Road Tripping in Bhutan – A Destination Guide
A road trip in a country that used to feed its pigs marijuana promised to be an interesting affair. During our 12 days in in Bhutan, we were accompanied by our guide and driver – it is not possible for most tourists to visit the country independently, but we did create our own itinerary. Read our post about organising a trip to Bhutan. This post highlights the most popular places to visit in Bhutan.
Here’s our list of places to visit in Bhutan
One of our first destinations was Punakha. On our way there, we traversed via the Dochula Pass, a mountain pass at 3100m, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Himalayan mountain range but unfortunately the thick fog obscured the view although it was still a great spot in which to enjoy some hot tea and cookies.
The main attraction in the former capital is the majestic Punakha Dzong, aka “The Palace of Great Happiness”, situated at the point where the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers meet. This was the first of many Dzong (Himalayan fortresses) visits but at the end of the trip both Nikki and I agreed that it was the most beautiful especially considering its spectacular location.
The Chimi Lhakhang Village with its phallus-painted houses and Temple of Fertility is located a few kilometres outside Punakha and is definitely worth visit even if just for the walk through the lush countryside.
We spent our afternoon in Punakha rafting on the Po Chu river in Class 2-4 rapids. Our driver tested his off-road driving skills to take us to the rafting location, to which there was no clear path, and we must say he did a great job! Having rafted on more exciting rivers, we found the activity pleasant enough but not particularly stimulating.
Bumthang is the collective name for an area of four valleys – Chokhor (Jakar), Tang, Ura and Chhume. Jakar Town is mostly one long road containing different shops catering to the small town’s needs. Our hotel was located on a hillside at the end of the village with lovely views of the valley below. To our surprise the hotel staff handed us a cute, pink invitation card and informed us that we were invited to the birthday celebration of the owner’s little grandaughter that night! Appreciative of the kind gesture, we quickly went for a walk in the village to look for a suitable gift for a child, which proved very hard to find! After visiting all the shops in the area, a convenience store sold us a very odd, shabby-looking soft toy and some chocolate which were, thankfully, greatly appreciated by the family. The party was a grand affair – tables with home-made delicacies and wine were set up in the courtyard and a large bonfire was lit. We were asked to sit around it and feast to our heart’s content along with family members, friends and other hotel guests. Awesome start to our stay in Bumthang!
Bumthang includes many sacred sites such as the Kurjey Lhakhang which is said to contain a body print of the Guru Rinpoche preserved in a cave, and the Jambay Lhakhang one of 108 monasteries that are said to have been miraculously constructed by a Bhutanese king in one night.
We spent four days in Jakar where we attended the Tamshing Phala Festival, a traditional event where dancers wearing masks of demons, monsters and animals danced to the sound of cymbals, drums and horns accompanied by the chanting of Buddhist monks. If you plan on visiting Bhutan, be sure to fit in a festival in your itinerary – it provides a true opportunity to interact and socialise with locals.
Other places of note were the Membar Tsho (Burning Lake), a holy pilgrimage site, and the Ugyencholing Palace Museum in the Tang valley where the heir of the family that has lived in the palace for centuries, gave us an insight into Bhutanese life over the past 100 years.
A stunning, remote valley where the villagers continue to live a traditional Bhutanese rural lifestyle. It is also home the Gangtey monastery – one of the oldest in the country and an unmissable milestone in our list of places to visit in Bhutan. Our room here had large glass windows with a spectacular view over the valley and in winter it is possible to spot the rare black-necked crane in the valley.
We spent our first night in Thimpu, the country’s capital. There’s one piece of advice that you should heed if you plan on sleeping in Thimpu – be sure to take earplugs! The capital’s stray dogs seem to take over the streets and throw a massive party at night – their loud barking continues non-stop until early morning and no matter how exhausted you might be, falling asleep turns into a frustrating struggle.
There’s lots to see and do in Thimpu; highlights include the Memorial Chorten, the School of Traditional Arts and the Changangkha temple but for us the absolute highlight was the Takin Preserve, home the the Bhutanese national animal which looks like a cow with a goat’s head.
The Takin were previously kept in a zoo but the King of Bhutan had declared that it was against Buddhist principles to keep the animals confined and had set them free. The animals had become so domesticated that they refused to run off into the wild and roamed the streets of Thimpu instead, after which the Preserve, an enclosed, forested area in Thimphu was set up. Thimpu is also home to a few western-style restaurants catering to those tourists missing their pizza and burgers.
Paro valley is Bhutan’s superstar. Home to several beautiful buildings, temples and monasteries, life in the valley is very slow-paced despite it being one of the most popular destinations for visitors.
Nikki and I experienced a homestay on a farm in Paro valley where we got to try out the traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath and drink butter tea. Moreover the hosts gave us an insight into their rural lifestyle and explained that living in simplicity makes them happy and they certainly do not crave western-style wealth which, in their opinion, leads to frustration and unhappiness (three cheers to that!).
Paro is also home to Bhutan’s most spectacular temple – the Tiger’s Nest, perched on the edge of a cliff which Nikki and I trekked up to. This is definitely the “must-do” activity in Paro, if not in all of Bhutan. Another building which is surely not as grand but which I found just as fascinating, is the ruined Drukgyel Dzong, a fortress located just outside of Paro, destroyed by a butter-lamp fire years ago; we were the only foreigners visiting the site but we did find some locals picnicking under the trees inside. They were setting up for a game of archery and invited Nikki to join in, teaching him a few tricks in the process, through they laughed at his wild shots as much as I did.
Bhutan’s little town and villages are home to some of the most peaceful people that I have ever met. It is clear that respect towards each other and respect towards nature are some of the strong pillars upon which their little nation is built and it was no surprise to learn that crime is uncommon here. Although it may be too late for rest of the world to take up Bhutanese principles, I sincerely hope that Bhutan itself will continue keeping its people happy.