Punakha

For lunch, we stopped off at the same cafe near Punakha that yesterday we had stopped for tea. It was the same vegetables and rice!

We are staying in Punakha for the next couple of days. We went for a walk through one of the villages. Again, through farmland and past a small stream with a waterwheel attached to a prayer wheel.

This village (Pana) takes one tradition to the extreme. Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529) is one of Bhutan’s favourite saints. On one occasion when he received a blessing thread to hang around his neck, he wound it around his penis instead. Now, many houses have these painted on them. Often either side of the door. Sometimes, just in a random place.

However, this village is covered in them. And has many souvenir shops.

At the end of the village is the Chimi Lhakhang – also known as the fertility temple. It was built in 1499. There is a large bodhi tree next to a black chorten and is the only black chorten in the country.

Childless women come here to receive a blessing. And newborns can also come here to be named. It is traditional for every baby to be taken to a temple to be named, parents do not choose the name of their children in Bhutan. And there is a prescribed list of 2,000 approved names.

One thing which did make us laugh, was a tourist walking around with a giant wooden phallus. It is considered good luck to walk around the temple three times, holding it in two arms like a baby. Perhaps we shouldn’t have found it so funny. But it was very unusual!

We arrived at our hotel around 5pm. Again, a really nice room with a balcony looking out into the Punakha valley.

This was the first day that food was very disappointing. It was getting a bit bored of plain vegetables and rice. But today was a new low and I could only eat rice and green fern.

Friday 26 April 2019

Bhutan has a problem with dogs. They are everywhere. You can’t look anywhere without seeing a dog. They are mostly all strays. But given Buddhist views, they do not kill any animals (which is why there are no slaughterhouses in Bhutan). However, this means that at night the dogs gather in packs and make a lot of noise. I haven’t noticed the noise too much, but around 5am today it was pretty noisy!

We are spending the day around the Punakha valley. Punakha served as Bhutan’s capital for over 300 years and the first king was crowned in 1907. The capital moved to Thimphu in the 1950s.

We passed by the Punakha Dzong. It was a beautiful building. Set on the river bank, surrounded by jacaranda trees with their lilac flowers and a red bridge connecting the building to the road. We couldn’t visit just yet, as the day time is reserved for monks to learn.

Instead, we carried along the valley, upstream. We got out for a walk across a prayer-flag covered suspension bridge, then through the rice fields and up part of the mountain to a monastery – Khamsum Yueley Chorten.

It was a steep climb and took about an hour.

At the top was a beautiful garden, full of stupas, a large prayer wheel and flowers, along with the 30m tall chorten.

We went inside and it was possible climb all 4 stories up to the top. Each layer was full of monks. Chanting. And with drums. It was quite magical. As per usual, the whole inside was elaborately decorated and painted.

From the roof, there was amazing views all across the valley. Some monks were busy preparing the grounds, as the king was due to visit later in the day. But no one knew what time he would be here.

The king doesn’t have security. And he drives his own car. The royal family appear to live relatively normal lives and go to work. We were told that if we saw the king, we should not take a photo. But should just allow him to pass and carry on our day as normal. Sadly, we didn’t see him.

There was incense burning at the side gate, which covered the grounds in smoke. And made for good pictures!

Within the Punakha valley are two rivers – Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father river). Where they join is at the Punakha Dzong. We had lunch on the river bank here. Just in a park, some boys had brought lunch along in their car! It was good – vegetables and rice again….!

The weather was good today. And it was hot! Very different to the past few days where it has been a bit chilly. Punakha valley is known for having good weather, which is why it is the winter capital. And due to the weather allows two rice crops a year as well as growing lots of oranges.

Next up, a nunnery. I don’t know if I’ve ever visited a nunnery before. This is the Sangchen Dorji Lhendrub Choling Nunnery and was only started around 9 years ago. It is a Buddhist college for 120 nuns. There is a Nepali-style chorten (stupa) up here too, complete with eyes!

We spoke with one of the nuns and she told us what life is like there. She has lived there for 8 years and is graduating this year. Once she graduates, she goes into a three year solitude meditation in the mountains. It’s seems that during those three years, they do not speak with anyone and live in a simple room, just meditating. Monks do a similar practice.

Her daily life begins at 4.30am with chanting. Then various lessons and meditations throughout the day. To us, it seems like a very strange existence.

The Dzong opened at 3pm. We arrived shortly after, along with the rest of the crowds! This was the second Dzong to be built in Bhutan. Construction on the current dzong began in 1637 and was completed the following year.

To cross into the Dzong, you go over a wooden bridge. Then up a steep set of stairs. There were various decorative courtyards before you reached the main “hundred-pillar” assembly hall (which has 54 pillars).

We couldn’t enter for a while as the monks had not finished chanting, so watched the courtyard from above. The courtyard was very busy with tourists. Mostly Indians, who do not pay the $250 daily tariff. And as soon as the monks started to file out of the hall, the Indians started crowding and shoving to get inside. It was quite a sight and really very inappropriate.

We waited for a while before heading in. It was huge inside. The largest we have been in so far and the walls were covered in bright murals which told the story of the life of Buddha. There were also three massive gold statues of the Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and the Zhabdrung which date back to the mid-18th century.

We spent a while wandering around and found lots of monks to take photos of. There was one group of monks which were taking lots of selfies and then one of them asked me to take a group photo for them. It turned out that they were from Cambodia and were visiting for 4 days.

On the way back, we stopped off in the town to buy snacks. I got some mangos and a pineapple (£1.50). The shops were very local and didn’t stock a huge variety of things.

Bhutan has kept very traditional and has many cultural aspects which are very different from western life. One of which is night hunting. When our guide explained this to us on the first night, I thought he was joking. But apparently not. As one of our group were night hunted today! This is when a local boy will ask a girl where they live/are staying. If you tell them, it’s an invitation for them to visit at nighttime to stay in your room. It is apparently most common in rural areas and is what boys would usually do in order to find their wife. Sometimes, if the boy is discovered in the morning, then a family may force them to marry.

Other surprising things about bhutan:

⁃ they had no currency until 1960s. Up until then they operated on a barter system

⁃ Cigarettes are banned. If you want to import them, there is a 200% tax at the airport

⁃ Tourists were only allowed in from 1974 and Paro airport followed in 1983.

⁃ Women inherit land from their family (rather than men), as women will always stay in the family home and the man will leave his own home to join the woman’s family

⁃ They don’t have surnames

⁃ Families used to have to send one son to be a monk. But due to falling population of ‘ordinary’ people, this is no longer required

I didn’t want to risk having no food for dinner. And plain vegetables have become very boring. So I pre-ordered some potato and pea curry, ready for when we all had dinner at 7.30pm. I was so pleased that I had, as there was nothing vegan but rice for normal dinner!

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