Bhutan and the United States have no formal diplomatic relations.
Straddling the meanders of the Raidak River in its own little crack in the middle of the western Bhutanese Himalaya, Timphu is a curios place. With its ancient temples and monastery complexes it oozes with age-old Buddhist charm, while the recent arrival of motorized traffic and modern business gives it the energy and flair of a new capital. Landmarks abound too, from the 15th-century Changangkha Lhakhang to the grand bronze effigy of Sakyamuni Buddha with its views over the mountains. Also, don’t miss the colossal Trashi Chhoe Dzong, which is now the home of Bhutan’s government.
When it comes to Bhutan’s whitewashed dzong complexes, there are few that can live up to the sheer size and breathtaking beauty of the Trongsa Dzong. Yep, this colossal medley of half-timbered halls and high-perched prayer rooms makes its home on a craggy outcrop above the Mangde River. It was once the ancestral seat of the Wangchuck dynasty, who are now the royal family of Bhutan. And while the mechanics of state have largely moved to Thimphu, this great palace still holds great political and religious importance, and displays a mosaic of gorgeous 15th and 16th-century architecture typical of the region.
Paro sits nestled in the heart of a wide valley at the western end of the Bhutanese Himalaya. A handsome place whose paved roads and neatly-painted, half-timbered cottages belie its modern construction (Paro was largely rebuilt in the 1980s, with all the work adhering to the traditional architecture of the region), it’s home to the whitewashed rises of the great Rinpung Dzong. Part monastery, part fortress, this great citadel of timber-topped walls is one of the finest examples of military-religious architecture in the country. Above it is where travelers will find the National Museum of Bhutan, hidden in an old watchtower on a hill.
Cut straight into the vertical rises of the Bhutanese mountains just north out of the charming town of Paro, the breathtaking rooms of the Taktsang monastery are perhaps the most-photographed and legendary in the entire Himalayas. First constructed in the late 17th century, the site marks the fabled spot where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for three whole years. Today, the revered Guru is hailed as Bhutan’s patron, and the figure who brought Buddhism to the nation. Visitors come and explore this fascinating story between the precariously-perched cloisters and golden-topped prayer rooms of Taktsang: the awesome so-called Tiger’s Nest of the Paro Valley.
Small and sleepy Jakar sits in the midst of the impossibly-beautiful Choekor Valley – an area hailed as Little Switzerland for its sweeping vistas of fir forests and alpine hills. A religious center, and the gateway to the eastern beauties of the Bumthang District, it’s peppered with gorgeous whitewashed monasteries. Atop the town, the great Jakar Dzong keeps watch, representing one of the largest fortified monasteries in the country, while sites like the Kurje Lhakhang below tell stories of the 8th-century Indian master Guru Rinpoche, who helped bring Buddhism to this far-flung corner of the mountains all those centuries ago.
Encompassed by sweeping valleys of rice paddy and agricultural terraces, the onetime capital of Punakha is around three hours by car from Thimphu. Every traveler who makes it here, deep in the heart of the Himalayan range, will instantly be drawn to the huge complex of the Palace of Great Happiness. This is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Bhutan, and the winter residence of their national Buddhist order. Surrounding this are clutches of traditional farmer hamlets, like the enchanting adobe town of Ritsha, which ooze rustic character and come dotted with earthy teahouses touting curries.