The Eastern Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan (འབྲུག་རྒྱལ་ཁབ་) is one of the last truly unspoiled corners of the world, filled with stunning scenery, friendly people, and fascinating culture. There’s an incredible wealth of things to do and see, so here are our must-not-miss highlights for your first trip to the Kingdom of Bhutan.
A tshechu (ཚེས་བཅུ།; a religious Bhutanese festival) in Bhutan is a vibrant affair, often celebrating natural phenomena such as black-necked cranes or even mushrooms. They are a great way to soak up some of the community spirit of the country. If you are feeling extra festive, visitors can get their festive wardrobe on in on by dressing up in traditional Bhutanese garb. Women wear elegant wraparound skirts called kira and the men wear checked, floor-length belted robes called gho.
Buddhism is a massive part of the country’s national identity, and 10 percent of Bhutan’s population are monks or nuns. Take in a level of spiritualism that has been largely lost in the world today. This immersive experience is perfect for kids as young as six, too. In Bhutan, children often embark on a period of monastic devotion and visiting children can meet some of these, which provide a wonderful way to see life from a different perspective. They’ll hear stories of getting up each day before first light for prayers and other daily routines. Though the cultural differences may be vast, there is still a surprising amount in common.
There are tons of breathtaking, impressive dzongs (རྫོང; fortress-monasteries found mainly in Bhutan and Tibet) dotted throughout Bhutan. Though we highly recommend them all, a standout is the Punakha Dzong. Its name translates to the “Palace of Great Happiness,” and is the finest of its kind in the country, dating from the seventeenth century and located on the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers.
Constructed by Ngawang Namgyal in 1638, it is the second-oldest dzong in Bhutan, was the seat of the Bhutanese government until 1955, and the place where the current king and queen were married. Visit on the weekend to combine Punakha Dzong with a trip to the Khuruthang Saturday Vegetable Market or Wangdue Market. Wander the stalls to get a glimpse into daily life and maybe haggle with locals for the best deal on locally-grown beans or a bag of chilli.
For an excellent insight into Bhutan nature, go trekking in Punakha (སྤུ་ན་ཁ་). You’ll weave through a lush green forest awash with butterflies, leading you to a verdant valley of terraced paddy fields. Along the way, you’ll pass local farmers at work and stop for tea in a local home before ascending up to the Khamsum Yulley Nyamgal Chöten for spectacular views of the Punakha valley. Continue your adventure at the Mo Chuu river, where you’ll raft with expert guides. It’s a great way to take in this lovely valley.
We couldn’t leave one of the most iconic and perhaps most picturesque sights off the list: Tiger’s Nest Monastery (སྤ་གྲོ་སྟག་ཚང; Taktsang Goemba) in Paro. This is one of the most amazing and important pieces of architecture in Bhutan. Hugging the side of a rocky cliff above the Paro Valley, it’s truly a wonder to behold.
Legend has it that this cliffside was where Guru Rinpoche landed on the back of a flying tigress, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century. You’ll start the hike to the monastery early, to avoid the heat and crowds, passing a waterfall and entering the main gates which are decorated with colourful murals. Surrounded by tranquillity and spectacular views you can’t help but be swept away by the extraordinary atmosphere.