Western Bhutan

Western Bhutan

The districts of Paro, Haa, Thimphu, Punakha, Gasa and Wangduephodrang constitute the western region. Visit the summer festivals of Haa, highlighting shamanistic rituals and folk dances. Hike to the Tiger’s nest in Paro or visit Ta Dzong museum and Kitchu Lhakhang. In Thimphu, visit the Heritage Museium, Royal Textile Academy and the institute of 13 arts and crafts of Bhutan. The Punakha Dzong, Chimi Lhakhang and Khamsum Yulley Chorten are some of the historical and religious sites. Or you can observe Jomolhari Mountain festival or Takin festival. Of course Paro Tshechu and Punakha Druchen are unique festivals, steeped in history and myths.

Haa, a place to visit

Ap Chundu, the great warrior, is the guardian deity of Haa valley. Honoured by most farmers in western Bhutan by hoisting the three-striped flag (Chundu dharchu) on the roofs of the houses, the deity is part of a family’s annual ritual. Haabi Lomba, the New Year for the locals here, is another delicious highlight.

For trekkers, a trip to lake Nub-Tsonapatra is the ultimate highlight. Considered strenuous in category but it takes you to unvisited areas of Bhutan’s extreme western corner. It is believed that the lake has lots of hidden relics, according to legends.
While in Haa, one of the best areas to go for excursion is a visit to Tachu Goenpa.

Chelela-la pass (3800m), a sacred place to festoon the pass with prayer flags, offers a garden of Himalayan flowers and plants and a home for special pheasant species.

Paro’s Cultural bonanza

Some spectacular sites in Paro are the cliff-hanging temple of Taktsang, Kyichu Lhakhang, Drukgyal Dzong, Ta Dzong Museum. Time your visit during the grand Paro tshechu.

Drukgyel Dzong
The dzong was built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646 to commemorate victory over the Tibetan invaders. Though destroyed by fire in 1951, the towering outer walls and central keep still remain an imposing sight. On a clear day, you can view the splendour of Mount Jomolhari from the approach road to Drukgyel Dzong. It has been renovated since then, but its former glory and beauty could not be captured fully.

Rinpung Dzong

‘Fortress of a heap of jewels,’ as it is known, was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, on a hill above Paro township. One great attraction is the painting of Sage Milarepa, depicting his story. A district administrative centre, it also houses the monastic body of the district.

Ta Dzong
On a ridge above Rinpung Dzong is Ta Dzong, originally built as a watchtower. In 1968, it was turned into the first National Museum, and now holds a fascinating collection of arts and crafts, relics, religious thangka paintings, Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural history collection. It is a good place to orient oneself in Bhutan’s history, culture and tradition. Before embarking on a journey to the rest of the country.

Kyichu Lhakhang

A visit to this 7th century lhakhang of Kyichhu is like going back into time. It is a reservoir of peace, as the name suggets. It is one of the two temples built in Bhutan by King Srongtsen Gambo of Tibet, of the 108 temples built across the Himalayas to subdue a supine demon. The other one is Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang.

In 1968, Her Majesty Ashi Kesang, the Grand Queen Mother of Bhutan, arranged for a second temple to be built alongside the first t one, in same style.
Dzongdrakha Temple

Often called the mini-Taktsang, Dzongdrakha was a cluster of temples built on the cliffs above Bondey village. Legend says one of the temples was built around a levitating monument. Folks built a stronger temple around this monument with the hope that the levitating monument does not fly away.

Kila Gompa

This magnificent cluster of temples built on the cliff has been home for nuns for a long time. Kila in Sanskrit means a subjugating spiritual dagger that destroys the negativities. The monastery looks down Paro valley.

Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s nest)

Five kilometres from Kyichu Lhakhang is the Taktsang monastery (Tiger’s nest as it is called)) complex. According to legend, the eighth century Buddhist mystic, Guru Padma Sambhava, popularly known as Guru Rinpoche (or the Precious Teacher) landed here on the back of a flying tigress on his second visit to Bhutan, where he meditated for three months. The original temple was built around the spot where he landed and meditated. The monastery complex, composed of several other temples, came into being much later.

One of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in the country, it was completely destroyed by fire in 1998, but was rebuilt with government initiative to its former glory. Taktshang, built on a sheer rock face 900 feet above the valley floor, makes for a very impressive sight. It is a two-hour hike through moss-laden pine forests from the road head.

Thimphu District

Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan since 1953, is situated at an altitude of 2400m. Once a valley of rice fields with the Dzong at one end, today it is a sprawling town. The centre of government, religion and commerce, the capital has an interesting combination of tradition and modernity. It is home to civil servants, expatriates, politicians, business persons and monks. You can visit temples, dzongs, museums, handicraft shops and nunneries. Thimphu Tshechu is a major festival.

National Memorial Chorten
Built in the memory of the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, popularly known as the father of modern Bhutan; the National Memorial Chorten was consecrated in July 28, 1974. From early morning to late nights, you will find elderly generation circumambulating the Chorten whispering prayers and counting rosary. Many major religious events are organized here. It is one of the most visible and revered sites in Thimphu.


“Fortress of the glorious religion” was initially constructed in 1641 and restored by the Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the 1960s. Tashichhodzong houses government ministries, His Majesty’s secretariat, and the central monk body. The Third King used to carry logs with other workers during the construction of the dzong. It was his dream that the dzong should be what the name suggests. Tashichho Dzong is synonymous with what represents Thimphu, and of course Bhutan.

The dzong hosts its annual Drubchen and tshechu every year in September, but the dates change according to the lunar calendar. This year the drubchen will be held from 18-22 September, and the tshechu from 23-25 September. September and October are the best months to visit Bhutan, if you want to enjoy some of the great festivals around the country. No woman is allowed to stay overnight in any dzong. But Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India was the first and the only woman to have stayed in Tashichho Dzong.

Simtokha Dzong

It was the first dzong, built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1627. A strategic dzong overlooking the approaches to Thimphu, it has now been turned into a school. It is said that there was a narrow underground passage from the dzong to the river to ensure water supplies during the time of siege.

National Library
The National Library was established in the late 1960s primarily to conserve the literary treasures which form a significant part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. It now houses an extensive collection of Buddhist literature mostly in wooden block-printed format, some of them dating back to several hundred years. There is also a section comprising works written in English covering Buddhist studies, Bhutan, the Himalayan region and neighbouring countries.

National Institute of Traditional Medicine
In Bhutan, equal emphasis is given to both allopathic and traditional medicines. The herbal medicines are prepared from medicinal plants found abundantly in the kingdom and are dispensed from here. The Institute is also a training school for traditional medicine practitioners. Today, NITM is as much a part of the health system as the modern system of health care.

Royal Textile Academy
Established at a prominent location at Chubachu, Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan (RTA) was formally inaugurated in June 2013. Besides educating, promoting and preserving Bhutanese textiles, RTA plans to create international awareness of Bhutanese textiles. Among other activities, it collects and documents important textiles that are part of Bhutanese textile heritage, and preservation and restoration of old Bhutanese textiles.

The museum offers the visitors two galleries of artifacts. The lower gallery offers the Royal Collections which includes the first Raven Crown. The upper gallery features pieces representing the various regions of the country.

Handicrafts Bazaar, emporium and shops

From RTA, you can walk down Handicrafts Bazaar, which is a long line of booths displaying handicrafts of Bhutan along the road, near Tashi Taj Hotel. A wide assortment of colourful, hand woven textiles and other handicraft products is available for purchase here. The products, comprising textiles, and wood, cane or bamboo works are handiworks of local artisans from villages in the remote regions. In fact, the Bazaar is located along what was earlier planned as a two-lane thoroughfare.

Weekend Market (Farmers’ Centenary Market)
A wide range of foodstuffs and local arts and crafts are sold at the market, which runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday. A visit to the market provides great photo opportunities, as well as a chance to mingle with local people and perhaps buy souvenirs.

Dochula Pass (3090m)

Dochula Pass on the way to Punakha from Thimphu is one of the picturesque landmarks. Covered in a forest of rhododendron trees, the pass and the surrounding areas bursts into a riot of colours in April and May. On a clear day, you can see beautiful snow-clad ranges of the eastern Himalayas and gaze all the way to Gasa Dzong. A pleasant place to take a break in the journey, it has 108 miniature chortens to commemorate the sacrifice of the Bhutanese soldiers in the operation to flush out Bodo insurgents from India. Just below the pass, the forest land has been turned into a nature recreation centre.

Punakha District – the centre of cultural essence

Punakha served as the c apital of Bhutan from 1637 till 1953. Known for its cultural opulence, it was the seat of the government before it was shifted to Thimphu. A political hub where history was created, Punakha Dzong, known as the Puna Dewa Phodrang is important as the symbol of unified Bhutan. Punakha Drubchen festival is a re-enactment of how the Bhutanese convinced the Tibetan forces of the futility of invading the country, along with other normal mask dances.

Punakha Dzong
Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers, the dzong was built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative centre. According to legends, Guru Rinpoche had predicted that a boy named Ngawang will come from the mountain of the Sleeping Elephant and build a dzong there. Before that Drupthop (saint) Ngagi Rinchen had built the Dzongchung (smaller dzong) to protect it from floods. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires, floods and an earthquake, the dzong was fully restored in recent years by the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. All Bhutanese kings were crowned within its massive Kuenray. It also contains the Machen Lhakhang which houses the relic of Zhabrung.

Khamsum Yuelley Temple
There is no temple in Bhutan built as elaborately as this one. This fascinating temple was built by the Queen Mother, Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck, for universal peace in this world. The best of the spiritual art works are painted on the inner walls. There are also paintings of most Buddhist teachers and tutelary deities of the country.

Chhimi Lhakhang
The temple of fertility, associated with the Divine Madman, Lama Drukpa Kinley, a famous teacher whose exploits are more often than not linked to the phallic symbol. Couples without children visit to offer their prayers for children. Several Japanese and several American couples who visited this temple were blessed with children.

Nalanda Buddhist College
Locals call this place Dalayna and the monks call it Nalanda Buddhist College. If you want to chat up with monks in English then this is the place to go. The monks here are eager to practice the new language they learn. Drive there in the afternoon and enjoy your evening tea supplemented by the ravishing view beneath.

Chorten Ningpo walks
The walk to Chorten Ningpo passes through several villages. Many visitors love this walk in summer and in autumn. In summer the rice fields are lush and gardens are filled with a variety of vegetables and fruits. Likewise, autumn enchants visitors with the golden hue of ripening rice.

Gasa District  

Gasa, the northern most districts, falls entirely under the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park. A small population, who are mostly nomads, the people live on produce from yaks and harvest of cordyceps (fungi of high value, used in oriental medicine). Gasa means a place of happiness or a place to laugh.

Gasa Dzong
Locally know as the Tashi Thomon Dzong, the fortress served as a defending barrack in the 17th century. The beauty of the dzong is heightened during clear days with a view of Mt. Gangboom.

Laya Village
Let your adventurous spirit take you on a three-night trek to Laya from Punakha. Situated at an altitude of 3800m, this village will mesmerize you with its unique culture. Anyone on the Snow Leopard trek or the grand Snowman Trek will converge on Laya. To experience the maximum cultural richness, why not time the visit during their Owlay festival. This festival happens once in three years and the other one is the Takin Festival.

Lunana village
The valley of Lunana is the most remote of Gasa district. To see Lunana is to experience the culture of Himalayan people residing amongst the glaciers. The people here depend on the yaks and sheep for their livelihood. The nomads here know a lot about medicinal herbs and have benefitted a lot from cordycep harvesting.

Wangdue Phodrang Dzong
Situated on the spur of a hillock overlooking approaches from the north, east, south and west, Wangduephodrang Dzong held a powerful position during the pre-monarchy days. During those days, the highway from west to centre passed through the dzong. This gave the dzong an immense strategic and political power. Apart from the great dzong, other cultural wonders lie in the villages.

The empowerment castle, as the name suggests, the imposing dzong is the town’s most visible feature. During pre-monarchy days, the governor of this dzong played an important role.

Sadly, the dzong was destroyed in entirety in a fire a few years ago. The people, various organizations and the government have been contributing money to rebuild this great structure. It is being rebuilt according to the original plan.

Gangtey Goenpa / Phobjikha
In the mountains east of Wangduephodrang lies the beautiful Phobjikha valley, on the slopes of which is situated the great monastery of Gangtey, established in the 17th century. The village of Phobjikha lies scattered on the valley floor. This quiet, remote valley is the winter home of black-necked cranes (Grus nigricollis), which migrate from the arid plateaus of Tibet and the plains of Siberia in the north, to pass the winter months in a milder climate.

Legends of Shaa region
East of Wangdue province lies the region of Shaa. The region celebrates Bonko (an animist festival) once in every three years. The farmers here practice animism but call themselves Buddhists. The animists are nature worshippers and it makes great sense for a farmer to be an animist as well as a Buddhist.

Testimonials Sometimes a packaged holiday comes so much with a predefined set of takeaways, but The Destination Bhutan offered so much freedom of choice that it did not feel like a packaged holiday at all.

KH Zaman
Buffalo, New York

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