Punakha Dzong is both the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and is of huge historic and cultural importance to the Bhutanese people. It was the site of the former capital of Bhutan before the administrative centre moved to Thimphu in 1955. It is the location for one of the many festivals in Bhutan that are held throughout the year.
Getting to Punakha
When travelling in Bhutan independent travel is not encouraged and the government set a minimum daily price for visitors. When we visited there was a high season and low season and prices varied accordingly. The costs included transportation, accommodation, a driver and guide, and meals. Some of the money raised is used by the government as part of a sustainable development fund for education and healthcare for the Bhutanese people.
However, since Bhutan opened up following the pandemic, the minimum price has increased significantly, and the tourism fee is charged on top of the travelling expenses.
We were shown this amazing country by our delightful guide Dawa and driver-extraordinaire Tring. Punakha is located east of Bhutan’s capital and it takes around three hours to drive from Thimphu.
One thing that you get used to about driving through Bhutan is that the roads are rarely straight – they will wind their way up the mountain passes through multiple hairpin bends and then wind their way down. It’s a lovely way to travel although we were told that some visitors can occasionally suffer a degree of travel sickness.
On the way we crossed the Dochula Pass, at an altitude of 3100m, which offered wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.
The pass is noted for the 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens (also known as stupas) which are located on a hill beside the road. They are a memorial to Bhutanese soldiers killed in a battle between Bhutan and Assam insurgents in 2003.
Visiting Punakha Dzong
Punakha Dzong is located at the confluence of the crystal-clear Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, respectively the male and female rivers, which join to form the Puna Tsang chu or Sankosh river. A dzong is a fortified monastery and its architecture is typical of this region.
One of the lovely things about Bhutan is that the country has a happiness index, created by the 4th King of Bhutan, who declared that ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.’ He was absolutely right. Punakha Dzong has another name: Pungthang Dewa chhenbi Phodrang which means ‘palace of great happiness’.
The dzhong was built in 1637-38, conceived by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, the Buddhist lama who unified Bhutan as a nation state. There is a legend that the architect had a vision, inspired by Zhabdrung, which encouraged him to design and construct the building.
The main central tower, the utse, is a hugely impressive piece of architecture. It is a fortress as much as monastery and as such has defensive walls all around. The entrance is defined by a very steep staircase and a huge wooden door. The interior is filled with beautiful murals depicting the life of Buddha as well as three large gilded statues – of the Buddha, Ngawang Namgyal and Guru Rinpoche, the most important saint in Bhutan, credited with bringing Buddhism to the country. He is also known as Padmasambhava, which means ‘born from lotus flower.’
There are three courtyards within the dzhong, known as dochey. and these are surrounded by administrative offices and a bodhi tree, a sacred fig, which is hugely revered in Buddhism.
The last courtyard is home to the Nag Yul Bum Temple. National treasures such as the embalmed body of Zhabdrung and the original Kanjur, the holy book, are stored here. No one is allowed to enter besides the king and the chief abbot.
The dzhong also has a covered wooden bridge which crosses the clear blue waters of the Mo Chu. The original bridge was built in the 17th century but was destroyed during a flash flood in the 1950s. A replacement was completed in 2008.
When visiting monasteries in Bhutan conservative dress should be worn. We were advised that we should wear long sleeves when entering temples. If the weather is warm it’s fine to put on a light jacket (we used our light raincoats). Also, photography is usually forbidden inside temples and it’s important to respect this.
Punakha Festival and the King’s Birthday
Each year the Punakha festival is held in February or March, depending on Bhutan’s lunar calendar. It lasts five days. There are all sorts of displays throughout the festival. Punakha Drubchen celebrates the Bhutanese victory of the Tibetans, who invaded of Bhutan in 1639, with dramatisations and re-enactments of the battle. In 2005, Punakha Tshechu was introduced and this focuses on traditional Buddhist teachings. Folk dancing is an important part of the festivals. Everyone dresses up in their finest traditional clothes. Men wear a gho, a knee-length tunic and women wear a long ankle-length dress called a kira.
We just missed the festival dates but were lucky that the timing of our visit enabled us to join the festivities for the king’s birthday, a three day celebration for Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the fifth and current Druk Gyalpo. (We were doubly lucky because we later travelled into Nepal, where we joined in celebrations for the Hindu festival of Holi.) Even though we had arrived quite early, the festival was well under way. There was plenty of dancing…
… and informal.
We watched the dancing from underneath the bodhi tree. As part of the celebration an enormous tapestry, known as a thongdrol, is unfurled. It is the most beautiful and colourful tapestry, taking up the side of a whole building within the complex. You can see a portrait of the king at the base of the tapestry. Respect for the king is enormous in Bhutan and his image can be found in most people’s homes.
Inside the temple complex there were further celebrations with masked dances performed by the monks.
Above all else, it was a happy festival. Everybody welcomed us. We got chatting to some of the local ladies – they were very keen to practice their English (which was excellent) and we talked about the traditions in our countries.
Other Things to See in the Area
Exploring the Rivers and Suspension Bridge
This is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan and it crosses the Po Chu river, linking the Dzong to Shengana, Samdingkha, and Wangkha.
It’s 160m long and is emblazoned with prayer flags that wave vigorously in the breeze.
There are some good walks along the Mo Chu river upstream. It’s a really beautiful area. And, if you’re feeling adventurous, there may also be some opportunities to go rafting on the river.
Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup
The Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery is located in Wolakha. It provides a permanent training and meditation centre for nuns. There are also opportunities for the nuns to learn various skills such as tailoring, statue making and thangka painting (a traditional style of Buddhist painting).
The temple has an impressive stupa.
Chimi Lhakhang is located around 10km from Punakha. It is a monastery built in the 15th century after being blessed by Lama Drukpa Kunley, also known as the ‘Divine Madman’, who had an, er, unusual approach to teaching Buddhism which often involved singing, dancing and generally being shocking. He brought from Tibet a wooden phallus adorned with a silver handle and this is housed in the monastery.
It is used to strike pilgrims, particularly women who wish to become pregnant, on the head as a blessing.
All through the area you will see paintings of phalluses on housing walls. It is a tradition in Bhutan that the phallus protects people from evil.
Staying At A Local Farmhouse
We spent the night in Chimi Lhakhang Farm – we had a cosy attic room and cooked dinner with our lovely hosts.
Our guide often asked what sort of food we would like to try – of course we asked if we could enjoy traditional Bhutanese food.
We had great fun in the evening and spent time in the kitchen preparing dinner with our hosts. Dawa and Tring joined in with the cooking as well.
The main dish was shakam paa, which comprised dried beef cooked with chillies and radish slices, spiced with dried chillies.
We also learned how to make khewa datshi, a dish of sliced potatoes with cheese.
And, of couse, the ubiquitous and utterly delicious ema datshi – chilli cheese.
All served up with red rice, it was a feast!
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Bhutan sounds like such a fun place to visit. I especially love that they have a happiness index. We could all use that. How fun to stay in a farmhouse. There’s no better way to immerse yourself in the culture … and food!
Bhutan really is a delightful place to visit and we love that they have a happiness index! The farmhouse stay was brilliant, it was so nice to be able to stay with a local family and learn to cook food with them.
The blog is very good and useful. Bhutan looks to be an amazing place to visit. Thanks for sharing this piece. I must add it to my list of places to go!!
Thank you. Bhutan really is a wonderful place, we highly recommend a visit!
Thanks for introducing me to Bhutans Punakha Dzong area, another corner of the world I’ve not heard of. How did know about it or did you end up here by pure “travelling on the road” accident? The architecture looks exquisite and would certainly engage me for a while. So intricate, yet at the same time the general construction seems rather basic and simple. I wasn’t aware of the strict regulations with visitors and that a guide was needed. How did you find a guide? Did you have any requirements or faced difficulties when you applied for a visa? Would love to hear more!
Carolin | Solo Travel Story
Thanks so much for your comment. Bhutan is the most amazing place to visit – it has such a rich culture and history and its location in the Himalayas is sublime. The visitor regulations aim to ensure that tourism in the kingdom is “high value, low impact”. But it does mean that travelling to Bhutan is expensive. There are lots of tour operators – both within Bhutan and in other countries – who can organise a tour. The visa application was very straightforward – visas are issued on arrival but you apply beforehand through the tour operator and receive pre-approval. It is a complex process and it is expensive but we absolutely adored Bhutan and feel that the effort was worth it.
Thanks so much for explaining the process a bit more. Screams for another blog post indeed! Please count this as my official request 🙂
Hee! Thank you. Will start writing more posts – Bhutan has many more amazing places to visit…
Bhutan has always been a country that aroused an enormous curiosity in me, but the absurd amount of money that is demanded from travelers turns out to be discouraging and makes me put other destinations ahead on the list.
The architecture is extraordinary, full of details and history. But what fascinates me most is the culture of a people, which they say measures “fortune” in ratios of happiness.
Since there are 2 seasons to visit the country and prices vary according to the season, in your opinion which would be the best and advantages/disadvantages of each one?
You’re absolutely right about the expense of visiting Bhutan and costs have recently increased significantly. The aim of the tourist tax is for sustainable development within the kingdom and aims to benefit communities and the environment. We had wanted to visit this marvellous kingdom for many years before we could finally afford to go. We chose to travel in the low season – in February – on order to keep costs down. We don’t mind cold weather although the weather was generally absolutely fine during our visit. I think there was one day when it snowed but it didn’t disrupt our journey. There are festivals – such as the Punakha Festival – that take place during the low season so you don’t miss out. It is an extraordinary place – the happiness index was one of the things that drew us to this country.
Bhutan has always been high on my list of countries to visit and I know I will do it one day, combined with India and Nepal. The high daily price is what is keeping me from going there at the moment and the cost of just getting to such a remote place. I am thus enjoying the country vicariously through this blog. You always go to such interesting places and I love that you include some history, geography and culture points in your articles that help explain so much. The architecture here certainly appeals to my sense of construction – those massive strong walls and accompanying heavily wooded windows and roofs are just a delight to see. The suspension bridge will be a challenge for me, with my trepidation heights but I’d take it on as a challenge!
Thanks so much for your kind comment. It was many years before we could afford to travel to Bhutan – there’s no getting away from the fact that costs are high and have recently increased – but we absolutely adored the country and its people. The architecture is amazing and the landscapes are simply spectacular. But it was the happiness index that drew us to the country and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting so many local people. The suspension bridge was sturdier than it looked and it was definitely worth crossing, especially seeing the prayer flags fluttering in the breeze over the views across the river. I do hope that you manage to do that trip to Bhutan (and Nepal and India), I have no doubt that you would love it.
I am very impressed with your trip to the kingdom of Bhutan. It is a fantastic place, and it isn’t easy to organize a trip there, so I read your story and tips with interest. I would like to see the Punakha Dzong described by you because of its historical significance and highly picturesque location. The monastery looks excellent against the background of the mountains. Participating in the Punakha Festival and the King’s Birthday is an extraordinary adventure. Great that you had the opportunity to join the festivities for the king’s birthday, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. I would love to explore those suspension bridges and clear rivers. I love the idea of staying in a local farmhouse. Thanks to this, you were close to the locals and their traditions.
Thanks so much for your comment. You’re absolutely right, Punakha Dzong is an amazing place to visit. It has so much history and is very much a living dzong, so it was wonderful to join in the king’s birthday celebrations. We loved walking across the suspension bridge and really enjoyed hiking alongside the river. The farmhouse stay was great as well, we got real insight into how the local people live and work – and it was fantastic to be able to cook Bhutanese food!
Bhutan is so unique with so much that interests me. As a geographer, I’ve been reading about its Gross Happiness Index for a long time and I’d love to know how the population feels about it and what it means to them. Love the colourful architecture and the phallus details are funny. I’m also very curious about how you organized this trip with all the requirements for visitors.
You’re absolutely right about Bhutan being so very different to any other country that we’ve visited. The people that we met were incredibly proud of their history and culture – and the happiness index – and they also had enormous respect for the king. You would see a photo of the king and his family in every hotel, restaurant and home that we visited. The trip was organised through a company called All Bhutan Connection. When you are in Bhutan you are allocated a driver and guide who travel with you – and ours were delightful. They were very happy to tailor each day to our interests. For example, we wanted to have a go at Bhutan’s national sport of archery and they easily arranged this for us. (We were terrible at it!)
Bhutan looks beautiful; I love the buildings, temples and monasteries. A real adventure in a part of the world I’ve not read much about.
Also, love that beautiful minimalistic room you stayed in, and the traditional Bhutanese food you tried looks delicious.
Thank you for sharing this post from your trip to Bhutan.
Thank you! Yes, Bhutan really is a beautiful country and has a fascinating history. The farmhouse stay was wonderful and we really enjoyed cooking the food.
I didn’t know much about Bhutan so this was a fascinating read. The palace looks impressive with the mountains in the background. That’s so cool that you were able to be there for the festivals for the king’s birthday. I feel that you really get to see some of the culture on full display during festivals. It really looks like a fascinating country.
Thank you so much! Bhutan really is a very special country. We were lucky that we were able to visit during the King’s birthday. It was a very happy occasion and we were able to chat with local people.
I’ll admit I really knew nothing about Bhutan, but after reading this I was itching to go. The tourist tax and minimum spend, while could be off-putting to those just looking for another cheap getaway, actually made me want to visit more. The fact the country wants to encourage sustainable travel and places happiness above GDP for its citizens is excellent. The monastery is stunning, and really good to read your reminders about appropriate attire. I think the suspension bridge would definitely be on my list though, what a view!
Bhutan is a really special place and we too appreciated the fact that the tourism tax goes towards sustainable development for the people. You’re right, it’s so important to respect local customs and wear appropriate clothing. The dzong and suspension bridge were just fantastic.
After reading the post I just said to the wife we need to get to Bhutan. Though it’s expensive I like the thought of having the trip at least within the country planned and paid for at a flat rate. No spending 20 hours online looking for the best place to stay and missing half the local flavor. Seems a great way to visit a country especially one so remote as Bhutan. That suspension bridge looks like it’s not for the faint of heart. What’s your favorite thing you ate? I also hope they don’t hit the women too hard on the head with the wooden phallus LOL.
Bhutan is expensive but we like that the tourism tax is there to encourage sustainable travel and that it helps the local people. It’s easy to plan the trip and tailor it to the things you would like to see and do, whilst having all the practical arrangements sorted. Our guide and driver were really accommodating during the trip as well. For example, we passed by an archery tournament and they were happy to stop and let us watch it. And yes, I hope the wooden phallus is used gently!
Consider me fascinated! I think Patti and I have spoken generically about visiting Bhutan someday but now I am bumping it up the list. I love the Happiness index, what a cool approach. The expense is something to keep in mind but this really looks like an incredible experience.
Thank you! Bhutan is a very special place. So glad to hear it’s moving up your list! Yes, there’s no getting away from the expense but we felt it was worth it to visit such a remarkable destination.
I didn’t know Bhutan was so beautiful. The architecture is lovely and nature looks so peaceful and relaxing. I would love to stay in that farmhouse and have the same immersive experience you had. Shame that the costs are too high but it’s good to know that some of the money goes into improving conditions for the locals.
Bhutan really is a remarkable place and, as you say, so beautiful. The farmhouse stay was great and we loved learning to cook in their kitchen. Yes, the costs are high but it is good that the tourism tax goes towards helping local people.
You guys!! Seems there is no place Ellie & I get to, that you haven’t already been to and done a better job at getting the best out of the experience haha… I remember you mentioning that home stay on Twitter.
We had one planned, but then the family where we were going to stay was too busy with another matter for us to join them for a day. It had been at the time of the first Covid outbreak.
Experiencing Bhutanese life from within the family environment, cooking with your hosts, that would have been so cool. Also, how lucky with combining a big birthday bang with Holi, back in Nepal, well done there. We can’t wait to be back in Nepal later this year.
Aw Stefan! I dunno, sometimes we’ve been incredibly lucky (like we were in Bhutan and Nepal), other times no matter how hard we try, we don’t seem to be able to see what we want to (the Northern Lights still elude us)! I know how much you loved Bhutan, it was a shame about the timing of your visit and missing out on the family stay. But we’re REALLY looking forward to reading about your adventures in Nepal later in the year.