At an elevation of 2,250m (7,382ft), Paro Valley is the entry point for most journeys through the Kingdom. Paro Valley has a number of monasteries and monuments but none as dramatic as the 8th century Taktsang, or ‘Tiger’s Nest’. A highly revered monastery built on a sheer cliff face at a height of 2,950m (9,678ft), it is widely visible from the valley floor.
From Amankora Paro, a return hike to Tiger’s Nest is four hours in duration. While the hike up is challenging, horses, mules and donkeys are usually on hand to ease the journey. In an excursion to the town of Paro itself, the National Museum, previously the watchtower of the valley, displays an intriguing collection of artefacts that illustrate the rich culture and heritage of the Kingdom. A short stroll away is the dominating Paro Dzong, a prime example of Bhutanese architecture. From the dzong, a leisurely walk back into town crosses over one of Bhutan’s traditional cantilevered bridges and continues on to the 15th century Dumtse Lhakhang town temple with its altar and beautiful wall paintings.
Just on the outskirts of Paro town lie the twin temples of 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the first Buddhist temples built in the country. Paro Valley is also the starting point for many of Bhutan’s treks that range from the short four-day Druk Path crossing the mountains between Paro and Thimphu, to the challenging 21 - 42 day Snowman’s Trek that is often considered the world’s most difficult.
At an elevation of 1,300m (4,265ft), Punakha is one of the lowest lying valleys in the Kingdom. With its temperate climate, this valley is the market garden of the country, where produce grows year round and many Bhutanese reside during the colder winter months. One of the highlights of Punakha, Bhutan’s winter capital for 300 years until Thimphu became the official capital in the 1950s, is visiting the Punakha Dzong, which straddles the confluence of the Mother (Mo) and Father (Pho) rivers like an ancient ship stranded by the tide. Twenty-one temples are contained within the area of the dzong’s third courtyard, the largest of which is the monks’ hundred-pillared Great Assembly Hall. Beyond the pre-eminence of the dzong, the Chimi Lhakhang built late in the 15th century is a must see to take in the history of this auspicious worship house and its ritual phalluses.
Closer to the lodge, a beautiful morning hike takes one to the regal Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten which dominates the upper Punakha Valley with views across the Mo Chhu and up towards the mountainous peaks of Gasa and beyond.
A two-hour drive from Paro, Thimphu lies in a steep valley at an altitude of 2,350m (7,709ft), surrounded by richly forested mountains dotted with ancient monasteries and lhakhangs (temples). The town is built up from the Thimphu Chhu (river) and is centred by the quaint Clock Tower and its surrounding lanes of shops, vegetable and meat markets, and assorted local restaurants. As Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu is home to many attractions and activities, including the National Textile Museum, Folk Heritage Museum and the bustling Changlingmethang Market. It also houses the seat of government and the office of His Majesty, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in the majestic Tashichoe Dzong.
Nearby, one can visit Pangri Zampa, two 16th century buildings that now house a monastic astrologer training school. At the head of the valley, a walk across one of the country’s oldest cantilever bridges leads to Cheri Goemba where the Kingdom’s first monk community was based. Thimphu’s main street provides an opportunity to shop for Himalayan jewellery and Bhutanese handicrafts and textiles.
A stay in the Phobjikha Valley with an elevation of 3,000m (9,842ft) always begins with a causal stroll through the quaint Gangtey village, before visiting the ancient altars and ramparts of the massive Gangtey Goemba. Should the Gangtey Tulku be in residence then an audience for a highly revered blessing may be arranged. The Phobjikha Valley is part of the Black Mountains National Park, one of Bhutan’s most important wildlife sanctuaries. Each winter it is home to a flock of 300 rare and endangered black-necked cranes which arrive from Tibet.
Numerous nature walks and treks are offered throughout the valley’s varied terrain and, in winter, the reclusive black-necked cranes can be seen from the nearby Crane Centre or a viewing hide set near their main nesting and feeding grounds.
The Choekhor Valley at 2,580m (8,464ft) is covered with fields of buckwheat, millet and potato, with apple orchards climbing up the slopes to mix with the deep pine forest. Across the valley lie many of the Kingdom’s most auspicious and highly revered houses of worship and ancient monasteries, many decorated with still vibrant ancient wall paintings and richly adorned altars, all with colourful, mystical histories. The valley is known for its cottage industries which produce the highly sought after Bumthang butter, Gouda and Emmenthal cheese, honey and a variety of intriguing fruit spirits and brandies.
Amankora Bumthang’s neighbouring Wangdichholing Palace was built in 1857 as the Kingdom’s first palace and is now the residence of a small monk body that also shares residence in an adjacent Goemba all overlooking five square chortens (Buddhist reliquary monuments) housing water-driven prayer wheels.