Thimphu has been the capital of Bhutan since 1961 and lies at an altitude of 2320m. Once a small rural settlement, today it is home to about 1,50,000 people. It is about an hour’s drive from the only international airport in Paro. Bhutan’s administrative and religious centre Tashichhodzong, on the banks of the Wang Chu, houses the throne room of His Majesty the King of Bhutan, Government Ministries, the nation’s largest monastery and headquarters of His Holiness the Je Khenpo (Head o fteh Monastic Body) and the monk body. The National Assembly Hall is located in a new building across the river. Next to the Dzong is the Bhutan’s only golf course.
Bhutan’s National Library, National Textile Museum, Folk Heritage Museum, Institute of Zorig Chosum (13 Traditional Arts and Crafts), National Memorial Chorten, Simtokha Dzong (Oldest Dzong of Bhutan), Changangkha Lhakhang and the National Institute of Traditional Medicine and Takin Zoo are other places of interest in Thimphu.
The district of Thimphu, however, stretches beyond the town and goes past Dochula, the first mountain pass in the western part of Bhutan. The 108 Druk Wangyel chortens (stupas) on the top of the pass where the ridges are draped in colourful prayer flags provide a scenic view. On a clear day, you can see a panorama of the nine Himalayan mountain ranges including the highest mountain of Bhutan.
The broad Paro valley is the entry point for all visitors flying into Bhutan on the national carrier, Druk Air. Paro airport is the only international airport in Bhutan. As the flight takes a dramatic sweep into Paro among the mountains, the flight captain usually warns relieved passengers not to worry If the aircraft’s wings appear to be almost touching the mountainsides. Paro valley is a lively cultural centre. In spring, thousands of families gather in Paro to celebrate the Paro Tshechu, a four day religious festival of mask dances and folk entertainment.
The Paro Dzong controls all the secular and religious activities in the valley. Behind Paro Dzong, on the high hillside, is the castle shaped Ta Dzong (Bhutan’s National Museum since 1967), which houses the nation’s heritage. The ruins of Drugyel Dzong, at the northern end of the valley, offer a view of the Jomolhari Peak. The Bhutanese repelled several invading Tibetan armies during the 17th century from this location.
The Tiger’s Nest or the Taktshang is one of the most sacred and popular spiritual heritage sites, perched precariously on the rock face of a sheer cliff 900m above the valley floor. Other places of interest in Paro are Kyichu Lhakhang from the 8th century, and Dungtse Lhakhang.
Punakha is the ancient capital of Bhutan and the first King was crowned here in 1907. Third King also convened the first National Assembly of Bhutan in Punakha Dzong in 1952. The two hour’s drive from Thimphu over the Himalayas at Dochula pass is spectacular. On a clear day, you can see about nine Himalayan ranges covered in perpetual snow including Gangkar Puensum (7541m), the highest mountain of Bhutan.
Once you cross the pass, you wind down into the warm fertile valley and meander along gently flowing Punatsang Chhu river that lead you to the Punakha Dzong, the second Dzong to be built in Bhutan. Built in 1637, the dzong continues to be the winter home for the clergy, headed by the Chief Abbot, the Je Khenpo. It is a stunning example of Bhutanese architecture, sitting at the fork of two rivers, portraying a image of a medieval city from a distance. The dzong was destroyed by fire and glacial floods over the years but has been carefully restored and is, today, a fine example of Bhutanese craftsmanship. The Dzong also preserves the embalmed body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.
Punakha is a sub-tropical valley and is one of the most fertile valleys of Bhutan, abundant with crops and vast terraces of rice fields.
Chimi Lhakhang located on a hillock in the centre of the valley among the rice fields is a pilgrimage site for childless couple. The temple is associated with the famous saint Drukpa Kuenley(popularly known as the Divine Mad Man) who built a Chorten after he subdued the demoness of the nearby Dochula with his ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom’. A wooden effigy of the lama’s thunderbolt is preserved in the lhakhang. Childless women go to the temple to receive blessing or empowerment from the saint.
The spirituality of Lam Drukpa Kuenley was such that, according to namthar (religious history) he could take off his dirty rags off his body and hang them on the rays of the sun.
It was not his phallic power, which elevated the Lam to his spiritual status. It was the power of good over evil, which he represented.
A woman was once tortured by a demon that came to her repeatedly in a form of a child. She would enjoy a healthy pregnancy and give birth to a healthy baby. The baby would grow into a beautiful child and then become sick. After prolonged illness, which was designed to cause the mother untold suffering, the child would die. This was repeated 3-times until the mother went to Lam Drukpa Kuenley for help. Instead of going to scriptures, Drukpa Kuenley tied a black rope around the child’s neck and dragged the baby several times around the valley and then threw it into the river. That was the last of the demon.
Under the guise of uncontrolled lust and apparently thoughtless womanizing, one of Drukpa Kuenley’s greatest gifts to countless beneficiaries was, therefore, a child. Through children the gift was life itself. It is widely known today that thousands of people visit the Lhakhang on pilgrimage and numerous couples that visit the Lhakhang do so to pray for children, many of them to pray for a son. There are many people in Bhutan who have no doubt that their prayers will be answered.
Few year’s back a couple that had lost 6 children and was expecting their 7-stayed overnight at the Lhakhang. In the monastery the mother had dreamt that a black dog kept trying to eat her child but it had been chased away by a monk. Then it was no doubt that the child would survive, and it did.
Devotes of Drukpa Kuenley come from distant places. A Japanese couple, who had been childless for 13 years, was once taken by a friend to Chimi Lhakhang. She returned more than a year later to Bhutan, with her daughter who was named Chimi.
Lam Drukpa Kuenley (1455-1529) was born in Tibet. He was trained at Ralung Monastery and was a contemporary and a disciple of Pema Lingpa. He traveled throughout Bhutan and Tibet as a neljorpa (yogi) using songs, humor and outrageous behavior to dramatize his teachings.
A short drive up the valley is the Majestic Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten(stupa), constructed by Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck in 1992. Khamsum Yulley Namgyel is the most esoteric embodiment of the positive forces prevailing over all negative influences in the 3-forms of existence.
Wangdue phodrang (1,350m)
About 13 kilometers to the south of Punakha is the valley of Wangdue phodrang as the national highway heads towards central Bhutan. The old town with narrow streets with single storied shops, will soon be replaced by a brand new town carved out of terraced rice fields.
Wangdur phodrang Dzong sits majestically on a steep ridge overlooking the highway that fork to the east and south of the country. The position of the Dzong completely covers the spur and commends an impressive view over both the north-south and east-west roads. In the 17th century, Wangdue phodrang played a critical role in unifying the Western, Central and Southern Bhutanese districts.
As the road heads towards Trongsa in the central Bhutan, a turn-off below Pelela pass (3,300m) takes you into the magical valley of Phobjikha, home to the rare Black-Necked Crane that has made Phobjikha its winter home for centuries. The endangered birds fly in from Tibet in October and November and leave just before Spring.
The rare endangered black-necked crane occupies a special place in Bhutanese hearts and folklore. Its arrival every autumn from Tibet inspires songs and dances. It heralds the end of harvesting season and also the time when farm families start migrating to warmer climates.
Many legends and myths exist about the bird, which the Bhutanese call the Thrung Thrung Karmo. Apart from Phobjikha, Khotokha in Wangdue, Bomdiling in Trashiyangtse and Gyatsa in Bumthang serve as the winter habitat for about 360 birds. Like other cranes, these have an elaborate mating ritual, a dance in which pairs bow, leap into the air and toss vegetation about while uttering loud bugling calls. It can be very difficult to distinguish the sexes because the coloration is so similar, but the females are slightly smaller. The crane’s preferred delicacies include fallen grain, tubers and insects.
The world’s entire population of 5600 to 6000 black-necked cranes breeds in Tibet and Ladakh. They winter in south-central Tibet and northeastern Yunan province in China, as well as Bhutan.
Another significant landmark in Phobjikha is the famous Gangtey Goempa monastery, built in the 17th century. It is the most important seat of the Pedling (Pema Lingpa, the treasure discoverer from Bumthang) tradition of Buddhism in western Bhutan. While in Phobjikha, when conferring blessings for the people of present day Gangte, Pema Linpa prophesized that, facing the hill-lock where the Goenpa stands today, one of his incarnation would establish a monastery on the hill lock for the propagation of the Pedling sect. Following the prophecy, Pema Lingpa’s first incarnation, Gyalse Pema Thinley, built a small temple on the mound. The second incarnation, Tenzin Lekpai Dhendup built the present monastery in 1613. The current abbot, Kuenzang Pema Namgyal, is the 9th mind reincarnation of Pema Lingpa.
Trongsa is in central Bhutan and four hours drive from Wangdue phodrang. The Royal Family has strong links with Trongsa from where the first two kings ruled the Kingdom. All crown princes have always held the position of Trongsa Penlop prior to ascending the throne.
Long before you reach Trongsa, you see the spectacular Trongsa Dzong in the valley centre. Its labyrinth of temples, corridors, offices and living quarters for the monks add up to a masterpiece in Bhutanese architecture preserved through professional restoration in 2004.
Just above Trongsa Dzong you will see a watch tower which is now turned into a museum. The Museum of Monarchy, The Tower of Trongsa, was founded in 2008, the first museum in central Bhutan dedicated to our monarchs. The museum showcases some of the rare and priceless artifacts of the Kingdom. These include the statues built in the 17th century to Bhutan’s rare royal possessions. On display are the First King’s Namza, the Raven Crown and Sword of Trongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyel, the father of the First King. A Radio presented by an American businessman to the 3rd King in the 1950s is also on display. The museum will showcase over 200 artifacts which are centuries old.
Trongsa is a convenient place to halt for a night if you are travelling to the east or to the south of Bhutan.
Bumthang (2,600m – 4,000m)
Bumthang is often described as the spiritual and cultural heartland of the kingdom. There are numerous monasteries and spiritual sites in this charming valley where history and mythology help bring alive much of Bhutan’s culture and traditions. Bumthang is a picturesque valley of beautiful houses, and fields of buckwheat, barley, potatoes, and apples. A strong sense of spirituality pervades the atmosphere and at auspicious times of the year, the valley resonates with the chants of the spiritual community as temples all over offers prayers for the well-being of all sentient beings.
Some of the well-known temples include Kurjey Lhakhang (associated with Guru Rinpoche, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet in the 8th century), Jambay Lhakhang (dating from 8th century) and the historic Jakar Dzong.
Bumthang’s tshechus(religious festivals) are well-known and even its small local festival are a privilege to attend to catch an insight of the culture and spirit of Bhutan.
Of all the Tshechus, the most spectacular in Bumthang and in Bhutan is the Jambay Lhakhang Drub held sometime in November, featuring the popular Tercham, known as the naked dance.
Mongar (Elevation: 1,600m)
The journey from Bumthang to Mongar is one of the most beautiful in the Himalayas crossing 4,000m high Thrumshingla pass. Gushing waterfalls, steep cliffs with even steeper drops, blazing flowers and constantly changing vegetation combine to make this journey as varied as it is beautiful.
Mongar marks the beginning of Eastern Bhutan. The second largest town in the sub-tropical east, Mongar like Trashigang further east, is situated on the side of a hill in the contrasts to other towns of Western Bhutan which was built on the valley floor.
It is site of one of Bhutan’s newest Dzong built in 1930s. Yet the Dzong is built in the same method and traditions of all the other Dzongs; no drawings and nails have been used. A visit gives visitors an impression of how traditional Bhutanese architecture has continued to thrive through the centuries.
Trashigang (Elevation: 1,151m)
Trashigang, the largest district of Bhutan, is a 3.5 hour drive from Mongar and 547 km from Thimphu. The historic Trashigang Dzong, atop a vertical hill above the Sherichu river, is a fine example of the strategic role that these monastic fortresses played in keeping enemies out in ancient times.
The Trashigang town has cleverly expanded up the steep mountainside to provide basic essentials for the lasrge population that come long distances to shop here.
Half an hour’s drive from Trashigang is Kanglung, a new town that has grown around the country’s first college, offering undergraduate degrees to about 1,000 students.
Trashi Yangtse (Elevation: 1,830m)
A 3.5 hour drive from Trashigang is Trashi Yangtse, the eastern home of the Black-Necked Crane, bordering the Indian district of Arunachal Pradesh. Both Bhutanese and local tribes from across the border enjoy the Chorten Kora festival at Trashi Yangtse.
Chorten Kora (Stupa) is constructed near the river, it is based on the stupa of Bodhnath in Nepal and was built in 1740 by Lama Ngawang Loday. The festival is held in the second month of lunar calendar.
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. There is little to see in this area but it was being used mostly as a convenient entry and exit town via Guwahati town in India. Royal Government recently declared Samdrup Jonkhar as a Royalty free zone for entry and exit purpose.
With generally warm weather, the district is ideal for bird watching.
Phuntsholing (Elevation 1,829)
To the southwest lies Phuntsholing, a bustling industrial town that is the southern gateway to India, situated directly at the base of Himalayan foothills. It is a fascinating place where different ethnic groups mingle prominently Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese. Being the border town, Phuntsholing serves as the convenient entry/exit point for Bhutan and also as the important link to visit the Indian state of West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam.
It’s the drive from Phuntsholing to Thimphu that makes the journey from the south worthwhile as the highway takes you on a slow journey from tropical plains through changing vegetation up to the higher altitudes of the Himalayan Kingdom.