A Himalayan kingdom that lives true to its ancient values and traditions, Bhutan is a land of mystery and magic. Both of these traits are visible in every shade of the country, whether it is the unspoiled natural beauty that highlights unique biotic treasures, the essence of Buddhism or the civilization’s attitude towards life, there are so many things to do in Bhutan and experiences to have had that will make for an unforgettable trip to the last of the Himalayan Kingdom on Earth.
Bhutan also happens to be the only country that measure its happiness and consider it more important than its fast growing economy. So much so, that the country scheduled this measure of success in its five year planning process as Gross National Happiness. The isolated kingdom has a lot to explore, which lies deep beneath its culture, adventure, nature, spirituality and festivals. So following is the list of top 14 things to do in Bhutan to experience the true essence of Bhutan, the Land of Thunder Dragon.
A preserver and promoter of the cultural values of Bhutan, the National Museum is a remarkable blend of the past and present of the country and definitely high on one of the top things to do in Bhutan. Visitors can find this museum in the Paro town of western Bhutan. The authorities claim that the museum has some of the finest specimens of Bhutanese art, that are believed to be 1500 years old. Fine arts, 3-D stamps, silken stamps, triangular stamp of the mythical yeti, paintings and bronze statues are the attractions of this cultural museum. The National Museum was established in the year 1968, in the ancient Ta-dzong building. Due to this, the locals also prefer to call it the Ta-Dzong museum.
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Home of the royal family of Bhutan, Thimpu is the capital of Bhutan, not just administratively, but culturally and commercially as well. Much like the surprises of Bhutan, Thimpu also has an interesting fact to share. Thimpu is the only capital city in the globe, the roads of which run without traffic lights. Pity for the policemen, who has to do the extra work of the lights. Nevertheless, the city has such a contrast, it makes the tourists focus both on the traditional as well as the modern era of Bhutan.
To justify the statement, the capital has the mighty Simtokha fortress, known as Simtokha Dzong in the local language, which is a 16th century artistic structure. Whereas, structures like the Memorial Chorten, National Library, Institute for Zorig Chusum and Folk Heritage Museum speak about the modernization that the city is living in today. Besides, the city has also developed itself as per the changing trends of the modern world.
The urban culture prevails peacefully amidst the traditional and spiritual soul of Bhutan. Must visit places in Thimpu are Thimphu Tshechu, Buddha Dordenma Statue, National Memorial Chorten, Jungshi paper factory and the Centenary farmer’s market.
Can you imagine a place where penises are worshipped? Well, Chime Lhakhang is one such spot in Bhutan. This can be a real shocker to most of the religions, but in Bhutan it is as divine as the Buddha. Chime Lhakhang is devoted to one saint named Lama Drukpa Kunley, who clearly was not like the usual saints. It is said that the saint was a person of different ideals. He was fond of alcohol and women, brought a shame to others by peeing on religious drawings, and played the center role in many scandals.
Nevertheless, he was a follower of Buddhism, but his preachings were considered outrageous, despite being given in good spirit. It is also believed that the saint killed the demon of Dachu La, with his penis, which he named as the ‘Magic Thunderbolt’. Since then, people are worshipping the saint, and Chime Lhakhang is one such monastery in Bhutan, which is dedicated to him. Chimi Lhakhang is around 77 kms from Thimpu and is visited by a number of infertile women in order to be blessed with a child. The story of the saint also justifies the fact revolving around the decoration of Bhutanese homes with large images of penises.
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Arising out of the confluence of two important rivers in Bhutan-Paro Chuu and Wang Chuu, Paro is a scenic valley, which is also counted as the lifeline of Bhutan. The valley is covered with acres of rice and paddy fields and adding to the sparkle of its lush green is a crystalline river that flows across it. To add on to the beauty of this paradise are the forests of oak and rhododendrons.
One of the most visited geographies in Bhutan, Paro is perfect for tourists looking for spiritual peace. It has more than hundred temples and monasteries, some of which are as old as the 14th century. Amongst them is the Taktsang monastery, which is known to be a prominent landmark in the Himalayan kingdom. From the temple, one can have an aerial look of the scenic Paro valley as it is situated on a cliff. Like this, there are other religious spots in the valley as well. The Kila Gompa and Dzongdrakha temple fits best in the description. If you have scheduled your visit to Bhutan in the springs, then do not forget to attend the colorful festival of Paro Tsechu. The beautiful Paro Valley makes Bhutan one of the best places to visit in April outside India.
Surmounted on top of a cliff in the beautiful valley of Paro, the Taktsang monastery is a must visit Buddhist temple complex in Bhutan. Known to be one of the most sacred sites in the whole of Bhutan, the monastery is associated with the founder of Bhutan’s Buddhism, Guru Padmasambhava. Legends has it that a giant tigress carried the Guru on her back and made the location its home. It is due to this, the monastery is also known as Tiger’s nest.
As the temple has its address on a mountain, one has to make the climb through mountainous paths. These paths have different meanings for the Bhutanese. First one leads through pine forests, which symbolizes a bounty of protection from the evil forces and instills positive energy, Whereas the other two make their way from a plateau, belonging to a hundred thousand fairies.
Traditionally known as Punakha Drubchen, the festival is a reminiscent of the 17th century battle of the Bhutanese with the Tibetan army. As a part of the celebration, locals get dressed in full battle gear and reenact the scene of the ancient battle. This being done in order to commemorate the victory, the festival quickly became an annual festival as well.
Punakha also has another version, which is known as Punakha Tsechu. The festival was introduced in the year 2005, especially to preserve the teachings of Lord Buddha and to keep the deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche going on. Both of these Punakha festivals hold great significance in maintaining Bhutan’s rich tradition and heritage that the country still stands proud of.
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Dochu La Pass
Just 30 km from the capital city of Thimpu is the Dochula Pass, which is renowned for housing a significant number of Chortens. A total of 108 Chortens, which were built in honor of Bhutanese martyrs, add to the beauty of the pass. The pass is situated at a height of around 3150 meters above sea level, and it overlooks the majestic snow covered Himalayan ranges. While at the pass, have a warm cup of coffee and admire the beauty of this milky white location.
Winters are perfectly suited for a trip to this part of Bhutan, as the country receives heavy snowfall. Besides Dochula pass also hosts an annual festival in the month of December, which is known as Dochula festival. The festival is in continuation since the year 2011 and is held every year to commemorate the victory of Bhutanese soldiers over Indian insurgents.
One of the most important monasteries of the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism in Bhutan, Gangtey lies in the central region of Bhutan. To be precise, the monastery is located amidst the picturesque Gangtey valley or Phobjikha valley. It is advised that one must visit the valley during winters, when the region is covered with pure white snow and flocks of black necked cranes migrate to this region, before heading towards Tibet.
In order to make to the monastery, one has to trek through forests of rhododendrons and magnolias. Quite an easy trek to head on to, the Gangtey trek also goes across the tribal villages of Gogona and Khotokha.
The mainland of Bhutan is dotted with a number of monasteries, that are in the shape of majestic forts. One such monastery is the Tashicho Dzong, which is located in the northern part of Bhutan. Besides religion, the structure has an administrative significance.
Since the last century, it has been the seat of the royal Druk Desi, the head of Bhutan’s civil government. The royal structure houses thirty temples, shrines and chapels, which make it a largely visited pilgrim spot in Bhutan. To make the best of the trip, visit the Tashicho Dzong during the time of Tsechu festival.
Another sacred site in Bhutan, but this one is amongst the most reputed and devoted ones. It is said that master Tibetan Buddhist Guru Rinpoche meditated at this very site, and his body imprints are still left here. Built in the 8th century, Kurje Lakhang is located in the Bumthang valley of Butan.
Also renowned as Kurje Monastery, it is made up of three buildings which are further surrounded by 108 Chortens. Not just for the people of Bhutan, Kurje monastery holds an important place for Buddhists from all over the world. The monastery lights into a festive mood in the 5th Bhutanese month. During this time, the Tsechu festival marks the festivities of the monastery.
One of the oldest fortresses in Bhutan, Trongsa Dzong is located in the central region of Bhutan.
The Dzong was built by the royal family of Trongsa and is a fine example of Bhutanese medieval architecture. The fortress rose to fame when it was declared as the seat of power of kings ruling over central and eastern Bhutan. In the present world, Trongsa Dzong is an administrative seat of the Dzongkhang region, and for the tourists, it has 20 temples, built all along the premises of the fortress.
Centenary Farmers’ Market
If you want to get the true flavors of authentic Bhutanese cuisines, then you must head to the Centenary Farmer’s market, located near the Wangchhu river, close to Thimpu. The market is the largest for the farmers of Bhutan to sell their organic produce. Interesting fact about the market is that it has close to 458 stalls of fruits, vegetables, meat and other food items, all packed up in a two storied building. Besides, the place offers a good buy of handicrafts as well.
Thus, you can choose to buy souvenirs and locally produced goods like Cymbals, colorful Prayer Wheels, wooden bowls, yak tails and mala beads.
Established amidst serene and beautiful surroundings of the paradise that is Bhutan, Punakha Dzong is often amongst the favorites for tourists. Constructed by Ngawang Namgyal in the 16th century, the majestic Dzong houses relics of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. Besides, the fortress cum monastery also has the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal and Rangjung Kasarpani. The Dzonga sits at the confluence of Mo Chhu and Po Chhu river and is surrounded by breathtaking and lush green scenery.
The Druk Path
It is basically a trek route that runs along mountainous terrains separating the region of Thimpu and Paro in Bhutan. Often considered a not so difficult trek route, Druk Path goes through blue-pine and Rhododendron forests. It is advised that one must schedule his trekking expeditions to Druk Path between the months of April and June. Months between September and December are also suitable for trekking along this path in Bhutan.