First Published on May 7, 2018
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
- 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.