Western Bhutan is comprised of the Haa Valley at 8860ft. (recently opened to limited travel), Paro Valley at 7200ft., Thimphu at 7500ft. the Punakha Valley and Wangdue Phodrang at 4200ft. separated by high passes or "La's": Cheli La (3988m, 13,084ft.), Dochu La (3050m, 10,007ft.), Pele La (3300m, 10,825ft., separates Western from Central). Western Bhutan is known for its stunning scenery with rice paddies and orchards cascading down magnificent mountains, the pristine rivers that flow through the main towns of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, and unique two-story houses with brightly painted window designs.
Paro Dzongkhag - A trip to Bhutan normally begins and ends at Paro...and there can be few more charming valleys in the kingdom. As you disembark your Druk Air 'Whisper Jet' and take your first breath of Bhutanese air, you will be struck by the silence and peace of Paro's valley. Willow trees line the main road from the airport, and the Paro River provides a richly watered landscape ideal for rice cultivation. A destination all of its own, Paro is home to the national museum and watchtower to one of the oldest and most celebrated dzongs in all Bhutan.
The town of Paro is small with most of inhabitants living in the beautiful valley that surrounds the town. The valley floor is at its widest in the area nearest to the airport, the town and Paro Dzong. Apart from commanding a slightly elevated strategic point overlooking the longest stretch of the Paro Valley, Paro Dzong is symbolic as the religious and secular center of all affairs of the valley. It is also an architectural wonder, setting the tone for official dzongs throughout the kingdom and inviting the visitor to wonder at the cultural strength of the kingdom's heritage. The dzong itself was conceived in the 15th century and finally consecrated in 1646. Above the dzong is the old watchtower which is now home to Bhutan`s national museum. The museum's collection includes ancient Bhutanese arts and artifacts, weapons and stamps, birds and animals, and an incredible collection of silver tea ware. This is typical of the eclectic beauty of Bhutan - its prized objects bear little relation to each other but as a whole stand together as a history of one of the world's most pristine people.
It is said that Guru Rinpoche (Precious Master), the father of the Bhutanese strain of Mahayana Buddhism, arrived in Paro Valley more than a millennium ago on the back of a legendary tigress. He meditated for three months in a cave where a monastery was later built and called Taktshang Lhakang or Tiger's Nest. Visitors to Paro can take a closer look at the monastery by ascending either on foot or by pony for about three hours to Tiger's Nest. Hikkers can enjoy a well-earned rest at the Taktshang Teahouse situated at a wonderful vantage point of the monastery. On special days in Paro you can get a clear view of Mt. Jhomolhari (7314m-23,996 ft.)
Thimphu Dzongkhag - Thimphu is a small, charming capital city sandwiched in the heart of the Himalayas. It sits in its own valley fanning out from the river. The skyline hardly changes as new buildings are all constructed under zoning regulations. Thimphu's development is strictly monitored and buildings cannot exceed a certain height, nor can they be designed in anything but the traditional Bhutanese style. In fact, Thimphu's first and only traffic light was enshrined in a chorten! (a small Buddhist shrine). Not being suitable to the nature of Thimphu, the traffic light was removed on the King's orders.
Only a sprinkling of cars is ever found along the main street and the capital's population is not immediately visible. But, if you look inside the bank or the shop, you will find Thimphu's people and Bhutan's heart. Dressed in gho or kira (traditional man's robe and woman's dress), Thimphu people go about their work methodically, quietly bringing their nation through the growing pains of development and into its own definition of the modern world. Simtokha Dzong, six kms from the city limits, is the kingdoms oldest dzong which is now used as the Dzongka language school of Bhutan. Bhutan's most stately and arguably most impressive building is Tashicchodzong, on the banks of the Wangchhu (Thimphu River). The home of the National Assembly and the summer residence of the capital's venerated monastic community, Tashicchodzong is a palatial building overlooking the river on the South side and the city of Thimphu from the North. While foreign visitors are only allowed to enter Tashicchodzong during the annual festival (in the early Fall), its presence and its exterior and grounds provide a delightful spectacle. The dzong is the impressive result of a redesign of the original medieval structure sanctioned by the Third King, HM Jigme Dorje Wangchuck, when he moved Bhutan's permanent capital to Thimphu.
One of the most enjoyable ways of passing time in Thimphu is wandering through the town. Full of wonderful restaurants and delighful shops stocked with items from all over Bhutan. Hand woven textiles, woodcarving, tailor made clothing, jewelry. Thimphu's weekend market is another chance to watch the way life goes in the kingdom. Here, every weekend, Thimphu's residents break from whatever it is that they are doing to stock vegetables, a copy of Kuensel (Bhutan's national weekly newspaper) and to exchange the week's gossip. It is a custom as old as the market and one both buyer and seller enjoy. For visitors who can't share in the gossip, a wander through the stalls reveals mountains of bright red chilies, eggplants and okra, asparagus in season and rice of every size. Traditional Bhutanese masks, incense, hand made knives, jewelery are also sold here. It's an incredible experience for the visitor.
Another of Bhutan's loveliest exports is its wide and diverse collection of stamps. These are best seen in commemorative books inside Thimphu's central post office. Other places of interest in Thimphu include the traditional painting school where the age-old styles of Bhutanese painting, including thangka painting, are taught and the Memorial Chorten build in memory of His Majesty, the Third King of Bhutan. The National Library houses a vast collection of books and research documents of Buddhist studies.
Punakha Dzongkhag - The first stop after leaving Thimphu on the journey east is Dochu La (la means pass) at 3050m-10.007ft.. Only a one hour drive from Thimphu, it offers visitors their first glimpse of the Central-Eastern Himalayan range. The best time to reach Dochu La is dawn when the clouds are thin and the rhododendron are in season. Then the early morning sun casts breathtaking light on the distant mountains framed in shades of red from the brilliant flowers. The road to Punakha branches off left and curls its way down the valley to the relative lowlands of the Punakha Valley. The town of Punakha does not hold many attractions apart from the glorious dzong which dominates the valley floor. The Punakha Dzong is considered one of the beautiful in the country. Before Thimphu was made capital of Bhutan, Punakha held the title as the "Winter Capital" because of its more temperate climate. Thimphu's monk body and the Je Khenpo (leader of Bhutan's religious order) still come to Punakha to pass the Winter.
Punakha Dzong was strategically built at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers (chhu means river) by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1637. It has been destroyed by four fires and an earthquake in 1897 and has frequently been devastated by flood water coming from the great northern glaciers. The Dzong has now been fully restored to its original splendor.
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag - Wangdue Phodrang is the first town you enter after crossing the bridge (zam) over Punak Chhu into Central Bhutan although it is considered the last 'western town'. Wangdue Phodrang or Wangdue is probably the cleanest town in Bhutan thanks to the Dzongda (District Administrator), Pem Dorji who single handedly educated and raised the standard of cleanliness for the entire town population. It has a bustling market with well stocked shops (known for shoes) and a pretty views over the valley and river.
Gangtey Gompa, Situated south of the road and east of Wangdue Phodrang, is Gangtey Gompa, an old monastery dating back to the 17th century. The gompa, on the valley floor, is the village of Phobjika. This is the winter home of the famous black-necked cranes. The cranes migrate from the high plains of the Tibetan plateau in winter to the milder climate of Phobjika. The short journey south from the main east-west artery is well worth the detour