The districts of Haa, Paro, Chukha, Thimphu, Punakha, Gasa and Wangdue Phodrang are in Western Bhutan. It’s the home to the only airport of Bhutan including the capital and some largest, oldest and most spectacular dzongs (fortresses) and temples. This is the region first anyone encounters in Bhutan whether flying out to Paro or drive from Phuntsholing.
A trip to Bhutan normally begins and ends at Paro where the country’s only international airport is in Paro. Paro located at an altitude of 2,250 meters is a lush green beautiful valley with rich culture, scenic beauty and home to Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries and the country’s only airport. Paro is also one of the most fertile valleys in the Kingdom producing a bulk of the locally famous red rice. Some of the important landmarks in Paro are:
Taktshang Monastery ‘Tiger’s Nest’
Taktsang is located at an altitude of 3,120 meters perched on a high vertical cliff towards the north of Paro town. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche, the father of the Bhutanese Mahayana Buddhism, came to Paro Valley more than a millennium ago on the back of a legendary flying tigress. He meditated for three months in the cave where a monastery was later built, so it’s called Taktshang Monastery or Tiger’s Nest. This site has been recognized as a most sacred place and visited by all Bhutanese at least once in their lifetime. The trip to Bhutan is never complete without climbing to Taktshang.
Rinpung Dzong was built in 1646 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual and temporal ruler of Bhutan. The Dzong houses the monastic body of Paro, the office of the Dzongda (district administrative head) and Thrimpon (judge) of Paro district. It is linked by the traditional cantilever bridge called the Nemi Zam over the Pa chu River. Popular Paro Tshechu ‘festival’ is held once a year during spring in this Dzong.
Ta Dzong is above Rinpung Dzong and was built as a watchtower to protect the Dzong from intruders. In 1968 Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the National Museum. The museum houses ancient Bhutanese arts and artifacts, weapons, and stamps, birds and animals, and an incredible collection of silver tea ware. The museum circular shape augments its varied collection displayed over several floors.
Kyichu Lhakhang is one of the oldest and most sacred shrines of the Kingdom dating back to as old as the 7th century. The Lhakhang complex has two temples. The first temple was built by Tibetan King, Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century. In 1968, H.M. Ashi Kesang- the Queen Mother of Bhutan, built the second temple in the same original pattern. Next to the temple is the house that is now turned into a museum dedicated to the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Drukgyel Dzong was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646 to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders. Historically this Dzong has withstood the taste of time and the glory of Drukgyel Dzong remained unchanged even it was destroyed by fire in 1951. Majestic view of Mt. Jomolhari can be spotted on a clear day from the village below the Dzong.
Haa was one of the main commercial gateways through Phuntsoling until roads opened in the earlier 1960s. The historic journey of Indo-Bhutan friendship took place on this route when the Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru walked to Bhutan in 1958. It is one of the smallest districts in the country. After the arrival of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the chief guardian deity of Haa became Ap Chundu.
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is a bustling and the fastest-growing city in Bhutan. Thimphu, located at an altitude of 2350m, is the center of government, religion, and commerce. The city has an unusual mixture of modern development alongside ancient traditions. Although not what one expects from a capital city, Thimphu is still a happening place. It is home to the Kings and the Royal family members, as well as civil servants, expatriates, politicians, business persons, and monks. Some of the popular landmarks of Thimphu are:
National Memorial Chorten
National Memorial Chorten was built on 28th July 1974 in the memory of Bhutan’s third King, His Late Majesty, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. The paintings and statues inside the monument provide a deep insight into Buddhist philosophy.
Simtokha Dzong, five miles from Thimphu, is the Kingdom’s oldest Dzong. It is now used as the Institute for Language and Cultural Studies and was built in 1627 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
Changangkha Temple is situated on the top of the small hill above Thimphu city. It was built in the 13th century by the illustrious Lam Phajo Dugom Zhigpo. The central statue here is Chenrezig in a manifestation with 11 heads. The temple is considered the spiritual home of children born in the Chang valley.
The National Library was established in the late 1960s basically to conserve the literary treasures which form a significant part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. It now houses a vast collection of books and research documents of Buddhist studies. The library also has modern academic books and printing blocks for prayer flags beside having thousands of manuscripts and ancient texts.
Folk Heritage and National Textile Museums
This museum was established in 2001 providing fascinating insights into Bhutanese material culture and way of life. The Folk Heritage Museum with a three storied 19th-century traditional house provides a glimpse of the Bhutanese lifestyle and artifacts from the rural households. Typical household objects, tools, and equipment are kept here.
Thimphu has various Handicrafts Emporiums displaying a wide assortment of colorful, hand-woven textiles and other craft products. Good for the souvenir.
A weekend market on the banks of the river is held in Thimphu from Friday afternoon till Sunday evening. Most of Thimphu’s population and many valley dwellers gather on this market. A wide range of foodstuffs and local arts and crafts are sold at the market. A visit to the market provides great photo opportunities, and to mingle with local people or perhaps buy souvenirs.
Buddha point is the viewing point of the Thimphu Valley. It is a short drive from Thimphu Town. The largest statue of Buddha in Bhutan is located here.
Cheri Monastery was established in 1620, by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the founder of the Bhutanese state. The monastery is about 15 Kilometer away from town and stands on a hill above the end of the road at Dodeyna. It takes about an hour to walk up the steep hill to reach the monastery from the road.
Dochula Pass (3,050m)
The first stop after leaving Thimphu is Dochula located at 3050 meters just an hour drive from Thimphu. Especially during clear winter days, Dochula offers visitors the first glimpse of the central-eastern Himalayan range. There are 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens at Dochula built by the eldest Queen Mother- HM Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. During the clear warm day, great pictures of the snow-capped mountains can be photographed at Dochula.
The district of Punakha ranges from 1300m at the valley floor and rising to almost 3000m around Dochhula pass. Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan from 1637 till 1907. Thimphu’s monk body and the Je Khenpo (leader of Bhutan’s religious order) still come to Punakha to pass the winter. The Valley of Punakha produces abundant crops and fruits due to its temperate climate and it’s natural drainage from Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers. Splendid views of the distant Himalayas can be seen at Dochula pass (3,050m) on the drive from Thimphu to Punakha.
Punakha Dzong was built at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (Male River) and Mo Chhu (Female River) by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1637 to serve as the religious and administrative seat of the region. It was here that the dual system of government was introduced in the 17th century and in 1907, enthroned the first King Gongsr Ugyen Wangchuck. It has been destroyed by four fires and an earthquake in 1897 and has frequently been devastated by flooding from the great northern glaciers. The Dzong has now been fully restored to its original splendor. Punakha festival is celebrated at Punakha Dzong.
The Chimi Lhakhang, situated on a hillock in the center of the valley, is dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenley, who in the late 15th century used humor, songs and outrageous behavior to dramatize his teachings and due to this also known as ‘Divine Madman’. This temple is also known as the temple of fertility. It is widely believed that couples who do not have children come to pray at this temple and usually blessed with a child very soon. It is about 30-minute walk across the field from the road to the temple.
Wangdue Phodrang is the last District before reaching the central Bhutan. The highway to the central Bhutan passes from this District. Wangduephodrang valley provides rich pastureland for cattle. This district is also famous for its fine bamboo products, slate and stone carvings. Wangdue Phodrang is also known for the Lozeys or the ornamental speeches. Some of the popular landmarks of Wangdue are:
Wangdue Phodrang Dzong
Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is on the hilltop above the confluence of the Punatsangchhu and Dhangchhu rivers. During pre-monarchy days, the governor of this dzong played an important role. Wangdue Dzong is open for visitors during Wangduephodrang Tshechu celebrated in autumn.
Gangtey Monastery/Phobjikha Valley
Gangtey is the largest village of Phobjikha Valley and situated towards the south of the main road and east of Wangdue Phodrang. Gangtey Monastery, a monastery dating back to the mid 17th century, is at it’s centre. It is located on a small hill rising from the valley floor and is the only Nyingmapa monastery on the western side of the Black Mountain’s and also the biggest Nyingmapa monastery in Bhutan. The Monastery is surrounded by a large village inhabited mainly by the families of the 140 Gomchens who take care of the Monastery.
The village of Phobjikha is on the valley floor just a few kilometers down from the monastery. This quiet remote valley is the winter home of black necked cranes migrating from the plains of Tibet in the north, to pass winter months in a milder climate.
Central Bhutan is the districts of Trongsa and Bumthang. The Centre region is blessed with several unique features and is home to many sacred monuments in Bhutan. These two districts also defines much of Bhutan’s history and till the early 1950’s was the seat of power for two Kings.
BumthangBumthang consists of the Chumey, Choekhar, Tang, and Ura Valleys. This region that spans from 2,600-4,500m is 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. Bumthang is also the traditional home to the great Buddhist teacher Pema Linga to whose descendants the present dynasty traces its origin.
Trongsa is the ancestral home of the royal family. Both His Majesty King Ugyen Wangchuck, the Penlop of Trongsa, who was elected the country’s first hereditary monarch and his successor, King Jigme Wangchuck, ruled the country from Trongsa ancient seat. The crown prince of Bhutan traditionally becomes “penlop” (governor) of Trongsa before being crowned king.
Trongsa Dzong built in 1648 holds a great historical importance. Both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat. It is customary for all the kings of Bhutan to be invested as Trongsa Penlop (“governor”) prior to ascending the throne. Trongsa Dzong is a great fortress protected from invaders by an impenetrable valley. The Dzong itself is a labyrinth of temples, corridors and offices holding court over the local community. It is built with many levels at the side of the hill and can be spotted from every approach to Trongsa.
Eastern Bhutan is blessed with unexplored trekking routes, historical and cultural escapades, spectacular landscapes and natural wonders. Eastern Bhutan contains the districts of Mongar, Lhuentse, Tashi Yangtse, Tashigang and Samdrup Jongkhar. The finest weavers are found in the Lhuentse, Khoma Chhu, Kuri Chhu and Radhi areas. Weaving of this kind is found only in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Mongar district marks the beginning of Eastern Bhutan covering an area of 1,954 sq. kms with elevations ranging from 400m to 4,000m. Mongar town is the second largest town in the sub-tropical east and situated on the side of a hill in the contrasts to other towns of Western Bhutan located on the valley floor. The region is known for weavers and textiles and fabrics considered one of the best in the country.
Lhuentse is 77 km from Mongar (3 hours drive) and is one of the most isolated districts in the country. The landscape here is spectacular with stark cliffs and gorges and dense coniferous forests. The region is notably famed for its weavers and their special textiles generally considered being the best in the country.
Trashigang is the easternmost point on the highway and is the country’s largest district with altitude ranging from 600 m to over 4000m. Bhutan’s largest river, the Dangmechu, flows through the district. Trashigang town, on the hillside above the Gamri Chhu (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.
Samdrup Jongkhar is situated in the south eastern part of Bhutan and shares borders with the Indian state of Assam. It is by far the largest urban centre in eastern Bhutan. The road from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar was completed in 1960s and it enables the eastern half of the country to access and benefit from trade with the south as well as across the Indian border.