Punakha & Trongsa

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A yak grazes alongside Bhutan’s national highway

After great experiences in Thimphu and hiking to Tango Goemba, it was time to leave Bhutan’s capital region behind and head cross-country. The majority of Bhutan’s population is spread throughout the mountains in small towns and villages. As interesting and worthwhile as Thimphu is, a more representative view of Bhutan requires going elsewhere.

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Cows outnumber cars on a lot of Bhutanese roads

Doing so isn’t as simple as it would be in many countries:

  1. It’s not possible to rent a car in Bhutan; instead we hired a driver, a friendly and efficient Bhutanese man named Tenzen and his comfortable Hyundai H1 van.
  2. Our “invited guest” visas only allowed access to the western third of the country; we had to get special “route permits” to pass a checkpoint just east of Thimphu on the road into central Bhutan. That process wasn’t difficult, but it did take some time.
  3. The road itself: the Lateral Road, the national “highway” and the only east-west connection between all of the disparate north-south valleys that make up Bhutan. For much of its length, it’s 1 or 1.5 lanes and extremely curvy, with frequent sheer drop-offs and infrequent guardrails. Most of it is paved – at least in principle – but washouts, landslides, and wear & tear from too-large (but brightly decorated) trucks conspire to make road conditions…variable.
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A section of Bhutan’s Lateral Road; this one is being widened to a more reasonable size

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One of many festively-decorated trucks

Fortunately, in 3 days of driving we only saw one vehicle – a truck – that had gone off the side of the road. It was stopped by trees a short distance later; everyone looked to be okay.

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Chortens at Dochu La pass (3050m / 10,000ft)

Heading east from Thimphu, the road climbs steadily to Dochu La (“la” means mountain pass), where 108 chortens mark the road’s passage out of the Thimphu valley and into central Bhutan. On a very clear day, there’s a panoramic view of the high Himalayas in all their snow-capped glory; unfortunately we didn’t get to see that when we were there.

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The town of Punakha

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Rice paddies near our hotel in Punakha

After a long, winding descent we reached the town of Punakha, which is warm and semi-arid. Punakha has, at various times, served as Bhutan’s capital, and it has what’s commonly considered the country’s most impressive dzong – a Bhutanese fortress / temple / administrative building. Dzongs are critical to Bhutan’s history; hundreds of years ago, the country’s twenty-something dzongs acted like castles for a series of mini-kingdoms. Today they’re the non-secular equivalent of our State Capitol buildings. The area governed by each dzong is it’s dzongkhag (some dzongkhags have only a few thousand people), and the most commonly-spoken of Bhutan’s native languages is called Dzongka (language of the dzong).

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Punakha Dzong

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Punakha Dzong

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Monks in a courtyard in Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong was indeed the most impressive we saw in Bhutan, but we didn’t have time to linger. After a night in Punakha, we continued through the beautiful Dang Chhu valley, where the road features some of its steepest drop-offs and frequent landslides. As we climbed to Pele La pass at 3420m (11,220 ft), we got our best view yet of the snow-capped high Himalayas.

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Dang Chhu valley… my favorite stretch of the drive (so beautiful and isolated)

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View of the high Himalayas from near Pele La pass; the peaks in this picture top out at around 5600m / 18,000ft.

After a long, gradual, winding descent from Pele La we arrived in the town of Trongsa, which is the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family. Trongsa Dzong is said to be the most spectacularly-placed dzong in the country, perched in a dominant position in gorge of the Mangde Chhu river. Tronga’s ruling family, the Wangchuck family, ascended to national power in part because of Trongsa’s strategic position along the only route through Bhutan.

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Trongsa Dzong

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(click to expand) Panorama of Trongsa

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Trongsa’s village center

After a night’s stop in Trongsa, we continued on the Lateral Road as it makes another beautiful climb to the pass at Yutong La.

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Yutong La (3400m / 11,100ft)

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Welcome to Bumthang! On this overly-simplified map, we’re at “Yotongla” and driving to Jakar.

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Prayer flags decorate most passes in Bhutan; Yutong La is no different

From there it was another steady, curvy downhill into the Bumthang district and the town of Jakar, where we were glad to settle in for a few days.

Bhutan is beautiful – plain and simple. Scenic vistas are everywhere, frequently punctuated by religious sites or improbably-placed buildings. Bhutan’s architectural heritage is almost completely intact; strict design regulations mean that basically every building looks Bhutanese. Surprisingly, litter can be a problem in some places, but the government has put up signs trying to raise awareness about that. There are no billboards- in fact, no advertising of any kind. Houses, especially those in the countryside, are traditional, and commonly feature whimsical decoration in honor of Bhutan’s famous Divine Madman.

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Phalluses are painted on many houses to ward off evil spirits and pay homage to one of Bhutan’s favorite historical figures

Overall, our drive from Thimphu to Jakar was only 270km / 168 miles. Total driving time (not counting stops) was something like 12 hours, meaning our average speed was about 23 kph / 14 mph. Given the extreme curviness, the potholes, the large trucks hurtling towards us, and the herds of cattle blocking our way, that sounds about right. We broke that into three days, which was a great idea. Tenzen was an excellent driver and the road ended up feeling a lot less sketchy than some people make it out to be. The mild discomfort was well worth it, though: the entire drive was engaging and even felt a bit adventurous. After all, what’s better than visiting the obscure, remote parts of an obscure, remote country?

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