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Things to see and do
Right in the centre of Bhutan, Wangdue Phodrang is famous for its castle-like dzong, built in the 17th century atop a curving ridge at the confluence of two rivers. The district is known for its slate carving and bamboo weaving, and for many centuries, this was the seat of one of Bhutan’s most powerful dzongpens (regional governors).
Scramble up to Drametse Goemba
The views are spectacular as you drive up a rough, vertiginous dirt track to Drametse Goemba. This is the most important monastery in the east of the country, and its chapels are full of memorial chortens, gold Buddha images and curiosities gathered by the monks over the centuries. A massive thondrol (giant thangka painting) is unfurled here every November.
Climb a pass for epic Himalayan views
Travelling from one valley to the next in Bhutan involves climbing over breathless mountain passes, and all offer spectacular views. Crowned by 108 memorial chortens, the 3,100m (10,171ft) Dochu La, between Thimphu and Punakha, offers a breath-taking vista of the eastern Himalaya, while the 3,810m (12,500ft) Cheli La near Paro, is the highest motorable pass in the country.
Attend an archery competition
Archery is a national obsession in Bhutan, and archery competitions are held across the country, with huge crowds admiring, and betting on, the skill of local archers. Traditionally, the Bhutanese used handmade bamboo bows, but these days, high-tech carbon fibre bows are all the rage. Archery competitions are major social events in Bhutan, alcohol flowing freely.
See rare birds in pristine forests
The mountain valleys and jungle-cloaked hills of Bhutan are home to more than 600 species of birds, including rare black-necked cranes, which winter in the Phobjikha and Bumdeling valleys. Specialist tour operators offer birding tours to sanctuaries across the country, particularly during the crane season from October to February.
Trek into the Bhutanese Himalaya
There’s no better way to experience Bhutan’s stunning mountain scenery than to see it as the locals do, on foot, on the walking trails that criss-cross the hills and peaks. The high altitude Snowman Trek (25 days) is the most famous route, but most people opt for shorter, less costly walks, that still offer captivating cultural interactions and magnificent mountain views.
Heed the calming call of Tashi Yangtse
Travellers who roam to the remote valleys of Trashi Yangtse leave the crowds far behind. In this serene part of the world, women spin on the doorsteps and mountain streams burble beside rice fields and ancient chortens. The gateway to this tranquil Shangri La is Tashi Yangtse, the leaping off point for hikes to nature reserves, mountain monasteries and paper workshops.
Be beguiled by Bumthang
Trongsa is the gateway to beautiful Bumthang, where four sacred valleys hide a string of ancient monasteries and captivating country towns. Most visitors head for Jakar, the most substantial settlement, and then roam along the scenic Chokhor Valley, visiting ancient chapels and chortens set amidst sublime mountain scenery.
Trace royal history at Tongsa Dzong
Many visitors stay close to Paro and Thimphu, but it’s worth roaming further afield to Trongsa in central Bhutan, where the nation’s largest monastery creates an impressive profile against the surrounding hills. This is the ancestral home of the Royal Family, with nearly two dozen separate chapels and a fascinating museum housed in the watchtower on the hillside above.
Be captivated by the colours of Punakha
Straddling the confluence of the Mo and Pho Rivers, Punakha Dzong was the second Buddhist monastery to be built in Bhutan, founded by the father of the nation, Ngawang Namgyal. Set against a backdrop of trickling water, the fortress is particularly atmospheric in spring, when jacaranda trees burst into pale purple flowers along the riverbanks.
Take in a tsechu
Bhutan’s Buddhist festivals are some of the most colourful celebrations on Earth. All of the nation’s dzongs and goembas (monasteries) host tsechus – animated dance festivals, where monks don rainbow-coloured costumes and fearsome monster masks and dance to the tune of horns, drums and gongs. It’s a vital, invigorating introduction to the customs and legends of Bhutanese Buddhism.
Wander Paro’s monasteries and museums
Paro is the main port of arrival for most visitors, and a typical bustling Bhutanese country town. Paro Dzong is one of the nation’s finest monuments, and the National Museum provides a handy introduction to the culture and history of Bhutan, before you head into the hills to explore more monasteries, ruins and ancient temples.
Trek to Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Goemba
The trek to Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Goemba tops the list of things to do in Bhutan. This revered monastery clings dizzily to the face of a 900m (2,952ft) precipice in the Paro Valley. According to legend, Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on a magical tiger and meditated in a cave before continuing his journey to spread Buddhism across the Himalaya.
Watch ancient arts come to life in Thimphu
The weekend market in Thimphu is crammed with vendors selling Bhutanese handicrafts – delicately embroidered shawls, thangka paintings, fearsome Buddhist masks, rolls of prayer flags – and you can see the artisans at work in the National Institute of Zorig Chusum campuses in Thimphu or Trashi Yangtse. This government enterprise was founded to preserve ancient arts such as embroidery and thangka painting.
See the institutions that drive the world’s happiest state
Thimphu is the administrative and religious capital of Bhutan, and the focal point of both enterprises is Tashi Chho Dzong, home to the government ministries, the king’s throne room and the largest monastery in the country. The monumental monastery is presided over by the Je Khenpo, the chief abbot of Bhutan, and home to over 1,600 monks.
Explore historic Thimphu
Set in a broad valley in the west of the country, Thimphu is Bhutan’s only proper city, but the modern and medieval world come together with surprising harmony. The Bhutanese capital is awash with historic sights: essential stops include the mighty dzong (fortress monastery) of Tashi Chho, Thimphu’s bustling weekend market and the towering statue of Buddha that rises above the city.