We were leaving the capital, Thimphu for Punakha today. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955. With slightly more than 70 km between the old and new capitals, our journey would take 3 hours easily through bumpy roads that were carved through mountains and valleys. Definitely not the easiest or most comfortable journey to look forward to.
Completed in 1638, it is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. With its grand scale, beautiful proportions, and spectacular details, the Punakha Dzong was indeed a sight to behold.
A young and cheerful monk rushing his wet laundry for drying.
Ravishing and intricate details.
The Little Buddha? Definitely not. That movie was shot in Paro Dzong.
Meeting the Dragon King
To our pleasant surprise, the charismatic and well-loved King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck was visiting Punakha Dzong when we were there! We had been hoping to meet the beautiful royal couple and it was a dream come true! Well, it was half the dream as the Queen wasn't with him, unfortunately.
We were amazed by how friendly the King was! To our surprise, after he had entered the courtyard, he started walking away from his entourage and bodyguards alone towards all of us and started asking where we had came from. Humorously, he made a comment that he couldn't tell who was a local and who wasn't due to the Gho and Kira many tourists were wearing. And he parted with a smile and polite greeting, "Very nice meeting you all here", followed by prayer-like hand greeting to his face.
As he turned his back on us, fluttering his bright saffron Kabney in the Himalayan breeze and started walking into the building, we could still hear our heartbeats and everyone was speechless for a moment. It was a moment of disbelief that we came this far with a ridiculous hope to meet the King and it did happen on our third day!
This fabulous day would not be complete without some local beer to celebrate our chance encounter with the Dragon King. Everyone was still in a state of awe and disbelief that we had indeed met the King on this very day! Long live to His Majesty! Cheers!
Continue Day 4...
GENERAL TIPS AND USEFUL INFO:
Date of trip: 6 to 14 December 2016
- Osel Hotel, Thimphu
- Hotel Lobesa, Punakha
- Tashi Namgay Resort, Paro
- COMO Uma Paro, Paro (additional stay)
Weather in Dec is cool and beautiful. The sun can be harsh and intense in the day. A pair of shades and sunblock would be good to have.
It could get warm in the day, especially when trekking up the mountains for hours. The option to layer multiple light clothing would be more sensible and convenient than one thick and heavy jacket. Temperature typically ranged from 15 to 20 degrees Celsius in the day, to freezing temperatures at night. Some hotels may not have very effective room heater. Hence, bring warm pyjamas just in case. Consider bringing a hot water bag to snug under your blanket (Hotel Lobesa had provided 2 and they were God-sent on that freezing night).
When visiting temples, Dzongs and places of importance, long pants and collared shirts/jackets would be required. For ladies, please wear long pants/skirts throughout the trip. Several places would require shoes to be removed before entering. Consider the ease of footwear removal if you do not wish to spend excessive time meddling with shoelaces.
A set of traditional attire - the Gho and Kira will be prepared for all tourists. You may choose to wear it any day, or every day. The tour guide and driver will guide you through the art of wearing.
Road condition was bad, as most roads were under repair or construction. The terribly bumpy road surfaces coupled with windy mountainous roads was the perfect formula for some dramatic motion sickness. Prepare for the worse - motion sickness medication, sour plum, mints, Axe Brand medicated oil, Tiger Balm; arm with them all if you need. If you know you are going to fall victim easily, request to swap with the tour guide for a front passenger seat, which I did for some parts of the journey before becoming Singapore's vomiting icon.
Food was delectable and palatable. The 4 of us, 2 Singaporeans and 2 Taiwanese, had all enjoyed every meal with smiles and praises. Ask for their local condiments and chilli to add some exciting flavours to your meal. Staff at any restaurant would usually be happy to serve. Their local chilli cheese (Ema Datshi) would also fire up any bland meal you may find. Ask what your tour guide and driver are eating and you may be in for some flavourful surprises.
Tuesdays are "Dry Days", which means, no alcoholic drinks are available.
Visit Druk Asia (https://www.drukasia.com/) and start planning using their wide range of packages as a starting point. Contact their friendly staff if you have any question or would like to customise any part of the itinerary. It's not necessary to follow the itinerary strictly. You could arrange with your personal guide and work out a more "free-and-easy" programme when you are there. But your guide and driver would always be with you as there is no other way to get around this country.
It's best if you book through Druk Asia and going as a small group with just your family or friends instead of booking tours through big travel agencies. You'll then be getting your own tour guide, driver and vehicle.
The USD200 (off-peak) or USD250 (peak) per person per night includes accommodation, meals, and everything one needs in a day, minus frills and shopping. Ample bottled drinking water is provided daily in your personal vehicle and there is really no need to spend a single cent except for souvenirs, or at the Centenary Farmer's Market (Thimphu), if you are a fan of local flavours and ingredients.
For info on entry visa, daily tariff, and FAQs can be found here:
SOME PHOTOGRAPHY NOTES:
The sun can be harsh and intense in the day during this season. As you can see from the photos, most days were cloudless, which means intense direct sunlight hitting on your subject. The extreme high contrast in highlights and shadows would be a constant challenge for your camera's dynamic range. A fill-flash could be needed to eliminate harsh shadows on faces.
Carry light as there will be a lot of walking. Below are some popular places and their timings (based on our poor physical condition and carefree pace):
- Tango Cheri Monastery, Thimphu - 75 to 90 mins ascend, 60 to 70 mins descend.
- Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha - 40 to 45 mins (one-way) across the valley, paddy, and uphill.
- Pho Chhu Suspension Bridge, Punakha - 20 mins (one-way) from Punakha Dzong.
- Haa Valley View Trail - 60 mins descend (optional trekking to lunch).
- Tiger's Nest Ascend First Section - 40 mins by horse, or 90 mins by foot.
- Tiger's Nest Ascend Second Section - 120 mins by foot only.
- Tiger's Nest Descend - 80 mins + 50 mins (usually with lunch in-between).
Bhutanese are generally very friendly and approachable. Most would love to have their photos taken. They are indeed a happy bunch and do not be shy to ask for a picture (wish I had done that more). Regardless, respect their preference and personal space.
Some parts of temples and Dzongs do not allow photography, with or without flash. Please check with your tour guide if unsure before firing off like there's no tomorrow. Show necessary respect to the people, culture and religion, please.
And here's what I've brought and used for this trip (was a tough decision):
- Nikon D750
- Nikon AF 16mm f2.8D Fisheye
- Nikon AFS 20mm f1.8G ED
- Nikon AFS 50mm f1.4G
- Nikon AFS 24-120mm f4G ED VR
- Nikon AFS 70-200mm f4G ED VR
- Sony RX100 III
- Sony X1000V Action Cam
- Samsung Gear 360 (paired with Samsung S7)
- ONA Messenger Bag - The Union Street
SO, TO VISIT OR NOT? WHEN TO VISIT?
Still trying to read up endless travel blogs and wondering whether you should be visiting Bhutan, or when you should be? First, it's a myth that Bhutan is expensive, because the daily charges cover everything! Second, it's not true that it's hard to get a tourist Visa (in the case of Singaporeans). It could be more difficult to get an air ticket during peak season simply due to the limited flights into the country.
It doesn't matter if it's the Happiness you are after or the Thunder Dragon you are seeking; or for us, just the Dragon King we were hoping to meet, there is every reason to make a trip to this magnificent country at least once in our lives. Or is there even the need for a reason at all?
"It doesn't matter when you get married
as long as it is the right person."
His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck on his Royal Wedding, 13 Oct 2011
As the King has rightly said, visiting Bhutan is perhaps as emotional and impassioned as his big day. It doesn't matter when, which season, as there is no right time or best time to visit this lovely country, because it is certainly the right and best place to be.