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Sightseeing spots in Bhutan

Author: Ten Dorji

Bhutan –the land of thunder dragon is nestled in the Eastern Himalayas. Bhutan is roughly the size of Switzerland and is referred to as Druk by the Bhutanese. Bhutan was never colonized by any country in her history. Even when the world was undergoing major transformation in terms of modernization and politically too and even when the wind of globalization was blowing hard and other nations were surrendering to these forces, Bhutan remained unaffected, un-touched by these external factors. In fact, it had devised its own development philosophy in the form of the world famous Gross National Happiness (GNH). For this reasons Bhutan has a present which has been its past. Chiefly owing to this factor, we still have a lot of our cultural monuments and traditions intact, alive and growing stronger and which are there to see even today. Therefore, one can visit and see for themselves these places of interest once they are here.

In Paro
This beautiful Paro valley is about 2250m above the sea level. Paro is believed to be one of the first valleys to have received the influences of the Buddhism. The beautiful valley with its rich terraced farmland is home to some of Bhutan’s oldest temples & monasteries. The country’s only airport is in Paro. The valley also offers the calm of the country side, the beautiful landscapes, scenic and scattered villages and other historic buildings. The following are some of the prominent places to visit in Paro.

1. Drugyel Dzong - Situated in the north end of the Paro valley built in 1649 to commemorate the victory over Tibetan invasion. It was gutted by fire in 1951, & now it is in ruined fort, but it is kept as a monument for the visitors from outside as historically this dzong is very important. On a clear day, the view of Mt. Jomolhari can be seen.

2. Rinpung Dzong - Meaning: fortress of the heap of jewels. It was built during the time of Zhabdrung in 1646. It houses both administrative and monastic bodies. It is also a venue of the Paro festival (Tsechu), held once in a year during spring time.

3. Taa Dzong - Meaning: watchtower. It served as a watchtower during the war to guard the dzong from the external invasion. Even if the dzong is capture by the enemy, there is always hope for the Bhutanese to regain it, if the watchtower is in their hand. It is converted into a national museum in 1968. It houses a fine collection of art, relics, religious thangkas, paintings, animals, armory and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps.

4. Taktsang Monastry - Taktshang is the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, perched on the side of a cliff 900m above the floor of Paro valley where the only sounds are the murmurs of the wind and the chanting of monks. The name means ‘Tiger’s nest”, it was named because Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to the site of the monastery on the back of a tigress. He then mediated in a cave here for three months. Later many Buddhist masters have mediated here. It is one of the very important pilgrimage sites even for the Bhutanese people.

5. Kyichu Lhakhang - It is one of the two most sacred and the oldest temples in Bhutan, built in 7th century by Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (the 33rd Tibetan king, who is also the manifestation of avoloketeshivara, commonly known to Bhutanese as Chenrize). The legend tells that a giant demon was terrorizing the whole of Himalayan region, preventing the spread of Buddhism, so to subdue it the king built 108 temples in one day all over the Himalayan region out of which 2 are in Bhutan (Kichu Lhakhang in Paro & Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang). Kyichu Lhakhang was built on her left foot. The temple of Jokhangin Lhasa was built over the very heart of the demoness.

6.  Farm House Visit - A cluster of quaint farmhouses embroiders the beauty of Paro valley. A visit to farmhouse is very interesting and offers a good glimpse into the life style of the farmer.

In Thimphu
The elevation of Thimphu valley is about 2320m above the sea level. It is the capital of Bhutan and the center of Government, Religion and commerce. It is unique only, with an unusual mixture of modern development alongside ancient tradition. It is often said that Thimphu is the only world capital without traffic lights. The policeman directs the traffics. They keep Thimphu’s traffic flowing throughout the day with their elegant, exaggerated gestures. In Thimphu there is an office of the king/throne room at Tashichho Dzong and home to royal family. The following are some of the important places to visit in the capital of Bhutan, Thimphu

1. Tashichhoedzong (Outside) - Meaning: Fortress of the glorious religion. It was built in 1641 and rebuilt into present structure by late king Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (Father of Modern Bhutan) in the year 1962-1969. It houses the secretariat building, the throne room and the office of the king, and the central monk body.

2. Memorial Chorten - It was built in 1974 in the memory of third king late Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who is regarded as the father of modern Bhutan. The temple inside gives good examples of trantric Buddhist and its philosophy.

3. Semtokha Dzong - Semtokha is 6 km from Thimphu; it is on a hill stand and was built in 1629 by Zhabdrung. It is the oldest fortress in the kingdom built by Zhabdrung. It now houses the cultural and Buddhist studies.

4.The Institute for Zorig Chusum - It is also called as National Institute For Zorig Chusum. The school teaches the paintings and also making of sculpture and statues. It offers an eight-year course, which provides instructions in many of Bhutan’s traditional arts to boys and girls from throughout the country whose aptitude is more of artistic than academic

5. Drupthop Lhakhang - The Thangtog Dewachen nunnery was founded in 1976 by Rikey Jadrel, who is considered an emanation of Thangtong Gyalpo (1361-1485), the Tibetan saint renowned as the great Siddha, the most accomplished Master in the Tibetan Buddhist world, father of Tibetan Opera and builder of numerous iron chain bridges across the Himalayas. This was established with the aim of promoting Buddhism in general and teachings associated with the Tangtong Gyalpo in particular.

Under the Rikey Jadrel Rinpoche, the nunnery is started with forty-five nuns but today it houses the sixty nuns engaged in Buddhist study and practice. The nunnery mainly follows the Jangter lineage and Abham Terchoe of Nyingma School and Shangpa

6. Weekend Market - Every Friday evening, Saturday & Sunday, people from Thimphu valley & other parts of country congregate to sell and buy products. It is an opportunity to mix with local people and the products they sell.

7. National Library – the National Library was established in 1967 to preserve many ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan texts. Besides the lot of collection of the religious texts, we do have the good collection of English –language books, modern academic texts and science.

The importance and sacredness of the building is contributed by an alter on the ground floor , with the statues of Bhutan’s most important historic figures, Lama Zhabdrung Ngwang Namgyel, Guru Rinpoche and Pema Lingpa.

8. The Folk Heritage Museum – This Folk Heritage Museum is a showcase the 19 century farm house and the living style of the Bhutanese family. It was founded by Her Majesty the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

9. The National Institute of Traditional Medicine – The traditional medical services was established in the year 1968, under the command of our third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. But National Institute of Traditional Medicine was established in the year 1988, for the welfare of Bhutanese people and to preserve its rich culture and tradition. The Traditional Medicine Services in Bhutan is fully integrated with modern health care and delivery system and is available in all 20 district hospitals.

In Punakha
Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955. It is the winter residences of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the monks body. Its elevation is about 1300m above the sea level. It has a temperate climate and is good for growing rice, fruits and vegetables in abundance. Its rich fertile valley is fed by the Pho chhu and Mo chhu. Some of the interesting places are as follows:

1. Druk Wangyal Chortens – 108 stupas built by Her Majesty the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. It means Chortens of the victory of the Druk Gyelpo.

2. Punakha Dzong - Punakha dzong: built in 1637 by Zhabdrung to serve as the religious and administrative centre of the region. It was the winter capital of Bhutan until 1955 when the capital was permanently shifted to Thimphu. It still served as the winter resident for the monk body

3. Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten – This chorten is a impressive example of our fine Bhutanese architecture and art. It was built by the third Queen, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck. It took almost eight and half years to complete it.

In Wangdue Phodrang
The semi-tropical valley of Wangdue Phodrang town is located south of Punakha. It’s about 30 minutes of drive from Punakha.The elevation of this valley is same as Punakha.The district is famous for its fine bamboo work and its slate and stone curving. It is the last town of western Bhutan before we enter into the central part of Bhutan

1. Wangdue Dzong – Wangdue Phodrang Dzong was founded by the lama Zhabdrung in 1638. It sits atop a high ridge between the Punakha Chhu and Dang Chhu. It is obvious that the site was selected for its commanding view of the valleys below. Legends relates another reason for crossing this site, as people were looking for a site for the constriction of the dzong, four ravens were seen flying away in four directions. This was considered as an auspicious sign, representing the spreading of religion to the four points of the compass. Wangdue is very important in the history of Bhutan because in the early days it was the country’s secondary capital.

2. Chhimi Lhakhang – It is located on a hill top and built by Lama Drukpa Kuenley-the Divine Madman. It is 25mins walk across the field from the road at Sopsokha. Lama Drukpa kuenley subdued the demo ness of the Dochula with his “Magic Thunderbolt of wisdom”. A wooden effigy of the lama’s thunderbolt is preserved in the temple, and the childless women can go to the temple to receive a wang (blessings) from the saint. There is a statue of lama and his dog, as well as that of the Lama Zhabdrung, Sakyamuni, Chenrezig and lama’s brother Ngwang Chogyal.

3. Phobjikha Valley- It is a glacial valley and is the winter home of the black necked cranes. This valley is a designated conservation area and borders Black Mountain National Park. It is located at an altitude of 9840 feet above the sea level and is 2 hrs drives from Wangduephodrang.

In Trongsa
The elevation of this valley is about 2316m above the sea level. Trongsa forms the central hub of the kingdom and is historically the place from where attempts at unifying the country were launched and unified this country..

1. Trongsa Dzong – It is the most impressive dzong in the country. It shows one of the most artistic and magnificent works of traditional Bhutanese architecture. It was founded by Lam Ngagi Wangchuk in the year 1541. The present form of the dzong was built by Chhogyel Minjur Tempa, the official who was sent by the Zhabdrung to unify the eastern Bhutan in the year 1648.  It is the ancestral home of the Royal Family.

2. Taa Dzong – This was the watch tower for the Trongsa dzong, guarded the dzong form internal rebellion. Now it will be turned into the heritage museum.

3. Kungarabten – It is 1 hour drive from Trongsa to the south. It was the winter palace of our second King Jigme Wangchuck. The palace is a impressive building with superb wood work and decorations.

In Bumthang
It is about two hours drive from Trongsa to Bumthang. It is located at an altitude of 2600m – 4000m above sea level. This fascinating valley is the religious heartland, considered the holiest valley in Bhutan and home to some of the oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Many religious masters have meditated in this valley and even for Bhutanese the valley is the pilgrimage sites. The valley is also famous for its production of honey, cheese, apples and the Yatra- woolen materials, which has multiple uses.

1. Jambay Lhakhang – It is one of the two most sacred and the oldest temples in Bhutan, built in 7th century by Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (the 33rd Tibetan king) to subdue the evil spirits in the Himalayan region. This is also the venue for the most important festival – Jambay Lhakhang Drup.

2. Kurje Lhakhang – Kurjey Lhakhang is named after the body print of Guru Rinpoche which is preserved in a cave inside the oldest of the three buildings. This temple is also dedicated to Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Bhutan and was supposed to have mediated there in 8th century,

3. Tamshing Lhakhang – It is the northern end of the road and located opposite to Kurjey Lhakhang. It was established by Terton (Treasure Discovery)Pema Lingpa in 1501 and is the most important Nyingma Goenba in the country.

4. Jakar Dzong – According to the legend, when the lamas assembled in about 1549 to select a site for a monastery, a big white bird rose suddenly in the air and settled on a spur of a hill, where dzong stand today. This was interpreted as a good omen, and the site was chosen for the Jakar dzong- which means ‘castle of the white bird. The dzong was initially built as a monastery in 1549 by Lam Ngagi Wangchuck.

5. Ura Village – it is about 50km from the Bumthang town and it takes about 1hr.30mins drive from the Bumthang town. Ura valley is located south east of Jakar, is believed by some to have been the home of the earliest inhabitants of Bhutan. This is the venue for Ura Yakchoe Festival.

6. Mebertsho (Burning Lake) - This is a very scared lake for Bhutanese people. Terton Pema Lingpa discovered several of Guru Rinpoche’s hidden religious treasures from this lake. Many Bhutanese visit and offer butter lamps on this fresh water lake on the auspicious days. It is about 20mins drive from Bumthang town.

In Mongar
The journey from Bumthang to Mongar offers one of the most spectacular views of Himalayas crossing the 3800 m high Thrimshingla pass. The elevation of the valley is about 1600m. Mongar is the second largest town next to Trashigang in the east. The valley also marks the beginning of eastern Bhutan.

1. Mongar Dzong – The original structure of the dzong was established in the year 1930 to replace the original Shongar dzong. The present dzong was rebuilt in the year 1953. There are statutes of the Buddha of long life, Tsheppamey, Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung in the lhakhang.

In Trashigang
Trashigang is located at an elevation of 1151m above the sea level. It is the largest district in Bhutan and it lies on high above the bank of river Gamri Chhu. It was once the center of a busy trade with Tibet prior to Chinese occupation. Today it is the junction of the east west highway with road connecting to Samdrupjongkhar and then to the Indian state of Assam. Trashigang is also the market place mostly during the winter, for the people from Merak & Sakten - who are remarkable for their exceptional features and costumes.

1. Trashigang Dzong – The Trashigang Dzong was built by the Kudung, Pekar Chhoephel in the year 1659, originally planned by the Trongsa Penlop. The dzong commands a remarkable view of the surrounding country side. It serves as the head quarters of the Trashigang districts.

2. Radhi Village – Radhi village is very famous for textile production specially the raw silk (Bura). In winter if we visit this village we will see the young girls weaving in row.

In Trashiyangtse
The valley is about 2 hrs drive from the Trashigang town. It is located at an elevation of 1830m above the seal level and is also home to the Black Necked Crane especially in Bumdeling. This valley is the eastern most part of Bhutan and borders Arunachal Pradesh in India. This region is known for its specialty in making of various kinds of wooden utensils.

1. Chorten Kora – It was built by Lama Ngwang Loday in 1740 and it was designed similar to Nepal’s Boudhanath stupa. The festival call Chorten Kora is different from any other festival in Bhutan as there is no dances yet lots of people gather to rejoice the festival from all over the Eastern Bhutan and from east west part of India and nomads people from far part of Bhutan, These festival is not only famous as festival but also one of the pilgrimage place for eastern Bhutanese and some part of India

2. Gomphu Kora –  Gom Kora is a small Lhakhang in the north of Trashigang about 21 km away. It is also a gateway to Trashiyangtsi. Before it got its name as Gom Kora it was called as Gomphu Kora, Gomphu meaning ‘a sacred meditation site of Guru Rinpochhe’ and Kora meaning ‘Circumambulation’. Today Gom Kora Tsechu is not only famous as festival but also one of the pilgrimage places for eastern Bhutanese and some part of India, it is also famous among young people for meeting their true friends.

In Samdrupjongkhar
There is little for travelers to see in this area but while traveling from Trashigang to this valley, en route you have some interesting places to visit beside the scenic drive. The town is used as an exit town to reach to the nearest airport at Guwahati, the Indian state of Assam. The valley is also a commercial centre for the eastern people.

In Phuntsholing
The town of Phuentsholing in the south west has the road access open for tourist. It lies approximately 170 Km from the Indian domestic airport Bagdogra, West Bengal. Phuentshloing is the border town, which is about 179Km form the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu and take about 7hrs drive through the end less hair-pin bends and scenic mountain road. Phuentsholing is also the main commercial center and trading zone for Bhutanese with other neighboring countries of South Asia.

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About the Author

I am the Tour Operator based in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. I run the Authentic Bhutan Tours.