The Kingdom of Bhutan
"When it comes to lovely countries," Micato's old friend Seamus O'Banion once wrote, "Bhutan is a country more unlike any other country than any other country." To wit: It has wisely and successfully avoided the mass tourism that would erode its unique, vibrantly intact culture. It is endlessly lovely: its Himalayan foothill air is clear, its environment untrammeled, its countrysides and little towns idyllic. And as the world's only Buddhist monarchy, its program of Gross National Happiness is a moral beacon. In short, Bhutan gets it right.
The scenic, terraced town of Paro sits in the shadow of 24,000-ft/7,320-m Mount Chomolhari (divine mountain). Paro has Bhutan's only airport, so most travelers arrive there. Though it's really only a large village, three nights are recommended to get used to the altitude, as well as to see the many sights related to Paro's days as capital of the western region.
Among those sights are the 350-year-old Ta Dzong (now the National Museum), the Rinchen Pung or Paro Dzong (sacred scrolls, icons, and the like), where scenes from Bertolucci's Little Buddha were shot, the restored seventh-century Kyichu Lhakhang (holy temple) and the Dungtse Lhakhang (temple). Also worth seeing is the Drugyel Dzong, named after a famous victory of the Bhutanese over Tibetan invaders (about 9 mi/14 km northwest of town).
If you're in Paro on a Sunday morning, be sure to visit the colorful market, where grains, chilies, oranges, bananas and a host of other items are sold. The Paro Tsechu festival is held late March-April.
On a full-day trip, it's possible to visit the Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest), built on a rock ledge overlooking a sheer 2,600 ft/800 m drop to the Paro Valley. It is accessible only on foot or by pony as far as the viewpoint. According to legend, the monastery was founded by Guru Rimpoche, who landed there on the back of a flying tiger.
Bhutan's former capital, Punakha is often seen on a long day trip from Thimphu. It offers superlative views of the Himalayas and can be used as a base to visit the nearby Wangdiphodrang Dzong and Punakha Dzong. Punakha Dzong is the winter home of the largest group of monks in the country (some 500) and the Je Khempo (Buddhist religious leader). It is considered to be the most elaborate temple in the country and is still used today as government offices for the district.
The drive over the Dochula Pass to Punakha is breathtaking. The Punakha Suspension Bridge, said to be one of the longest in the region, is a fun place to stop since it is close to the Punakha Dzong.
The Punakha Domche festival is in late February-March.
Don't be surprised by the numerous phallic symbols that are painted on many buildings in the region because of the Chimi Lhakhang Temple (known as the fertility temple); these represent new life and fertility. Phallic statues are also widely sold in markets and stores, and it may come as a surprise to many Western visitors. They are visible across the country, but there are noticeably more near the fertility temple. Many people come to this temple in hopes of getting pregnant. Many of these symbols are painted on building doors as a matter of protection.
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