At 2400 m. Thimphu is perhaps the most unusual capital city in the world. Without any traffic light or Mc Donald’s, Thimphu is a hip place in its own rights. The Thimphu Chu meanders through this valley of about 50,000 people. Thimphu Dzong, also known as the Tashichhodzong, houses the Throne Room of His Majesty the king of Bhutan. This Dzong, completely renovated in the 60s by the third king, is also the summer residence of the Central Monastic Body. Bhutan’s National Library is located close to the Traditional School of Arts and Crafts and is worth a visit. Housed inside the library are some of the oldest records of Bhutanese history and religion.
Thimphu’s charm is not embedded in its wealth and galleries, museums or place of historic interest. Visitors must wander along the main street and into shops, all of which are decorated in traditional style. Thimphu’s shopkeepers are delightfully helpful and will do their best to oblige even the smallest request. Bhutan’s famous stamp collections can be viewed and purchased in the capital’s main post office. Every weekend, most of Thimphu’s scant population and many valley dwellers congregate on the banks of the river where the weekend market is held. The fields adjacent to the market are reserved on weekends for basket ball and archery players. The latter, if dressed in full costume are a lovely sight.
A few minutes to the south of Thimphu is the 17th century Simtokha Dzong on the lofty ridge. Built in 1627, the oldest Dzong in the country houses the school for Buddhist philosophies. The road to Do Chula pass and on to eastern Bhutan winds its way upwards from Simtokha Dzong.
Paro is a rich valley. One of Bhutan’s widest valleys, Paro is one of the more populated areas of in the country. Paro has a lot of attractions and requires a few days to be properly explored. Casting a shadow across the town of Paro and controlling secular and religious activities in the valley is the imposing but well proportioned Rinpung Dzong. Built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual and temporal ruler of Bhutan, the Dzong houses the monastic body of Paro and the office of the Dzongda (district chief).
Behind the Rinpung Dzong, on the high hillside is the circular Ta-Dzong. Once a watchtower built to defend Rinpung Dzong during wars of the 17th century, Ta- Dzong now houses Bhutan’s National Museum. Converted into a museum in 1967, the museum showcases many important historical artifacts. For a Buddhist, Paro is a land blessed by Guru Rimpoche over one thousand years ago. Guru Rimpoche is said to have flown on the back of a tigress and meditated in a cave over looking Paro valley. The monastery built around this cave is now a sacred place of worship for all Buddhist.
Eighteen kilometers north from Paro are the ruins of Drugyal Dzong (victorious fortress). It was from this fortress that the Bhutanese repelled several invading Tibetan armies during the 17th century.
The road winds up from the Simtokha Dzong into pine forests and through small villages for 20 kilometers and then opens up at the Do Chula pass. The view of the Himalayas from the pass at 10,500 feet is one of the most spectacular in all Bhutan. Punakha lies about two hours drive from Dochu La. With only a sparse population, Punakha Dzong is home to the central monk body and the Je Khenpo during the milder winter months.
With a temperate climate and silt deposits from the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, the fertile Punakha valley produces abundant crops and fruits. Punakha served as capital of Bhutan until 1955. Punakha Dzong was strategically built at the junction of the two rivers in the 17th century by the first Shabdrung to serve as the religious and administrative center. In spite of the many disastrous fires and earthquakes that destroyed many historic documents, the Dzong houses numerous sacred temples including the Ma Chen, where the embalmed body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal lies in state.
A catastrophic flood in 1994 left the Dzong seriously damaged. On May 13, 2003, the Punakha Dzong was completely restored as one of the most important monuments of Bhutan’s religious, cultural, and political history. Now enriched with new Lhakhangs, more than 200 new religious images, and numerous other treasures, the Punthang Dewachenpoi Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness) was sanctified and its pure spirituality immortalized with the sacred rituals.
About 15 minutes before crossing the Pele la pass on the east west highway is a junction which leads into the Phobjikha valley. A beautiful signboard at the junction welcomes you, proclaiming Phobjikha as the valley of the Black Necked Cranes. Overlooking the marshy valley is the Gangtey Gompa, an old monastery dating back to the 17th century. The Gompa, resembling a small Dzong is an important institution in the Ningma tradition of Buddhism.
The small stream that meanders through the valley floor is a rich habitat for trout and other incest. These are what the Black Necked Cranes forage on, when they come here to escape the harshness of Siberia.
In the olden days, Trongsa used to be the power hold of the ancestors of the royal family. His Majesty King Ugen Wangchuck, the then Penlop (governor) of Trongsa, was elected the country’s first hereditary monarch, and his successor, King Jigme Wangchuck, ruled the country from Trongsa’s ancient Dzong. The crown prince of Bhutan normally holds the position of the Trongsa Penlop prior to ascending the throne.
Strategically loacated in the center of Bhutan and about five hours by road from Wangduephordang, Trongsa offers break in the journey. A vantage point from the opposite side of the valley, still 14 kilometers from Trongsa, provides a welcome view of the Dzong and the town. Like almost all towns in the kingdom, the secular and religious center, the Dzong, dominates the horizon, dwarfing the surrounding buildings.
Protected from invaders by an impenetrable valley, Trongsa Dzong is an impenetrable fortress. The Dzong itself is a labyrinth of temples, corridors and offices holding court. Above the Dzong a watchtower, the Ta Dzong, further strengthened its defense.
The Yotong La pass at 11,500 feet separates the valleys of Trongsa from Bumthang. Bumthang has a quaintness that charms travelers. Comprising of four small valleys, the deeply spiritual region of Bumthang is a stop, must for the Buddhist. Apart from the Dzong at Jakar, smaller temples can be found throughout the valleys. Tales of Padma Sambhava dominate these holy sites. The valley is home to the sacred Jampa and Kurjey Monasteries where body marks of Guru Rimpoche can be seen, impressed into a Rock. Bumthang is also home the 16th century Buddhist teacher Pema Lingpa, to whom many important dynasty traces its ancestry.
Jakar, the main town is famous for its honey production, cheese, apples, apples and apricots. Swiss and German aided projects have helped the local economy to dramatically improve over the recent years. A number of modern houses are evidence of the valley’s increased prosperity. Visitors to Jakar should plan to spend a few days taking advantage of the valleys relatively gentle slopes to hike to nearby medieval temples and glimpse Bhutan’s mostly rural population.
The Eastern most valley in central Bhutan before the Thrumshing La pass is the Ura village. A small old temple at the end of cobblestone paths gives the village a medieval feel.
Wangduephordang is the last major western town. The town is no more than an enlarged village with a few well-provided shops. Perched on a spur, over looking the junction of the two rivers below, Wangduephordang Dzong is the town’s most famous landmark. In the 17th century, Wangduephordang played a critical role in unifying the western, central and southern Bhutanese regions.