PARO (7,500 ft)
Generally visitors enter the Kingdom from Paro by the National Airline, Druk Air. Mt. Chomolhari 7320 reigns in white glory at the northern end of the valley and its glacial waters plunge through deep gorges to form the Pa-Chu (Paro river). Paro is one of the most fertile valleys in the kingdom producing a bulk of the famous red rice from its terraced fields and the home to some of Bhutan's oldest temple & monasteries.
Drugyal Dzong: It means victories fortress built in 1647 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders, led by Mongolian warlord, Gushri Khan in 1644. Strategically built over the only passage into Paro valley, the dzong helped to repel numerous invasions all through the course of Bhutanese history. It so impressed early visitors that in 1914 the dzong featured on the cover of the National Geographic magazine. An accidental fire gutted the dzong in 1951. The ruins, as it stands today still attract tourists.
Taktsang Monastery: Literally means the Tiger’s Nest (den). This temple clings precariously to a granite cliff 800m above the Paro valley. Legend has it that the great Guru Padmasambhava flew to this spot on the back of a Tigress and meditated in a cave during the 8th century. The temple was built around the cave and is a hallowed shrine for Bhutanese pilgrims. A terrible fire in April 1998 destroyed Taktsang’s medieval wall paintings and all inner temples. A new construction has already begun by the Royal Government.
Rinpung Dzong (Paro Dzong): Rinpung Dzong, meaning the fortress on a heap of jewels was built during the time of Shabdrung in 1646. The approach to the Dzong is through a traditional covered bridge. A walk to the Dzong offers a good view of the architectural wonder of the Dzong as well as life around it. The Dzong now houses the Paro monastic school and the office of the civil administration. It is also the venue of the great Paro Tsechu (festival) held once a year in spring.
Ta Dzong: The castle-shaped Ta Dzong was built in 1651 as a watchtower to defend Rinpung Dzong during inter-valley wars of the 17th century. Ta Dzong has housed the nation’s heritage in Bhutan’s National Museum since 1976. It holds a fascinating collection of arts, relics and religious Thanka paintings.
Farm House: The beauty of Paro valley is embellished by cluster of quaint farmhouses. Bhutanese houses are very colorful and traditionally built without the use of a single nail. The house looks very big from outside but is quite simple inside. It’s normally three storeys. The ground floor is always used for cattle while the attic is used for hay. The families live in the middle floor. The best room is always kept for the family chapel. A visit to a farmhouse is very interesting and offers a good glimpse into the life style of a farmer.
THIMPU (7,500 ft)
The modern capital of Bhutan, lies at an elevation of 2300m in a valley traversed by the Wang chu (river). It is the home to civil servants, expatriates and the monk body, Thimphu maintains a strong national character in its architectural style. It is also an ideal spot for day walks. Phajoding monastery is a 4 hrs hike from the motithang area, Tango & Cheri monasteries are also another 3/4hrs hike from the Capital or all the way to the top of telegraph hill where thousands of prayer flags obscure the view over Thimphu.
Memorial Chorten: This stupa was built in 1974 in the memory of the late third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck . The painting and images inside the monument provide a rare sight into Buddhist philosophy.
Tashichho Dzong (Thimpu Dzong): It was initially built in the 17th century and was rebuilt in early 1960s by the third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. Tashichho Dzong is the main secretariat building which houses the throne room of His majesty and a summer residence of the central monk body. It is open to visitor during Thimpu festival and when the monk body moves to their winter home in Punakha.
Changangkha temple: Lama Phajo Drigom built it in the 15 century. It lies on a hilltop commanding the Thimpu valley. The temple has very old scriptures and Thankas. The main deity of the temple is Avalokiteshvara, God of compassion.
Simtokha Dzong: It is the oldest Dzong in the country stands on a lofty ridge at the end of valley. It was built in 1627-1629 and now houses the school for Buddhists studies. All the Bhutanese language teachers pass out from this university.
Indigenous Hospital: since Bhutan has its own brand of Himalayan medicine, the Government has given equal emphasis to both allopathic and traditional medicines. The rich herbal medicine is prepared here. The old art of healing like acupuncture is still practiced today.
National Library: The history of Bhutan lies imprinted in archaic texts, which are preserved at the National library. Beside thousands of manuscripts and ancient texts the library also has modern academic books and printing blocks for prayer flags.
Painting School: It is the place, where young children learn the ancient art of paintings. One can actually see students at work. Education is free for the students. These children after passing out, are sent to different districts in the country to apply the same art form of traditional paintings in their areas, which is one reason that Bhutanese houses have almost the same type of color and design.
Vegetable Market: Every Saturday & Sunday most of the Thimpu’s population and many valley dwellers congregate on the banks of the river where the weekend market is held. This is the only time in the week when fresh vegetables are available.
PUNAKHA (5,000 ft)
It was built between two rivers in the 17th century by the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and is still the winter residence of the central monk body. In spite of the four catastrophic fires and earthquake that destroyed many historic documents, Punakha Dzong houses sacred artifacts and the embalmed body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The road from Simtokha winds into pine forests and through small villages for 20 kilometers and then opens miraculously onto the northern ridge of the mountains. The view over the Himalayas from Dochula Pass at 3,200m is one of the most spectacular in all Bhutan. One of the most striking features of the valley is its abundance of crops and vast terraces of rice fields, which change from lush green in summer to golden yellow in autumn. Chime Lhakhang located on the hillock among the rice fields is picturesque and is pilgrimage site for childless couples. The temple is associated with the famous saint Drupka Kuenlay “The Divine Madman” who has built a Chorten the site during the 14th century. Punakha Dzong is home to the central monk body and the Je Khenpo (the spiritual leader) during the winter months.
It is situated south of Punakha at an elevation of 1300 m and the last town on the highway before entering central Bhutan. This Dzong built during the 17th century played a critical role in unifying the western, central and southern Bhutanese districts. Further up is Gangtey Gompa, an old monastery dating from the 16th century. It is in fact the only monastery, which follows the Pelling Nyingmapa sect of school. This valley of Phobjikha is also a home of the rare Black necked crane, an endangered species that migrate from the Tibetan plateau in winter. There are about 450-500 cranes residing the Bhutan out of which 250-300 lives in this beautiful valley.
It is the central hub of the nation and is historically the place from where attempts at unifying the country were launched. The Royal family has strong links with Trongsa. Both His Majesty King Uygen Wangchuk and his successor King Jigme Wangchuck ruled the country from this Dzong.
Trongsa Dzong: This impregnable fortress was built in 1648. The massive structure is built on many levels into the side of the hill that includes the countless courtyards, passageways and corridors in addition to the twenty-three temples inside the Dzong. Due to its highly strategic position as it the only connecting route between east and west, the Tongsa Penlop (Governor) was able to control the whole region effectively for centuries.
BUMTHANG OR JAKAR
It is situated east of Trongsa at an altitude of 2,600 m and has an individuality that charms its visitors and separates it from other regions. Comprised of four smaller valleys, the deeply spiritual region of Bumthang is shrouded in religious legend. Here tales of Guru Padmasambhava and his reincarnation known as Tertons still linger in most nooks and corners. The town of Jakar is the largest between Thimpu in the west and Trashigang in the east. Jakar is famous for honey production, cheese, apple juice and apricots. Visitors to Bumthang should plan to spend a few days taking advantage of the valley’s relatively gentle slopes to walk to nearby medieval temples and have a glimpse of Bhutan’s mostly rural population. It is also known for its woolen material (yathra), which can be seen hung outside of houses for sale. Further east there is the Ura valley in its center. Small but old Dzong and cobblestone paths give the village a medieval feel. Many excursions can be arranged from this valley like Tharpaling Monastery, Kunzangdra, Tang Mebartso and many more…
Jakar Dzong: The great grandfather of Shabdrung founded it. The Dzong was initially built as a Monastery in 1549 but was upgraded after Shabdrung had firmly established his power in 1646. The Dzong is now used as the administration center for Bumthang valley.
Jambey Lhakhang: The Tibetan King Songten Gempo built it in the 7th century. This temple is one of the 108 temples built by him to subdue a large demon, which was stopping the spread of Buddhism.
Kurje Lhakhang: It is located above Jambey Lhakhang and consists of three temples. The one on the right was built in 1652 on the rock face where the Guru mediated in the 8th century. Second temple is built on the site of a cave is not visible as it is concealed by a large statue of the Guru Rinpoche. The present Royal Queen mother recently built the third temple and these three temples are surrounded by 108-stupa wall symbolic of each joint of the Human body.
Tamshing Lhakhang: It is located opposite of Kurje Lhakhang on the other side of the river was founded in the beginning of the 16th century by Teron Pema Lingpa, the reincarnation of Guru Padmasambhava. The Monastery has very interesting religious paintings like 1,000 Buddhas and 21 Taras. The temple was restored at the end of 19th century.
MONGAR AND LHUENTSE
Arriving in Mongar is a great relief from turns and heights of the journey over the pass. The town is small with a sprinkling of shops. Mongar Dzong is modern compared to the others in the Kingdom. It was reconstructed by the order of the Third king. No drawing and nails have been used. A visit to the Dzong gives visitors an impression of how traditional architecture has continued to thrive through the centuries. Lheuntse is 77 kms. from Mongar and is one of the most isolated districts in Bhutan. The landscape is spectacular with stark cliffs and gorges and dense coniferous forests. The region is notably famed for its weavers & special textiles & fabrics, generally considered to be the best in the country. The Kurtoe region of Lheuntse is also the ancestral home of the Royal Dynasty.
TRASHIGANG AND TASHI YANGTSE
Trashigang lies above the Gumri river and is the largest district in Bhutan. It is much busier than other Bhutanese towns due to its proximity to Samdrup Jongkhar in the south which has enable it to grow as center of commerce. Trashigang is used as the market place for the hill people from Merak & Sakteng, who are known for their exceptional features and for their costume made of Sheepskin and Yak wool. The hat they wear is unusual but has a significance of its own. It is very different from customary Bhutanese clothing. The 17th century Dzong is built on top of a cliff and serves as an administrative center.
Tashi Yangtse was formally a subdivision of Trashigang and is one of the new districts. Yangtse Dzong is half an hour walks from the road. A town has developed around Chorten Kora, one of only two Chortens (Stupas) built in Nepalese style and a spot where Guru Padmasambhava is believed to have had a vision that a temple and a Chorten would be built. The area is also known for its exceptional woodcraft. Another temple lies on the banks of the Gumri river known as the Gom Kora dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, where he supposed to have subdued a demon in form of a Garuda. A festival takes place every year at this temple.
The road from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar was completed in the early 1960s. This town is small and busting and acts as a commercial hub and entry and exit point in the southeast.
Phuntsoling is a border town to the south bordering the Indian State of West Bengal. It is a hub of commercial activity. Jaigaon, a small Indian town is located near Phuntsoling and one can make road connections from Jaigaon or Phuntsoling to the airport in Bagdogra or the railway station in Siliguri, both in the state of West Bengal (169 kms, a drive of about 4-5 hours) of India. There are also convenient connections to Nepal, border at Kakarvitta or Indian hill stations of Kalimpong, Gangtok & Darjeeling.