REGIONS AND CITIES
Western Bhutan encompasses Wangdue Phodrang, Punakha valley, Thimphu valley, Paro valley and the Haa valley. These valleys are divided bij three major La’s (passes): the Pele La, Dochu La and Cheli La. It's the part of the country where you find an abundance of rice paddies, beautiful mountain scenery, rich orchards and clear blue rivers. Amidst the green you ly the characteristic two-story houses, still built in traditional style and windows with brightly painted designs. The Ngalops, one of Bhutan's three major tribes, live mainly here. It’s major cities are Paro, Thimphu and Punaka.
· Paro is a little town situated in a charming and peaceful valley where the landscape is mainly dominated by rice cultivation. In Paro you find the Taktshang Dzong, which is Bhutan’s most famous monastery. It hangs on a cliff at 3.120 meters (10.200 feet), some 700 meters (2.300 feet) above the bottom of Paro Valley. Knowing this, you understand its' nickname ‘Tiger’s nest’.
· Lying in the centre of the Himalayas you find Thimphu: Bhutan’s national capital. It's nothing like a normal, major city though. Instead, this small city breathes medieval times. It’s the only capital in the world with no traffic lights, only a few cars and hardly any streetsigns. What you do find, is people dressed in traditional clothing, passing wooden houses and shops all build in the typical traditional, colorful Bhutanese style. Worthwile visiting in Thimpu are the central post office with a wide and diverse collection of beautiful stamps, the traditional painting school, National Library and memorial Chorten. While you’re in the capital, make sure you don’t miss the weekend market which offers a glimpse of the wild variety of vegetables like chillies, aspargus, rice, eggplant and okra. It’s also an exellent place to buy your souvenirs, which come from all over Bhutan. Whether you’re looking for tailor made clothing, hand woven textiles, jewelry, incense, hand made knives, woordcarvings or tradtional Bhutanese masks; here you’ll find it for sure.
Another thing you definitely want to visit, is the Tashi Chhoe Dzong, lying on the banks of the Thimphu river (Wangchhu). This very impressive building which is home of the National Assembly, overlooks the city and the river. It’s also the place where Thimpu’s monastic community spends its summer. It’s also worthwile visiting the Simtokha Dzong, only six kilometers out of Thimpu. This oldest dzong of Bhutan houses the Dzongka language school of Bhutan.
· Bhutan’s former winter capital is Punakha. Nowadays it's a sacred place where the Je Khenpo (leader of Bhutan’s religious order) and the monk body of Thimpu still spend the winter, due to its temperate climate. The Punakha dzong is an immense and magnificent monastery with 21 temples, strategically built between two rivers.
Central Bhutan is the place to be if you like walking in broad valleys, surrounded by sloping mountains. This part of the country includes several rich valleys, amongst them the popular ones of Bumthang, Ura and Trongsa. These valleys with an abundance of dwarf bamboo are divided bij four major La’s: the Thrumshing La, Shertang La, Yotang La and Pele La. Here you can find many fields where buckwheat is grown, as well as splendid apple orchards. Typical for the region are its' many monasteries.
The Bumthang valley consists of four majour mountain valleys (Chhume, Ura, Tang and Chokhor). It is commonly referred to as the valley of Bumthang since it is in the large valley of Chokhor (also known as Bhumtag, the valley of beautiful girls) where you find the most important ancient temples, sacred sites and dzongs. The most historical dzongkhag is Bumthang (literally meaning ‘beautiful field’). Typical for this area are farms with dairy products, buckwheat, apples and honey.
Bhutan’s highest and most Eastern valley is Ura. Its wide open spaces give you an incredible view of the Thrumsing La pass. Ura itself is a small charming village breathing a special atmosphere. Walking down the streets you believe you’ve travelled back to times long time gone. On their backs the older Ura women still wear their shawls made of sheepskin, used as both a blanket and cushion. Ura also has a relatively new monastery.
Situated in the centre of Bhutan and about five miles from Trongsa you will be captured by one of Bhutan’s most beautiful and breathtaking views. Build in 1648 on a ridge, you find the impressive many-leveled Trongsa dzong. When the sun’s rays hit the bright golden yellow roof, you get a glimpse of other worlds. This robust monastery acted as a defensive fortress. Because of its' strategical position, it was the Royal Family’s ancestral home.
Eastern Bhutan is the Kingdom’s least discovered part, but very worthwile visiting with its’ many ancient spiritual sites. It comprises the cities of Phentsholing, Mongar, Lhuentse, Trashigang and Trashi Yangste, divided by the passes of Kori La, Yongphu La and Narphung La. Due to the warmer climate you are surrounded by fields of lemon grass, corn, rice, wheat and potatoes. This part of the country is also famous for Bhutan’s best weavers, known for their amazing supplementary weft-weave technique and hand-loomed textiles.
Travelling overland from India to Bhutan, the small town of Phentsholing is your point of entry. Lying right across the border, it is a typical business city for Bhutanese and Indians. Phentsholing is not your typical Bhutanese city with impressive dzongs; instead it’s characterized by modern architecture. Nearby is the Karbandi Monastery, visited by many pilgrims wishing for children. What makes it still worth making the trip, is the view from the monastery over the Bengal Plain and Phentsholing.
· Mongar and Lhuentse
Travelling across the steeply climbing highways to Bhutan’s Eastern region rewards you with one of the most beautiful panoramas. In just a few hours the altitude drops from 3.800 to 650 meters and during your journey you’ll cross an astonishing cliff dropping thousands of feet. Many towns are built on the sides of the hills, surrounded bij pine forests, semi-tropical forests and orange groves.
Worthwile visiting is the Mongar dzong, which was built in 1953 in behalf of Bhutan’s former king Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. After visiting the monastery, you can record the marvelous view over Mongar valley from the Zhonggar Lodge. This royal guesthouse lies near the dzong. Close to Mongar you find the villages of Lhuentse and Kuri Chhu, known as one of Bhutan’s best weaving villages. For generations, its' traditional kushitara weavers were the Royal family’s weavers.
· Trashigang, Radhi, Rangjung & Gom Kora
Trashigang and trade are deeply connected. In the old days it connected Tibet to Assam (India) and nowadays it is the primary route for trade between India and Bhutan. Although Trashigang has no major urban area, it’s a busy tradetown where you can encounter a melting pot of several hill tribes like the Merak and Sakteng. It’s also home of the Sharchops, one of Bhutan’s major three tribes. Driving towards Trashigang, you cannot miss the Trashigang dzong, offering you a spectacular view over the Trashigang valley. Just like the Trongsa dzong in Central Bhutan, the Trashigang fortress was build a mere 350 years ago to defend the country against Tibetan invaders.
If you’re interested in weaving, travel from Trashigang 16 kilometers to the east. Here you find Radhi and Rangjung, specialised in natural dyed raw silk textiles. Nearby is the ancient temple of Gom Kora, known for its' rock garden. It’s also a sacred place, containing a sacred footprint. The Bhutanese believe it to be the footprint of either a khandroma (angel) or of Guru Rinpoche, the deeply revered Buddhist master who brought Buddhism to Bhutan. About 25 kilometers south of Trashigang you find Sherubtse college, the only college of Bhutan’s Royal University.
· Trashi Yangste & Duksum
Driving towards Trashi Yangtse you pass Duksum. In this small weaver’s town the people of the surrounding high mountain villages come to buy their necessities. Landmark of Duksum is the Lama Hazampa, an original iron chain suspension bridge. Close to Duksum you find the town of Trashi Yangste with on the floor of the valley the impressive Chorten Kora. This stupa, built in the 18th century, is one of Bhutan’s two Kora’s that are built in the special Nepalese ‘eye’ style. It’s also the centre of one of Bhutan’s most famous festivals, held each spring.