There are countless things to see in the world’s last remaining Himalayan kingdom. In Paro, visit Ta Dzong National Museum, filled with art, relics and artifacts; Drukgyel Dzong, an ancient fortress below the snow dome of sacred Jhomolhari; and the Tiger’s Nest, one of the holiest sites in the Buddhist universe. See spectacular mountain views from the top of the Chalela Ridge, and take short hikes to the Dzongdrakha temples and Kila nunnery. From the ridge, descend into the recently opened Haa valley, still almost completely untouched by tourism.
In Thimphu, visit Tashichhodzong, the beautiful medieval fortress monastery which now houses the National Assembly Hall, the monastery of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot), and the Dragon Throne. The Late King’s Memorial Chorten, topped with a golden spire, contains many beautiful works of art. Visit the School of Fine Arts (thangka painting and other traditional arts); the Royal Dance Academy (Buddhist Cham dances); the Folk and Textile Museums, the National Library, which houses ancient Buddhist manuscripts, Changgangkha and Zantog Pelri monasteries and Drubthrob nunnery, Explore a papermaking studio, the handicraft center, Thimphu’s myriad of colorful shops and on weekends, the outdoor market.
Beyond Thimphu, the National Highway leads east, over the 10,000 ft Dochu La pass into the Punakha valley, Bhutan’s ancient capital, where the majestic Dzong is situated at the confluence of two mighty glacial rivers. Here you can hike to the chorten of Khamsum Yuelley above the valley, and the temple of Drukpa Kuenley, the Divine Madman. Beyond is Wangduephodrang Dzong, overlooking the river and the old trade route. At Gangtey, the rare and hauntingly beautiful black-necked cranes return every winter to the remote and lovely valley.
The Pele La pass crosses the Black Mountains and divides western and central Bhutan. East of the pass the road leads to Trongsa, site of Bhutan’s largest Dzong and ancestral home of the royal family. Beyond lie the breathtakingly beautiful Bumthang valleys, the heart of Bhutan, a treasury of temples and monasteries, a living museum of art and history. From Bumthang it takes about two days to reach the eastern border, along wild rocky roads and over Bhutan’s highest road pass to Mongar, and then the eastern center at Trashigang, where few tourists have yet ventured.
Treks bring those willing and able to do them to the most remote and glorious vistas in the kingdom, from verdant valleys and primeval forests to the snows and alpine lakes of the Inner Himalaya, where the only inhabitants are blue sheep, takin, snow leopard and yak herders. This is the home of the rarest Himalayan species of birds, animals and flowers.
There are tours to fit every interest, from textiles to birding, nature and photography, and everywhere there are hikes and excursions to villages, temples and spectacular citadels of natural beauty where visitors can experience a culture and a land which remains the most unspoiled and most beautiful example of the Himalayan Buddhist way of life in existence today. There may be no Shangri La in the modern world, but this is as close as most of us will ever come.