All Posts By

Madhu Gopalan

Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Thimphu

The Thimphu Valley in Bhutan
The gorgeous Thimphu Valley
The capital of Bhutan is Thimphu, about an hour’s drive from Paro. Although it’s a lot more urban than the rest of the country, it’s very much a quaint and charming Bhutanese town. Here are a few of my favourite things from Thimphu 🙂
 
The Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway. After landing in Paro, we drove down to Thimpu where we spent the first two days of our journey in Bhutan. On the way, we stopped at this historic temple built by Bhutan’s famous iron bridge builder back in the 15th century. He also built an iron link bridge leading to it. It was washed away however, and what you see now is a replica. A less shaky and more photogenic (IMO) bridge runs parallel to it, for cattle to cross without getting their feet stuck in the iron links:
A wooden bridge in the Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway, Bhutan
A bridge to help cattle cross the river, lined with prayer flags
The Wang Chhu river in front of Tachog Lhakhang on the Paro-Thimphu highway, Bhutan
The Wang Chhu river under the bridge
Thimphu’s main river is Wang Chhu, and you can see it in the above picture. This little river is no little river, actually – it flows through three countries (Bhutan, India, Bangladesh), and becomes a part of the mighty Brahmaputra in Bangladesh.
 
Thimphu has two dzongs, both of them are magnificent in their own ways. The Tashichho Dzong is the seat of the Bhutanese government, and the Simtokha Dzong is Bhutan’s oldest surviving dzong. As I mentioned earlier in my Paro post,, dzongs are like fortresses, but they also house a monastic section and the local district administration. Ngawang Namgyel, known as the Shabdrung or the unifier of Bhutan, brought the whole country under one rule for the first time, back in the 17th century. He is worshipped as a deity all over Bhutan and all of the dzongs that you see in Bhutan today, were built by him.
The Tashichho Dzong or Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Tashichho Dzong
The Tashichho Dzong or Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Tashichho Dzong
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong / Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong / Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Murals in the Tashichho Dzong
The Simtokha Dzong / Fortress in Thimphu, Bhutan
Simtokha Dzong

The Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point is probably Thimphu’s highlight – it is a colossal statue of Lord Buddha that appears to magically rise out of the mountains! The statue is 51 meters tall, and you can see it from almost everywhere in Thimphu.

Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point, Thimphu, Bhutan
Buddha Dordenma
Buddha Dordenma or Buddha Point, Thimphu, Bhutan
Buddha Dordenma
We did a bit of window shopping at a small handicrafts bazaar on the river bank, The prices vary wildly from stall to stall, so it’s hard to know if you’re getting a good deal!
Shopping for Bhutanese handicrafts in Thimphu
Shopping for handicrafts in Thimphu
Shopping for Bhutanese handicrafts in Thimphu
Shopping for handicrafts in Thimphu
People come to the old Changangkha Lhakhang (Temple) to get their little children blessed, and also to get lucky names picked out for their newborns. Or if they are like me, to check out the incredible view from the back of the temple.
The Changangkha Lhakhang in Thimphu, Bhutan
Changangkha Lhakhang
We went to the National Institute of Zorig Chusum to watch students learning Bhutan’s traditional arts and crafts. There are 13 specific arts that the Bhutanese consider very important – together they are called Zorig Chusum. Below, is a painting class in progress:
National Institute of Zorig Chusum, a school for traditional arts and crafts in Thimphu, Bhutan
School of arts and crafts
National Institute of Zorig Chusum, a school for traditional arts and crafts in Thimphu, Bhutan
School of arts and Crafts
Thimphu has some really nice cafes and bars. If you drink beer, try the Druk and Red Panda beers – both are brewed locally in Bhutan.
Druk Beer, brewed locally in Bhutan. At a cafe in Thimphu.
Druk Beer
The Zone, a cozy cafe in Thimphu, Bhutan
A cozy cafe called The Zone
These were just my favourites – there’s a lot more to do in Thimphu, like the National Memorial Chorten, a cluster of lovely museums, the post office where you can get custom stamps printed with your face on them and the Takin zoo. After getting our fill of Thimphu, we drove eastwards past the picturesque Dochula Pass to remote Phobjikha. A three hour drive from there took us to historic Trongsa, from where we squeezed in a day trip to Bumthang. We then turned around, and headed westwards to warm Punakha. Finally, we returned to Paro, where we began our trip. This wraps up my series of posts about the towns that I visited, but I’m not done with Bhutan – there’s more coming up 🙂
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Punakha

Punakha is a beautiful warm valley at an altitude of about 1200m above sea level – you can tell by the warmth that it isn’t very high up. Covered with lush green terraced paddy fields, the fertile district is Bhutan’s biggest producer of rice.

Paddy Fields seen from our room in the Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
Paddy fields outside our room in Punakha

Punakha attracts hordes of visitors for two main reasons – this is the first one:

Jacaranda blooms in spring, at the Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
Jacaranda blooms at the Punakha Dzong

Good reason, right? The Punakha Dzong is widely considered to be Bhutan’s most beautiful fortress. And it’s very hard to disagree, especially during spring – the front of the fortress is covered by gorgeous purple jacaranda trees in full bloom. No wonder the present king and queen chose to get married in this idyllic setting.

Jacaranda blooms in spring, at the Punakha Dzong, Bhutan
The gorgeous Punakha Dzong

The second reason is a 15th century saint named Drukpa Kunley, or the Divine Madman. He was an absolutely outrageous teacher who used his phallus (yeah, you read that right) to tame demons and bless followers – he called it his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom!! I want to keep my blog family-friendly, so I won’t go into any more details, but you should totally google him – he’s an utterly fascinating character! Since he subdued a demon here at Punakha, there’s a temple called the Chimi Lhakhang, dedicated to him. It’s also called the temple of fertility. It is reached by a beautiful 20 minute hike through the village and past paddy fields. On the way, almost every home or shop has a phallus painted on it – this is actually very common all over Bhutan. The paintings are believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. Phallus themed souvenirs are very popular too.

Phallus paintings in Punakha, symbolizing Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman
Phallus paintings in Punakha, symbolizing Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman
Phallus paintings in Punakha, symbolizing Drukpa Kunley, the Divine Madman
Punakha is also home to Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge that hangs over a gushing river:
Bhutan's longest suspension bridge in Punakha
Punakha Suspension Bridge

We stayed at the Drubchhu Resort in Punakha. It is pretty modern, but it’s very charming and beautiful. It’s a family run resort, and the mom is a very passionate gardener. Every time we ran into her, she was in her hat and boots with a shovel in her hand – that is exactly what I want to be when I grow old!

The Drubchhu Resort, our hotel in Punakha
Our room at the Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
Nasturtiums at the Drubchhu Resort, our hotel in Punakha
Nasturtiums from the garden at the Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
One of my favourite things in Punakha was hanging out with the young monks sitting on the grass outside the Chimi Lhakhang – some of them were doing their homework, some were practicing playing the dungchen, a kind of horn from Tibet. We couldn’t understand one another too well, but it was really fun to watch them learn magic tricks from Tenzing, our guide 🙂
Young monks at the Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha, Bhutan
Young monks at the Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha, Bhutan
Young monks at the Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha, Bhutan
Young monks at the Chimi Lhakhang, Punakha, Bhutan
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Trongsa

The Trongsa district in central Bhutan is the ancestral home of the Wangchucks, Bhutan’s royal family. The kingdom’s first king Ugyen Wangchuck was actually the twelfth governor of Trongsa. He managed to bring the whole country under his control and was elected as the first Druk Gyalpo or Dragon King of Bhutan. So, in a tradition that is continued to this day, the crown prince of Bhutan serves as the governor of Trongsa, until he becomes the king.
The Mangde Chhu River flowing through Trongsa, Bhutan
The Mangde Chhu river flowing through Trongsa
It took us about 3 hours to drive to Trongsa from Phobjikha. As we approached the town, the majestic Trongsa Dzong (fortress) came into view, nestled in the middle of lush greenery.
The Trongsa Dzong / Fortress in Trongsa, Bhutan
The Trongsa Dzong
The town of Trongsa has just about two small streets, and they are crammed with tiny restaurants, bars and grocery stores.
Trongsa Town, Bhutan
Trongsa town
We stayed at the Tashi Ninjay guesthouse run by a wonderfully warm family.
The Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse, our hotel in Trongsa, Bhutan
Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse
The room was adorable, and the view from the balcony was just jaw-dropping.
The Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse, our hotel with a stunning view in Trongsa, Bhutan
The dzong is Trongsa’s main attraction, and we didn’t even have to step out of our room to see it! It was surreal to stand in the balcony with a cup of tea, watching the dzong disappear every now and then as clouds BELOW us ran in and engulfed it.
The view from our room in the Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse, our hotel in Trongsa, Bhutan
The most perfect balcony ever!
The view of the Trongsa Dzong from our room in the Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse, our hotel in Trongsa, Bhutan
The view of the dzong from our room on a sunny morning
The view of the Trongsa Dzong from our room in the Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse, our hotel in Trongsa, Bhutan
The dzong all lit up at night
The view from our room in the Tashi Ninjay Guesthouse, our hotel in Trongsa, Bhutan
Shot from the room – notice the rainbow? 🙂
Some pictures from the inside of the fortress, featuring Tenzin, our awesome guide 🙂
Trongsa Dzong, one of the most important and historic dzongs in Bhutan
Trongsa Dzong, one of Bhutan's most historic fortresses
Trongsa Dzong, Trongsa, Bhutan
The Royal Heritage Museum housed in a watchtower close to the fortress is amazing – a must-visit if you’re a history buff, or just want to quickly understand the history of Bhutan. We took a small walk on the outskirts of the town, and found fiddlehead ferns (delicious ferns used in Bhutanese cuisine) and hundreds of wild strawberries growing all along the trail.
Wild strawberries in Trongsa, Bhutan
Wild strawberries in Trongsa, Bhutan
While Phobjikha was my favourite destination in Bhutan, Trongsa was a very close second. We managed a short day trip to the Bumthang district, and that was as interior as we went. I wish we could have gone further east – I bet the remote eastern districts are even more spectacular, but I’m glad we left ourselves a reason to go back to Bhutan 🙂
The mountains of Trongsa, Bhutan
The mountains of Trongsa in the late afternoon sun
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Phobjikha

Soooo I was planning to do my Bhutan posts in a west-to-east order, but I was really dying to tell you about Phobjikha, my favouritest of the lot, so I decided to drop that plan!
 
After landing in Paro, we drove to Thimphu, about an hour away. We spent a couple of days there, and then drove to Phobjikha, an insanely gorgeous glacial valley in central Bhutan. The drive was pretty bumpy, and took about 8 hours, but it was an experience in itself – on that one day alone, we saw more beauty than we’d seen ever before!
108 chortens/stupas at Dochula Pass
The stupas at Dochula Pass

We drove through two gorgeous high mountain passes – the first was the Dochu La Pass  at 3100 meters. 108 little stupas stand at the pass, commemorating the successful eviction of  Northeast Indian insurgents by Bhutanese forces. The cafe up there is an awesome place to enjoy a cup of tea with a view. We actually ran into a Bhutanese Rajnikanth fan there! It made us realize once again, how well the Bhutanese know India. From Bollywood music playing in cars and cafes to Indian food even in remote towns, India’s influence on the tiny kingdom is really visible. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing?

The Dochula cafe at the Dochula Pass
The cafe at Dochula
Shortly after we crossed Dochula, it started raining, and continued to rain almost all day. The entire route was wet and misty and incredibly beautiful.
The drive to Phobjikha
The rain thinned down to a light drizzle by the time we reached Lowala Pass, the entrance to Phobjikha. At an altitude of 3360 meters, with the clouds and the valley far below, and surrounded by yaks and rhododendrons, it was the most picturesque stretch in the entire drive.
Lowala Pass at 3360 m above sea level
Lowala Pass
A yak grazing at the Lowala Pass, at 3360 m above sea level
Lowala Pass
Since we still had a little daylight left, we went straight to Gangtey, a little village overlooking the valley. It is home to a beautiful monastery called the Gangtey Gompa. We were lucky to be there during a festival – the huge crowd gathered there was singing together and a masked dance was going on. The spiritual head of the monastery was going around blessing everyone. The village is really charming too, with traditional Bhutanese wood houses and gorgeous views all around.
The village road leading to the Gangtey Gompa / monasteryThe locals of Gangtey, a tiny village overlooking the Phobjikha Valley The wide glacial valley of Phobjikha seen from Gangtey
Quite exhausted after a long but most EPIC day, we headed to the Gaikiling Guesthouse where we’d be spending the night. And look at the awesomeness that was waiting for us:
The Gaikiling Guesthouse, our hotel in Phobjikha, Bhutan
The Gaikiling Guesthouse
The Gaikiling Guesthouse, our hotel in Phobjikha, Bhutan
Our wonderfully cozy room
The view from our room in the Gaikiling Guesthouse, in Phobjikha, Bhutan
The view from our room
Breakfast with view at the Gaikiling Guesthouse, Phobjikha, Bhutan
Where we had breakfast the next morning
Like I mentioned, Phobjikha is a glacial valley, which means, eons ago, a glacier flowed through it, carving it into the wide U-shape that it has today.  During winter, black necked cranes come visiting from Tibet, and the monastery in Gangtey holds a special festival to celebrate their arrival. That’s about all there is to ‘sightsee’. But the real reason you should go to Phobjikha is to soak up the jaw-dropping natural beauty all around, disconnect from the world (Phobjikha is so remote, it didn’t even have electricity until recently), and go on long, stunning hikes.
Hiking through the glacial valley of Phobjikha, on the Gangtey Nature TrailHiking through the glacial valley of Phobjikha, on the Gangtey Nature TrailHiking through the glacial valley of Phobjikha, on the Gangtey Nature TrailHiking through the glacial valley of Phobjikha, on the Gangtey Nature TrailWe only had time for a short hike called the Gangtey Nature Trail, but I know for sure that if I ever return to Bhutan, I’ll skip everything else and go straight to Phobjikha. After Phobjikha, we drove deeper into central Bhutan, to our next destination, Trongsa. But that’s another story for another post 🙂
Travel

Bhutan Diaries : Paro

Wow, I’ve been away from my blog for more than 3 months! But now that I’m back, get ready to be bombarded with posts about a country that I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with! Last month, we spent ten days travelling through Bhutan. I’m not even going to attempt to describe in words the kind of beauty that is SO commonplace in Bhutan. It is so overwhelmingly gorgeous that after a point, stuff like “wow” and “ohmygod” makes no sense, and all you can do is sigh and smile:) We’d have readily stayed on there for the rest of our lives, but we had to drag ourselves back, leaving pieces of our hearts behind.

 

Since we flew to Bhutan, our trip began and ended in Paro. Paro has the country’s only international airport, one of the most dangerous ones in the world. It’s also really small and quirky – people get off the plane, and generally mill about for a while taking pictures, and nobody really bothers you unless another plane has to take off or land!
The Paro airport, said to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world
The Paro airport, said to be one of the most dangerous airports in the world
The white and red building that you see beyond the runway in the above photo is the Paro Dzong – I’ll show you more pictures of it in just a moment. The fertile Paro valley is full of lush green paddy fields – it literally looks like a green bowl formed by the mountains around it.
Paddy fields in the fertile Paro valley
Paddy fields in the fertile Paro valley
Like the rest of Bhutan, Paro has as much man-made beauty as natural. The next few pictures are from the Paro Dzong. Dzongs are like fortresses, but they also house a monastic section and the local district administration. Ngawang Namgyel, known as the Shabdrung or the unifier of Bhutan, brought the whole country under one rule for the first time, back in the 17th century. He is worshipped as a deity all over the country. Most of the dzongs that you see in Bhutan today, were built by him.
Monks on a bridge over the Paro Chhu river
Paro Dzong or Fortress
Prayer wheels at the Paro Dzong or Fortress
A wooden bridge over the Paro Chhu river, leading to the Paro Dzong
The most famous and most sacred site in Paro, and probably in all of Bhutan, is the Tiger’s Nest monastery, that sits high up on a cliff at an altitude of more than 3000 meters! Guru Rinpoche, an Indian Buddhist saint, is credited with spreading Buddhism across Bhutan. It is said that he flew to the top of the cliff on the back of a tigress, and meditated there for a long, long time. Sadly, I had no tigress to carry me, so I had to rely on my Skechers 🙁 It’s a pretty exhausting trek to the top – especially if you are as lazy as I am! See the white specks on the top right in the photo below? That’s the monastery. And I took this photo about midway during the trek up! I’ll probably do a separate post about the trek. (Edited to add: Here’s my post all about the climb up to the monastery)
Paro Taktsang or the Tiger's Nest Monastery
While in Paro, we stayed in Hotel Olathang. It was quite a nice place – decent food and a slightly dark but very cozy and comfortable room. We got a good night’s sleep before and after the trek up to Tiger’s Nest.
Our cozy room in Hotel Olathang in Paro, Bhutan
Our stay in Bhutan wouldn’t have been the same without Here’s my post all about the climb up to the monastery, two of the loveliest people we have ever met. And I mean this with all my heart. Tenzing and Dorji, if you are reading this, you represent everything that is wonderful about your country. You inspire us to be gentle and kind. Thank you 🙂
Travel

Chennakeshava Temple, Somanathpur

The Chennakeshava Temple built by the Hoysalas in Somanathpur near Mysore

Remember I was in Wayanad sometime ago? On the way back to Mysore, we took a teeny detour to Somanathpur to visit the Chennakeshava Temple. It’s a spectacular Hoysala temple just about 40 km from Mysore.
 

The Hoysala dynasty was a powerful medieval South Indian empire that ruled between the 10th and 14th centuries. Their kingdom included present day Karnataka and even parts of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The first few Hoysala rulers were followers of Jainism but King Vishnuvardhana, the fifth ruler, and his successors, embraced Hinduism.

 

The Chennakeshava Temple dates back to the 13th century, when Narasimha III was the Hoysala king. It was built by Somanath, a commander in his army. That’s why the village is called Somanathpur. The temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu – Chennakeshava means Beautiful Vishnu.
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near Mysore

Hoysala temple architecture is quite distinct from the Dravidian style of temple architecture. The raised platform, the star shaped ground plan, the zig zag walls completely covered with carvings, the space around them to walk on – these are all features typical of Hoysala temples. You can see these in the above picture. The pretty lady is my mom 🙂 The main material used to build these temples is a kind of soapstone. Apparently it was chosen because it is sturdy and yet easy to carve.

The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near MysoreEach ‘band’ in the above picture is about the width of my palm!
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near Mysore
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near MysoreExquisite sculptures all over the exterior of the temple depict Lord Vishnu in various forms
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near Mysore
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near Mysore
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near Mysore
The Chennakeshava Temple, a Hoysala temple in Somanathpur near Mysore
A cool thing about this temple is the red letter box hanging on the tree right outside. 
(Some color finally, right? :D)
Pictorial cancellations at heritage sites
Letters posted in this box get a pictorial cancellation, which is like a stamping in the shape of the temple to promote tourism etc. Like this:
Pictorial cancellations at heritage sites
Sorry about the crop – I had to get rid of my address!
This link has a list of other sites in India you can get pictorial cancellations at. The left sidebar has them grouped by state.