While the Tiger Monastery (also known as Tiger’s Nest or Paro Takstang) has become the iconic symbol of all of Bhutan, there is more to this sacred region beyond this famous temple complex. Drive along the multicultural Bengal-Bhutanese road of Phuentsholing or the sereneness of Mt. Jomolhari at the Tibetan border, and you’ll see that there is so much to Western Bhutan than what meets the eye. Other than these excellent destinations, here are five additional architectural sites to marvel at.
1. Punakha Dzong
It is said that the great lama of Bhutan, Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal, himself chose Punakha Dzong’s location. The fortress is the biggest and most famous dzong in all of Bhutan and was built to be a central location for the government. The Zhabdrung’s coming was prophesied when “…a person named Namgyal will arrive at the hill that looks like an elephant.” Punakha Dzong or otherwise known as the ‘Palace of Great Happiness’ was built at the tip of a sleeping elephant’s trunk. As a fortress, the dzong was built to keep government officials safe from enemies. It can be accessed using the Bazam Bridge, and there are several other walkways and stairs with a pull-up mechanism in case of invasion. Zhabdrung’s remains are found in the southern courtyard; however, only the king of Bhutan and the chief abbott have access to this area. Visitors can see some parts including the northern courtyard, the shrine to the snake spirits, and the hundred-pillar assembly hall, which features massive gold statues of Buddha and Zhabdrung.
Address: Punakha, Bhutan
Opening Hours: 9 am-5 pm June to mid-November, 11 am-1 pm and 3-5 pm mid-November to May
Contact: +975 17 66 99 80
Website: Punakha Administration
2. Rinchen Pung Dzong
Found in Paro Valley, the Paro Dzong is also known as the ‘Fortress on a Heap of Many Jewels.’ The fortress, or dzong as the Bhutanese refer to it, witnessed many attempts at invasion by Tibetans. Like the Tiger Monastery, Paro Dzong is found on the steep part of the hillside, which offers an unobstructed view of the rest of Bhutan. Its architecture was meant to depict power and authority, substantiated through the gold and ochre murals that serve as accents to its intricately-carved wooden details. Like many parts of Tibet, the Paro Dzong is considered a sacred place. It is currently home to 200 monks, and has a big prayer hall dedicated to a poet called Milarepa. You will find the place practically deserted on weekends, so if you want to take advantage of seeing all parts of its architecture, make sure you visit it on a weekday. The National Museum can be easily accessed through the northern entrance.
Rinchen Pung Dzong
Address: Paro, Bhutan
Opening Hours: 8 am-6 pm, and until 4.30 pm from November to February
3. Kyichu Lhakhang
It seems so much of Bhutan’s places to see originate from rich legend and folklore. It is said that Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the most well-preserved temples in Western Bhutan, was built by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet in order to hold down the foot of giant who was responsible for preventing the spread of Buddhism in Tibet. It is also said that this pilgrimage site, where many people flock with their prayer wheels, has two orange trees that defy the laws of nature, and bear fruit throughout the entire year. Sources say that the temple was built during the 8th century but was unseen to the naked eye, and was only uncovered again in the 1500s. Guru Rinpoche, the Indian Buddhist Master, was also said to visit this temple in its early years. It is here where he stored many treasures. One thing is for sure — Paro Valley’s greatest sculpture (and said to be its greatest treasure as well) is here. The famous statue of Jowo Shakyamuni (cast from the same mold that made the sacred statue in Lhasa) is concealed in Kyichu.
Address: Paro, Bhutan
Price: Free Entry
Opening Hours: 9 am-5 pm (Daily)
If you’re looking for something a little more accessible, comfortable, and convenient, Thimphu, the capital city of the Kingdom of Bhutan, is the place to go. While it is considered a city, you will be surprised to know that there are many things about Thimphu that still its ancient background. For instance, it is the only city in the world without a traffic light. Instead, there are police officers in outposts that direct traffic on opposite sides of the road. In Thimphu, you will also find the Tashichho Dzong, the main seat of government where the throne of the king, offices, and several other departments now are located. Even if you don’t have official business, Tashichho Dzong is still idyllic for strolling because of its well-manicured lawns, flowering gardens, and spacious grounds. At the center of Thimphu is the National Memorial Chorten where many of its citizens, especially the elderly citizens congregate for conversations throughout the day. The chorten is one photogenic sites because of the many multicolored prayer flags, sculptures, and paintings all over it. It’s also one of the best people-watching areas in the city. You can watch all of Thimphu pass by here.
Address: Chhagchhen Lam, Thimphu, Bhutan
Website: Tourism Council of Bhutan
5. Dochula Pass
The Dochula Pass is the road system that connects Thimphu and Punakha. It’s a surreal, almost otherworldly passage that showcases 108 chortens called the Druk Wangyal Chortens. To the east is a scenic view of the overwhelming snowcapped Himalayan Mountain ranges including Gangkar Puensum, the highest peak in Bhutan. Colorful prayer flags are found all over the pass — blue for sky, green for water, yellow for earth, red for fire, and white for clouds — as visual prayers to continue the prosperity enjoyed by the Kingdom of Bhutan. If you want to take a little side trip, drop by the Royal Botanical Garden, which is located just around the pass.
Dochula Pass Tours
Address: Jojo’s Building Room No. 56, P.o. Box: 668, Thimphu - Bhutan
Website: Druk Asia
Off-the-beaten-path destinations that need to be explored
While western Bhutan is the most visited and accessible regions in Bhutan, there are so many off-the-beaten-path destinations that need to be explored. Whether you’re in the capital city or in the small, hidden villages, it’s easy to see the appeal of such a strong culture and people. You can only hope that Bhutan continues to be protected and preserved from the rest of the world until the next time you visit.
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