Phobjikha Valley: Silence of the Black Mountains of Bhutan

posted in: Asia, Bhutan, Heritage, Nature | 50

Have you ever experienced the silence of a land – when the only sounds that you hear are fluttering prayer flags, call of the birds, the tinkle of the prayer bells and the soothing calm of gushing water? A silence so strong that you automatically lower your voice, even if you are gasping at the unbelievable beauty of the land. The endless green valley bound by black mountains and only highlighted by the colors of flowers. It might sound fairytale-like. But I did find this in Phobjikha Valley of Central Bhutan.

Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan
Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan

Phobjikha Valley was not a part of my original itinerary. It happened with a spontaneous change of plans while at Punakha. With an extra day in hand, we chose to do a day trip here. Little did we know that this would turn out to be the best part of our Bhutan Trip. A highlight that will make us happy that we did what we did and a tad bit sad for we could not stay longer. Without much ado, let me share my experience in Phobjikha Valley so that you don’t make the mistake of not including it in your Bhutan itinerary.

About Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha Valley is actually a glacial valley at an altitude of 3000 m above sea level. It is located in Central Bhutan and is quite a sparsely populated area. The key occupation of the villages here is agriculture. You will only find turnips and potatoes growing in the fields. The valley is also, home to nomads and yak herders.

River flowing through Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
River flowing through Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

The Valley has two rivers – Nakay Chhu and Gay Chhu. These have an interesting legend connected to them. Nakay Chhu and Gay Chhu were actually supposed to be a snake and boar respectively. They decided to have a race. If Nakay Chhu won it, then rice would be grown in Phobjikha Valley but if Gay Chhu won, it would never be. As fate had it, Nakay Chhu lost his way and meandered across Phobjikha. If the legend is to be believed – the land at Phobjikha Valley is unfit for rice cultivation.

Besides its inherent beauty, the Phobjikha Valley is famous for two things – the first being Gangtey Monastery and the other being the Black Necked Cranes. What about them – you got to read on further.

Drive from Punakha to Phobjikha Valley

Drive through Wangdue Valley to Phobjikha
Drive through Wangdue Valley to Phobjikha

Our original Punakha plan was to head out to the Pho Chhu river for river rafting. However, the plan flopped as we found that the river rafting was a little over-budget. Within 15 minutes, we hopped into the car – enroute to Phobjikha. Suchit, our cabbie told us that it was a decision that we would not regret. Somehow, something told me – he was right.

Rhododendrons along the drive to Phobjikha
Rhododendrons along the drive to Phobjikha
Snowcapped Black Mountains, Bhutan
Snowcapped Black Mountains, Bhutan

Maybe it was the mountains that peaked through the green pines or the gushing river that ran beside us in the valley or the rhododendron corners, every little thing seemed so beautiful. There was no need to stop for these just followed you everywhere. Frankly if one had to stop, you would much rather be walking for every meter was just a new scene.

Close up of the snow-capped mountains enroute to Phobjikha Valley
Close up of the snow-capped mountains enroute to Phobjikha Valley

The only brief stop that we made was to capture the snow-peaked mountains and the Tarai Gray Langurs, who were as curious about us as we were about them. These creatures need a special mention for they are a threatened species. They are quite rare and on a decline for varied reasons. Spotting them here in their natural home was quite a privilege.

Tarai Gray Langur found enroute to Phobjikha Valley
Tarai Gray Langur found enroute to Phobjikha Valley
Yaks in Phobjikha Valley
Yaks in Phobjikha Valley
First Glimpse of Phobjikha Valley
First Glimpse of Phobjikha Valley

The air turned cooler and cooler as we drove the winding roads of the mountains. Snuggled in our down jacket, yet reluctant to close our windows, we enjoyed the changing scene. The appearance of the Yaks marked our proximity to Phobjikha valley. We turned to the other side of the same Black mountains to enter its sunken valley. The first glimpse of it made me feel as if I were in Switzerland. The same cool misty wind with endless green stretches only dotted with cows. Sigh!

People of Phobjikha Valley
People of Phobjikha Valley

Friendly faces and cute kids waved out to us as we entered the Gangtey village and head to our first stop – the Gangtey Monastery.

First Stop: Gangteng Monastery in Phobjikha Valley

Phobjikha Valley with Gangteng Monastery
Phobjikha Valley with Gangteng Monastery

Since our trip was on the spur of a moment, we could not plan for the famed Gangtey Trek. Suchit tried reaching out to other guides and groups to see if he could find someone who we could join. Sadly, that was not to be. Nonetheless, there was no reason why we could not visit the place that gave the Valley another name – Gangteng Monastery.

History of Gangtey Gonpa

Gangteng Monastery at Phobjikha Valley
Gangteng Monastery at Phobjikha Valley

Built in the 1610s, this monastery is quite an important one in Bhutan. It represents a prominent school of Buddhism called the Nyingmapa School. It is also, the main monastery of Pema Lingpa traditions. Now does that all sound Greek and Latin to you?  😉 Let me make it a little simpler.

Buddhas depicted on Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha Valley. Guru Padmasambhava in the center
Buddhas depicted on Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha Valley. Guru Padmasambhava in the center

Pema Lingpa is the 2nd most important Guru after the famous Guru Padmasambhava. The main Guru Padmasambhava had predicted his birth in Bhutan. It is said that Pema Lingpa had many divine qualities. One famous incident was that he actually dived in a lake with a Butter Lamp and emerged with a treasure and the lamp still burning. Responsible for the spread of Buddhism, he was considered as the King Terton of Bhutan.

Gangtey Gompa. Phobjikha Valley
Gangtey Gompa. Phobjikha Valley

It is his grandson – Pema Trinley, who arrived in Gangtey and built this monastery. He was the first head priest of this monastery and his descendent expanded this same monastery in a typical Dzong Style (Fortress in Bhutan as explained here). The current royal family – Wangchuck Dynasty is said to be descendants of Pema Lingpa.

Architecture of Gangtey Gonpa

The elaborate windows of the prayer hall of Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha Valley
The elaborate windows of the prayer hall of Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha Valley

Made of wood and stone, the Gangteng Monastery is a sight to behold. The original building was built by the villages in Phobjikha Valley but needed some restoration over the years. This was done in the 2000s. The monastery is painted using mineral colors locally called Dotshoen, something that is still maintained.

Doors of Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha Valley
Doors of Gangtey Monastery, Phobjikha Valley

The main temple is quite a building with its traditional Bhutanese windows of dark wood and colorful paints. The windows and the doors are quite vibrant and make the whole atmosphere so cheerful. The corners of every ledge and roof have interesting dragons popping out on them.

Corners of Gangtey Monastery in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
Corners of Gangtey Monastery in Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

Around the main temple are the living quarters of the monks and even a prayer room. Melodious chanting welcomed us as we walked around the main temple till we finally entered it. No pictures were allowed in, which was just as well for it helped me take in the gorgeous statues of Buddha and the lovely wall paintings done by the monks themselves. Quite like the Punakha Dzong, there were two thrones – one for the Head Priest and the other for the King. Though smaller than the Punakha temple, this one was no less beautiful.

One of the smaller temples around the main temple of Gangteng Monastery, Bhutan
One of the smaller temples around the main temple of Gangteng Monastery, Bhutan

Walking out of the monastery, I gazed down at the quiet Phobjikha Valley. The Gangtey Gonpa was the only thing that contributed to the sound of the otherwise silent valley of Phobjikha. And that too, in the most melodious manner. What struck me strongly was the sound of the fluttering prayer flags and the swirl of the prayer wheels with the mild sound of a singing bowl that signaled the start of the meditation session. Even the local visited it did not add to the sound.

Phobjikha Valley as seen from Gangtey Monastery
Phobjikha Valley as seen from Gangtey Monastery

The sacredness of this monastery in this valley was evident, not just by the devotion displayed by the locals or by its strategic location on the Black mountains. It was the behavior of the migratory birds that reaffirmed the holy nature of the monastery. What about that behavior  – you will know soon enough!

Lunch at Dewachan Hotel

Cattles grazing in Phobjikha Valley
Cattles grazing in Phobjikha Valley

Since the trek was not to be, we set off from Gangteng Monastery to Dewachen Hotel for our lunch. Winding to the bottom of those hills and finally onto the valley. The scenery looked even more unreal. My daughter too, equated this to nothing less than Switzerland. The interesting thing was that the flatbed of the valley was left undisturbed while the periphery was where the farms and houses were built.

Ema Datshi at Hotel Dewachen, Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan
Ema Datshi at Hotel Dewachen, Phobjikha Valley, Bhutan

Suchit, our cabbie, had preordered lunch for us as he knew we did not want to waste any time. Also, being a remote area, things are not pre-prepared. An authentic Bhutanese meal awaited us at one of the few hotels of Phobjikha valley – yummy Ema Datshi with Red Rice and Dal. Add to that their salad – Hogi. Wait – I forgot the starter – the warm Butter Tea – Suja.

View of Phobjikha Valley from our lunch table
View of Phobjikha Valley from our lunch table

It was only when the food appeared that we realized that we were famished. So caught we were with the beauty of Phobjikha that our rumbling tummies were quite ignored. We wolfed down the food while enjoying the view from the hotel.

Walking through Phobjikha Valley

The Evergreen Phobjikha Valley
The Evergreen Phobjikha Valley

With the slight drizzle that had started, the already cold Phobjikha valley somehow became even more pleasant. Mind you – I am not so comfortable with cold but somehow, this cold was just pleasant. Suchit drove us into the valley to experience what it would be on flat land. To quote his words – “You have not really visited Phobjikha Valley unless you have walked it”. I frankly would add to that – “Unless you have laid down on the grassy valley, you definitely have left your experience incomplete“. And yes, I would term my experience incomplete.

Jumping with joy in Phobjikha Valley
Jumping with joy in Phobjikha Valley

Black Necked Crane Information Center, Phobjikha Valley

Remember the other thing that I mentioned the valley was famous for – the Black Necked Cranes? Well, time to tell you about that. These wondrous creatures come all the way from Tibet every Winter to spend the next few months at Phobjikha. They are a rare set of birds and are in the endangered category. The Buddhists, especially the Bhutanese, consider them as sacred and a sign of prosperity and longevity. In fact, they celebrate their arrival with the Crane festival in November.

Home of the Black Necked Cranes - Phobjikha Valley
Home of the Black Necked Cranes – Phobjikha Valley

The Black-necked cranes are said to carry messages from the heaven and if they fly over a farm, the locals believe that they will get a good harvest. Some even believe that they carry the souls of the deceased lamas and hence, they return to Phobjikha for Gangtey Gonpa.

Here is where I will reveal the astonishing tale of why the Gangteng Monastery is considered sacred. These birds, when they fly in, circle the monastery thrice before they descend into the Phobjikha Valley. When they return, they repeat the same and leave. Call it a freak of nature or an actual celestial phenomenon. There is definitely something about that monastery that is sacred.

Black Necked Crane in Phobjikha Valley
Black Necked Crane in Phobjikha Valley

When we visited Phobjikha in April, the birds had all flown back. Except for Karma. This bird could not fly back as it was injured some years ago. It now resides at the Black Necked Crane information center in Phobjikha in a protected environment. The protection is from the wild animals that could attack it. And since, he was around, we paid him a visit.

Karma - the lone Black Necked Crane in Phobjikha
Karma – the lone Black Necked Crane in Phobjikha

The Black Necked Crane Information Center is a small set up for the protection of these birds. You can see a small documentary on these birds while you are here, which pretty much tells you what I shared in this section. You can even buy some local arts but the main reason to visit is Karma. It is quite amusing to see him for his dwellings has all that he needs, including a mirror that he can see himself in. 😉 . It felt sad to see him in a wide enclosure but I believe, he was injured in the first place by a dog or a wild animal.

Returning back to Punakha

Overcast skies in Phobjikha Valley
Overcast skies in Phobjikha Valley

It was past 4 pm and the skies did start opening up to some rain and hail. Since we had to get back to Punakha, we bundled up and left Phobjikha valley wistfully. I dragged my feet till I could and stared out as long as possible for I really did not have enough of this lovely destination. Never did I realize how the silence of a land can be charming. I kept thinking that if I had that one full day, and even if I had finished seeing all that I did, I still would want to stay here for another day. Maybe just roll on that grass, or walk amidst the cows or even just sit by the river. I know that with the company of that silence, I would not get bored.

Getting here

  • There is only one airport in Bhutan – in Paro. There are very limited flights into Bhutan from the rest of the world.
  • Once you are in Paro, you need to hire a car and head to Punakha or Phobjikha directly. The only way into Phobjikha is by road.

Travel Tips

  • There is very limited accommodation in Phobjikha. You need to book yours well in advance and most likely through a local travel agent. The internet will offer you only a few choices
  • Same goes for the restaurants in Phobjikha.
  • The temperature in Phobjikha valley is always low. You will need warm clothes and closed shoes while here. Remember to dress in layers.
  • Anytime is good for Phobjikha valley. You will need to prepare for snow in Winter while the summers and spring, the temperature is in single digits.
  • Black Necked Cranes are best spotted during December and January. They are there till around mid-March.
  • The Gangteng Monastery has an annual festival called Teschu during the 8th lunar month. This is a 10 day festival with masked dances and various other cultural programs. You might want to keep that in mind when you plan to visit Phobjikha valley.

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50 Responses

  1. Ishani Nath

    We are planning for Bhutan this Thrusday, is it possible to visit Phobjhika from Punakha in a day and return Punakha. Awesome photos you got. very well written article. Waiting for your reply 🙂

    • Ami

      Indeed Ishani. You can do a daytrip here – we did one. However, I do feel you will enjoy the night there. Have a good trip

  2. Kala Ravi

    A beautiful post that is so refreshing to read in this hot and humid summer’s day! I would love to escape to the cool environs of Phobjika valley. Bhutan is on my never-ending bucket list, well, someday, I’ll viit this lovely place. Your captures of the wildlife and birds as well as the beautiful scenery and architecture of the monastery are mind-blowing!

    • Ami

      Thank you Kala. I am glad you enjoyed the post and indeed on a hot day, this does take away some of that heat :-). Hope you can cross this off your list soon. Cheers

  3. prabhu

    nice article you shared, few days later we all going there for trip and your article helped us a lot to know about bhutan, specially we love valley.

  4. Yogi Saraswat

    Amazing valley . Pictures are saying lot of words !! But I have a question here , Bhutan allows an independent solo traveler?

    • Ami

      Thank you, Yogi. Bhutan does allow independent solo travelers. You have to only submit a letter of undertaking when you apply for the permit.

  5. Moushumi

    Travelling is an opportunity to discover yourself as you discover the world. This is the place where you get your own time to know yourself. Silence and the nature and the endless green valley are just incredible.

    • Ami

      Very true. The green valleys here are just stunning and silence perfect to know yourself.

  6. Vasu Devan

    What a find, this Phobjikha Valley. These mountain villages have so many interesting legends associated with almost every apparently normal happenings. Thanks for a detailed guide and tips too. This goes into my list now.

    • Ami

      Thanks Vasu. I am pretty sure that you will love exploring this valley. Well worth your list.

  7. niranjan

    Gorgeous landscapes! Glad to know about this lovely valley in detail. How far is Phobjikha from Punakha or Paro?

  8. Ryan Biddulph

    I know exactly what you are talking about as far as the silence of the land Ami! Bhutan seems to have this. Here in NZ we experience it too.You literally get away from all human beings. Then it is you and nature. The thinking mind and its chattering dies down. You are left with silence, or perfection, allowing nature to do as it has always done, harmoniously. Thanks for sharing!

    Ryan

    • Ami

      You got that right, Ryan. I could not have put it any better. I can see that you have well experienced that in NZ. Hope to do that some day and I hope you get to Bhutan for this one.

  9. Fiona Maclean

    What colourful people in the Pobjikha valley – it looks such a wonderful place to visit. And, I don’t think I’d even seen a picture of a yak before. A great guide with some fascinating stories along the way.

  10. Brooke

    I love the ‘silence’ that isn’t silence exactly but it is peace, absence of the sounds of cars or people or industry that you get when out in nature in more remote areas. Soothing. This looks like a wonderful trip- definitely making me miss green & mountains

    • Ami

      It sure is a different type of silence. Soothing! You should visit this for sure. Thanks for the lovely comment, Brooke.

  11. Indrani

    Such a lovely place to visit. I would definitely roll on the grassland there to complete my experience. Food sounds different and butter tea is something I want to sip now. Loved these pics a lot.

    • Ami

      Thanks a ton Indrani. This place is just too good. Am sure you will enjoy it. And butter tea – its unusual. Not sweet but salty

  12. flydriveexplore

    The view from your lunch table in the hotel is pretty good. Bhutan sounds very interesting in general, as well as the landscape the architecture is amazing too. Love the elaborate windows of the Gangteng Monestary.

    • Ami

      Every nook and corner of this valley will enthrall you. It sure is worth the visit. And I hope you can do one soon.

  13. Claire

    Phobjikha valley looks incredible, some of the scenery looks more like Alaska than how I had imagined Bhutan! Except for the beautiful monastery of course. There must be something magical there if the black cranes fly around it like that!

    • Ami

      Indeed, those black cranes intrigue me with their behavior. So mystical. I have not yet been to Alaska but if you say it looks like this, am totally game.

  14. Kirstie

    Looks like a very peaceful valley. Great to unwind and take a break from the city. Lovely tips. I usually just travel without making reservations so this tip is a life saver!

    • Ami

      If you want a break from a city, anywhere in Bhutan will give you one. However, Phobjikha is a break from those peaceful towns too. Hope you can visit it soon.

  15. Janine Thomas

    The colors and the details of the art at the monastery are stunning! The work is so intricate. I have seen butter tea on television travel shows, but I had no idea that is was usual in Bhutan. I would love to try it!

    • Ami

      The butter tea is actually quite salty as against the normal tea. An acquired taste. But nice nonetheless. I hope you can visit this country soon.

  16. Mansoureh

    Traveling to Bhutan could be an unique expreince and I can imagine how the change of plan and day trip can add more value to the trip. I really want to visit the country but as you said there are not many flights and accommodations available.

    • Ami

      Accommodation is easy in the other parts of Bhutan, This is sparsely populated and also, offbeat. Hence, it is limited. Hope you can get here sooner, Mansoureh

  17. Nisha

    Such a lovely find! Beautiful to the core, the place invites me to experience it asap. No doubt your daughter compares it with Switzerland. 🙂
    I have never had that butter tea but it sounds interesting.

    P.S. Your photos are as usual gorgeous.

    • Ami

      Thanks Nisha. The place was just too beautiful and Butter Tea – a taste to be acquired. It is salty not sweet but lovely nonetheless.

  18. Kate

    Wow! What spectacular views! The Phobjikha valley looks like it’s a painting in your photos, they’re so perfect! It definitely reminds me of the Alps. But with monkeys!! What more could you want other than mountains and monkeys.

    • Ami

      The monkeys are rare and not so easily visible. We did get lucky with those but the mountains – they are a pleasure. Glad you liked the place too, Kate.

Would love to know what you think