The eastern Himalayan KIngdom Bhutan is also known as Druk Yul – The Dragon Kingdom or kingdom in the sky!
The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China ( Tibet ) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, West Bengal and Sikkim on the east, south and west respectively.
Bhutan (Bhhu Uttan- meaning high land in Sanskrit) is also known as DrukYul, The Land of the Thunder Dragon – an ancient Himalayan Kingdom. Little has been known about Bhutan, mainly due to its rugged terrains and thick forest cover. With the difficulties of nature overcome, Bhutan is yet to be discovered! Only about 30,000 tourist visit Bhutan a year. Combine Nepal and Bhutan tour with us to enjoy the beauty of this two Himalayan countries.
Information on mostly visited places of Bhutan
Paro – Bhutan (2,200m/7,218ft)
Paro a beautiful valley encapsulates a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries, the country’s only airport is in Paro, and the National Museum.
Mt. Chomolhari ( 7,300m) reigns in white glory at the northern end of the valley, its glacial waters plunging through deep gorges to form the Pa Chu (Paro river). The Paro valley is one of the kingdom’s most fertile, producing the bulk of Bhutan ‘s famous red rice from its terraced fields.
What to see in Paro Bhutan
Drukgyel Dzong : This dzong, with a picturesque village nestling below its ramparts, was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders. Though largely destroyed by fire in 1951, the towering outer walls and central keep remain an imposing sight. On a clear day, there is a splendid view of Mt. Chomolhari from the approach road to Drukgyel Dzong.
Rinpung Dzong : The “fortress of the heap of jewels” was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on a hill above the township. The approach to the Dzong is through a traditional covered bridge (called the Nemi Zam) and then up a paved stone path running alongside the imposing outer walls. The valley’s annual springtime religious festival, the Paro Tsechu, takes place in the courtyard of the dzong and on the dance ground on the hillside above.
Ta Dzong: On a ridge immediately above Rinpung Dzong is Ta Dzong, built as a watchtower to protect Rinpung Dzong. (“Ta” means “to see” in Dzongkha, so the watchtower of a dzong is always called a “Ta dzong”). On account of their function, watchtowers are always round in shape. In 1968 Paro’s Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the National Museum , and now holds a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings, Bhutan ‘s exquisite postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural history collection.
Farm Houses: The natural beauty of Paro valley is enhanced by picturesque farm houses dotted about the fields and on the hillsides. The two to three-storied Bhutanese farm houses are handsome in appearance, with colorfully decorated outer walls and lintels, and are traditionally built without the use of single nail. All houses follow the same architectural style. A visit to a farm house gives an interesting glimpse into the lifestyle of a farming family.
Kyichu Temple (Paro)
Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro is one of the two oldest and most sacred temples in Bhutan . The Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo built it in 659. According to a legend, Songtsen Gampo found out that he has to build 108 temples to subdue an ogress who had spread over the areas of Tibet and Bhutan . Songtsen Gampo was said to have magically multiplied himself and to have sent all of his emanations into the various areas of Tibet and Bhutan so as to erect 108 temples in one day. Kyichu Lhakhang was built to pin down the left foot of the ogress. The monument marked the spread of Buddhism in Bhutan . The original building was rebuilt after a fire with large statue of Sakyamuni as the main figure. Other houses were constructed in 1839 by the Penlop of Paro and 25 th Je Khenpo.
The adjacent new temples was built by H.M Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuk, the Queen Mother of Bhutan, in 1968. this Lhakhang houses a 5m high statue of Guru Rinpoche and another of Tara, who represents one of the wives of king Songtsen Gampo.
Druk Choeding : This temple in Paro town was built in 1525 by Ngawang Chhogyel, one of the prince-abbots of Raling in Tibet , and an ancestor of the Shabdrung, Ngawang Namgyal.
Suggested Day Hikes in Paro and area – Bhutan
Kila Gompa (Paro)
This gompa, nestled in a craggy patch on the mountainside below the Chele-la pass, is surrounded by numerous huts, perched precariously along the rock face. Kila Gompa is the serene home for 32 anims (Buddhist nuns) who lead an undisturbed life of religious studies, prayer and meditation. Bhutan has seven nunneries, of which Kila Gompa and Buchung Karma Nunnery in Punakha are the oldest. It was initially established in the early 9 th century by Dupthob Chhoeje Norbu and Dupthob Temba as a meditation site. After being destroyed by fire, the lhakhang was reconstructed by the 25 th Je Khenpo, Sherab Gyaltshen. In 1986, Kila Gompa was officially established by the Government as a nunnery. This monastery is historically significant as a sacred meditation site for renowned saints including Dupthob Chilkarwa, of the Drukpa Kagyupa school.
Taktsang Monastery (Paro ) – The Tiger’s nest
This most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries is perched on the side of a cliff 900 mtr above the Paro valley floor. It is said the Guru Rinpoche – Padmashambhava arrived here on the back of a tigress, and meditated at this place, hence the monastery is also called “Tiger’s Nest”. This site, which has long been recognized as a most sacred place, was visited by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646. It is a place of pilgrimage which Bhutanese try to visit at least once in a lifetime. In April, 1998 a fire severely damaged the main structure of the building. Restoration work is now completed. The excursion up to the cafeteria which is situated on a rocky outcrop across a ravine from the monastery, takes about five hours round trip. Though the climb is steep, the journey is most worthwhile on account of the superb views en route and especially from the cafeteria viewpoint itself.
Jele Dzong (Paro )
Towards the end of the 19 th century, the power of Bhutan ‘s temporal head of government (known as – Desi) weakened, and there were clashes among regional Governors. This internal strife was ended by the first king’s father, popularly known as the Black Regent on account of the color he favored in his attire. The Black Regent traveled all over the country and led his army to the southern border when troops from British India threatened Bhutan . The Black Regent had a glorious victory and the battle headgear he wore then become the “Raven Crown” worn by kings of Bhutan on ceremonial occasions. In those days, people traveled about the country by foot or on horseback, and Jele Dzong was one of several famous night halt places. In medieval times, the caretaker of Jele Dzong used to give shelter and food to both horses and riders.
The trek to Jele Dzong passes through the village of Jeshigang , and is a fairly gradual uphill climb of about five hours duration. Most of the walk is through mixed coniferous forest, and you will often glimpse white langurs, Himalayan musk deer and monal pheasants from the path. The campsite is a wide grassy ground. It is advisable to arrive here before dusk, for a magnificent view of sunset over the mountain peaks.
Bhutan – THIMPHU (2,400mtr / 7,875ft)
Thimpu the capital town of Bhutan , and the center of government, religion and commerce, Thimphu is a lively place, an interesting combination of tradition and modernity. Home to civil servants, expatriates and the monk body, Thimphu maintains a strong national character in its architectural style.
What to see in Thimphu
National Memorial Chorten : The building of this chorten was originally the idea of Bhutan ‘s third king, H.M. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (“the father of modern Bhutan “), who had wished to erect a monument to world peace and prosperity, but was unable to give shape to his idea in his lifetime due to pressures of state. After His Majesty’s untimely death in 1972, the Royal Family and Cabinet resolved to fulfill his wishes and erect a memorial that would perpetuate his memory and also serve as a monument to peace. The National Memorial Chorten was consecrated on July 28, 1974 . The finely executed wall paintings and delicately fashioned statues within the monument provide a deep insight into Buddhist philosophy.
Tashichhodzong : The “fortress of the glorious religion” was initially erected in 1641 and rebuilt by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the 1960s. Tashichhodzong houses some ministries, His Majesty’s secretariat, and the central monk body. It is open to visitors during the Thimphu Tsechu (held in autumn) and while the monk body is resident in its winter quarters in Punakha.
Simtokha Dzong : This dzong, built in 1627 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, stands on a low ridge 8 km. down the valley from Thimphu . The Institute for Language and Culture Studies is located here. The most noteworthy artistic feature of this dzong is the series of over 300 finely worked slate carvings behind the prayer wheels in the courtyard.
National Library : The National Library was established in the late 1960s primarily to conserve the literary treasures which form a significant part of Bhutan ‘s cultural heritage. It now houses an extensive collection of Buddhist literature mostly in block-printed format, with some works several hundred years old. This collection, known as the Choekey Collection, mainly comprises Buddhist literature written in Choekey, the religious script of Northern Buddhism, but also includes works written in Tibetan and in Dzongkha , Bhutan ‘s national language. There is also a small Foreign Books Collection, stock of which mainly comprises works written in English, with subject interest on Buddhist studies, Bhutan , the Himalayan region and neighboring countries.
Institute for Zorig Chusum: Commonly known as the Painting School , the Institute offers a six-year course on the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan . On a visit one can see students learning the various skills taught at the school.
National Institute of Traditional Medicine : In Bhutan , equal emphasis is given to both allopathic and traditional medicines. The rich herbal medicines made up from medicinal plants abundant in the kingdom are prepared and dispensed here. The Institute is also a training school for traditional medicine practitioners.
The complex is closed to visitors due to considerations of hygiene, but one can still walk around and view it from the outside.
Changangkha Temple ( Thimphu )
It’s one of the oldest temple in Thimphu valley, built by a descendant of Phajo Drugom Shigpo, the founder of the Drukpa school in Bhutan . The main figure here is an image of sitting Avalokiteshavra. Facing the entrance the murals also include an authentic depiction of Tsangpa Gya-re, the founder of Drukpa Kagyed School in Tibet 12 th century. It has superb view overlooking entire Thimphu Valley with prayer flags floating in the wind.
Drubthob Monastery (Nunnery)
The monastery was founded by a later emanation of Drubthob Thangthong Gyalpo (1361 – 1485) who built temples and iron-chain bridges in Bhutan and Tibet . At present there are about sixty nuns residing in the small complex. It has fantastic view of Tashichhodzong and National Assembly building, especially in the afternoon.
Zoo (Takins )
The national animal of Bhutan, traditional lore says that Drukpa Kuenley, also popularly known as divine madman, created this strange looking animal from the leftover of different animals parts. It does looks like cross between goat and moose. If time permits, you can take a 30 minutes easy walk around the fence, where you can also see few barking deer and sambar deer.
Folk and Heritage Museum – Thimpu Bhutan
It gives you complete picture of rural life in Bhutan . The museum is three-storied traditional farmhouse of typical constructions with all homemade accessories and subsistence farming. It tells us how farmers are self-sufficient and self-reliance in isolated far-flung interior ragged terrain. Little mechanization with no competition but much stronger social ties in the community.
Textile Museum of Bhutan – Thimpu
It highlights the traditional weavings from different parts of Bhutan . It houses a series of changing exhibitions especially from east. The pattern designs and colours sometimes signify different religious elements. Especially appliqué and embroidery are ceremonial purposes. Live demonstration of weaving and embroidery is available at all times during working hours.
Handicrafts shops : A wide assortment of colorful, hand woven textiles and other craft products is available for purchase at the government-run Handicrafts Emporium and many smaller crafts shops around the town.
Weekend Market : Most of the Thimphu ‘s population and many valley dwellers converge on the bustling weekend market, held down by the river. A wide range of foodstuffs and local arts and crafts are sold at the market, which runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday. A visit to the market provides great photo opportunities, as well as the chance to mingle with local people and perhaps buy souvenirs.
Archery: Archery is the national sport of Bhutan . High spirited competitions are a part of all festive occasions. A team of archers shoot at targets from a distance of 150 meters. Each team has a crowd of supporters who encourage their own side and try to put off their opposition.
Archery practice is played on every weekend and on National Holiday everywhere
PUNAKHA (1,300 m/4,265ft) – Bhutan
Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and still it is the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). Blessed with a temperate climate and fed by the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha is the most fertile valley in the country. There are splendid views from Dochu-la pass (3,088m /10,130ft) on the Thimphu – Punakha road.
What to see in Punakha Valley
Punakha Dzong : Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the dzong was built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative center of the region. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the dzong has been fully restored in recent years by the present monarch. The dzong is open for visitors during the Punakha festival (early spring) and in the summer months, after the monk body has returned to Thimphu .
Chime Lhakhang: Located 45 minutes hike from the Lobesa village is this Monastery . Famous Trantric Monk Drukpa Kuenley visited Bhutan in the 15 th century , He was better known as, the “divine madman”. His outrageous nature of teachings often involved strong sexual connotations and used his phallus as the most important symbolic tool for all his teachings, and to destroy demons and evil spirits. Under the guise of thoughtless womanizing, one of the Lam’s greatest gift to countless beneficiaries was children.
Every year hundreds of people from all corners of the Bhutan make pilgrimages to Chhime Lhakhang, an ancient monastery near Punakha, dedicated to fertility and founded by Lam Drukpa Kuenley, to pray for children. They get blessed by a symbolic phallus which represents the sign of fertility and other relegious objects of the Lam. It will take only few stories of the Lam to understand why everyone in this magical kingdom believes that the Lam’s blessings will help a woman concieve.
WANGDUEPHODRANG (1,300m/4,265ft) – Bhutan
Located south of Punakha and the last town before central Bhutan, Wangduephodrang is like an extended village with a few well-provisioned shops. The higher reaches of the Wangduephodrang valley provide rich pastureland for cattle. This district is famous for its fine bamboo work, stone carvings, and slate which is mined up a valley a few km. from the town.
What to see in Wangduephodrang
Wangduephodrang Dzong : Stretched along the hilltop above the confluence of the Punakha Chu and Tang Chu rivers, the imposing Wangduephodrang Dzong is the town’s most visible feature. The dzong is open for visitors during Wangduephodrang Tsechu, celebrated in autumn.
Gangtey Gompa / Phobjikha (3,000m/9,845ft): In the mountains east of Wangduephodrang lies the beautiful Phobjikha Valley , on the slopes of which is situated the great monastery of Gangtey, established in the 17th century. The village of Phobjikha lies a few km. down from the monastery, on the valley floor. This quiet, remote valley is the winter home of black necked cranes, which migrate from the arid plains of Tibet in the north, to pass the winter months in a milder climate.
TONGSA (2,300m / 7,545ft) in Bhutan
This town, perched on steep slopes above a river gorge, forms the central hub of the nation and is the place from where attempts at unifying the country were launched in former times. The landscape around Tongsa is spectacular and its impressive dzong, stretched along a ridge above a ravine, first comes into view about an hour before the winding, mountain road leads you into the town itself.
What to see in Tongsa
Chendebji Chorten : En route to Tongsa is Chendebji Chorten, patterned on Kathmandu ‘s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points. It was built in the 18th century by Lama Shida from Tibet , to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was subdued at this spot.
Tongsa Dzong : Built in 1648, it was the seat of power over central and eastern Bhutan . Both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat. All four kings were invested as Tongsa Penlop (“governor”) prior to ascending the throne, and the present Crown Prince now holds the post. The dzong is a massive structure with many levels, sloping down the contours of the ridge on which it is built. Because of the dzong’s highly strategic position, on the only connecting route between east and west, the Tongsa Penlop was able to control effectively the whole of the central and eastern regions of the country from here.
Ta Dzong : This watchtower, which once guarded Tongsa Dzong from internal rebellion, stands on a steep slope above the town. Climb up the path to visit Ta Dzong which now houses a shrine dedicated to the epic hero, King Gesar of Ling. A visit to this former watchtower provides visitors with an insight into the significance of Tongsa in Bhutan’s history.
BUMTHANG (2,600-4,500m/8,530-14,765ft) in Bhutan
Bumthang is a lovely valley, also the religious heartland of the nation and home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Tales of Guru Padmasambhava and the tertons (“religious treasure-discoverers”) still linger in this sacred region.
What to see in Bumthang valley
Jambey Lhakhang : This monastery was built in the 7th century by the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo. It is one of 108 monasteries which he built to subdue evil spirits in the Himalayan region. Its present architectural appearance dates from the early 20 th century.
Kurje Lhakhang : Located further along the valley, Kurje Lhakhang comprises three temples. The one on the right was built in 1652 against the rock face where Guru Padmasambhava meditated in the 8th century. The middle temple is built on the site of a cave containing a rock with the imprint of the Guru’s body, and is therefore considered to be the most holy. The temple on the left was built in the 1990s by H.M. Ashi Kesang, the Queen Mother. These three temples are surrounded by a 108 chorten wall.
Tamshing Lhakhang : Located across the river from Kurje Lhakhang, this temple was founded in 1501 by Terton Pema Lingpa, a re-incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava. There are very old religious paintings around the inner walls of the temple, which was restored at the end of the 19th century.
Jakar Dzong : Constructed in 1549 by the great grandfather of the first Shabdrung, the dzong was initially built as a monastery. It was upgraded in 1646, after the Shabdrung had firmly established his power. Jakar Dzong is now used as the administrative center for Bumthang valley, and also houses the regional monk body.
MONGAR (1,600m/5,250ft) in Bhutan
The journey from Bumthang to Mongar, crossing over the 4,000m high Thrumsing-la pass, is scenically spectacular. Mongar marks the beginning of eastern Bhutan . The second largest town in the subtropical east, Mongar is built high on a gently sloping hillside.
What to see in Mongar
Mongar Dzong: Although built in the 1930s and one of Bhutan ‘s newest dzongs, it is constructed in the same way as all earlier dzongs, without plans or nails. A visit to Mongar Dzong shows one how traditional Bhutanese architecture has continued to thrive through the centuries.
LHUENTSE (2,323m/7,621ft) Bhutan
Lhuentse is 77 km. from Mongar (3 hours’ drive) and is one of the most isolated districts in Bhutan . The landscape is spectacular, with stark cliffs towering above river gorges and dense coniferous forests. The region is famous for its weavers, and their distinctive textiles are generally considered to be the best in the country. The Kurtoe region of Lhuentse is the ancestral home of the monarchy.
Tashigang lies in the far east of Bhutan , and is the country’s largest district. Tashigang town, on the hillside above the Gamri Chu (river), was once the center for a busy trade with Tibet . Today it is the junction of the east-west highway, with road connections to Samdrup Jongkhar and then into the Indian state of Assam . This town is also the principle market place for the semi-nomadic people of Merak and Sakteng, whose way of dress is unique in Bhutan .
What to see in Tashigang
Tashigang Dzong: Built in 1659, the dzong serves as the administrative seat for the district as well as the home of the monk body. The dzong commands a remarkable view over the surrounding countryside.
Gom Kora : 24 km. from Tashigang, the temple of Gom Kora is set on a small alluvial plateau overlooking the river. Surrounded by rice fields and clumps of banana trees, it looks like an oasis in an arid landscape. It is one of the famous places where Guru Rinpoche meditated in order to subdue a demon which dwelt in a huge black rock.
Tashiyangtse is a rapidly growing town and administrative center for this district. Situated in a small river valley, it is a lovely spot from which to take walks in the surrounding countryside. The dzong overlooking the town was built in the late 1990s when the new district was created. Tashiyangtse is famous for its wooden containers and bowls, which make inexpensive, attractive and useful mementos of a visit to this remote region. The Institute for Zorig Chusum, where students study the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan , is also worth a visit.
Chorten Kora: This dazzling white stupa is situated on the riverbank below the town. Constructed in 1740 by Lama Ngawang Loday, it is built in the same style as Bodnath Stupa in Nepal , with eyes painted at the four cardinal points. During the second month of the lunar calendar there is an interesting celebration here, known as ‘Kora’.
Bomdeling: A pleasant walk of about three hours from Chorten Kora, Bomdeling is an annual migration place for black necked cranes, which fly over from nearby Tibet to pass the winter months in a warmer climate.
SAMDRUP JONGKHAR (280m/920ft) in Bhutan
The road from Tashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar, completed in the 1960s, enables the eastern half of the country to access and benefit from trade with the south as well as across the Indian border. There is little to see in this area, other than the busy market which straddles the border. Samdrup Jongkhar is a convenient exit town for tourists who have arranged to visit the neighboring Indian state of Assam, India.
PHUENTSHOLING (300m/985ft) Bhutan
The gateway to the south, this town is a thriving commercial center on the northern edge of the Indian plains. Situated directly at the base of the Himalayan foothills, Phuentsholing is a fascinating mixture of Indian and Bhutanese, a perfect example of the mingling of peoples and cultures. Being a border town, Phuentsholing is a convenient entry/exit point for visiting Bhutan and also the neighboring Indian states of West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam .
What to see in Phuentsholing
Kharbandi Gompa : This beautiful monastery situated in a garden of tropical plants and flowers at an altitude of 400m /1,300ft above the town, was founded in 1967 by the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Phuntsho Choedron. The monastery contains paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha and statues of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Guru Rinpoche. From the monastery garden there is a splendid view of Phuentsholing and the plains of West Bengal with their tea gardens beyond.
Zangtho Pelri: This small temple built in the center of Phuentsholing town represents the heaven of Guru Rinpoche. At ground level there are statues of the eight manifestations of Guru Rinpoche and paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha. The floor above contains wall paintings of the eight Bodhisattvas and statues of Avalokiteshvara and Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. On the top floor, the main statue is of Amitabha.
The spectacular mountain scenery en route is seen at its best in the winter months, when skies are generally very clear. The flight between Kathmandu and Paro gives the most extended view of the Himalayan massif, including the Everest region. Given suitable weather conditions, Mt. Kanchenjunga will be visible for some time on all routes. Flying in and out of Bhutan is an unforgettable experience, whatever route you take!