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Bhutan - Land of Thunder Dragon

Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, is no ordinary place. This is a country where buying cigarettes is illegal, where the rice is red and where chillies aren't just a seasoning but the entire dish. It's also a deeply Buddhist land, where men wear a tunic to work, where giant protective penises are painted on the walls of most houses, and where Gross National Happiness is deemed more important than Gross National Product.

Bhutan is a small sovereign kingdom in the Eastern Himalayas between the Tibetan autonomous region of China to the north and the Indian states of Assam and West Bengal to the south. Surrounded by high mountains and deep valleys, the altitude ranges from 300 meters in the south to 7,300 meters in the north. The total land area is 47, 000/- sq. km. It lies between Longitude 88 45' and 92 10' East and Latitude 26 40' and 28 15' North.

Bhutan has a rich diversity of flora and fauna. Blessed with unparalleled scenic beauty of majestic snow capped peaks, lush valleys and large tracts of virgin forest, Bhutan is home to numerous rare and endangered species of wildlife such as the blue sheep, musk deer, red panda, snow leopard, black bear, golden langur and the unique Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. The endangered Black Necked Cranes also migrate to Bhutan from Central Asia during the winter. The country has been identified as one of the 10 bio-diversity hot spots in the world and as one of the 221 global endemic bird areas. Its eco-system has some of the most exotic species of the Eastern Himalayas with an estimated 770 species of birds and over 50 species of rhododendron, along with an amazing variety of medicinal plants and orchids.

PARO

Paro Airport, the only airport in Bhutan is located in Paro. This valley is one of the most populated areas in the country. The valley contains a wealth of attractions and requires a few days to be properly explored. The elegant and perfectly symmetrical Rinpung Dzong looks after the religious and secular activities in the valley. Behind Rinpung Dzong, on a high hillside is the castle shaped Ta Dzong - a watch tower built in 1651 to defend Bhutan from Tibetan invasions. This Dzong houses the National Museum since 1967.

Eighteen kilometers from the town is the burnt ruins of Drugyel Dzong (victorious fortress) from where Tibetan invasions were repelled. On a clear day one can get a view of Mount Chhomolhari - the Mountain of Goddess (Alt 24,000ft). Paro is also a paradise for pilgrimages as it is the first stop of Guru Padma Sambhava also known as Guru Rimpoche on his crusade from Tibet to Bhutan in the 8th century. He is believed to have arrived on a back of a tigress and mediated at the Taktsang Monastery, now a hallowed shrine for Bhutanese pilgrims. A terrible fire in 1998 destroyed the medieval wall paintings and all the inner temples. The temple is now under reconstruction.

THIMPHU

Thimphu is perhaps the most unusual capital city in the world. The Tashichho Dzong is the most prominent landmark situated near the Wang Chhu River and it houses the throne room of the King of Bhutan. During the summer months, the monk body led by His Holiness, the Je Khenpo, makes its home in the Dzong.The National Library holds a vast collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts and contains arguably the best collection of religious and historical literature in the Himalayas. Some of the other places of interest are the Thangka Painting School, the Indigenous Hospital, the Memorial Chorten built in memory of the third King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in 1974. The Thimphu town is an exciting place for visitors. The town houses are built in traditional style and the people are friendly and helpful. Bhutan's colorful stamps can be viewed and purchased at the main post office. There are many shops that stock a selection of handicrafts and textiles. Thimphu has changed much over the years but there are still no traffic lights and this will remain long into the 21st century as one of the world's most pristine capital cities. Every Saturday and Sunday most of Thimphu's population and many valley dwellers congregate at the bank of the Wang Chhu river where the weekly markets are held. The fields adjacent to the weekly markets are reserved on weekends for basketball and archery players. Thimphu also has Bhutan's only golf course - a nine hole circuit which is popular with the residents. Thimphu is also an ideal place for day walks. Phajoding Monastery is a three hour walk from Thimphu and the effort is rewarded with a stunning view over the city and a good example of Bhutanese flora. Other day walks can be taken to Cheri Monastery a steep walk away from the capital. One can also walk up to the Telegraph Hill (Sangay gang) which would give the best view of the whole Thimphu both in the day and the night. Five miles from Thimphu stands the Simtokha Dzong on a lofty ridge. Built in 1627, the Simtokha Dzong is not only the oldest fortress but also houses the School of Buddhist Studies.

PUNAKHA

The road from Simtokha winds into pine forests and through small villages for 20 kilometers and then opens miraculously onto the northern ridge of the mountains of the mountains. Dochula Pass at 10,500 feet gives one of the most spectacular views of the Himalayas. Punakha Dzong is home to the Central Monk Body and the Je Khenpo (the spiritual leader) during the winter months. Punakha's climate and warm temperature makes the valley one of the most fertile in Bhutan. Chime Lhakhang located on a hillock among the rice fields is picturesque and is a pilgrimage site for childless couples. The temple is associated with the famous saint Drukpa Kuenlay who has built a chorten on the site. Punakha served as a capital of Bhutan till 1955. In spite of four catastrophic fires and an earthquake that destroyed many historical documents, Punakha Dzong houses sacred artifacts and the embalmed body of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. The Dzong is one of the most spectacular dzongs in the country situated at the confluence of two rivers.

WANGDUE PHODRANG

This is the last town on the highway before entering Central Bhutan. Sitting on the top of a hill the formidable Dzong is the town's most visible features. In the 17th century Wangdue played a critical role in unifying western, central and southern Bhutan. The town itself is little more than an enlarged village with well-provided shops and hotels.

The road from Wangdue to Trongsa is one of the prettiest in Bhutan passing streams, forests and villages before climbing the Pelela Pass on the Black Mountain ranges in to the Trongsa valley. South of the highway is the Gangtey Gompa an old monastery dating from the 17th century. A few kilometers past the Gompa is the village of Phobjikha - one of the winter homes of the Black Necked Cranes who migrate to Bhutan from Central Asia to pass the winters in lower climes.

TRONGSA

This town is located in the center of Bhutan. The Royal Family has strong links with Trongsa. Both the first and the second king ruled the kingdom from Trongsa's ancient Dzong. The Crown Prince of Bhutan normally holds the position of Trongsa Penlop prior to ascending the throne. The secular and religious center, the Dzong is an impregnable fortress and is itself a labyrinth of temples, corridors and offices. The town is the quaintest and the most charming of all Bhutanese towns. The town's vista is traditional in appearance as the wooden slatted houses line up together on the side of the hill.

BUMTHANG The valleys of Trongsa and Bumthang are separated by Yutola Pass (Alt 11,500ft). Bumthang has an individuality that separates it from all other regions. Composed of four smaller valleys, the deeply spiritual region of Bumthang is shrouded in religious legend. Apart from the Dzong at Jakar smaller monasteries are situated all over the valley. Tales of Guru Padma Sambhava dominate these holy shrines. The valley is home to the sacred Jampa and Kurjey monasteries. Bumthang is also the traditional home to the great Buddhist teacher Pema Lingpa to whom, the present monarchy traces it ancestral lineage. The town of Jakar is the largest between Thimphu in the west and Trashigang in the east. Jakar is famous for its honey, cheese, apples and apricots. Bumthang is also famous for yatra which is a unique material woven from coarse sheep wool, intricately designed and colored to form breathtaking patterns. Bumthang Tsechu (festival) along with the Paro and Thimphu Tsechu are the most popular festivals in Bhutan.

Mongar like Trashigang further east, is built on the side of a hill because valleys in Eastern Bhutan are too narrow for towns to develop on the valley floor. Mongar Dzong is modern compared to other Dzongs in the kingdom. Lhuentse is 77 kilometers from Mongar and is one of the most isolated districts in Bhutan. The landscape is spectacular with stark cliffs and gorgeous and dense coniferous forests. The region is notably famous for its weavers and special textiles and fabrics, generally considered to be the best in the country. The Kurtoe region of Lhuentse is also the ancestral home of the Royal dynasty.

TRASHIGANG AND YANGTSE

The town of Trashigang is high up on a mountain. The town remains the center of religious and secular activity in the east and is a growing commercial center. The 17th century Dzong is built on the top of a cliff on the edge of town. Trashigang is also used as the market place of the nomadic people of Merak and Sakteng who are known for their exceptionally sharp features and for their costumes which are brightly colored and different from customary Bhutanese clothing. Yangtse formerly a sub-division of Trashigang, is one of the newest districts. Yangtse offers exciting trekking opportunities and is one of the two locations where the elusive Black Necked Cranes can be spotted. Yangtse is also famous for the Chorten Kora, which is one of the only two chortens built in the typical Nepalese style as prophesied by Guru Rinpoche. Yangtse is also home to the traditional Bhutanese woodcrafts.

THE SOUTH EAST & SOUTH WEST The road from Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar was completed in the early 1960s and enables the eastern half of the country to access the benefit from the trade in the south as well as providing a border crossing to India. It is possible to exit Bhutan and drive from Samdrup Jongkhar to Phuentsholing via the Indian territories of Assam and West Bengal.The journey from Trashigang passes through Kanglung, a small hamlet where Bhutan's only college, Sherubtse or Peak of Knowledge is located. Further south along the road is Khaling where one can visit a weaving center and a school for the blind. Pemagatshel is an independent district with its own dzong. The road descends fairly abruptly through thick jungle before arriving at Samdrup Jongkhar. This town is small and bustling and acts as a commercial hub and entry and exit point in the southeast. Phuentsholing is the southwest is a border town and can be used as an exit point from Bhutan.