Many travelers to Bhutan stick to a similar circuit: Paro, Thimphu, a hike to the famous Tiger’s Nest. While these places in Western Bhutan are great to include on your itinerary, if you have the luxury of more time, straying a bit further off the beaten path in Bhutan is highly rewarding. Bumthang, in central Bhutan, offers an interesting combination of ancient monasteries, fascinating festivals, beautiful nature, and fewer travelers than Western Bhutan. There are four main valleys in the Bumthang district: Ura, Chumey, Tang and Choekhor. The latter is the largest, and you’ll often hear it referred to as the Bumthang Valley.
Here are a few reasons to consider putting Bumthang on your Bhutan itinerary.
Festivals, locally called tsechu, are held all over Bhutan. These are usually to mark religious events, and feature monks in colourful, elaborate costumes and masks dancing and chanting in the courtyards of their temples. These festivals are unlike anything most Western visitors have ever seen before, so can be a spine-tingling highlight of any trip to Bhutan.
Some of the more popular festivals can get quite crowded, and you’ll need to book your travel and accommodation many months in advance. But, a great thing about Bumthang being less commonly visited is that the festivals get far fewer visitors than those elsewhere. Ura Yakehoe, Jakar, Thangbi Mani, and Jambay Lhakhang hold especially beautiful and important festivals, but there are more elsewhere, too.
Bhutanese festivals are mostly frequented by locals, so as well as watching the fantastic performances, travellers will have almost as much fun meeting the locals, who dress in their best clothes for the joyous occasions.
Bhutanese festivals don’t fall into the category of ‘you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all’. While there are some similarities between them, there are also interesting differences. For example, the Thangbi Mani festival can only be reached on foot, and it includes a fire jumping ceremony. At Ura Yakehoe, a central part of the festival is an ancient Buddhist statue that’s passed from generation to generation.
The dates of festivals change slightly each year because they follow a lunar calendar, which doesn’t align neatly with the Gregorian calendar. But, the 2020 dates are:
Domkhar 3-5 May
Ura 4-8 May
Nimalung 30 June
Tamshing Phala 26-28 September
Thangbi Mani 29 September-2 October
Jakar 23-27 October
Jambay Lhakhang 31 October-3 November
Prakar 1-3 November
Find out more about the different Bhutanese festivals here.
The temples, monasteries and palaces
Bumthang is the cultural and religious heartland of the nation, and contains some of the oldest and most important temples, monasteries, and palaces in the whole country. Sure, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is famous and spectacular, but there are so many religious and historic sites around Bumthang that are worth visting. Here are a few:
Jambey Lhakhang is the oldest temple in Bhutan, built by Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in 659 CE. Legend has it that it was built as part of a chain of 108 temples built at the same time to subdue an evil demoness that was hanging out in the Himalaya at the time.
Ogyen Choeling Palace, Tang Valley, is the former residence of a ruling family descended from a 14th-century Buddhist teacher, but is now an informative museum. You can actually stay here or have lunch in the palace.
Tamzhing Monastery has been nominated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is now on the ‘tentative’ list. It dates from 1501, and has beautiful wall paintings inside. It’s a working monastery with around 95 resident monks.
Other notable temples, monasteries, and palaces in Bumthang include Kurjey Lhakhang, Jakar Dzong, Tongsa Dzong, and Wangduechhoeling Palace.
The Swiss cheese
Say, what!? Yes, the Swiss cheese. It’s Swiss cheese that is the highlight here, because a Swiss cheesemaker was brought to Bhutan by the King of Bhutan more than 50 years ago, to establish a local cheese-making industry. On arrival the cheesemaker, Fritz Maurer, discovered that there was actually no surplus of milk in the area, making cheese production very hard. But, he persisted (a story you can read about in the New Zealand Herald). And it’s a good thing he did, as travellers can now supplement their Bhutanese diet with some tasty Emmental, Gouda, and Gruyere. Continuing the Swiss connection, there’s also the lovely Swiss Guest House in Jakar, which was the first guesthouse for travellers opened in Bumthang, back in 1983. This has got be one of the most bucolic places to stay in Bhutan. Wake up to home made Swiss style mueslI and in the evening enjoy a fondue evening washed down with their own Red Panda beer and some delicious home-made chocolate cake.
The walks through the countryside
Not every visitor to Bhutan wants to embark on the Snowman Trek through the high Himalaya, often called the most difficult trek in the world. If gentle rambles through the countryside are more your thing, Bumthang is an ideal place to do this. Burning Lake (locally called Membartsho) is a beautiful place to walk to: a rickety wooden bridge strung with colourful prayer flags crosses a small river and rocky canyon with little waterfalls. The Chumey Valley is also a good walking destination, with peaceful trails through villages and farmland, passing monasteries and nunneries, with barely another traveller in sight.