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Punakha Valley, Bhutan: A Subtropical Paradise In The Mountains

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On Thursday, March 17th (St. Patrick's Day, but that means nothing here in Bhutan -- they are basically leprechauns dancing on a rainbow everyday of their life) we slowly made our way to the Punakha Valley. The road was unpaved, dusty and extremely bumpy, much like Nepal, which was kind of refreshing to know Bhutan isn't always perfect. Our first stop on this three hour road trip was the Dochula Pass, high on top of a mountain offering a stunning 360 degree panoramic view of the Himalayas. The snowcapped mountain peaks formed a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 chortens (stupas), built in memory of the Bhutanese soldiers killed in the 2003 war against insurgents from India. We actually met a man from India who has been visiting Bhutan since 2005 and mentioned this was the clearest day he's ever seen. Luck was definitely on our side. We could effortlessly point to Gangkhar Puensum, the highest mountain in Bhutan and a strong candidate for the highest unclimbed mountain in the world with an elevation of 7,570 meters or nearly 24,835 feet. The air was so cool, so clear, so clean and so crisp. It was what I kept referring to as the quadruple C. And if you add me in there, it would be the quintuple C (because my last name is Cantor, get it?).

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After we took in the scenery, we piled back in the car and continued on our journey. About fifteen minutes later, Kezang and Tenzin spotted some yaks on the side of the road so I of course asked to stop and capture these unique animals in action. I don't know about you, but I've never seen one up close and personal. Maybe that's because yaks cannot survive below 3,500 meters (10,500 feet), so they are found at higher altitudes, usually above 4,500 meters (12,500 feet) and sometimes, as high as 6,100 meters (18,300 feet). Yaks are multipurpose animals, providing food in terms of milk, milk products and meat. Herder's garments and tents for shelter are made from yak fiber. And, their tails are often made into brooms for sweeping and their fur is made into clothes for warmth. Right when they said yak, it instantly reminded me of The Coasters song "Yakety yak, don't talk back."

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Next up we visited the Royal Botanical Park, covering an area of 125 acres and is Bhutan's first botanical park. The park was formally declared open in June 2008 to mark the anniversary of the Coronation of King Jigme Kesar Namgyel Wangchuk and centenary of Bhutan's monarchic rule. Of course. Because a simple statue or plaque isn't good enough they had to go and create a botanical park, hahaha. It is situated on the Sinchula-Dochula-Helela Range, which stretches from Tibet in the North to India in the South. The park is home to more than 28 different species of Rhododendron and more than 300 different species of medicinal plants. On the other hand, mammals such as musk deer, red panda, leopard, pheasants and tigers have been spotted here but for good or for bad, we didn't see them with our own two eyes. We did, however, walk around the park for about 45 minutes enjoying the various nature like scenes such as a Baritsho Lake, an orchid conservation area, a children's play ground, camping grounds, not so bloomed yet flowers and a dog that followed us the entire time. He was kind of like our spiritual bodyguard just in case that leopard decided to make a surprise appearance.

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Now that it was lunch time, we headed to a nearby restaurant. As I mentioned earlier, everything about this trip was pre-planned by our tour group, Bhutan Swallowtail. And for the most part, they've done a stellar job. The hotels are all up to par and the activities are all engaging. We can't say that about the food yet though. It's been below average which is more of a bummer for Vinny than me. Today was no exception. We showed up to this place, the parking lot full of buses and the inside packed with at least a hundred Asian tourists. It was a buffet with the same blah food we've had for the past two days nearly gone and relatively cold from sitting out. This was such a letdown. If we went somewhere else, we would have to pay out of pocket for it and that wasn't ideal given how much we already spent to just step foot in this country. Oh well, one strike against Bhutan but many home runs to make up for it. If you don't ever step up to the plate, you never know how you'll swing.

Even though lunch was a disappointment, we knew the next stop would pick us right back up. As we approached the Chime Lhakhang Monastery, also known as the "Temple of Fertility", it's hard not to notice the phalluses everywhere you look. They're painted on nearby houses, restaurants, hotels and like the monastery, they are there to honor one of Bhutan's most revered saints, Drukpa Kunley. Drukpa Kunley was not your typical BudDivine Bhutan. He was a womanizer and a liberal drinker. People call him the "Divine Madman" for his crazy antics and unique approach to Buddhism. Buddha advocated the "middle way," encouraging others not to pursue extremes. The Divine Madman believed these constraints were too restrictive. He discouraged the pursuit of Buddha's teachings to common people. To gain attention and spread his message that these strict conventions were absurd, he took on a meditation practice indulging in song and dance, alcohol and women, hunting and feasting, using outrageous behavior to show there was more to Buddhism than the middle way. The phalluses that hang from the eves of Bhutanese homes are reminders of this unusual brand of Buddhism. As the legend goes, the Madman would subdue demons by clunking them on the head with his penis, or what he called a "flaming thunderbolt", a symbol the Bhutanese have adopted to protect their homes from evil. If you are wondering whether or not you read that paragraph correctly, you did. Some of the mythological ideas that the Bhutanese believe in are so out of this world you almost want to laugh. But that's what makes this place so special. They all believe, no matter how ridiculous it sounds to an outsider, and their traditions are what help them maintain the happiest country in the world status.

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Once we became comfortable with penises all around us, we started our two hour excursion through a traditional village, up a narrow dirt path, through fields of rice, wheat and wild marijuana plants. In the distance, we can see the monastery. Built in 1499, it sits on top of a hill that locals compare to a woman's breast. Yes, another amazingly entertaining concept. According to the Bhutanese, Chime Lhakhang Monastery is a very sacred place. It is widely known today that most of the people who visit the temple do so to pray for children - either to ask for children by those who are childless or to seek protection for children by those who already have them. There are many people in Bhutan, and indeed in other parts of the world, who will vouch on the success of their prayers. Men and women having difficulties conceiving come to this temple, spend the night and historically, have given birth to a healthy child a year later. Hence the name, Temple of Fertility. Kezang welcomed Vinny and I back here should we face those same problems in the future. Hopefully we won't need the temple's help but it would be interesting to see just how magical this monastery truly is.

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Last on our road trip itinerary was the Sangchen Dorji Lhundrup Choeling Buddhist College for Nuns, inaugurated on April 25, 2015. Bhutanese nuns are basically women monks but this institution was established to teach a new way of learning focused solely on nunnery and not resembling that of monks. The college had great views of the valley, a few Nepalese style stupas and is home to over 170 nuns.

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Around 6:30pm, after a very long yet fulfilling day, we checked into Punatsangchhu Cottages, our hotel for one night. Tomorrow's call time is 7am (ahhhhh) so we settled in, grabbed a quick bite to eat and then studied the back of our eyelids.

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Our wonderful next day, March 18th, started with a two hour hike up to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, which sits on top of a hill, almost resembling a tiny gold pointed hat on a big round head.

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First we had to cross an iron suspension bridge, decorated with colorful prayer flags, that brought you from one side of the river to the next.

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Then we walked through rice fields and farm land that cultivates chiles, mango, wheat, guavas, eggplant, beans and much more.

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I guess we were a lot quicker than Kezang expected, probably because we live in LA and hiking is the thing to do so we were well prepared. Go us. At the top there's a stupa, with 360 degree views of the entire countryside. It took eight years to build and was consecrated during a three day ceremony in December 1999. The three-level chorten is topped by a dome and a stack of 12 circular rings, then an umbrella, the sun, moon and finally a jeweled pinnacle.

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Punakha Dzong, otherwise known as the Fortress of Great Bliss, was our final stop in the Punakha area. Punakha Dzong has been inextricably linked with momentous occasions in Bhutanese history. It served as the capital of the country from 1637 to 1907 and the first national assembly was hosted here in 1953. It is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of the most majestic structures in the country. On October 13, 2011, the wedding of the current King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his finance, Jetson Pema, was held here. Currently, there are over 200 monks that call this home. We are never allowed to take photos inside the various temples within the Dzong's and although it's understood why, it's still such a bummer not to capture it. Every temple has gigantic, extravagant, intricate, colorful statues of various Buddha's and Deities. I have never ever seen anything like it. In my not-so-art world-educated-opinion, I personally feel that these monuments are the most beautiful, captivating, enlightening pieces of expression I've ever seen. Absolutely stunning. But you have no idea what I'm talking about so I'll stop now. I hope you enjoy the outside though.

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Check out these natural beehives. They almost look like a super sized Oreo (and deep down inside, I was really hoping they were. That sounds so good right about now).

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To complete our day, we had lunch (which was much better than yesterday, phewww) and then drove back to Paro via Thimpu, which was a four hour journey. Until we meet again in Paro, watch out for that odd shaped doorknob...

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