Bhutan Township Highlights
Bhutan’s spectacular scenery forms a backdrop to every town, village and isolated monastery that dots the landscape. The population is mainly concentrated in the towns and villages and it is in these fascinating places that you can really discover the spirit of the Bhutanese people.
Paro (2,250m), the site of Bhutan’s only airport, is set amongst the pastoral beauty of Paro Valley. This picturesque region is one of the widest valleys in the kingdom and is covered in fertile rice fields and has a beautiful, crystalline river meandering down the valley. Visitors often spend several days in Paro as there are over 155 temples and monasteries in this area, some dating as far back as 14th century, and the incredible monastery of Taktsang which clings to a sheer rock cliff, the Tiger’s Nest. This awe-inspiring temple was constructed upon a sheer cliff face, hundreds of meters above forests of oak and rhododendrons and the valley floor. Well worth visiting is the National Museum featuring a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps. Other nearby sites are the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong (fortress of the victorious Drukpas) with its magnificent views of Mount Jumolhari and the 7th century Kyichu Temple.
The Haa Valley is one of the most picturesque districts in Bhutan. An ideal day trip from Paro beyond the beautiful Chelela Pass, Haa is the ancestral home of the Royal Grandmother and the Dorji family, and is characterised by its rugged and mountainous terrain. Legend says that the Haa valley was previously dominated by animist traditions before the tantric master Padmasambhava visited the valley in the 8th century and transformed their beliefs into peaceful Buddhist traditions. In addition to its natural beauty, Haa also features a number of interesting sites including Chhundu Lhkhang, dedicated to the valley’s protecting deity, 7th century Lhakhang Karpo (white) and Lhakhang Nagpo (black) and Haa Dzong. Haa’s annual summer festival provides a fantastic opportunity to participate in the nomadic lifestyle of the Haaps, including savouring their delicious delicacies. You may also compete in the traditional game of khuru, archery and soksum and try hitting the bull’s eye.
Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu (2,350m) is a fascinating blend of the old and the new. Zoning regulations have retained the forms and motifs of Bhutan’s traditional architecture giving the city a wonderful structural harmony amidst the modernity of restaurants, shopping centres, nightclubs and cafes. The Kingdom’s capital city is home to approximately 100,000 inhabitants including the Royal family. Thimphu’s most striking visual landmark is the magnificent Tashichhodzong, the seat of the Royal Government and Central Monastic Body. Semtokha Dzong, 6km from the city limits, is the kingdom’s oldest Dzong and now used as the Dzongkha language school of Bhutan.
A number of institutions in Thimphu such as the Royal School of the Performing Arts, the Folk Heritage Mueseum, the School of Traditional Painting and the Institute of Traditional Medicine offer visitors a fantastic insight into Bhutanese culture. Other attractions include the National Memorial Chorten, the 51.5 metre high Buddha Dordenma Statue, the Handicrafts Emporium, the Royal Textile Academy, the National Library (housing a rare collection of Buddhist scriptures) and the lively weekend market.
Dochula pass is located on the way from Thimphu to Punakha. On clear days, the location proves a stunning panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain range, with snowcapped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquility of the 108 chortens gracing the mountain pass. Known as the Druk Wangyal Chortens, the construction of these 108 chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. The Pass also features The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple), built in honor of His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The past and future appears to merge in the details of the Lhakhang and its structure tells the story of a supreme warrior figure, whose vision pierces the distant future in a fine blend of history and mythology. The Lhakhang also celebrates the Druk Wangyal festival every 13th December.
Punakha (1,310m) is Bhutan’s ancient capital and the winter seat of the Central Monastic Body due to its sub-tropical climate. The Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 by the Shabdrung (the unifier of Bhutan), is situated on a triangular spit of land at the confluence of two rivers. The body of the Shabdrung, who died in 1651 while in meditation at Punakha, is preserved at the Dzong. Its main temple is breathtaking with four intricately embossed entrance pillars crafted from cypress and decorated in gold and silver. Other highlights includes the incredible views from Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten and Chimi Lhakhang, dedicated to Bhutan’s popular saint Drukpa Kuenley, otherwise known as the “divine madman” due to his unorthodox methods of religious teaching.
Phobjikha Valley (2,900m) is often described as “the most beautiful valley in the most beautiful country in the Himalayas”. It is located in the Black Mountains, the highest of Bhutan’s north-south ridges about 2 and a half hours drive from Wangduephodrang on a spectacular route. Every winter, the rare and beautiful Black-necked Cranes return from Tibet to the safety of this quiet and remote valley. Every November the Black-Necked Crane Festival is held in honour of these majestic birds.
Gangtey, located a few kilometres above the valley has a very interesting 17th century Nyingmapa monastery, the only one of its kind west of the Black Mountain range. Known for its lovely paintings and statues, it is ringed with family houses of the gomchen, the religious laymen who worship the work at the monastery.
Ancestral home of Bhutan’s ruling dynasty, Trongsa is a strategically located town on the east-west route. Trongsa Dzong, built on a spur with a spectacular views of the Mangde River Valley is Bhutan’s largest Dzong and the location of where the institution of Bhutan’s monarchy began. The foundations of Trongsa Dzong were laid in the 16th Century and there are now 22 temples in the complex. Overlooking the Dzong is the Ta Dzong museum housing an incredible collection of historical artefacts of the Royal Family including the Raven Crown worn by the 1st King of Bhutan and a range of traditional armour. Nearby there are also a number of impressive palaces built by former Kings including Kuenga Rabten Palace and Yundruchholing Palace.
En route to Trongsa is Chendebji Chorten, patterned on Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points.
Bumthang is the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and distinguished in history as the first place Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rimpoche. Its undulating green valleys are renowned for their natural beauty, historic palaces, numerous temples and important ancient Buddhist sites. Some of these include Kurje Lhakhang, home to a rock featuring the imprint of Guru Rimpoche’s body, 7th century Jambay Lhakhang, one of the Kingdom’s oldest temples and the Tamshing Monastery containingsome of the oldest wall paintings in Bhutan.
Other highlights in the Bumthang Valley include the 16th century Ugyen Chholing Palace complex housing a fascinating museum, 14th century Tang Rimochen Lhakhang where Guru Rinpoche meditated 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.
Mongar is Bhutan’s eastern commercial centre. Like other towns in the East, Mongar is located on the top of a hill. The Dzong provides an exhilarating vista and houses many ancient artefacts. The landscape is spectacular with stark cliffs, gorges and dense conifer forests. The region is known for its weavings, with its textiles and fabrics considered some of the best in the country. Mongar also features many places of pilgrimage like the Aja Nye and the Hungja Nye and hundreds of sacred lakes. One of the most notable religious sites is the Dramitse Lhakhang built in the 16th century by Ani Cheten Zangmo, the daughter of the renowned terton Pema Lingpa. The Dramitse Ngacham or the “Dance of the Drums of Dramitse,” was born in this lhakhang in the 16th century. Today, it is a popular dance performed at all major festivals. It is also on the esteemed UNESCO World Heritage list.
Trashigang (3,773m) is the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan. It is known for its magnificent landscapes, woodwork and fine weavings. The 17th century Trashigang Dzong commands a spectacular view over the valley and the Gong River below. In winter, semi-nomadic people from the north-eastern glacial valleys of Merak and Sakteng, dressed in their characteristic burgundy jackets, come here to sell their cheese, butter and yak wool. From Trashigang, one can experience the invigorating excursions to Khaling, Radi, Phongme and Trashi Yangtse, home to the Chorten Kora, a stupa constructed in 1740 and patterned after the Bodhnath in Nepal.
Located in the scenic south-east of Bhutan, the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar is the eastern overland gateway to Bhutan, and holds the distinct honour of being the oldest township in the country. From here you can reach the nearest airport at Guwahati in the Indian state of Assam, from where you can fly to Delhi or Kolkata. It is by far the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan, and a convenient exit town for visitors who have travelled from the west to the east of the country. Today the road from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar, completed in the 1960s, connects the eastern and southern regions of the country, allowing them to benefit from trade, especially through trade across the Indian border. It lies at elevations ranging from 200m to 3,500m.
The bustling frontier trading town of Phuentsholing in the south is the gateway to Bhutan for overland travellers from India and Sikkim. It is Bhutan’s second largest town, and is located next to the Indian town of Jaigon. Karbandi Monastery is a popular temple for those wishing to have children after an Indian pilgrim became pregnant after praying at there. It also provides wonderful views over Phuentsholing and the Bengal Plain. From Phuentsholing, the road winds north over the southern foothills, through lush forested valleys and around the rugged north-south ridges of the inner Himalayas to the western valleys of Thimphu and Paro. Hairpin corners on this breathtaking six hour drive are, to reassure the traveler, marked with tall, colourful sculptures of the Tashi Tagye, the eight auspicious signs of Buddhism.