PLACES OF INTEREST

The most popular tours that tourists take in Bhutan are cultural tours in which they travel by road, making one or two-day stops in different towns where they visit nearby spots and sites of interest. You cannot escape the Himalayas when in Bhutan so most of the towns are mountain settlements perched on lofty ridges or spread along the floors and walls of scenic valleys.

The towns can be categorised into three regions:
Western Bhutan – The towns of Thimphu, Phuentsholing, Paro, Haa, Punakha and Wangduephodrang
Central Bhutan – The towns of Trongsa, Jakar and Zhemgang
Eastern Bhutan – The towns of Mongar, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse and SamdrupJongkhar
Thimphu– The capital city
Phuentsholing– The commercial and industrial hub of Bhutan, the town is the point of entry for travelers arriving by road from India.
Paro – The location of the international airport and Taktsang Monastery.
Haa – A northerly town that has been opened to tourism only recently.
Punakha – The former winter capital of Bhutan. It is the winter residence of Je Kehnpo, the chief abbot of Bhutan and the Central Monastic Body.
Wangduephodrang – Historically, a geopolitical stronghold for unifying western, eastern and southern Bhutan.
Trongsa – Once the seat of the Wangchuck dynasty, the town is famous for its dzong and museum dedicated to the monarchy.
Jakar – Arguably Bhutan’s most beautiful valley, it is the birthplace of Buddhism in Bhutan.
Mongar – The largest and most administration-wise important town in eastern Bhutan.
Trashigang – A warm, picturesque administrative town in the east.
Trashiyangtse – The centre of the easternmost and most recently formed district.
SamdrupJongkhar – An industrial and commerical town in the southeast, near the Indian border.

While the wider, paddy cultivated valleys of western and central Bhutan are the most visited, eastern Bhutan remains less developed and less explored by tourism. However with the completion of the domestic airport at Yonphula, the east is going to be a prominent landmark on the tourism map of Bhutan. All regions are adequately connected by electricity, telecommunication and road networks.

If you don’t want to trek Bhutan’s mountain trails, you can always travel by road. The roads are comfortable enough and offer stunning views at every twist and turn. The road connecting Bumthang and Mongar at Thrumshingla Pass (alt. 3750 meters) is the highest in the country and is especially picturesque.

DZONGS& SACRED SITES

Dzongs are ancient fortresses that still serve as civil administration and monastic centres, just as they have for centuries. They were originally built at different times in Bhutan’s history by different personalities of note, most notably the country’s 17th century unifier, ZhabdrungNgawangNamgyel. These impressive, imposing architectural marvels, which are repositories of living and medieval art, can be found in every district. The best known of these are:

Tashichhodzong: Literally meaning ‘The Fortress of the Glorious Religion,’Tashichhodzong sits in the heart of Thimphu valley. Besides housing the offices of His Majesty the King and other important government agencies, it is also the summer residence of the Je Khenpo (chief abbot) and the Central Monastic Body he heads.

PunakhaDzong: Built on the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, this recently renovated structure is where His Majesty the King was crowned in 2008, in the tradition of previous Kings before him. Also known as ‘The Palace of Happiness,’PunakhaDzong houses the country’s most sacred religious relic, the RangjungKharsapani, and is the winter residence of the Je Khenpo and the Central Monastic Body.

TrongsaDzong: Originally built in 1648, TrongsaDzong is built on split levels as different historical personalities added sections to it over the years. That is why it is the longest dzong in the country. It was from herethat the First and Second Kings ruled the country. The ‘Fortress on the tip of a Conch,’ is thus the ancestral home of the ruling Wangchuck dynasty.

DrukgyelDzong: ‘The Fortress of the Victorious Bhutanese’ was built overlooking the northern entry into Paro valley in 1646 by ZhabdrungNgawangNamgyel to commemorate his victory over Mongol forces. Its strategic location continued to serve well as it was used to repel a succession of invading Tibetan armies. However, the dzong did not survive a fire that razed it to the ground in 1951.

Lhakhangs

Lhakhangs are monasteries or temples that, to the foreign eye, resemble dzongs in their architecture but serve purely spiritual purposes. Constructed to mark religiously significant sites or occasions, lhakhangs can be found dotting hillsides all across the country. The most notable lhakhangs are:

Taktsang(Tiger's Nest): Touted as one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world, Taktsang in Paro is built on the face of a 1,200 meter cliff. The eighth century Buddhist mystic, Guru Rinpoche (a.k.a. Guru PadmaSambhava, the Lotus-born), is said to have landed here on the back of a flying tiger on his second visit to Bhutan. Bhutan's best known sacred site was completely destroyed by a fire in 1998 but was rebuilt with an urgent government initiative to its former glory.

KurjeLhakhang:This distinctive temple in Bumthang is built around a cave with a body print of Guru Rinpoche embedded in the wall. The body print is said to be the result to the Guru’s heat emissions when he practiced meditation here on his first visit to Bhutan. The name means the monastery of the body imprint. It is, as such, the earliest Buddhist relic in Bhutan.

ChimmiLhakhang: Built on a gentle hillock overlooking the PunatsangChhuriver, ChimmiLhakhang stands almost five kilometres equidistant from the dzongs of Punakha and Wangduephodrang. It marks the site where the eccentric Buddhist saint known as The Divine Madman, Lam DrukpaKuenley, is said to have subdued a powerful demoness. Scores of childless couples, even foreigners, are known to visit the temple seeking the saint’s blessings of fertility.

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