The western circuit comprises of the six western Districts in the country that includes Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Wangdue Phodrang, Punakha and Gasa. What makes this circuit special is that the Tourism Council of Bhutan has categorized new ways of exploring the existing great sights. In this circuit one may attend the summer festival of Haa and delve into the wonders of a living culture. The festival highlights Shamanic rituals and other folk dances. You may also enjoy the beauty of the rare Himalayan flowers in bloom or take a daring trek to Nob Tsonapatra that is full of interesting legends. In Thimphu you may witness the newly introduced Takin Festival, Balloning, Hand Gliding, MICE & GNH conferences, meditation and wellness facilities. You may visit temples, dzongs(fortresses) and museums or attend to a festival where textiles come to life. Festivals abound throughout the year and trips can be tailored in accordance. Punakha festival marvels you with the historical depiction of medieval warriors who defended Bhutan with swords and shields. Experience the plantation of rice in early summer or the harvests of the same in autumn. The golden hue of ripening rice fields are photographers’ delight in autumn. Do not miss the museums. Paro museum (Tadzong), reveals the history, cultural, and in Thimphu, let the Folk Heritage museum enthuse you with farmers’ livelihood.
Gasa: On the trails of discovery
Gasa the northern most district of the country adjoins the districts of Punakha, Thimphu and Wangdue Phodrang and with Tibet to its north. This starkly beautiful region with elevations ranging from 1500 to 4,500 metres experiences extremely long and hard winters and short but beautiful summers. It has the smallest population with just about 3000 inhabitants. Of culture meet the people of Laya, the nomads of western Bhutan. These people live on yaks and harvest of Cordycep (fungi of high value, used in oriental medicine).
Locally known as the Tashi Thongmon Dzong, the fortress served as a defending barrack in the 17th century. It was named after the region’s protecting deity Tashi Thongmon. The fortress is unique with a circular shape and three watch towers that are placed at strategic points. The beauty of the dzong is heightened during clear days with view of Mt. Gangboom. Time your trip there during the annual autumn festival.
Let your adventurous spirit take you on a three nights trek to Laya. Situated at an altitude of 3800m, this village will mesmerise you with their unique culture. It is amazing how a small pocket of ethnic group survived for so long in the north of this small country. Anyone on the Snow Leopard trek or the grand Snowman Trek will converge through Laya. To experience the maximum cultural richness, why not time during their Owlay festival. This festival happens once in three years and the other festival you can bank on is the Takin Festival.
The valley of Lunana is the most remote of Gasa district. To see Lunana is to experience the culture of Himalayan people residing amongst the glaciers. The people here make their living from yaks and sheep. The nomads here know a lot on medicinal herbs and have benefited a lot from cordycep harvesting. This wonder worm (Cordyceps sinensis) has given the nomads an extra income which will eventually lead to preservation of this nomadic culture.
Gasa has about thirteen well known religious monuments that includes the Zabsel and Phulukha choetens, Throe Lhakhang, Dung Goemba, Drophel Choling, Yonzho Lhakhang, Jangchub Choling, Bumpa lhakhang, and the ruins of the ancestral home of the 1st Deb Raja of Bhutan, Tenzin Drugyel.
Gasa is famed for its numerous hot springs or Tshachus with renowned medicinal properties. The hot springs at the base of the Mochu river draws not just the locals but as well as Bhutanese from other parts of the country and tourists. Taking a hot dip in the Tshachus will be not just a wonderful experience but give you a healing experience.
The natural splendour of Gasa is unparalleled in the country. It has some of the highest peaks arrayed like a saw along the natural border with Tibet. Over a hundred glacial lakes are at the foot of these mountains that feed the two major rivers in the country. The entire district falls under the Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park that has some rare flora and fauna species. One cn come across the elusive snow leopard, Takin – the national animal, Red Panda, the mountain goats, Blue sheep and the Blue Poppy, the national flower of the country. Each year a number of tourists pass through the region along its popular trails including the famous Snowman, one of the most arduous treks in the world.
Haa: the valley of the Guardian spirit
The ancestral home of the Royal Grandmother and the Dorji family, the Haa district is undoubtedly one of the most picturesque of the districts in the country. The district adjoins the districts of Paro, Chhukha and Samtse, covering an area of 1706 sq. Km. It is one of the smallest districts in the country. Legend says that the Haa valley, before the 8th century, was wrapped up in animist tradition. Still some elements of this belief system exist in form of festivals and rituals. The tantric master Padmasambhava visited the valley in the 8th century and transformed some blood sacrificing animist beliefs into peaceful Buddhist traditions. Ap Chundu and several other deities, once hostile animist forces, were subdued and made the guardians of the land.
The construction of the Wangchulo Dzong was commissioned by Gongzim Ugyen Dorji, the Grandfather of the Royal Grandmother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck. The Dzong structure resembles the Wangdicholing palace in Bumthang that was the seat of the 1st and 2nd Kings.
This is another fortress in the Haa valley. The fortress is located on 11 kilometres away from Chunzom towards Haa proper and was built in the 16th century by a Tibetan Lam Nawang Chogyal. The five storied fortress is perched on a hilltop and flanked by a hair-raising ravine descending to the basin of the Pachu-Wangchu. It was once one of the main centres of Drukpa Kagyudpa teachings, the state religion of the country. From the fortress one can view the lush green forests of Chhukha Dzongkhag with the highway running across it.
This hundred year old temple was founded by Dali Lam Sangay Gyatso who served as the bbot of Nub Dali Dzong in Tibet. People believe that the temple is thus modelled on the lines of the Nub dali Dzong. It is located in Lungsekha village in Isu gewog.
A place of importance in the valley is the Shekhar Drak temple that is ensconced at the foot of a cliff with its walls melded in the rock. A visit to the temple will be truly an spiritually fluffing one.
Lhakhang Karpo and Nagpo:
Explore the two great temples namely the White (Lhakhang Karpo) and the Black (Lhakhang Nagpo). The temples are both located in the tiny village of Dumchoe. Lhakhang Karpo can be distinguished by its sparkling white walls while lhakhang Nagpo is easily distinguished by its grayish black wall. The temples are both located in the foothills of the three towering identical mountains venerated as Rigsum Gonpo. Mesmerise yourself with the stories of how the temples and the mountains were formed. They represent the essence of Wisdom, Knowledge and Subjugation. Maybe you can draw your own parables here. The people of Haa have a tradition of going on pilgrimage to the temples and you can join the pilgrims on foot.
The Summer festival at Ha valley is an annual festival where you get an opportunity to explore the Alpine valley which is a favourite haunt of the nature lovers with lakes and mountains. You also get an opportunity to participate in the nomadic life styles of the Haaps and feel the experience of ancient Bhutan besides savouring the delicacies of the Haaps, especially the Haapi Hoentoe, a dumpling. You may also take rides on Yaks and horses back and compete in the traditional game of khuru, archery and soksum and try hitting the bull’s eye.
You may also share a night or so in the traditionally built farmhouses and experience the true essence of cultural exposure. We can design tours that will allow you to experience farming of the valley’s staple crops of wheat, potatoes, barley, millet and ample green vegetables. Trekking will reveal the legends of Nob Tsonapatra (highland lakes) and yak herders livelihood. We present the best of Haa during the Summer Festival and other festivals as listed here.
Paro: The valley of unsurpassing beauty
Paro’s cultural bonanza
The cultural highlights of Paro resemble so much the intricate and beautiful textiles worn by the people during the valley’s annual festival. Here we take you through the rice fields, orchards, farmhouses and temples of various ages. The pride of Paro is the hanging temples on the cliffs from the legendary Taktsang to Kila Gompa and Dzongdrakha. Let your muscles baffle your spirits as you climb the rocky stairs of these medieval temples.
To complete your tour of Paro, take an opportunity to time yourself with the Grand Festival of Paro. If you are looking for a quite visit then choose one of the village festivities or be a guest of the annual family ritual. The farmers of Paro will be too happy to have you join them during plantation or harvest.
Let the ruins of this dzong tell you a tale of how Bhutanese warriors defended Bhutan from the invaders from the north in the 17th century. This dzong was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646, to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders. Though largely destroyed by fire in 1951, the outer walls and the central tower remain an imposing sight. On a clear day, treat yourself with a splendid view of Mt. Jumolhari from the approach road to Drukgyel Dzong.
Explore the Rinpung Dzong which the locals call the ‘fortress of a heap of jewels’. Built in 1646 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the dzong stands on a hill above Paro Township. It is linked by the traditional cantilever bridge (called the Nemi Zam) over the Pa chu where one may pose a photograph. Experience a walk up a paved stone path running alongside the imposing outer walls. Once inside the Dzong, you will be welcomed by the monks, architecture and the ancient frescoes.
On a ridge immediately above Rinpung Dzong is the Ta Dzong, built as a watchtower to protect the Dzong from intruders and warring factions. In 1968 Paro’s Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the National Museum, and now holds a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings, Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural history collection.
Go back in time and history and visit the 7th century Kyichhu temple. As the name suggests, the temple is a reservoir of peace, where you will really feel at peace here. Next to the temple is the house that is now turned into a museum dedicated to the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. One can come across photographs and other artefacts belonging to Rinpoche.
Often called the mini- Taktsang, Dzongdrakha temples are built on the cliffs above Bondey village. The walk there is not as strenuous as to Taktsang. Legend says one of the temples is built around a levitating monument. Folks built a stronger temple around this monument with the hope that the levitating monument does not fly away into the sky.
If you are as fit as the mountain goat, Kila Gompa awaits you. This magnificent clusters of temples built on the cliffs have been home for nuns for a long time. Kila in Sanskrit means a subjugating spiritual dagger that destroys the negativities. Hike up this temple and subjugate all the negative energies within you. If it does not give you the spiritual satisfaction do not worry because you will feel physically rejuvenated after the hike.
Often called the Tiger’s Nest, perched on the cliffs, has awestruck many a visitor. “Trip to Bhutan is never complete without climbing to Taktsang”, says one tourist. Indeed it’s true as the journey there fills you with spiritual bliss. For those not choosing the spiritual side it is the dramatic, artistically built monument that becomes a hiker’s delight. Take a trip to this dramatically set Buddhist relic hanging from a cliff. Experience the uphill climb as you ascend more than two thousand feet from the valley floor.
The unusual and circular lhakhang, reminiscent of the Shanag, or the black hat worn by the Bhutanese Black Hat dancers was, built by the great “Builder of iron chain bridges,” Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo. Experience a visit to this unique temple whose founder ws extended invitation by the two guardian deities of Ap Chundu and Jowo Drakey.
This 14th century temple located on the base of a mountain across the Pa chu on the Paro-Thimphu highway, is a must visit temple in the Paro valley. Built by the great master architect Thangtong Gyalpo, the temple houses some unique statues. To get to the temple one may actually walk over the iron chains that spans over the Pa chu.
The five-day Paro Tshechu is one of the biggest religious celebrations. Mask dances are performed to illustrate Buddhist moral tales from various Buddhist masters. You may attend the tshechu together with the Bhutanese people from all walks of life who join the residents of Paro in their best finery to attend the dances. One can witness the popular folk dance called the Wochubi Zhey that commemorates historical events.
Punakha: The ethereal ancient capital
Punakha has been inextricably linked to some of the most momentous events in the Bhutanese history and deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful and significant regions at the heart of Bhutanese culture. This district, levelling from 1300m at the valley floor rises to almost 3000m around Dochhula pass, served as the capital of Bhutan from 1637 till 1907 and the 1st National Assembly was held here. The dzong is historically important and stands as the symbol for a unified Bhutan. Visit Punakha Domche and relish the revelry of medieval warriors and also the coming of textiles to life.
Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the dzong was built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative seat of the region. It was here that the dual system of government was introduced in the 17th century and in 1907, enthroned the first King Gongsr Ugyen Wangchuck. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the dzong has been fully restored in the recent years by the 4th King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. At the dzong enrich your trip with the opportunity to see the highest standards in woodwork. Do not miss the massive Kuenray, the Coronation Hall of all Bhutanese kings, the Dzongchung at the entrance to the dzong and the cantilever bridge over the Mochu that has been recently renovated.
Khamsum Yuley Temple:
There is no temple in Bhutan built elaborately as this. This fascinating temple was built by the Queen Mother of the 5th King to bring universal peace in this world. The best of the spiritual art works are painted on the inner walls. There are also paintings of Buddhist teachers and tutelary deities of the country. This is a great temple to study the symbolic meanings from frescoes and sculptures.
The divine madman also known, as Drukpa Kinley is a famous teacher with whom the phallic symbol is associated. Tales told by your guide would have excited you to visit Chhimi Lhakhang. The Divine Madman sits there though a statue this time. Do not miss the master’s deeds painted on the walls. Japanese and several American couples visited this temple and were blessed miraculously with children. Ask yourself, do I need this Fertility Tour or not?
A day excursion to Talo would be great with picnic lunch. The festival there happens in spring and will capture any visitor’s attention. Let your tour take you there in summer during corn harvest. It’s an adventure to enjoy corn harvest with the farmers and also an opportunity to look for Himalayan bear. A walk through Talo and down to the other village of Nobgang will be a great day’s itinerary.
Nalanda Buddhist College:
Locals call this place Dalayna and the monks call it Nalanda Buddhist College. If you want to chat up with monks in English then this is the place to go. The monks here are dying to practise the new language they learn. Drive there in the afternoon and enjoy your evening tea supplemented by the ravishing view in front of you.
Chorten Nigpo walks:
The walk to Chorten Ningpo passes through several villages. Many visitors love this walk in summer and in autumn. In summer the rice fields are lush and gardens are filled with multitudes of vegetables and fruits. Likewise autumn enchants visitors with the golden hue of ripening rice. For adventure loving hard core walkers we recommend a detour to Hokotso, a lowland lake that holds many legends. This is recommended in autumn though
Thimphu: Cruising the capital’s cultural core
Thimphu, situated at an altitude of 2400m, is the centre of government, religion and commerce. The capital has an interesting combination of tradition and modernity, and includes some of the most advanced and remotest parts of the kingdom. It is home to the Kings and the Royal family members, civil servants, expatriates, politicians, business persons and monks. Enjoy this cultural mix based on livelihood. Of culture we will take you through temples, dzongs, chortens, museums, handicraft stores, nunneries, parks and many more. Allow yourself to meet both traditional and contemporary artist.
National Memorial Chorten:
Meet the elderly generation in circumambulation at the National Memorial Chorten. Chorten literally means ‘Seat of Faith’ and Buddhists often call such monuments, the ‘Mind of Buddha’. Treat yourself with the extraordinary depiction of Buddhist teachings in the form of paintings and sculptures. As the name denotes this National Memorial Chorten was consecrated on July 28, 1974 in memory of the Third King.
The “fortress of the glorious religion” was initially erected in 1641 and rebuilt by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the 1960s. Tashichhodzong houses some ministries, His Majesty’s secretariat, and the central monk body.
Stroll through the very first dzong, built in 1627 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. The Institute for Language and Cultural Studies is located here. Enthral yourself with the most noteworthy artistic feature in the form of over 300 finely worked slate carvings behind the prayer wheels in the courtyard.
Dochula pass is located on the way to Punakha from Thimphu. The pass is popular for tourists for its ideal location from where one can enjoy 360 degree of beautiful panoramic view of Himalaya mountain range, especially on clear winter days. The beauty of this place is further enhanced by the Druk Wangyal Chortens-108 stupa built by the eldest Queen Mother Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. The pass is also popular spiritual place for both locals and tourists because of an important temple that is located on the crest of Dochula pass.
Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck has achieved a fine blend of history and mythology in the construction of The Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple) to honor His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The past and future appear to merge in the details of the lhakhang (temple) that tells the story of a supreme warrior figure whose vision pierces the distant future.
Besides the spirituality of the place many Bhutanese families visit the pass during holidays and weekends to simply enjoy the scenery of the place with their pack lunch and hot tea. For the tourist the place is an ideal location to capture beautiful pictures of Himalaya mountain range during clear warm days.
This temple situated atop a small hound overlooking the Thimphu valley was built in the 13th century by the illustrious Lam Phajo Dugom Zhigpo. The temple is considered the spiritual home of children born in the Chang valley.
Thangtong Dewachen Nunnery:
The only nunnery in the Capital it is popularly known as Zilukha Anim Dratshang. It is located above Zilukha Lower Secondary School, overlooking Tashichodzong in Thimphu valley and is a few minutes’ drive from the town. It was built in 1976 by the 16th emanation of Thangtong Gyalpo, Drubthob Rikey Jadrel. You may interact with some 60 nuns or so that has devoted their life to spirituality and Buddhism.
The National Library was established in the late 1960s primarily to conserve the literary treasures which form a significant part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. It now houses an extensive collection of Buddhist literature mostly in block-printed format, with some works several hundred years old. There is also a small collection of foreign books, stock of which mainly comprises works written in English. Take the opportunity to see the world’s biggest book stationed in the ground floor.
Institute for Zorig Chusum:
Commonly known as the Painting School, the Institute offers you a glimpse of novices learning 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. It is a hands-on trip for you. Enjoy few moments with the future artists of the country.
National Institute of Traditional Medicine:
In Bhutan, equal emphasis is given to both allopathic and traditional medicines. The rich herbal medicines made from medicinal plants abundant in the kingdom are prepared and dispensed here. The Institute is also a training school for traditional medicine practitioners. The complex is closed to visitors due to considerations of hygiene, but one can still walk around and visit the showroom.
Folk Heritage and National Textile Museums: These museums, both of which opened in 2001, provide fascinating insights into Bhutanese material culture and way of life. One may come across some interesting facets from rural Bhutan that is slowly being replaced by modern amenities. The water driven grinding mill may captivate your zoom lens.
Folk Heritage Museum
These museums that were established in 2001 in Thimphu provide visitors and tourists with fascinating insights into the Bhutanese material culture and way of life. The Folk Heritage Museum with a three storied, 19th century traditional house provides you a glimpse of the Bhutanese lifestyle, and artifacts from the rural households. One can come across typical household objects, tools and equipments.
Besides, the museum also organizes demonstrations of rural traditions, skills, habits and customs and educational programs for children.
The activities of the museum follow a seasonal rhythm, just like the activities of a true rural household, offering you something new to see, every time you visit it. The rural setting and flavor has been well-preserved and you can see paddy, wheat and millet fields here, a traditional water-mill with mill stones more than 150 years old, traditional style kitchen gardens with vegetables that were grown over the past 100 years and the famous traditional hot stone bath. Native trees and plants that had domestic uses in Bhutanese rural household are being grown here in an effort to keep indigenous knowledge about the use of natural resources alive and have a patch of greenery, right in the heart of the capital city of Thimphu.
Tourists may also avail the special offers of the museum at a nominal fee and advance booking of at least one week. They include demonstrations of the traditional way of extracting oil or Markhu Tsene, brewing ara or Ara Kayne, roasting rice or Zaw Ngowni and pounding rice or Tham Dhungni within the museum premises and organizing an open air buffet lunch and dinner offering a taste of the traditional cuisine at the museum. The menu for such arrangements is available at the Museum and consists of a variety of traditional food items from all parts and regions of the Kingdom of Bhutan. However, lunch and dinner arrangements are only done so for groups with five or more than five members at a time. The museum closes only on government holidays. The museum remains open from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm from Monday to Friday, from 10:30 am to 1:00 pm on Saturdays and 11:30 am to 3:30 pm on Sundays.
A wide assortment of colourful, hand woven textiles and other craft products is available for purchase at the government-run Handicrafts Emporium and many smaller handicrafts shops around the town. One can pick up small items as souvenirs.
Most of the Thimphu’s population and many valley dwellers converge on the bustling weekend market, held by the side of Wangchu River. A wide range of foodstuffs and local arts and crafts are sold at the market, which runs from Friday afternoon till Sunday evening. A visit to the market provides great photo opportunities, as well as the chance to mingle with local people and perhaps buy souvenirs.
The best place for photographers is perhaps a visit to the Sangaygang hill. A short drive from the town, the hill provides visitors with an opportunity to pause and reflect in the hustle-bustle of a busy city-life. You can also have a panoramic view of the valley. On the way back you can visit the small zoo dedicated to the Takin, the national animal of Bhutan.
Buddha Point (Kuensel Phodrang):
Another place from where you can get a good overview of the Thimphu valley is from the Buddha point (Kuensel Phodrang). It is again a short drive from the town. You can pay your obeisance and offer prayers to the Buddha, the largest statue in the country and then walk around and take a glimpse of the valley.
The Thimphu tshechu that is held for four days is a major event in the capital drawing hundreds of people from the villagers to the civil servants and the politicians. It also draws a large number of tourists. One attraction of the tshechu is the Wang Zhey, a folk dance from the Thimphu valley.
Wangdue Phodrang: The Land of Ornamental Speech or lozeys
Wangdue Phodrang is an important gateway to the far flung districts of Eastern Bhutan. The dzong perched on a ridge overlooking the Punatsangchu and Dangchu rivers was built in 1639. As the name speaks the dzong of Wangdue held a powerful position during pre-monarchy days. Apart from the great dzong, its cultural wonders lie in the villages. Detour the villages of Gaselo and Nahee towards the west of the dzong. Likewise enjoy the tales of shaman culture in the Shaa regions of Wangdue and listen to the ornamental speeches or Lozeys of Shaa and visit the ancestral home of Pema Tshewang Tashi, the knight whose Lozey still remains a favourite amongst the Bhutanese.
Wangdue Phodrang Dzong:
Stretched along the hilltop above the confluence of the Punatsangchhu and Dhangchhu rivers, the imposing Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is the town’s most visible feature. During pre-monarchy days, the governor of this dzong played an important role. The annual festival takes place in autumn so be the guest and enjoy the tour of the dzong.
The temple of Sha Radap:
The temple of Sha Radap, the guardian deity of Wangdue Phodrang region is worth paying a visit. The temple located close to the town is houses the image of the deity. Locals pay frequent visits to the temple to seek his blessings and to name their new born child. You can roll the dice at the temple, seek his blessings and your wishes may come true and fulfilled.
In the mountains east of Wangdue Phodrang lies the beautiful Phobjikha valley, on the slopes of which is situated the great monastery of Gangtey, established in the 17th century. The village of Phobjikha lies a few km. down from the monastery, on the valley floor. This quiet, remote valley is the winter home of black necked cranes, which migrate from the arid plains of Tibet in the north, to pass the winter months in a milder climate.
Villages of Gaselo and Nahee:
Enjoy the delights of the two villages in the west of the province. Take picnic lunches and drive to these villages on day excursions. Village life there is still medieval and farmers are ever happy to see visitors. Fascinate yourself during rice plantation in early summer. Experience the joy and drudgery of farming life. In autumn share the happiness of farmers over a bountiful harvest.
The southern villages of Adha and Rukha:
To experience the grandeur of these villages, you must prepare yourself for a tented night. You could also use a farm house stay and help distribute tourism income to the villages. Summer months are not recommended for cultural groups. The biting midges (sand flies), mosquitoes and leeches are instrument of raw adventure and may not entice the cultural visitors. The highlights are an experience into Adha and Rukha farming life. The farmers will tell tales of mermaids and kings. Let them show you the secrets of making roasted fish.
Legends of Shaa region:
East of Wangdue province lays the region of Shaa. The region celebrates Bonko (an animist festival) once in every three years. The farmers here practise animism but call themselves Buddhists. That is the thrill to experience for every visitor. The animists are nature worshippers and it makes great sense for a farmer to be an animist than a Buddhist. Brave yourself and drive on the farm roads to visit these villages or book few nights of camp services.