Whether you arrive by air at the dramatic, mountain-bound Paro valley or by road at steamy Phuentsholing, it soon becomes clear that you have arrived at a special destination. Prayer flags flutter from nearly every rooftop, men and women dress in traditional garb, chortens and stupas decorate river and road junctions, and fortress-like monasteries command the mountain tops.
The charming town of Paro lies on the banks of the Paro (or Pa) Chhu, just a short distance northwest of the imposing Paro Dzong. The main street, only built in 1985, is lined with colourfully painted wooden shop fronts and restaurants, though these appear under threat as the town grows and multistorey concrete buildings continue to propagate.
The wild east of Bhutan sees far fewer tourists than the western regions, which is one reason why we like it. Food and accommodation can be simpler here than in the west but in return hardy visitors will be rewarded with group-free dzongs and temples, beautiful silks and embroidery, and lush, bird-filled forests.
The Bumthang region encompasses four major valleys: Chokhor, Tang, Ura and Chhume. Because the dzongs and the most important temples are in the large Chokhor valley, it is commonly referred to as the Bumthang valley. There are two versions of the origin of the name Bumthang.
Near the foot of the Chokhor valley, Jakar (Chamkhar) is the major trading centre of the region. This will probably be your base for several days as you visit the surrounding valleys. Jakar itself is a bustling two-street town and well worth a wander, though most of the shopfronts are new, rebuilt after three fires destroyed much of the town in 2010.
The small, sweltering border town of Phuentsholing sits opposite the much larger Indian bazaar town of Jaigaon, separated by a flimsy fence and the much-photographed Bhutan Gate. It's a congested, noisy settlement bustling with hordes of traders, security personnel and migrant riff-raff.
Upper Paro Valley
The Paro valley extends west all the way to the peaks on the Tibetan border, though the road only goes as far as Sharna Zampa, near Drukgyel Dzong, about 20km beyond Paro. En route it passes half a dozen resorts, lovely rural scenery and some of Bhutan's most famous sights.
Trashigang (Auspicious Mountain) is one of Bhutan's more interesting towns and a good base for excursions to Trashi Yangtse, Khaling, Radi, Phongme and elsewhere in eastern Bhutan. The picturesque town is at the foot of a steep wooded valley with the tiny Mithidang Chhu channelled through it. Trashigang's focal point is a tiny plaza that becomes crammed with parked cars.
The Mongar district is the northern portion of the ancient region of Khyeng. Shongar Dzong, Mongar's original dzong, is in ruins, and the new dzong in Mongar town is not as architecturally spectacular or historically significant as others in the region. Drametse Goemba, in the eastern part of the district, is an important Nyingma monastery, perched high above the valley.
Wangdue Phodrang Dzongkhag
The scenic dzongkhag (administrative district) of Wangdue Phodrang is centred on the once magnificent dzong of that name and stretches all the way to the Pele La and Phobjikha valley. South of Wangdi, as it is known locally, towards the southern region of Tsirang, is the giant Indian-financed Punatsangchuu hydroelectric project.