You don’t want to miss out on the beauty of Bhutan
Going on holiday is exciting, but you can miss out on so much if you don’t do your research. We’ve taken the time to compile a list of places you should visit when travelling to Bhutan.
This is the capital of Bhutan and famous for being the only major city in the world that does not use traffic lights. It is also home to the royal residence; the magnificent Changangkha Lhakhang (Buddhist temple).
Take a break from the abundance of tourist ‘must-sees’ and immerse yourself in the day-to-day life of the Bhutanese, who are world-renowned for being among the happiest people in the world. For an authentic look into their culture, religion and arts; spend time at the National Chorten Memorial, the Authentic Bhutanese Crafts Bazaar and the National Folk Heritage Museum.
The first dzong (fortress) ever built in Bhutan is situated 6kms from the town centre. Simtokha Dzong – meaning ‘demon submerged in stone’ – held back an attack by fierce rivals. Today it is the Centre for Buddhist Studies. You need to be relatively fit as it is a steep climb to reach the dzong. Stop to admire the massive prayer wheel and the large Buddha looming over you from the Buddha Point.
2. Motithang Takin Preserve
You’ll see your fair share of dzongs on a tour of Bhutan so don’t miss an opportunity to meet a Takin. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Takin is Bhutan’s national animal and is extremely important to its people. It is a cross between a cow and a goat. The preserve is located in the Motithang district of Thimphu and was originally a mini-zoo. It was created to protect the animals when it was discovered that the Takins would not inhabit the surrounding forest even when they were eventually set free.
3. Dochula Pass
In 2003, Bhutan was forced into war with the Indian rebels. They tried to avoid the conflict – being pacifists – but 7 000 soldiers were eventually forced to face tens of thousands of rebels. The Bhutaneans succeeded in driving back the rebels and, to honour the dead, the King commissioned a monument on the magnificent Dochula Pass. It is festooned with brightly-coloured prayer flags. Take time to visit Drukwangyal Lhakhang (monastery) and climb the 108 chortens built by the Queen Mother. Enjoy breath-taking views over the spectacular Himalayas.
4. Paro Taktsang
This spectacular Buddhist temple clings to a cliff some 3 000m above sea level, overlooking the lush Paro valley. Otherwise known as the Tiger’s Nest Temple, it is one of the most sacred sites to Buddhist pilgrims. It is so isolated that you can only reach it by steep mountainous paths. The first path takes you through a pine forest that is decorated with brightly-coloured prayer flags. The second path passes through the ‘hundred thousand fairies’ plateau. It is a two-hour climb from the valley floor to this ‘small’ monastery and you need to take it slowly to adapt to the change in altitude.
It derives its name from a legend that says the Guru Rinpoche, also known as the ‘Second Buddha’ of Bhutan, would frequent the small monastery to meditate.
5. Panakha Dzong
This is the second fortress built in Bhutan and one of the most spectacular, which is why it is also called the ‘Palace of Great Bliss’. The towering white-washed exterior walls surround a complex of courtyards, temples, admin buildings and monks’ accommodation. It is situated on a stretch of land where two rivers converge. It has been ravaged by fire, earthquakes and floods many times but it has always been rebuilt to its original specifications. Visit the Kuenrey at the far north end where you will see giant statues of the Buddha, and hundreds of beautifully painted dragons on the ceiling.
Plan your trip to coincide with the five-day Panakha Demoche (festival) which takes place in spring (February/May) in the grounds of the dzong. This theatrical display is a re-enactment of the invasion of Bhutan in 1639 where the Tibetans were defeated. Follow the procession on the final day to the Mo Chu river bank where the monks fling oranges into the river as an offering to the nãgas residing in the river.
6. Chimi Lhakhang
This monastery, and the village that surrounds it, is worth a visit purely for its unusual display of phallus symbols. It is otherwise known as the Fertility Temple and is located on the outskirts of Panakha, about a 20-minute walk along a muddy and dusty path through fields of mustard plants and rice. All the houses in the village have paintings of phalluses on the walls and there are tantric paraphernalia throughout the monastery. Women come to the monastery seeking blessings to bear children or to get a name for the child to be born.
This region is made up of four smaller valleys, which includes Chumey. The latter is a deeply spiritual region shrouded in religious legend. There are many ‘must-see’ destinations in this area and most of them are accessible on foot. Jambay Lhakhang was built in the 7th century by a Tibetan King to subdue the evil spirits of the Himalayan region. Jakar Dzong was initially built as a monastery in 1549 but today it is the administrative centre for Bumthang valley and houses the regional monk body. Located above the main town is Lhodrak Kharchhu monastery which today houses almost 400 monks.
The Phobjikha Valley is also known as Gangtey, named after the 17th century monastery that sits supremely on a small hill rising from the flat valley floor. Inhabitants of the large village are families of the Gomchems who take care of the monastery. Up until a few years ago, when electricity reached this village, it was untouched by modernisation.
The majority of Bhutan is characterised by steep mountains and deep valleys but this area is unusually wide and flat. It is situated on the periphery of Jigme Dorje Wangchuk National Park (formerly known as Black Mountain National Park); an area well known for the rare black-necked cranes that migrate there from the Tibetan Plateau. It is a magnificent area for hiking and nature walks. Time it right and you’ll see other rare creatures such as wild boar, barking deer, Himalayan black bears and leopards.
9. Jigme Dorje Wangchuk National Park
This is the third largest park in the country and heaven for nature lovers. Apart from being a bird paradise, you’ll also see tiger, red panda, golden langur, rufous necked hornbill, white bellied heron and musk deer. It is also the only park where the national animal (takin), flower (blue poppy), bird (raven) and tree (cypress) exist together.
Discover Rukha; a hidden jewel in a remote area in the park that is only accessible by a precarious rope bridge. There are no more than 20 houses dotted around the hillside, built in the traditional style with steep steps leading up to the first floor with the kitchen on the outside. Book what they call a ‘home stay’ where you can enjoy the delightful hospitality of the rural folk. There are many other options for farm and home stays in different villages scattered around the country, and all of them offer you a unique opportunity to stay in a private home and closely interact with a Bhutanese family.
10. Tashi Yangtse
Take a detour off the more common tour routes and see the remote valleys of Eastern Bhutan where women spin and weave on the doorsteps. Tashi Yangtse is an idyllic region where rice paddies cling to the slopes above a gleaming riverside chorten (religious monument). It is home to a major school of traditional art, Rigne School.
Experience the sights and sounds of Bhutan. Lekker Adventures specialises in providing you with the complete travelling experience to Bhutan. Click here to find out more about travelling in Bhutan with the assistance of Lekker Adventures.