A Visit to Bhutan’s Punakha Dzong
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 Chilli Cheese
The tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan is more famous for its amazing landscapes, beautiful dzong (monasteries), trekking possibilities and the fact that its king uses a gross national happiness index to understand the well-being of his subjects than its cuisine. The country has a national dish that is unexpected and delicious. And really, really spicy: Bhutan chilli cheese.
In Bhutan, chillies aren’t so much considered to be condiments – something to liven up a meal – but rather are used as vegetables. A meal isn’t considered to be complete if it doesn’t contain chilli. The country’s national dish is ema datshi: ema meaning “chilli” and datshi meaning “cheese”: Bhutan chilli cheese! The sorts of chillies the Bhutanese use are large, red chillies. Normally larger chillies are less hot than the teenie, weenie fiery ones but these still pack a punch. The chillies may be dried and can be rehydrated simply by cooking gently in water.
You can often see chillies drying in the sunshine outside houses.
Chilli and cheese as a combination actually makes perfect sense. The heat of the chilli is stored in the seeds and the membrane on the inside of the fruit, capasaicin being the active ingredient, which sticks to the tongue and provides that essential – and addictive – burn. There’s an old saying that you should never drink water to quench the heat of a chilli – it’s like mixing oil and water, it just doesn’t work. But milk contains casein which acts like a detergent, binding to the capasaicin and allowing it to wash away, providing a calming effect.
Take this one step further to blend chilli with cheese and you have a gorgeous conglomeration of fire and calm. And, in Bhutan, to be enjoyed with every meal.
Making Bhutan Chilli Cheese
We were lucky enough to learn to make chilli cheese when we stayed on a farm in the lovely Punakha region.
The datshi of ema datshi is a cheese made from cow or yak’s milk, a soft-ish cheese with a texture that was reminiscent of ricotta. It has a salty, tangy flavour.
The chillies are often dried and need to be rehydrated. They are added to a saucepan with a small amount of water and salt for seasoning. They are then simmered until tender.
The cheese is added in slices, taken from the outside of the cheese ball, and the saucepan is taken off the stove to allow the cheese to melt in the residual heat.
The resulting Bhutan chilli cheese is undeniably fiery but utterly delicious and curiously moreish.