The tiny nation of Bhutan lies nestled among the eastern Himalayas. Known as the last Shangri-la on earth, the Kingdom of Bhutan is one of the most unspoilt places on earth, protected by snow capped mountains, filled with beautiful valleys gushing with numerous rivers. Bhutan is the 2nd least densely populated nation in the world following Maldives, which is really interesting since it lies in a pocket between the two most densely populated nations - India and China. Its unparalleled natural beauty and vast history of buddhism have resulted in it being known as the most peaceful place on earth. The nation also ranks first in terms of the global happiness index, with its subjects enjoying total economic freedom and ease of doing business.
In recent years, Bhutan has emerged as a tourist hub, with various sites of cultural and natural interest becoming immensely popular among travellers seeking to explore something drastically different as compared to the hustle and bustle of urban atmospheres. The vast valleys, ancient monasteries, technology free Himalayan forests and snow capped mountains make it a perfect destination for a serene and introspective holiday.
In this article, we will briefly talk about some of the must-see places in Bhutan. But first, a little context - Bhutan is landlocked between the Tibet autonomous region in the north and the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, West Bengal and Assam on the West and the South. The landscape consists of sloping mountains crisscrossed with fast flowing rivers and a range of biodiversity that could emanate only from natural conditions specific to Bhutan. The capital city and the largest city is Thimphu, while other important cities include Domphu, Jakar and Mangar. The only international airport in the country is in Paro.
Instantly recognizable from images, the Tiger?s Nest Monastery is one of the most iconic places in Bhutan. Built on the side of a steep mountain at a height of about 900 meters, the monastery is as rich in its history as it is in natural beauty, and the monastery is a sure addition to any Bhutan tour package. Legend goes that the spiritual leader Zabdrung Rinpoche came here riding a tigress and introduced buddhism to Bhutan. The route to the top is made up of steep steps and a waterfall near the snow lion cave. The sheer majesty of this monastery gives it an austere, spiritual atmosphere. A bird's eye view of the Paro valley can be seen from the top.
A Dzong in Bhutanese can be roughly translated into a fortress, but it is much more than that. In the 17th Century, the tibetian lama and military leader Ngwang Namgyal consolidated the land of Bhutan by building a network of dzongs across the kingdom. Dzongs were traditionally meant to serve a defensive military function, but also doubled as a place of worship. The Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and the most majestic dzong in the land. Built on the banks of the meeting point of two rivers - Pho Chu and Mo Chu, the dzong is 3 hours away from the capital city of Thimphu. Some of the most important relics of the history of Bhutan can be found preserved here.
Zuri Dzong is the oldest dzong in Bhutan, built in 1352. According to the local legends, Gautam buddha roamed this terrain and meditated in a cave that is still accessible near the dzong. The area around Zuri dzong is known for its natural beauty and is a popular hiking trail. Unparalleled views of the Paro valley can be observed from here. The dzong complex itself includes a watchtower and a museum.
The southern Gangtey valley is often known as the most beautiful place in Bhutan, reknowned for its vast, rolling fields of grass without any tall vegetation. The Gangtey valley therefore stands as an anomaly in the landscape of Bhutan, surrounded by a cover of juniper forests in the tall sloping Himalayas. This spot is one of the most popular hiking trails in the country, with fields of rhododendron, magnolia, fern and bamboo accompanying the traveller. Gangtey is especially beautiful during the winters, when the black necked cranes descend upon the valley for their yearly visit.
Cheche La is one of the highest motorable roads in the world and one of the highest passes in Bhutan. Cheche La separates the Haa and the Paro valleys, and offers a spectacular view of the sacred mountains of Jomulhari, Jichu Drake and the adjoining Himalayan peaks as well as bird?s eye views of the Paro and the Haa valleys.
The Dochula Pass falls between Thimphu and Punakha and is a snow covered road carved within the heart of the Bhutan Himalayas. The Dochula is famous for offering spectacular views of the highest mountain in Bhutan and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world - the Gangkar Puensum. Dochula is also famous for the 108 memorial stupas that have been built here by the Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk.
Bhutan is an increasingly popular centre for tourists looking to explore something cultural, peaceful, beautiful and exceedingly different, and a look at the various tours on offer show this.