Bhutan: Land of Dzongs, Goembas, Lha Khangs, and Chortens

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December 3rd 2011
Published: December 17th 2011
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A Newfound TranquilityA Newfound TranquilityA Newfound Tranquility

Traveling in chilly 3 degree Celsius clime ain't easy for this old hag from the tropics. Plus the elevation hits me like one needs a boulder on her head. But Bhutan has this effect on us.
I would have thought I stepped into my own imagination. My own dream. This trip to Bhutan is so markedly off the usual, beaten paths. Not being melodramatic, but Bhutan is truly one fairyland. Men and women in local costumes, dogs blending in with the locals like they are members of the small Bhutanese populace (they are still under 1 Million as of this writing), mountain views and bubbling streams, a culture so unique, a very strong national identity.

Dzongs as Fortresses and Monasteries

White monoliths dominate the landscape. Like castles. Some on dry, dead mountains. Others at the junction of flowing rivers. We have been to three dzongs, but managed to explore only 2. We regret having missed exploring the interiors of the Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong) as we were dead tired after that climb to the Taktshang Monastery. Besides, it was quite late and getting chilly by the time we were on our way back from Paro to our hotel in Thimpu. We can only surmise how much finer Bhutanese architecture is in this Dzong, after having seen and admired Thimpu and Punakha Dzongs. Perhaps, we can only take excitement in small doses and we
Paro DzongParo DzongParo Dzong

Said to house the finest Bhutanese architecture. Dzongs are fortresses cum monasteries where religion and state rule the kingdom. Amazing!
were spared from having our senses assaulted by so much beauty? I am told the movie Little Buddha was filmed here. I know I just need to watch it.

The very first Dzong we visited was the one in Thimpu, where the present (5th) monarch was crowned. Willow trees line the roads to Trashi Chhoe Dzong which literally means "Fortress of the Glorious Religion". Both monks and state officials are housed in this Dzong where the King likewise holds office and a Throne Room. The dzong was damaged by fire and earthquakes in the past but rebuilt in traditional fashion. By that, Bhutanese mean "without nails nor written plans". Modern-day architects with their blueprints have no place in this society.

We were so awed by this 17th century fortress with all its intricately handpainted window frames and woodcarvings. As we scaled a set of wooden stairs leading to the inner courtyard, we fell into a silence that could only mean one thing. Magic. Dreamland. Unbelievable. It helped that we were nearly the only ones in the courtyard on that chilly afternoon. Took a full 20 minutes to admire the vastness and uniqueness of the architecture. It helped
Thimpu DzongThimpu DzongThimpu Dzong

This is where the King holds office. His Throne Room is also here. In the monastic quarter is the Monastery. All under one roof.
that the community of resident pigeons flew over our heads several times as the wind spun the prayer wheels to the now familiar dong dong chime so gloriously out of a storybook.

Bhutan. And it was only our first day! And we were just in the dochey or courtyard. By the time we entered one of the temples or Lha Khangs and viewed the thousand mini-Buddhas, we were completely bowled over. Thangkas of the Buddhas of Wisdom, Longevity and Compassion hanging by the walls in between the statues of more Buddhas including Guru Rimpoche and their consorts. As we stepped out and down the Lha Khang, we found a couple of monks chatting time away. One was busily fingering a text message on his cellphone while the other looks on, yawning away. Yes, the irony. After all, these are young men like most others too. Yet it does not take away much from their pious character and polite demeanor.

On our 3rd day, we visited the 2nd of Bhutan's dzongs in Punakha, the Palace of Great Happiness. Climate is milder here which served as the seat of Bhutanese government when Punakha was still the
Punakha DzongPunakha DzongPunakha Dzong

Built at the confluence of 2 rivers: the Mother and Father Rivers of Bhutan, right there on the "trunk" of the Elephant Hill. The 1st King was crowned here.
capital up until the 2nd king. Our Tour guide Sonam Norbu narrated how the construction of this 17th century dzong was foretold by Guru Rimpoche, the 2nd Buddha. Built right at the confluence of two rivers, the Mo (Mother) and Pho (Father) Chhu. Right across the dzong and the 2 rivers is a mini-park cum picnic camp where one is given the entire view of this magnificent structure.

We crossed a bridge adorned with prayer flags over the rivers and entered upon a heavy wooden door. Passing more willow trees and cherry blossoms, we scaled the steep stairs designed to be pulled up "in case of an invasion". We entered the first courtyard and found some of the 600 monks housed in this Monastery spinning their prayer wheels and chanting their mantras as logs crackle in the nearby bonfire set up in the middle of the courtyard. The "chime" music blends beautifully with the murmurs of the wind, the flutter of flying pigeons above us, that we had to pinch ourselves that this is truly happening.

The corridors beneath handpainted eaves and intricately-carved wooden panels spill into a second courtyard in the monastic quarter
Changang Lha Khang TempleChangang Lha Khang TempleChangang Lha Khang Temple

Gho-clad and rubber shoes-shod happy boys in this monastic school in Thimpu. Just a small one, perched on a promontory overlooking the capital city.
where we entered one of the Lha Khangs or Temples. Inside, we found magnificent thangkas hanging on the walls along with the golden statues of the Buddha and Guru Rimpoche in the Main Assembly Hall where the first king was crowned. If I am not mistaken, this is also where the present (5th) King married his Queen last October 13, 2011? Sonam Norbu, my guide, my son, where are you? Please do correct your old mother if she's wrong!

Lha Khangs and Chortens

Right within Thimpu, the capital, is a Memorial Chorten built in 1974 in memory of the 3rd king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. At night, it is very visible as it is illuminated. Designed like a large Tibetan-style chorten, many locals visit and do their rounds chanting their mantras as it is the focus of their daily worship. Though it is a National Library, this unique structure houses many ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan holy books. As such, altars are set up on each floor of the library. Locals circumambulate the building while chanting their mantras because of these holy books. It is almost insignificant to mention that the National Library also houses the biggest book, and
Zilukha NunneryZilukha NunneryZilukha Nunnery

Toddler-Nuns? Our guide explained that impoverished families leave their daughters to be cared for here, growing up as nuns. He said this without a hint of pity, and with a lot of pride.
is hemmed in by a 9-hole golf course. 😊

Changangkha Lhakhang may not seem much to many tourists but we are so pleased our Tour Guide brought us here. It wasn't in my list of must-see destinations, but Sonam Norbu decided we should visit it. Perched on a ridge overlooking the capital city, we met our gho-clad and kira-clad Bhutanese children in this 12th century monastic school. Our arms ached spinning the giant prayer wheels inside. I suspect this must be a favorite Lha Khang of my "adopted Bhutanese son" cum tour guide.

Last but not least, there is Zilukha Nunnery. We climbed a dirt path from a promontory overlooking Thimpu Dzong to reach the tiny nunnery. We were allowed just 2 photos. Just a small temple where Buddha statues are housed, just a narrow strip where nuns sit crosslegged chanting their mantras and spinning their prayer wheels. Beside the small building is a similarly-sized sleeping quarters. Charming with its handpainted window frames as with most other Bhutanese houses, but definitely needing more room and higher level of comfort. The nuns had "toddler-nuns" with them. When asked, Norbu told me that impoverished families sometimes
A Glimpse of Taktshang From Lookout PointA Glimpse of Taktshang From Lookout PointA Glimpse of Taktshang From Lookout Point

spin the prayer wheels for energy, patience and persistence. join the local pilgrims as they make their way to Tiger's Nest......some with toddlers on their backs, others with sleeping babies in their arms. How do they do that?????
leave their children to be cared for here to grow up as nuns. He said this without a tinge of pity, perhaps even with an element of pride. What a unique culture, indeed.

Of all the religious temples and shrines we visited, Taktshang Goemba or Tiger's Nest Monastery holds a special place in my heart. Perched precariously on a cliff some 900 meters above the Paro Valley (should render it at an elevation of over 3,000 meters or 10,000 feet), it tested not just my physical strength but more my mental resolve and virtues of persistence and patience. If only for that, I will dedicate a separate blog to my Taktshang Adventure. After all, it took me one hour on an uphill climb on a horse, another hour or so on foot to reach the last lookout to the Monastery across a deep abyss, and a full 2 hours of climbing up and down to reach the Halfway Station before the final one hour hike down to base. All of 5 hours. Phew!

Scroll all the way down for more photos...........and do check out my earlier blog and next blog .

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Inside Thimpu DzongInside Thimpu Dzong
Inside Thimpu Dzong

Look at all that intricately designed wood carvings and handpainting! The art screams Bhutanese in traditional colors of gold and orange along with shades of dark blue and green.
Inside Thimpu DzongInside Thimpu Dzong
Inside Thimpu Dzong

We would have been adequately pleased with the willow trees framing the white monolith. But we were bowled over by the vast courtyard hemmed in by temples and resident pigeons flying above us as the wind chimes the prayer wheels.
Inside Thimpu DzongInside Thimpu Dzong
Inside Thimpu Dzong

It is such a lovely courtyard, which we "owned" exclusively for an hour or so.
Two MonksTwo Monks
Two Monks

One yawns the afternoon away. Another busily fingering a text message on his cellphone. One chilly afternoon in Thimpu Dzong.
I Left My Spirit HereI Left My Spirit Here
I Left My Spirit Here

Inside Punakha Dzong. Here you see 3 of 600 monks housed inside.
Inside Punakha DzongInside Punakha Dzong
Inside Punakha Dzong

There were actually 3 courtyards. In the first, they set up a bonfire in the middle to keep the monks warm. Not much spoken. Not much eye contact. So tranquil. So heavenly peaceful.
Inside Punakha DzongInside Punakha Dzong
Inside Punakha Dzong

The wind almost whispers into your ears. So quiet, but for the resident pigeons fluttering their wings over you, the chant of the monks and the hush hush sound of the chilly wind.
Monks at PrayerMonks at Prayer
Monks at Prayer

You take a few minutes to listen to their chant. Can't miss it. You may not understand a word. But did I hear Sonam murmur "Om Mani Peme Hum"?
Prayer Wheels of Changa Lha KhangPrayer Wheels of Changa Lha Khang
Prayer Wheels of Changa Lha Khang

We spun them till our arms ached, chanting our own personal prayers while doing the rounds.
Zilukha NunneryZilukha Nunnery
Zilukha Nunnery

So pious. So eerily quiet but for the chant and the chiming music from the prayer wheels. Even the dog right outside the Nunnery kept silent.
Nuns Chanting Their PrayersNuns Chanting Their Prayers
Nuns Chanting Their Prayers

Just 2 photos inside. Just a small corridor to do their prayers. Just a small shrine inside. Just a small sleeping quarters for these nuns.
Let the Dog SleepLet the Dog Sleep
Let the Dog Sleep Zilukha Nunnery.
When Mom Meets PopsWhen Mom Meets Pops
When Mom Meets Pops

Two rivers merging into one. The Punakha Dzong is right at the confluence of Mo and Pho Chhu. Then they bubble and froth along as one...........
Crossing the Bridge Towards Punakha DzongCrossing the Bridge Towards Punakha Dzong
Crossing the Bridge Towards Punakha Dzong

It is a magical few steps till one enters this fortress cum monastery. The waters beneath the bridge froth, as if beckoning you to enter this holy place.

17th December 2011

I love the way you have narrated this part! I have some problems with the pronunciation of those temple names, but I fully appreciate it the fact that I seem to been transported in this place.
17th December 2011

Got to admit all these comments bring me pleasure. Bhutan holds a special place in my heart now, that I want to do justice to it by writing exactly how I feel about the places. Amateurish that they are, they spring from my heart. :-)
17th December 2011

Impressive content about travel in Bhutan
As a daily net user, while I am searching for a quality blog about travel, then I have found this blog. As an inhabitant of USA, I am totally unaware about Bhutan. For this, I feel too much interest about Bhutan & I also come to know about Dzongs, Goembas, Lha Khangs and Chortens Land of Bhutan. Images, which you have used there, they are also very much impressive and attractive. Thanks, for nice post.
17th December 2011

Amateur's Take on Bhutan
Amateurish blogging and (P&S) photography. But you can say I poured my heart into it. Ain't kidding when I say Bhutan holds a special place in my heart. And I have not yet written about my encounter with local folks. Soooooonnnnn. Thanks for your kind review. Appreciate it, really.
17th December 2011

I wonder how you felt as you travelled to these special places in Bhutan. There is something about Himalayan cultures and scenery that takes one's breath must have wonderful memories...that your blog will bring back every time.
17th December 2011

You're so right!
David, spot on! Thought I was just growing too old and sentimental. Can't even begin to share how I felt leaving Bhutan --- thinking others may not see it my way and fail to understand. Your comments may just prompt me to write about them, David ;-)
18th December 2011

It looks amazing!!
21st December 2011

Whenever I think of a place travel, Bhutan never crossed my mind. Now I am considering it!
21st December 2011

When I left Bhutan, I whispered a prayer that this last Shangrila will not be corrupted by tourism and commerce. Its pristine beauty and caring people touched me in a way I won't forget.
25th December 2011

Thanks for sharing with us your travels. Merry Christmas!
16th July 2012

Nice blog. Inspires me to go there (especially after watching a local TV series that was partly shot there). Anyway, isn't going to Bhutan only possible with a tour? What tour operator would you recommend and how much? Love your trips. Looking forward to more entries from you! :)
16th July 2012

Hi there. I used KUENCHAP TOURS BHUTAN TRAVEL. You may email them at and just ask for my guide, Sonam Norbu.

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