Haa Valley – A taste of Rustic Bhutan

posted in: Asia, Bhutan, Culture, Heritage | 62

The Land of Happiness has always charmed its visitors with its positive vibes. These exude from varied aspects  – from its traditional dzongs to its pretty passes, the people and its culture to silent valleys. I had the fortune to experience these myriad shades of Bhutan. Among these, the one special one was a day trip from Paro. The trip took me along the highest motorable pass of Bhutan to the other side of Bhutan – one that was laden with rustic hues. Haa Valley showcased an offbeat side to Bhutan.

Haa Valley - an offbeat destination in Bhutan

 

The place came highly recommended by my friends who knew my innate love for culture and unexplored travel. They described this as a place which was stuck in a time capsule. It was unspoiled and……well, a lot could not be put into words and now that I have visited it, I know why. I am not sure if I can do justice by my words and pictures. Hoping that this attempt puts Haa Valley in your list of places to visit in Bhutan.

About Haa Valley

Almost like a gateway to Bhutan, Haa Valley is spread across 1760 sq km between Sikkim in India and Chumbi Valley in Tibet.  The name “Haa” connotes a hidden quality and this is why it is also, referred to as a Land of Hidden Rice Valleys. The green stretch of land with the mighty Haa Chu River flowing from the surrounding Himalayan mountains is one of the smallest dzong or district areas of Bhutan. The place is the ancestral home of the Queen Grandmother and the Dorji family and has quite a history when it comes to Buddhism.

Lhakhang Karpo - one of the Buddhist temples in Haa Valley

Legend has it that the place was inhabited by people offering animal blood to their local deities. This animalistic tradition was curbed when the famous Guru Padmasambhava came to Haa Valley and spread his faith. He is said to have subdued deities like Ap Chundu and made them into guardians of the Buddhist faith in the valley. While Buddhism in Haa Valley did bring an end to the animalistic rituals on a regular basis, the people here do practice them during certain festivals.

Army camps in Haa Valley

Haa Valley became a strategic location owing to its proximity to the India-China-Bhutan border. The place was close to the military stand-off that happened in 2017 between India and China. In fact, owing to the cordial relationship and the location between India and Bhutan, the Haa Town is a base for the Indian Military Training camp.

Haa Valley was not just hidden in terms of location but in terms of access too. Tourists were not permitted here until 2002. This in a way, has been a reason why the valley is still so pristine and gorgeous, with its Old-World Charm.

Setting off to Chele La Pass

While Haa Valley was high on my personal list of things to do in Bhutan, for my daughter it was all about getting to see Snow. Spring season and snow? Sounds like a contradiction – doesn’t it?

Drive along to Chele-La Pass

Well, the only way to get to Haa was via the highest motorable pass of Bhutan – Chele La Pass. Our Driver cum Guide had enticed my dottie with information that there might be a little snow at the pass and hence, her expectations. And so we set off. While I enjoyed the landscape on the way, my dottie prayed for it to snow.

Apple orchards along the way to Chele La Pass
Flowers blooming during Spring - along the way to Chele La Pass
Alpine grasslands along the way

As we climbed higher and higher on those winding roads, the apple farms turned into pleasing stretches of Purple Primulas and colorful rhododendrons and finally, the tall alpine forests. The temperature kept plummeting, reassuring my dottie that her prayers might be answered. It was just three bends off the top of Chele La Pass when we experienced what a Winter Wonderland might look like.

Snow at Chele La Pass in Bhutan

Chele La Pass might be the highest motorable pass of Bhutan. However, the prettiest as per me is Dochu La Pass. Discover why I fell in love with this gorgeous pass and what you can expect if you plan to head there. Click here for Dochula Pass

 

Fun at Chele La Pass

Winter Wonderland at Chele La Pass

It had snowed in the wee hours of the morning. Not heavily but just enough to create a light blanket of white over the dark greens. The fluttering prayer flags added that splash of color to the pretty white scene. It was time to stop for we had arrived at the pinnacle – 3988 m above sea level. A few clicks here to capture the moment of glee before we set off on a short hike up the peak.

Our memory of Chele La Pass

Following the line of prayer flags, we climbed up the snowy ledges, stopping only to pelt each other with mini snowballs. Along the way, I noticed the various stone ledges where the Buddhist capsules with the ashes of the dead were kept. I had first come across this tradition in Nepal at the Swayambhunath temple. It was here that the guide had explained that after the Buddhist body was cremated, a little of the ashes was encapsulated in these mini stupa-like objects and kept around a holy or a calm place. At the Chele La Pass, I suppose it was the tranquility of the place that made a lot of people leave these capsules behind.

Buddhist Capsules with the ashes left behind at Chele La Pass
Climbing up Chele La Pass
From the peak at Chele La

The mist covered mountains obscured the view of the twin peaks of Bhutan – Jitchu Drake and Chomolhari (Jomolhari). These two are considered as the highest peaks in Bhutan. However, through the magical mist, I did get the first views of Haa Valley.

Arriving at Haa Valley

First glimpse of Ha Valley from Chele La Pass

Hands frozen after some fierce snowball fights, we piled into our car and moved forth to Haa Valley. I think it was the effect of thawing that had all of us snooze the rest of the way down till we encountered a Yak. I followed the mighty creature to the other side of the road where I saw the beginning of the valley of Haa. Dotted with homes, this was completely different from the silent valley of Phobjikha. If you believe in auras, this one had a calming one like Phobjikha and yet, it was different from it. It is hard to explain and one can only feel it.

Known as the silent valley, Phobjikha Valley is yet another unexplored gem of Bhutan. The place is not just filled with natural beauty but has a strange enchantment attached to it. One that makes rare birds circle around it thrice before they land here for the winters. Read about it right here

Haa Town as seen from a height

Our Guide whisked us straight to a Risum Resort for a hearty lunch  – one that he had pre-ordered for us while at Chele La. Bellies full of Ema Datshi and Red rice, we stepped out to explore Haa Town.

Walking through Haa Town

Haa Town in Bhutan

Simplicity with elegance” is the phrase that crossed my mind as I walked through the main town. Pretty buildings with the typical Bhutanese architecture lined the main road. There were no vehicles rushing by, you could literally walk in the middle of the street without obstructing anyone. The only person who might have minded that would have been this kid on his cycle. 😉

Charming buildings in Haa Valley
Pretty Bhutanese buildings in Haa

Faint sounds of wind chimes and prayer wheels kept us company as we strolled aimlessly. I could not stop admiring the various colors around  – the windows, its drapes, the doors, building exteriors – all of them were just so charming. Our guide told us that the locals here were primarily herdsmen and farmer who grew rice, potatoes, chilis and apples. They still followed the same occupation.

Suspension Bridge in Haa Valley

The sound of gushing water and prayer wheels had me turn towards a suspension bridge. I did not walk across for in the limited time that I had, I wanted to visit one of the key landmarks of Haa Valley. I just stood there for a bit, took in the fresh mountain air before turning back to our car. However, not before I waved my goodbye to the cheeky kids calling me from their window. 😉

Friendly residents of Haa

Lhakhang Karpo in Haa Valley

Lhakhang Karpo -the white temple of Haa Valley

When you talk of landmarks in Haa, then there are two key ones with a unique legend attached to them. As the story goes, the famed Songtsen Gampo – one of the three Dharma kings came to Haa and released 2 doves – a white and a black one near a three-peak range called Miri Punsum. The white dove settled itself down at the base of one of these mountains called Rigsum Gonpo while the black one flew a little ahead into the forest and stopped close to a lake. The King constructed a White temple at the first site and a Black temple at the 2nd site. They came to be known as Lhakhang Karpo (White temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (The black temple). These are the two key places to visit in Haa Valley.

The door to Lhakhang Karpo in Haa

Of these, I could only visit the bigger temple – Lhakhang Karpo. The temple is close to the Royal headquarters of Haa and is the place where the Buddhist monks reside. The majestic looking trio of white buildings also, houses a monk school. Where the other temples of Bhutan like Chimi Lhakhang were buzzing with activity, the Lhakhang Karpo embodied the silence of its valley. The only soul in place was this curious cat that peeked out from the prayer wheels.

Cat among the wheels ;-)
Doors & windows of Lhakhang Karpo
The beautiful architecture of Lhakhang Karpo
Art around the temple

I walked around the campus admiring the pretty doors and windows. Here and there, vibrant murals uplifted the monotonous white exteriors, some lined with Mani stones. No matter where you were, you just had to turn around to feast your eyes on the refreshing sights of the Haa Valley.

Other places to visit in Haa Valley

Haa Chu River flowing through the valley

Ideally, an overnight stay here would have allowed me to visit the other places in Haa. It will always be a regret. That does not, however, mean you can’t visit the rest of them. Based on what I found out, here is the list that you can take forward on your visit to Haa Valley.

  • Lhakhang Nagpo – The Black temple is quite unlike the white one. Besides the obvious black walls, the temple is home to the guardian deity Da Do Chen. They say there is an opening on the temple floor that leads to the lake where a mermaid spirit – Tshomen resides. There are no monk quarters here.
  • Haa Dzong – The smallest and the most recently constructed Dzong or fortress lies amid the emerald green hills of Haa. While it is not as elaborate as the Punakha Dzong or the Thimphu one, it is charming nonetheless. Close to the Dzong is Haa Dratshang  – a temple where the monk’s body is kept.
  • Yangthong Gompa – More than a destination, this is a journey that you should take. A hike to this Gompa will allow you to enjoy the Haa Chuu river. Try spotting the exotic birds along the way. At the Gompa, if you are lucky, you will spot the mythical flower called Udumbara

There are plenty of other hiking trails that lead you to Gompas with a view. All you have to do is just meander around Haa.

I was in half a mind to request a stay in Haa. However, my impending hike to the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro dragged me out of Haa. A visit to the Haa Valley made me realize how it just takes tranquility of nature and the warmth of people around to charm someone. The rustic charm filled me with a different kind of joy – one that made me want to slow down and enjoy every breath of air.

How to get to Haa Valley?

  • The only way to get to Haa Valley is by road, via Chele La Pass. You need to hire a taxi from Paro for the same. The place is just 2 and a half hours from Paro Airport.
  • You can get here from Thimphu as well. However, you will still have to cross Paro for it.

Where to stay in Haa Valley?

  • Our lunch place – Risum Resort,  is a very pretty homestay that you could book yourself in.
  • There are a few other homestays and farm stays that you could consider. There is no big resort or hotel in Haa.

Travel Tips

  • Visiting Haa Valley requires a route permit. To find out how to get one, refer to this Bhutan Travel Guide. It details out the permit requirements and where to get it.
  • Haa is a very rural experience. Do not expect a five-star facility. The food here is simple but pretty nice too.
  • It can get quite chilly here. I was here in April and required a down-jacket to be comfortable.

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