Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the eastern slopes of the Himalayas, is popularly known as the Last Shangri-La. Its national manifesto is Gross National Happiness, and the country reinforces this belief that progress is not always economic development.
It is the only country in the world, which is carbon negative and rightly so, they want to remain that way for a long time to come. The country has vowed to protect its forest cover and maintain it at 60 per cent. Hence, even tourism is closely regulated to control the influx of tourists.
It is a measure for Bhutan to remain sustainable and keep a veil on its scared kingdom to remain what it is called – Last Shangri-La. From incredible monasteries to monasteries perched high up in the mountains, to vibrant festivals, stunning valleys, to Himalayan trekking, local, and cultural immersions, the land of Thunder dragons has you all covered. If you are planning a trip, here are my Top 10 of the best most beautiful places in Bhutan you cannot miss…
1. The Tigers Nest – one of the most stunning places to explore in Bhutan
The iconic and the most photographed place in Bhutan, a monastery sitting precariously at the edge of a cliff, is considered one of the holiest sites in the country.
It is quite a steep and tedious trek up here, but definitely worth is when you see the monastery. No matter how many pictures you have seen before, you will be left awestruck seeing it in real. A sense of peace and calm prevails, as you catch the first glimpse of the monastery, despite the strenuous trek.
Beautiful Bhutan captured on film…
2. Paro Valley – a picturesque place to visit in Bhutan
Paro is the first place you will see when you enter the country since it is where the only international airport is located. A picturesque valley and home to the great Rinpung Dzong (traditional Bhutanese monastery) which serves as a monastery as well as a fortress.
The sheer size of the monastery overlooking the Paro river will leave you spellbound. Paro oozes an old Buddhist charm with ancient temples, white-washed monasteries and prayer flags fluttering in every corner.
Faith is intrinsic to Bhutan and so, you will come across innumerable places of worship, whitewashed Dzongs, and locals spinning the prayer wheel. Do visit the National Museum in Paro, not only are the views stunning from here, but the structure of the building is unique in itself.
3. Thimphu – the scenic capital of Bhutan is one of the most
In Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, explore the local handicrafts, immerse yourself in some spirituality at Memorial Chorten, visit various monuments and museums.
The city houses some of the most prominent buildings such as Dechencholing Palace, Tashichho Dzong, National Library, Folk Heritage Museum. Also, if time permits visit the Motithang Takin Preserve. The highlight is the national animal called takin which resembles a cow with a goat’s head and found mostly in the Himalayan ranges and Western China.
Fun fact: There are no traffic lights in throughout Bhutan and Thimpu is no exception. It is also the only capital city in the world without traffic lights. Bhutan prides in being a unique country.
4. Haa Valley & Cheila Pass – one of the best places to explore in Bhutan
Haa is quaint village and a pristine valley surrounded by lush green vegetation, also one of the places with the scantiest population in Bhutan This lies, a little off the beaten path and is a hotspot for hiking and biking enthusiasts.
Just above the Haa valley, lies the Cheila pass, the highest motorable road in Bhutan.
What struck me as I first visited Punakha is seeing Phalluses painted all over the town, walls, and homes too. I was curious and didn’t quite understand why.
Until my visit to Chimi Lhakhang, also known as the fertility temple, where a wooden penis is kept on your head as a blessing for childless couples. Another legend has it that, a “Divine Madmen”, used his penis, ‘like a weapon’ and converted an evil woman to Buddhism. Ever since, the phallus symbol has been used around Punakha as a protection symbol to drive away the evil eye.
Don’t miss the Punakha Dzong, which graciously sits on the confluence of two rivers: Pho Chhu (male river) and Mo Chhu (female river), which do not mix but flow alongside for a distance.
6. Visit one of the world’s largest Buddha statues
With the view of the entire Thimphu city from here and the gentle breeze that serenades a sense of calm and peace, this massive statue of Buddha, which sits atop a guided meditation hall, tends to make you feel small in this world.
The massive bronze statue of Buddha is more than 50 meters in height, and it is plated in gold. There are about 125,000 other Buddha statues that are placed surrounding the main statue.
Nestled on the foothills of the Himalayas, it is a friendly border town between India and Bhutan where diverse people from India, Nepal & Bhutan coexists beautifully.
See the Indo-Bhutan border gate, that separates Bhutan from India, the wooden gate flaunts some traditional elements and is a classic example of Bhutanese architecture.
One of the top places to visit in Phuentsholing is Amo Chuu, a Crocodile Breeding Centre on the banks of the river. The crocodiles are bred here and eventually released in a nature reserve.
8. Hidden valleys of Bumthang
This place is home to some truly stunning monasteries and numerous hidden valleys of the Himalayas. Chokhor, Tang, Ura, and Chhume are the 4 prominent valleys of Bumthang.
These valleys are broad and carved out of ancient glaciers. Explore its quaint villages or visit some monasteries like Kurjey Lhakhang, Tamshing Monastery and Jambay Lhakhang. Bumthang lies off the tourist radar, beyond the touristy circuit of Thimphu and Paro.
9. Dochula View Point
Seen on your way from Thimpu to Punakha, it houses 108 Chortens or Stupas, built to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed when fighting against the insurgents from India.
On a clear day, the view of the snowcapped peaks of eastern Himalayas will take your breath away. Bhutan’s highest mountain peak, Gangkar Punsum (7,570 m), is seen from this point.
10. Phobjikha Valley
Famous for its biodiversity, Phobjikha is an important wildlife preserve in Bhutan, and is one of the top Bhutan tourist places.
This beautiful glacial valley, shaped like a bowl (U-shaped valley), boasts two beautiful meandering rivers, Nakay Chhu and Gay Chhu. It is also home to a wide range of fauna species like black-necked cranes, barking deer, wild boar, sambar, leopard, Himalayan black bear, etc.
Pro Tip: Time your travel to Bhutan, during a local festival (Tshechu). These festivals are vibrant, colorful, and energetic where locals come together to witness mask dances and receive blessings.
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Michael Cowley – writer and photographer
Ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper Michael has always had an affinity for adventure. Growing up he was lucky enough to live in a handful of exotic far flung locations including Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania and since then he’s continued seeking out new places and cultures. In his spare time he explores everywhere from the sizzling street markets in Bangkok to random back alleys in Sri Lanka and everything in between! He also has a special fondness for Cohibas, trying all kinds of street food, playing carrom with random strangers, and fine wine – he knows his clarets from his chiantis. He counts Cuba, Amsterdam, Indonesia, Goa, Cambodia and Italy as his favourite destinations. Find Michael on Instagram or Twitter.