• Click CONTACT US in the footer if you have any problems registering for the forums.

Bhutan - Land of the Dragon 3

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Trip report of a magical three weeks spent travelling through Bhutan in October/November 2009, originally posted on the Slow travel Forum.

As there are so many pictures, I have decided to break the trip report up into three parts. The
first part covers background information, Paro and Thimphu. The second part covers the drive from Thimphu to Punakaha, the Phobjika valley, Trongsa and Jakar. This is the third part and covers the area from Jakar to Mongar and then Trashigang and Trashi Yangsi, before leaving Bhutan by road at Samdrup Jonkar.

Drive to Mongar - Somthang village

This is a long drive and many people do it in a day making few stops. Knowing there were many small and traditional settlements settlements where the way of life that hasn’t changed for generations, we decided to spend a whole day just doing the drive as far as Ura and returning to Jakar for the night.

We left the Chamkar valley and drove along the Tang Valley. This is sheep farming country with grassland. The Government introduced sheep farming intending the wool to be used for weaving. However, sheep rearing is on the decline as most weavers find it cheaper to buy direct from India.

full


It was a nice climb up the far side of the Tang valley through blue pine forest beginning to change colour and go golden.

full


There was lots of lichen handing down off the branches of the trees giving it a mystical feel. Once across the pass the road begins to drop down to the head of the Ura valley. Down below there were the settlements of TangsebiI and Shingyer surrounded by large fields used for growing potatoes to sell to India. These had been harvested and the fields left fallow. The improvement of roads has meant villagers are no longer reliant on subsistence crops but are able to grow cash crops.

full


We turned off the main road onto an unmade track through Somthang village with neat, well kept farmhouses and stone barns. Pema Lingpa’s ancestors came from here.

full


full


full


Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Drive to Mongar cont... - Shingkar Village

Beyond Somthang, it was a long drive along the rough track gradually climbing to Shingkar Village. This is still an unspoilt traditional village. The plain unpainted wooden houses were arranged higgledy piggledy along the stream. Electricity was provided by solar panels on the house roofs. Above the village were prayer wheels which had first use of the water before it was used to power the water mills lower down.

full


full


The outside of the building had carvings of the Buddha.

full


The water is brought to the mills along a leat and flow is controlled by a wooden paddle

full


full


The mills are small stone buildings with a small wooden waterwheel and stone quern. The technology is primitive but effective. This is used to grind grain, particularly roasted barley which is be used to make small cakes called tampa. These are eaten with butter tea.

full


full


full


full


There were raised pavements along stream. Narrow winding unmade roads ran between the houses between tall stone walls with logs neatly piled on top. Stiles made from a log with steps cut into it, gave access over the walls. The houses had a small vegetable garden and with barns and sheds.

full


full


full


full


full

full


full


full


Some houses had a shed housing a primitive bathhouse. Water was heated over an open fire and poured into a wooden tub.

full


full


full


Cont...
 
Last edited:

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Drive to Mongar cont... - Shingkar Lhakhang

In the centre of the village was a small Lhakang surrounded by a very weedy courtyard. There has been a temple here since the mid C13th.

full


full


full


A local was sitting in the courtyard eating the seeds from the tree.

full


In the grounds was a small Naga House to protect against evil spirits.

full


The Lhakhang had a splendid red door which was padlocked and the corridor outside had paintings of the Protector gods.

full


full


The Chief Monk had a large highly decorated house next to temple which also provided accommodation for visiting dignitaries.

full


Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Drive to Mongar cont... - Ura and the Flaming Lake

After Shingkhar we drove to Ura, reached by an unmade road off the main road. There were many well cared for painted houses laid out along a network of small lanes. It looked and felt a lot more affluent than Shingkar.

full


full


Ura Lhakhang is in the centre of the village and was rebuilt about 30 years ago by the villagers.

full


The village was preparing for a special 3 day celebration. Villagers were arriving with big bowls food to be left in the Lhakhang. Stills were bubbling away in a courtyard round the back of the Lhakhang, and the old ladies of the village were busy making ara for the celebrations. I was reminded of the witches in ‘Macbeth’. Barley and water were boiled in a large container. A bowl filled with cold water was balanced on the top. Spirit vapour condenses and collects in a central reservoir in the large container. We were offered sample which was very nice but lethal. We declined the offer of a cupful.

full


full


full


full


The guide arranged for us to visit a traditional farmhouse.

full


This was very like the building we had seen at the Folk Museum in Thimphu. The ground floor was still used for storage. Upstairs was a small dark kitchen with a wood burner with hot plates and a small gas hot plate. There was a small storage area off. There were no table or chairs as the family sat on the floor. In the sleeping area, there were thin mattresses on the floor covered with rugs. There was no hanging space and no spare clothes. We were proudly shown the family shrine with priest’s bed and holy books.

We were offered a cup of tea by the Grandmother and were expected to accept. Her husband had died. Her daughter was in hospital with health problems and her grand daughter didn’t go to school as she was needed to help her grandmother in the fields and lifting the potatoes. This was essential help as there was no one else to do it and they would starve. There is no social security. It is a very hard, basic life.

Gradually the youngsters are leaving the countryside to live in towns where there is work and money. There is increasing concern that only the old will be left to work the land and the villages will die.

On the way back to Jakar, we made a short detour to the Mebartsho, Flaming Lake. This isn’t a lake but a pool in a river gorge, crossed by a very rickety wooden bridge covered with prayer flags,

This is one of the sacred pilgrimage sites in Bhutan. Pema Lingpa was born near here. In the C16th, Pema Lingpa had a vision about the sacred treasures that Guru Rimpoche had hidden within the lake centuries earlier. Gazing into the depths of the lake he saw a temple. He dived in and found a treasure chest. The local ruler was dismissive of his claims, so Pema Lingpa invited him to return with him. Holding a lit butter lamp, he is reputed to have told the assembled masses “If I am a genuine revealer of treasures then may I return with the treasure and my lamp still alight. However, if I am a devil, may I drown.” After being under water for a long time, he re-emerged holding another chest, scroll of paper and the lit lamp. Since then the lake has been known as the Flaming or Burning Lake.

full


This was an excellent day as it gave us a glimpse of the old Bhutan before it changes for ever. We were glad we had allocated plenty of time for this.

Cont....
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Drive to Mongar cont... - Beyond Ura

Beyond Ura, the road began a steep climb up the mountain side of Thrumshing National Park, through a deep and narrow gorge with coniferous forest and rocky cliffs on opposite side. There was no flat land and no settlement.

full


The road climbs to Thrumshingla Pass. At 3750m, this is the highest pass in Bhutan. There was a long chortan wall and prayer flags.

full


full


The road beyond is cut out on a ledge on the hillside and switchbacked down the far side of the pass through fir forest to the wide open pastures of the Sengor Valley.

full


Sengor villager is an isolated settlement on the side of the valley where there is enough flat land for agriculture. It is surrounded by large potato and buckwheat fields. Cows were grazing along the road verges.

full


full


The road becomes more dramatic after Narling Road Camp, a few white houses with well tended gardens at side road. It cuts across the vertical cliff face of Narling Dra, on a narrow ledge high above a very steep wooded valley.

full


The road is very narrow and the only protection is a few concrete block along the edge in the most dangerous places. There were some substantial waterfalls and plenty of chortens. There is a small memorial to the 247 Indian and Nepalese workers who lost their lives building the road.

full


full


full


full


The road drops steeply and lower down it is noticeable warmer with a semi-tropical climate. The vegetation gets more lush and ferns and creepers appear. There were huge poinsettia bushes in flower in hedges and banana trees growing wild along the sides of the road. It felt much warmer and more humid.

full


We also saw our first langur monkeys.

full


Rice is not grown and corn is the staple crop. Small wooden huts along the road sold bags of ground corn or corn flakes.

We drove along a gently wooded valley to cross Kuri Chhu. Lemon grass grows wild along roadside and scents the air.

After crossing the river we began to climb back up through the trees to Mongar which is built on top of a hill, as the valleys are too steep.

full


full
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Mongar

Mongar
is a new settlement and is unusual as it is built on the side of the mountain rather than in a valley. It is the main administrative centre for the area and is entered through a ceremonial archway.

full


The ‘Old Town’ grew up around the Dzong and has lots character with large well kept traditional houses with shops underneath along one side of the main street. On other side is an open area with clock tower and water wheel.

full


full


full


full


full


There is a large archery ground and football pitch which had cows grazing.

full


There is a large new development on the road into Mongar which houses workers from the big new hospital, teachers and admin workers from the Dzong.

full


Mongar Dzong is situated above the town and was built in the 1930s, replacing an earlier building that was destroyed by fire. It houses the administrative offices for the area as well as the monastic body. Corridor walls are decorated with brightly coloured murals.

full


full


full


full


We visited first thing in the morning when monks were practising dances in the courtyard in preparation for their festival in a few weeks time. Some of the dances are very old - dating from the time of Guru Rimpoche in the C7th and can take over an hour of strenuous dancing.

full


full


full


Outside the Dzong, lay monks were also practising.

full


We were booked into Hotel Wangchuk, a large new hotel overlooking town. This was the only tourist hotel in town and was busy. Superficially it looked very stylish with a large reception area leading into an open courtyard with rooms around it. We had a large spartan room which wasn’t as clean as it could be with basic furnishings and a dodgy bathroom. The dining room on one side of the courtyard was described as having “a lovely terrace next to the dining room where can take meals with stunning backdrop of valley in distance”. What it didn’t mention were the smells from the the septic tanks below...

The evening meal was average but breakfast let them down badly. This was the only place we stopped that we didn’t enjoy. We felt it was pretentious but failed badly

full


full
 
Last edited:

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
To Trashigang via Dramatse Goempa

Leaving Mongar, it was a steady climb up the side of the mountain to the pass at Korila with its chortan and prayer flags.

full


full


Beyond, there was a long slow drop down through the mountains to Druk Deo. This is a wide open valley with grassland as the woodland had been removed by slash and burn agriculture.

full


full


The climate is warmer and drier allowing olives to be grown around Sherichhu. Huge metal vats were boiling away to extract olive oil. The road crosses the river and then follows the stream up a deep valley. Most of the settlement was up the hillside with large fields and smaller paddy fields in the bottom valley.

full


There is a sharp turn off the road onto a narrow dirt road which climbs up the side of the valley with sharp hairpin bends to Dramatse, a small settlement of a few unpainted houses with corn hanging up to dry.

full


full


Dramatse Gompa is the biggest and most important monastery in Eastern Bhutan. The original Lhakhang was founded in the early C16th by the granddaughter of Pema Lingpa. The present building has been extended and restored several times. It is purely monastic and about 100 monks live there. Outside was a small shop selling things for the monks. Inside was a large courtyard surrounded by a wall with buildings against it. 

full


full


full


The kitchen was a large dark room with 3 huge cauldrons bubbling away looked after by 2 small monks who wanted their picture taken. Apparently it was chilli and ginger for tea.

full


full


Back on the main road, it was a good road along the valley bottom to Trashigang. This was one of the few stretches of road we hit 30mph.
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Trashigang

Trashigang is built on the hillside well above the river. The main village is along the stream with a traditional bridge and chortan.

full

full




The market square has a large prayer wheel and is surrounded by shops and very basic hotels.

 24092417

A row of shops leads down to the bridge.
2411 2419


The children were leaving school for the day and there were two large trucks outside the school full of children waiting to be taken home.


TRASHIGANG DZONG was built in the mid C16th as a defence against Tibet invasion. It is a dramatic setting built on a bluff above two river valleys and was virtually impregnable. It is reached by a long access road. 


The Dzong only has one courtyard as the Admin buildings are built outside the Dzong. The monk body occupies the inside.
2352 2420

 2421. 2426


There were about 120 monks based in the Dzong when we visited, the youngest being about 4 years old. The monks remain here until they reach the 6th or 7th standard when they move onto other Dzongs.

We went into the Utse. On the ground floor was the room where the monks ate. Upstairs was the temple. Seven young monks were chanting the morning service and playing instruments. At the centre was a monk with cymbals. He was flanked on either side by a monk with drums then a monks with a huge horn and finally a monk with a smaller horn. They made a tremendous noise which sounded quite pagan.

Village girls were practising a dance in the courtyard for the festival the following month, along with a lot of giggling. Apparently they were not very good as their movements were very stiff and not flexible enough.

The Dzong had been damaged by an earthquake two months before we visited but had been undergoing a massive restoration to stabilise it.

We were booked into the DRUK DEOTHANG ANNEX AT KYIDLING
www.visitbhutan.com/trashigang_Druk%20Doethjung.html
which was built in the residential area above the town.



It was an attractive building with steps up to the entrance with a small reception area. The rooms were built round a central courtyard with an open air dining room across the end of the courtyard with views across to the Dzong. There were curtains closing off the dining area but it could get cold at night. We were in one of the ‘best’ rooms above reception which had a small seating area with table and chairs outside. The room was very basic and we did blink when saw it - however once over initial shock everything worked and the place had tremendous character. There was a small shower area off the bedroom and it took us a long time to work out how all the different taps worked the shower.

Food was good and staff were pleasant and very willing despite their limited English.
 2473  2477
 2475 2337Tashigang

Trashigang is built on the hillside well above the river. The main village is along the stream with a traditional bridge and chortan.
2415. 24162410

The market square has a large prayer wheel and is surrounded by shops and very basic hotels.

 24092417

A row of shops leads down to the bridge.
2411 2419


The children were leaving school for the day and there were two large trucks outside the school full of children waiting to be taken home.


TRASHIGANG DZONG was built in the mid C16th as a defence against Tibet invasion. It is a dramatic setting built on a bluff above two river valleys and was virtually impregnable. It is reached by a long access road. 


The Dzong only has one courtyard as the Admin buildings are built outside the Dzong. The monk body occupies the inside.
2352 2420

 2421. 2426


There were about 120 monks based in the Dzong when we visited, the youngest being about 4 years old. The monks remain here until they reach the 6th or 7th standard when they move onto other Dzongs.

We went into the Utse. On the ground floor was the room where the monks ate. Upstairs was the temple. Seven young monks were chanting the morning service and playing instruments. At the centre was a monk with cymbals. He was flanked on either side by a monk with drums then a monks with a huge horn and finally a monk with a smaller horn. They made a tremendous noise which sounded quite pagan.

Village girls were practising a dance in the courtyard for the festival the following month, along with a lot of giggling. Apparently they were not very good as their movements were very stiff and not flexible enough.

The Dzong had been damaged by an earthquake two months before we visited but had been undergoing a massive restoration to stabilise it.

We were booked into the DRUK DEOTHANG ANNEX AT KYIDLING
www.visitbhutan.com/trashigang_Druk%20Doethjung.html
which was built in the residential area above the town.



It was an attractive building with steps up to the entrance with a small reception area. The rooms were built round a central courtyard with an open air dining room across the end of the courtyard with views across to the Dzong. There were curtains closing off the dining area but it could get cold at night. We were in one of the ‘best’ rooms above reception which had a small seating area with table and chairs outside. The room was very basic and we did blink when saw it - however once over initial shock everything worked and the place had tremendous character. There was a small shower area off the bedroom and it took us a long time to work out how all the different taps worked the shower.

Food was good and staff were pleasant and very willing despite their limited English.
 2473  2477
 2475 2337
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
To Gom Kora, Chorten Kora and Trashi Yangtse

These are further up the valley from Trashigang, heading up into the hills towards the Tibet border.

It is a very nice drive up the river gorge to Gom Kora. Every available bit of flat land in the valley bottom is terraced and used to grow rice. There were a few settlements on hillsides. Slash and burn agriculture had left grassy slopes with few shrubs.

full


Gom Kora is in a lovely setting surrounded by steep cliffs, on a small alluvial plain where the valley widens out. The small temple is surrounded by terraced rice fields and small vegetable and flower gardens tended by the small monks, using a hand held plough to dig. Chickens were running round.

Round the top of the outside walls are painted buddhist messages as well as paintings representing the Buddha.

full


full


full


Gom refers to a sacred meditation site of Guru Rinpoche and Kora means circumambulation. The site dates back to the C7th when Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in a large rock in the garden before subduing an evil spirit disguised as snake. The present building is C18th and contains statues of Guru Rinpoche as well as several of the sacred treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche’s which were found by Pema Lingpa in the C16th.

There is a door into the garden with the huge boulder where Guru Rinpoche meditated. There is a ‘sinners path’ around a chortan, with a large boulder near it. If you can carry this three times clockwise round the chortan without dropping it, you are absolved of all your sins. Tshering, our driver tried to do this. He was sagging at the knees after the second round and unfortunately dropped the boulder just before the finish.

full


Beyond Gom Kora, the road continues up the gorge.

full


There are views across to Langla Lhakhang on the opposite side of the valley.

full


There are a few summer farms scattered along the valley. Walls are made from tree trunks with plaited bamboo roofs.

full


full


We made a brief stop at Duksum village where the Kholong Chhu river joins the Drangme Chhu. It had been the trading centre for the local area until roads arrived. A rockfall in 2004 destroyed many of the houses. There were a few small wooden houses built along main street. The village was suffering from rural depopulation and many of the shops were shut and houses empty.

The road climbed steeply up the Kholong Chhu valley to Trashi Yangtse.

Chorten Kora is built below the village on a large flat area where the river valley widens and at the base of steep wooded slopes. There were small streams crossed by cantilever bridges and several water driven prayer wheels.

full


full


full


The Chorten is surrounded by large white wall, with smaller chortans at the corners. Inside are large open prayer halls, used twice a year for one week of special prayers. It is a Nepalese style stupa built in the C17th by a nephew of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, to subdue an evil spirit living on the site. There is a popular belief when the stupa was built a pious young princess from Arunachal Pradesh entombed herself within it to protect population. It is now a pilgrimage site for people from Arunachal Pradesh, who perambulate clockwise round the stupa with handheld prayer wheels.

full


full


There were three old ladies sitting outside who wanted their photos taking. There was great delight and much pointing of fingers when they saw themselves on the camera.

full


full


full


Cont...
 
Last edited:

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Cont... Trashi Yangtse

The road to Trashi Yangtsi had only arrived a few years before we visited in 2009 and very few tourists visited. Although there were quite a few people around, the inhabitants seemed very reserved and didn’t responded to our greetings.

Trashi Yangtse is a simple, well maintained modern settlement with traditional houses, a few shops and several wooden bridges across the river. The area was well known for its woodworking and paper making. It boasts a School of Traditional Arts, similar to that found in Thimphu.

full


full


full


full


full


Trashi Yangtse Dzong is set above the village. Although there has been a Dzong here since the C9th, the present building is very new, having been rebuilt at the start of this century. It is one of the smallest dzongs with a single courtyard surrounded by buildings. It serves a purely administration function for the area and there is no monk presence here.

full


full


One of the main reasons to visit the Dzong are for the views to the north towards Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and the mountains beyond. The area borders Tibet and India and is home to snow leopards, Royal Bengal Tiger and the red Panda as well as providing winter pasture for the black necked crane.

full


The lower slopes are terraced with isolated farms growing corn and bananas.

full


full


full
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Ranjung and Radi

These settlements are in the Gamri Valley, a side valley above Trashigang and get few visitors. It is still very traditional and unspoilt.

The road was decorated with flags and lined with people waiting to see His Holiness Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, who is a reincarnation Guru Rinpoche, and is greatly revered in Bhutan. He was 79 and lived permanently in New York and this was his first visit to Bhutan for 15 years. It was also likely to be his last visit, so the crowds were out in force as he was leaving the valley that day. No-one knew when he would be driving past. He had been stopping in his guest house above Ranjung with his two sons, daughter and 28 disciples. As we passed the guest house the cars were waiting outside with hordes of American hangers-on waiting for the great man to appear.

We decided to leave Ranjung for later and drove up to the top of the valley to Radi. There were views across the valley to a small local temple on the far hillside, reached by narrow steep track. Babies are taken there to be blessed.

full


It is a beautiful valley. It is wide and very fertile. Farms spread up the gentle slopes, surrounded by terraced fields. Rice and maize are the main crops.

full


full


full


Farms spread up the gentle slopes , surrounded by terraced fields. Despite the isolation from large towns, the warmer climate meant the area felt a lot more affluent than vilages like Shingkar and Ura.

full


full


full


full


Two crops of maize can be grown a year. Sugar cane was being cut by hand and there were lots of banana plants. Poinsettias were growing wild along the side of the road.

The terraced rice fields were being harvested and rice being threshed by beating on a stone. People were carrying huge bales of rice stalks on their backs.

full


full


Hay was stored by hanging from the branches of trees out of the reach of the cows, or on the top of animal shelters.

full


After Khardung village the road became a rough track. Horses belonging to local tribesmen were tethered outside the small shop. Their owners wearing sheepskin jackets and yak hair hats were sitting outside playing games.

full


We stopped in Radi village on the way back down the valley. It was quite a large settlement with many large houses and lots of shops.

full


We visited the school. The Head was very proud of his school and resources funded by the family of Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. It was a large new building with a big science lab. This was locked so we looked through the windows. The only equipment on display was a large old fashioned balance and some very dusty glassware. We didn’t think much practical science was taught. We were taken into the library where the librarian was busy stamping books with the help of two children.

A Maths lesson was taking place outside under the shade of large trees. Small groups of children were working quietly by themselves.

There was a long low classroom block. This was old and due to be replaced. The Preschool class had about 38 children sitting around tables, all being very good. Further down the block the older children were more boisterous and showed considerable interest as we went past. They stopped working and came to the window to see what was going on. The top class was very quiet and studious. We were taken into their geography lesson. This consisted of reading a textbook and then answering questions.

Michael asked the children where they thought we came from - America and Australia were the answers. We introduced ourselves, wrote our names on the board and told them a little about who we were and where we lived. We talked about the differences between English and Dzonka, especially the number of letters in the alphabet before we decided we had disturbed class long enough and left.

Cont...
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
Cont... Ranjung and Yosercholing Monastery

We drove back down the valley to Ranjung to visit Yosercholing Monastery which is a private monastery built in 1989 by Garab Rinpoche, son of Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche. He is also the reincarnation of a great monk. Garab Rinpoche is Head Monk and and regarded as the Dalai Lama of the area by the villagers. The monastery follows Tibetan Buddhism so the monks can be married. Its main purpose is to provide a retreat for the study of Buddhism.

The main building is set on top of a hill with a stupa telling the story of Lord Buddha.

full


full


full


Flags were still flying around the Monastery for Dungse Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, but the buildings were shut.

full


Before the monastery was built this was an isolated settlement with local temples only. Garab Rinpoche was responsible for road building and development of the large new town. He is a major force in area.

full


full


full


full
 

Eleanor

1000+ Posts
To Samdrup Jonkar and into India

Rather than retracing our steps back across Bhutan, we decided to drive out into India via Sandrup Jonkar and then drive to Guwahati and catching a train back to Delhi. This is definitely an exciting drive and exit.

From Trashigang, the road climbs steeply up a side valley through wooded hillsides with a roller coaster ride over ridges. There were good view back to the snow covered Himalayas. There was little settlement along the road. All settlement was either in the bottom of the valley or on the far hillsides.

Rather than going over passes between one valley and the next, the road follows the ridges, running along a ledge cut into the hillside above a steep drop. There was a lot of landslide damage. Large numbers of lorries hurtling along the road taking stone from a quarry in the hills to the cement works near Sandrup Jonkar.

full


full


full


full


In 2009, the road to Sandrup Jonkar was gradually being widened and improved. As this is the only road, it was closed for timetabled periods of an hour to allow work to be done. All work was being done by hand by both men and women.

The road had been widened but not resurfaced. It was rough and slow, dropping steeply down to the Assam Plain. We were later arriving in Samdrup Jonkar than intended, which is a large sprawling uninspiring town. The passport control is here. Make sure you get an exit stamp in your passport, otherwise you will not be allowed to enter India!
 
Top