Before 1974, the Kingdom of Bhutan was largely unknown to the world, except that it was a small country surrounded by the Himalayan ranges and bordered India and China. Today, Bhutan is seeing thousands of visitors every year with its national carrier, Druk Air, flying direct from destinations such as Singapore, Bangkok, Nepal and India.
Punakha, in Western Bhutan, used to be the capital of Bhutan until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. Punakha is the main district for rice crops in Bhutan so you will be welcomed by beautiful views of the rice paddy fields and terraces. Located at a lower elevation of 1,200 meters (3,937 feet), it is generally warmer compared to places like Thimphu or Paro.
It is also a major tourist district with several key attractions, such as Punakha Dzong, Chimi Lhakhang monastery, and Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery. Travelers will also experience crossing one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan and can opt to explore a local bar at night.
Best times to visit Bhutan
The peak tourist season for Bhutan is from March to May and from September to November. For flower lovers, between the end of April to May is the best time to observe full blooms. The weather from September to November is mild, before the temperature dips in winter. There are also many major festivals during peak season such as the Thimphu Tshechu or Wangdue Phodrang Tsechu festivals, where you can experience unique and traditional local performances.
The remaining months are considered off-peak seasons. June to August is the monsoon season, so expect regular rainfall. Most of the roads in Bhutan are along cliffs, so there’s a higher chance of landslides or road closures during the monsoon months. If you do not mind cold weather, winter is usually from December to February.
There is a daily tariff for tourists as mandated by the Bhutan Tourism Council. The amount of tariff varies during peak and off-peak season, ranging from 200 - 250 USD. If you are on a budget, visiting Bhutan during the off-peak season is a good option, though you must be prepared for the climate. A visa for most nationalities is also required, along with a local guide, so check with your tour operator on specific requirements for Bhutan. The requirements for travelers to Bhutan remain strict as the government values the importance of preserving tradition and culture in the country. You may be surprised to see that most locals are still dressed in their traditional costumes, known as gho for men and kira for women.
A stroll around Punakha Dzong, the Palace of Great Happiness
Built in 1637, Punakha Dzong is the second-oldest and largest dzong in Bhutan. Dzongs are distinctive fortresses found mainly in Bhutan and Tibet, consisting of a spacious courtyard, a monastery, accommodation for monks and a governmental administrative office. Punakha Dzong is said to be the most beautiful dzong in the country and was once the former seat of the Bhutan’s government. It is located at the confluence of two rivers and is especially beautiful in spring when the trees blossom into colors. The name translates from the local language as The Palace of Great Happiness.
Punakha Dzong can get a little crowded during the peak season, but take your time to stroll around the beautiful fortress and admire the amazing architecture and color schemes around the compound. You will see a big courtyard in every dzong that is used during festivals for performances. One of the main highlights in the courtyard is the bodhi tree - an old sacred fig tree. Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have attained enlightenment at a bodhi tree in India, and then later became Buddha.
You can head up to the second level of the dzong where you can get a good view of the surroundings. Stray dogs can be found everywhere in Bhutan and if you have some extra biscuits to share, you may want to feed the dogs in the dzong or the fish in the pond.
The serenity of a nunnery
Overlooking the valley of Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang, Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup nunnery is one of the newest religious sites in Punakha, inaugurated in 2015. It was built by the Queen Mother’s parents. The temple complex houses a learning and meditation center for nuns and monks.
Besides the daily chanting, you may also observe the nuns maintaining the nunnery with pride. When I was there, each of them was earnestly polishing the wall sculptures outside the nunnery in a most-disciplined manner. The beautiful white structure with a magnificent background of the valley was one of the religious sites that brought me a sense of calmness as I toured around its compound. During summer, you may come across numerous apple trees.
One of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan
Punakha Suspension Bridge is the second-longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, at 350 meters (1,148 feet) long. It is not only a fantastic photography spot overlooking the river, but also offers a good activity to level up your adrenaline rush for those who love heights! No one seems to know the exact height of the bridge from the river but it is definitely more than 20 meters (65.6 feet) high!
The bridge may sway rather aggressively during particularly windy days or if it gets too crowded. Sometimes mischievous children may even jump on the bridge, causing the bridge to swing even more! The walk along the bridge is not exactly terrifying but if you are not an overly adventurous person, you could be a little tense with the height and the swaying. If so, walk slowly or hold on to the side of the bridge. However, be careful not to cut yourself on the wire cables used to secure the prayer flags along the sides.
Colorful prayer flags are placed on the bridge by locals as a form of protection; this practice is seen all over Bhutan. With all your fears but aside, a stroll along the bridge allows you to enjoy a romantic view of the gushing water along the river of Po Chhu. In some months, parts of the river can be frozen. In summer, you will find some locals playing in the water, though do be warned that the undercurrent can be dangerous so take caution if you want to dip into the river. Fishing is prohibited in Bhutan, so while the water looks clear with tons of fish, do not attempt to fish.
At the end of the bridge on the opposite bank, take a rest at the hut and enjoy a beverage from the local provision shop. Facing the hut is a vast paddy field and you can sit back, relax, and enjoy the view in quiet before you embark on the bridge crossing to return back.
An interesting temple for couples
If parenthood is in your plans, be sure to visit Chimi Lhakhang, commonly known as the Temple of Fertility. It has been said that some tourists’ prayers for a baby came true after a visit to this temple.
Ask any local, regardless of their gender, and you will be surprised by their extremely strong beliefs and respect towards Drukpa Kunley, a historically famous monk and poet. He is also known as the Divine Madman because of his unorthodox Buddhist teachings. It was said that he subdued a demon of Dochula, supposedly a strong one, with his phallus! That may sound incredulous to most foreigners, but this was the extent of his powerful “weapon”.
Interestingly, this temple is covered with drawings of phalluses on the walls. In Bhutan, it is believed that the phallic symbol is able to ward off evils, so do not be startled when you notice big wooden phallic symbols hanging from the rooftops of local houses. If you are keen to have one for your home, do ask your guide on where to get one. In most souvenir shops in the city center, you can easily find phallic keychains, but I did not come across any huge ones that you could hang from your window like the locals.
To a foreigner, it may appear that the Bhutanese, both men and women, are obsessed with the phallic symbol, but do understand that this is due to their strong respect towards Drukpa Kunley. Whether or not you are a believer of his blessing, the temple is an interesting site depicting the strong religious and traditional beliefs of the Bhutanese.
The nightlife of Bhutan
Ever imagined yourself clubbing in Bhutan? As a traditional country, you may be surprised that nightlife is pretty exciting in Bhutan, especially with the youngsters. Tuesdays are non-alcohol days in the country so bars and clubs are closed on that day.
Bars are relatively small but cozy, with a small stage featuring dancing and singing performances along with local Bhutanese music. Slow traditional dances are sometimes performed on stage, which is pretty unusual in bars outside of Bhutan. For 100 BTN (1.50 USD), you can dedicate a song to be performed. There is no entrance fee to the barsl.
You should try out the local peach wine, known as Zumzin, which is very popular especially with the local ladies. For beer lovers, consider trying the locally brewed Bhutanese beer, Druk 11000. After 11pm, most will leave the karaoke bars and proceed to a dance club. Clubs are much bigger compared to the bars but they are still considered small in a western context. Most of us would think that Bhutan has limited interaction with the world, but the music played in the clubs is mostly recent hits by popular international singers such as Sia or Lady Gaga!
After dark, there is pretty much nothing else to do so, if you are able to stay awake, you should request your guide take you to one of the bars or clubs to experience the typical Bhutanese nightlife. For female travelers, crime rates are relatively low in Bhutan and harassment against foreign ladies is hardly heard of. Having said that, staying vigilant and careful when you are in a foreign country is still recommended.
A beautiful district in Western Bhutan
Every morning as the sun rises, the rice paddy fields in Punakha brighten up with life as the lights reflect against the water. Combining the beautiful sound of running water from the river with a view of the surrounding hills, Punakha is one of the breathtaking destinations in Western Bhutan. After a long day of touring around the district, you are sure to wake up in Punakha feeling relaxed and positive.
Given that there are limited attractions in Punakha, you may choose to stay just one night there, though Punakha is certainly one of those places that you would miss when you think of Bhutan. Start planning and include Bhutan under your bucket list!
Get Trip101 in your inbox