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Where to go in Bhutan

by Gemma Clayton

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Bhutan seems as old as time itself. Distant Himalayan peaks glower over clustered villages and valleys checkered with pastures. A spiritual calm pervades all aspects of life with tradition and worship taking priority over the inconveniences of the modern world. Development is minimal and its gentle pace bestows the landscape with an ancient, everlasting appeal. This is a mystical land of legends and mountains, virgin forests and jaw-dropping views.

Jakar

The hub of the four valleys of Bumthang, Jakar is a natural base for forays out into the pastoral idyll of the valleys or to some of the kingdom's oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Timeworn villages cluster among patchwork fields under gentle mountains. Follow cobblestone paths to imposing forts and intricately painted monuments, encountering local people working the land with traditional techniques. The area is known for its high quality fruit and delicious honey, so why not put together a picnic and find the perfect scenic spot for lunch? There are peaks and gorges, walking trails for all abilities and picture-perfect valleys that have remained unchanged for centuries. A wonderful, refreshing place to soak up the culture and see local life in action.

Thimphu

Bhutan’s diminutive capital is a pleasing combination of historical monuments and intriguing culture, as the population make the first moves to create a more international city. The weekly market sees traders come from miles around to sell their goods to throngs of Bhutanese, who tend to stock up for the whole week in one go. It’s a great place to get an insight into exotic local produce and different ways of life. Chillies, yak milk and butter, wooden artefacts and bright fabrics seem to be the standard offerings. Thimphu is also home to one of the most significant dzongs in the country, Tashichoe, which hosts the king’s official headquarters.

Paro

Home to one of the finest dzongs in the country, Paro is a small and attractive town which lies on the banks of the Paro Chha river. The spectacle of the Paro Spring Festival is not to be missed if you happen to be in the area. At other times, nobody is in a rush here, and a peaceful stroll among the colourful wood-fronted streets is a highlight of any visit. Cross the wooden bridge to the Rinpung Dzong and admire the thick buttressed fortifications that protected those inside from Tibetan invasions. Just nearby, the spiritually important and precarious Tiger’s Nest monastery perches on the cliff face; tempting hikers along the trail to reach this iconic and inspiring spot.

Takung Valley

As a change from all those imposing mountain temples and forts, rest awhile in this lovely region of meadows so lush you’ll wish you were one of the sheep grazing them. Situated on the route that descends from the Phepte-La pass, this stunning wooded valley is ideal for re-acclimatising to life at lower altitudes, or pause and enjoy the tranquil surroundings of central Bhutan.

Punakha

Home to the sublime Punakha dzong, the second largest in Bhutan, Punakha sits at a lower altitude than Thimphu. Watching over the confluence of two waterways, the ‘mother’ and the ‘father rivers, this impressive complex was actually rebuilt in traditional style in recent years because in 1998 it was partially destroyed by a fire. It is an intricate and imposing building with some eye-catching rooflines and elaborate decoration, all set off perfectly by its commanding position overlooking the fertile soil of the valley.

Gangtey valley

During the hard, snowy winters, this valley high in the Black Mountains hosts an array of wildlife. Each year, black-necked cranes migrate here from Tibet and the sight of them in flight is a memorable one. The valley is an important area for wildlife in general, as it hosts Himalayan black bears, muntjac and leopards. The 400-year-old Monastery here is named Gantrey Gompta and it is one of the two most important sites for the followers of the Nyingmapa branch of Buddhism. Legend has it that when the cranes arrive from Tibet to roost in the valley, they circle the monastery three times as they pass, and repeat the same manoeuvre on the return journey.

Make it happen

Bhutan is an enthralling destination where the culture and people are refreshingly free of modern afflictions. However, as the population becomes more exposed to global influences, things will inevitably change. Organise your trip to Bhutan now and take in the glorious traditions and scenery; unchanged for centuries.

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