Phunakha – the old capital of Bhutan should definitely be on your list if you want to see the most beautiful Dzong of Bhutan – the place from where the present king of Bhutan got married, the longest suspension bridge of Bhutan – where you can swing with the bridge and the breeze, and the Lakhang (temple) of the Divine Madman, where you can get blessed with a baby if you haven’t already got one.
Interested in the bigger picture, then read – Top 10 Things to Experience in Bhutan
Tips and Recommendations for Visiting Phunakha
- Keep 3 days for Phunakha if there is an ongoing dance festival at Talo else 2 days should be enough. Being a hotter place as compared to other Bhutanese cities, I am sure you do not want to spend too much leisure time here.
- There are not too many good restaurants here, so choose to stay in a hotel where you can find good dinner and breakfast. Hotel Zangto Pelri, Meri Phunsum and Pema Karpo are good choices.
- Booking a taxi through the hotel for the local sightseeing is recommended as everything is far apart and transport is not easily available.
- Take an early morning walk around the hotel to see the rice terraces. Even if there isn’t any rice crop, getting some fresh air in the morning will be a good idea.
- Take a day trip to Phobjika Valley. If you are lucky you may find black necked cranes or even otherwise the valley is naturally very beautiful and worth a visit. Reach before 3 in any case so that you can comfortably do the Gangtey Nature Trail.
How to reach Phunakha?
We took a local bus from Thimphu bus stand, which was like an ordinary Indian government bus but a bit more comfortable you may say. It took us around 4 hours to reach Phunakha. The reason for choosing the local bus was to meet local people and travel in their style. The fare was also very reasonable, however, we had to wait for about an hour above the scheduled departure time and had to bear with a rude driver. We two (me and my wife) were the only non-Bhutanese traveling by that bus and for us the driver had to stop twice at the security booths where we had to get down and show our permits. I guess that’s one possible reason for his rudeness. Besides this, I had observed that the drivers and tour guides didn’t like it when we travelled by local means, as in their opinion it was a loss to the tourism industry of Bhutan and indirectly to one of them.
Places and experiences which were enjoyable/memorable and I can remember from our trip to Phunakha are:
1. The Royal Hotels of Phunakha
We stayed at 3 big and well-known hotels in Phunakha; these had amazing locations and were easy on our pockets. Out of these 3, it seems Zangto Pelri was owned by a member of the royal family, knowing this fact gave us sort of a royal feeling. Hotel Zangto Pelri and Hotel Meri Meri Puensum were both a hill-top, about 3 km from the Phunakha bus stop. The hotels were cozy and offered good view of the town from the top. I can only imagine how wonderful the surroundings must be getting when the rice terraces are covered with lush green rice crops. Unfortunately, when we were here, there wasn’t any rice and thus no such greenery. The third hotel where we stayed was Pema Karpo. Everything here was too big. Weather it was ceiling height, room sizes or the bathrooms, all were way too bigger than the other hotels of Bhutan. However, what made me happy was – its location right next to the river.
The only problem with all these hotels is lack of easy access to places of interest. We had to pay high charges every time we wanted to get down to the town and believe me it’s not easy to walk 3 kms in a hilly terrain. However, I will definitely recommend you to stay at one of these places if you don’t want to spend much and still want to stay at one of the best places.
2. The Grand Phunakha Dzong
The Dzong is situated along the bank of a river and in appearance is no less than a castle of a magical kingdom. The distant view of the palace is very captivating and the experience is enhanced by the sound of the river.
There is a marked viewpoint on the road to Dzong, from where you get an excellent view of the Dzong. The wooden bridge connecting the road to the Dzong adds to the overall beauty of the place. The Dzong is spread in a very big area and is also accommodation to many monks. The inside of the Lakhang is beautiful and peaceful, but very similar to the Thimphu Dzong, at least for people like me who do not have an eye for detail but only for the overall beauty. Do take a walk within the campus to see some of the monks playing football or archery or to see the other important buildings within this campus.
3. The Hanging Bridge – The Longest Suspension Bridge in Bhutan
Walk for about half a kilometer inside the campus and you can reach to the hanging (suspension) bridge. Keep straight from the entrance gate and just get past the cemetery, you will spot both the river and the bridge. Do stand on bridge for few minutes and feel the Breeze on your face, swing of the bridge and sound of the river. It’s just a soul-filling experience.
You may also use the bridge to get to the other side of the river, buy a cold-drink or some snacks from a small shop situated right at the other end of the bridge and then get back to the main entrance of the Dzong where your car is parked. I would recommend you to keep your car parked at the gate of the Dzong only as it is a very long route to the hanging bridge via car.
4. Chimi Lakhang – The Temple of the Divine Madman
Though all the Lakhangs are more or less similar, the location of Chimie Lakhang makes it quite a scenic spot. The backdrop of the high hills, strong winds, dramatic sky and the green landscape differentiates it from the other Lakhangs.
The Lakhang is situated in a direction opposite to the Dzong and you definitely need a taxi to reach here. More interesting than its appearance are the stories associated with the Divine Madman. He is sort of Osho of Bhutan who had very peculiar ways of teaching which involved singing, humor and had sexual overtones, who challenged the conventional wisdom and even some of the Bhuddha’s teachings, and is considered to be the man behind many weird penis (locally called Phallus) paintings on the walls of local houses. A wooden phallus with a silver handle is used for blessing people who would like to get a child. It is believed that an erect Phallus symbol has the power to drive away eveil spirit and hence some wooden Phalluses are also sold in several local handicraft shops in Bhutan and few handicraft shops near the Chimie Lakhang.
5. Talo Tshechu (Bhutan’s Traditional Mask Dance Festival)
If you are lucky to have reached Phunakha during the Talo festival, do use half a day to enjoy the local dance festival. Though this festival is organized in almost all the cities of Bhutan, this place is a good way to see the festival in most unpolished or natural form. Not only do you get to see the famous mask dance but you alsoi see many local people come prepared with lunch boxes and their lifestyle. It is also a good opportunity to mingle with the local people. Talo is about 30-35 kms from the town and you need to book a To and Fro taxi to see the palce which might cost you somewhere between Rs. 1500-2000/-.
Contact Numbers of some of the Taxi Owners might be of help to you:
- Gambo – 17700324 (has WagonR) – a gentlemen driver who asks for reasonable rates
- Siyanka – 17568417 (has Maruti van) – a nice man but asks for too much money; need to bargain