Up on the Farm – Phojibkha to Punakha

We retraced our drive back to Punakha and on the way managed to catch both an archery and darts match. We clambered down a steep muddy path from the road to get a closer look. We had really been wanting to see the archery (the Bhutanese national sport). There was a distinct smell of (alcoholic) spirits in the air as the archers fired shots at the target 150m away – these are very small targets not like the ones we would know and 150m is twice the Olympic distance – with their very expensive USA made bows and arrows.

IMG_8065Still dressed traditionally it was strange to see these farming folk occupying the only piece of flat grass in the village using such modern technology. We wondered how they could afford it. The dress, camaraderie, banter/general piss taking and songs and dances of triumph and loss reminded us that yes we are still in Bhutan despite the flash gear. It was hard for us to spot the arrows but people seemed to be able to with surprising ease – crossing the field without fear.

A couple of metres to the side of the archery firing line was a game of darts, but not darts as we know it. There were 2 teams and they use a similar sized target to archery but obviously a lot closer. The darts are heavy hand sized things requiring a good strong throw from the shoulder. Again much joking and celebration dances took place between good shots, those that hit the target getting a coloured scarf that they tucked into their belts and the ‘supershooter’ getting a yellow one. There were no women around aside from the refreshment sellers and it seemed to us that this would be an all day activity.

That afternoon we visited Punakha Dzong which is by far the most exquisite temple we have seen in Bhutan, we were glad to have saved the best until last. Built in 1637 on the banks of 2 rivers named Po Chhu and Mo Chhu (father and mother rivers) it has been a place of many historical events. In the 18th and 19th centuries it hosted foreign delegations, the election and coronation of the first king, the first national assembly and is now home to a large number of monks. The Assembly Hall is adorned with 108 frescoes of Buddha and a chronology of his life drawn out in a way we haven’t seen before. There are tens of boxed statues of significant spiritual figures such as the previous chief abbot who is equal to the king here.

IMG_8147It is really a piece of art and the three Buddha statues it houses are the best we have seen in Bhutan and also the largest. As the monks assembled for prayers (called by the long Tibetan trumpets) we headed out and enjoyed the unique painting on the exterior, maze of alleys and courtyard steps up and down. The temple was also on a scale not found elsewhere on our trip to Bhutan and was home to a number of large bees nests beyond a scale we have seen anywhere, ever.

Celebratory mood was everywhere and as we made our way up the Mo Chhu picnics were taking place by the riverside. At Yambesa we took a steep road down to the river where more darts were being played, keeping a significant audience entertained. We crossed the swing-bridge up to some rice fields. We were scheduled to walk an hour up to a stupa but on reflection decided that with the heat and humidity we would give it a miss, as we decided we did not need to climb a hill to see a modern stupa – we have done that many times before and we were more interested in people watching. So instead we watched some rafters head down river and a a few rounds of darts before heading to the picnic place we had passed en-route to see what people were up to. There was some traditional archery going on with the bamboo bows. It is much more of a skillful game than with the modern gear, the target was hit much less with much less time to aim on the target once the string was pulled back. This gave us a sense of just how much these guys practice.

After a good bit of joking around we saw the worst toilet of the trip at the campsite for tourists and took a switchback road up and up and up into the mountains above Punaka, which turned eventually into a muddy 4WD track. It had been a sunny bright day and although there was some cloud on the tops most of the mountains were visible and again gave us a sense of how huge they are. Despite the fine weather we climbed high enough to get into patches of cloud on the top. We were heading to a small farmhouse.

IMG_8126Neither Pensoc nor Sangay knew the way so we did a couple of u-turns on the way there. In fact 2 days before Pensoc had tried to convince us to not go there saying it was very basic and it might not be very clean and he wasn’t sure what the food would be like. We had deliberately planned a homestay into our itinerary so closed the conversation down saying well, we know its a farm, we have biscuits we could eat and at the same time thinking that could be a description of a few of the places we have already stayed. We were annoyed at the time that one of these key parts of our itinerary was now up for debate as we didn’t ask it to be. We think that they are just a pair of wimps who don’t like ‘roughing it’ (they sleep where we sleep).

Before long we arrived at a lovely small farm owned by a shy man of few words, a smiling and keen to please woman and their daughter who although shy to
start with was bringing us English story books to read to her by the morning. The farm has 1 cow, 1 wild boar (which they caught eating the crops so caged it and fed it then released it only for it to come back – they are planning to take it further into the mountains next time…) terraced rice paddies, veggie garden with a great sweetcorn crop and the guest area which has been set up as a secondary income comprising of a couple of bedrooms with bathroom and an indoor and outdoor hangout area.

IMG_8097The room was bright, new, fresh and clean and had a stunning view down the steep valley. It was the nicest and quietest place we have stayed. There was hot water on tap and the hospitality was lovely. Within 5 minutes of arriving a cup of tea and a basket of biscuits arrived and out came some chairs for us to sit outside and take in the last bit of daylight and view. The very timid dog was clearly excited by our arrival but also really nervous. By the end of the night with the help of some digestive biscuits (which we did not need as the food was good) Marie managed to get it to come to her and of course it got heaps of fuss from both of us. With rabies being endemic we were cautious not to get it too excited and have it jump up us and we became obsessed with washing our hands.

Dinner was homemade rice, veggies and so on, the usual fare, but with so much more flavour. We really enjoyed it and our attentive hostess served us with what we think was dragon fruit that sucked all the moisture out of our mouths and faces. With no noise at all and a comfy soft clean bed it really did feel that high up in the mountains, touching the clouds.

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