The dictionary meaning of “Mountain Passes” is essentially a connecting bridge between two ranges or valleys. In reality, these are known for being more than just natural bridges. For instance, Khardung La is famed for being the highest motorable pass in the world while the Zoji La Pass is known for its steep inclines. And then, there are some passes that tend to be a destination rather than a mere stop-over – creating a place in your heart – for not just its natural beauty but for what they stand. In my case – that pass is the enchanting Dochula Pass in Bhutan.
They say that the Dochula Pass is the prettiest pass in Bhutan. While I am no authority to endorse that record, I have to admit that it is the most beautiful one that I have seen. Its beauty lies not just in its settings but also, for what it represents. In fact, there are five reasons as to why I fell in love with Dochula Pass. These are the same ones that will explain why I call this mountain pass a destination rather than a stop-over. At the end of the post, I will not be surprised if you too have fallen in love with Dochula Pass.
About Dochula Pass
3100m above sea level, the Dochula Pass is not the highest pass of Bhutan. However, it is a significant one as it connects Thimphu to Punakha. Just 20 km from Thimphu, the Pass is a part of the restricted area permit that you need to get at Thimphu. (See the Bhutan Guide for Permits here) . It is also, known for its beautiful war memorial – made to honor the soldiers who perished in the Bhutanese war against the Assamese militants. With a scenic route along pretty Apple orchards, the Dochula Pass is a popular picnic destination for the locals.
I had set aside about 30 minutes for a stop-over. A big mistake if you ask me for what I actually, spent was over an hour and a half. This is not counting the extra 30 minutes that I spend on my way back from Punakha to Paro. For now, I will let you believe that I was crazy but I bet you will be eating up those thoughts in a moment – especially after you have read my 5 reasons for falling in love with Dochula Pass.
1) Picture Perfect Dochula Pass
Every mountain pass can be deemed as scenic. Naturally, with those huge peaks in the background – there can be no ugliness. However, when you have colorful Prayer flags entwined in Cypress trees with snow-clad misty summits at the far end, there is just another edge to that landscape. Add to that the colorful carpet of flowers that are further, accentuated by the blooming rhododendrons. That is how I found Dochula Pass in April.
Granted that it was Spring when I went there but come November – the place transforms into a winter wonderland with snow all around. A different kind of beauty with the white all around. All said and done – there is no denying that Dochula Pass is just Picture Perfect!
2) 108 Chortens of Dochula Pass
Once you get over the natural beauty of Dochula Pass, you begin to feel it. The feeling of beauty emanates from the 108 stupas or Chortens at the Pass. The Chortens were made in memory of those soldiers who lost their lives in a war to drive out militants that were not even attacking Bhutan. These Assamese Militants were in fact, targetting India while taking shelter in Bhutan. The Bhutanese soldiers successfully attacked and drove them out, however, losing a few of their own in the process.
The Queen mother – Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk commissioned these 108 stupas as a mark of honor for these brave soldiers. The Druk Wangyal Chortens, as they are called, has been built in 3 concentric circles. The lowermost circle has 45 Chortens while the topmost has 27. The number 108 is not the number of lives lost but has a significance in the Buddhist culture.
There is a serenity that follows you as you walk around these Chortens. I imagine that it permeates from the souls of the departed who are at peace now – having been sanctified by these religious symbols in a place that is just as pristine and perfect as the world they probably are in!
3) Glimpses of the snow-clad Himalayas
On a good clear day, especially from September to December, you can see the Eastern Himalayas with their snow-capped peaks. We visited in April. Did I get lucky? Well, the first visit – nope. However, with our second visit enroute to Paro from Punakha, I stopped for about half an hour to see those lovely peaks.
There is something fascinating when you see those white tips through the frosty mist of the WOW that escapes your mouth. The chill that escapes sends goosebumps down your spine, especially when you realize that the one peak that you are looking at is the highest one in Bhutan. That honestly, is how I describe my sighting of the Mt. Masanggang at 7158 m. I had to recheck the board there thrice to confirm the same. Maybe you too, can compare the same.
4) The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang at Dochula Pass
Reason number four is the gorgeous Buddhist temple opposite the Druk Wangyal Chorten. Built on an incline, framed by the gorgeous rhododendron trees, this golden-roofed temple beckons people to discover its intricate wall carvings and paintings. I only managed to grab a picture of the lovely door for after you enter the temple, photography is not permitted. Besides, frankly once inside, you will be blown away by the magnificent artwork around.
The temple paintings are a little modern for they showcase Druk aircraft and some modern scenes of the Royal family. Central to the temple is a huge statue of Guru Rinpoche, flanked by the other Buddhist gurus. There is a separate section for only men – which I found unusual for this was the first temple where there was such a restriction. I asked my hubby to tell me the secrets it withheld from us – he said – “Nothing unusual!”. Now truth or just fiction – somebody else confirm, please. 🙂
The temple was built by the Queen Mother in honor of the 4th King of Bhutan – Jigme Singye Wangchuk after he returned victorious from the Bhutan battle against the Assamese militants. The front yard of the temple is used for an annual festival that takes place in December. Attached to the temple at its base, is an equally lovely guest house that our guide mentioned as the Royal one.
5) The hidden caves of Dochula Pass
Now comes the 5th and the most important reason for me to love the Dochula Pass. This one comes from my Indiana Jones spirit as I found a treasure trove hidden close to the Chortens. A small hillock behind a lovely building has tiny pathways that lead to the secret hide-out of the monks. A network of meditation caves is what I found.
It felt as if I were living in a scene from the Lord of the Rings. The entire enclosure looked like the lair of Frodo – the hobbit and his mates, except that in this case, the might have to be Buddhists. The stone caves camouflaged by the green climbers had beautifully carved entrances with the symbol of Bhutan – the dragon. Within the caves, painted in Gold were pictures of various avatars of Guru Rinpoche – including the fierce form that he took for the Tiger’s Nest Monastery.
These caves are used as meditation caves for the Buddhist Monks. Not much I could gather about them – as to when and why they were constructed for they are quite away from the regular attractions of Dochula Pass. In fact, our guide too, did not know about them, until I led him to it. I bet, now he will be showing those off to the other visitors of Dochula Pass. And why not? It is a treasure to be shared!
Well, those were my 5 reasons to love Dochula Pass. And also, reasons that make the Dochula Pass more a destination in Bhutan than just a mere mountain pass. Agree?
- The only way to get to Dochula Pass is by car. You can visit the same as you travel from Thimphu to Punakha.
- To get to Thimphu, you can either travel by flight to Paro and then, take a car or a taxi. Or you can take a road trip as I did, from Bagdogra in India. More details on these can be found on this Bhutan Travel Guide.
- There are no entrance fees for Dochula Pass. However, this is a small temple fee that you need to pay to get to the top.
- The Pass is open through the year but requires a permit for tourists to visit. This can be got at the Thimphu permit office. I have explained the requirements of the same in this post.
- Dress in layers for the temperature at the Dochula Pass is always low. A snow jacket and boots are recommended, especially in Winter.
- Photography is permitted around the pass, except within the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang.
- Along the way to Dochula Pass, remember to keep an eye for the fresh fruits stalls. These are different types of apples that are grown locally.