Beauty Has A Name: Punakha

54 comments
Asia, Bhutan, South

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten perched on a verdant hill

On the morning of our second day in Punakha Valley, we looked up to the sky before leaving our hotel; the sun was mostly obstructed by grey clouds, although it wasn’t as windy as the day before.

“There’s a cyclone in the Bay of Bengal,” Kinga informed us. He himself looked worried that the weather would disappoint us that day.

Off we went to the outskirts of Punakha where, as Kinga had told us earlier, we would do some hiking to “a temple on a hill”. Navigating his way down snaking roads that followed the contours of the mountainous terrain of Bhutan, Phuntsho took us to the starting point of the hike less than an hour after we left our riverside accommodation. From the road above the valley, the spectacular view of verdant hills that framed rice terraces with ripening paddies, probably days away from being harvested, was a feast for the eyes. I have seen countless rice terraces, but this was among the most picturesque and majestic examples I had ever set my eyes on.

The clouds were slowly dissipating, allowing the sun to shine over the fertile valley. From the parking area Kinga led us to a small suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu (mother river) where we encountered a dog walking toward us from the opposite direction; it had probably crossed this iron bridge so many times before. Little did I know the photo I took of the dog with Kinga far ahead of us was in fact the last image my camera yielded before it started acting up a few minutes later.

As we were treading the dirt path across the yellowish rice paddies, I was tempted to capture the beauty with my camera. As I pressed the shutter button halfway, suddenly the camera frenetically took several photos in one go, and before I could quite fathom what on earth was happening it took some more random images, this time even without me pressing anything. Why does this have to happen right now, when we’re in the middle of this beautiful place? I couldn’t help but feel a little frustrated.

We continued walking uphill until we found a small shaded pavilion where I asked Kinga if we could stop briefly there so I could check my camera.

“Don’t worry, take your time,” our ever-accommodating guide assured me.

I frantically started inspecting one button after another, going through each function in the settings menu to find out what went wrong with my camera, but the problem persisted. James empathetically tried to offer help, also to no avail. In the end I tried to work with the manual focus, hoping I could still get photos that wouldn’t end up being too blurry.

It was hot and humid in this valley, not surprising since Punakha itself is located 1,200 meters above sea level, more than 1,100 meters lower than the capital Thimphu. And with a camera that seemed to be having its own mind, the morning heat felt even more oppressing causing me to sweat profusely. We kept on walking, and as soon as we left the paddy fields we entered the shaded pathway of the hill  crowned by the temple Kinga had told us of.

Before long, we arrived at the gate to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, a multi-story chorten (also known as stupa) constructed in 2004 and ornately decorated with Bhutanese traditional architectural elements. Just like in other Buddhist temples in the country, Kinga reminded us not to take any pictures inside the chorten. We took off our shoes and climbed the steps to the entrance of the chorten, and as we walked through the half-opened doorway we were welcomed by an explosion of colors that is synonymous with the branch of Buddhism practiced in Bhutan. Kinga explained to us aspects of the religion signified by the larger-than-life statues, as well as those depicted as finely-painted murals, before going up to the upper levels of the structure.

The last photo I took before my camera started acting up

Toward the hill

A farmhouse at the end of the path

In the grounds of Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

A beautiful chorten both inside and out

Fine carvings and vivid colors

On the top level, the magnificent 360° view of the lush valley with pristine forests and a tapestry of rice paddies dotted with farmhouses was not only beautiful, but also soothing for the senses. Meandering across this vista of abundance is the Mo Chhu which originates from the heights of the Himalayas. It is unsurprising that some of the international resort chains that entered Bhutan chose this location to build their properties despite its relative isolation. We lingered on the chorten’s open-air rooftop platform to marvel at the majestic landscape as well as to breathe in as much fresh air as we could, for the latter is a luxury in the teeming metropolis called Jakarta where we live.

After many deep inhalations, we finally signaled to Kinga that we were ready to go down. On the way back to where Phuntsho parked the car, Kinga bought us a few green guavas from an old man who was patiently waiting for hikers to buy fruits from him.

“Let’s have lunch now, and after that we will go to Punakha Dzong,” Kinga said.

We headed to the town of Khuruthang where we had our first Bhutanese momo (a type of dumpling popular in the Himalayan region) the day before. This time we tried a different restaurant which happened to be larger and brighter than the first. Having tasted the vegetarian momo – each translucent parcel filled with a generous amount of local cheese – we opted for the non-veg variety and ordered a few ones with non-meat filling as well for comparison. However, as much as we love meat, it turned out that we preferred the non-vegetarian momo better for its creamier cheese filling. Kinga also introduced us to bathup, a hearty Bhutanese noodle soup with dried beef and a taste of Sichuan peppercorn known for its distinctive numbing sensation in the mouth. Outside the restaurant, a handful of glass jars filled with pickled chili peppers were exposed to the sun. Phuntsho told us that the local people do that in preparation for winter when fresh vegetables, including chilies, are hard to find.

With full stomachs we were ready to make the most of the sunny afternoon, and in Punakha that meant visiting the valley’s most iconic landmark: Punakha Dzong. A dzong is a type of fortress-like structure found in Bhutan which houses temples, government offices as well as a monastery. Typically built on top of a hill or a ridge to afford a sweeping view of the surrounding valley so that any threat or invading forces (mainly from Tibet) could be detected early, today a dzong is usually both the secular and religious center of an administrative unit in the country. Of all such structures, arguably the most famous is Punakha Dzong which, unlike others, is located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu as opposed to higher ground.

Completed in the year 1638, Punakha Dzong was designed with three courtyards – a departure from the traditional two-courtyard design found across Bhutan – and adorned with fine wood carvings and intricate artworks. Even though it is not the biggest dzong in the country, according to many people it is Bhutan’s most beautiful, which is unsurprising since Punakha was in fact the kingdom’s capital until the seat of the government was moved to Thimphu in 1955. Nevertheless, in modern Bhutan Punakha remains important as its dzong serves as the winter residence of the chief abbot of the Dratshang Lhentshog, Bhutan’s Central Monastic Body.

The fertile Punakha Valley

Abundance as far as the eye can see

Another day, another round of momo

Bathup, a Bhutanese noodle soup

After taking too many photos of the dzong’s exterior – its wooden windows, tiered roofs, and gleaming pinnacles were just too beautiful in the afternoon sun – James and I finally followed Kinga’s lead to enter the fortress. We climbed a series of steps – first made of stones, and subsequently of wood – then walked through the northern entrance to arrive at the first courtyard with a big tree at its center. The roofs, the rafters, the corridors, the utse (central tower), really every corner of this part of the dzong was so photogenic any image would not truly do it justice.

Then through narrow and dimly-lit walkways we proceeded to the second courtyard. From this side a scar was visible on the utse’s upper section, a result of the brute force of nature that shook this part of the world seven years ago.

“It was caused by the 2011 earthquake,” Kinga told us, and later I learned that the epicenter was actually in Sikkim, an Indian state nestled between Bhutan and Nepal.

As a matter of fact, Punakha Dzong has sustained damage from flooding, fires, and of course, earthquakes that have ravaged this otherwise tranquil corner of Bhutan for more than three centuries. However, every time a part of the dzong is destroyed, it is also a chance for Bhutan’s most talented artisans to contribute to the preservation of the symbol of their unique culture. Kinga told us that it took hundreds of the best woodcarvers from all over the country to rebuild the main temple inside the dzong following the latest natural disaster.

That main temple Kinga was talking about is located at the third courtyard, on the southeastern end of the compound. As per tradition we took off our shoes before entering the temple, and my goodness! Grandeur and opulence were on an entirely different level in this place.

“This is even more ornate than the Forbidden City,” James expressed his amazement by comparing the lavish interior of the temple with the famous palace in the Chinese capital which itself is already a prime example of grand architectural design.

We followed Kinga, circumambulating the pillared hall of the temple, trying to listen to his explanation about what we were seeing while at the same time being astonished by the sheer beauty found above our heads and all around us. One will certainly feel humbled standing inside this precious architectural wonder crafted by Bhutanese hands, and to me the place exuded not only a sense of power, but also passion and dedication of the people who have been and will always be safeguarding their centuries-old traditions. It was at Punakha Dzong that the first king of Bhutan from the Wangchuck dynasty was crowned in 1907, and the last major event that took place in this impressive compound was the wedding of the current king in 2011.

I left the dzong feeling humbled, and it seemed that the amount of beauty the valley had presented to our eyes that day inspired us to embrace more “Bhutanness”: we were intrigued to try on the gho, the traditional male costume in the country which is worn by all men, young and old. That night Kinga and Phuntsho took us out of town for dinner, and they were kind enough to lend their gho to us. In the town of Wangdue Phodrang, James and I were wearing it, while our trusted guide and driver looked so different in their jeans. I noticed most of the locals had already swapped their gho and kira (women’s traditional dress) for modern-looking outfits.

“So at night you’re free to wear anything you want?” I asked Phuntsho, curious. “Yes, we can wear jeans, t-shirts, anything,” he replied.

Apparently our effort to appear more like the locals ended up making us look even more like tourists. Nevertheless, it was fun, and the gho was in fact quite a comfortable outfit, although I imagine when the temperature drops it can get cold down there (think of a kilt). And speaking of colder weather, the following day we would leave the warmth of Punakha Valley and head back to the higher altitudes of the west, without wearing a gho.

The majestic Punakha Dzong

One of the most important buildings in the country

The dzong’s towering utse

The small entrance, across a bridge, to the large compound

A masterpiece of Bhutanese craftsmanship

Intricate wood carvings at the dzong

Bright yellow against a blue sky

The steps to enter the main structure

The afternoon sun casts its rays on this beautiful centuries-old building

Visitors and guides walking alongside intricately-decorated corridors

The utse viewed from the north

Cracks visible from the utse’s south side

Bhutanese architecture at its best

Beauty at every corner of the dzong

Punakha Suspension Bridge, one of the longest of its kind in the country

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

54 thoughts on “Beauty Has A Name: Punakha”

  1. Those are spectacular shots. You have an innate sense of capturing the vistas. I wonder what feasts we have missed because of the sudden illness of your camera. Did you try resetting it?

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    • Much appreciated, Umashankar. Actually I was trying to capture the ripening paddies when my camera started acting up. So there’s really not much that you’ve missed. I did try everything I could, and I decided to take it to an authorized service center here in Jakarta. Apparently there’s a problem with my shutter button and since it’s an old camera they no longer have the spare parts. I’m thinking whether I should get a mirrorless camera since it’s smaller than my old DSLR.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I trust you should give the new technology a try —at least you will have no mechanical shutter to grapple with, although that would be no guarantee that something else doesn’t misbehave at a critical point. The recent launches from both Nikon and Canon are tempting.

        I have rather recently invested in Nikon D750 and am loath to spend afresh in the mirrorless series. I am not able to do justice to my investment in existing photographic equipment anyway.

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    • Thank you, Prantik. The fact that I went just before harvest time helped — those rice terraces must look quite different at the moment.

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  2. Astaga!!! Indah sekali! Over the years I’ve heard read and seen so much about bhutan…I’m feeling i need to get my act together and visit this most interesting place. You two are an inspiration 😄

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    • Bhutan memang indah, Therese. Actually on the flight to Bhutan my friend was seated next to an Aussie from Sydney (quite different from South Oz where you’re from, I believe). He was on a two-week trip to Bhutan and Nepal. So since these Himalayan countries are not necessarily close to where you live, you might want to do just that — although visiting each place on two separate trips like I did certainly has its own benefits.

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  3. You bring back wonderful memories of our first trip to Bhutan. Punakha valley is lovely, and we stopped there briefly even on our second trip. Bathup was a favourite. Did you get to eat fern with cheese?

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  4. What a day. The landscapes, rice paddies, and architecture look stunningly beautiful. Oh, and you got to eat momos, one of my favs. You are making me want to go to Bhutan but I may need to unretire first so I can afford it.

    *I now know why you were asking about mirrorless cameras.

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    • Jeff, you would love Punakha! Although it might feel a little disappointing for not being able to take photos inside the temples (whose interiors were so colorful and ornate). You should try Bhutanese momo and see whether you like it better than the Nepalese one (if you like cheese you might end up in team Bhutan). Well, Bhutan is not the cheapest place to visit, but at least you live in Thailand so you won’t need to spend too much for the airfare.

      Speaking of mirrorless camera, I just got a new one! Thanks for convincing me to switch to Fuji.

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  5. What a lovely write-up of Punakha Valley and its surrounds in Bhutan, Bama. It sounded like you and James had lovely tour guides and brought you to the places that the locals pass by every day. As you said, it can be so refreshing to see rolling plains of nature in contrats to your surroundings in Jakarta. In places like these you are also reminded of different customs practiced by different cultures – one of them would be no photos as you were asked not to take photos; some markers of history are to be respected and respected with your senses 🙂 All the more so as Punakha Dzong and its temples have survived earthquakes – its history and people worked to restore the community should be admired.

    That is very sporting of you and James to dress up in the gho. Sounded like quite an experience and you must have gotten a few stares 🙂

    So sorry to hear about your camera. You always hope your camera works on a holiday and bringing a spare camera can be heavy and not all of us can afford a backup camera. Good to read in the comments you have gotten yourself another camera toy to play with 🙂

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    • We talked to this guy from Sydney whom we met from time to time during our stay in Bhutan. He said he wasn’t too satisfied with his guide, so that made me think how lucky James and I were to have Kinga who’s very experienced and knowledgeable. Punakha Dzong is not the first place that I visit where visitors are not allowed to take photos — Dolmabahçe Palace and Nijo Castle are among those magnificent buildings where I wished I could capture their beauty through my lenses but I couldn’t. Some places do require us to come and see with our eyes to believe what people have been saying.

      I enjoyed wearing the gho so much so I was thinking of buying one to wear in Indonesia when I’m invited to a special occasion in the future. But in the end I left the country empty-handed, well sort of.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What amazing architecture and luckily you obviously had James’ camera and/or your cell. Hope you’ve worked out the problem with your camera.

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    • Luckily I still could take photos using the manual setting. But yesterday I got a new camera because the previous one was just too old the authorized service center no longer has spare parts for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember your great shock and disappointment when the camera shutter stopped working correctly on the hike up to the chorten; thank goodness you could fiddle around on manual mode and get shots of Punakha Dzong and the valley’s gorgeous landscapes. That view from Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten was a real stunner – the combination of steep, wooded hillsides, rice terraces, and the meandering Mo Chhu (not to mention the fresh mountain air) made me want to stay longer even in the midday heat. I do miss the taste of those vegetable and cheese momos… if only Jakarta had a Nepalese restaurant we could go to!

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    • In true Indonesian fashion, it must have been possessed by a ghost! 😀 I’m glad the photos I took from the chorten turned out alright. I would have been very frustrated if I had to resort to my mobile phone to capture the beauty of the valley. I also wished that we could stay at the top of the chorten a little bit longer, but then there was another group of visitors coming up. I think I remember vaguely about a Nepalese restaurant in Jakarta — I don’t know how authentic the food is, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Your blogs always present an excellent overview of the places you visit – we learn something about the food, clothing (where is a picture of you and James wearing the gho?), traditions, landscape, and architecture. The architecture and adornment of the dzong is truly astonishing!

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    • Really appreciate your kind words, Marilyn. We did take some photos of us wearing the gho, but they’re mostly blurry and quite dark. Punakha Dzong is among the most astonishing structures I’ve ever visited — I took hundreds of photos within its walls! Visiting it made me curious about the Buddhist temples in Tibet and some parts of north and northeastern India.

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  9. This was a wonderful read Bama. Bhutan sounds amazing, and both the chorten and the dzong are stunning! Whatever was happening with your camera you got some excellent photos!
    Alison

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    • I think you would enjoy the spirituality of Bhutan, Alison. Standing underneath those ornate rafters and decorations inside the temple at Punakha Dzong was a very humbling experience. Luckily I was still able to take photos with my camera. Otherwise I would have to return, which I’m not sure when that will happen.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This valley is among the most beautiful places in western Bhutan. If you want to visit this Himalayan country, flying through Bangkok or Singapore would probably be the best options.

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  10. Secrets From A Biker's Backpack says:

    Amazing place and you did justice with the same have a look at our work also

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    • Thank you! I was lucky it wasn’t cloudy when I was in Punakha — those rice paddies would have looked quite differently had the sun not shown itself.

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  11. WOW. Yet again a fantastic blog post, Bama. I have to compliment your writing skills! Never a dull moment reading about your destinations and the way they made you feel. 🙂
    I cannot get over how freaking beautiful Bhutan seems! The Sichuan pepper you mention with the tangling sensation I thought was unique to Nepal hehe. I love the taste of it! A dash of that on pickle, curry, sauce or whatever and I get nostalgic for home.
    The dzong does look absolutely beautiful! I am generally more introgued by nature rather than man-made structures when I travel, but there are some of these man-made structures that are absolute masterpieces. Those intricate wooden carvings, and gosh the colors! The colors are my favorite. I recently visited a Buddhist monastery near Kathmandu and the explosion of colors was really a feast on the eyes. I’ve grown to appreciate the use of colors in Nepalese (or Asian, African etc) culture much more as I’ve been living in Europe since several years.
    I remember reading that the national costume is by law imposed on everybody in Bhutan – I have often wondered if I’d personally ever like living in such state, where there is a certain form of control by the government on everyday life of its citizens, but then thinking how it’s just a tiny country that has under a million people and a unique culture, it makes sense why they are desperate to hold on to it for as long as they can. It’s not really necessary that everybody lives in a globalized, modern world is it! 🙂

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    • You’re too kind, Pooja. But thanks!

      What is the name of that Nepalese dish that has Sichuan pepper in it? I don’t think I tried it when I went to Nepal. My first experience tasting the numbing sensation of this spice was probably three years ago in North Sumatra, an Indonesian province that is closer to Continental Southeast Asia (to the east) and South Asia (to the west) than its distance to the capital Jakarta.

      I think Punakha Valley will impress even the most well-seasoned travelers. Those who enjoy nature more will find the dzong and temples marvelous, and those who are usually drawn to man-made structures will be amazed by the beauty of the landscape.

      Speaking of colors, did you know that many ancient ruins were once painted in vivid colors? I personally prefer the way they look today, with its building material exposed. But I agree with you, when done with finesse, colors can make a structure even prettier.

      I’m curious about how Bhutan will look like decades from now. Will they still stick to the strict rules to safeguard their unique culture? Will they embrace foreign influence more? Will their pursuit for happiness eventually pay off?

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  12. Wonderful memories of Punakha for me. Sorry to hear about your camera. I had a almost similar experience recently in Japan when I forgot to charge my camera batteries. Ended up using my smartphone that day.

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    • Definitely one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I remember you mentioned about it on one of your posts. Lucky you’ve got a smartphone with a good camera.

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  13. My rice paddy experience is severely lacking, but these do look particularly lush and rich! I love Himalayan architecture (to visit, not live in!), and I think the anomaly of these ornate buildings out in the middle of nowhere is one of the coolest things about them. Oddly, though, the photos that made me happiest here are the suspension bridges over the milky rivers, their prayer flags fluttering in the breeze; those are one of my favorite memories of both Nepal and Tibet!

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    • I’ve never thought of living in a Himalayan house, and although I really enjoyed our hotel in Thimphu, it was in fact a modern building which incorporated some Bhutanese architectural elements. Punakha Dzong did feel like it was in the middle of nowhere; it’s amazing to think that the entire kingdom was ruled from there until the 1950s. I must say I was a little bit nervous when I crossed that long suspension bridge. At one point I looked down and regretted it right away.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I can’t imagine rice terraces any more spectacular than the ones we saw in your country, so your comment about the paddies in the Punakha Valley got my attention. Despite your camera problems (how frustrating!) you took wonderful photos. I love the one of the snaking river and road, and all the ones of the magnificent dzong. Bama, how cruel of you to relay that funny story about you and James dressed in the gho and not include a photo!

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    • I know, right? Indonesia has spectacular rice terraces; Tana Toraja, Flores and Bali are some of the places where people can find them, although at a few corners of Java you can also see some. But what I saw in Punakha Valley were so beautiful and majestic photos don’t do them justice. Unfortunately the night we decided to wear the gho we didn’t bring our cameras, so the only photos we have were taken by our cheap phones. Although now that I think of it, James might have a few photos of us when Kinga and Phuntsho helped us wear the gho. I’ll ask him.

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    • The setting is indeed what makes Punakha Dzong even more picturesque. I’ve seen pictures of it in spring when the jacaranda blooms, which of course makes the dzong prettier. Thanks for reading, Hariom.

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  15. …and now you take me straight to Bhutan, the number one dream destination on my list, but one that I can sadly not reach by sailboat.

    That endless The fertile Punakha Valley, the stunning architecture of the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten and Punakha Dzong, the yummy momo and that somewhat scary suspension bridge that beckons me to walk across it in spite of my deep-seated fear of heights. A dream indeed.

    So sorry to hear about your camera. I totally hear your ‘why does this have to happen right now!’ But you managed to get exceptional pictures with your manual focus. Wow, just wow!

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    • Ahh yes.. Too bad Bhutan is a landlocked country. But leaving your dear boat for a while to visit this Himalayan kingdom would really worth your time and the money you have to spend to be able to enter the country. I myself am also afraid of heights, or the feeling of falling to be precise. So when I crossed that bridge I had to fight my fear twice — on the way to other side and back. But it was interesting to see how this small bridge has really helped the communities on both sides of the river so they no longer have to take the long way around.

      Hope you’ll get the chance to visit this fascinating country soon, Lisa!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Wow, what an experience! The landscape and architecture in Bhutan is something else – Punakha Dzong in particular is breathtaking. Were there many other foreigners there? I’m curious to know what the local people think about there being more visitors these days.

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    • It’s unlike any other place that I’ve been to, indeed. Those dzongs, particularly the one in Punakha, really were created not only to protect the local community, but also to impress. As for tourist number, in the past few years the arrival of foreign visitors to Bhutan has been kept steady. But according to my guide there was one time when suddenly there was a large influx of Mainland Chinese tourists which a lot of Bhutanese were not too happy about giving the former’s problematic attitude.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. I really enjoyed the virtual tour you provided, Bama. You clearly described the experiences you had there. It made me want to visit Bhutan even more. I hope someday I can make it to have a small reunion with my Bhutanese friends. I’m sorry to hear about your camera. I could feel how frustrated you were. But the photos are still magnificent too, despite the uncooperative camera.

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    • Much appreciated, Nurul. Having local friends is probably the best way to get to know a place better. Hopefully you’ll get the chance to visit Bhutan soon enough, and when you do, make sure to try as many cheese-and-chili dishes (as well as others) as you can. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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