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Top 10 Places to visit / Things to do in Bhutan

1.       Paro Taktshang Monastery

Popularly known to the outside world as the ‘Tiger Nest Monastery’, this is the most popular attraction among tourists mostly because of its sheer location and among the locals because of the religious significance attached to it. The monastery is situated on a cliff face, 900 meters above the Paro valley floor (2900+ meters, total height above sea level)

The monastery is a very prominent Himalayan Buddhist sacred site and dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (Lotus born), an 8th century saint who brought Buddhism to the Himalayas. The monastery complex was only built in 1692 by the then political leader of Bhutan.

2.       Punakha Dzong

The Fortress of Punakha, originally built for defensive purpose, is the most impressive and beautiful of all the Dzongs in Bhutan. Built in 1637 by the unifier of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, it is said that the Dzong is modeled on a Palace in Paradise and hence its original name Pungthang Dewachen Pi Phodrang, the palace of Great bliss. The dzong is majestically located at the confluence of two rivers Pho Chu and Mo Chu, the male and female rivers, respectively. And so, it is a belief that the dzong signify a perfect unison between a male and a female, a husband and a wife, lovers, etc.

Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan for many centuries until 1955, when the 3rd King shifted the capital to Thimphu permanently. The Central Monastic body still use Punakha as their winter capital, which used to be the tradition for both State and Monastic body in olden times. Punakha dzong is very significant in the history of Bhutan. The country was first unified in 17th century from Punakha, the first hereditary monarch was enthroned in Punakha, and the first foreign delegates were received there as well……

3.       Dochula Pass

Dochu-La is a mountain pass between the western districts of Thimphu and Punkaha. A stunning panoramic view of the Himalayan peaks within Bhutan can be seen from here, during winter months of Dec, Jan and Feb. In addition, the pass is home to a 108 Chortens (stupas) called Druk Wangyel Chorten, built to commemorate the victory in flushing out of insurgent militant groups from north east India in the winter of 2003. There is also a Temple called Druk Wangyel Temple built to honor the 4th King of Bhutan, who led the armies in battle against the insurgents. These were all built by the Queen mother, Her Majesty Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck.

Dochu La Pass is at a height of 3050 meters from sea level and is one among the most popular tourist attractions.

 

 

4.       Phobjikha Valley (Largest wetland in Bhutan) / Gangtey Monastery

Phobjikha valley is towards central Bhutan and falls under Wangdiphodrang district. It is the largest open wetland in the country. It is popular primarily because it is the winter home for the endangered Black Necked Cranes that come to roost from the highlands of Tibet. They are here from late Oct to early March and tourists can hike to the grazing ground from the Gangtey monastery, overlooking the entire Phobjikha valley. Gangety monastery is one of the oldest, belonging to the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is more commonly practiced in central and eastern Bhutan.

What is special about the valley is the significance the villagers there give to the Cranes. They are worshipped as being godly and treated all the better. For many decades, the people in the village had neither electricity nor farm roads, while the rest of the country got them. The only reason they did not want all these was because putting up electric poles and wires meant threat to the lives of these heavenly graceful birds. Building roads meant destroying their habitat and roosting grounds. Only very recently they had electricity in the valley, with everything underground so the lives of the birds are not at stake. The roads are built to carefully make sure that the impact doesn’t fall on where the birds roost and live. These birds make three rounds of the Gangtey monastery while coming to Bhutan and also while returning back to Tibet, which only added to the already spiritual significance people attach to the cranes. There is an annual Crane Festival held at Gangtey Monastery and conducted the local community with technical assistance from the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN).

There are quite a lot of short hikes to do in Phobjikha valley and around it.

5.       Bumthang Valley, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan

Bumthang is a very sacred and the most spiritual of places in Bhutan. Before 1616, when Bhutan was consolidated by Zhabdrung, Bumthang was a Kingdom where Buddhism first took root in Bhutan. It also contains several places relevant to particularly Bhutanese legends. Bumthang has hundreds of very sacred and ancient Buddhist sites, temples, legends, myths, etc. Buddhism was introduced in Bhutan in 7th century AD by Tibetan emperor Songtsan Gempo, who order construction of two Buddhist stupas, Jambay Lhakhang in Bumthang, central Bhutan and Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro, western Bhutan. These two temples were built as a part of 108 stupas the emperor built in a night so that his vision of spreading Tibetan Buddhism across the Himalayas are a success and they also mark the advent of Buddhism in the country. In the later years, many saints from Tibet and a few from India visited and blessed the land and constructed a lot of Temples and monasteries in order to spread and popularize Buddhism. Bumthang valley also served as a locus for exiled Tibetan and Indian rulers, and also as a home of the local saint Pema Lingpa, who lived in the 15th century.

Geographically, Bumthang is divided into 4 Geogs (blocks) namely Chumey, Chamkhar, Tang and Ura. There are a lot of ancient trade routes which are now popular hiking and trekking trails. The district headquarter and the main commercial town is Chamkhar. It will be interesting and intriguing to hear and learn of many local legends, myths and folktales about ancient Bhutan and Buddhism while in Bumthang. Bumthang, to the westerners, is also known as the Eastern Switzerland, mainly because of it mountains, open valleys, and a lot of other striking similarities in features to Switzerland! It also is home to the Red Panda brewery, popular local German Weiss beer factory. Swiss cheese making, Brown-Swiss cattle breeding are among the other local means of sustaining for the people there. Bumthng being the spiritual heartland of Bhutan has lots of local festivals that are very genuine and not tailor made for tourists only. Among the most popular is the Jambay Lhakhang Drub, which is held in autumn annually. It is believed that after it was initially built in 7th century, Jambay Lhakhang required renovation; however demons kept interrupting the renovation works. So the locals stripped naked and performed what is now known as ‘the naked dance’, and that confused the demons who were no longer coming in the way of the renovation works!

Apart from these the valley itself is a sight to behold with beautiful views of fields and coniferous forests, freshwater springs and streams, clear skies, and so on. Views of Himalayan peaks can be seen as well on clear sky days.

6.       The Concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH)

Gross National Happiness is a term synonymous with the Kingdom of Bhutan. GNH as it is broadly known, is envisioned and authored by our 4th Dragon King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It centres the ideology of pursuing and measuring the country’s growth in terms of its citizen’s happiness, as opposed to its gross national or domestic product. His Majesty used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Basically GNH was designed to define an indicator that measures the quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms, not only the economic indicator of GDP.

Bhutan sure is a small developing country and we don’t have all those technical know-how or the advancements in everything we do to develop our country. But since we were not there at that advanced level, we don’t mind not getting there either. Our way of life and our traditions, over the years, have taught us not to go to the extremes to prove your worth, in any field, and we continue to follow suit. If a man is worth something, eventually he will be noticed. Going all out to prove it, is stupidity in here!Ours is a simple way to live life and when living is simple, small things get you the happiness you look for. Restricting/limiting foreign influence in our way of lives, our culture and tradition, is how we are to pursue happiness in Bhutan!

The concept of GNH and its importance in the lives of each and everyone here, are taught from the primary school through college. It is something that is now deeply rooted in everyone’s mind and whatever each one us here do, is in accordance with, and keeping in mind the pillars of GNH.

GNH concept has now travelled wide and far, and many countries are looking to adopt the same concept as well, replacing the more common indicator of GDP. And if that becomes a reality, Bhutan would have had played the role of completely shifting the paradigm, on which the world presently resides.

The concept of GNH is based on how people of Bhutan lived in olden times, and at present in villages, rural, rugged and away from all things modern. Simple and easy living with basic necessities, with access to freedom of religion and culture, are the main ideologies. Being content with what you have, the basic needs, the food, clothing and shelter, is the main essence of GNH. So visiting a very typical and rural remote village or community is a great way to see firsthand, how and what it really means to be content with whatever you are provided for to get by with your life. Thimphu or any other modern town does not offer an insight into if and how people are actually happy or if they just pretend and say that they are, all for the sake of it!

7.       Paro Tsechu

Tsechus are very grand religious and cultural festivals held annually in every Dzongs and major monasteries across Bhutan. Of all the Tsechus, the one at Paro is considered the most popular not only among the locals but tourists too. Paro Tsechu is held every spring and is the most colorful and significant festival in Paro and in Bhutan. People from neighboring districts travel to Paro to take part in the festival and it is also that time of the year when they would look and dress their best, enjoy delicious home cooked meal, have a great beginning to the year. A lot of religious mask dances are performed during the 4 day annual event and all these dances teach you one thing or the other about Buddhism and being a Buddhist. Most of these dances are short skits where the dancers enact a scene which gives viewers an idea about whatever is being shown / taught through such enactments. On the final day, early in the morning the monks display a gigantic Thongdrel (embroidered painting), which are impressive examples of Buddhist art and never fails to amaze viewers. They are considered so sacred that simply seeing or being present at the place of its display is said to cleanse the viewer of sin.

The Tshechus gives you an insight into how Buddhism has come a long way as a way of life for the Bhutanese.

8.       Punakha Dromche

Punkha Dromche is an annual event and has various religious mask dances and enactments of various spiritual themed performances. It is mostly popular because Punakha Dromche is the only festival in the country with a procession that re-enact the war against Tibetans during the 17th century.

This festival is in essence dedicated to the two protective deities of Bhutan, Yeshey Goenpo (Mahakala) and Palden Lhamo (Mahakali). Mostly dances here are of three kinds ; Instructive dances, dances that purify and protect a place from demonic spirits and dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism. Punakha Dromche is held in the beginning of every spring and the last day of the festival is a grand affair with Serda, the re-enactment of war against Tibetan, where local men are selected by their village headmen to dress and March as warriors of ancient Bhutan. It is an amazing festivity and gathers crowd from within and outside Bhutan.

9.       Simply Bhutan and Folk Heritage Museum, Thimphu

Simply Bhutan is a living cultural and heritage museum located in Thimphu. It showcases the everyday lives in rural Bhutan, how people go about with their daily work, food, activities for fun, etc. They also serve genuine local cuisine and drinks. The aim of Simply Bhutan is to preserve and promote Bhuatnese culture and way of life, since it is one of the main pillars to achieving Gross National Happiness. They also generate employment opportunities for youth and most of what they earn from the visitors goes towards empowering youth and provide them with skills through training and workshops.

The Folk Heritage Museum is a govt run concern, and has a traditional Bhutanese house of over 100 years old, which belonged to a local governor of Thimphu in olden times. The Folk Heritage Museum dedicates itself to connecting people with the rich Bhutanese Folk heritage and rural history through exhibits, demonstrations, educational programs and documentation of Bhutanese rural life. The Museum will strive to disseminate the rich cultural heritage across generations by preserving it in different forms.

10.   Chimi Lhakhang and National Memorial Stupa

Chimi Lhakhang is a very revered and popular temple that lies on the periphery of fertile Lobesa village. The temple is dedicated to ‘the Divine Madman’ , Lama Drukpa Kuenley, who was an unorthodox Buddhist saint who lived in the 15th century. His way of blessing and helping people get enlightened, especially women, is quite odd and unorthodox! He blesses women through sex and sends their soul to heaven as well!

Infertile couple seeking blessing from the Penis (thunder bolt of flaming wisdom!) of Divine Madman usually can conceive children. It has worked almost all the time with locals and quite a lot with foreign tourist also. There is a photo album of all the tourists who got his blessing and gave birth later!

 

The National Memorial Stupa is located in Thimphu. It was built as a monument to World Peace and to commemorate the death of the 3rd King of Bhutan. Elder people in Thimphu spend their entire day at this stupa praying and making rounds of the stupa, hoping to earn their merits for a better afterlife. The 3rd King wanted to built this stupa as a monument to world peace, however he passed away before his dream could see the light of the day. So his Queen built the stupa after his death in 1972.