Bhutan, nestling in the heart of the great Himalaya, has for centuries remained aloof from the rest of the world. Since its doors were cautiously opened in 1974, visitors have been mesmerised: the environment is pristine, the scenery and architecture awesome and the people hospitable and charming.
Thimphu, the capital, lies in a beautiful, wooded valley, sprawling up a hillside on the bank of the Thimphu Chhu (river). It is the only world capital without traffic lights. One set was installed several years ago, but residents complained that it was impersonal and it was removed within days. Despite recent development, Thimphu retains its charm and is awash with brightly painted, elaborately decorated facades which give the town a captivating, medieval feel.
Thimphu is a cornucopia of Bhutanese culture, brimming with things to see and do. Dominating the horizon, on a hill just above the town, the imposing Trashi Chhoe Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion) was completely renovated in the 1960s to become the symbol of the capital. It now houses the offices of the king and the central monk body. Most tour operators arrange a visit to the National Institute for Zorig Chusum (commonly known as ‘the painting school’) below the dzong. The school teaches traditional skills to talented children from throughout Bhutan, and a small shop sells some of the students’ stunning works at reasonable prices.
Back in town, the most visible religious structure is the National Memorial Chorten, containing numerous sacred religious paintings and tantric statues. For many, this is the focus of their daily worship and people circumambulate the chorten throughout the day. The Weekend Market, in the centre of Thimphu, is an ideal spot to experience an urban and rural blend as villagers jostle with well-heeled Thimphu residents for the best bargains. Nearby, the Changlimithang Stadium is the national archery ground, where you can see competitors participating in the kingdom’s national sport, complete with traditional garb, colourful behaviour and entertaining rituals. The National Institute of Traditional Medicine is an interesting facility that uses over 300 different plants to make medicines that are distributed throughout the kingdom.
Bumthang is the spiritual heartland of Bhutan and home to its most ancient and precious Buddhist sites. (Smokers should stock up before arrival because the sale of tobacco is banned here.) In the centre of Bhutan, Bumthang encompasses four major valleys; the main one, Choskhor, is home to the most important dzongs, temples and palaces. Jakar is at the foot of the Choskhor valley and likely to be your base. Jakar Dzong is the largest in Bhutan, with a circumference of more than 1500m (4920ft), and was founded in 1549. Wangdichholing Palace was formerly the humble abode of King Uygen Wangchuck.
Further along Choskhor valley, the temple of Jampa Lhakhang was built in 659 and hosts one of the kingdom’s most spectacular festivals, the Jampa Lhakhang Drup, in October. Kurjey Lhakhang is named after the body print of Guru Rinpoche, which is preserved in a cave inside the oldest of the three buildings, which has stood since 1652. If you’re feeling dzonged out and have had your fill of old, sacred buildings, take to the countryside. Here, the great majority of Bhutanese live as they have for thousands of years.
If you come to Bhutan by air, you’ll probably land in Paro. Western Bhutan is the heartland of the Drukpa people and you will be confronted with the largest, oldest and most spectacular dzongs in the kingdom. You will immediately realise you are off the beaten track of world tourism.
The town of Paro lies in the centre of the rich, fertile Paro valley, with beautiful landscapes, scenic villages and historic buildings all within a few kilometres. Immerse yourself in Bhutanese culture in the National Museum close to the town centre - the building itself was completed in 1656.
Paro airport is 7km (4mi) from Paro town and 53km (33mi) from Thimphu. Taxis are rare and you should ensure that there is a vehicle meeting your flight.
Phobjika is a glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains, and is a designated conservation area nudging the borders of the Black Mountains National Park. It is one of the most important wildlife preserves in the country because of the large flock of rare, endangered black-necked cranes that winter there. These birds have a special place in Bhutanese folklore, and one of the most popular folk songs laments the time when the cranes leave the valley to return to Tibet. You can learn more about the cranes at the Crane Observation and Education Centre and view their roosting place. It’s an awesome spectacle at dusk when all the birds from the valley congregate for the night.