The ‘Tiger’s Nest Monastery’ is one of the Himalaya’s most incredible sites, miraculously perched on the side of a sheer cliff 900m above the floor of Paro valley. Visiting is the goal of every visitor to Bhutan and while getting there involves a bit of uphill legwork, it’s well worth the effort. The monastery is a sacred site, so act with respect. Bags, phones, and cameras have to be deposited at the entrance, where your guide will register with the army.
After a visit to Paro’s weekend market or Druk Choeding temple, it’s well worth wandering down to this local archery ground to see if there’s a traditional archery game on.
The road from Haa to Chhuzom allows an alternative to returning to Paro over the Cheli La, and offers a short cut if you are heading directly from Haa to Thimphu or Phuentsholing. There are several little-visited sights to explore en route.
Punakha Dzong is arguably the most beautiful dzong in the country, especially in spring when the lilac-colored jacaranda trees bring a lush sensuality to the dzong’s characteristically towering whitewashed walls. This dzong was the second to be built in Bhutan and it served as the capital and seat of government until the mid-1950s. All of Bhutan’s kings have been crowned here. The dzong is still the winter residence of the rats hang (official monk body).
Thimphu’s best museum is part of the Royal Textile Academy and is the place to learn about Bhutan’s living national art of thagzo (weaving). The ground floor focuses on royal gho s, including the wedding clothes worn by the fourth king and his four wives. The upper floor introduces the major weaving techniques, styles of local dress and type of textiles made by women and men. The museum shop offers some interesting books and fine textiles. No photography.
The Bumthang region encompasses four major valleys: Chokhor, Tang, Ura and Chhume. Because the dzongs and the most important temples are in the large Chokhor valley, it is commonly referred to as the Bumthang valley.
There are two versions of the origin of the name Bumthang. The valley is supposed to be shaped like a bumpa, the vessel of holy water that is usually found on the altar of a lhakhang. Thang means ‘field’ or ‘flat place’. The less respectful translation relates to the particularly beautiful women who live here – bum means ‘girl’.
Perched above Paro Dzong is its ta dzong (watchtower), built in 1649 to protect the undefended dzong and renovated in 1968 to house the National Museum. The unusual round building is said to be in the shape of a conch shell, with 2.5m-thick walls. The ta dzong suffered damage in the 2011 earthquake but is due to reopen in 2016 as the nation’s premier museum. Until then a sample of the exhibits are currently on display in an adjacent annexe.
This commanding dzong, high above the roaring Mangde Chhu, is perhaps the most spectacularly sited dzong in Bhutan, with a sheer drop to the south that often just disappears into cloud and mist. The rambling assemblage of buildings that comprises the dzong trails down the ridge and is connected by a succession of alley-like corridors, wide stone stairs and beautiful paved courtyards. The southernmost part of the dzong, Chorten Lhakhang, is the location of the first hermitage, built in 1543.
Thimphu’s ‘Weekend Market’ occupies the west bank of the Wang Chhu, just north of Changlimithang Stadium. Vendors from throughout the region start arriving on Thursday and remain until Sunday night. Most people combine a visit here with some souvenir shopping in the nearby Handicrafts Market . The incense area is one of the more interesting sections, full of deliciously aromatic raw ingredients and pink cubes of camphor and saffron that are used to flavour the holy water given to pilgrims in lhakhangs.
This splendid dzong, north of the city on the west bank of the Wang Chhu, seems to fit seamlessly into the valley, lending the city both regal splendour and monastic weight. The dzong was the site of the lavish formal coronation of the fifth king in 2008 and hosts the city’s biggest annual bash, the colourful tsechu festivities.
The building you see is actually not the original Thimphu dzong. In 1216 Lama Gyalwa Lhanangpa built Dho-Ngen Dzong (Blue Stone Dzong) on the hill above Thimphu where Dechen Phodrang now stands. A few years later Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, who brought the Drukpa Kagyu lineage to Bhutan, took over the dzong. In 1641 the Zhabdrung acquired the dzong from the descendants of Lama Phajo and renamed it Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion). He arranged to house both monks and civil officials in the dzong, but it was too small, so he built another dzong lower down in the valley for the civil officials. The 13th Druk Desi, Chhogyel Sherab Wangchuck (1744–63), later enlarged Trashi Chhoe Dzong so that it could again accommodate both civil officials and monks.