The Haa Valley, in the magical Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, is like a glimmering emerald in the clouds. It is the second least populated dzongkhag (district) in the country and is also popularly known as ‘Hidden-Land Rice Valley’. Lush with an unbelievably diverse flora and fauna, it was opened to the public only in 2002 and is still relatively untouched by modern culture. It is a land of ancient rituals, mysticism and beauty and lies like a slice of heaven waiting to be discovered. During the pre-Buddhist era, animist tradition prevailed in the region, with blood sacrifices that were routinely offered to the local deities by the valley’s inhabitants.
Then in the 8th century Guru Padmasambhava subdued the more violent practices and made the people guardians of Buddhism. Though traces of animism still prevail in the valley, which is rich in folklore and legends including Shamanistic rituals.
The Haa Valley is a two hour ride from the airport in Paro and involves crossing the stunning Chele La Pass through breathtaking scenery. It is Bhutan’s highest road pass, so perhaps not the best route if you suffer from vertigo, though the pristine landscape, beautiful hills with snowy caps, clusters of prayer flags fluttering along the pass and clear green mountain rivers will be heaven for nature lovers.
The picturesque Haa River flows right through the centre of the valley and simply walking beside the river underneath pine trees, passing willows and listening to the babbling river makes for a lovely experience. The traditional architecture with painted carved eaves and wooden window frames with auspicious symbols painted on the walls is distinctly Bhutanese, graceful and somehow fitting with the landscape. For an authentic experience, stay can be organized at traditional farms in the village, so keep this in mind when planning Bhutan travel packages. Home-stays and small boutique-styled lodges also a host of special activities like hiking, walking trails, cookery classes, archery and Ara (the local brew) distilling classes.
Some of the famous sites in the Haa Valley are the 7th century Lhakhang Karpo (White temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black temple) which are next to each other at the sacred site known as Miri Punsum, or “The Three Brother Hills.” Monasteries are scattered through the valley and trekking or biking through the hills to visit the local temples makes for a very enjoyable way to spend the day. Indeed the valley offers plenty of trekking opportunities of different levels of difficulty. There are easy treks like the one to Katsho Goemba which is an old Buddhist monastery. It takes about two hours to get to the top, en route you will pass the tiny happy village of Katsho and be greeted by warm smiles. A tougher but rewarding trek is the one to Jana Dingjia which is about four or five hours to the top. Jana Dingjia is a small goemba or monastery but the views from it of the valley are panoramic.
The hike to Kila Nunnery from Chele La pass is spectacular and shouldn’t be missed. For this reason having a good guide is an important part of Bhutan tours simply to ensure you don’t miss the jewels along the way like the Kila Nunnery hike. The walk through the forest to the nunnery is beautiful, verdant and unspoilt. Keep an eye out for the Himalayan Blue Poppy, the national flower of Bhutan. One of its strains is cream colored and is only to be found in the Haa Valley.
The Haa Summer Festival in July is a fun one to include into custom Asia tours as it offers an insight into traditional lifestyles and local Bhutanese culture. You will get to watch skilled local craftsman weaving with yak hair, watch yak shearing and see how traditional meals are made using yak dairy products as main ingredients. Savor delicious Haapi Hoentoe or hearty buckwheat dumplings stuffed with fragrant mushroom, turnips and an assortment of dried greens, enjoy lively folk songs and masked dances and participate in local sports such as archery, yak and horse riding, darts and soksum (light javelin throwing).