Thimphu and Punakha

I didn’t have long in the current and former capitals of Bhutan but got a taster at the end of my journey by road from Bumthang to Paro after completing the month long Snowman Trek.

Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955, and is home to the second oldest, second largest, and probably most beautiful dzong in the country. These are fortresses used as the administrative and religious centres of each district.

The Punakha Dzong was built in the early 17th century and has suffered significant damage since from earthquakes, fires and flash floods, with restoration after each.

It has three courtyards, the first is used for district administration and is home to a sizeable stupa and bodhi tree.

The second and third are dedicated to a monastery and several temples. The main temple was quite spectacular inside, but no photographs are allowed inside temples in Bhutan. The outside was beautifully ornate.

There were a few nice views and a prayer wheel at Meri Puensum, where we spent the night.

About an hour before reaching Thimphu we crossed the 3,100m Dochula pass, home to 108 Druk Wangyal Khang Zhang Chortens, Druk Wangyel Monastery on the hill, and apparently in winter there are occasionally epic views of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck Himalayan Range.

The capital Thimphu was a shock to the senses. By far the largest city in Bhutan, it is a mass of concrete buildings, roads, power cables and traffic. Accounting for a fifth of the population and nearly half the economy of Bhutan it was easily my least favourite place in the country.

There were a few things to see but nothing particularly amazing. Built in 1974 the National Memorial Chorten is the most central stupa in Thimphu, and probably the most photographed in Bhutan.

One of the largest Buddha monuments in the world, the 51m high bronze Buddha Dordenma sits high above the city. Inside are thousands of small Buddha statues, while the outside base has some interesting features.

The National Folk Heritage Museum is housed in one of the few old buildings remaining in the city, an impressive three story structure. Animals would have been kept on the ground floor, the first floor was used for storage, the second floor had the kitchen, living area and private altar, and the roof was used for drying hay and food. Unfortunately no photography is allowed inside.

To finish with Tashichho Dzong, home to the administrative centre of Bhutan, including offices for the King and Prime Minister. The dzong originates from the 17th century, while the newer neighbouring building houses the national parliament. It is surrounded by fields, a rare sight in the increasingly developed Thimphu valley.

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