I rose early from a solid sleep and downloaded yesterday’s news over coffee while the family slumbered. We’re 14 hours ahead of EST so 8AM here is the end of the business day in Washington… a good time to catch up on the folly there. After our big Bhutan breakfast, we trundled off up the valley past the massive Dzong (more on that below) to a riverside trailhead. Max and Ben skipped rocks at the raft put-in below the prayer flag-draped suspension bridge which marked the start of our short climb over the river and through the rice paddies to the Khamusum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, a 20yr old temple dedicated to the current king.
Alas interior temple photos are taboo in Bhutan, and I’m not patient enough to thoroughly describe how amazingly vibrant, exotic, whimsical and intricate the carvings, paintings, tapestry and architecture are here. No crowds, just color: it feels like you’re in an opium-laced Michelangelo-meets-Dali diorama, freshly crafted exclusively for you.
Descending from the Chorten through a wild poinsettia forest with monster spiders, traversing terraced rice paddies and skimming river left on the Mo Chu (Mother River), we finished our hike crossing the downstream suspension bridge. The climate and terrain are familiar – it’s warm down here in the Punakah valley; at 4,000 subtropical feet, it feels to us like the Northern California foothills on an Indian Summer day… about 75 degrees under crystal skies.
But the rice paddies, roaming cows and Asiatic locals remind me more of my days in Bali a quarter century ago. Except it’s less developed and crowded here… a big part of Bhutan’s charm is its isolation and sincere simplicities. If the touring is deliberately high-cost, it’s also low volume, and that’s nice… the footprints are few and light, and it’s still easy to snap that special shot without a stranger in it. I expect they’ll develop into a post-eco destination, focused instead on broader “sustainable social” tourism. That’s fitting and fine, but when single tracks overlook virgin whitewater rivers stuffed with 24” trout, I’m tempted to return with my fat tires, fly rods and kayak.
For lunch Songay and Needuup took us to a local restaurant in Punakah; the meals here have been consistent in content and quality… red rice, chili cheese, boiled chicken, stir fried noodles, all in flavorful sauces…. But there are increasing rumblings among the boys for In-and-Out burgers and shakes. At least there’s Coke.
Next stop: the revered Punakah Dzong… the seat of government until the 1950s. It’s staggering by any measure – built in 1637, it’s older than the Taj Mahal while not as tall, it’s 4x larger in area… about the size of 3 football fields… even so it’s only the 2nd largest and oldest Dzong. Set at the confluence of the Pho Chu (father) and Mo Chu (mother) rivers, this just might be the most beautiful ancient building you’ve never heard of. Again, interior pix are verboten, rats. But some of the craftsmanship and its stories spill out of doors, so let me share one image and add some contemporary color commentary.
This painting describes the Buddhist Wheel of Life. That brown beast gnawing away at the top is Death – he’s scary, but not necessarily a bad guy in a world of reincarnation. Respect him as he does have a say in where you’ll spend your next life. In the center of the wheel are the three evils: the pig (ignorance), the bird (hatred) and the snake (greed): feels a bit like Trump’s rhetoric. Avoid their behavior and your positive karma wafts you left then heavenward towards compassion and enlightenment: congrats Bodhisattva, you’ve achieved nirvana! But if you chose the alt-right path, thirst, starvation, torture and hell await.