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
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
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
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
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
Apple orchards along the way to Chele La Pass
Flowers blooming during Spring - along the way to Chele La Pass
Flowers blooming during Spring – along the way to Chele La Pass
Alpine grasslands along the way
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
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
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
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
Buddhist Capsules with the ashes left behind at Chele La Pass
Climbing up Chele La Pass
Climbing up Chele La Pass
From the peak at Chele La
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
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
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
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. 😉

Traffic on the road 😉
Charming buildings in Haa Valley
Charming buildings in Haa Valley
Pretty Bhutanese buildings in Haa
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
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
Friendly residents of Haa

Lhakhang Karpo in Haa Valley

Lhakhang Karpo -the white temple of 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
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 ;-)
Cat among the wheels 😉
Doors & windows of Lhakhang Karpo
Doors & windows of Lhakhang Karpo
The beautiful architecture of Lhakhang Karpo
The beautiful architecture of Lhakhang Karpo
Art around the temple
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
Haa Chu River flowing through the valley. Notice the army camps around

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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62 Responses

  1. Kalpana Solsi

    Your beautiful pics tease me to plan a visit to Bhutan.

  2. Danik

    I would love to visit the Haa Valley, I never even heard of it but would love to hike some of the mountains around here as the scenery does look nice. Bhutun is one of those countries which i need to tick off and would put this part of the country onto my list of things to do. I love the look of the facade of the temple, so colourful.

    • Ami

      Thanks Danik. This country was such a revelation. Quite unlike the others. Hope you tick it off soon

  3. Rosemary

    Have nver heard of this special jewel in Bhutan and I’d love to visit it someday. The scenery looks so peaceful and your pictures do a great job of showing the slow pace of life. Great shot of the little kid on his bike. Great to know this area is now open to visitors. Will certainly check it out 🙂

    • Ami

      Not many have heard of this gem. Am glad though that I managed some time here.

  4. Danijela

    Love the Haa town, it really does seem simple and elegant, as you’ve put it. The architecture is just to admire in awe, before you get surprised by those little smiling eyes from buildings windows. The white temple also looks gorgeous, so colorful, would love to see it in person.

  5. Carol Colborn

    This is sooooo pretty. I once had a colleague who was from there.ci should have accepted his invitation. As I was reading this, I even thought of having my remains kept I. This Buddhist capsules. I love the color yellow!

    • Ami

      The Buddhist capsules do seem intriguing. I wish you could have accepted your colleague’s offer and seen those and the other places in Bhutan. Hope you can still avail his offer.

  6. Linda (LD Holland)

    So great to find places that remain unspoiled since it was opened to tourists in 2002. Probably appropriate for a place with “hidden” in its name. I am sure your daughter loved that the drive through Chele La Pass gave her a winter wonderland view. The small towns of Haa Valley do look quite quaint and colourful. So great to be able to stroll through without crowds. I am glad it filled you with joy.

    • Ami

      Thanks Linda. I totally loved my time here and the place has left me with such amazing memories. I hope that life gives me another opportunity to visit it again

  7. Indrani

    Knowing about Haa Valley for the first time and loved it thoroughly. I liked how you stumbled on snow, my daughters would love it too. The village life there looks so much like ours but the architecture is distinctly different. Love the colors and patterns they use.

    • Ami

      The village life is similar and yet not so similar. I think the culture there makes it amazing. Hope you can get there soon

  8. sherianne

    I love villages nestled in mountains, so remote and peaceful. The capsules of ashes kept in a holy place is such a respectful thing to do. The maze of prayer flags is incredible

  9. Suruchi Mittal

    Wow, Ami! Your words and pictures have surely done justice to Haa Valley in Bhutan. It is so rustic and beautiful. The winter wonderland, Chele La pass looks so amazing after the fresh snow and those colourful prayer flags – I am loving everything there. We would definitely love spending a night here. The valley is super beautiful.

  10. Jean

    What an absolute stunning place to visit. Was it scary driving so high and into the snow?

  11. Nicole LaBarge

    I am dying to go to Bhutan. Hoping to go in March. Saving this for later!

  12. Shreya Saha

    This is a completely new place I am reading about in Bhutan – Haa valley. The place looks serene, the people are lovely, and surely you had such a lovely time there. I would surely considering spending 2-3 days there when in Bhutan.

  13. Jenn and Ed Coleman

    Ahh, the first time seeing snow. What a magical experience. Haa Valley looks really peaceful. It makes a lot of since for Bhutan to invite India to train there. Having the Indian Army around helps keep the Chinese out.

    • Ami

      India and Bhutan have a very friendly relationship that allows us to explore the country freely. The military is just one part of the exchange. Am glad and privileged that I had this opportunity.

  14. Christina Pfeiffer

    You’re so lucky to have been able to visit Bhutan, which seems to be a rather mystical and magical land. Haa Valley looks full of culture and character. What a lovely place to breath fresh air and contemplate the meaning of life!

  15. Hannah

    Haa Valley sounds like an amazing place to visit – so rural and peaceful. Bhutan sounds like a wonderfully culturally rich place to visit, I hope to experience it one day.

  16. Tami Wilcox

    I think it is important to plan travel that is calming and peaceful sometimes. Too often, we cram our schedules full from dawn until late evening, rushing from one tourist attraction to another. But we need to “feed our souls” too. Sounds like your visit to the Haa Valley was just such a visit. So glad you were able to enjoy the time with your family, see the wintry snow scene, and enjoy the colors of Bhutan.

    • Ami

      Indeed, Haa Valley is like a balm to your soul. It helps you appreciate life better!

  17. Jas

    How pretty are those spring blooms! This is my first time hearing about Haa Valley and I’m most definitely intrigued by its lush surroundings as well as beautiful architectural designs. Thank you for introducing us to such a gem!

    • Ami

      Not many take it as a must-visit destination. And that honestly, is a good and a bad thing. In any case, am glad I visited it.

  18. Trisha

    I’ve never seen such detailed imagery of of Himalayan villages before! Thank you so much! Just looking at your photos and reading your adventure transports me to such a very peaceful place that I would love to take this journey myself. Maybe in the future!

    • Ami

      I really hope you can get to it soon. The peace honestly, needs to be experienced.

  19. Francesca Murray

    That’s so interesting that tourists weren’t allowed there until 2002! I’m sure it is so peaceful to experience in person. The temples are especially beautiful. Very cool that you got to see snow!

    • Ami

      Oh yes, the Snow definitely added to the experience. Glad that I got to see it all.

  20. Kristy Bullard

    Bhutan sounds like a fantastic place to visit! I love learning about the religious and military history of new places I travel to. When I visit Chele La Pass, I’ll have to bring my husband so I can throw snowballs at him!

    • Ami

      He he, now that is a good way to get back at your hubby. Hope it snows when you visit.

  21. Shreya Saha

    I am in love with your Bhutan posts, Amy. Every time I read something new about the place. I wasn’t aware of Haa Valley before, and also Chele La Pass was new to me until I read this. I would love to experience this by myself when I visit Bhutan. Thanks for sharing about the valley, how to get there, where to stay, and also eat.

    • Ami

      Bhutan just makes you fall in love with it everytime you see a picture. It happens to me too. Hope you can re-visit and have some more memories of it

  22. Sinjana Ghosh

    I visited the beautiful country Bhutan many years back but I didn’t know about Haa valley. It looks picture-perfect really. I love how you bring to us such offbeat places. I had visited the Che le la pass though and totally loved it. The spring blossoms and apple orchards look beautiful!

    • Ami

      Thank you Sinjana. I am glad you enjoy these offbeat contributions of mine. Somehow I love seeing what a lot of people seem to have ignored.

  23. Emily

    Haa Valley via the Chele La Pass sounds like a great short trip to take. The prayer flags and Buddhist capsules make both incredibly scenic. The temples in Haa Valley remind me of Lhasa. I’ll keep Haa Valley in mind if I journey to Bhutan.

    • Ami

      Given its proximity to Tibet, I am not surprised that you find a similarity in the architecture. Thanks for stopping by, Emily

  24. Adele Gee

    This is so great, I am fascinated by Bhutan but getting there seems to have a lot of process that I am not ready for but someday… You and your friends described it perfectly that is seems to be stuck in a time capsule. Haa Valley looks very mystical – haha i realized it is due to mists. Planning a Bhutan visit climbs steadily up my list of to-visits.

  25. Sandy N Vyjay

    Haa Valley is indeed nothing less than a revelation. Such a lovely and pristine place. Not the usual Bhutan one expects. Loved reading about your journey to the Haa Valley which seems to have been an endearing experience in itself. The Chele La Pass looks absolutely like a white wonderland, reminds of Chang La Pass in Ladakh. Also, the account of the Buddhist capsules with the ashes makes for fascinating reading.

    • Ami

      I just found out the name for the capsules. They are called Tsa Tsa. On another note, the whole journey definitely was fun but the place even more so. Hope you can get to it soon.

  26. Yukti Agrawal

    It is great that you showcased an offbeat destination in Bhutan. Never knew about Haa valley before but after reading your post, I am interested in this place. Driving through Chehle – La Pass must be a very scenic drive. Those doors of Lhakhang Karpo are very photogenic.

    • Ami

      Chele La pass was a lot of fun indeed. Haa Valley was a pleasant surprise. Just wish I could have stayed a day here.

  27. Cat Lin

    I always find mountain communities alluring… I feel living in such a community is like living close to heaven. That’s how I see Haa Valley and Haa town here. I can feel the serenity of the place. It must be energizing to visit Haa Valley…

  28. Mayuri Patel

    Haa valley is offbeat place of Bhutan and I also loved this place so much.Its so rustic and not touristy at all. I revived my memories by reading your blog.

    • Ami

      Glad to have got you nostalgic. And frankly, when someone talks of Haa Valley, even I feel the same. It is that kind of a place.

  29. Moon

    Great post! Haa Valley looks so serene and beautiful place through your lens. Unfortunately, it was not in our itinerary when we visited Bhutan a few years back. So, thanks a lot for covering it in detail. I’ll use it as my guidebook next time I travel there. 🙂

    • Ami

      Thanks Moon for this lovely comment. Pity you missed out on Haa but now that you know, I am sure you are going to include it for your next trip. It does get my highest recommendation

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