Punakha valley is about 76 km or two and a half hours’ drive from Thimphu via the Dochu La Pass (3050 m), which has spectacular panoramic views of the Himalayas and Gasa Dzong. The altitude of this region is around 1250 m and the climate is relatively warm, allowing two rice harvests a year as well as abundant orange and banana trees.
All the Punakha shops are concentrated in the new town at Khuruthang which was established in 1999. There are several restaurants and hotels, as well as a weekend vegetable market. The old town opposite Punakha Dzong is a purely residential area, apart from the district hospital. Punakha was Bhutan’s capital until the reign of its second king. The Je Khenpo (head abbot of Bhutan’s religious order) and his council of monks still reside in Punakha in the winter months.
Punakha Dzong was established in 1637 at a strategic position at the confluence of the Pho Chu (male river) and Mo Chu (female river). It has survived fires, earthquakes and floods in its long history. The steep wooden stairs at the dzong’s entrance were designed to be pulled up in the event of invasion. Another unusual feature is that there are three courtyards instead of two as is normal in other dzongs. It was here that the first King of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuk, was presented with the Order of Knight Commander of the Indian Empire by John Claude White in 1905 and later enthroned as the first hereditary King of Bhutan. The dzong now houses the chief religious and administrative offices of the Punakha district as well as many important religious artefacts. The Punakha tsechu held here recreates the battle scene in which the Shabdrung tricked the Tibetan invaders.
Perched high on a hilltop about 7 km north of Punakha, the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten was built by one of the queens of the 4th King and dedicated to the 5th King. The roof of the chorten offers fine views of the valley.
Chimi Lhakhang was established in 1499 by the ‘Divine Madman’. It stands on a hillock in the Punakha valley below Metshina village, a 20 minute walk across rice fields through the village of Sopsokha. It was here that the demoness of Dochu La was subdued by the Lama’s magic thunderbolt of wisdom. The monastery is famous for treating infertility, and women who cannot conceive travel here to receive a blessing.