Bhutan is a calm, spiritual place and is a wonderful place to reflect on our many blessings.
The prayer flags were spectacular You see many flapping in the wind against dark blue skies and white snow capped mountains as you cross over the passes. They are blue, green, red, yellow and white representing the elements of water, wood, fire and earth. They represent prayers sent to heaven.
Seeing the Dzongs: Bhutan’s Dzongs are huge white citadels (or fortresses) that dominate the major towns. They serve as the administrative headquarters for all of the country’s dzongkhags and the focus of secular and religious authority in each district. They are also monasteries with many monks living in each one. I saw the Dzongs in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Trongsa, Bumthang or Jakar. They are really interesting and are beautifully decorated. Punakha had three gorgeous courtyards with beautiful carvings and decorations. At Trongsha I saw dancers practicing and loved the monks and paintings at Jakar.
There are many prayer wheels which are so interesting. The turning of prayer wheels is a practice seen all over Bhutan. The cylindrical wheels, some of which are hand held and others are huge and located outside the temples, are filled with prayers which are “said” each time the wheel is turned. Monks and devotees spin the wheels to gain additional merit and to concentrate the mind on the mantras and prayers they are reciting. You see many people walking around the larger wheels in a circle chanting Om Mani Padme Hum (or hail to the jewel in the lotus), the main mantra of Tibetan Buddhists.
The colorful houses which are painted with various designs; floral patterns representing the lotus, clouds, mystical animals such as the garuda and large phalluses for fertility.
Visit the local, colorful weekend market in Thimphu. Here you will find local produce and handicrafts. I love the traditional yathra weavings, made from sheep and yak wool. and bought several pieces that I still value. There is a Yathra Weaving Center in Bumthang that you can visit as well.
The villages like Khoma village in Lhuentse, Radhi village in Trashigang and Khaling National Handloom Development center in Trashigang are famous for their weavings.
Seeing the native dress: All men and women wear the distinctive traditional dress as required by the King. Men wear ghos which mostly come in plaid or stripes. They are long robes hoisted to knee length and held in place by a woven cloth belt or kera. They also wear knee socks. The women wear a floor-length dress called a kira. This is a rectangular piece of silk or cotton cloth that wraps around the body over a silk blouse. The kira is fastened at the shoulders with elaborate silver hooks and at the waist with a belt of silver or cloth. They then wear a short jacket called a toego.
Seeing an archery match: It was interesting to have the chance to watch an archery match in Thimpu since it is considered the national sport.
Attending a festival: I was so fortunate to be able to go to a small festival in the remote village of Ngang Lhakhang, above Bumthang. There is a temple that was built in the 15th century and I was able to sit in on one of the prayer sessions with the monks praying out-loud and playing instruments including cymbals, drums and a high pitched trumpet. I was offered tea with milk and sugar, along with a cookie, as I watched this magical prayer service. I had my horseman, cook and guide so I had my tent pitched and food cooked. It was a very amazing experience. The villagers were so kind, the kids wonderful and the dancing very magical.
Try to plan your trip around one of the major festivals. These include the Thimphu Tsechu in the fall and Ura Tsechu in the spring. The Jakar Tsechu in autumn and the Trongsa Tsechu in winter are more intimate in scale.
Seeing the countryside: I loved seeing the terraced rice fields and wonderful vistas of small farms and homes. The roads are very windy so be prepared for a lot of curves. The views of the Himalayas were really outstanding.
Hiking to Taktshang Monastery (or Tigers Nest) outside of Paro: It is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world and was built in 1692 on a sacred meditation site established in the 8th century by Guru Rimpoche. It was damaged by a fire in 1998 but rebuilt. It is really spectacular to see! There is a cafeteria on the trail which is a great place for a tea break. This hike and the hike to the festival were my only treks. There are many who trek to very remote places. It is located at 1o,200 ft, or 3,000 ft. above the Paro Valley, so the altitude should not be a major issue. It can take four to five hours, up and back, plus the time to visit the site. Horses are available to ride for those not wanting to hike.
Chimi Lhakhang: I enjoyed the walk to Chimi Lhakhang. You walk across the farm fields from the road to the temple. There are a few monks, but there is a row of prayer wheels and beautiful slate carvings.
Wangdichholing Palace: This is a palace in Bumthang built in 1857, and a principal residence of the first and second kings.
Visiting Temple Complexes: Well-worth the visit is Kurjey Khakhang, a group of three buildings in Bumthang with the oldest temple built in 1652. This is the final resting place of the remains of the first three Kings of Bhutan. Kyichu Lhakhang, is an important Himalayan Buddhist temple situated in Lango Gewog of Paro District and recommended to visit as is Könchogsum Lhakhang, also known as Tsilung, a Buddhist monastery in central Bhutan.
Dochula Pass Stupas: This is a mountain pass in the snow covered Himalayas on the road from Thimpu to Punakha where 108 memorial chortens or stupas known as “Druk Wangyal Chortens” have been built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother. They were built to honor the victory of the Bhutanese army in the 2003 war of Southern Bhutan.
National Museum: I enjoyed the National Museum (Ta Dzong), in Paro, which is located in an unusual round building.
The altars in the temples: I could not take pictures of the altars but they were really interesting. I loved the water bowls as offerings, butter lamps, dried flowers, small change as offerings and food offerings of sugar. I also loved the prayer books with bundles of paper with calligraphy. The unbound pages are collected between carved boards, wrapper in silk and tied with silk ribbons.
There is also a National Textile Museum in Thimphu. I would recommend trying to see this while there.
In addition, the food was just okay. Luckily I was able to eat tourist food. For according to Bhutan Travel, “the most distinctive characteristic of Bhutanese cuisine is its spiciness. Chillis are an essential part of nearly every dish and are considered so important that most Bhutanese people would not enjoy a meal that was not spicy.” If you like spicy food, then you will be fine!
I recently heard in a presentation that the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal, a chorten, or stupa, overlooking the Punakha Valley is a popular attraction. It was completed in 2004 “with a very specific intention in mind. Rather than being a place of communal worship, a monastic retreat or a place of education, it was built to provide spiritual protection, peace and harmony.”
The Gangtey Monastery: Generally known as Gangtey Goenpa or Gangtey Monastery, this is important monastery of Nyingmapa school of Buddhism, the main seat of the Pema Lingpa tradition. Founded in 1613, it is located in the Wangdue Phodrang District in the western part of Bhutan. Located atop a hill above the Phobjikha valley, it is the winter home to the rare black necked cranes, best seen from November through February.
Buddha Dordenma: In Thimphu, the Great Buddha Dordenma is a gigantic Shakyamuni Buddha statue in the mountains, celebrating the 60th anniversary of fourth king Jigme Singye. Inside the 169 foot Buddha statue, there are 125,000 miniature Buddhas inside its enlightened bronze chest, ranging from 8 to 12 inches tall.