Travel News: Bhutan Travel Guide: Holy See, Stupas & Monasteries

Mahayana Buddhism is intertwined with Bhutanese culture, but the challenge for travelers is how to visit the country without suffering from “clan fatigue”. Susan Tick outlines some of the more memorable temples, forts and monasteries from her trip to Bhutan.

Most homes in Bhutan have altars, and in many cases entire rooms are dedicated to daily prayer services. Taking the time to visit the major religious buildings and hopefully a residence or two is the only way to understand this devout country.

History is discussed here, including the story of Guru Rinpoche, a Buddhist saint who flew to Bhutan on the back of a tigress in the eighth century, repelling evil spirits and converting the people to Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche is considered the second Buddha, and his image is as common as that of the Buddha.

Bhutan - Buddhist pagoda on the river bank between Thimphu and the airportFirst, head to Thimphu from the airport and look for four pagoda (sacred monument) on the river bank. Each in a different style: Nepal, Tibet, Ladakh and Bhutan.

It is worth noting that the road from the airport to the capital is the only road you will drive in Bhutan that is close to the highway. The old road was replaced a few years ago to provide easier and more impressive travel for those coming for the coronation of King V. It is the only significant modern straight road in the country.

For more information on Bhutan travel, don’t miss Exploring the Himalayas: Bhutan Travel Guide.

in Thimphu, memorial pagoda Worth stopping by. Here, you will see Bhutanese of all ages spinning prayer wheels and walking repeatedly around the stupa, always clockwise, and walking reverently.

Bhutanese mother and child in the fieldtake your time in Zhaxi Chozong in Thimphu. A guide might suggest driving by as there are more beautiful forts in other cities, but this former fort tells a lot about the local culture as it is both the seat of Bhutan’s government and a huge house of worship. Here, government workers head to offices and meetings in traditional attire, with magenta-robed monks roaming freely through the vast courtyard.

Traveling outside of Thimphu can be a major challenge if you suffer from motion sickness. This lonely road through central Bhutan is only two extremely narrow lanes wide, and is a seemingly endless series of zigzag turns that can make even the hardiest of souls nervous. Thankfully, only Bhutanese are allowed to drive these roads, as even those familiar with them can feel intimidated.

For more information on travel in the region, visit our India and Central Asia travel section.

Prayer Flags at Dochula PassBetween Thimphu and Punakha is dochula p., tourists stop to view the local stupas and hang prayer flags. Thousands of people who have walked this route have tied them to the trees and you will carry with you the memory of the colorful fabrics that covered the forested area.

Make sure to climb the steep stairs to reach the new building Gonba (Monastery) Look at the paintings on the walls.

Our driver, hired through Aman, was a road warrior who didn’t break a sweat when a wheel seemed to dangle from the curb. The government is trying to improve the quality of the road, digging as much extra width into the mountainside as possible, but the work is progressing slowly and further clogging traffic. At one point, we called the hotel ahead of time to ask when they were blowing up the slopes so we could plan our trip accordingly. I recommend taking dimenhydrinate and make sure you bring your favorite music as there are limited radio stations in Bhutan.

Hear a Bhutanese traveler’s story: Visit Disney World and discover Bhutan on Peter Greenberg Radio Worldwide.

Gangtey Goemba - Bhutantakes about four hours to arrive Gangtey, a beautiful little village that has just been electrified.this gangtegomba Perched on the edge of a hill, it is visible to all who work the fields around the community.

This Palace is a jewel, decorated with beautiful traditional colors and lovingly restored by local artisans with the help of foreign donations. Like the others, this temple is a center of community life, packed with young monks in magenta robes and with stunning views of the surrounding valley. The adjacent Nyingmaba Temple is a monastery of one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Children from poor families in the region are sent there to be educated, but unlike in other countries, these children can eventually choose not to become monks.

you have to backtrack a bit to get to PunakhaThe government winter residence is about two and a half hours’ drive from the hotel. it’s here, Punakha Dzong It is the most exquisite building in the kingdom, built at the confluence of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. There are several huge courtyards that eventually lead to a huge prayer hall. It contains three colossal wood and clay statues of three of Bhutan’s holiest saints: Guru Tinpoche, Shakaymuni and Shabrung, who are believed to have unified Bhutan people.

For more Bhutan travel information, don’t miss Exploring the Himalayas: Bhutan Travel Guide

Gangtey Carpenter carves new panels for Gangtey Goemba - BhutanEverywhere you look, there’s something spectacular: carvings and statues and brightly colored symbols and designs.Try to schedule this visit Punakha DomjoAn elaborate festival held every spring, monks elaborately dress up as warriors and reenact the battles between Bhutanese and Tibetans.

It’s not mentioned in the travel book, but it’s worth a visit kansuyuri nanjIt is a four-story pagoda commissioned by the Queen Mother and built in 1999. It’s a 10-minute drive from most hotels to the drop-off point, followed by an easy half-hour hike through most of the rice fields. Work is basically done the way it has been done for generations. You’ll see mothers working on their laps with their young children, while older children run and play along the paths or shop at the small nearby market. It was built to keep evil away from the country and the king, and is filled from floor to ceiling with nightmarish drawings of masks and beasts! Pretty odd, especially in a country known for its tranquility.

Explore world cultures in our cultural travel section.

Bhutan Tiger Den - Taktsang DzongSome people visit Tiger Den, also known as Taktsang Dzong, as soon as they arrive in Paro. I’m glad we saved it until the last day. This gave us time to acclimate to Bhutan’s altitude and enough experience to make a pilgrimage to the country’s most revered shrine very special.

Go early as there is no way to avoid the sun. Hiking is not easy, but it is doable if you go at your own pace and wear hiking shoes or tennis shoes with proper cleats. You can ride a donkey or a pony for the first half. Unless you’re a decent hiker, don’t take the shortcut suggested by your guide – it’s probably shorter but harder to climb. The climb is about 3,500 feet; the hardest part is a narrow section near the top of the cliff, where there are steps to climb and nothing to hold on to or catch you if you fall.

Move on if you can, just don’t look down. The physical and spiritual beauty that awaits is worth the effort.

Text and photos by Susan Tick for

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