16 March 2024

Altitude 7590′

This day will be long, sweetened by the drive through the spectacular Bhutanese countryside. Destination is Thimphu, the nation’s capital. The distance is about 110 miles but will take from 5 to 6 hours. If I thought the roads so far were twisty and carsick-worthy, they have only been a teaser. In Bhutan, nothing is straight. 

Weather is warm, in high 70s. However, we will be experiencing a rise in altitude of several thousand feet. I expect we will have relief from pollution and heat.

Rinchinding Gompa

Just beyond the Crocodile Zoo and minutes south of Phuntsholing is one of the most revered of Buddhist monasteries, Rinchinding Gompa or Kharbandi Gompa. The late Queen Mother and grandmother of the present king, Ashi Phuntsho Choedron, built the Kharbandi Monastery in 1967. A story tells of a childless lady who prayed here and asked to be blessed with a child. Her prayers came true. Since then, Kharbandi rose in popularity among childless couples.

The architecture takes a backseat to its surroundings and panoramic vistas of Bhutan’s hills and Indian Plains. Below are the vast valley of the Himalayas, the town of Phuentsholing in Bhutan and Jaigaon across the border in India. Below the peaceful hill of Kharbandi, the horns and dust of Jaigaon thrives.

A peaceful walkway leads to the monastery. Countless prayer flags and banners rustle in the breeze accompanied by the sound of the turning prayer wheels. Kharbandi’s façade is typical Bhutanese architecture. It houses large stupas and wall paintings. The ornate main hall contains large statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and other the deities. 

Stupas are structures which containing relics used as a place of meditation. A line of five ornate stupas face what is an awesome view over the valley. Each stupa endures as unique and symbolic, based upon an important stupa constructed somewhere in India or Nepal honoring an important event from the life of Lord Buddha. 

Outside the main shrine are the prayer wheels. One is to walk clockwise rotating each prayer wheel, repeating prayers as one walks and spins. Everyone seems to want to spin the wheels. I say a little prayer involving the roads ahead: my stomach can use all the help itcan get. 

Sangue Migyur Ling Lhakhang Temple

We happily visit this nine-story tower in the Land of the Thunder Dragon surrounded be lush Bhutanese mountains.

Sangue Migyur Ling Lhakhang Temple is the inspiration of Bhutanese Karma Kagyu master Lama Kelzang and replica of Milarepa’s original accomplishment. It represents the first tower dedicated to Milarepa in Bhutan.

In the 11th century, the Tibetan poet-yogi Milarepa had learned black magic in his early life. He practiced revenge-motivated witchcraft on enemies. He later became a disciple of the great translator Marpa. Knowing that Milarepa possessed bad karma, Marpa made him build a nine-story tower with his bare hands. When almost finished, Marpa, who evidently had a sense of humor, told him to move it to another location.

This happened three times until Milarepa had removed his bad karma. The fourth and final tower was the original nine-story sekargutok at Lhodrag in Tibet. Later, Milarepa meditated in mountain caves and became an enlightened saint in his lifetime. He became an example of the virtues of renunciation, diligent practice and devotion to his guru.

This impressive nine-story tower and temple east of Phuntsholing began construction in 2013. The 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, blessed Lama Kelzang’s intention to build a replica. With the support of senior masters, as well as that of the Je Khenpo, Lama Kelzang believed the project was sufficiently supported by spiritual power and money so he preceded with his plans. “All Kagyu lineages revere Milarepa…Tourists, pilgrims, and monastics will hear the name of Milarepa and benefit from its sacred power…” he says. “We will also have educational, cultural, and medical facilities to preserve our lineage and Bhutanese culture.”

A beautiful hill had to be flattened and removed for the tower and temple. This hill was chosen because it had been a place where animal sacrifices were made in the past. Below lies the dusty plains of India, and the green Bhutanese mountain tower behind me. The interior of both the tower and the great hall are stunning examples of Bhutanese/Tibetan architecture. Each floor of the tower tells further the story of Milarepa’s enlightenment.

Near competition, it is hoped that the temple and tower complex will attract monks and devotees to offer prayers. Plans are it will become an important tourist site in the southern region. We were able to climb the nine floors of the tower and enter the temple, even take photos, all free. Likely, this ends once the project reaches completion.

Into the Himalayas

Not only are the roads ahead a series of twists and turns, but we will be climbing about 7,000 feet in altitude, from 985 ft. Phuntsholing to the Thimphu Valley at 7,875 ft. Google Maps show a very long snake slithering up the mountains. 

Bhutan consists mostly of steep and high mountains crisscrossed by a network of swift rivers that form wide river beds and deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains. In fact, 98.8% of Bhutan is covered by mountains, which makes it the most mountainous country in the world. Bhutan also contains Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed mountain in the world at 24,840 ft. Meanwhile, below these peaks are subtropical, pine, and thick bamboo forests. While it can snow on the valley floors of Bhutan, temperatures are more moderate than I expected with only a light coat and windbreaker needed.

I quicky enter a world of peace, silence and clear mountain air scented by the aromatic resin of blue pines. Forest covering 72% of the country. Bhutan becomes magical. For curve-distraction, I look out for a barking deer, blue sheep, or sloth bear. There are 770 species of birds in Bhutan, many endangered. I try to spot a Himalayan Marmot, the Bhutan Takin (much like a water buffalo and the national animal). I hear there are leopards, tigers and Himalayan bears (oh my) but the odds of seeing one are nil. As the song goes, “I see trees of green….”

Go Green

The biodiversity and efforts to preserve the beauty and resources are impressive. Bhutan has wisely enforced a plastic ban since 2019; there is an absence of trash and plastic bags beside the highway.

Environmental conservation lies at the core of the nation’s development strategy. It is not an afterthought but an expectation of Bhutan’s overall approach to development and buttressed by the force of law. The country’s constitution writes of environmental standards. 

We travel past countless stupas, monasteries, colorful prayer flags and banners, tin-roofed homes, viewpoints and green, green, green forests. Terraced fields grow the ubiquitous tea, fruit trees are abundant. Tiny stupas, called cupcakes, dot many rocky ledges along the mountainside. Each represents a memorial to a loved one.  

The views were spectacular and the clouds extraordinary. There are many streams and waterfalls both big and small, many the source of the hydro-electricity exported to India. However, Bhutan continues to the commitment of keeping their forest, and protecting its wildlife and environment.  I don’t even mind the switchback roads – much. 

Thimphu, Capital of Bhutan

Thimphu is the modern capital of Bhutan with an estimated population of more than 115,000 people, the largest city in the country. It was established in 1955 and declared capital by the 3rd Durk Gyalpo. This is the “Dragon King” and head of state of Bhutan or Drukyul meaning “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” The current king is the 5th of his line, becoming the king when his father abdicated. Besides the royal house, Bhutan is also the only country whose government is officially Buddhist.

The people love their king and his face is seen everywhere. Having a kingdom of your own lends itself to some interesting opportunities.


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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