Bhutan’s most prosperous valley, the Paro Valley is the heartland of Bhutanese culture and spirituality. Emerald green fields, brightly painted houses, gently blowing willow trees and winding streams fill the horizon in every direction, creating a mood of simplicity and beauty. Though the valley has been home to many important monasteries for several centuries, it had no real town until 1985, when the present day town was constructed. The entire village was built using traditional architectural styles and building materials.
The national capital of Bhutan, Thimphu is larger and slightly more developed than other places in Bhutan, but with a population of only about 104,000 and no traffic lights, it is hardly urban sprawl. All buildings within the town make use of Bhutanese architectural styles and materials, giving the modern capital a very traditional character.
Despite serving as the nation’s winter capital for 300 hundred years, Punakha is a small, sleepy town. The spiritual center of the town is the great Punakha Dzong, which stands at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Phu Chhu (Female and Male Rivers). The dzong is still the winter residence of the Je Khenpo and the state’s monastic community. A great festival is held at the dzong each year to celebrate the end of winter; the main event of the festival is the unveiling of a giant appliqued thangka, or thongdrel.
THE PHOBJIKA VALLEY
One of Bhutan’s designated conservation areas, this valley is home to many of Bhutan’s large mammals, birds and unique flora. The broad glacial valley is covered with several marshes, which are taken over each winter by large flocks of the rare black-necked crane.
The capital of the Bumthang Region, this town serves as a base to most travelers who come to enjoy the beauty of Bumthang’s rolling hills and valleys. Due to its convenient location on the east-west highway, Jakar is slowly transforming from a small village to a commercial center. The Jakar Dzong, or "Fortress of the White Bird," looks over the valley from the top of a small hill; legend relates that the site and name were chosen when a white bird landed on the dzong’s present site and refused to move. Though the dzong has been renovated and repaired several times, the original construction dates back to 1549.
MEBARTSHO (AKA BURNING LAKE)
This sacred lake is Bhutan’s holiest pilgrimage site. It was at this gorge that Pema Lingpa found sacred Buddhist treasures. To prove the divine nature of his treasures and of his calling to propagate Buddhism, Pema Lingpa jumped into the lake with a burning oil lamp. When he resurfaced, the lamp was still burning, proving that he was not a demon but a spiritual son of Guru Rinpoche.
DUCHA LA PASS
10,023 feet from Thimphu to Punakha is stunning, as the entire Bhutan Himalaya can be seen from the summit on a clear day. From Ducha La the road drops sharply through rhododendron and magnolia forests into the lush semi-tropical forests of the Punakha Valley.
Located in the middle of Bhutan, the town of Trongsa is the religious and administrative seat of the region. The impressive Trongsa Dzong stands high above the surrounding valleys. The dzong is located directly above the historical trade routes of central Bhutan; hence it was easy for the leaders of Trongsa Dzong, with its commanding views, to control all east-west traffic for several centuries. The dzong has deep connections to the royal family; the first king ruled from the Trongsa Dzong and even today the Crown Prince of Bhutan holds the hereditary title of Trongsa Penlop (governor).
Built in the early 16th century, this monastery contains many stunning paintings, some of which are the oldest extant paintings within Bhutan! The goemba is one of the last remaining monasteries to propagate the teachings of the great terton, Pema Lingpa; in fact, one of the goemba’s main relics is the piece of chain-mail armor purportedly made by the great terton himself.
The sheep-herding communities of the Ura Valley have witnessed unrivaled prosperity in the last twenty years due to the construction of the east-west highway. However, despite the improvements in daily life, the traditions and cultures of the Ura people have been left firmly intact. Here communities are nestled closely together and connected with stone walkways and paths. The main village of the valley is Ura, home of a new temple and monastery.
Travel expert recommendations
Go Hiking in Eastern Bhutan (Tashigang, Bhutan)
The best way to experience the natural splendor and cultural heritage of Bhutan is often on foot. Eastern Bhutan is seldom visited by travelers and is crisscrossed with gentle walks, exhilarating hikes and challenging treks to explore the area’s many amazing traditional villages, monasteries and stunning mountain meadows. But the highlight is wandering into remote villages where locals welcome curious travellers with open arms.
Expand your Family with a visit to the Chime Lhakhang Shrine (Punakha valley)
Located in the center of the Punakha valley, this shrine dedicated to the well-loved "Divine Madman," Lama Drukpa Kunley, and is a popular visit stop for young couples hoping for children. Several ATJ staff attribute the conception of their children to a stop here!
Learn about traditional Bhutanese Weaving in Chuume Valley (Bumthang Region)
The east-west highway arrives in the Bumthang Region via the beautiful Chuume Valley, whose wide rolling hills are covered in thick pine forests and dotted with temples, monasteries and of course potato fields and small villages. One of Chuume’s more interesting villages is Zugney, where women continue the centuries old tradition of weaving yatras, hand-dyed and woven woolen fabrics with unique geometrical designs.
The Bhutanese call their home “Druk Yul,” which means “the Land of the Thunder Dragons,” because of the extremely powerful storms which constantly roar in from the Himalayas.
Bhutan's capital city of Thimpu is the only world capital without traffic lights. In fact, when a traffic light was installed, it was quickly removed by popular demand and the city reverted back to the use of white-gloved traffic police.
Bhutan has the world’s highest unclimbed peak, Gangkhar Puensum, a mountain so sacred to the Bhutanese that the government has banned mountaineering on any peak above 19,685 feet.
Bhutan is the world’s only carbon sink—it absorbs more CO2 than it gives out. 72% of the country is forested and it is written into the country’s constitution to keep 60% of its land forested.
Cuisine & Recipe
Bhutan’s signature dish (which you’re sure to encounter on a daily basis during a visit to the country) is Ema Datshi. It is a rich a spicy stew made from hot peppers and cheese. In Bhutan, it’s made from a unique, strong yak-milk cheese, but you can substitute feta or another salty cheese of your choosing.
1⁄2 lb hot green chili (jalapenos, serranos, Thai chilis, your choice depending on heat tolerance or use poblanos or anaheim)
1 medium sweet onion, diced small
3⁄4 cup water
1⁄2 lb danish feta cheese
2 teaspoons vegetable oil (I like olive oil)
2 tomatoes, diced
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1⁄2 teaspoon fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
Remove seeds and ribs from chilis and cut chilis lengthwise into 1/2" slices.
Place chilis and onion in water with vegetable oil. Boil 10 minutes. Add tomato and garlic and simmer for 2 more minutes.
Add cheese and simmer on low for 2 more minutes - enough to blend the cheese without completely melting it. Add cilantro and stir.
Serve with Bhutanese red rice or brown rice.
Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth
by Lisa Napoli (2012)
Lisa Napoli was in the grip of a crisis, dissatisfied with her life and her work as a radio journalist. When a chance encounter with a handsome stranger presented her with an opportunity to move halfway around the world, Lisa left behind cosmopolitan Los Angeles for a new adventure in the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan—said to be one of the happiest places on earth.
Long isolated from industrialization and just beginning to open its doors to the modern world, Bhutan is a deeply spiritual place, devoted to environmental conservation and committed to the happiness of its people—in fact, Bhutan measures its success in Gross National Happiness rather than in GNP. In a country without a single traffic light, its citizens are believed to be among the most content in the world. To Lisa, it seemed to be a place that offered the opposite of her fast-paced life in the United States, where the noisy din of sound-bite news and cell phones dominate our days, and meaningful conversation is a rare commodity; where everyone is plugged in digitally, yet rarely connects with the people around them.
Thousands of miles away from everything and everyone she knows, Lisa creates a new community for herself. As she helps to start Bhutan’s first youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo FM, she must come to terms with her conflicting feelings about the impact of the medium on a country that had been shielded from its effects. Immersing herself in Bhutan’s rapidly changing culture, Lisa realizes that her own perspective on life is changing as well—and that she is discovering the sense of purpose and joy that she has been yearning for.
In this smart, heartfelt, and beautifully written book, sure to please fans of transporting travel narratives and personal memoirs alike, Lisa Napoli discovers that the world is a beautiful and complicated place—and comes to appreciate her life for the adventure it is.