Western Bhutan is comprised of Paro, Thimphu
and Punakha, Wangdue Phodrang and Phobjika valleys separated by high
passes or "La" - Cheili La (3900m / 12,795ft.), Dochu La (3,050m
/ 10,007ft.) and Pele La (3,500m / 11483ft.). Western Bhutan is known
for its stunning scenery with rice paddies cascading down magnificent
mountains, the pristine rivers that flow through the main towns of
Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, and unique two-story houses with brightly
painted window designs. Below are described the main areas of Western
Altitude: 2,250m / 7,382ft.
A trip to Bhutan normally begins and ends at Paro ..... and there
can be few more charming valleys in the kingdom. As you disembark
your Druk aircraft and take your first breath of Bhutanese air, you
will be struck by the clean air and peaceful atmosphere.
The museum's collection includes ancient Bhutanese arts and artifacts,
weapons and stamps, birds and animals, and an incredible collection
of silver tea ware. This is typical of the eclectic beauty of Bhutan
- its prized objects bear little relation to each other but as a whole
stand together as a history of one of the world's most pristine people.
It is said that Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master), the father of the
Bhutanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism, arrived in Paro Valley more than
a millennium ago on the back of a legendary tigress. He meditated
for three months in a cave where a monastery was later built and called Taktsang
Lhakang or Tiger's Nest Visitors
to Paro can take a closer look
the monastery by ascending either on foot or by pony for about three
hours to Tiger's Nest. Walkers can enjoy a rest at the Taktsang Teahouse
situated at a wonderful vantage point overlooking the monastery. On
clear days you can get a clear view of mount Chomolhari the sacred
peak of Bhutan.
2,350m / 7,710ft.
Thimphu is a small, charming capital city sandwiched in the heart
of the Himalayas. It sits in its own valley fanning out from the river.
The skyline hardly changes as new buildings are all constructed under
zoning regulations. Thimphu's development is strictly monitored and
buildings cannot exceed a certain height, nor can they be designed
in anything but the traditional Bhutanese style. In fact, Thimphu's
first and only traffic light was enshrined in a chorten ! (a
small Buddhist temple). Not being suitable to the nature of Thimphu,
the traffic light was removed on the King's orders.
a sprinkling of cars are found along the main street and the capital's
population is not immediately visible. But, if you look inside the
bank or the shop, you will find Thimphu's people and Bhutan's heart.
Dressed in gho or kira (a wrap-around robe), Thimphu
people go about their work methodically, quietly bringing their nation
through the growing pains of development and into its own definition
of the modern world.
Dzong, six kms from the city
is the kingdoms
oldest dzong which is now used as the Dzongka language school of Bhutan.
Bhutan's most stately and arguably most impressive building is Tashichhodzong,
on the banks of the Wangchu (Thimphu River). The home of the National
Assembly and the summer residence of the capital's venerated monastic
community, Tashicchodzong is a palatial building overlooking the river
on the South side and the city of Thimphu from the North. While foreign
visitors are only allowed to enter Tashicchodzong during the annual
festival, its presence and its exterior and grounds provide a delightful
spectacle. The dzong is the impressive result of a redesign of the
original medieval structure sanctioned by the Third King, HM Jigme
Dorje Wangchuck, when he moved Bhutan's permanent capital to Thimphu.
One of the most enjoyable ways of passing time in Thimphu is wandering
through the town. Full of wonderful restaurants and delighful shops
stocked with items from all over Bhutan. Hand woven textiles, woodcarving,
tailor made clothing, jewelry. Thimphu's weekend market is
another chance to watch the way life in the kingdom. Here, every weekend,
Thimphu's residents break from whatever it is that they are doing
to stock vegetables, a copy of Kuensel (the weekly newspaper) and
to exchange the week's gossip. For visitors who can't share in the
gossip, a wander through the stalls reveals mountains of bright red
chilies, eggplants and okra, asparagus in season and rice of many
types. Traditional Bhutanese masks, incense, hand made knives, jewelery
are also sold here. It's an incredible experience for the visitor.
Another of Bhutan's loveliest exports is its wide and diverse collection
of stamps. These are best seen in commemorative books at Thimphu's
central post office. Other places of interest in Thimphu include the
traditional painting school where the age-old styles of Bhutanese
painting, including thangka painting, are taught and the Memorial
Chorten build in memory of His Majesty, the Third King of Bhutan.
The National Library houses a vast collection of books and research
documents of Buddhist studies.
Altitude: 1,310m / 4,300ft.
The first stop after leaving Thimphu on the journey east is Dochu
La (la means pass) at 10.007ft. Only an hour's drive from Thimphu,
it offers visitors their first glimpse of the Eastern Himalayan
range. The best time to reach Dochu La is early morning when the
mountain views are clear and one can enjoy a spectacular panoramic
views of the Bhutanese Himalayas.
From the pass the road curls its way down into the relative lowlands
of the Punakha Valley. Before
Thimphu was made the permanent capital of Bhutan, Punakha was the
Winter Capital because of its more temperate climate. The Je Khenpo
(leader of Bhutan's religious order) and his council of monks still
come to pass the Winter months here.
Punakha Dzong was strategically built at the confluence of the Pho
Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers by the first Shabdrung
of Bhutan, Ngawang Namgyel in 1637. It has been damaged by four fires
and an earthquake in 1897 and has been devastated by flood water coming
from the great northern glaciers. The Dzong has now been fully restored
to its original splendor.
Altitude: 1,310m / 4,300ft.
Wangdue Phodrang is the last westerm town on the highway before central
Bhutan. Wangdue Phodrang (or Wangdue) is a typical small Bhutanese
town. It has a bustling market with well stocked shops and a pretty
view of the valley and dzong.
& GANGTEY GOMPA
Altitude: 2,900m / 9,510ft.
few hours' drive from Wangdue Phodrang
is Phobjika valley. Here also is Gangtey Gompa, a monastery dating
back to the 17th century. This
short journey south from the main East-West artery is well worth the
detour for the dramatic change of scenery. The
monastery is inhabited only in summer months.
black-necked cranes in the meadows of the valley floor is an ornithologist's
dream come true. These rare birds migrate from the high plains of
the Tibetan plateau in Winter to the milder climate of Phobjika.
300m / 985ft.
Popularly known as the 'Gateway to Bhutan', Phuentsholing is a vibrant
town located adjacent to the Indian border town of Jalpaiguri, a district
of the Indian state of West Bengal. The town is a bustling commercial
centre providing a glimse of Indian merchants and Bhutanese dressed
in traditional khos and kiras. The climate of
Phuentsholing contrasts greatly with the higher land of Bhutan. It
is tropical, hot and humid during the summer, and warm and pleasant
in the winter. It is located 180 km from Thimphu and is about a six
hours drive. Phuentsholing is the only other entry/exit point to Bhutan
other than the airport at Paro. The closest Indian domestic airport
is at Bagdogra, about 160 km from the Bhutanese boarder, which is
connected by daily flights to Delhi and Calcutta.
The Black Mountains separate Western Bhutan
from Central Bhutan. This region includes Trongsa and the rich broad
valleys of Bumthang including Chumey, Choekar, Tang and Ura valleys.
The passes crossed are Yotang La (3425m, 11,237ft.) and Thrumsing
La (3780m, 12,402ft.). Central Bhutan is known for its buckwheat
and apple production, its sturdy stone houses, and its plethora of
monasteries. Its the ideal place for walking due to its broad valleys
and sloping mountains. The beauty of the Bumthang valley is legendary.
Below are described the main areas of Central Bhutan.
Altitude: 2,200m / 7,215ft.
Crossing the Black Mountains which separate western and central Bhutan,
you'll enter a part of the country which until the l970's was only
reached by mule and foot trails. The mountain road passes through
deciduous forests and at the second pass, Pele La, the entire
area is blanketed by high altitude dwarf bamboo. About five miles
from Trongsa, the road winds around a cliff to a viewpoint looking
down onto the settlement of Trongsa. The view is one of the most beautiful
sights in all Bhutan and one from which you may remember for a long
time. Sloping down the contours of a ridge stands the many-leveled
Trongsa Dzong, built in 1648. It takes at least another 40
minutes from the look-out before you arrive in Trongsa proper. The
dzong acts as a defensive fortress, and its bright golden yellow roof
occupies most of the view from Trongsa. Trongsa is the ancestral home
of the Royal Family. The Crown Prince of Bhutan traditionally becomes
"Penlop" (Governor) of Trongsa before being crowned King.
Trongsa Dzong was built in 1648 and has been the traditional home
of all four kings of Bhutan prior to their ascending the throne.
Trongsa's location in the geographic center of the kingdom has enabled
a "Penlop" (Governor) to effectively control the entire East
and West of the country from there. Ta Dzong, the watch tower, which
once guarded the Dzong from internal rebellion, stands impressively
above the Dzong and provides visitor with some insight into the historical
significance of Trongsa in Bhutan's history.
Continuing past Trongsa you'll travel over two
spectacular passes into the Bumthang Valley, often compared to Switzerland.
The terrain changes quickly from rhododendron forests to conifers.
The first valley, Chumey (2,700m / 8,860ft.) is a wide fertile valley
where wheat, barley, potatoes and buckwheat are cultivated. It is
also known for it's famous wool weaving called "Bumthang
enter the Bumthang Valley consisting of the Choekar (West), Jakar
and Tang (East) Valleys. With the main town of Jakar serving as its
Altitude: 2,800m / 9,185ft.
The hills around Jakar are filled with monasteries dedicated to Guru
Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) who is said to have cured an ailing ruler
and introduced Buddhism to the valley. Bumthang is also home to one
of the great Buddhist teachers, Pema Lingpa, to whose descendants
the present dynasty traces its origins. Pema Lingpa was a blacksmith
who was led by mystic forces to discover spiritual treasures (termas)
placed by Guru Rinpoche at the bottom of Mebartsho
Flaming Lake. Not knowing how to impart the knowledge contained in
the treasures he hid until one day the Dakinis, or
female heavenly spirits, showed him the power of preaching. Legend
that as he spoke, flowers
dropped from the sky and vanished into rays of light. Jambay
Lhakang Drub Monastery is host to one of the most spectacular
festivals in October each year when on one evening of the festival,
the monastery is lights up with a fire dance to bless infertile women
with children. No where else in Bhutan will you see as many temples
and monasteries in such a confined area.
3,100m / 10,170ft.
The easternmost valley, Ura, is also the highest in Bumthang. Wide
open spaces characterizes the valley that sits in the shadow of the
Thrumsing La pass, separating the East from the West of the
kingdom. Ura village and its new monastery are a charming stop before
the climb to the east. Cobbled streets and a medieval feel give Ura
an unusual yet very attractive atmosphere. The old women of Ura still
wear sheepskin shawls on their backs which double as a blanket and
This region comprises Mongar, Lhuentse, Trashigang
and Trashi Yangste. Passes crossed are Rodang La and Narphung La both
at much lower altitudes than passes in Western and Central. The forests
dissipate and the altitude is lower. The warmer climate is suitable
for growing corn, rice, wheat, potatoes and surprisingly lemon grass.
Eastern Bhutan is known for its stunning hand-loomed textiles and
the weavers are all masters of the "supplementary weft-weave"
technique. Eastern Bhutan is the least travelled area of the country.
Below are described the main areas of Eastern Bhutan.
1,700m / 5,580ft.
The differences between Eastern and Western Bhutan are far greater
than the high pass that separates them. Perhaps like the Scots and
the English, there are subtle but marked differences. History has
played a significant role with the kingdom only being unified with
the east at the end of the last century. Prior to that many wars
separated each side.
The eastern dialect is so different from the western dialect that
the two groups find it difficult to understand each other. Thrumsing
La and a seven-hour drive separates Ura from Mongar in the East.
The journey is one of the most beautiful in all the Himalayas. Rising
out of Ura, the highway climbs steeply to the highest pass (3,800
meters, 12,800 ft.) along the West-East highway at Thrumsing La
(during the Winter the pass can be closed for several days after
snowfalls) where the mountains of east Bhutan can be seen during
The descent from Thrumsing La to Lingmithang is astonishing
for several reasons. The road drops from 3,800 meters to a mere
650 meters in only a few hours passing from pine forest through
semi-tropical forest and orange groves. Carved out of the side of
the mountain, here the road follows a sheer cliff face 1000 feet
above the valley floor. Arriving at Mongar marks the beginning of
your eastern Bhutan experience. Towns in eastern Bhutan are built
on the sides of the hills which contrasts to valley floor settlements
in the west. Mongar Dzong was built in 1953 on the orders of the
Third King, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. The Royal Guesthouse is located
near the dzong enjoying a pleasant view from the garden over Mongar
Valley. Some of the finest weaving villages in Bhutan are found
in the Mongar area.
Altitude: 3,773m / 12,375ft.
Trashigang is the eastern-most point on the highway. Eastern residents
use Trashigang to trade and the town itself is usually a hive of activity,
especially around the bus station where buses are frequently leaving
for Thimphu and Paro in the west and Samdrup Jongkhar and India, only
a few hours to the southeast. A short distance is Radhi considered
one of Bhutan's most renowned weaver villages. Trashigang is also
a melting pot of hill tribe people who come to the town to trade. The
villagers of the remote Merak and Sakteng areas
come to Trashigang to trade yak's butter for the provisions that
they need in the mountains. Merak and Sakteng are located about 50
miles east of Trashigang close to the border with India's Arunachal
Trashigang Dzong sits on a jagged piece of land jutting out
from the town and is the first landmark that can be seen from the
road winding up to Trashigang. The Dzong was built in 1659 and commands
a spectacular view over the valley for which it is the administrative
center. The Dzong is significant for the fact that it only has one
Altitude: 1,850m / 6,070ft.
On the drive to Trashi Yangtse you pass the small town of Duxsum
located on the Drangme Chhu and its tributary. It is a few kilometers
past Gom Kora. A large boulder sits in the garden of Gom Kora
(Gomphu Kora) Temple and it is said that if anyone can climb below
the rock and emerge from its summit, he will be forgiven of his sins.
Duxsum is a small weaver's town where you can find a fair amount of
weavers producing some very nice work. The landmark of the town is a
original iron chain suspension bridge built by Thangtong Gyalpo
or Lama Hazampa (Lama Iron-bridge) in the 1600's. Duxsum is
the main supply town for all the high mountain villages that surround
Trashi Yangtse is a small town and a lovely place from where
the visitor can launch a hike into the surrounding countryside. Chorten
Kora is one of the only two such stupas in Bhutan with styles
similar to those found in Nepal and is host to a great festival every
March which attracts all of eastern Bhutan's residents. The Chorten
is entirely whitewashed and ideally situated next to a running brook.
Trashi Yangste is also famous for its hand made wooden bowls and cups
used all over the country. The finest are made from rhododendron burl.
The road from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar
was completed in the early 1960s and enables the eastern parts of
the kingdom to access and benefit from trade with the south as well
as across the border into India. It is possible to drive from Samdrup
Jongkhar to Phuentsholing, the eastern border town, via Assam and
West Bengal of India.
Trashigang the road descends through thick jungle before arriving
at the border town of Samdrup Jongkhar. The town is no more than a
frontier post with a couple of hotels and restaurants. Visitors
can exit Bhutan from Samdrup Jongkhar, instead to driving back all
the way back to Paro or Phuentsholing. Guwahati airport in
India is located about 100 km from the border and from there there
are daily flights to Calcutta and Delhi.