While most travelers to Bhutan visit the capital city Thimpu and Paro (known for the Tiger’s Nest monastery), Bhutan offers much more if you have a bit longer. Many travelers skip Central Bhutan (either due to lack of time or because of the poor road conditions), but this is a mistake. During my solo backpacking in Bhutan, I was about to do the same, due to the lack of proper public transportation. I had plans to explore more of Paro and visit Haa Valley. But while I was in Paro and Thimpu, many Bhutanese people asked me not to skip Central Bhutan if I had enough time. One of the golden travel rules I swear by is never to take the words of locals lightly! Here’s some of what I experienced.
Punakha & Wangdue
To the north-west of Thimpu is Punakha, the ancient capital city of Bhutan. Even now, Punakha is important, due to its location and rich history. It’s a place to stop and stroll around, admiring the serenity and the landscape filled with mountains. The beauty of Punakha Dzong, the second oldest monastery of Bhutan, captivated me. Built at the confluence of two sacred rivers Po Chu and Mo Chu, this divine monastery stands majestically, overlooking the town.
Chimey Lakhang monastery is highly popular among the locals, and now among travelers as well. The Bhutanese consider the monk after whom the monastery is built to be the God of fertility, and hence couples come to pray and get blessings. The monk was known as the ‘Divine Madman’ due to his weird philosophies. The monastery is popularly called as the Phallus Temple, since the Phallus is worshipped here.
Wangdue is a small town en-route, known for its hilltop monastery. Compared to other cities in Bhutan there is nothing much to do in the town itself. But, if you are keen on adventure, you can head to Guru Rinpoche caves, near Punakha.
Phobjika Valley (Gangtey)
The valley of Phobjika is also popularly known as Gangtey. This pristine valley is a small village with some homes that are spread far and wide, amidst the green farms.
During the winter (October to mid-February) a rare species of black-necked crane visits this valley in large numbers. You can watch them at the Black Necked Crane Park in Gangtey. There is also the famous 17th century Gangtey Monastery, enriched with paintings depicting Buddhism.
If you happen to visit Bhutan during October you will be extra lucky, as many local festivals take place during this month. The famous Tshechu Festival happens in October, at the monastery. Locals perform traditional ceremonies and dances wearing colourful masks. The festival culminates with people obtaining the blessings from the monastery. It’s a unique experience to witness this festival while soaking in the mountain air in the picturesque valley.
Traveling further up towards the northern central region in Bhutan leads you to one of the most fascinating parts of this country. Collectively known as Bumthang, it comprises four small valleys – Tang, Ura, Choekhor and Chumey. The mountains, green farms, rivulets and small waterfalls add to the beauty of this province.
Bumthang offers something for every kind of traveler: hiking, spiritual experiences or just lazing around doing nothing. Jakar Dzong, Jambay Lhakhang, Kurje Lhakhang and Tamshing Lhakhang are some of the most visited monasteries, located amidst nature.
For people looking for some adventure, a hike through the Ura valley, Tang valley and a visit to the burning lake are good options. The hikes are very easy.
You could spend as few as four days or up to several weeks in Central Bhutan, enjoying an authentic mountain living experience.
Article by Reshma Narasing.
Top image: Marina & Enrique.
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