Most people going to Bhutan often wonder what sightseeing there is to do, other than the Tiger’s Nest (Duh) and Punakha Dzong. Naturally, these 2 destinations are on this list, but we added some other must visit places to cater to a range of interests. Here’s a definitive list of top 10 attractions you can’t leave Bhutan without seeing. These can be visited throughout the seasons so you won’t have to worry about missing out if you’re travelling during the low season.
1. Tiger's Nest
Could we start this list with anything else?! Yes, we know. You’ve seen the pictures on people's Facebook as their profile picture, cover picture, on Instagram and magazines. Basically on every promotional Bhutan picture ever.
Some background information: A long, long time ago (8th century to be exact) Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tiger to this location from Tibet and spent 3 years, 3 months, 3 weeks, 3 days and 3 hours meditating in a cave around the vicinity. The temple complex aka Tiger’s Nest aka Paro Taktsang aka Taktsang Phalpug Monastery was subsequently built in the 17th century.
Well if we give everything away now, your guide will have nothing to tell you while you ascend 10,000 ft to see this architectural wonder so we’ll leave you with this: No matter how many times you’ve seen it anywhere else, the awesomeness that it is will be magnified when you see it IRL. It’s THE cultural icon of Bhutan. That’s why it’s #1 on this list.
2. Memorial Chorten
Any visit to Thimphu would be incomplete without dropping by one of Thimphu’s most iconic monuments. Find your inner zen at this Tibetan-style chorten (seat of faith), built as a memorial to the Third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck.
Expect to see locals circumambulating this memorial throughout the day (they move in a clockwise direction; in case you want to join in). Even non-Buddhists can appreciate the chorten for its architecture, intricate artwork, elaborate mandalas and sculptures.
The serene atmosphere of the chorten is suitable for meditation, if you’d like to seek a moment of inner peace. Give the prayer wheel a spin before you leave, it is believed to purify negativity, generate compassion and bring peace to all sentient beings.
3. Dochula Pass
If there was a popularity contest for most famous pass in Bhutan, Dochula would win it hands down. A mountain pass located on the road from Thimphu to Punakha, we strongly suggest getting out of the car for the view. On a clear day, expect stunning views of snowcapped peaks on the Himalayan mountain range (perfect time to use the Panorama function on your camera phone!)
Get up close and personal with 108 memorial chortens (stupas) built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother, to commemorate the fallen soldiers in a 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents. While you’re there, check out the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang (temple), constructed in honour of the much loved and revered Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.
4. Chelela Pass
While we’re on the topic of mountain passes, we thought we’d throw in another awesome mountain pass, Chelela Pass. It’s the highest motorable road in Bhutan, so if you have a fear of heights, don’t look down! A 2-hour drive from Paro, travellers typically pass Chelela on their way to the valley of Haa.
If you have no intention of climbing Mount Jomolhari but want to sneak a peek at its mighty peak, this is one of the best places for a view. While you’re there, take a minute, close your eyes, breathe in the fresh mountain air and with the clouds below you, it’s easy to feel like you’re on top of the world! If you’re not into that kinda thing, you can sit down and have a picnic.
5. Punakha Dzong
The mother of all dzongs in the land of the Thunder Dragon. They don’t call Punakha Dzong the most beautiful dzong in the country (some would say world) for nothing. A structure foretold by Guru Rinpoche, many momentous occasions have been celebrated here, from the crowning of all of Bhutan’s kings, the country’s first national assembly, and the royal wedding in 2011.
It remains the winter residence of the monk body, led by the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). The preserved remains of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the unifier of Bhutan, lie within these hallowed walls. Punakha Dzong’s imposing grandeur can only be appreciated up close, and on a bright sunny day, it’s a sight for sore eyes.
6. National Institute for Zorig Chusum
The National Institute for Zorig Chusum is a centre for training in the Bhutanese arts. They strive to preserve local art by reviving and sustaining traditional methods. This institute trains young local artisans for 4-6 years in the 13 traditional arts of Bhutan: woodwork, woodturning, stonework, blacksmithing, carving, sculpting, casting, ornament making, paper making, bamboo work, painting, weaving, tailoring, embroidery and applique. *Phew* That's a lot.
Get to see all these various arts in action, and interact with the students in their classrooms as they work on their pieces. There’s a showroom selling pieces made by the students if you feel you can’t leave without buying something.
7. Punakha suspension bridge
If you think “men build too many walls and not enough bridges,” head to Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge and prove yourself wrong! Spanning 350m above the Po Chhu river with prayer flags fluttering serenely by the side, you’re sure to get a mini adrenaline rush standing at the halfway point looking down at the swift waters beneath you and when you look up it’s gonna be one of those “that view thoughhhh” moments. Punakha Valley will look like a postcard from where you stand.
8. Royal textile academy
Bhutanese are extremely proud of their national dress, the Gho and Kira (which, if you travel with us, we provide FOC during your stay *wink wink*), and the Royal Textile Academy was set up in 2005 with the aim of promoting textile arts in Bhutan under the patronage of Her Majesty Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck (Queen Mother)
The academy consists of the textile museum, the weaving centre, the conservation centre and the culture heritage centre. Thagzo (weaving) is an integral part of Bhutanese culture and apart from trying to preserve and promote this art, the Royal Textile Academy trains locals in the art of weaving to help contribute to a sustainable livelihood. See some of the nation’s finest masterpieces up close and get the chance to sit in on some of the school’s classes.
9. Centenary farmers market
What better way to experience Bhutanese culture than a visit to their friendly neighbourhood farmers market? Located close to the Coronation Park below the main town, the Centenary Farmers Market comes alive from Thursday to Sunday as local farmers converge to sell fresh, organic produce.
It’s the largest domestic market in Bhutan, so be ready to feast your senses. Expect to see local fruits and vegetables, dairy, dried food, poultry, meat and even a section for incense. Bhutan is actually the only country in the world that has pledged to go fully organic by 2020 so this is your chance to meet the farmers at the heart of this movement and interact with friendly locals doing their weekly shopping.
10. Buddha Dordenma Statue
If you’re seeking enlightenment, we can’t give you much pointers but we can point you in the direction of a statue of one of the most enlightened beings of all time. Known among locals as Buddha Point, the Buddha Dordenma Statue is one of the largest Buddha statues in the world at a height of 51.5m. Within the statue lies another 125,000 smaller Buddha statues.
Located atop the Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, Buddha Point overlooks the southern entrance to Thimphu. Take a moment to appreciate the peace and beauty of the Thimphu valley with Buddha (125, 001 of them) over your shoulder. Look out for the lights illuminating the statue at night, it’s quite a sight to behold.
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