On your way from Thimphu to Punakha, head to Kuenselphodrang Nature Park where you will see the world’s tallest (169 feet) Buddha statue. Made of bronze, the Buddha Dordenma, Vajra Throne Buddha sits high on the hill, is visible from the valley, and contains a monastery inside. It has taken 10 years to build and was largely funded by a businessman from Singapore. Tour inside where incense burns; listen to monks chant and play drums and horns during their hours of daily meditation. We toured around the beautiful gold and ornately carved pylons and many statues of Buddha, huge crystals from around the world, and admired mandalas painted on the ceiling. As is common in this part of the world, one Buddha had four faces, symbolizing the four directions (ever watchful over north, south, east, and west); other simple Buddha statues symbolized simplicity, equanimity, wisdom, and compassion. It was a worthy visit with excellent views of the mountains from the front courtyard as a bonus.
At 7,000 feet above sea level again, some of us were feeling the effects of altitude. Talk to your doctor about suggestions for altitude sickness if you’re visiting this part of the world and aren’t used to these heights. Altitude sickness is real and can be dangerous.
To get from Thimphu to Panahka or eastern locations in the country, you must drive the Dochula Pass, a twisty mountain road of switchbacks that will take you to the “108 stupas” known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens”, a popular tourist destination with a cafe and gift shop. Sitting atop a 10,000 foot mountain, the 108 memorial stupas memorialize the 108 Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 battle against Indian rebels during “Operation all Clear” conducted by the Royal Bhutan Army. On a clear day you can see seven Himalayan peaks bordering Tibet (all 21,000 feet high or more), including the highest mountain in Bhutan (and highest unclimbed peak in the world), Mt. Gangar Punsum, at 7520 meters. We were not so fortunate this day.
After our visit, we continued on the Pass and found Tarai Grey Langur monkeys eating magnolia flowers out of the trees (magnolias flourish here and are a monkey favorite) and yaks chewing their cud on the roadside under a sky of prayer flags.
Your descent to Panahka under the sweep of impossibly steep hills will reveal tree roots clinging to soil and stone and reaching for the sun, S-curves and switchbacks bringing you down the elevation and through the long valleys, watching the vegetation morph from sparse trees and minimal understory to lush ferns, mosses, cliff grasses, pines, cypress, aromatic purple blooming daphne, blood red rhododendrons, and heat.
Later, visit the Punakha Dzong which served as the old capital of Bhutan. This remarkable fortress built in 1637 between two rivers has survived many glacial floods and fires. It is the oldest and largest fort and used for administrative and religious purposes, where the founder of Bhutan lies in rest and kings are coronated. The administrative building is often closed to the public but the temples can be visited (don’t forget to remove your shoes). The temple here uses wall paintings around the perimeter to tell the story of Buddha. Monks carried out their business in crisscrossing patterns in the courtyard and managing visitors in the temple. Monks ranged from tiny youths, often orphans, to quite mature fellows, all wearing the classic maroon and gold robes.
And just down the river you’ll find two beautiful bridges:
Nearby on the Mo Chhu River which runs in front of the fort, find a covered wooden cantilevered bridge, originally built in the 17th century and replaced after a 1958 flood washed it away. The new bridge is 20 meters wider due to the flood changing the landscape
and further down, just past the crematorium is the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan at 520 feet, crossing the Po Chhu River and mightily adorned with prayer flags. Despite its length, it’s surprisingly stable and was fun to cross.
We stopped in the quaint village of Lobesa in Panahka for a buffet style lunch of red rice, salad (yay!), potatoes, and roasted pork in a tiny restaurant with phalluses proudly painted on the dining room walls. Phalluses in a restaurant, you say? Oh yes. Phalluses everywhere!
Phalluses are a well-loved symbol across Bhutan, originating from the legend of the Divine Madman, and they are key in Bhutanese tradition. This article describes those details nicely.
Next stop: Chime (pronounced CHEE- may) Lhakhang fertility temple nearby. Passing groves of jacaranda, lemon, and mango as we walked to the temple we learned of the story of The Divine Madman, a prophet with wildly unorthodox teachings who is said to have slept with 5,000 women, hence the abundance and celebration of phalluses everywhere in this country. The road to the temple was lined with gift shops proudly sporting phalluses of all shapes, colors, and materials, from three foot door stops to key chains to bottle openers, functional, and conversation pieces, and painted depictions on exterior walls. Women make the pilgrimage to meditate and receive blessings here to promote their fertility and part of the ritual is carrying a large phallus in circles around the temple.
We concluded our day at the Hotel Pema Karpo Wangdue with beautiful views of the river and a moving meditation with David.
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