Townships of Bhutan
Discover the spirit of the Dragon Kingdom
Against a backdrop of spectacular scenery, and with their continued adoption of traditional architecture, it often appears as though time has stood still in Bhutan’s villages and townships. Exploring them will reveal a gracious people dedicated to preserving their country’s natural beauty and timeless, daily rituals.
Ours Bhutan tours all visit Bhutan’s charming towns long isolated from the modern world where you will really discover the spirit of the Bhutanese people. The larger cultural centres of Paro and Thimphu also provide an opportunity to delve deeper into Bhutan’s unique artistic and historical heritage.
Below are details about the larger townships and places to visit that you may like to include in your Bhutan tour.
The picturesque Paro Valley (2,250m) region is one of the widest valleys in the kingdom and is covered in fertile rice fields and has a beautiful, crystalline river meandering through it. Accentuating its natural beauty are the many elegant, traditional-style houses that dot the valley and surrounding hills. Paro town has been growing rapidly in recent years and there are plenty of restaurants, bakeries and cafes to choose from. The central plaza is adorned with a large prayer wheel and a small amphitheater at which events such as concerts are organized.
Visitors often spend several days in Paro as there are over 155 temples and monasteries in the area, some dating as far back as 7th Century. Among them is the temple that is considered Bhutan’s most iconic landmark Taktsang Monastery, the Tiger’s Nest. This awe-inspiring temple was constructed upon a sheer cliff face, hundreds of meters above forests of oak and rhododendrons and the valley floor. Dzongdrakha Temple and Kila Gompa are other examples of cliff-side temples that are also located in the Paro area.
Paro is also home to the National Museum. The Museum is set in Paro Ta Dzong, an ancient watchtower that now displays hundreds of ancient Bhutanese artefacts and artwork including traditional costumes, armour, weaponry and handcrafted implements for daily life. The collection at the National Museum preserves a snap-shot of the rich cultural traditions of the country.
Other sites worth visiting when in Paro are the ancient Drugyel Dzong ruins, also known as ‘The Fortress of the Victorious Bhutanese’, and 7th Century Kyichu Temple. Paro is also the site of Bhutan’s only International Airport.
Located South West of Paro, the Haa Valley is one of the most beautiful and smallest regions of Bhutan, adorned with pristine alpine forests and tranquil mountain peaks. Haa is the ancestral home of the Queen Grandmother and the illustrious Dorji family. This valley remains one of the least visited areas in the country and retains the air of an unspoiled, primeval forest. The wooded hills of Haa feature a number of temples and provide an ideal location for hiking and mountain biking. Amongst the interesting sites to visit in Haa include Chhundu Lhkhang, dedicated to the valley’s protecting deity, 7th century Lhakhang Karpo (white) and Lhakhang Karpo (black) and Haa Dzong. Haa is home to a number of nomadic herders and hosts an annual Summer Festival that showcases their unique lifestyle and culture. The festival is an ideal occasion to immerse yourself into the traditions and unchanged lifestyles of nomadic Bhutanese herders, as well as to sample some delectable Haapi cuisine.
Bhutan’s capital city of Thimphu (2,350m) is the main centre of commerce, religion and government in the country, and home to the Royal Family. Although it is the most modern city in Bhutan with an abundance of restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and shopping centres, it still manages to retain its cultural identity and values.
Thimphu features a number of historical sites and striking landmarks including Tashichhodzong, the seat of the Royal Government and Central Monastic Body, the National Memorial Chorten, a monument to Bhutan’s third King and World Peace and Semtokha Dzong, the kingdom’s oldest Dzong. Other highlights include 12th century Changangkha Temple, , the School of Traditional Painting, Drubthob Monastery housing the Zilukha Nunnery, the National Library housing a rare collection of Buddhist scriptures and the lively weekend market.
The imposing Buddha Dordenma Statue is located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang ature Park and overlooking the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley. It is made of Bronze and gilder gold and stands 51.5 meters tall making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world.
The juxtaposition of ancient tradition and modernity make Thimphu the ideal location for visitors to break away from their tour itinerary and just immerse themselves in the lifestyle of contemporary Bhutanese.
Dochula Pass (3,300m) is located about 30 kilometres out of Thimphu on the road to Punakha. The pass offers a stunning panoramic view of the Himalayan mountain range. The view is especially scenic on clear, winter days with snow-capped mountains forming a majestic backdrop to the tranquillity of the prayer flags and 108 chortens gracing the mountain pass. Known as the Druk Wangyal Chortens, the construction of these108 chortens was commissioned by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.
The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple) was built in honour of His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The past and future appears to merge in the details of the Lhakhang and its structure tells the story of a supreme warrior figure, whose vision pierces the distant future in a fine blend of history and mythology.
As its ancient capital, Punakha (1,310m) has been inextricably linked with momentous occasions throughout Bhutanese history. It was here in 1907 that Bhutan’s first king was crowned. The centrepiece of the valley is the Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and the second largest dzong in Bhutan. It is situated on a triangular spit of land at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Pho Chu rivers and is one of the most majestic structures in the country. It features a six-storied structure with a central tower or Utse at an average elevation of 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) with a scenic, mountainous background. The three story main temple of the Punakha Dzong is a stunning example of traditional architecture with four intricately embossed entrance pillars crafted from cypress and decorated in gold and silver.
In addition to its structural beauty, Punakha Dzong is notable for containing the preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifer of Bhutan as well as a sacred relic known as the Ranjung Karsapani. This relic is a self-created image of Avalokiteswara that miraculously emerged from the vertebrae of Tsangpa Gyarey, the founder of the Drukpa School when he was cremated.
Other highlights include Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten with its complex Nyingmapa iconography and Chimi Lhakhang, dedicated to Bhutan’s popular saint Drukpa Kuenley, otherwise known as the “divine madman” due to his unorthodox religious teaching.
Punakha valley has a pleasant climate with warm winters and hot summers. It is located at an average elevation of 1200 metres above sea level. Owing to the favorable climatic conditions, rice grows very well in this region and is the main cash crop cultivated here.
Phobjikha Valley (2,900m) is often described as “the most beautiful valley in the most beautiful country in the Himalayas”. Located in the Black Mountains, the valley is the winter habitat of the rare and endangered Black Necked Cranes that roost there during their annual migrations. The residents of the valley have garnered much acclaim for their conservation efforts to preserve the habitat of these beautiful birds. Every year the Black Necked Crane Festival is held in Phobjikha in order to protect and spread awareness of the cranes. The Festival includes songs, masked dances and plays by the local school children. This event is one of the most unique and popular festivals in the country.
Gangtey, located a few kilometres above the valley features a very interesting 17th century Nyingmapa monastery situated atop a hill at an altitude of 2800m. Known for its lovely paintings and statues, it is ringed with family houses of the gomchen, the religious laymen who worship the work at the monastery.
Trongsa, the ancestral home of Bhutan’s ruling dynasty is located in central Bhutan and was considered crucial to controlling the kingdom in earlier years due to its strategic position. The town is situated on a steep ridge and offers spectacular views of the deep valleys surrounding it.
Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan’s largest Dzong was built in 1648, and is the location where the institution of Bhutan’s monarchy began. Both the first and second kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat. The dzong is a massive structure with many levels and 22 temples built into the complex. Because of the dzong’s highly strategic position, on the only connecting route between east and west, in historic times the Trongsa Penlop (“governor”) was able to control effectively the whole of the central and eastern regions of the country from here.
Trongsa also boasts an impressive museum located in the Watchtower above Trongsa Dzong. The Trongsa Ta Dzong Museum houses a fascinating collection of historical artefacts of the Royal Family including the Raven Crown worn by the 1st King of Bhutan and a range of traditional armour. Nearby there are also a number of impressive palaces built by former Kings including Kuenga Rabten Palace and Yurungchhoeling Palace.
En route to Trongsa is Chendebji Chorten, patterned on Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points. It was built in the 18th century by Lama Zhida to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was subdued at this spot. Legend says that the evil spirit manifested as a gigantic snake.
The Bumthang region, spanning from 2,600-4,500m is the religious heartland of the nation and home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. It is distinguished in history as the first place Buddhism was introduced to Bhutan by Guru Rimpoche. Tales of Guru Rimpoche and the tertons (“religious treasure-discoverers”) still linger in this sacred region.
The region consists of four main valleys Ura, Chumey, Tang and Choekhor. This serene region is one of the most peaceful places in the kingdom, with broad and gentle valleys covered in fields of buckwheat, rice and potatoes and populated with numerous historic palaces, numerous temples and important ancient Buddhist sites.
Jambey Lhakhang is an ancient temple built by the King Songtsen Gampo in 659 A.D. as part of a chain of 108 simultaneously constructed temples in order to subdue an evil demoness that lay over the Himalayan region. It is the oldest lhakhang in Bhutan. Kurje Lhakhang is home to a rock featuring the imprint of Guru Rimpoche’s body, whilst Tamshing Monastery contains some of the oldest wall paintings in Bhutan.
Other highlights in the Bumthang Valley include the 16th century Ugyen Chholing Palace complex housing a fascinating museum, 14th century Tang Rimochen Lhakhang where Guru Rinpoche meditated and Mebar Tsho (Burning Lake), where some of Guru Rinpoche’s treasures were found in the 15th century by the famous treasure discover Pema Lingpa.