This travel blog will serve as a comprehensive bhutan travel guide for tourists who are visiting Bhutan. It contains all the relevant information pertaining to visa requirement, transportation, hotels to stay, restaurants to eat and places to visit in Bhutan.
There is certain mysticism about Bhutan which compels you to visit it at least once in your lifetime. This Buddhist country is landlocked from all sides and it shares borders with India and China (including Tibet which is now considered part of China). What makes this peaceful Himalayan kingdom unique is the way it measures its economy. Yes, Bhutan’s economy is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of Gross National Product (GDP). Intrigued? Let me explain.
The GNH’s central tenets are “sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance”. The GNH policy is being pursued vigorously by the Government. Hence, this breathtakingly beautiful “land of the Dragon” is currently the happiest nation in Asia and the eighth happiest country in the world.The currency of Bhutan is the ngultrum (symbol: Nu). It is subdivided into 100 chhertum. 1Nu = $0.02 or Rs. 0.99
Visa and Travel Requirement:
Travelling to Bhutan comes at a cost. A steep one! The tourism sector is not really open as other countries. It is controlled and almost micro managed by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB). TCB has set a minimum daily package that is mandatory for all tourists arriving with a visa. It’s $200 per person per night for off season (January, February, June, July, August & December). During high season (March, April, May, September, October & November) the cost escalates to $250 per person per night.
Well there is more.
This daily charge of $200 / $250 is payable only if you are travelling in a group of 3 or more. Otherwise an additional surcharge of $40 per night is applicable if you are travelling alone. It is reduced to $30 per person per night if you are travelling in a group of 2.
You can only obtain your visa through a TCB certified tour operator. Before landing in Bhutan, you have to wire transfer the full amount along with $40 as visa fee. Your Visa will be processed by TCB once they receive the full payment. At your point of entry you will be required to show your visa clearance letter. The visa will then be stamped into your passport.
If you look at it closely, the charges although high are justified. TCB has deliberately kept high charges to ensure a smooth travel experience in Bhutan. Their policy is aimed at discouraging unwanted tourists and back-packers. The following is included as part of the minimum charges tourists will pay per day;
A 3 star hotel (4 & 5 star will require an additional premium)
A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the entire duration of your stay
All internal transport (internal flights not included)
Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
All internal taxes and fees
A sustainable tourism royalty fee of $65. This Royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure. Free healthcare will also be provided to tourists visiting Bhutan.
Discounts for students:
You’ll get 25% discount if you are a full time student and below the age of 25 years.
One member will get 50% discount on daily package if travelling group is of 11 members.
One member will get 100% discount on daily package if travelling group is more than 16 members.
Long Stay Discount:
If you stay more than 8 days, you’ll get 50% discount on Royalty Fee from 9th day. Finally, if you are staying for more than 15 days, you’ll be exempted from paying the Royalty fee from 15th night.
It’s always advisable to contact a TCB certified Bhutanese Agent. Please note, only TCB approved agents are permitted to conduct tourism in Bhutan. If you go through any other agent, they will have to contact a TCB approved agent to conduct your tour. That agent will keep his margin over and above the charges of a TCB approved agent and you will end up paying a higher price as well.
As mentioned earlier, TCB is almost micro-managing the tourism situation in Bhutan. So tourists need not worry about getting short changed or deceived by tour operators. TCB have very strict policies regarding tourism. One complain of a tourist of an approved registered agent can invite strict action from TCB. Thus these agencies always do their best to please you.
Visa and Travel Requirement for Indians:
Well, in this case, we Indians are a lucky lot. Tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives are exempted from this whole set of rules I have mentioned above. Neither do they need a visa nor did any bookings from a TCB approve agent to visit Bhutan. We do not need to pay the minimal daily tariff of $200/ $250 per person. Though we don’t need a visa, we do need permits to visit Bhutan.
At the border crossing in Phuentsholing we will be issued an entry permit for Thimpu and Paro. It will be valid for seven days. You must carry Passport or Voter ID Card and two passport size photos to get an Entry Permit. You also need to show hotel booking receipt (of at least the first destination where you’d be heading to) as a proof. This rule has been implemented recently. The entry permit can also be obtained from Paro Airport, if we are flying directly over there. There are currently two international carriers flying to Paro. One is Drukair and another one is Bhutan Airlines.
There are two kind of Permits issued to us:
- Entry Permit
This is required to enter Bhutan and can be obtained in 4 ways…
- Bhutan Consulate, Kolkata : If you are from Kolkata, you may apply at Bhutan Consulate there around 3 months in advance to get the permit in advance.
- Border Immigration Office: Whichever border we use to enter Bhutan, we wll be issued this permit on spot. This may take time depending on the number of people in the queue. Please note that Border Immigration Office is closed on Weekends and on Bhutan Govt. Holidays.
- Paro Airport : You’ll be issued the permit irrespective of any day you arrive.
- Online Permit: If you are opting for Online Permit you will have to go through a TCB approved tour operator to get the permit in advance. However conditions apply as you have to mandatorily hire a Guide for the entire duration of your trip.
- ILP (Inner Line Permit)
The entry permit is only valid for travel to Thimpu and Paro. If you want to travel anywhere beyond Thimphu and Paro, you must apply for ILP at Thimphu Immigration Office which is operable Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm.
If you are looking to stay for a longer period in Bhutan, you can also get an Extension Permit for the required number of days from the Immigration Office at Thimpu.
Transportation in Bhutan:
With the exception of India, Bangladesh and Maldives, tourists from other countries need not worry about transportation. The cost of transportation by car with an experienced driver/guide is included in the daily tourism rate. So the tourists need not avail public transport nor bother about hiring any taxi. Visitors are not allowed to rent self driven cars in Bhutan. Looking at the condition of highways and mountain roads it is better to let the locals drive you around this beautiful country.
For tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives, taxis are found in all the major cities and areas. However these taxis are expensive and are not regulated at all. A taxi from Phuentsholing to Thimpu will cost 2600 Nu. Bus services are relatively much cheaper. The bus fare from Phuentsholing to Thimpu will cost 120 Nu. However the buses are perpetually crowded and uncomfortable with poor road conditions making things worse. If you get motion sickness easily you are better off travelling with the more comfortable Toyota Coasters, operated by private operators like Leksol Bus Service and Karma Transport. It costs about 50% more than the normal bus but it is worth it.
My sincere advise to tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives is to hire a 24/7 taxi for the entire duration of your trip. It turns out to be much more reasonable and comfortable as compared to point by point hiring of public transport. In peak season you can hire a small taxi like a Wagon R at 2500 Nu per day. Likewise a bigger taxi like an Innova can be hired at 3500 Nu per day. Jaigon bordering Bhutan has a lot of tour operators servicing Bhutan. It makes sense hiring a taxi from these operators as they tend to be cheaper than the ones available in Bhutan.
Itinerary of Bhutan
So now that we have discussed in detail regarding the visa requirement and transportation facility in Bhutan, what should be the proposed itinerary to cover all the places opened for tourism? There are two entry points to Bhutan, one being in Paro and the other Phuentsholing. Visitors arriving in Paro can avoid Phuentsholing and can start and end their tour of Bhutan at Paro itself. However, the itinerary given below is starting from Phuentsholing.
Arrive at Phuensholing. Do a day’s tour of Phuentsholing and get accustomed to the sights of Bhutan. All attractions in Phuentsholing can be seen in a single day. Stay overnight at Phuentsholing.
Travel from Phuentsholing toParo. It will take approximately 5 hours (165 km) to reach Paro. Spend the late afternoon/ evening doing sightseeing and exploring the local markets at Thimpu. Stay overnight at Thimpu.
Spend the whole day sightseeing at Paro. Lot of attractions to cover such as Rinpung Dzong, National Museum, Kyichu Lhakhang, Drukgyel Dzong, Dzongdrakha Temple and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche Memorial House.
Day trip to Haa Valley. Stay overnight at Paro.
Day trip to Taktsang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) and back. Reserve a full day for a hike to Tiger’s Nest. Start early in the morning. Stay overnight at Paro.
Take a flight from Paro to Bumthang. Reach by noon and take time to get acclimatized to the high altitude of Bumthang Valley. Stay overnight at Bumthang.
Sightseeing at Bumthang. Stay overnight at Bumthang.
Travel from Bumthang to Trongsa. It will take less than four hours (80 km) to reach Trongsa. Do sightseeing at Trongsa. Stay overnight at Trongsa.
Travel from Trongsa to Phobjikha Valley. It will take approximately four hours (85 km) to reach Phobjikha. Enjoy the sights of Phobjikha valley and visit Gangteng monastery. Stay overnight at Phobjikha.
Travel from Phobjikha to Punakha. It will take approximately three hours (71 km) to reach Punakha. Spend the rest of the day exploring all the attractions at Punakha. Stay overnight at Punakha.
Travel from Punakha to Thimpu via Dochula Pass. Thimpu is your last destination. Keep at least two days for enjoying the capital city of Bhutan. Stay overnight at Thimpu.
Spend the whole day sightseeing at Thimpu. Lot of attractions to be covered such as National handicrafts Emporium, National Textile Museum and National Library, Folk Heritage Museum, Takin Preserve, Changangkha Lhakhang and Trashichhoe dzong. Stay overnight at Thimpu.
Travel back to Phuentsholing or Paro to board your train or flight.
Places to visit in Bhutan
So keeping in mind, the above said tinerary, I am giving below the details of all the cities and town along with the attractions that can be visited in Bhutan.
This is place is a border town on Bhutan side neighboring Jaigaon on the Indian side. The nearest railhead to Jaigaon is Hasimara and the nearest airport is Bagdogra. This route is very popular among Indian tourists who prefer to enter Bhutan by road.
Unlike other towns in Bhutan, this place is quite developed. This is one town where you see people of different ethnic groups living harmoniously. Apart from the Bhutanese population, you will see a lot of Indians and Nepalese who are living like locals. There are a lot of hotels and restaurants too in Phuentsholing to cater to the tourists as well as business travelers. The good thing about Phuentsholing is that all the major attractions within the town can be covered in half a day. Following are the places that can be visited:
Zangto Pelri Lhakhang
This Buddhist temple is located near the entry gate of Bhutan in the middle of a garder southwest to the Weekend Market at Phuentsholing. The temple was built by Dasho Aku Tongmi, a musician who composed Bhutan’s national anthem.
The temple houses the exact replica of Guru Rinpoche along with eight life-size statues showing the Guru’s different manifestations. Lot of people visits the temple to perform Parikrama and turn the prayer wheel. Lord Buddha’s paintinga and Statues of Bodhisattvas and Avalokiteshvara adorn the temple whch are very eye-catching among tourists.
Karbandi Monastery is located at 400 metres’s height. It was founded in 1967 and is the winter home of the Royal Grandmother, Ashi Phuntsho Choedron. This monastery also known as Karbandi Goemba is home to the large statues of Guru Rinpoche, Shabdrung Ngawang and Shakyamuni Buddha. Outside the monastery is a beautiful garden from where you can get unparalleled panoramic sights of the Bengal Plain and Phuentsholing town. The vibrant and plush garden is also adorned with eight different types of Tibetan Buddhist Stupas.According to a legend, an Indian pilgrim visited the temple and prayed here for a child. Her wish was granted. This monastery is therefore quite popular and regularly visited by couples who are hoping to conceive a child.
Amo Chhu Crocodile Breeding Centre
This place is a little underwhelming as it is very small with hardly 10 crocodiles/ alligators in it. However, the kids will enjoy this place and you can have fun spending 15-20 minutes over here.
Bhutan Gate is the main gateway of entry from India bordering Jaigaon at the Indian side. This highly decorated gate is etched with traditional Buddhist style patterns. It is one of the most photographed attractions in Bhutan. The moment you enter the gate, you will see a palpable difference in both countries in terms of architecture and town cleanliness.
Recommended Hotel in Phuentsholing: Hotel Druk
Recommended restaurants in Phuentsholing:
- Zen Restaurant at Upper market for Chinese and Asian food
- The Park Restaurant at Park Hotel for Indian food.
This city is the capital of Bhutan. It is the only national capital in the world which does not have a single traffic signal. Whatever traffic is there on the city streets are diverted by traffic policemen in the center of the city with hand signs. This small city is busy, energetic and vibrant where you will see camera toting tourists walking alongside with traditionally garbed locals and fashionably attired gen-next. Thimphu has much to offer in terms of tourist attractions, quaint coffee shops, live bars, tranquil monasteries, local restaurants, branded stores and traditional markets.
Places to visit in Thimpu:
National handicrafts Emporium:
This place is great for buying local handicrafts and souvenirs. Since most of the items are handmade, you will be amazed at the quality of Bhutanese handcraft. They sell stuff like purses, belts, scarves, wooden crafts etc. Most of the tourists make the mistake of buying the same stuff from flea markets in Bhutan at higher prices. Avoid that and come to this place as it will be far more economical with better choices on offer.
The Buddha Dordenma is a great 170 foot gigantic “Shakyamani Buddha” statue places atop a hill in Thimpu Valley. It was built in 2015 to honor the fourth king of Bhutan celebrating his 60th birthday. It is made of bronze and gilded in gold. The massive statue is home to a 125,000 miniature Buddha Statues of sizes 8 to 12 inches. Like the large Buddha, these thousands of miniature Buddhas are also gilded and made of bronze. The statue is visible from almost anywhere in Thimpu.
It’s quite a hike up the stairs to reach the Buddha Dordenma but it is worth it. The place is beautiful and serene and you will spot a lot of monk chanting their prayers. From atop the hill, you will get a wonderful view of Thimpu City.
National Textile Museum:
This museum showcases Bhutanese history and culture through textiles and fabrics. One of the most notable things in Bhutan is the traditional dress worn by the locals. Men wear the Gho, a robe that reaches down to your knees and is tied at the waist by a time honored belt called Kera. Women wear the Kira which is a long length dress up to the ankle. The dress is covered by a light outer jacket called a Tego with an inner layer called Wonju.
This lovely museum is a brand new building and has lots of stairs outside and inside. The architecture is contemporary, the exhibits beautiful. You will be taken to a video room and played a video which describes the various textiles of the country. The clothing of the various tribes in Bhutan will provide you an insight into the diversity of the Bhutanese culture. Take your time and explore the place to see the displays of local garments.
This place is worth a short visit as it houses the largest published book in the world in 2003 called “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey across the Last Himalayan Kingdom”. Its record as the largest published book was broken in 2007. The book weighs over 60kg, is 1.52 mtr high and 2.13 mtr wide. Its pages are turned once in a month. The library also contains ancient Dzongkha and Tibetan archives. It’s one of the few libraries in the world where photography is allowed.
Folk Heritage Museum:
This museum was founded by her Majesty the Queen Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. The place gives you a glimpse of the past lifestyle of a Bhutanese family in Thimpu valley. The museum contains various exhibits that were typically found in an average Bhutanese household like implements, clothes, utensils and weapons. You can get a taste of the rice wine that is brewed here. The museum also has a restaurant which serves a delicious spread of classic Bhutanese cuisine.
Bhutan has a national animal. It is called Takin. The animal looks like a cross between a cow and a goat. It is difficult to spot a takin in the wild as it lives fairly high up in the mountains and are generally quite aggressive. Hence it’s a good idea to visit this well maintained reserve and see this animal. For a first time tourist it is a nice treat and the entire reserve can be visited within 30 minutes.
This monastery is very special for the people of Thimpu. They bring their new born babies over here to name them. The monastery is also home to the largest statue of Buddha in Bhutan. The approach to the temple is a bit steep. The views of Thimpu town from the temple are breathtaking and provide a good opportunity for photography.
This place is the traditional heart of modern Bhutan. The huge fortress like structure is the nation’s largest monastery and the seat of the National Government. It houses the throne room of the King of Bhutan. It is also the venue where “Thimpu Tshechu” a famous Buddhist religous celebration is conducted every year. This place is a must visit.
Recommended hotel in Thimpu: Hotel Norbuling
Recommended restaurants in Thimpu:
- Zest Bar & Lounge
- The Zone
- Folk Heritage Museum Restaurant
This place is a pit stop on the way to Punakha from Thimpu Valley. It is famous for the 108 stupas known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” constructed by her majesty the eldest Queen Mother “Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk” . The pass also houses a monastery known as the “The Druk Wangyel” built in honor of Jigme Singye Wangchuck the fourth Druk Gyalpo (head of the state of Bhutan). There is a resort nearby with an observation deck to view the snow capped mountains of the Himalayan Range. The elevation of Dochula pass is around 10000 feet. Great place to have a cup of coffee and capture the majestic views of Himalayan Mountains.
This city is the former capital of Bhutan and a place of confluence of the two rivers – Ma Chu and Po Chu. The quaint and beautiful city is famous for the “Punakha Dzong” also known as “Palace of Happiness”. Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and second largest dzong of Bhutan. It is the winter residence of the Chief Abbot of Bhutan. The Dzong also serves as the seat of all royal crowning functions.
Around five minutes’ walk from the “Punakha Dzong” you will come across a suspension bridge. This bridge is built over the Po Chu River. It is right now the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan. It takes ten-fifteen minutes to cross the bridge. The bridge although very safe, sways a little from side to side and can be a hair rising experience especially when you look down at the roaring river below. Well worth a walk across though.
Khamsum Namgyal Stupa is famous for the 360 degree views of the valley and Punakha city. It is located on a ridge at Kabisa in Punakha overlooking several villages. The Stupa was built by the Queen mother in 1999 for the well being of the country. It is a one hour trek through paddy fields, gushing streams and then a steep climb uphill. A prayer wheel is located half way through the trek and the view from there takes away all the tiredness of the journey. Once you reach the “chorten” climb 3 levels inside to reach the top. What awaits you is a breathtaking view of the valley and the river. Capture the sunset in your camera and view the gold red rays come out from the mountains.
In Punakha there is a famous “mad man’s temple” know as Chimi Lhakhang. It is located upon a ridge surrounded by beautiful paddy fields. This temple is associated with Lama Drukpa, the Divine Madman. It’s a very old temple built in 15th century. The ‘Divine Madman’ is also known as the Saint of 5000 women. He spread enlightenment through Bhutam and had a very active sex life.
Lama Drukpa advocated the use of phallus symbols as paintings on house walls. The houses in the village surrounding the temple have a big phallus painted on their main entrance. The tradition at the monastery is to bless pilgrims on the head with a 10 inch wooden phallus. The symbol of phallus is intended to drive away the evil eye. Chimi Lhakhang has been given the name of the fertility temple as its mythical powers help couples who are having problems conceiving a child. The short hike to the temple is not so strenuous and views from this place are amazing as usual.
Another place to be visited in Bhutan (Punakha) is a nunnery known as “ Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Choeling” Buddhist College for Nuns. It was Inaugurated recently in April 2015 by the Queen mother Ashi Wangchuk to mark the 60th birth anniversary of the 4th King of Bhutan HH Jigme Singhye Wangchuk . As with other temples in Bhutan, this place sits on a high ridge at the mountain top offering fabulous views of the valley. It is marked by a row of stupas that can be seen from miles away. Fortunately no trekking is involved as one can simply drive up to the gates. The cute little nuns frolicking around make a lovely sight. The nuns in this college are not only imparted religious instructions but they also get vocational training on various handcrafts and Thangka painting.
Recommended Hotel: Kingaling Hotel
Dochula Resort Restaurant
Bukhari Restaurant at Uma Hotel
The Phobjikha also known as Gangteng Valley is a vast oval shaped glacial valley, named after the renowned Gangteng Monastery. This valley is famous for the black necked cranes that come to roost here in winter. The valley is also an important wildlife preserve bordering the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. You will spot a wide variety of animals such as wild boars, sambars, muntjacs (barking deer), Himalayan black bears, serows, leopards and red foxes in the preserve.
Phobjikha valley is situated at a height of approximately 2930 meter above sea level. Remarkably, this valley is just 135 kilometers from Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu. However, the combination of winding, unsealed dirt roads and a national speed limit of 40km/h makes it an arduous if not torturous 6 hour drive to reach here. Unlike other cities in Bhutan, people of Phobjikha valley do not get equal economic development opportunities because of the conservation effort of the Government.
The Phobjikha Valley is perfectly suited for hikers who are interested in easy walks or two to three day treks. These treks are undertaken during the cooler months of October to May starting from Phobijka to Teke Zampa. It’s also fun to explore certain parts of the valley on a bicycle. There are plenty of flat bike trails and passing through lush forests and grassy hillsides. For the more serious bikers there are quite a few steep slopes which will test their limits.
When you are travelling through Bhutan you realize that each monastery is unique and beautiful in its own way. The Gangteng Monastery was built in the 17th century. It is an essential seat of the Bhutanese Nyingma school of Buddhism. Resembling a mini Dzong this temple houses a school, living quarters, prayer halls and a lovely temple. The front elevation of the temple is a genius piece of art with over elaborate balconies, scary Bhutanese gargoyles staring at you, multi-tiered winged roof and an impressive queue of gilded prayer wheels. The monastery is indeed a delight for a photographer. However, disappointingly, photography is not allowed inside as with many other monasteries in Bhutan.
Gangtey Monastery is very well know for a one of a kind natural phenomenon that happens every year. During winter season, black necked cranes from Tibet arrive at Phobjikha valley. Once they arrive in October, these birds circle the Gangteng Monastery thrice before settling into the valley. They repeat the process once again when they are leaving the valley and returning to Tibet. Every year on 11th November a black neck crane festival is held at this monastery where traditional dances are performed by artists and monks attired in costumes as black necked cranes.
Recommended Hotel: Hotel Gakiling Guest House
Trongsa previously known as Tongsa is a town located on a steep crest offering spectacular views of the valleys surrounding it. It’s a sleepy and pleasant town dotted with traditional shops run by Tibetan immigrants and Bhutanese descendents of Tibetans. Due to its strategic position, in the earlier days, Trongsa was considered crucial in controlling the entire kingdom of Bhutan.
Places to visit in Trongsa:
Maybe it is the beautiful location. It could also be its size and magnificent architecture. Could it be the historical significance? Whatever, the reason, make it a point to see this dzong. By the time you get to Trongsa you would have already seen many dzongs and temples. Do not be tempted to skip this one! This dzong built in 1648 is high above the river and strategically located. It is a massive structure with many levels, slanting down the contours of the crest on which it is built.
In the ancient past, travelers from east and west had to walk through the dzong on their journey and unavoidably pay for this privilege in tolls and taxes. Tongsa Dzong is also the ancestral home of the royal family. Each crown prince has to serve first as a “Penlop” of Trongsa. The dzong is divided into two parts – religious and state. The entire structure has a distinguishing architectural beauty and is fascinating to visit.
Ta Dzong Museum:
This is a nice small museum worth seeing if you’re in Trongsa. It also has a nice outdoor cafe where you can have tea and enjoy the views of the valley. The museum is built inside a watchtower, which was built just above Trongsa Dzong to guard it at wars during ancient times. Now that it is a museum, is full of artifacts belonging to the royal family of Wangchuk dynasty. The exhibits consist of beautiful statues and sculptures of Buddah incarnations, armory, several ceremonial dresses, photos of the modern royal family, a perfectly preserved coat that is 500 years old and a small temple.
There is a small media room that shows a short film explaining everything about Bhutan i.e. the royal family, the culture and Buddhism. Each gallery displaying the exhibits is on a different level. So you just climb to the top of the tower and each floor on the way will reveal a little more about Bhutan, Buddhism and the royal family. At the top of the tower, there is a circular terrace with a 360 degree view of the town and valley. This place should not be missed if you are in Trongza.
This place serves as a good pit stop between Trongsa and Thimpu to take a break. The Chorten was built in the early 18th century by Lama Zhida to subdue a demon terrorizing the people of the valley. This Nepalese style chorten is different from other Bhutanese Chortens as it is modeled on the Boudanath Temple of Kathmandu. The chorten is built next to a river. Nice picnic spot for locals as well as tourists.
Bumthang is one the most historic district in Bhutan. It is known as the spiritual and cultural heartland of Bhutan because of a high number of sacred sites here. It comprises of four valleys known Ura, Chumey, Tang and Choekhor, although the entire district is known as Bumthang. This area is a storehouse of sacred artifacts and monasteries. The region is known for its lush valleys and is a major producer of apple cider, Swiss cheese and buckwheat. Bumthang is also famous for its brightly colored and unique woolen garment called “yathra”.
Bumthang is often referred to as the “Switzerland of the East” due to its wide open valleys, snow capped mountains, lush green country side and fast flowing mountain streams. However, most tourists limit their visit in Bhutan to Paro and Thimphu only and avoid Bumthang because of the long eleven hours journey on road from Thimpu. On my part, I will urge tourists to definitely visit Bumthang if they are touring Bhutan. You can take a one way flight from Paro to Bumthang. Take a couple of days to explore the place and then return downhill over the next two-three days exploring new places on the way. For more details, you can refer to the itinerary as suggested above.
Places to visit in Bumthang:
This is one of the oldest temples n Bhutan. It was built in the 15th century by Lama Namkha Samdup a contemporary of Pema Lingpa. The highlight of this temple is to wear a heavy iron woven cloak done by the Master himself. The devoted are supposed to wear the cloak thinking happy thoughts and do three circles around the Central Ceremonial Hall to get rid of their sins.
This temple is about a half an hour’s walk north from Kurje Lhahang. This is again one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, founded in 1470 by Shamar Rinpoche of the Kagyupa religious school. The monastery consists of two sanctuaries and a temple of frightening deities. The sanctuary on the ground floor contains three statues i.e. of past, present and future Buddha. On the upper floor, the entrance hall contains two remarkable paintings of Guru Rinpoche’s heaven and the Buddha Amitabh’s heaven.
Membartsho (The Burning Lake):
This lake is considered to be one of the greatest pilgrimage sites of Bhutan. Several of Guru Rinpoche’s hidden treasures were discovered here by Pema Linga. The Burning Lake is not a lake but a portion of a river. This place has got a lot of negative publicity due to many tourists losing their lives here. Hence, extra caution is advised while visiting this lake.
The term “Kurje” means body print. Thus the temple is named after the body print of Guru Rinpoche which is preserved in a cave inside the oldest of the three buildings that make up the temple complex. The first temple on the right was built in 1652 on the rock face where Guru Rinpoche meditated in the 8th century. The second temple houses a rock in the cave which bears the imprint of the body of the Guru, it is considered highly sacred. The third temple was recently built in 1990 by the current Queen Mother, Ashi Kesang. The three temples are enclosed by 108 stupas that represent each joint of the human body.
Red Panda is a local beer produced in Bhutan and quite popular. However the production is limited as it is done so in a small craft brewery in Bumthang. The Red Panda Brewery is the only microbrewery in Bhutan. The tour of the brewery comes with a beer that can be enjoyed in the beer garden. The tour takes about 15-20 minutes. This place can be a very pleasant diversion from all the temples, monasteries and dzongs in Bhutan.
Hotel Amankora Bumthang
Noryang Restaurant and bar
Paro is a historic small town located in the Paro Valley of Bhutan. This town is known to be situated at a height of about 2280 meters on the banks of Pa Chu River with many sacred sites and historical buildings scattered through the area. The town was founded in the year 1985 and consisted of only a single street. Over the years this quaint town has been transformed into a popular tourist destination and is now home to the largest international airport in Bhutan. The Paro Valley is wide and verdant and is recognized as one of the most beautiful valley in all Bhutan.
Taktsang Palphug Monastery/ Taktsang Goemba:
The Taktsang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) in Paro is the unofficial symbol of Bhutan and a sacred pilgrimage site. It is situated hazardously on the edge of 1200 meter cliff and looks awe inspiring from below. According to the legend related to this “Tiger’s lair”, it is believed that “Guru Rinpoche” flew to this location from Tibet on the back of a tigress. This place was sanctified to tame the Tiger demon. The monastery consists of the 4 main temples and several living quarters. The prayer wheel can be spotted inside the courtyard of the monastery. The beautiful interior design of the temple showcases a gold plated dome with flickering lights that illuminate golden idols. In the “Hall of Thousand Buddhas” lies a large statue of the “legendary tiger”.
This attraction is for the more adventurous tourist who has can ramble up and down a hill for 5-6 hours. The hike to the monastery is more fulfilling that the monastery itself. The views from the monastery are spectacular but no photo cameras are allowed. It takes about 3 hours via an uphill hike (which can get strenuous) to reach the monastery. Midway there is a café located on the ridge to take a break and enjoy some refreshment. A one way uphill pony ride from the starting till the café is also available for those who don’t want to hike all the way. If you are not that fit or face altitude sickness, then this ride is recommended.
Before you start the trek, make sure to buy the tickets for entering the main shrine. Not many people notice the ticket board and they will be highly disappointed if they are not allowed to enter the temple after such a tiring trek. The path to the monastery is well laid out and safe to trek. It’s about 1000 feet to the cafe and another 1000 feet to the highest point. From the highest point one would have go down 500 stairs and climb up 200 stairs again to reach the Tiger’s Nest monastery. So it becomes 700 stairs climbing up and down both way. This exhilarating trek offers picturesque views all the way to the monastery.
Chele La Pass:
Chele La Pass is one of the highest motor able corridors in Bhutan. Situated at a height of 3810 meters, it separates Haa and Paro Valley. Chele la Pass is a good alternative for tourists who want to avoid hiking experience of Tiger’s Nest. The 360 degree panoramic views of the snow capped mountains from the pass will leave you spell-bound and wanting more. The view from one side of the pass is Paro city and the Haa valley on the other.
The place is cold and windy at the top so keep your woolens handy especially a woolen cap. You will see a few vendors on the pass selling tea, coffee, instant noodles, wine etc in vans so you can enjoy a hot beverage and some food there. In the chilly conditions at the top its bliss to have a cup of hot beverage out in the open. Just sit on the grassy slope and soak it all in; the atmosphere and the beauty nature offers you.
Rinpung Dzong in Paro is a large Buddhist monastery and fortress of the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu School. This massive Dzong offers extravagant views of the Paro Valley. Like any other Dzong in Bhutan, it houses the district monastic body and government administrative offices. It is listed as a tentative site in Bhutan’s Tentative List for UNESCO inclusion. The dzong is also the venue of the annual Paro Tshechu Festival. The best time to visit it is post noon to get a nice view of Paro city. Also make sure to catch a glimpse of the Dzong at night where the lighting all over the place makes it look beautiful.
The National Museum is located in an ancient watch tower. It has a collection of old coins, stamps, masks, ancient weapons and native artifacts. You can get to view a fragment of the moon’s surface which was brought back by Neil Armstrong. You will also view different species of butterflies, birds and rodents etc in the form of stuffed show pieces to showcase the fauna of this country. It takes approximately 1 to 1.5 hours to cover the entire museum.
The twin temples of Kyichu Lhakhang are a 7th century wonder and one of the most revered shrines in Paro Bhutan. It falls on the way to Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The temple is not big but it’s gorgeous. Large and small player wheels can be spotted amidst carefully nurtured gardens. This charming place of worship is worth a visit.
Drukgyal Dzong was a fortress and Buddhist monastery built in 1649 to commemorate the victory of Bhutan over the invading Tibetan forces. In the early 1950s it was almost completely destroyed by fire. The Dzong, now completely in ruins is located in the upper part of the Paro District, Bhutan. On a clear day, you can enjoy spectacular views of Mount Jumolhari from here. This place is also rumored to be haunted so it arouses the curiosity of most tourists. It is now being rebuilt in honor of the birth of His Royal Highness the Gyalsey.
Dzongdrakha Goempa is located in a village called Bondey in Paro district. This temple is often called mini Taktshang as it is also built on a cliff as the original Taktshang. It is located in the altitude of 2227 meter and takes twenty minutes to reach by car from Paro town. . Dzongdrakha Goempa is a secondary example of a cliff-side temple. Dzongdrakha was first built by a local king called Chogay Dragpa in the 16th century. It is unfortunate that a lot of important Dzongs in Bhutan have suffered from devastating fires at some point and had to be renovated completely. However, the good thing is that this temple is still intact in its original state. Just take a walk around to feel the atmosphere and character of the place. The wood carving is stunning, the floors and wall murals ooze history. This is a must visit site in Bhutan.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche Memorial House:
This place was the primary residence of Rinpoche one of the main spiritual teachers of the Bhutanese Royal Family. It was later inaugurated as a memorial house and opened to the public in 2010. It is being maintained in the same condition as it was when he lived there. It’s a great spot for tourists to spend some time. They can get to view his photographs, ceremonial costumes and hats, letters from other great teachers and his books on display throughout the house. Visitors can also watch video documentaries featuring his life.
Recommended Hotel in Paro:
Lotus Bistro opposite Paro police station
Bamboo Chic (a fine dine experience) at Le Meridien Hotel
A visit to Bhutan cannot be complete without visiting the scenic “Haa Valley”. Haa was opened to tourists since 2002 and there are not many options of conveyance. This valley is about 65 km away from Paro and takes about two hours to reach. This is one of the least populated valleys of Bhutan. Haa is very close to the Indo-Tibet border and the IMTRAT (Indian Military Training Teams) has a critical presence in the town
The valley has a strong Tantric culture so it is popular among visitors who are into occult and alternative magic. The unmatched diversity in flora and fauna makes this valley a heaven for nature lovers. Haa has also been the traditional home for the Royal Queen Grandmother and the famous Dorji family. However, this quaint valley hardly offers any choices for shopping and fine dining.
Haa Valley is good for a day trip from Paro. Apart from the scenic beauty there are a few attractions that can also be enjoyed.
The White and the Black temples
The twin temples i.e. Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) and Lhakhang Ngapo (Black Temple) stand at the base of the striking “three brothers’ mountains” who are symbolically the three protectors of the valley. The white temple is a popular seat for embodying the true Buddhist values of kindness and Dharma. This big temple has snowy whitewashed walls and is home to Haa’s monastic order.
The dark and mysterious black temple represents the tantric measures that are so widespread in the valley. Locals believe that the black temple stands on top of an invisible lake. The building is severely painted in black with deep horizontal gashes of white and red. There are no monk’s quarters in this temple and only a caretaker is assigned to it.
This small but traditionally important dzong is built on the right side of Cherenzi mountain range. There are interesting Thangkas and wall paintings inside that can be explored.
There is an old bridge connecting the Haa Valley to the Samarpudung valley. Below the bridge is a lake which is known as the lake of the Wishing cow. According to locals, you can view the stone udders of the cow under the clear waters of the lake. It is a common practice to stand on the bridge and make a wish on the wishing cow lake.
The famous Himalayan Blue Poppy (Meconopsis grandis) is the national flower of Bhutan. Haa is by the way, one of the best places to explore for the Blue Poppy. You will find a lot of strains of blue poppy blooming along the passes surrounding Haa and Chele La Pass. One of the biggest strains i.e. “M Superba” a cream colored bloom is found only in Haa.
Recommended Restaurant in Haa Valley:
Penden (for Bhutanese cuisine)
Travel Tips for tourists visiting Bhutan
Now that we have covered all the places to visit in Bhutan, here are a few tips that the tourists need to keep in mind while planning a trip here.
- As mentioned earlier in the article, the peak tourist seasons are from March to May and from September to November. If you plan to visit during these months, it’s best to book your tour package and flight tickets at least 3 months in advance. If you wish to travel to Bhutan on a tighter budget you should plan your trip for the off-peak months.If you want to go trekking in Bhutan, then then April, May, September and October are the best months to travel in terms of weather.
- For bird watchers, winter is the best time to catch a glimpse of the endangered black necked crane when they visit their winter home, the Phobjika valley.
- Try scheduling your trip as per the numerous festivals that occur throughout the year in Bhutan. Popular festivals such as the “Thimphu and Paro Tshechu” are clebrated during high tourist season.
- Most hotels have WiFi. However, if you need more connectivity you can get a local SIM card from the two mobile operators Tashi Cell or B-Mobile and top up with prepaid cards.
- Smoking and sale of tobacco in banned in Bhutan. Smoking is largely disallowed in public places. If you want to smoke, carry your own cigarettes and have it in the comfort of your hotel room or a private place.
- Tuesday is a dry day so you can’t buy alcohol on that day.
- Apart from Thimpu and Paro, nightlife is virtually non-existent in Bhutan. Carry some books with you to pass your time.
- You will be travelling a lot on windy roads, so carry enough medicine to take care of motion sickness.
- Most hotel rooms have limited electrical plugs, so it is advisable to carry a multi-purpose electrical plug and a universal travel adapter.