Western Bhutan is truly the most popular region in the country, and once you get there, you’ll surely understand why! This region comprises all the predominantly famous areas, namely Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Wangdue Phodrang, Punakha, and Gasa.
Also, to add to the charm of the region, Western Bhutan is home to the Drukpa people. Of course, the only airport in the country is here at Paro. So, whether you arrive by air, by road –you’ll be shell shocked to witness the dramatic and stunning valleys. The otherworldly charm is aplenty in this beautiful region of Bhutan.
If you think the place might be all pomp and show – you’ll be happily mistaken. Western Bhutan hosts some of the most popular festivals and also is home to stunning dzongs in the kingdom. If there is only one region you visit during your travels through Bhutan – make sure you zero-in on West!
Let's quickly dive into the details:
About Western Bhutan
This region of Bhutan is full of mountains and valleys, providing for a complete picture-perfect Himalayan vacation destination. From rice paddies flowing through slopes of mountains to pristine rivers across towns of Paro, Thimpu, and Punakha – everything is charm-magnified.
Western Bhutan is so ingrained into your plans because this is where all your document requirements get fulfilled. Be prepared to call Western Bhutan home for a few days when you’re exploring this stunning nation.
Best time to visit western Bhutan
If you’re looking for ideal weather to explore this beautiful section of Bhutan, then September to November makes for the ideal months. Yes, the costs will be high, and the quantum of tourists will also be disproportionally high, but what you’ll get in exchange is great weather, clear mountain views from Dochu La, and theatrical festivals at Thimphu and Wangdue Phodrang.
Further, black-necked cranes arrive in the Phobjikha valley in late October and early November and stay until February.
Another popular period for visiting this region is March through April. This is thanks to the Tsechu Festival at Paro as well as the beautiful rhododendrons in full bloom.
Pro Travel Tip: Do not forget to check this complete month by month guide on the best time to visit Bhutan.
Major Attractions or Sightseeing in Western Bhutan
Of course, being the most popular portion of the country, Western Bhutan is home to the most visited locations. Some stunning towns to visit in Western Bhutan include Chukha, Gedu, Kuruthang, Paro, Phuentsholing, Punakha, Thimphu. Western Bhutan is home to Haa Valley, Jigme Dorji National Park, and Toorsa Strict Nature Reserve.
Also, the revered Tigers’ Nest Monastery is in this region. What’s unique about Western Bhutan is that most of the towns are built beside rivers, placed in wide valleys, as opposed to other parts of the country.
Furthermore, Dzongkha is the predominant language of the area, though English is common in Thimphu and Phuentsholing.
One of the most beautiful dzongs in the country, Punakha, is stunning. If you’re planning on visiting in the spring season, you’ll be warmly greeted by the lilac-colored jacaranda trees, transporting you to another world altogether. This dzong was the second to be built in Bhutan, and it served as the capital up to the mid-1950s. I
In fact, this is the location for the crowning of all of Bhutan. To add to the charm and prominence of the place, you should know that the dzong is still the winter residence of the dratshang (official monk body).
As per the local folklore, it is believed that Guru Rinpoche foretold the construction of Punakha Dzong. He predicted that Namgyal would come to the mountain resembling an elephant. And that is what happened! Upon visiting Punakha, Zhabdrung chose the tip of the trunk of a sleeping elephant. This place was right at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu.
In order to reach the dzong, you will be walking across the Bazam bridge. This bridge was reconstructed in 2008 as the original 17th-century bridge was washed away in floods in 1958.
The dzong is quite unusual as it has three Docheys (courtyards) instead of the usual two. The first courtyard is for administrative functions and houses a huge white Victory Chorten and bodhi tree. The second courtyard houses the monastic quarters and is separated from the first by the utse.
In the southernmost courtyard is the temple where the remains of the Terton, Pema Lingpa, and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal are preserved. You can easily spend a beautiful lazy day exploring the many nooks and corners of the beautiful and stunning piece of ancient history. There is something so serene about visiting places of worship that have stood the test of time and carry with it almost an entire millennia of history.
After discussing the prominence of Punakha Dzong, of course, the most important and prominent location of Western Bhutan has to be the ‘Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Beautiful, stunning, and synonymous with Bhutan itself, the Taktshang Goemba is perched on a cliff. Situated 900m above the floor of the Paro valley, visiting this beautiful monastery is a bucket list item of its own. Of course, we have a full detailed description of the place for ensuring a smooth experience!
After spending some time at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery itself, do remember to head on up to the Drubkhang (Pelphu Lhakhang) – the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months. Outside the cave is a statue of Dorje Drolo, the manifestation the Guru assumed to fly to Taktshang on a tigress. The inner cave is sealed off behind a spectacularly gilded door and is said to hold the phurba (ritual dagger) of the Guru.
Further up is a butter-lamp chapel. You can light a lamp here for a donation. Also, do climb further down into the original Tiger’s Nest cave just above the chapel, but take care as it’s a dusty path down a hairy series of wooden ladders to descend into a giant slice of the cliff face.
If you’ve not had your fill of the place, you could even visit the Machig-Phu Lhakhang, where Bhutanese pilgrims come to pray for having children. There’s another cave behind the chapel- where the main statues are of Machig and her husband Padampa Sangye.
Another prominent aspect of Bhutanese architecture has to be the Rinchen Pung Dzong, popularly known as the Paro Dzong. With its stunning reinforced walls towering over Paro and visible throughout the valley – this truly makes for a stunning sight. The name translates to ‘Fortress on a Heap of Jewels’.
Pro Travel Tip: Check our article about important tips for saving costs on the Bhutan trip, if you are looking to make a budget trip.
The dzong was constructed in 1644. The fort has been used on multiple occasions to protect the valley from invasions by Tibet. Built on a steep hillside, the stunning carved wood painted in gold, black and ochres along with the towering walls provide a sense of power.
Formerly, the dzong acted as the meeting hall for the National Assembly. However, now, it houses both the monastic body and district government offices, which also includes the local courts. Even though most of the chapels are closed to tourists, the Paro Dzong is still worth visiting to enjoy the stunning architecture.
You should note the courtyard of the dzong is open daily, although on the weekends the offices are deserted. Here, you should note that Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian citizens are charged an entry fee but foreign tourists are not since they pay a daily minimum tariff that includes most entry fees.
Outside the dzong, to the northeast of the entrance, is a festival ground. This is the location for the Tsechu of Paro!
If Paro Dzong is a national monument, wait to tell you to climb slightly higher up and reach the national museum. The Ta Dzong (watchtower), built-in 1649 to protect the undefended Paro dzong has been renovated into the National Museum in 1968. The unusual round building is assumed to be a conch shell and has 2.5m-thick walls.
The entrance of the museum sets the tone of Bhutan’s history and its firm belief in contradicting disciplines of mythology and science. It is unique assimilation wherein details of the Stone Age tools sit next to descriptions of battles between gods and demons.
Pro Travel Tip: If you prefer traveling solo, this article will help you plan a solo trip to Bhutan.
In the museum, do pay special attention to the thangka gallery, which has stunning displays on the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Sakya, Nyingma, Gelug, and Drukpa). Also, the Namse Phodrang is a stunning portion of the National Museum as it houses the collection of bronze statues, particularly of God of Wealth, Kubera.
The National Museum will also teach you a thing or two about Bhutanese ties with Tibet along with providing you with a glimpse of the royalty of Bhutan. An interesting treasure on display is the stone egg laid by a mule and a ritual dagger belonging to the protector Dorje Lekpa. An underground tunnel is said to lead from the watchtower to the water supply below. The annex adjacent to the museum houses more exhibits, including festivals and other temporary exhibits.
If you’re planning on driving to the museum, do note that this will involve a 4 km loop into the Dop Shari valley. I highly recommend that you walk down a path from the museum to the dzong and back to the town – the views are stunning of the valley as well as the Ugyen Pelri Palace. Alternatively, you can start the excellent hike to Zuri Dzong from just above the museum.
Prominent Valleys of Western Bhutan
Now, apart from the major monuments of Western Bhutan, two valleys must be visited when you’re planning your visit to the land of dragons.
Now, let’s talk about the stunning natural wonder waiting for you at the Phobjikha valley. Phobjikha is a bowl-shaped glacial valley and lies on the western slopes of the Black Mountains. This valley borders the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park and gains its fame due to the large flock of black-necked cranes that winters here.
As one of the most important wildlife preserves in the country, the valley is home to not only the cranes but also, muntjacs (barking deer), wild boars, sambars, serows, Himalayan black bears, leopards, and red foxes.
The valley gets completely shut and is snowbound during the peak winter months. Because of this, the residents of the valley (4700 in total), including the monks, move their residence to Wangdue Phodrang. This beautiful cohabitation and sharing of lands between humans and wild animals (cranes move in December and January) is nothing short of poetry in my opinion.
Hiking & Biking the Phobjikha Valley
Just because the population is less, don’t think you’d be hard-pressed for activities here in Phobjikha Valley. This glacial valley is peppered with villages, hiking trails, and Lhakhang. Whether you’re on foot or possess a mountain bike – you are bound to have a ton of fun exploring. Even though modernization and construction of farm roads have limited the number of hiking trails – but, that just provides an avenue to bike through the hills.
Pro Travel Tip: If you prefer traveling via public transport, check this article which will help you plan a trip to Bhutan by public transport.
Easily the most popular short walk is the Gangte Nature Trail (1½ hours). This walk will lead you downhill from the mani (prayer) stone wall north of Gangte Goemba to the Khewang Lhakhang. The trail descends to Semchubara village and drops down right at the chorten into the edge of the forest, before descending to a valley viewpoint, a crane-watching hideaway and ultimately the Lhakhang.
A slightly longer and more hectic trail is the Shashi La Nature Trail, which will lead you up the valley from the track behind the Amankora Gangtey resort. Taking a total of 3-4 hours, this is the traditional route taken by farmers as well as the reincarnated Lama – Gangte Trulku for when they left the valley in the winter months. The trail will lead you through cascading views, through a steep descent through old-growth forest to Kalekha on the main Wangdue Phodrang road.
If you’re in the mood for some excellent mountain-biking experience, then do try the route from Gangte Goemba. If you’re on this route, you’ll be heading through the Gangte Nature Trail and into the valley behind Khewang Lhakhang. Here, you can even make an excursion into the village of Gophu before descending to the main valley at Khewang Lhakhang.
The last mountain biking route I’d truly recommend is the Kilkhorthang Trail. This idyllic trail leads you through a nunnery at Kilkhorthang Lhakhang straight through towards the Damcho Lhakhang, south of Tabiting. On this trail, you’ll get to experience the thrill of crossing bridges over beautiful rivers.
Other activities to do in Phobjikha Valley – experience the cranes!
Phobjikha Valley’s beautiful center makes for the winter home for the endangered black-necked cranes. It has been documented that around 400-450 birds fly in to make a home here from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in late autumn. Locally, the birds are known as Thrung Kam.
So much so that songs about the cranes are popular among locals and in folklore. If you’re in the region in February and March, you might come across the stunning sight of the cranes circling the Gangte Goemba before flying back across the Himalayas to their summer breeding grounds in Tibet.
Ah, Haa Valley! Lying south of Paro, this is a beautifully tucked in the region behind the high ridge of the Cheli La. Haa valley is especially remote, and even though it has high access to Tibet – Haa has never been an epicenter of trade.
The ancestral home of the Dorji family, Haa, doesn’t see many visitors – but this should change. Especially picturesque, the valley is perfect for any outdoor activities that you may imagine.
Pro Travel Tip: You can check this detailed guide on how to get all the necessary permits of Bhutan [2020 updates included].
Himalayan Blue Poppy in Haa Valley
With just two roads in and out of this least-visited valley, Haa is the home to Bhutan’s national flower – Blue Poppy. While the flower is in full bloom, the place is flooded with enthusiasts and botanists from around the world.
Apart from the extremely rare blue poppy, Haa is the exclusive home to yellow, white, and red poppies as well. The only time you can catch these celebrated plants in full glory is from mid-June to late July when the monsoon is in full swing.
Food Options in Western Bhutan
With western Bhutan as a major hub of tourism, you will be treated to some delectable food! So, do visit some of the local places to explore the food culture truly. Particularly, Bukhari Restaurant, situated in Paro, serves some of the best food in the valley. The place has a set menu, which often changes to keep things fresh.
Also, Sonam Trophel Restaurant is quite popular thanks to its home-styles Bhutanese cooking, which has been adapted to the “western” tastes. The set lunch consists of a seven-course meal, and you should not miss it.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a mellow place to just chill and contemplate life – then visit Brioche Café. The bakery items are to die for. MUST ORDER – Apple Pie! Thank me later.
Pro Travel Tip: Are you wonder how much will be the cost of Bhutan trip? Check our detailed guide on how to calculate the cost or budget of Bhutan trip?
Where to stay in Western Bhutan
If you’re a form India, Bangladesh, Maldives – you have the luxury to customize your tour as you please. Do spend a night at least at the Gangtey Palace, which has a panache of historical charm. Also, the restaurant has some of the best views!
You should always carry your own water bottle and refill it as many times as you need water. It will not only keep you hydrated always, but you will also help in saving the Himalayas from plastic garbage. Remember, every tiny step counts and your step in this direction can help save the Himalayas too !! 🙂 🙂
Western Bhutan is a stunning and highly known part of the Kingdom. Even though it can still pack a punch and a ton of surprises, this region is definitely going to blow your mind.
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Haa provides the calmness and the centricity that any off-beat vacation will definitely require. Head on out and make memories for a lifetime when you’re here!