Nine places in Bhutan that should be on your itinerary
For Globe Aware volunteers interested in trekking, Buddhist spirituality and more, here are the picks for the best places to visit. Many are included in your Bhutan volunteer vacation itinerary.
9 places in Bhutan that should be on your itinerary
By Katie Lockhart
Jan 3, 2024
Colorful monasteries, snow-capped peaks, peaceful villages lined with chili farms: the beauty of Bhutan is visible around every turn of its hairpin roads.
Internationally famous for its commitment to “Gross National Happiness,” carbon-negative status and eye-popping daily Sustainable Development Fee for visitors, Bhutan has worked hard to protect its unique culture and natural beauty – for good reason. With nearly 70% of the country blanketed in forest, the country is rich in outdoor activities and charming villages that showcase a distinctive culture found nowhere else on Earth.
And while it can take hours via car to reach each destination, the scenic drives (and those terrifying curves) are part of the experience of visiting this truly special place. For those interested in trekking, Buddhist spirituality and more, here are our picks for the best places to add to your Bhutan itinerary.
Best for hitting Bhutan’s highlights
The gateway to Bhutan, Paro International Airport is where travelers careen between steep mountain slopes before their aircraft touches down in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon.” Less than 10 minutes away from the airport, the historic riverside town of Paro is known for the National Museum, Rinpung Dzong fortress and iconic Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery). The town is a place you will – and must – visit in the country.
Wander Paro’s streets and the Paro Weekend Market to peruse shops and stalls offering handmade souvenirs. When you’ve worked up an appetite, stop into any number of restaurants, like Momo Corner, for fresh, handmade momo dumplings.
Planning tip: Due to its airport-side locale, Paro is either the first or last stop on any Bhutan traveler’s itinerary. Whether you’ve just arrived or are wrapping up your trip, hire a car and a guide to take in all historical and religious sights spread throughout Paro Valley.
Best for a bit of city life
Bhutan’s capital city beautifully combines culture with a cosmopolitan vibe. Spend the day creating your own stamps at the Bhutan Postal Museum, touring the massive Thimphu Dzong and watching policemen manually direct traffic (there are no traffic lights in the entire country).
When the sun dips below the mountains, enjoy the nightlife at bars and clubs like Mojo Park and the Grey Area, a popular art bar with live music where you can shout “tashi delek!” (a Tibetan expression for good luck and health) with locals over a bottle or two of Bhutanese ara (a spirit distilled from rice).
Best for experiencing rural life
Beloved for rustic riverside farms where cows graze among rice and chili fields, Punakha is one of the most beautiful places in Bhutan and home to what is arguably its most beautiful dzong (or monastery-fortress), which sits majestically along the Punakha River.
Life in Punakha revolves around its rivers. A short walk from Punakha Dzong, one of the country’s largest suspension bridges is wrapped with fluttering prayer flags. Travelers can also go white-water rafting along the rapids.
Planning tip: Punakha’s low elevation means its temperatures tend to be warmer and sunnier than nearby towns and districts – which means you’ll need fewer layers and more sunscreen.
Best for fashion and textile lovers
Adventurous travelers can expect to peek behind the curtain (or perhaps the shawl) in Bhutan’s textile hub, Khoma. In the eastern district of Lhuentse, this village is home to roughly 100 residents – and zero cars. Khoma’s artisans spend their days weaving ornate patterns and motifs on traditional Bhutanese looms, using dyes made from the area’s minerals and plants.
5. Gangtey Valley
Best for outdoor activities
Drive past the mountainside yaks and into one of Bhutan’s most sacred places. Tranquility and peace emanate from its main attraction, Gangtey Goemba, a 17th-century monastery overlooking the valley’s farmland.
But its Gangtey’s natural beauty that really stands out. Here, you can hike myriad trails, many with relatively flat stretches. Archery, mountain biking, camping, birding and picnics are other pastimes possible throughout the valley.
Planning tip: Naturalists should plan a visit between late October and mid-March to see the famous endangered black-necked cranes that migrate yearly from Tibet.
6. Dochu La
Best for a pit stop
We’ll bet you 100 Bhutanese ngultrum that this scenic rest stop will make an appearance on your Bhutan itinerary. Known as one of the best lookouts in Bhutan, this mountain pass lies on the route from Thimphu to Punakha.
It’s marked with 108 stupas to honor the Royal Bhutanese soldiers who died in the 2003 military battle against Indian insurgents. On the opposite side of the road, you can visit a temple named Druk Wangyal Lhakhang and a restaurant serving coffee, cakes and momos. On a clear day, sparkling views of Himalayan peaks lie beyond.
Best for off-the-beaten-track adventures
An arduous seven-hour ride from Thimphu to Gasa only takes you part of the way to this remote northwestern village. From Gasa, you’ll strap on your hiking boots and trek three to five hours up to the highest village in the country.
And the views of the Himalayan peaks are worth it.
Home to the Indigenous Layap people, this car-free village is filled with yak herders, farmers of cordyceps (a precious mushroom) and others who honor old traditions.
Planning tip: Arrange your trip around the famous Royal Highland Festival in late October, when you’ll witness one of Bhutan’s most culturally unique and significant annual events.
Best for spirituality seekers
This centrally located and mountainous district is also one of the country’s most spiritual. In its four valleys, important sites include Jampey Lhakhang, a historic 7th-century Buddhist temple, and the Jakar Dzong, an auspicious fortress built in 1549. Rest your legs and indulge in some fresh cheese and jams at Bumthang Swiss Cheese, followed by a local beer next door at Red Panda Beer Factory.
Planning tip: Driving to Bumthang takes hours over often treacherous roads. If you’re pressed for time or prone to motion sickness, consider a domestic flight from Paro.
9. Haa Valley
Best for immersing yourself in nature
While there’s no shortage of postcard-worthy vistas in Bhutan, Haa Valley is in a league of its own. Near the China–India border three hours from Paro, you’ll find some of the country’s most spectacular hiking trails, which lead through lush green valleys and monastery-dotted villages.
Covered in alpine forests and jagged mountain peaks, this small section of the country is also one of the most unspoiled. Travelers can take off on the Haa Panoramic Hiking Trail and the multiday Sagala Trek, or simply sit by the Haa River and take in 360-degree views of pristine nature.