Phuentsholing's importance arises from the fact that it borders
India, the country that is the one major trading partner of Bhutan. It
is this border that makes the town a lively jumble of Bhutanese and
Indian cultures, peoples and products. Little surprise, therefore, that Phuentsholing is not far from the 1020-megawatt Tala hydroelectric power
plant, the largest single socio-economic development project ever
attempted by Bhutan. Yet, even with the din of commerce, serenity is but
a few minutes drive away. The Amo Chu, a river whose banks are a
favoured picnic spot, creeps nonchalantly by the town while a gardened
monastery sits perched on the hillock of Kharbandi.
Thimphu is one of the smallest capitals yet, almost ironically, also one
of the fastest growing urban centers in the world. No more than a
collection of villages and a centralised dzong before it became the
capital in 1956, Thimphu is now the largest Bhutanese town and
represents the peak of Bhutan's modest economic advancement. Still, it
has no lack of religious and cultural character. It was from this valley
that the sons of Phajo Drugom Zhipo, the founder of the state religion
in Bhutan, spread the Drukpa Kagyu school of Buddhism in Druk Yul; and
numerous monasteries and religious centers still adorn its hills. It
remains the summer residence of the Je Khenpo, the religious head of the
country, and of the Central Monk Body. It was also in Thimphu that a
battle in 1885 allowed the first king, Sir Ugen Wangchuck, to
unify Bhutan and later establish a monarchy. The fourth King, His
Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, today rules Bhutan from the Golden
Throne in Thimphu's Tashichhodzong (the Fortress of the Auspicious
Religion). Life in Thimphu revolves around the town's main street,
Norzin Lam, which is split into two levels and comprises a mix of shops,
hotels and restaurants. Visitors will find Thimphu has many other places
of interest such as the School of Arts and Crafts, the National
Institute of Traditional Medicine, the Handicrafts Emporium and the
Situated at a lower elevation than Thimphu and Paro, Punakha's warmer
climate makes it one of the most fertile valleys in the kingdom and its
vast rice fields stand testimony to that claim.
The township has shifted to a new location a few kilometers
downstream from its original site on a river bank opposite the Punakha
Dzong. The dzong itself, which housed the first National Assembly
(Bhutan's parliament) in 1952, is the winter residence of the Je Khenpo
and the Central Monk Body. It is situated on a spur of land a stone
throw above the confluence of the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers. The dzong
was built in 1632 by one of Bhutan's most important historical figures,
Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, and has played a key role in the civil and
religious life of the Bhutanese ever since.
Legend has it that the Zhabdrung was given Divine directions to
build a fort on a hill that looked like an elephant. He did, and
Wangduephodrang Dzong proved critical in unifying the western, central
and southern districts.
The town that neighbours the dzong today is a cluster of small shops
that include one or two establishment which serve as lunch-stops for
tourists. It is a pretty town whose residents are known to keep it
Trongsa is home to the largest dzong in Bhutan, a dzong that
was the seat of the Trongsa Penlop, Gongsar Jigme Namgyal and of his
son, King Ugen Wangchuk, and the second King, Jigme Wangchuck.
This ancestral seat of Bhutan's Royal Family sits squat on what was
100 years ago the only route connecting eastern and western Bhutan. It
was, to His Majesty the King's ancestors, a pivotal element in the
governance of eastern Bhutan
The original Trongsa Dzong was built by the Zhabdrung in 1648.
Arguably unsurpassed in the serene poetry of its landscape Bumthang
is a photographer's paradise. This broad valley in central Bhutan, which
houses several sacred Buddhist shrines, is split by a clear mountain
river that runs by one of the most picturesque towns in the kingdom.
Perched high on a hill above the town looms the impressive and
appropriately named Jakar Dzong (Fortress of the White Bird) which
sports a central tower rising 150 feet high.
Myth and religious legend abound in Bumthang. A host of tales and
accounts of the revered eighth century Tibetan mystic, Guru Padma
Sambhava, and the great Nyingmapa treasure revealer, Terton Pema Lingpa
(1450-1521), are traced to Bumthang and its satellite valleys. The
Guru's bodily imprints are still visible at the Jampa Lhakhang
(monastery) and the Kurjey Lhakhang, located on a fringe of the Choekhor
Beyond Bumthang lies the equally charming Ura valley, which is the
settlement before the climb up to the country's highest road at
Thrumshingla (12,500 feet) and then further down into eastern Bhutan.
The difficult drive over winding bends and high cliffs before Mongar
makes the town a refreshing stop. The first thing visitors notice is
that, unlike most western and central Bhutanese towns, Mongar sits on
the side of a hill and not in a valley. Much of eastern Bhutan is the
same - the hills are generally steeper and the valleys too narrow for
comfort. The people of eastern Bhutan also speak a different dialect and
their villages are less nucleated.
As if to emphasise its hilly base the small town of Mongar appears to
have sprouted suddenly in one collective heave. The houses, all uniform
in size, are relatively taller than elsewhere and rise into a hill slope
in one straight line.
Trashigang and Tashiyangtse
Beyond Mongar and a 90-kilometre stretch of arid landscape is
Trashigang, a town tucked into a hillside cavity. Minute as it appears
Trashigang is the nerve center of eastern Bhutanese commerce as its
roads stretch one way towards the southern border and the other way into
two interior districts. Another road follows a separate direction
towards the satellite township of Rangjung and then spreads out in
fingers to more rural settlements.
Trashigang's 17th century dzong is built on a cliff further out of
the town and commands a majestic view of the Dangme Chhu river.
Tashiyangtse grew out of Trashigang and achieved separate district
status only recently. Far more sparsely populated than Trashigang,
Yangtse is more an administrative center than a town. Like Mongar, its
dzong was also constructed in recent times.
The place has developed around Chorten Kora, a stupa where Guru Padma
Sambhava is believed to have foreseen the construction of a special
temple and chorten (stupa). Indeed the chorten is one of the only three
in Bhutan built in the style of the Boudnath stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Tashiyangtse is known for its skilled wood craftsmen and for the
Bomdeling National Park where the endangered Black Necked Cranes (Grus
nigricollis) roost each winter.