Bhutan’s 10 Most Spectacular Sights

Abbey Chase

It may not be a flashy destination, but Bhutan has a reputation that holds a lot of hype for travelers. Identifying as both “The Last Shangri-La” and the happiest country on earth, this tiny Himalayan country tucked between India and Tibet talks a big game but manages to maintain a relatively low profile on the tourism circuit. There’s a lot to love about Bhutan—a strong Buddhist tradition, local foods, wonderful people—but the country’s natural and architectural beauty will leave the strongest impression for most visitors. To inspire you to make the trek, here's a look at 10 of Bhutan’s most spectacular sights. —Abbey Chase

Abbey Chase

Chagri Monastery

WHERE: Thimphu Valley

Bhutan is full of beautiful monasteries and even more spectacular hikes. The short trek up to Chagri Monastery, established in 1620, combines both. Ten miles outside Thimphu, the monastery is an important and active school of the Drupka Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism. On the hour-long hike to the top, you’ll likely encounter groups of novices heading up the mountain or descending to the gushing, crystal blue river below. When you reach the monastery, keep an eye out for the resident sheep.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

Abbey Chase

Buddha Dordenma

WHERE: Thimphu

The best view of the Thimphu Valley can be found at the lookout at the Buddha Dordenma (Kuenselphodrang), standing guard over the southern approach into the capital city. Donations from investors in Hong Kong and Thailand as well as the Sri Lankan government have all contributed to the construction of the 169-foot-high gilded Buddha, officially opened in September 2015 and built to honor the previous king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Inside the Buddha are 125,000 Buddha statuettes, and the 950 acres surrounding the statue have been set aside as a forest conversation, ensuring a 360-degree, unobstructed view.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

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Tashichho Dzong

WHERE: Thimphu

Dzongs are ubiquitous in Bhutan, serving political, administrative and religious functions inside large fortresses. Thick, whitewashed stone walls and surrounding moats make dzongs imposing structures, but bright red-and-gold decorations with wooden accents make these otherwise austere buildings architectural gems. Tashichho Dzong (Chhagchhen Lam) was first built in 1216, rebuilt in 1772 after a fire, and continues to serve as the country’s seat of government, housing the king’s throne and offices, and various minsters’ offices. The building is only open to the public after 5 p.m., after the king and the rest of the government officials have gone home for the day. The current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (K5), lives in a modest house near the dzong; if you’re lucky, you may spot him on his evening walk home.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

Abbey Chase

Lungchutse Monastery, Dochula Pass

WHERE: Dochula Pass

When traveling between Thimphu and Punakha, you’ll cross over Dochula Pass, itself a stunning vista on a clear day with striking views of the Himalayas in the distance. Near the car park are 108 chortens, small stupas honoring the Queen Mother, but stretch your legs with a hike up to Lungchutse Monastery, a 90-minute trek from the parking lot. From here, the view only gets better, with nothing to distract from the scenery but the flapping Buddhist flags and the sounds of monks’ prayers inside.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

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Chimi Lhakhang

WHERE: Punakha Valley

Drukpa Kunley was one of Buddhism’s most colorful characters. Known as the “divine madman,” he incorporated loud singing, sexualized humor, copious drinking, and frequent use of phallic symbols into his religious practice, but is now revered among many Buddhists and is believed to have the power to bless women with fertility. The Chimi Lhakhang monastery is built on the site were Kunley is said to have subdued and trapped a demon, and is now frequented by women hoping to get pregnant. From the front gate, you’ll get a great view of the surrounding valley and the small village of Sopskha nearby, with terraced rice fields stretching as far as the eye can see.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

Abbey Chase

Punakha Valley

In the months leading up to the late autumn rice harvest, the greenery that blankets the Punakha Valley makes it one of the most breathtaking sights in the entire country. The icy blue Mo Chhu River bifurcates the landscape, draped between the Himalayan foothills that enclose the valley. During your stay in Punakha, seemingly every turn will reveal a new viewpoint of the beautiful landscape, whether hiking through the farmland along the river or rafting down the Mo Chhu. For rooms with a view, the floor-to-ceiling windows in every room at Uma by COMO Punakha can't be beat, and the restaurant terrace is equally spectacular.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten

WHERE: Punakha

One of countless Buddhist temples in the country, Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten was built by the Queen Mother over nine years on a hill overlooking the Punakha Valley. The design draws on traditional Bhutanese architectural and artistic styles and features a collection of small stupas surrounding the four-story temple. The hike to the top takes you on a scenic walk through rice fields and after enjoying the temple from outside, head up to the rooftop lookout.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

Punakha Dzong by Chuck Moravec [CC BY 2.0]

Punakha Dzong

WHERE: Punakha

The country’s second-largest dzong can be found at the confluence of the Pho Chhu and the Mo Chhu rivers in the heart of the Punakha-Wangdue valley. According to local legend, the dzong was built in 1637 in accordance with a prophecy from an 8th-century Indian guru and now serves as the winter capital of Bhutan. Surrounded on three sides by the rivers, Punakha Dzong is accessed over a recently rebuilt cantilever bridge and in the spring, huge blooming Jacaranda trees cover the courtyard with purple flowers. The current king of Bhutan was married here in October 2011.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

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Rinpung Dzong

WHERE: Paro

Rinpung Dzong is not Bhutan’s biggest or most elaborate, but at sunset, the ochre and yellow paint lights up and makes for one of the best views of Paro. The best way to see Rinpung Dzong is to hike down into it. Begin on the trail at the edge of the Uma by COMO Paro property and follow the path through the foothills above the town, passing the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a 17th-century watchtower, and several residential areas as you make your way to entrance of the dzong.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide

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Tiger’s Nest

WHERE: Paro Valley

No image of Bhutan is more iconic than the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, clinging to the side of the mountain high in the Himalayas. Otherwise known as Paro Taktsang, the monastery was first built in 1692 on the site where it is said Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tigress, though it was largely destroyed by a fire in 1998 and had to be rebuilt. The hike to the top begins outside Paro and takes 1–2 hours to reach the top, with views of the Tiger’s Nest peeking through the trees and the mist at different points along the trail.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Bhutan Travel Guide