The ultimate travel guide to Bhutan
Bhutan is truly an intriguing country. It is home to the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, and it is one of the few remaining countries with a King. Although lesser developed than many other nations, it is the only one in the world that is carbon-negative – it thrives on its natural resources. So, you ought to see its natural beauty for yourself!
Why you must absolutely go to Bhutan on your next trip
A Bhutan trip is ideal with family and friends. And if you are a backpacker, Bhutan is one of the destinations you would consider paradise! It is extremely safe, even for a solo traveller.
Bhutan has it all – from beautiful trekking routes to peaceful, ancient Buddhist monasteries.
A routine Bhutan tour would include the more popular tourist places like the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktsang Monastery) in Paro, which makes for a fantastic (and short) trek and you will see that the monastery almost magically hangs off a cliff. Then there is the Punakha Dzong (former fortress, now administrative building), where you can interact with the local monks and take in all the nature that surrounds it. From here, you can walk to Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge, that stands over the beautiful Po Chhu river (where you can also go white water rafting!).
Another popular spot is the Dochula Pass that connects Thimphu and Punakha. Here, there are 108 chortens (stupas/memorials), the Royal Botanical Park, and a mesmerising view of the Himalayas. And of course, do not miss the opportunity of trekking into the Himalayas!
To go a step beyond these famous tourist destinations, we recommend you take more time to explore Bhutan’s enriched culture. A great way to do that is by engaging yourself in their national sport – Archery! At the Changlimithang Stadium, you can not only learn the art, but also witness competitions held among skilled archers.
Another thing that will pull you in is the local food. Do not shy away from the simple and delicious (but spicy) food as that would be a missed opportunity. Their cuisine is mainly rice, with spicy curry and meat, among other things like momos. Their local spirit, Arag, is worth a go. Also, try to catch a traditional festival – the passion and devotion of the locals towards their culture is commendable!
If you’re feeling extra racy, you can also visit the Temple of The Divine Madman. And trust us, the story behind the temple is even madder! It is also called the fertility temple because there is a giant wooden penis that blesses fertility upon childless couples. And you can get souvenirs. Mad, right?
To aid your Bhutan tourism, there are many perks of being an Indian. Indian citizens have a much smoother experience while travelling to and within Bhutan. The visa is free of cost for us, and there are no daily fees levied (other tourists pay $250 for every day they stay in Bhutan!). We can also enter the country by road, without much difficulty.
Places to visit in Bhutan
Planning to visit the Bhutan Kingdom? Great, you’ve got Step 1 down.
Bhutan is a majestic country that bursts with natural beauty and rich culture. So, Step 2 is deciding where to go and how to optimize your time in Bhutan to see everything that needs to be seen.
Choosing your Bhutan destinations can be rather confusing. But, fear not! This article will be your ultimate Bhutan tourism guide! So, let’s take navigate through what’s famous in Bhutan, town by town.
Phuentsholing shares a border with Jaigaon, West Bengal. Thus, it is a mandatory touchpoint if you are traveling to Bhutan by road from India. The second biggest city in Bhutan, Phuentsholing is its financial capital. All tourist spots in Phuentsholing can be covered in one day, making it a great first day in your Bhutan travel.
The Bhutan Gate is the entrance to the country. As you cross Jaigaon to reach Phuentsholing, you will see the stark difference between the two towns, and quite presumably, the two countries. Jaigaon is large, loud and crowded. Phuentsholing, on the other hand, is quiet and tranquil
Amo Chhu Crocodile Breeding Centre
This place truly provides a new spin on exploring wildlife! You will catch a glimpse of several species of crocodiles, alligators and ghariyaals – snoozing, or if you’re lucky, feeding. They are fed tens of kilograms of fish and beef every alternate day. You can also take a stroll along the Amo Chhu river nearby.
Timings: 9 am to 5 pm
Zangto Pelri Park
The Zangto Pelri Park is simple and serene. It has a small pond and pathways for walking around. You might also sight monks chanting hymns. Inside it is the Zangto Pelri Temple. It has an exact replica of Padmasambhava, who is considered a Buddhist master and enlightened guru.
Timings: 8 am to 6 pm
Paro is considered to be one of the most sacred and historic cities in Bhutan. It has Bhutan’s only international airport. Paro accommodates a number of dzongs. A dzong is a Buddhist fortress and monastery. Dzongs are now used as administrative institutions, and are also monks’ abode.
The Rinpung Dzong (translates to ‘fortress on a heap of jewels’) houses 14 beautiful shrines and chapels. These are alongside numerous murals that depict the life of Buddha. It is lit up beautifully at night. From the top of the fortress, you can witness a mesmerising view of the surrounding valleys and the Paro Chhu river. If you visit in March or April, you can also catch Paro Tshechu – an annual, lively festival. Holy images are taken in a procession and monks perform a mask dance that demonstrates stories.
Timings: 8 am to 6 pm (March to October) and up to 4:30 pm (November to February)
National Museum of Bhutan
Ta Dzong (7-storied watchtower fortress), on the hill above the Rinpung Dzong, was re-established as the National Museum of Bhutan in 1968. It has over 3,000 masterpieces of everything from earthen pots to armour and from scroll paintings to bronze sculptures, depicting over 1,500 years of Bhutanese culture. The main attraction is the egg of a mule. Yes, you read that right!
Timings: 9 am to 5 pm (March to October) and up to 4 pm (November to February)
Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest)
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest hangs on a cliff at a height 10,240 feet. It is named so because it is believed that Padmasambhava was carried here on the back of a tigress. Paro Taktsang is a 20-minute drive from Paro. To get to the top, hiking is the only means. You may also hire a horse to take you halfway. The hike is not too difficult, it takes about 3 hours, and is totally worth it when you get to take in the hypnotizing view of the mountains and valleys.
Timings: 8 am to 1 pm, 2 pm to 6 pm (March to October) and up to 5 pm (November to February)
Chele La Pass
The Chele La Pass is a pass between the Paro and Haa valleys. It is the highest motorable point in Bhutan (13,000 ft). On the slopes of the mountains, you will sight white poppy – the only place in the world. You can get to the pass by driving, mountain-biking or trekking. The drive is about 2 hours from Paro, through dense woods. And depending on the season you will be able to witness lush greens, waterfalls or frozen rivers, although it is advised no to visit the Chele La Pass during the winter. On a clear day, you can also get a view of the beautiful Mount Jomolhari (22,000 ft).
You can also go over to the Haa Valley. There, there are two famous temples – Lhakhang Karpo (White temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black temple). During the summer, there is also the colourful, traditional Haa festival.
The Drukgyel Dzong (Fortress of Victory) was originally erected as a symbol of victory over an invasion from Tibet, in 1649. As the result of a terrible fire in 1951, the dzong was almost completely destroyed. It still is pretty much in ruins – restoration work began only in 2016. Nevertheless, it is a sight to behold as it is surrounded completely by lavish greenery and cloudy mountains.
Timings: 7 am to 6 pm
Thimphu is the capital, and the largest city, of Bhutan. The Bhutanese ideology and objective is to maintain a balance between tradition and modernization. This can be clearly made out by the way Thimphu functions. While the city is mainly occupied by agricultural activities and a simple life, it also has a number of night clubs, internet cafés and shopping centres.
Buddha Dordenma Statue
The Buddha Dordenma Statue is an enormous Buddha statue made of bronze and gilded in gold. The throne that the large Buddha sits on is a meditation hall. The roof has beautiful mandalas. There are over 125,000 similar, but smaller, statues around it. And the population of Thimphu is about 100,000. So, effectively, there are more Buddhas than humans in Thimphu! But imagine the sight of the statues being lit up at night. A view to die for!
Timings: 9 am to 5 pm
Chomolhari (Jomolhari) (8,900 ft) is a lofty mountain in the Himalayas, on the border of Thimphu and Tibet. It is also known as the bride of Kangchenjunga. You can also trek to Chomolhari. It is a relatively short trek and has a good trail, but is more difficult because of the high altitude. It is considered the most sacred mountain in Bhutan and is said to be the abode of a goddess that protects her land and people. How soulful!
The Tashichho Dzong is a fortress along the banks of the Wang Chu river in Thimphu. In the past, it has been through tremendous destruction due to fire and earthquakes. But now, it stands strong as the seat of Bhutan’s government. It currently houses the throne room and offices of the King and a few ministers. Also, there about 30 enchanting chapels and shrines within the dzong.
Timings: 5:30 pm to 6 pm (Monday to Friday) and 8 am to 6 pm (Saturday and Sunday)
Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1955. Punakha is strikingly beautiful because it has large fields of rice on the banks of two major river valleys – Pho Chu and Mo Chu. A multitude of fruits and vegetables is also grown. And like most places in Bhutan, there is again a surprise – you can go white water rafting here!
On the road from Thimphu to Punakha, comes the Dochula Pass. This is a popular tourist destination because here, there are 108 chortens or stupas (memorials). There is also a monastery and open grounds for the annual Dochula Druk Wangyal Festival. Just a short walk from the Pass are the Royal Botanical Garden and a few national parks. The abundance of wildlife is unreal!
Timings: 6 am to 5 pm
The Punakha Dzong has a perfect score when it comes to location. Punakha Dzong is located in the Punakha Valley, at the confluence of the Pho Chu (Male) and Mo Chu (Female) rivers. It hosts its annual festival, Domche, in February or March. The festival is essentially the re-enactment of the Tibetan invasion of Bhutan (where the Tibetans had been defeated, of course!). It also involves a dance ritual performed by a whopping 136 people, all dressed as warriors. Another annual event is the Lhenkey Dungchhur, which is a ritual performed for the departed souls.
Timings: 8:30 am to 5 pm (March to September) and 11 am to 5 pm (October to February)
Punakha Suspension Bridge
The Punakha Suspension Bridge is a mighty 160 meters long. It is one of the oldest and longest suspension bridges in the world. This bridge stretches over the Po Chu river. The Punakha Suspension Bridge is not everyone’s cup of tea as its two ends are perched at quite a height, and it sways constantly because of the wind. Beautiful, colourful prayer flags cover the entire bridge. The bridge is about a kilometre from the Punakha Dzong, and you will also pass the King’s Palace on your way.
The Phobjikha Valley is an absolute must-visit for not only its abundant flora, but actually its rich fauna. The wildlife has a number of species like black bears, barking deer, red foxes, leopards, wild boars, sambar, black-necked cranes, and many more. The valley is against the Black Mountains of Bhutan. The ideal way to take in the beauty is to spend a couple of days here – to trek, wander about, camp by the river and get to know the local, rural folk. Phobjikha Valley is a 2.5-hour drive from Punakha.
When to go to Bhutan
The best time for you to visit Bhutan really depends on the nature of your trip. If you are more inclined towards trekking or solo backpacking, the ideal weather for you is pleasant, sunny skies and a clear view of the Himalayas – which occur best from October to December.
On the other hand, if you want a good family vacation or just a lovely getaway, you should plan your trip in the months of March and April, when spring is upon Bhutan, with valleys of flowers bursting in bloom.
During the other months, the weather (dry, wet or cold) doesn’t do justice to the beauty of the country.
When you are planning your trip, try to schedule it around a traditional festival happening there. For instance, Bhutan celebrates its famous Black Necked Crane Festival in November, Punakha Drubchen in February, et cetera – but don’t worry, they have something delightful happening at any given time of the year.
How to get there
From India, there are two ways to get there – by air and by road.
Bhutan has one international airport at Paro. Direct flights from Kolkata and connecting flights from Mumbai, New Delhi, Bagdogra and Guwahati will get you there. Druk Air is Bhutan’s national airline and you will have to book your tickets through their official website.
Bhutan has three other domestic airports for internal travel – Gelephu (South), Yonphulla (East) and Bathpalanthag (Central).
Until next time,