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Visit Punakha Monastery, Bhutan

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Essential Bhutan

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If this is your first Bhutan travel experience, there are some iconic cities, sites and destinations located throughout the country that are simply a must-see for first-time travel to Bhutan, which include Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, the Bumthang Valley and Trongsa. If this is your second trip to Bhutan or you prefer to venture off the beaten path, explore our Extended Bhutan page.

Paro

The site of Bhutan's only airport, Paro will be your first introduction to the kingdom unless you choose to travel overland from India. Small in scale and pastoral in feel, it is extraordinarily scenic and is also home to one of Bhutan's most impressive dzongs (fortress monasteries). Visit the Paro Dzong, which dominates the valley.

Here you will see one of the finest examples of Bhutanese architecture and get a feel for a working monastery that houses hundreds of monks.

The Ta Dzong (National Museum) towers above the Paro Dzong. Viewing its well-interpreted collection of historic artifacts makes for a great introduction to Bhutan culture. Its six floors house ancient and recent paintings, bronze and stone objects, and a four-sided carving that depicts the history of Buddhism.

Just north of Paro is the Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the most sacred temples in Bhutan. Bhutanese history books say that this temple was one of 108 temples built in a single day in 659 AD by Songtsen Gampo of Tibet for the specific purpose of pinning down an ogress who, covering all of Bhutan and Tibet, was impeding the spread of Buddhism in the area. Pilgrims come from all over the region to worship at this sacred site.

At the head of the Paro Valley are the ruins of the once massive Drukgyel Dzong. This fortress sat along a strategic route to Tibet and once provided protection from invasion from the north. From a vantage point on top of the ruins one can see the picturesque Paro Valley below and sacred Jhomolhari Mountain above.

The iconic Taktshang Monastery (Tiger's Nest) is recognizable at first sight as the most famous of Bhutan's monasteries and is a must-see. It clings dramatically to a cliff almost 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley floor. Unfortunately, it suffered great fire damage in 1998 and may only be visited inside with a special permit. However, a small café and a mountainside viewpoint are accessible by a round-trip walk of about four hours. The journey can be made on horseback by prior arrangement.

Thimphu

Thimphu is the capital city and Bhutan's cultural heartland. It's a laid-back town amidst rolling hills and a beautiful, winding river, and is said to be the only national capital in the world without traffic lights. A traffic light was installed at one point-it was greeted with dismay by the public as being too impersonal, was promptly dismantled, and the traffic cop was put back in place.

The imposing Tashichhodzong dominates the valley. This capitol building is the office of the reigning king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk. Here the king and the Je Khenpo (supreme religious leader) rule side-by-side to provide for the welfare of their people's secular and spiritual well being. The nation's first democratic elections in 2008 and reforms mandated by the last king are propelling Bhutan into the modern era as a constitutional democracy. The king is still the head of the state, while the elected Prime Minister is the head of the government and occupies an office in the parliament building, located just across the river.

Thimphu is also home to the Memorial Chorten, built to honor the memory of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who is generally credited with ushering in the progressive social reforms that currently shape domestic policy. It is the focus of daily worship for many of Thimphu's citizens who walk in clockwise circumambulations around the structure.

If you are in Thimphu on a weekend, don't miss the weekend market, a great place to pick up handicrafts or just wander about. Or perhaps check out the national pastime of Bhutan at an archery tournament, or at least a boisterous practice session, which are also usually held on weekends on a large target field near the stadium.

Outside of Thimphu is the dramatically set Tango Goemba, roughly a half-hour drive plus a steep hour-and-a-half walk away. Here amidst the pine forest, clinging to the cliff side, is a half-round building, commissioned in the 17th century by Desi Tenzin Rabgye, a descendant of one of Bhutan's most well-loved figures, Lama Drukpa Kunley, "The Divine Madman."

Punakha

From Thimphu, a beautiful two-and-a-half-hour drive northeast through various ecosystems brings you to Punakha. Along the way, you will ascend the Dochu La Pass (3,150 meters or 10,332 feet), which is marked at the summit by prayer flags.

You may also stop at the Chimi Lhakhang, a fertility temple, built by "The Divine Madman." His humorous and shocking antics and many sexual exploits were meant to shake up a stodgy clergy and reveal the true nature of Buddhism to the people. The cheerful flying phallus that one sees painted on homes is a tribute to this saint, whose presence distracts and thus repels evil spirits. Women hoping to bear children ask for fertility blessings at Chimi Lhakang. You may see grateful couples with newborn infants making a pilgrimage to the shrine in thanks.

Once in Punakha, visit the Punakha Dzong, recently renovated due to damage caused by a fire in 1986. Traditional building techniques were used that eschew the use of nails, plans or power tools.

About an hour's drive from Punakha is Wangdue Phodrang, home to the famous Wangdue Dzong, which sits high atop a ridge with views of the beautiful valley below.

Next, take a drive to the wonderful Phobjikha Valley, a designated conservation area that is home to a picturesque agrarian village and, in the cold months, a population of migrating black-necked cranes from Tibet. The Bhutanese hold these stately birds in high regard. On a walk you may also spot barking deer and the Himalayan black bear, as well as fox and numerous bird species. Remarkably, there are no telephones or electrical lines in the region as the currents are thought to disturb wildlife.

Bumthang Valley

Only about 20% of annual visitors make it this far, so a trip here is both unusual and delightful. This four-fingered valley embodies the essence of Bhutan-traditional villages, historic monasteries, pristine natural beauty, gentle walks and challenging treks through the heartland. Explore its many amazing monuments, including the imposing Jakar Dzong for a beautiful view of the valley.

According to Bhutanese history books, Guru Rinpoche, the central figure in Tantric Buddhism, visited this valley in the 8th century. He hid treasures of enlightenment, called terma, throughout the valley and Bhutan. These treasures of spiritual or socially beneficial significance may be found by a "revealer" and once they are, they bestow good tidings upon the land. A monument will commemorate the revealing. Kurjey Lhakhang is the monastery where Guru Rinpoche meditated. It is said one can see the imprint of his body in the rock where he sat.

One of the greatest "revealer of treasures" was Pema Lingpa. Visit the Tamshing Goemba, which he founded in 1501. This goemba contains exquisite paintings and statuary said to date back to the time of the great revealer himself.

An interesting stop can be made at the Swiss Guest House, cornerstone of the large Swiss Project that has helped Bumthang farmers upgrade their agricultural practices. Savor fresh-baked bread, homemade jam, cheese and tea. It is possible to visit the home compound of a local farming family to learn of their daily life, see their traditions, and enjoy conversation, local snacks and tea.

From there, embark on a steep one-hour walk to Ugyen Chholing Palace. This remote palace dates from the 16th century and has an interesting collection of masks, rhino-hide shields and other weapons dating back to conflict with invading Tibetans.

Ura is a picturesque agrarian village, with cobblestone streets that exudes a medieval feel. In the spring and fall Ura hosts wonderful festivals. Local people, wearing their finest hand-woven clothes, come from miles around (most on foot) to gain the blessings of attendance at these rites and to enjoy the camaraderie of family and friends. Performances of sacred dances go on all day amidst swirling incense, streaming costumes and ancient, magically charged masks.

Trongsa

Don't miss the Trongsa Dzong, the ancestral home of Bhutan's royal family. At one with an undulating ridge top, it is arguably the most impressive dzong in the kingdom.