Bhutan, the land of monasteries and fortresses, is regarded as the “happiest place on earth” because the country’s development is measured using the Gross National Happiness instead of the Gross Domestic Product. The kingdom, nestled in the Himalayas, places a huge importance on a culture based on values instead of materialism. In fact, it is one of the last countries on the planet to introduce television and Internet to its people.
Bhutan’s unique culture combined with its beautiful scenery draws many tourists from all over the world. If you want a glimpse of the peaceful life in the Himalayas, here’s a list of the must-sees and must-dos in the country.
1. Visit the Taktsang Palphug Monastery
Tucked on top of a hill in Paro, visitors would need to endure a two-hour hike to reach the Taktsang Palphug Monastery. It is the most popular monument in Bhutan and also one of the most valued Buddhist sites on earth. A legend says that Guru Rinpoche, a holy figure in Mahayana Buddhism, flew here on the back of a winged tigress, thus the other name of the monastery — The Tiger’s Nest. Visitors who don’t want to hike up can rent a horse for 10 USD. However, this is only a one-way trip and you will still have to go down the mountain by foot. To avoid injuries, the climb is not recommended for people with altitude sickness and other health problems.
2. Catch a glimpse of Punakha Dzong
In Bhutan, ancient fortresses are called dzongs. They serve as the administrative headquarters of each district, and also an attraction for tourists because of their magnificent architecture. For starters, you can visit the Punakha Dzong, which is made of compacted earth, as well as stones and timber. It has six storeys with a tower approximately 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) long. If you come here between February and March, you might even get to witness a local celebration called Punakha Festival which highlights theatrical displays and the re-enactment of the invasion of Bhutan in 1639.
3. Visit the Temple of Fertility
Locals and even foreign couples seeking for blessings of fertility often go to Chimi Lhakhang to pray. Built in 1499, the monastery stands on a hilltop in the middle of Punakha and Wangdue. It can be reached by a 30-minute walk along muddy fields which is dotted by beautiful prayer flags. Inside Chimi Lhakhang, you will see frescoes representing the life of Drukpa Kuenley, the “Divine Madman” who had unconventional ways of teaching Buddhism. Women who come here with the hopes of having children undergo a fertility blessing, which involves being lightly hit on the head by a phallus made of ivory wood. Whether you are praying to have a child or you are simply curious about this peculiar monastery, this is a must-see in Bhutan.
4. See the prayer wheels of Kyichu Lhakhang
One of the oldest temples in Bhutan is Kyichu Lhakhang, built in the 7th century during the reign of Emperor Songtsan Gampo. There is a belief that in the 8th century, an important figure in Tibetan Buddhism named Padma Sambhava came here and hid important Buddhist treasures including scriptures and images. Upon entering the temple, you will see prayer wheels and two orange trees. Prayer wheels are important spiritual tools in Bhutan, which are believed to activate blessings when turned clockwise using your hands. Try it for yourself and see how peaceful this traditional practice is. Meanwhile, those two old orange trees you will see within the temple vicinity are believed to yield fruits whole year round.
5. See the largest sitting Buddha in the world
Made of bronze and gilded in gold, Buddha Dordenma is considered one of the largest Buddha statues in the world. It is approximately 169 feet (51.5 meters) high, located at the top of Kuenselphodrang Nature Park. Within this huge structure, there are another 125,000 smaller Buddha figures also cast in bronze. Meanwhile, the chair which the Buddha sits on serves as the meditation hall. Great views await its visitors because it overlooks the Thimphu Valley. Buddha Dordenma is built in honor of the centennial celebration of the Bhutanese monarchy. When coming here, keep in mind that this is a sacred place. Refrain from making loud noises and respect the rules. Photography is not allowed inside the temple.
6. Explore the religious center of Bhutan
Another must-see for a first-timer in Bhutan is the Tashichho Dzong located in Thimphu. Constructed in 1216 A.D., it has a total of 30 temples, chapels and shrines within its vicinity. Currently, it serves as the seat of the government. It hosts important departments including the Office of the King, its secretariat, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Finance. You can enter through the northeast gate where four guardian kings greet visitors. Head straight to the courtyard and marvel at the impressive architectural design. Then, visit the northern assembly hall where you will find a large Buddha statue and the thrones of the king. Please take note that the southern entrance are off-limits to visitors.
7. Learn about the Bhutanese culture at the National Museum
Bhutan’s National Museum is a former fortress turned into a gallery in 1968. It hosts exhibits showcasing the country’s progress from the Stone Age up to the modern and multicultural kingdom that it is today. Specifically designed for scholars and tourists, it aims to preserve cultural heritage and introduce the Bhutanese values to visitors. Over 3,000 art pieces are housed in the gallery, including a collection of thangkas, or cotton paintings, and festival masks. Another highlight of the museum is its natural-history gallery, where you will find a 3D map of Bhutan.
8. View Bhutanese stamp collections
Learn about the history of Bhutan through stamps and postcards! Visit the Bhutan Postal Museum, which aims to share Bhutan’s story of development using stamps they have produced throughout the years. There’s a total of five galleries in the museum. The exhibits in Gallery I usually depend on which occasions are currently celebrated in the country, while Gallery II is all about the pre-postal era. Meanwhile, at Gallery III, you will see various items related to telegraphy until it evolved into the form of wireless gadgets and the Internet. If you are a stamp collector, you will surely love Gallery IV as it displays a wide assortment of Bhutanese stamps. Last but not least is Gallery V, where interactive programs for visitors are held. The museum is open whole year round, including Sundays and holidays.
9. Enjoy great views at Dochula Pass
Dochula Pass, a mountain pass on the road from Thimphu to Punakha, is popular among locals as a weekend picnic spot. The mountain pass offers stunning 360-degree views of the Himalayan mountain range, as well as a total of 108 chortens called the Druk Wang. These religious monuments were built under the initiative of the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. Another spiritual attraction you will find here is the Druk Wangyal Temple, which is intricately designed and built in honor of His Majesty the fourth Druk Gyalpo. If you’re coming here, don’t forget to bring your own packed lunch and hot tea!
10. Have a bath at Gelephu Hot Springs
Soak away your body pains at Gelephu Hot Springs, a popular winter destination located in Southern Bhutan. Locals believe that the springs can cure certain diseases including back pain, joint pain, and skin diseases. They even recommend a dip in the hot springs for those whose diseases are too rare to be diagnosed in regular hospitals. Meanwhile, for the young ones, taking a bath in Gelephu is believed to be a preventive measure, so that when they grow older, they will be spared from diseases caused by age. In case you can’t go to Gelephu, you can try “menchu” or a hot stone bath instead. It is a traditional practice done throughout the country, which involves putting hot stones into the water you will use for bathing.
11. Meet the national animal of Bhutan
Takin, the national animal of Bhutan, can be seen in a wildlife reserve area located at the city of Thimphu. Originally constructed as a mini-zoo, the Motithang Takin Preserve was converted into a conservation area when the takins refused to leave its premises even when they were set free. Local legends say that this animal was created when people of Bhutan requested a Tibetan saint to perform a miracle in front of them. The religious connotation is said to be one of the main reasons why takin was declared as the national animal of Bhutan. If you are visiting with kids, this makes for a quick yet exciting trip!
12. Explore the Textile Museum of Bhutan
Weaving is an important form of art for the Bhutanese people. At the Royal Textile Academy of Bhutan, you will learn why it is an essential component of the local culture. You will find the finest examples of woven and embroidered textiles on display, as well as the production techniques. If you wish, you can also observe the weavers while they are working at the Weaving Center. This non-government, non-profit facility was constructed in 2005 under the initiatives of Her Majesty Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck. Whether you are interested in weaving or you simply want a glimpse of the local artistry, this is a good place to go.
13. Take a stroll at Thimphu’s Clock Tower Square
If you are staying in Thimphu, it’s impossible for you to miss the Clock Tower Square. Carved and painted in Bhutanese style, the four-faced clock tower is a famous local landmark surrounded by shops, hotels and restaurants. It is an ideal place for a stroll on a warm day. There are also water fountains and prayer wheels nearby, making the square even more relaxing. If you’re lucky, you might even chance upon various ceremonies and events held in the square, like fund-raising activities, trade fairs and musical shows. If you’re bringing kids, you can take them to the small playground opposite the tower.
14. Join a traditional Bhutanese festival
Get yourself updated with Bhutan’s lunar calendar and plan your trip around the local religious celebration called Tshechu! This tradition is organized annually across various dzongs, temples and monasteries in the country. The exact month and date of Tshechu vary each year, but it is usually based on the lunar calendar and corresponds to the birthday of the Buddhist master Guru Rimpoche. During such celebrations, Bhutanese communities gather, socialize, and watch religious mask dances together. Locals believe that a person who attends a Tshechu at least once in his life is bound to receive blessings. It is also considered as a way of washing away sins.
15. Taste Bhutan’s favorite dish
Your first-time trip to Bhutan would not be complete without tasting the local fare! Start with Ema Datshi, the country’s national dish, which is made from chili peppers and cheese. In the Dzongkha language of Bhutan, chili means “ema” and “datshi” means “cheese,” thus the name of this popular local food. Chilies used in the dish can be dried or fresh, and different varieties may be included as well. Some of the most common chili varieties used in Ema Datshi are red chilis, green chilis, and white chilis. Meanwhile, the cheese in Ema Datshi is made from cow curd and is usually homemade.
Bhutan, the last Shangri-La
Bhutan deserves the moniker “the Last Shangri-La” for its timeless beauty and well-preserved culture. If you are interested in colorful festivals, trekking adventures, spirituality and wellness, this country would be a great choice for your next vacation. The Bhutanese people are warm as well, adding to the already charming atmosphere of their motherland.
No matter how long or short your visit would be, remember that it is not just a physical endeavor but an experience for the soul.
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