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Bhutan is a land of Himalayan peaks, colorful festivals, fascinating monasteries and warm, welcoming people. While the practice of Tibetan Buddhism is severely restricted in neighboring Tibet, in Bhutan no such restraints apply, allowing free expression of this unique and magical religion.
A country with a deeply traditional way of life, Bhutan offers visitors unspoiled villages in deep valleys and journeys over high mountain passes.
Tourism in Bhutan has been carefully managed over the years, with the result that where other destinations have seen their traditional cultures to some degree diluted by the demands of high numbers of tourists, Bhutan has held to a belief in showing their country to only a discerning few. While luxury resorts are starting to make an appearance in the Himalayan kingdom, the emphasis on a visit to Bhutan is still about what to see, rather than where to stay.
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A dzong is a type of fortress found throughout Bhutan and southern Tibet, generally placed at strategic defensive locations. With high, sloping whitewashed walls, small windows, usually placed higher up in the building, and massive doors made of wood and iron, the dzong was a region's stronghold and incorporated temples, courtyards, administrative offices and monks quarters. There are a huge number of dzongs to be found throughout Bhutan including at Paro, Punakha, Jakar, Thimpu and Trongsa.
The charming town of Paro sits on the banks of the Paro Chhu (river) in the center of a broad valley - in fact this is the only valley in the country wide enough to allow aircraft to land and so hosts the nation's only airport. The dzong here is one of the finest and most impressive in the country, and was used on numerous occasions to defend the valley from marauding Tibetans. Paro is also home to the National Museum, and is the base for a trip to the famous and much photographed Tiger's Nest Monastery, clinging to a sheer cliff with views far over the surrounding countryside.
The former capital of Bhutan, Punakha is home to arguably the country's most beautiful dzong. Situated strategically at the meeting point of two rivers, this fortress is the second oldest in Bhutan, and is reached by crossing a pretty wooden bridge. Inside the walls are decorated with stunning paintings, and the monks here are known for their friendliness. At only 1350m altitude Punakha is noticeably warmer than many other places in Bhutan, and also wetter during the summer months. The cycling around the valley is excellent and our day ride here includes crossing the longest and highest suspension bridge in the country - exhilarating or terrifying depending on your perspective!
Home to Bhutan's largest dzong, Trongsa is perched above a gorge, with fine mountain views. Many of the townspeople here are of Tibetan descent due to the influx of Tibetans in the late 1950s and 1960s, during which time many people (including the Dalai Lama) fled Chinese persecution. In past times the town occupied a highly strategic position with the only east-west road in the country passing through the actual courtyard of the dzong. An old watchtower, set on a hill behind and above the dzong is home to the excellent Tower of Trongsa Royal Heritage Museum, with a focus on Buddhist art and royal memorabilia. One of the jewels of the collection is a copy of the biography of Guru Rinpoche (the 8th century Indian Buddhist master credited with introducing Buddhism to Tibet) written by his consort, Yeshe Tsogyel.
The area known as Bumthang consists of 4 valleys, the main of which, Chokhor, is usually referred to as Bumthang. The valley contains many fine and significant lhakhang (Buddhism temple or monastery), including Jambey Lhakhang, one of Bhutan's oldest temples. The stunningly scenic valleys of Bumthang are among the most fertile in the country, presenting the visitor with visions of bucolic beauty. Fields of buckwheat, potatoes and rice are punctuated with fruit orchards, dairy farms and medieval looking villages.
The glacial Phobjika valley is home to one of the most important wildlife preserves in Bhutan, being the over-winter dwelling place of the rare black-necked crane. Other wildlife in the surrounding hills includes wild boars, leopards, red foxes, barking deer and Himalayan black bears. At the head of the valleys sits the Gangtey Gompa (monastery), built in the early 17th century, featuring 5 temples surrounding a central tower. On their arrival from Tibet, the black-necked cranes are seen to circle the monastery 3 times, as if performing a kora (circumambulation), and before returning to Tibet at the start of spring the birds once again circle the monastery 3 times before departing the valley.
Bhutan's landscape ranges from a small strip of subtropical plains in the far south to its mountainous border with Tibet to the north, where many peaks exceed 7000m in height (including the highest unclimbed peak in the world). The swift flowing rivers that descend from the mountains form deep, forested valleys in the central highlands, and this is where the majority of the nation's population resides. Well kept, traditional villages, with mountain backdrops provide rare scenes of beauty, sure to impress even the most well-traveled of visitors.
Coolest time: December to February – Hottest Time: April to September
Wettest time: June to September – Driest Time: November to March
Our favourite time:
Temperature in Bhutan is strongly related to altitude. The south of the country is warm year-round with a sub-tropical climate, while further north in the center (the area that we spend the most time in on our tours) winters are dry and cool with warm summers. In the mountainous areas that border Tibet, the high peaks are perpetually covered with snow and in the valleys winters are cold, as is consistent with higher altitudes. The Indian summer monsoon with its heavy rain showers mainly affects the southern lowlands of the country.
When is the best time to visit Bhutan?
The nicest time of year to visit Bhutan is surely in the spring months of March until May, when flowers are blooming and temperatures are comfortable. For our Bike & Hike Bhutan tour, the views will be clearest in October, although temperatures do get a little low. The rainy season from June until August is certainly the low season with the fewest visitors and the greenest surroundings, so it can be an optimal time to visit.
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