Places to Visit in Bhutan
There is much to see and do in Bhutan in addition to simply taking in the breathtaking scenery. Bhutan is divided into 20 districts, though several of them have restricted access and are not open to tourists. The districts open to tourism and through which our tours and treks operate include Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, and Wangduephodrang in western Bhutan; Trongsa and Bumthang in central Bhutan; and Mongar, Lhuntse, Trashigang, and Tashiyangtse in eastern Bhutan.
If you are flying into Bhutan, your first vision of the country will be Paro Valley, as you descend between the mountains to the country's only airport, which in itself is an experience when you see how close the mountains are and how sharp the descent is!
One of the main attractions in Paro is the Paro Dzong. It was built in 1646 and now houses government offices and religious institutions, as do all the dzongs (forts) currently. You'll cross a traditional wooden bridge on the way to the dzong. On the hill above the dzong is the National Museum, which used to be a watchtower (ta dzong) for the dzong. It contains a collection of art, costumes, relics, religious paintings, handicrafts, and national stamps.
Not far from the town center is Kyichu Monastery, which is the oldest monastery in the country, built in the 7th century. Another nearby attraction is Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery, which is Bhutan's most famous monastery. Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown on the back of a tigress from Singye Dzong in Lhuntse to meditate in a cave where Taktsang Monastery now stands. It is perched on the edge of a steep cliff, about 900 meters above Paro Valley. The hike to reach the viewpoint to the monastery makes for a nice half-day excursion.
You will want to visit the Drugyel Dzong (Bhutan Victory Fort), which was built in 1646 to commemorate Bhutan's victory over Tibetan invaders during the 1600s. On a clear day you can see Mount Jumolhari, Bhutan's second-highest mountain at 7,329 meters, from the village below the dzong.
There is also an assortment of shops and handicraft stores to peruse in Paro town.
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Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and is therefore the most populated district in the country, with about 60,000 people. You can easily spend several days in Thimphu visiting all the sights. Many of the sights in the main town can be reached on foot, which is a good way to absorb the culture and see the way of life for the Bhutanese people. As you stroll through the streets, you will notice that there is not a single traffic light in the town (nor in the entire country).
There are many attractions in and around Thimphu Valley, including museums, monasteries, temples, dzongs, a zoo, archery fields, restaurants, handicraft shops, the weekend market, the National Library, the School of Arts and Crafts, a traditional paper factory, a radio tower (which affords a gorgeous view of the valley), and the National Institute of Traditional Medicine.
Two interesting museums are the Textile Museum and the Folk Heritage Museum. At the Textile Museum you will see a beautiful display of the garments worn by the Bhutanese from the 1600s up to the present. The Folk Heritage Museum lets you explore a traditional Bhutanese home and teaches you about the daily life of the rural folk.
The weekend market is a must, for it is there that you'll see the variety of food of the country, including basket upon basket of fiery chilies, fresh cheese, and mangoes. You may also see some less-familiar produce, such as ferns. In addition, many stalls contain Bhutanese handicrafts and household items. It's fun to wander the aisles, taking in the bustling atmosphere of the market.
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A three-hour winding mountain drive from Thimphu will land you in Punakha, the former capital of Bhutan. Along the way you'll drive over the Dochu La (pass), where you will have a spectacular view of the Himalayas on a clear day. Before reaching Punakha, you can stop in Metshina and take a 20-minute hike through the rice fields to Chimi Lakhang, which is a fertility temple, where you may receive a special blessing if you wish.
The main attraction in Punakha is the Punakha Dzong. It is the winter residence of the chief abbot and monks, who migrate there from Thimphu every winter. This dzong is noteworthy both for being one of the most beautiful dzongs in Bhutan and also for having been built by the first Shabdrung in 1637.
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Wangduephodrang is the last town before the long stretch of highway to central Bhutan. It's a small clean town with a few shops, and it's known for its slate and stone carvings and bamboo work. Situated on the hill is the Wangduephodrang Dzong, which had political significance in the 17th century.
Along the way to central Bhutan, about a two-hour drive from Wangduephodrang, you can take a short side trip to Gantey Gompa, which is a beautifully located monastery. While you're there, you can explore Phobjika Valley, the winter habitat of the black-necked cranes, which migrate from Tibet every year in late autumn.
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Trongsa is about a four-hour drive from Wangduephodrang and is right in the middle of Bhutan. It's the ancestral home of the royal family, and both the first and second king ruled the country from here. Aside from the breathtaking scenery, the most notable feature in Trongsa is the Trongsa Dzong, which is thought to be the most impressive dzong in Bhutan. Because of its enormity, it can be seen from a great distance, and its interior is multilevel and contains numerous corridors and temples. Above the dzong is the watchtower, which houses two interesting chapels. Trongsa is known for its handmade bamboo baskets, wooden bowls, and bamboo hats, which are worn by farmers.
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Bumthang is the perfect place for day hikes, with its lush valleys and hilly forests. It's about two and half hours from Trongsa, and the drive includes a climb over the 3,500-meter Yutong La (pass), where you may see some yaks grazing, depending on the season.
There are many temples and monasteries in the Bumthang region, some of which are the oldest in Bhutan. You can reach some by car, while others require a short hike. Among them are Tharpaling Monastery, Thangbi Monastery, Kurjey Lhakhang (temple), and Jambey Lhakhang, which was built in the 7th century and is the oldest in the region. You can take along a packed lunch and enjoy the peacefulness and beauty around you.
Other sights include the Jakar Dzong, which is said to be the largest dzong in Bhutan; the Udee woodcarving factory in Jakar; and Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake), where some of Guru Rinpoche's treasures were found in the 15th century by the famous treasure discover Pema Lingpa--it's a nice spot to meditate. You can also tour Tamshing Lhakhang, which houses interesting religious Buddhist paintings. Bumthang is a good place to buy woven textiles (yethra), which are designed with patterns unique to Bumthang, and you can even watch some of the weavers at their looms. Bumthang is the best place to buy hard yak cheese (chugo), or you can stop at the Yoezer Lhamo shop and buy Swiss cheese. Bumthang is also famous for its Red Panda beer.
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Eastern Bhutan is different from western and central Bhutan in terms of development and lifestyle, and if you enjoy seeing the countryside, then it's well worth the long haul to get there. The steepness of the region lends itself to some spectacular views, with rushing waterfalls and sheer drops. The towns tend to be built on the hillsides instead of in the valleys, and the dominant language is Sharchop, unlike in the rest of Bhutan, where the dominant language is Dzongkha. In addition to the various sights in eastern Bhutan, each district has an annual festival.
The drive from Bumthang to Mongar is an exhilarating eight hours, particularly the Thrumshing La (pass), which peaks at 3,750 meters. Mongar's main attraction is the Mongar Dzong, which is more modern than most dzongs in Bhutan (though architecturally it looks the same), having been built at the request of the third king in 1953.
Lhuntse is about a three-hour drive north of Mongar. It's an isolated region and is mostly rural. The landscape consists of stark cliffs, gorges, and thick forests. The Lhuntse Dzong is worth seeing for its beauty and location--it overlooks the Kuri Chu Valley. Lhuntse is also known for its weaving, brocade, and basket-making.
Roughly three hours east by car from Mongar is Trashigang, which is the largest town in eastern Bhutan. There are many sights to see in and around Trashigang, including monasteries, temples, a weaving center, a school for the blind, and Sherubtse College, which was the first college in Bhutan. There are also a variety of local restaurants, and you will certainly want to visit the Trashigang Dzong.
An interesting sight in the region is Chazam (iron bridge), a 73m-long suspension bridge. Originally there was a chain-link bridge here, which is said to have been built by a Tibetan bridge builder by the name of Thangtong Gyalpo in the 15th century. You can still see the remains of the former bridge, and the chain is on display in the Trashigang Dzong.
Just a few kilometers from Trashigang is an interesting temple called Gom Kora. Situated behind the temple is a large black rock. It is said that Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave in the rock and that you can see the impression of his thumb, his hat, and his body on the rock. Every spring people from all over eastern Bhutan, including nomads, circumambulate the temple and the rock throughout the night. About 2 kilometers from Gom Kora is an abandoned iron chain-link bridge behind the village of Duksum. It is said that this is the last remaining bridge of those built by Thangtong Gyalpo.
Tashiyangtse makes for a nice day excursion from Trashigang. It's a small, pretty, quiet town. The people are known for making wooden bowls and containers, which are said to be the best in Bhutan. Just below the town is the Chorten Kora. Every year a great two-day festival is held there. People from Arunachal Pradesh in India, on the other side of the hill, come for the first day of the festival to honor one of their local people. The second day of the festival is for the Bhutanese, and people come from all parts of eastern Bhutan to participate. An hour's walk from Chorten Kora is a village called Bomdeling, where the black-necked cranes spend the winter after migrating from Tibet.
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