Haa is a side trip from Paro. Unlike all of the other of the destinations described below it is not on the road that connects Paro with Central and Eastern Bhutan.
Haa is Bhutan's smallest district, and one of the least visited. There are about sixty valleys here, and many of them are connected with walking trails and surrounded by soaring pine-covered mountains. This is a place to enjoy spectacular scenery, tidy villages, monasteries, and authentic culture that is unburdened with urban distractions. If you do not have time to travel as far as Bumthang yet want to experience sleepy and spectacular Himalayan valleys, Haa is an easy option.
The British stocked streams in Kashmir with Scottish brown trout beginning in 1868. By 1940 trout had been stocked in waterways of Darjeeling. Raja Sonam Tobgay Dorji, the great-great grandfather of the present King, lived in Haa and sent porters on foot to carry two clay pots of fingerlings, crossing mountain passes and rivers where no roads existed. If you enjoy fishing you can get a permit to catch trout in Haa. And if you are not, you might still find it on the dinner menu.
Haa is not a practical day trip from Paro. Although you can go just for one night, a two- or three-night stay there is better. You may not want to leave.
Thimpu is the world's most compact capital city, and the only one without traffic lights. (Stop lights were tried, but not well received by drivers who preferred uniformed police directing traffic by hand).
There is quite a lot to see here, including Paro Dzong. There is a charming downtown with shops and restaurants. You will have plenty of good Bhutanese food during your time with us, so you may want to sample Thimpu's pizza, burgers, Italian and Chinese food. Normally we arrange a dinner at the Folk Heritage Museum, which serves home-style dishes in abundance.
Among the things you will see in Thimpu are the King's Memorial Chorten, the main post office (Bhutanese stamps make great souvenirs and gifts), one or more museums, one of the government-owned schools that teach traditional handicrafts. If you like, we can also take you to see the national animal, the Takin, or visit the national botanical garden.
Presiding over everything is arguably the largest seated Buddha statue in the world on a hillside overlooking the city. Drive up to the statue you might even get a glimpse of someone from the Royal Family out for an afternoon run. The site of the statue is surrounded by the "Happiness Garden," where we will plant a tree in your name. You will be kept up to date about the progress of your tree once or twice a year by email.
There are so many things to see here that we can easily keep you busy for two days.
These adjacent valleys are east of Thimpu beyond the spectacular Dochu La (a "La" is a pass), where you make a tea stop. When it is clear you will be presented with a view of snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see. Punakha has one of Bhutan's most visited dzongs. There is also an unusual shrine to a "divine madman" who was legendary for his romantic prowess. Many of the homes along the way are painted with large penises, which are thought to attract both fertility and wealth.
To reach the Phobjikha Valley from Punakha you pass through a dense forest and cross the most scenic mountain pass in Bhutan, Dochu La.
Phobjikha is the winter home of the black-necked crane and the golden-domed Ganteay Gompa (monastery). Early each winter, right on cue, the cranes arrive, circle the glistening dome three times, then set down in the valley for the winter. Just about everyone here has solar panels on their homes since residents are fearful that power lines might be dangerous to the birds.
You will visit Ganteay Gompa first. The temple and monastery are privately-sponsored. If the sanctuary of the temple is closed you will still find the architecture quite interesting. Later, you can visit a small museum dedicated to the cranes. Telescopes are set up there for you to watch the birds in the valley below.
An interesting addition to your itinerary is a local workshop that makes hand-woven carpets. If you want to add a two-night trek to your itinerary, Phobjikha is a good place to start.
In Paro, Thimpu and Punakha you will have seen rivers. As you descend into the Phobjikha Valley you will begin to realize how much water comes from the mountains that surround you. You will see quite a few waterfalls along the road, although these may be frozen if you are visiting in winter. Almost all of this water finds its way into tributaries to massive, gushing rivers that produce electricity that powers large parts of Northeastern India.
This little fairytale town was once Bhutan's capital and is home to perhaps the most spectacular of Bhutan's Dzongs.
Two small museums showcase the history of the town and the kings who lived here. Two or three quaint, narrow streets are lined with charming shops. The town, which literally clings precariously to the steep mountain-side, is full of funky shops and rickety buildings. This is a great place to stretch your legs.
The main attraction here is the Dzong, which many consider the most magnificent in the Kingdom. Since Trongsa was once the capital of what is now Bhutan there are two museums that celebrate the legacy of the royal family and the founding of the Kingdom.
Far below at the foot of the mountain is a fresh market. If you have a chance to see only one market in Bhutan, this could be one of the most interesting.
Technically a region, Bumthang is made up of several idyllic valleys surrounded by forested mountains. This is the center of Bhutan. Fruit trees abound, and farmers here grow buckwheat as a staple, since rice cannot be grown at this altitude. Your breakfasts here will certainly include buckwheat pancakes.
Bumthang probably embodies Bhutan's traditions and values more than any other single place. It is pristine and natural, full of religious and historic sites, laid-back, and a great place for foodies. How much you can see depends on how much time you have. In addition to Jakar town (which is home to a cheese factory and the bottling facility for a honey bee collective), the "Flaming Lake" and Ura Valley are worth visiting. Closer to Jakar are several temples in addition to Jakar Dzong, which are connected to a chain link bridge crossing a gushing river.
Bumthang has a small airport below Jakar Dzong, connecting it by air with Paro daily most of the year. Flying one way makes it easier for visitors with less time to travel more deeply into the center of Bhutan because you can return to Paro by air, thus avoiding an overnight road trip
You will probably remember your drive from Bumthang to Mongar as one of the most spectacular of your visit to Bhutan. As you venture into Eastern Bhutan you will see rugged peaks, spectacular forested vistas, and gushing waterfalls. During April through June you will see some of the 46 species of rhododendron in bloom. Along the way you cross Trumshing La. At 3,800 meters (nearly 12,500 feet--or 2.36 miles) this is the highest pass that can be crossed by car in Bhutan.
Mongar is a quaint little town that is home to about 2,500 people. Tidy streets are lined with painted stone and wooden buildings. Like many towns in Bhutan there is a clock tower in the center, with a prayer wheel below it. If you are about ready for pizza, donuts or apple pie, you can find them in Mongar. You will pass the 16th century Yakgang (temple) on the way into town.
Although not in our suggested itineraries, Lhuntse is an interesting overnight side trip from Mongar. This one of Bhutan's most isolated districts, the ancestral home of Bhutan's Kings, and a destination for many religious pilgrims. Lhuntse's weavers are considered the best in Bhutan, and produce elaborate silk textiles of very fine quality. The village of Koma, about an hour's walk from Lhuntse Dzong, produces the finest of these textiles.
From Mongar to Trashigang you cross Kori La (pass) and descent 1,630-meters through a pretty valley with charming homes and an old monastery. As you approach Trashigang, the dzong comes into view high atop the hills along the Kulong and Gamri rivers. Trashigang is a mellow hamlet surrounded by idyllic scenery, with many attractively painted buildings, small shops, and cafes. The town was once an important center for trade with Tibet. During your visit you may see nomadic Sakteng and Merak people, who easily stand out due to their unusual garments.
Trashiyangtse is about an hour and 45 minutes away. It is far more ethnically and culturally diverse than Trashigang, and home to a 9th century dzong--one of the oldest in Bhutan. You will visit the Chhorten Kora, a massive stupa similar to the Bodhnath in Kathmandu. About one hour's walk away is Bomdelling, Bhutan's other winter home for black-necked cranes. The surrounding wildlife sanctuary is home to many endangered species, including tigers, leopards, barking deer and red pandas.
Weaving and carved wood are specialties of Trashiyanagtse artisans. You can visit a government-sponsored handicraft training center is worth visiting to see some of the thirteen different hand-made products being produced and sold. Wooden bowls made here are considered the best you can find.
Trashiyangtse to Somdrop Jankhar is an easy drive down to the foothills of the Himalayas. Along the way you will make several stops and have a chance to see some of this bustling border town. You spend the night here before you are delivered to the border crossing into India. We can arrange a car and driver to meet you there and take you to Guwahati, which has convenient flights to Delhi. It is worth spending the night and having a look around if you have time.
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