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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Top 10 things to do in Bumthang, Bhutan

Bumthang is often referred to as the ‘Switzerland of the East’. Its wide open valleys, its snow capped mountains, its green country side, its fast flowing mountain streams and its easy paced life all give it’s a Swiss like look and feel. But, this ‘Switzerland of the East’ has more to offer through its beautiful temples and monasteries that offer a rich spiritual experience. Typically, most tourists to Bhutan visit Paro and Thimphu and if time permits they make their way to Bumthang, but if you ask me, you should definitely put Bumthang way up in your Bhutan holiday itinerary. I stayed here for 8 days on my recent backpacking trip to Bhutan and the below top 10 things to do are based on this experience of exploring different areas of Bumthang.

Kuje Lakhang
The very old and very beautiful Kurje Lakhang of Bhutan
Built in the 8th century and associated with Guru Rinpoche, this is one of the special temples of Bhutan along with Kyichu Lakhang of Paro. This beautiful temple is located by a mountain river and can be seen from the Tamshing monastery. The three temples in the Kuje complex are dedicated to the three kings of Bhutan. Facing the temples, the first one on the right is the oldest and contains the rock with Guru Rinpoche’s body imprint. The second temple was built by Ugyen Wangchuck and houses a huge image of Guru Rinpoche. The third temple is built in traditional style and blends wonderfully with the older buildings.

Jamey Lakhang
Street hawker selling her wares in front of Jampey Lakhang, Bumthang
Revered as one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, the Jamey Lakhang dates back to the 7th century. This is the place where all the famous festivals of Central Bhutan are held. It is believed that King Songtsengampo built this temple on the knees of a demoness who was occupying Tibet and threatening Buddhism.

Chumey Valley
Yatra wool being woven at Chume Valley, Bumthang, Bhutan
This is the place of the famous yatra wool of Bhutan. Today, a lot of residents of Chume Valley have become very rich due to rich cultivation of potatoes, but the place got its name first from yatra wool, which is made from the sheep living in this region. The women of Chumey dye this wool and make a lot of interesting wool products that include sweaters, blankets, bags, scarves and much more. As a tourist, one can visit some of these small scale yatra factories, see the women weaving the yarn and also buy some of the finished work products. 

Tamshing Monastery
Colourful mural inside Tamshing Monastery, Bhutan
Located across the river from Kuje Lakhang, the lovely Tamshing Monastery was built between 1501 and 1505 by Pemalingpa, the great Bhutanese Nyingmapa Lama. This private monastery contains some of the most remarkable paintings of this period in the Himalayas. Restored in the mid 20th century, this shrine is dedicated to Guru Rinpoche and his eight manifestations. When you are here, ask to see the steel mesh coast forged by Pemalingpa. It is believed that if you carry it thrice around the shrine, your sins will be washed away.

Mebar Tso
Mountain stream enroute to Mebar Tsho, Central Bhutan
Mebar Tso or Burning Lake is a holy site and pilgrimage place for the people of Bhutan. This place got a lot of negative publicity due to many tourists losing their lives here. Hence, extra caution is advised while visiting this place. This lake that is more of a gorge gets its name from a famous episode of Pemalingpa’s life. If you are not a pilgrim, the place as such does not hold a lot of spiritual importance, but the nature here is very beautiful with green countryside and a fast flowing mountain river. It takes about 40 minutes to get here from Bumthang area.

Relaxation amidst Fruit Orchards
The entire region of Bumthang is famous for its fruit orchards. Apples, pears, apricots, walnuts and more can be found here in plenty. If relaxation is on your agenda, then basking in the morning sun, reading a book with a hot cup of tea amidst fruit orchards would be an excellent idea.There are many homestays in Bumthang area that offer this experience. Personally, I indulged in this at the Swiss Guest House that is full of apple and pear trees.

Jakar Dzong
Jakar Dzong -tucked amidst pine trees
The Jakar Dzong or the fortress of the white bird was founded in 1549 by the Drukpa lam Ngagi Wangchuck. It sits on top of a hill that overlooks the Choekar town and its location offers a wide open view of the Bumthang valley. The headquarters of the Bumthang district is established here, but there are no resident monks here. This dzong can be seen from almost anywhere in the Choekar town.

Lamey Gompa
Colourful windows of Lamey Gompa, Bumthang, Bhutan
Formerly a royal monastery, but currently a forestry office, this gompa built in the 19th century cgan be visited by walk from the Choekar town. This walk provides lovely views of the Jakar Dzong and the Bumthang valley. If you are adventurous and feel like hiking, you can continue from the Lamey Gompa to Tharpaling monastery via the old Kiki La pass. A lot of local Bumthang people perform this hike on festival days to tie a prayer flag at Kiki La. Apparently, this brings in good fortune.

Kunzangdra Monastery
Kuje Lhakhang, one of Bumthang's famous temples
On the other side of the Bumthang valley and towards the Tang area, which is an agricultural region specializing in sheep rearing lies the Kunzangdra Monastery at a height of 11,000 feet. This monastery was founded by Pemalingpa in 1488 and lies opposite one of Guru Rinpoche’s meditation spots. If you are daring and have the services of a guide, you can hike from Kunzangdra monastery to Pemaling Gompa and down to the Swiss Farm to complete this trail.

Ura Valley
Line of chortens at Kurje Lakhang temple, Bumthang
The Ura valley is known for its spectacular scenery. It is on the way to the Ura valley that one can see the huge white Gangkar Punsum (23,750 feet), the highest peak in Bhutan. And in addition, there are a lot of mountain scenery to be seen before you descend into the valley that is characterized by broad sweeping slopes, clement pastures and wide fields. At the bottom is a large village with clusters of big houses linked by little alleys paved with stone slabs, a rare sight in Bhutan.

How to get to Bumthang: There are two options to get to Bumthang. One is by road from Thimphu via Wangdi Phodrang and Trongsa an d the second by air from Paro to Bumthang. Tashi air has regular flights to Bumthang from Paro. And there are regular buses that ply between Thimphu and Bumthang every day. One can also hire a luxury tour bus, SUV or car to go on this mountainous road journey. Typical road commute time to Bumthang from Thimphu is 8 to 12 hours depending on vehicle type.

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