Lying in a valley (elevation 2,350 m), Thimpu is unlike any other capital in the world. The traditional architecture of its houses and buildings is particularly striking. The places to visit are the Memorial Chorten, dedicated to the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk; Tashichho Dzong, seat of the government of Bhutan and the summer residence of the central monk body; the Traditional Medicine Hospital where herbal medicines are prepared; the National Library, a treasure trove of ancient texts; the National Institute for Zorig Chosum for thanka painting, sculpture, wood and slate carving, gold works, embroidery and traditional boot making; Changangkha Lakhang which contains ancient scriptures and thanka paintings; and Simtokha Dzong, Bhutan’s oldest fortress which now houses a school for Buddhist studies. You can also visit the smithy on the other side of the Thimpu River to see traditional gold and silver smiths at work, the Folk Heritage Museum, which showcases a typical Bhutanese farmhouse, and the Takin Sanctuary (the takin is the national animal of Bhutan) above the Motithang area.
Western Bhutan is 65 km (two hours’ drive) to the southwest of Thimpu. The Taktsang Monastery where Guru Rinpoche meditated to subdue evil spirits; Rinpung Dzong, venue of the Paro tsechu (festival); Ta Dzong which houses the National Museum; the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, built to commemorate Bhutan’s victory over Tibetan aggressors; Kyichu Lakhang, one of the oldest and most sacred temples in Bhutan; and Dungtse Lakhang with its extraordinary collection of religious paintings, are the places to see in the valley.
77 km (three hours and 15 minutes’ drive) north-east of Thimpu, served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and, even today, it is the winter home of the central monk body. The Punakha Dzong houses many sacred artifacts and temples. The road from Thimpu to Punakha crosses the 3,115-m Dochula Pass. Wangdi Phodrang (or Wangdi) is situated 70 km (three hours’ drive) south-east of Thimpu. The Wangdi Phodrang Dzong played a key role during the unification of Bhutan.
Trongsa is 129 km (four and a half hours’ drive) east of Wangdi and crosses the 3,300 m Pelela Pass. The Trongsa Dzong, the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family, houses 23 temples. The watchtower, Ta Dzong, has a temple dedicated to King Gesar, the hero of a great epic. Bumthang consists of the valleys of Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura. It takes two and a half hours to reach Bumthang, 68 km northeast of Trongsa. Bumthang is ideal for making excursions to the many monasteries and shrines — Tharpaling, Choedrak, Tamshing, Kurjey, Jambey, Kunzangdra among others – as well as to Mebartso, “the flaming lake”.
MONGAR is 198 km (seven hours’ drive) south-east of Bumthang. The road to Mongar crosses Thumshingla (3,800 m), the highest pass in Bhutan. The Mongar Dzong is relatively new compared with the other dzongs of the kingdom.
LHUNTSHI is 76 km (three hours’ drive) north of Mongar. The landscape here is spectacular with stark cliffs and gorges and dense coniferous forests. This district is famous for its weavers and the fine quality of fabrics they produce.
The 90-km trip from Mongar to Trashigang, the easternmost district, takes four hours. Some 20 km before Trashigang is the Dametsi Monastery, the most important monastery of eastern Bhutan. After Thimpu, Trashigang is the largest urban center where the Trashigang Dzong stands over the Gamri river. Tashi Yangtse, north of Trashigang, has a dzong and the Nepalese style Chorten Kora.