Elevation 1,300 m
Punakha is the ancient capital of Bhutan; about 2 1/4 hours drive from Thimphu across Dochu-la pass. Once you cross the pass, you wind down into a warm fertile valley and meander along a gently flowing aquamarine river that leads you to the Punakha Dzong, the second dzong to be built in Bhutan.
Built in 1637, the dzong continues to be the winter home for the clergy, headed by the Chief Abbott, the Je Khenpo. It is a stunning example of Bhutanese architecture, sitting at the fork of two rivers, portraying the image of a medieval city from a distance. The dzong was destroyed by fire and glacial floods over the years but has been carefully restored and is, today, a fine example of Bhutanese craftsmanship.
Punakha is a sub-tropical valley where food grains, vegetables and fruits grow in abundance. A short drive up the valley is the Khamsum Yulley Chorten (stupa), constructed in 1992, as one of three such chortens in the world, one being the National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu.
There are two luxury hotels in Punakha. Amankora Punakha Hotel is located at the site of the Phuntso Pelri, a former royal country house. There are 8 rooms in 3 intimate buildings. The hotel restaurant, helmed by a former chef from a top New York restaurant, offers first-rate continental cuisine.
The other luxury hotel is Uma Punakha, with nine hillside rooms, and two free-standing luxury private villas. Uma's Bukhari restaurant serves both local and international cuisine, while the standalone COMO Shambhala Retreat offers traditional holistic therapies.
Mid-range hotels are also available, such as Damchen Resort, Meri Phunsum Hotel, Y.T. Hotel and Zangdok Pelri Hotel.
For dining, travelers can eat at roadside stalls such as the Pasang Restaurant, Samol Bar and Chime Cafeteria.