction of the Park is the rhododendrons. Of the total 46 species that grow in Bhutan, 40 species are found here.
This includes the 29 species that grow naturally in the area and another 11 that have been planted in the park Garden. The Park also has 114 species of ferns, as well as numerous wild orchids. The Park also hosts Bengal tiger, Red panda, leopard, musk deer, sambar deer, Himalayan black bear and many more. It is a haven for bird watching with more than 220 species being recorded.
The Dochula area has ancient religious and cultural significance for the people of Bhutan. While keeping this tradition alive, the Park is expected to promote national happiness by protecting, promoting and educating people about the natural and cultural heritage of this. A visit to the Royal Botanical Park can be the beginning of an exciting journey of exploration and discovery.
3. Chimi Lhakhang or the Temple of Fertility:
Of all the religious figures of Bhutan, perhaps no one is as popular as Drukpa Kuenley or The Divine Madman. The maverick saint was so revered that a temple, Chimi Lhakhang which translates to ‘Temple of the Divine Madman’ was built in his honor. Legend has it that Lama Kuenley subdued a demon of the region with his ‘magical thunderbolt of wisdom’. He was known as The Divine Madman for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism often with sexual overtones.
He is also the saint who advocated the use of phallus symbols that even today adorn Bhutanese paintings and houses. The Lhakhang is believed to bless couples who seek fertility and children. The monastery is the repository of the original wooden phallus that Drukpa Kunley brought from Tibet. It is used to bless people who visit the temple on pilgrimage, particularly women seeking blessing to beget children.
4. Punakha Dzong:
Standing majestically at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, the dzong was constructed in 1637-38. The dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. The sacred remains of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and the terton Pema Lingpa are also preserved here. It was the administrative centre and the seat of the Bhutanese government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. Today, it is still the winter residence of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the monastic body of Bhutan. Set against a spectacular backdrop, the architecture of the dzong is simply awe inspiring. It was in Punakha dzong that the wedding of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Her Majesty Queen Jetsun Pema was held on October 13, 2011.
5. Nalanda Buddhist College:
Nalanda Buddhist Institute is a situated in the western region of the Punakha Valley. In the native language, the word “Nalanda” stands for endless knowledge. The 9th Je Khenpo, Shakya Rinchen founded the college in 1957. For visitors, Nalanda Institute with its religious and historic influence has become one of the must visit places in Punakha Valley.
6. The Talo Village:
The village of Talo sitting at an altitude of 2,800m is scattered along the slopes of a hill and is famed for its cleanliness and hygiene. Also, the women of Talo are particularly known for their striking good looks. The Talo Goenpa, in the snowy peaks, overlooks the Punakha valley as it sits on a mountain ridge. For centuries this ancent spiritual center has stood guard over the valley below. The monastery was founded in 1767, in the year of the fire pig, according to the Bhutanese calendar.
7. Punakha Bazam (Suspension Bridge):
The bazam – the wooden-roofed cantilever bridge, leading to the dzong was built in 17th century. Perched above the rapid Pho Chhu River, the Punakha Suspension Bridge is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, spanning between 160-180meters. Draped with prayer flags, the bridge connects the town of Punakha and the spectacular Punakha Dzong. The locals mainly use it as an entry to the Dzong.
For some time after the flood in 1996, the Punakha Dzong could only be reached by travelling 15 kilometers downstream to Wangduephodrang. Later, a steel cable bridge was installed close to where the old bridge used to be. This was the bridge used until the new bazam was completed in May 2008. It was designed, built and financed by Pro Bhutan, while a Swiss engineering company provided technical expertise.
8. Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery:
The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery is perched on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang valleys. Surrounded by lush green pine forests the nunnery complex is a true expression of Bhutanese architecture portraying strong traditional values.
This Nunnery was built as a Buddhist College for nuns and currently houses about 120 nuns. The nunnery complex is a religious school and also houses a meditation centre for nuns. The Centre also strives to provide life skills such as tailoring, embroidery, sculpting and Buddhist Thangka painting.
Tourists can take advantage of the tranquil ambience and immerse in meditation programs. They can also observe the spiritual lives of nuns while they learn and prepare themselves with a variety of skill trainings.
9. Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Choling Monastery:
A short hike takes one to Khamsum Yuelley temple, built by Her Majesty the Queen Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck. Perched high on a hill on the bank of the river, the Chorten houses paintings belonging to Nyingmapa Traditions. The temple dominates the upper Punakha Valley with views across the Mo Chhu and up towards the peaks of Gasa.
10. Punakha Ritsha Village:
This village situated along the banks of Pho Chu and Mo Chu looks straight out of a postcard. The Ritsha village is surrounded by paddy fields, meandering rivers and looming hills. This village is famous for its production of red and white rice, From taking a stroll along the paddy fields and learning about traditional and modern farming methods used in the village, to trekking, mountain biking and white water rafting, there are a bunch of things one can do in this village.
11. Limbukha Village:
The village of Limbukha is easily accessible through feeder roads from Punakha and Wangduephodrang. The village provides some spectacular views of the Punakha Dzong and the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers.
Limbukha is also known for its love of peace. Legend has it that during medieval wars, the people of Limbukha always volunteered as peace negotiators. This is also depicted during the annual festival called ‘Serda’ when the men are found carrying peace flags instead of swords and fireworks. Trek from Punakha to Limbukha will take about 4.5 to 6 hours and is a distance of about 14 Kms.
12. Rinchengang village:
Rinchengang village is perhaps the most clustered village in Bhutan. Also, it is one of the oldest villages in Bhutan as it dates back to the Zhabdrung era.
The settlers in the village, back in the day, were skilled in the traditional method of stone masonry. And so, it was them who built the old Wangdiphodrang Dzong that stood for over 480 years before a fire gutted it a few years back.
In earlier times, the place was known as ‘Drinchen-Gang’ meaning ‘Grateful Valley’. Grateful for the contributions the people there made in building the dzong. With time, Drinchengang changed to Rinchengang as we know it today. To get to the village, it is a 20-minute uphill walk from the road head.
13. Lungchutse Hike:
This hike stretches 7 kms and takes 3 hours. This trip from Dochula Pass to Lungchutse Goemba is without a doubt the best hike in the area. The hike offer excellent views of the Himalayas in the north from the 108 stupas in Dochula pass. The trail climbs gradually through beautiful rhododendron forests before branching left to the temple. This 18th-century temple was founded by the treasure hunter Drakda Dorji and is dedicated to the local protector Tashi Barwa. Visitors can combine the hike with dawn views from Dochula for a great half-day excursion.
14. Tashigang Goemba Hike:
The Trashigang Goemba hike can be easily combined with the Lungchutse temple one for a fine half-day walk. It is an easy 60-minute downhill stroll from Lungchutse temple. It was built in 1782 by the 12th Je Khenpo. Trashigang goemba is an important meditation center for around 60 monks and nuns. The visitors can ask to see the small temple that encases a tiny statue made from the tooth of the 22nd Je Khenpo. The various chapels hold statues of 10 or more Je Khenpos who have meditated here over the years.
From the temple, it is a steep one-hour direct descent to Hongtsho on the Thimphu–Punakha highway.