“Let the trip take us where it will” was the unofficial motto of our time in Bhutan and the advice our guides gave us on our first day. Our travel from Gangtey to Bumthang was a case in point. Not every visitor to Bhutan makes the trek to Bumthang and for good reason: the highway is not for the faint of heart. Early and heavy rains meant that we encountered two major landslides and the five-hour drive from Gangtey to Bumthang (under 200 km) took almost 12.
The detour caused by the first landslide caused a significant delay (although it did allow us to see new dam construction up close). Not wanting to miss a highly-anticipated picnic and hike, we opted to skip the town of Trongsa with its museum and dzong. However, it appears we were meant to stop there after all, since about one hour from our destination a second landslide caused us to back track. In the end, we were happy we had time to visit Tower of Trongsa Museum housed in a former watchtower and the Trongsa Dzong.
The largest and arguably the most scenic dzong in Bhutan, it was constructed in 1647 with a strategic location in the middle of the kingdom, overlooking the Mangde River.
The first two Kings of Bhutan ruled from Trongsa and over 200 monks continue to live in the fortress.
The Bhutanese assiduously maintain their temples and shrines, with fresh coats of paint applied on a regular basis. Most of the buildings we saw were either undergoing paint and repair jobs, being refreshed or had recently undergone maintenance.
After a few hours, the road reopened and we proceeded to the easternmost part of our trip and the “boomtown” of Bumthang (the dipthong “th” is pronounced “t “- hence the nickname – along with the fact that business there is booming).
A highlight of our visit was a morning at Pema Choling Nunnery, where the nuns graciously allowed us to observe a blessing ceremony. The rhythmic chanting and drums provided a perfect setting in which to our good fortune.
The nunnery houses about 100 nuns between 12 and 70 year of age, who follow the Nyingma Peling tradition and have a nine year course of study. Bumthang is known for its honey which we enjoyed morning, noon and night. Apiaries such as the one above are a common sight.
Archery is the national sport and we had the good fortune to several rounds of competition. The field is 145 meters (476 ft) long and the targets are not even one meter (three feet) high! The compound bows bear no relation to the ones I tried to master back at summer camp. Competitions feature two teams of 13, and last at least a day. In addition to incredible athletic prowess, contestants pride themselves on their ability to taunt their opponents and consume massive quantities of alcohol.
Kurjey Lhakhang is a mrjor pilgrimage site that comprises three separate temples in a compound surrounded by 108 stupas. Guru Lhakhang was built in 1652 by Mingyur Tenpa on the site of a cave where Guru Rinpoche, is believed to have meditated when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the Eighth Century CE. The second temple was constructed in 1900 by Ugyen Wangchuck, the first king of Bhutan, and the third by Ashi Kesang Wangchuck, queen to the third king, in 1984.
One of the oldest temples in Bhutan is close by and well-worth visiting. Jambay Lhakhang, is said to be one of the 108 temples built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in 659 CE. According to legend, the temple was in one day, to subdue an ogress who was preventing the spread of Buddhism.
By the time you read this, the highway renovations will be complete and travel should go more smoothly. I highly recommend making the trip to Bumthang – and stopping in Trongsa. You will have greater insights into Bhutan’s history, culture and traditions.