Western Bhutan is more developed than other parts of Bhutan. It consists of 6 districts, namely Paro, Thimphu, Haa, Wangdue Phodrang, Punakha and Gasa.
Its spectacular sceneries include golden hue of ripening rice paddies in autumn, magnificent mountains, pristine rivers flowing through towns, and two-story houses with unique window designs. The different festivals (Tsechus) in different districts add cultural insights into the life and beliefs of Bhutanese.
The beautiful Paro Valley is the entry point for visitors who arrive at Paro Airport by Bhutan’s national carrier, Druk Air. Paro is situated at an attitude of 2,280 metres above sea-level.
The most important and spectacular Tsechu in Bhutan is Paro Tsechu, which is usually held at the beginning of each spring. This festival draws a lot of tourists to visit Paro during this period mainly due to the 800 years old Throngdel of Guru Padmasambhava, which is only reveal once in a year before dawn.
The most famous landmark and sacred site in Paro Valley is Taktsang Monastery, (also known as Tiger’s Nest). According to legends, it is believed that Guru Padmasambhava landed at this site on the back of a tigress where he mediated for 3 months in the 8th century. Taktsang Monastery was first built on this precipitous cliff at 3,120 metres above Paro Valley in 1692. Hiking up to the Monastery will take a lot of efforts, energy and courage. One will not only enjoy the beautiful scenery of Paro Valley, but will also have a chance to pray for blessings from Guru Padmasambhava.
Other places to visit include :
- Paro Dzong - the administrative office in Paro. Scenes from the movie “Little Buddha” were filmed in and around this Dzong.
- Drukgyel Dzong - built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders.
- Kyichu Lhakhang - the oldest and sacred shrine built in 659 AD by the King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. It is one of the 108 such Monasteries which he built in various places. This monastery is one of the holiest places in Bhutan as it marks the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan.
- Dumtse Lhakhang, which is built by Thangtong Gyalop, the iron bridge builder, in 1433. Till now, the iron bridge he built still serves as the bridge to the temple. The temple consists of 3 floors, representing hell, earth and heaven. The old wall paintings inside are said to be one of the finest in Bhutan.
- Dungtse Lhakhang - built in 1433 by the iron bridge builder, Thangtong Gyalpo.
Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan since 1961, which has a population of approximately 100,000 people. It is the largest town in Bhutan and is situated at 2,320 metres above sea-level.
Thimphu is the home to the Kings and Royal family members, civil servants, expatriates, politicians, business people and monks. It is a unique city with interesting combination of traditions and modernization.
One of the places of interest is Memorial Chorten, which is a stupa built in 1974, in the memory of Bhutan’s third King, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. He was popularly regarded as the Father of modern Bhutan.
Thimphu Tsechu is a major event of Thimphu that drawing thousands of Bhutanese and tourists to view this festival. One of the main attractions of this Tsechu is the Wang Zhey which is an indigenous folk dance performed by both monks and common men with traditionally designed colourful masks, accompanies by the beats of drums and cymbals. This festival is a fine show of wholesome Bhutanese culture and tradition.
The festival will be held in Trashichoe Dzong, which is also known as the fortress of glorious religion. It is first built in 1641 and it houses the throne room of His Majesty, the King of Bhutan.
The National Library of Bhutan houses the history of Bhutan, which are in old manuscripts and ancient texts. Some of these literatures are few hundred years old. Visitors might want to take the opportunity to see the world biggest book, which is stationed on the ground floor of the National Library.
Near to the National Library is the School of Traditional Arts, where the Bhutanese Thangka painting, wood carving, sculpture, appliqué and metal work are taught.
The Government-run Handicrafts Emporium and many small handicrafts shops are found in the town. One can pick up a variety of items to bring back home as souvenirs.
Tango Goemba (monastery) is another place with a lot of religious significance, which is 12 km north of Thimphu. An hour hike is necessary. On the way, you will be amazed by a giant impressive painting of Guru Padmasambhava on a rock.
Originally, the site was the home to Phajo Drugom Zhigpo (a Tibetan lama from Kham, Eastern Tibet) who brought the Drukpa Kagyupa school of Buddhism to Bhutan in the 12th century. In the 15th century, Drukpa Kunley (“The Divine Madman”) built the monastery.
Today, Tango Goemba is the highest center of Buddhist learning in the country, where every Je Khenpo (religious head of Bhutan) must completed the 9 year program here. We can also visit Cheri Goemba, which is the mediation place for monks for 3 years, 3 months and 3 days. Currently, it is the home of a 15 year old boy who believed to be the seventh reincarnation of the 4th Desi (ruler) of Bhutan. Another highlight of Tango Goemba is the prayer session by the monks, who pray together in their best robes.
Other places of interest include :
- Centenary Farmers’ Market - very popular with Bhutanese, which is held by the side of Wangchu River. A wide range of foodstuffs and local arts and crafts are sold at this market, which runs from Wednesday till Monday evening.
- Changangkha Temple - perched on a ridge overlooking Thimphu Valley. It was established in the 12th century by Lama Phajo Drugom Shigpo who came from Tibet. From the temple’s courtyard, you will have a magnificent view of Thimphu Valley.
- Buddha Point (Kuensel Phodrang) - another place where you can have a good view of Thimphu Valley. The largest statue of the Buddha in Bhutan is situated here.
- National Textile Museum - this museum has substantial collection of antique textile artifacts which includes the Royal Collection, warp pattern weaves and textiles from indigenous fibers.
- Takin Preserve - houses the national animal of Bhutan, Takin. According to legend, this animal was created by the “Divine Madman”, Lama Drupa Kunley. He used his magical powers to create an animal with a goat’s head and the body of the cow.
Punakha was the capital of Bhutan from 1637 till 1907. In order to reach Punakha from Thimphu, visitors need to pass by the Dochula Pass, which is at an attitude of 3,050 metres above sea-level.
This pass is very popular for tourists as one can enjoy a 360 degree panoramic view of Himalaya mountain range. It is also an ideal location to capture beautiful pictures of Himalaya during clear warm days. The 108 stupa at this pass was built by the eldest Queen Mother Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed when fighting the Indian rebels in 2003. Besides being a spiritual place, many Bhutanese families love to visit this pass during holidays and weekends just to enjoy the beautiful scenery of this place.
Punakha Valley is situated at 1,300 metres above sea-level. Blessed with warmer climate and natural drainage from Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha Valley produces abundant crops and fruits for the country.
Next to the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers lies Punakha Dzong. This Dzong was built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This Dzong was recently fully restored by the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck after damaged by fires, earthquakes and floods. Your trip to Punakha will not be completed without enjoying the impressive colourful wall paintings and high standards of woodwork done for this Dzong.
Chimi Lhakhang, also known as “Temple of Fertility”, is a temple situated in the centre of the Valley. This temple is found by Lama Drukpa Kuenley, the well-known “Divine Madman”. It is widely believed that couples who visited this temple were blessed miraculously with children.
Other places of interest include :
- Chendebji Chorten – a stone Buddhist monument, built in the 19th century by a Tibetan Lama. It is a Nepalese style stupa to cover the remains of an evil spirit who was killed on the spot.
- Chorten Nigpo walk – The walk to Chorten Ningpo passes through several villages. In summer, the fields will filled with rice, vegetables and fruits. While in autumn, visitors will be enchanted by the golden hue of ripening rice. For adventure walkers, a detour to Hokotso is recommended for autumn as this lowland lake holds many legends.
- Khamsum Yuelle Namgyel Chorten – a temple built by Queen Mother of the 5th King to bring universal peace to the world. The best spiritual art works are painted on the inner walls, together with paintings of Buddhist teachers and tutelary deities of Bhutan. This is a great temple to study symbolic meanings of frescoes and sculptures.
Wangdue Phodrang is an important gateway to Eastern part of Bhutan. It is situated at 1,350 metres above sea-level. This district is famous for its fine bamboo products, slate and stone carvings.
Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is situated on the hilltop above the confluence of Punatsangchhu and Dhangchhu rivers. During pre-monarchy days, the governor of this Dzong played an important and influencing role. The annual festival of Wangdue Phodrang will takes place in autumn.
Phobjikha Valley is a glacial valley on the periphery of the north western tip of the Black Mountain National Park at the altitude of 9,840 feet. The valley is a wide, beautiful alpine wetland valley, with mostly pine trees, interspersed with rhododendron trees. This valley is well known as the winter home for the endangered Black-necked cranes that migrate from its northern habitats in Tibet and Siberia. These elegant and shy birds can be observed from early November to end of March.
Other places of interest includes :
- Temple of Sha Radap – The guardian deity of Wangdue Phodrang region. Locals pay frequent visits to seek the blessings of Sha Radap and to name their new born child. You can roll the dices at the temple and seek his blessings. You wishes may come true and be fulfilled.
- Gangtey Goemba Monastery – established in the 17th century. This monastery is situated in the beautiful Phobjikha Valley, east of Wangdue Phodrang.
Haa Valley is a steep valley with a narrow floor, situated at an altitude of 2,863 metres. It is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque districts and the second smallest district of Bhutan.
Before the 8th century, the locals living in this Haa Valley practiced animist tradition. After Guru Padmasambhava visited the valley in the 8th century, the practice was transformed from blood sacrificing animist beliefs into peaceful Buddhist traditions. However, some elements of the animist traditions still exist in today’s festivals and rituals of Haa Valley.
Wangchulo Dzong was constructed by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, the Grandfather of the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck. The structure of this Dzong resembles the Wangdicholing Palace in Bumthang, which was the seat of the first and second Kings.
Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black Temple) are two great temples built in the 7th century by the Tibetan saint and King, Songtsen Gampo. According to a legend, a black and a white pigeon were released to select the sacred sites to build the temples. Both temples represent the guardian sentinels that guard the south entrance of Haa Valley. They are located at the foot hills of three towering identical mountains venerated as Rigsum Gonpo [Jampelyang (Manjushri), Chana Dorji (Vajrapani) and Chenrizig (Avaloketeshvara)]. Both the temples and the mountains represent the essence of wisdom, knowledge and subjugation.
Gasa is a beautiful region with an altitude ranging from1,500 metres to 4,500 metres above sea-level. This district has the smallest population of 3,000 inhabitants.
Gasa has become a tourist destination because of its pristine forests and exceptionally scenic view of Gasa Dzong. This defence fortress, built in the 17th century, is uniquely built with a circular shape and three watch towers that are placed at strategic points. With clear skies, the view of this Dzong, together with Mt. Gangboom, will be extremely magnificent.
Gasa is also famous for its numerous hot springs at the base of Mochu river and one of the most challenging treks in the Himalayas, Snowman Trek. This trek needs at least 25 days to complete the whole hike to Jhomolhari at 7,314 metres above sea-level, the third highest peak in Bhutan.
For more adventurous visitors, a three-day trek to Laya Village will be exciting. Situated at an altitude of 3,800 metres above sea-level, visitors will be amazing by this ethnic group’s unique culture. Laya are indigenous people inhabiting the high mountains of Gasa. They lived in near-complete isolation from the world, with occasional visits to Thimphu or Punakha.
Lunana village is another village, which situated at the most remote part of Gasa district. One can experience the culture of Himalayan people residing amongst the glaciers. They make their living from yaks and sheep. As the nomads know a lot about medicinal herbs, they benefit a lot from harvesting of Cordycep, a high value fungi used in oriental medicine.