Paro (Altitude: 2,200 m/7,218 ft)
This beautiful valley where nature and man conjured to create their greatest image is home to some of Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries as well as its only international airport. It is a picturesque valley with all its rice fields, apple orchards and traditional Bhutanese houses. North of the valley lies Drugyel Dzong, a ruined fortress which once defended the valley against Tibetan invaders. Behind it is the majestic Mt. Chhomolhari (Mountain of Goddess) reigning in all its white glory.
The Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest), where Guru Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche once meditated, clings to a vertical granite cliff 1000 meters above the valley floor. It is a sacred monastery for the Bhutanese people, who believe that it must be visited at least once in their lifetime.
The Paro Dzong built in 1646 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, is the venue of the Annual Paro Tshechu. It houses the Paro Monastic Body as well as the administrative offices of the Dzongda (Governor) and the district courts. Above Paro Dzong is a circular watch tower which houses the National Museum with a collection of artifacts of historical and cultural significance.
Located in the westernmost part of Bhutan, the valley of Haa was opened up to tourism only recently. It is blessed by the presence of Meri Puensum, three small mountains symbolizing Rigsum Gonpo: Jampelyang (Manjushri) Chana Dorji (Vajrapani) and Chenrezi (Avaloketeshvara).
Thimphu (Altitude: 2,400m/7,875ft)
Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is perhaps the most unusual capital city in the world. Old wooden houses constructed in traditional Bhutanese style stand side by side with newly constructed concrete buildings. The city has changed much over the years but there is still no traffic lights and perhaps this will remain long into the 21st century as one of the world’s most pristine capital city.
Trashichho Dzong (Fortress of Glorious Religion) houses the throne room of His Majesty the King of Bhutan, important government offices and is also the summer residence of the Central Monastic Body. One of the prominent landmarks is the National Memorial Chorten (stupa) a monument dedicated to the Third King of Bhutan. Other places of interest are the Institute of Traditional Medicines, the National Library (which houses a vast collection of books and research documents on Buddhist studies), the centenary farmer’s market and the Institute of Zorig Chusum (thirteen traditional arts and crafts).
The Semtokha Dzong, built in 1627 on a lofty ridge and is the oldest Dzong in Bhutan, and the Buddha Dordenma Statue at Kuenselphodrang which at 169ft is the world’s tallest Buddha statues are interesting sites to visit.
Punakha (Altitude: 1,310m/4,300 ft)
Punakha, the old capital of Bhutan until 1955 has a temperate climate and is a rich fertile valley. The Punakha Dzong was strategically built in 1637 AD at the confluence of two rivers – the Pho Chu and Mo Chu and is the winter residence of the Central Monastic Body. The Dzong houses sacred artifacts and the embalmed body of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel.
Chimi Lhakhang situated at a hillock in the midst of rice fields is a well-known pilgrimage site for childless couples. The temple is associated with the famous saint Drukpa Kuenley.
Wangdue Phodrang (Altitude: 1,300 m/ 4,265 ft)
The valley of Wangdue Phodrang, which is well known for its fine bamboo work, slate and stone carving, is the gateway to central and eastern Bhutan. A two-hour drive from Wangdue town is Phobjikha valley the winter home of the endangered black-necked cranes.
Trongsa (Altitude: 2,300 m / 7,545 ft)
Trongsa is located in the center of Bhutan. The Trongsa Dzong, built in 1648, is the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family. Both the first and second kings ruled the country from this ancient seat. All the kings held the post of Trongsa Penlop prior to ascending the throne. Due to this highly strategic location as the only connecting route between east and west, the Trongsa Penlop was able to control the whole of the eastern region effectively for many centuries. The Trongsa Ta-Dzong is a watchtower overlooking the Dzong that is now a heritage museum.
Bumthang (Altitude: 2,800 m / 9,185 ft)
Comprising of four valleys, the deeply spiritual region of Bumthang is shrouded in religious legend. The valley is home to the sacred Jambay Lhakhang and the Kurjey Lhakhang where the body imprint of Guru Padmasambhava remains to this day. Bumthang is also the traditional home of the great Buddhist teacher Pema Lingpa to whom the royal family traces its ancestry. Jambay Lhakhang Drupchen is one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan. It is believed that women unable to conceive will be blessed with fertility by attending special prayers during the festival. The valley is known for its “yathra” which is an unique material woven from coarse sheep wool, intricately designed and colored to form breathtaking patterns.
Mongar (Altitude: 1,600 m / 5,250 ft)
Mongar marks the beginning of the journey to eastern Bhutan. Towns in eastern Bhutan are built on the sides of the hills in contrast to western Bhutan where towns have developed on the valley floor. Mongar Town is small with a sprinkling of shops. Mongar Dzong is modern compared to other Dzongs in the kingdom.
Trashigang (Altitude: 1,600 m / 5,250 ft)
Trashigang town remains the center of religious and secular activity in the east and is a growing commercial center. It is a melting pot for the hill people who come to the town to trade provisions that they need in the mountains. Trashigang Dzong built in 1649 sits on a jagged piece of land jutting out from the town and is the first landmark that can be seen from the road winding up to Trashigang from Mongar. Bhutan’s first college Sherubtse meaning Peak of Knowledge is situated in Trashigang.