Attractions in Bhutan encompass religious sites, remote traditional communities, unspoiled natural vistas, and the breathtaking magnificence of the high Himalayas. The country’s 20 unique districts all hold numerous natural and man made landmarks, with the prearranged tours and their professional guides able to cover premier sites, giving the best views, most famous temples, and most authentic settlements.
Buddha Dordenma Statue
The 51 meter statue of Buddha Shakyamuni sits atop a hill overlooking the Thimphu valley. Buddha Dordenma statue is one of the most prominent landmarks of Thimphu city. The statue was built to fulfill an ancient prophecy to emanate an aura of happiness and peace around the world. The gigantic structure houses 125,000 gilded Buddha statues, an extensive alter and a meditation hall. Adjacent to the statue is the Kuenselphodrang nature park. The park established to conserve the natural environment around the monumental complex. There is a bicycling trail and hiking trail through the woods for adventure seekers.
A line of bamboo huts stretches along the main street of Thimphu city. The craft bazaar has a collection of local handicrafts and souvenirs. The handicraft products on display embody the traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. Certain handicrafts are indigenous to some of the rural areas in Bhutan and are directly sourced from these areas. The sales proceed from the market goes to the local artists. Products on display include prayer beads, brass Buddha statue, wooden bowls, assortment of textile products and paintings.
Centenary Farmer’s Market
Fresh organic local produce from across the country are brought to the centenary farmer’s market in Thimphu every weekend and the residents of Thimphu ration and schedule their weekly grocery shopping over the weekend. The foot traffic at the weekend market peaks at around noon till the late afternoon. The farmer’s market has shopkeepers of all ages from young students pitching in to help their parents to old farmers who take great pride in their produce. The availability of seasonal vegetables and prized mushrooms break the monotonous consumption of regular produce available in the market. The centenary farmer’s market forms a symbiotic relationship between the farmers and the middle working class population. Farmers are rewarded for their hard work and the resident shoppers are blessed with variety of nutritious organic produce.
Folk Heritage Museum
The museum is a heritage preservation project. The museum is a restored one and a half century old traditional Bhutanese house from the medieval era. The centrally located museum structure offers tourists a great juxtaposition of the old standing proud amongst the modern structures sprouting around it. With extensive research and collection of ancient tools and artifacts, the interior of the house maintains an 18th century setting. A walk around the house can give tourists an understanding to the traditional Bhutanese way of life.
The three story house was built with mud rammed walls and timbers. The noticeable feature of the house is its wooden shingle roof grounded with sporadic placement of stone over the shingles. The house has an enclosed open courtyard. The enclosed space protected the livestock from the wild predators. Traditionally the basement was used as animal shed and the middle floor was used as storage facility. In the facility, tourists will find antique farming tools and storage equipment. The top floor was reserved for the family.
National Institute of Zorig Chusum
The vocational training institute in Thimphu trains students in the 13 arts and crafts of Bhutan. Some of it includes the art of painting, sculpting, calligraphy and woodcraft. During the visit, tourists can catch a live demonstration of the students perfecting their craft, interact with the students, explore their gallery and visit the souvenir shop. The traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan is directly associated with our religion and hence considered sacred and is a respected art form.
The Takin Preserve
Nestled in the woods and away from the nuisance of the city, tourists will find the national animal of Bhutan grazing away peacefully. A dedicated team is committed to ensure that the environment is congenial for these mammals. A well maintained footpath through the woods takes tourist around the zoo. The synergy of the gentle stream flowing adjacent the footpath and quiet surrounding rewards tourists with a refreshing walk.
The memorial chorten in Thimphu was built in the honor of the Third King of Bhutan. The Tibetan style white washed stupa is crowned with a golden crescent moon and the sun. The monument attracts many religion faithful early in the morning to circumambulate while the commuters to work and students hastily complete their worship ritual and leave the complex. As the day warms up, an influx of senior citizens gather around the monument to recite prayers and also find good company that will keep them engaged for the rest of the days.
The stupa has beautiful mandalas painted on the walls and ceilings. A circular stairs takes tourists to the second and the third floor where they can come out to the open balcony and take in an amazing view of the Thimphu city.
Dzong (Fortress) symbolizes the presence and recognition of a central authority and sovereignty. Tashichodzong is situated on the bank of the Wangchhu River adjacent to the National Parliament House of Bhutan. Under the command of the Third King the Dzong was renovated extensively in 1962. The entire Dzong was rebuilt without nails or written plans. In the past, the National Assembly met within the Dzong.
Today it houses the Office of His Majesty of Bhutan. Dictated by tradition, the Dzong also houses important government offices and accommodates the state monk body. The Dzong also encompasses many sacred shrines. The open courtyard next to the Dzong observes the popular Thimphu mask dance festival.
The Chelela Pass at 3988 meters separates Paro and Haa valley. It is one of the highest motor able passes in the country. Traces of animism culture still prevail and mountain passes across the country are considered sacred and often marked with a Buddhist stupa and colorful prayer flags. The 35 kilometer drive from Paro to the highland is ideal for a day excursion. If the weather permits, tourists can catch a spectacular view of the Mount Jomolhari and the Paro valley.
From Chelela, tourists can continue west and descend to explore the Haa valley or return to Paro. From the pass, there is a hiking trail along the ridge. Tourists will experience another 500 meter elevation through the course of the hike. Tourists will also come across exotic flowers including Blue poppies and yak herds depending on the season of travel. The hike will peak at a sky burial spot from which hikers can both choose to return or descend to Kila Gompa nunnery and complete the trail.
Drugyel Dzong translates to the Fortress of the Victorious Drukpas. The fort was built to commemorate its victory against the Tibetan invasion in 1649. The Dzong was strategically built as a defense fort to counter probable future invasion from the north. The fort is built atop a rocky hill with only one accessible entry and making it impenetrable from all other sides. The entry was heavily guarded by prominent towers. An underground tunnel leading to the river is said to have existed. The tunnel allowed the soldiers to fetch water safely during war. Over half a century after this glorious fortress was reduced to ruins in an unfortunate fire incident, the Dzong is finally being restored to its former glory.
Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro is associated with mythical tale of a Buddhist Tibetan King who built 108 temples in one day to subdue an ogress. The demon thwarted the spread of Buddhism. While majority of the 108 temples were built in Tibet, two were built in Bhutan. Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang. The Lhakhang is ten minute drive away from Paro town. The temple’s inner sanctum includes the statue of the future Buddha (Jowo Jampa) and a statue of the present Buddha Shakyamuni.
Paro Rinpung Dzong is built atop a hill overlooking the Paro valley across the Pa Chhu River. As tourists exit the Paro International airport and approach the Paro town, this majestic fort imposes its commanding presence. The 17th century architectural marvel is the seat of Paro district administration and the state monk body. Every spring on the 10th day of the second lunar month, thousands of people from across the country and tourists will congregate at the open courtyard of this fort to witness the popular mask dance festival known as the Paro Tsechu.
The Dzong is approached by a traditional cantilever bridge roofed with wooden shingles and onto a gently sloping cobblestone path leading towards the Dzong. The Fort has a five storied central tower and open courtyard enclosed by high rising walls that complete the exterior block. A closer inspection to the structural aesthetics of the fort, tourists can see the spectacular traditional woodwork design and paintings that glorify this ancient fort. The central tower houses the shrine of the guardian deities.
Paro Ta Dzong National Museum
Ta Dzong translates to watch tower. The national museum was originally built as a watch tower above the Paro Dzong. Unlike other Dzongs in the country, Ta Dzong has a cylindrical structure. The sturdy watch tower has a two and a half meter thick wall with traditional windows at every level around the structure. There are historical accounts of the watch tower being used as a prison during the times of war.
After remaining uninhabited for a long time, His Majesty the Third King commanded the restoration of the tower and was inaugurated as a textile museum in 1968. Today the museum has many ancient artifacts and natural history on display. Some of the highlights include an egg laid by a mule, a horse horn, stone axe which dates back to the Stone Age.
Paro Taktsang Monastery
Taktsang translates to The Tiger’s Nest. The monastery is situated 900 meters above the Paro valley precariously perched on a cliff. It has an equally fascinating history. According to the legend, Guru Rinpoche flew to the current site of the monastery riding atop a tigress and meditated in a cave for 3 years 3 months and 3 days to subdue an evil force and bless the land. The monastery was subsequently constructed at the site in 1692. Guru Rinpoche is a Buddhist saint who according to history introduced Buddhism in Bhutan.
About 20 minutes’ drive from the town, tourists will arrive at the base of the monastery and continue an uphill climb on foot. The Tiger’s Nest is the most visited tourist attraction in Bhutan and owing to its history; it is also one of the most sacred religious site in the country. The wide dirt trail takes hikers through the pine forest. As the hike reach its summit, tourists can take in the spectacular panoramic view of the valley below and a close up view of the monastery above seemingly floating in the sky.
Zhabdrung built the Punakha Dzong in 1637. According to the narratives, the chief carpenter “Zow Balep” who was commissioned to construct the Dzong had a vision of the impressive architectural design of the Dzong in his dream which was then actualized. The Dzong was invaded twice by the Tibetan troops in 1639 and 1644. The Tibetan invasion failed on both accounts. There are also stories about the Tibetan commander publicly accepting the defeat to Zhabdrung. To commemorate the victory, a festival known as the Punakha Domche was celebrated. This tradition is continued even today where men play a role of Pazaps (Victorious soldiers) and reenact the war. Another significant event that took place in the Dzong was the institution of Monarchy in Bhutan by crowing Ugyen Wangchuck as the First King. Punakha valley was the first capital of Bhutan and Dzong served as the seat of the central Government.
The Dzong is built on the confluence of the Pho (Male) Chhu and Mo (Female) Chhu River. A three steep wooden staircases lead into the Dzong. The staircases were designed to be removed during the times of war making the Dzong impenetrable. The Dzong has a six storied central tower which houses the most sacred relic in the country. The relic is a self-created image of the Bodhisattva of compassion. The assembly hall for the monks known as the Kunrey houses a gigantic statue of Buddha, Zhabdrung and Guru Rinpoche. One of the temples within the Dzong has the embalmed body of Zhabdrung. Zhabdrung is known for unifying modern day Bhutan. As a tradition, all Kings begin their reigns by offering prayer at this shrine.
Also known as the temple of fertility, the temple in Punakha valley was built in the honor of the Tibetan Buddhist saint Drukpa Kuenley. He was not the stereotypical Buddhist master and his indulgence in alcohol, music and women were widely known. He was known for his unorthodox way of preaching Buddhism and offering blessing through physical intimacy. During his travel across the country, he advocated painting phallus on the wall of the houses to drive away evil and to flourish harmony in the community. Thus he was known as the Divine Madman.
It is a local tradition where childless couples visit the temple to offer prayers. The monk blesses the couple with a wooden phallus which is believed to have the power to help the couple conceive a child. The rising popularity of this tradition has seen many couple tourists visit the place in hopes of conceiving a child.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten
The idyllic Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten is built on a ridge in the northern countryside of Punakha valley. It takes 30 minute drive to reach the countryside from Punakha town and the journey continues for another 45 minutes on foot. Hikers will start the hike through the paddy fields. The way the terraces are built fed by the irrigation channel, hiking during the plantation or the harvesting season offers a scenic view of the countryside. At the base of the hill, the real trail begins through the pine forests. Upon arrival hikers can enjoy the spectacular view of the valley below.
Phobjikha valley is situated in central Bhutan. It is part of an important wildlife preserve because the open marshland is home to the endangered black necked cranes. Other inhabitants included the red foxes, leopards, wild boars and the Himalayan black bears. The cranes fly south every winter to the valley before black to Tibet early spring.
The small local community in Phobjikha cooperate with the wildlife protection agencies in preserving the habitat thus limit their human activities to a confined area. Phobjikha valley is one of the most idyllic places in Bhutan. The community has a 16th century Gangtey monastery built on a ridge overlooking the valley. The tranquility of the valley is popular with tourists practicing meditation. The monastery has small guesthouses and meditation centers. The valley also offers multiple hiking trails. The community celebrates an annual crane festival to promote and raise awareness for the conservation of the ecosystem.
Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang is associated with mythical tale of a Buddhist Tibetan King who built 108 temples in one day to subdue an ogress. The demon thwarted the spread of Buddhism. While majority of the 108 temples were built in Tibet, two were built in Bhutan, Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro and Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang.
The end of last civil war fought in the country was marked with the construction of a Kalachakra – wheel of time in the Jampa Lhakhang by Ugyen Wangchuck, the First King of Bhutan. The name Jampa Lhakhang is derived from the temple’s main relic, Jowo Jampa.
Ugyen Choling Palace
Located in Tang valley under Bumthang district, Ugyen Choling palace is an ancestral home turned into a museum. The restored traditional house has preserved its medieval ambiance and the much of the décor inside the house are the original content from the ancient era. It has history associated with great Buddhist masters and hence the chapel in the complex is considered sacred. Today the revived complex also has guest houses, extensive exhibitions and the privately owned property aims to provide a place for religious studies, research and a retreat center.
Ura under Bumthang district is a secluded village about 50 kilometers away from Bumthang town en route to eastern region of Mongar district. A cluster of approximately 40 households encloses their community Lhakhang (temple). The village also has a central school where students from across the central region of Bhutan come to study. Owing to its high altitude, locals mostly raise yaks and sheep. The idyllic village comes to life on a local festival known as the Ura Yakchoe.
The king of Bumthang region in the 8th century fell terribly ill after falling out with the local guardian deity. Desperate to recover from the curse, he invited Guru Rinpoche to Bumthang to help the King regain his health. Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave to subdue the local deity and obliged in restoring the health of the King. Imprints of Guru’s body remained in that cave and thus the name Kurje which means the imprint of the body.
In 1652, first Governor of Trongsa constructed a temple enclosing the cave. Today there are three main Lhakhang within the Kurje complex. It is also believed that the cypress tree near the entrance is an offshoot of Guru Rinpoche’s walking stick.
Terton according to the Buddhist mythology are prophesied incarnated beings whose calling is to discover treasure hidden by their great master Guru Rinpoche. Terton Pema Lingpa had such a vision. In his vision, it was revealed to him that there was a treasure hidden in the lake waiting to be discovered. The local community however was cynical. Before the gathered crowd, Pema Lingpa jumped into the lake holding a lit butter lamp. He is said to have resurfaced from the lake with the treasure and the lamp still lit. Thus the lake came to be known as the Mebar Tsho which translates to the burning lake.
Takila Guru Statue
The community of Menbi under Lhuentse district exists harmoniously under the grace of a 157 feet statue of Guru Nangsey Zilnon built on top of a hill overlooking the valley. The road to the statue complex passes through the community paddy fields and the village. Depending on the season of travel, the approach is particularly scenic during spring season with lush green paddy fields and the fall season when the paddy transforms into a field of golden glaze ready for harvest. From the monument complex, the view of the valley below looks quite spectacular.
Since its consecration, it has attracted many local and foreign devotees which have boosted the community economy. Bed and Breakfast accommodation services have boomed and this offers an authentic farm stay experience in this quaint village for tourists.
The semi nomadic people known as brokpas inhabit the merak village. The village is situated in the eastern region of Bhutan at an altitude of 3500 meters. It has a settlement of about thirty households. The region is also known as the valley of Yeti (the abominable snowman). Locals claim the existence of this mythical creature although no scientific evidence is available to substantiate their claim. The highlanders sustain their lives raising yaks and sheep. Fermented yak cheese is a delicacy in the region. Brokpas either barter or sell their limited produce to procure other basic needs. The brokpas have a distinct culture. They have their own dialect and a unique outfit. Men wear a thick red wool coat and women wear a red and white striped dress. Men are further adorned with animal skins.
Mornings in this village are sublime. The village remains covered in the mist. Locals build fire to keep themselves warm against the chilly morning. A hearty breakfast is served with a yak butter salted tea by the fire. This experience is a true getaway from the modern world.
Chorten Kora monument is a replica of the Boudhanath temple of Nepal. An annual event known as the Dakpa Kora draws people from across the country and the neighboring Indian district of Arunachal Pradesh. Devotees circumambulate for days. According to the legend, a Dakini from Arunachal Pradesh entombed herself inside the temple. It was an act of sacrifice for the greater good of the people. Dakpa Kora is a memorial of that event.
Textiles sourced from finest raw materials and woven by skilled reputed weavers are associated with affluent societies in the country. It preserved as collectibles passed on for generations and is worn with pride. The coveted Kishuthara is a silk textile sourced from Khoma village. The weaving skill of the women in Khoma village is unparalleled. The silk fabrics are considered a premium and the intricate pattern design takes intense labor. It takes up to six months or more to produce one complete product. Traditionally the textile is used to produce the national dress for women however other range of accessories such as bags is also made. While visiting the village, tourists can watch these women work the traditional back loom and their skillful art work and also consider buying their product.