MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR TIME
Don’t expect any Bhutan itinerary to be a whirlwind; the only way to take in its splendour is slowly, by road or foot. The roads aren’t in great condition and most of your schedule will be determined along the country’s Lateral Road – Bhutan’s primary east-west gateway and a 3.5m wide stretch of tarmac that starts at Phuentsholing in the south-west and winds its way east, up and down mountains, across wobbly bridges, besides sheer cliffs and over high altitude mountains passes. Gulp. If you’re visiting in December or January, take some good books and travel monopoly: snow can easily block the roads. Otherwise, sit back and await the worthwhile magnificence of where you’ll end up next.
A major producer of apples, Bumthang offers a bit more of a cultural bite than its quieter neighbour, Ura. Shrouded in religious legend of mystery illness and miracle cures, Bumthang is home to some of the country’s oldest temples, monasteries and landmarks. The ‘Burning Lake’ is a sacred site of pilgrimage where it’s said the sin-free amongst us are able to distinguish an extraordinary sight.
Jakar is only a one-street town, but it’s the Chamkhar Valley’s trading centre and it shows: simple shacks selling vegetables are replaced here with shops marked by hand painted signage identifying ‘general store’ from ‘restaurant’ and even ‘internet café’. Nonetheless, it’s a great base for easy day trekking to nearby monasteries and is recognised for its distinctive, brightly coloured wool items called yethra.
Home of red rice, the National Museum and the country’s only airport, Paro is ideal to explore on foot. It’s biggest draw? The Rinpung Dzong, a distinctive fortress characterised by huge buttressed walls that peer over the town and are visible throughout the valley. Paro’s ‘high street’ was only built in 1985 and is a concrete-free blend of brightly decorated independent restaurants and shops… for now.
Phobjikha, known also as Gangtey, is a glacial valley that’s snowbound during the winter months when most of its residents up sticks and head to warmer Wangdue. In their place come hundreds of black-necked cranes that, if you’re lucky, come so close that they circle you in the sky. The whole area is a hugely important wildlife preserve – home to muntjacs, wild boar, sambar, Himalayan black bears and leopards too.
Bhutan’s winter capital, Punakha is lower and warmer than Thimpu and is marked proudly by Punakha Dzong, the second largest, but doubtless most impressive dzong in the country. The dzong sits at the confluence of the Pho Chuu and Mo Chuu rivers and is testament to Bhutan’s commitment to traditional skills having been rebuilt sympathetically after much of it was destroyed by fire in 1998.
Central Bhutan gives you a break from mountain-top temples and a chance to breath in the country’s incredible countryside: a land of lush meadows, blue pine forests and bamboo groves. The Takung Valley, a popular camping spot on the descent from Bhutan’s 3,465m Phephe-la Pass, is a beautiful forested area interspersed with clearings where animals graze freely and cultivated land for herders huts.
It’s said that Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Buddhism in Bhutan, arrived at the Taktsang Palphug monastery on the back of a winged tigress and meditated there for three months straight, hence its more pronounceable moniker, Tiger’s Nest. Skipping this is like forgetting to see the Taj Mahal in Agra; whether you thrive on culture, or get your kicks from climbing, you simply have to go.
Scattered along a sloping ridge, the village of Talo sits above the Punakha Valley at an altitude of 2,800m and is revered for its cleanliness and also for the beauty of its women. The surrounding hills offer plenty of walking routes through fields of corn and sweetpeas and the locals are happy to open their doors to anyone wanting to experience a real day in the life of rural Himalaya.
Thimpu is a contradiction: it upholds Bhutan’s overriding sense of purity – it’s the only world capital without traffic lights, a modern trapping removed because residents thought them impersonal, but it also has a challenging exuberance that’s seen a few nightclubs spring up. Temples, dzongs, museums and parks: Thimpu has it all – a vibrant introduction to the most advanced and the most remote parts of the kingdom.
The Trongsa passes are reached via an ancient route where once both monks and mules trod their weary way through conifer forests. Trongsa itself is best known for two things: Trongsa Dzong, the red-roofed ancestral home of the Royal Family, and the Jhambay Lhakang Festival, where locals run underneath a huge flaming gate while piles of burning grass fall on their heads. Playing with fire, literally.
A visit to Ura is like opening the door to the past and then some. It has grown in prosper since the country’s East-West highway finally reached it in the 90s, but the village is almost medieval in its makeup: think narrow stone roads and houses with wooden shingle roofs. Don’t expect gastronomic greatness; the land is less than fertile and the locals live on a staple diet of potatoes and yak meat.
A windswept market town in one of Bhutan’s biggest and most climatically varied districts, Wangdue Phodrang is known for its bamboo products, slate and stone carvings. Since fire destroyed its dzong in June 2012, attention on the town has turned towards its local famers’ market: a long line of well-kept wooden shacks, their corrugated roofs secured by stones, selling baskets of brilliantly-coloured local produce.