Beside spiritual identity, Bhutan is swiftly developing its reputation as a premier destination for adventure sports. Set amongst the majestic Himalayas the kingdom is perfect location for all manner of exciting activities including Hiking, trekking, mountain biking and fishing.
Mountainous Bhutan is situated on the southeast slope of the Himalayas, bordered on the north and east by Tibet and on the south and west and east by India. The landscape consists of a succession of lofty and rugged mountains and deep valleys. In the north, towering peaks reach a height of 24,000 ft (7,315 m).
Although archaeological exploration of Bhutan has been limited, evidence of civilization in the region dates back to at least 2000 B.C. Aboriginal Bhutanese, known as Moapa, are believed to have migrated from Tibet. Under the charismatic Ngawang Namgyel (1594-1651), Bhutan became a unified state in the 17th century. Persecuted in Tibet, he fled to Bhutan in 1616 and over the next 30 years succeeded in crushing all opposition, unifying the ‘southern valleys’ into Drukyell, ‘the Land of the Drukpa’. Using the title of Shabdrung, he constructed his first Dzong at Simtokha in the valley of the Wang River. Subsequent Dzong not only symbolized the power of the Drukpa school, since each Dzong contained a monastery, but also constituted a matchless instrument of government, as each also served as a center of administration for the provinces. The traditional name of the country since the 17th century has been DrukYul, Land of the Drokpa (Dragon People), and a reference to the dominant branch of Tibetan Buddhism that is still practiced in the Himalayan kingdom.
At an elevation of 2,250 meters, Paro Valley is the closest to the international airport. Paro Valley boasts a number of beautiful monasteries and monuments, but the most dramatic is the 8th-century Taktshang, or ‘Tiger’s Nest’. A revered monastery built on a sheer cliff face at a height of 2,950 meters; it is visible from the valley floor. From Paro hike to Tiger’s Nest takes is about four hours. While the hike up is challenging, horses, mules and donkeys are usually on hand to ease the journey. In an excursion to the town of Paro itself, the National Museum, previously the watchtower of the valley, displays an intriguing collection of artifacts that illustrate the rich culture and heritage of the Kingdom. A short stroll away is the magnificent Paro Dzong, a prime example of Bhutanese architecture. From the Dzong, a leisurely walk back into town crosses over one of Bhutan’s traditional cantilevered bridges, and continues on to the 15th-century DumtseLhakhang town temple with its altar and beautiful wall paintings. Just on the outskirts of Paro town lies the 7th-century Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the first Buddhist temples built in the country. Paro Valley is also the starting point for many of Bhutan’s treks.
These range from the four-day Druk Path which crosses the mountains between Paro and Thimphu, to the challenging 21- to 42-day Snowman’s Trek – considered one of the world’s most difficult.
A two-hour drive from Paro, Thimphu lies in a steep valley at an altitude of 2,350 meters, surrounded by forested mountains dotted with ancient monasteries and temples. The town is situated on the banks of Thimphu Chhu (river) with the quaint Clock Tower at its heart. This is surrounded by atmospheric lanes of shops, markets and local restaurants. As Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu is home to many attractions and activities, including the National Textile Museum.
It also houses the seat of government and the office of His Majesty, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, in the majestic Tashichho Dzong. Nearby, one can visit Pangri Zampa, two 16th century buildings that now house a monastic astrologer training school. At the head of the valley, a walk across one of the country’s oldest cantilever bridges leads to Cheri Goemba, where the Kingdom’s first monastic community was based. Thimphumain Street provides an opportunity to shop for Himalayan jewelry and Bhutanese handicrafts and textiles.
At an elevation of 1,300 meters, Punakha is one of the lowest-lying valleys in the Kingdom. With its temperate climate, this valley is the market garden of the country. Produce grows year round and many Bhutanese reside here during the colder winter months. Punakha was Bhutan’s winter capital for 300 years until Thimphu became the official capital in the 1950s. A highlight is visiting the Punakha Dzong, which straddles the confluence of the Mother (Mo) and Father (Pho) rivers like an ancient ship stranded by the tide.
Twenty-one temples are contained within the area of the Dzong’s third courtyard, the largest of which is the monks’ hundredpillared Great Assembly Hall. Built late in the15th century, the renowned Chimi Lhakhang is also worth visiting. This auspicious worship house boasts an impressive collection of ritual phalluses. Closer to the lodge, a beautiful morning hike takes one to their galKham sum Yuelley NamgyelChorten (a reliquary monument). This dominates the upper Punakha Valley with views across the MO Chhu and up towards the mountainous peaks of Gasa and beyond.
A stay in the Phobjikha Valley usually begins with a casual stroll through the quaint village of Gantey, situated at 3,000 meters. This is usually followed by a visit to the ancient altars and ramparts of the massive Gantey Goemba. Should the Gantey Tulku (a high-ranking lama who can choose the manner of his or her rebirth) be in residence, then an audience for a sought-after blessing can possibly be arranged. The Phobjikha Valley is part of the Jigme Singye WangchukNational Park (formerly the Black Mountains National Park), one of Bhutan’s most important wildlife sanctuaries. Each winter it becomes home to a flock of 300 endangered black-necked cranes arriving from Tibet.
Numerous nature walks and treks are offered throughout the valley’s varied terrain and, in winter, the reclusive black-necked cranes can be seen at the nearby Crane Centre or from a viewing hide set near their main nesting and feeding grounds.
Bumthang comprises four valleys – Chhume, Choekhor, Tang and Ura –at an elevation of 2,580 meters. The entire region is commonly known as Bumthang Valley and is covered with fields of buckwheat, millet and potato, with apple orchards climbing the slopes to mix with pine forest. Across the valley lie some of the Kingdom’s most auspicious and revered houses of worship and monasteries, many featuring ancient wall paintings and all with colorful, mystical histories. The valley is known for its cottage industries which produce the renowned Bumthang butter, Gouda and Emmental cheese, honey and a variety of intriguing fruit spirits and brandies.
Bumthang has Kingdom’s first palace, Wangdichholing Palace which was built in 1857. It is now the residence of a small monk body that also shares residence in an adjacent monastery. Both overlook five squareChorten(reliquary monuments) housing water-driven prayer wheels.