Thimphu is the capital city of Bhutan situated in western Bhutan. The city is home to over 100,000 local residents including the royal family of Bhutan. Thimphu city is the most urbanized district in Bhutan and the western culture influence much more noticeable as compared to other region in Bhutan. Most important government agencies, ministries and the Office of His Majesty the King are set up in Thimphu city. People from across the country aspire to move and settle in Thimphu due to its relatively superior living standards as compared to other region and better employment opportunities. The rise in urban migration from across Bhutan over the years has fueled Thimphu city’s exponential growth. The agricultural lands that were once a prized possession are now being rapidly turned into residential complex to accommodate the increasing population in Thimphu. The city center along the Norzin Road is emerging with international hotel chains, fine dining restaurants and cafes serving quality international cuisine. Thimphu has the infrastructure to deliver modern comfort that most travelers seek.
However while exploring Thimphu; tourists will notice the stark contrast that Thimphu offers in terms of the juxtaposition of the modernization against the ancient culture and traditions. More than anywhere else in Bhutan, the streets of Thimphu are filled with men, women and children wearing the traditional dress during the business hours and in schools. Thimphu is also home to two gigantic 16th century monasteries, Simtokha Dzong which is one of the oldest in the country and the Tashichhodzong which houses the Office of His Majesty the King. The fortresses are well preserved and still remain functional. Catering to the rising tourism in Bhutan, Thimphu has many museums, nature parks and hiking trails.
Paro is a wide valley in the western region of Bhutan. Unlike Thimphu, Paro still has its agricultural territory intact. Almost all villages scattered across Paro valley including the town center are surrounded by vast rice paddy fields. The landscape of Paro transforms into lush greenery during the plantation season and the golden color of the crops perfectly fit the autumn feel during the harvesting season. Bhutan’s only international airport is approximately only 3 kilometers away from Paro town. The airport serves as the gateway to and from Bhutan for all visitors traveling by flight. Local residents in Paro are predominantly farmers and an access to their lifestyle, values and traditions could be termed as an authentic Bhutanese lifestyle. The extensive road network to almost all villages in Paro makes the local villages, people and their life truly accessible for travelers wishing to experience this unique culture.
Like Thimphu, Paro also has many ancient religious and historical sites and the most popular being the Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The 17th century monastery has become the destination icon for Bhutan and is a must visit attraction. Another interesting aspect of Paro is the Paro town itself. Traditional houses on either side of an approximately 100 meter street used to be the entirety of Paro town. Today the town has grown laterally however the older town still remains the main center of the town. The traditional houses are renovated incorporating modern designs while preserving its traditional architectural aesthetics. The entire street is filled with cafes, restaurants serving quality coffee and multi cuisine and handicraft shops for travelers looking to buy souvenirs. Exploring the small town can offer a unique experience.
The mountain village of Punakha is historically significant. Much of the significance circles around the Punakha Dzong. It is one of the most beautiful Dzongs in country. Following the devastating fire incident, the Dzong was completely renovated and the architectural aesthetics of the restored Dzong embodies the traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. The Dzong sits on the confluence of two glacial fed rivers flowing down the Punakha valley and it is approached by a traditional cantilever bridge.
During the time of Tibetan invasion, the Dzong served as a military barrack to guard the country multiple times emerging victorious on all accounts. To celebrate the victory and honor the brave men known as the Pazaps, an annual festival reenacting the narration of the battle is held at the Punakha Dzong. Zhabdrung who built the Dzong and founded modern Bhutan was laid to rest at the Dzong. A sacred temple houses his embalmed body and with the exception of two senior monk attendants, only the King and the Chief Abbot are allowed to enter the shrine. As a tradition, all Kings of Bhutan begin their reign by offering prayers at the shrine. Hundreds of years later, another significant event was graced at the Punakha Dzong. The First King of Bhutan was crowned at the Punakha Dzong in 1907 institutionalizing hereditary monarchy.
Punakha lacks the urban infrastructure development that Thimphu and Paro has and hence the serene countryside offers a closer resemblance of medieval Bhutan. Secluded luxury resorts overlooking vast paddy fields and villages are popular choices of accommodation in Punakha.
A visitor traveling to Phobjikha valley must take the road that diverts off the east west national highway just before reaching the Pelela Pass. The narrow diversion road begins with a gradual climb for about twenty minutes and arrives at the ridge. To fully take in what the place has to offer, it is customary to make a brief stopover at the ridge and just admire the landscape of Phobjikha before making the descend to the valley nestled deep in the valley. Phobjikha is one of the most idyllic destinations in Bhutan. The valley is a multiple small clustered villages scattered across the vast open valley. People are primarily farmers and it is one of the biggest producer of potatoes in the country. A 16th century Gangtey monastery sits on a ridge overlooking the valley which offers the locals a place of worship which binds the community together.
The valley is also part of an important wildlife preserve and is home to few endangered species, the popular one being the black necked cranes. These migratory birds fly south to the valley from Tibet every winter before leaving back in early spring. With the initiatives of the local conservation agencies, the wetlands that stretch across the valley are preserved and off limits to human activity. The secluded valley offers tranquil and serene environment for visitors looking to rejuvenate and rekindle their spirit.