Western Bhutan is the most populated part of the country, heartland of the Drukpa people, and the commercial and political centre of the country. If you are not up for a long holiday in Bhutan restricting your visit to the west will still give you a great insight into the country and allow you to visit many of the most important temples and dzongs, and experience the beautiful dramatic landscapes for which Bhutan is renowned.
The Paro - Thimphu - Punakha route is the most popular for visitors but being Bhutan nowhere is ever overwhelmed with people so you won't ever feel that you need to escape the crowds. If you were to stay only in Western Bhutan and wanted to visit somewhere more remote head up to the Haa Valley for an area that is stunning and receives very few visitors.
Flying into Paro is one of the great scenic parts of the Bhutan experience. Before landing on a clear day you will experience incredible views of the Himalayan Range. On landing you'll find yourself in the beautiful Paro Valley, one of the loveliest in Bhutan.
Sitting at an elevation of 2280m Paro and its surrounding area is well worth a day of your time. If you are flying out of Paro at the end of your trip is is possible to transfer straight from the airport to Thimphu and save Paro for the end of the your time in Bhutan. This works particularly well for visiting the Tiger's Nest Monastery as it sits at 3140m and may be too high to ascend to on your first day in Bhutan.
Day Ride to Drukgyel Dzong 34km
A great introduction to cycling in Bhutan as well as a nice way to get used to the altitude is to spend your first full day in Bhutan by doing a day ride to Drukgyel Dzong which is located up the Paro Valley. Drukgyel Dzong is an ancient dzong that was destroyed by fire in 1951. On the return trip to Paro make a stop at a local farmer's house to go in to look around a traditional home and to have a cup of butter milk tea. This is a great opportunity to see what lies behind the walls of the stately looking Bhutanese homes. As this is only a half day ride it would be possible to do this ride in the morning and then transfer to Thimphu in the afternoon.
Day Walk to Tigers Nest Monastery
Probably the non-cycling highlight of Bhutan is a visit to the Tigers Nest Monastery. Even if you want to cycle as much as possible while in Bhutan it is worth making time to walk up to the this amazing place. Taktshang Goemba, as it is known locally, clings to a cliff face 900m above the valley floor below. Quite a part from being a sacred sight in Bhutan it is simply an incredible engineering feat. The basic walk to the temple is a half day outing but you can extend the walk and spend a full day in this area.
Cycle Paro to Thimphu 55km
The ride from Paro to Thimphu is one of the easier town to town rides in Bhutan and very manageable for all levels of cyclist. As the terrain is not over hard Bhutan consider this a 'flat' ride. The ride can be managed in half a day so there is time to sightsee in Thimphu in the afternoon.
Paro Dzong. This is one of Bhutan's most impressive dzongs. A visit can be done in the afternoon on the day that you fly in to Bhutan.
National Museum. This unusual building was a watchtower for the dzong before being converted.
Sunday Market. If you are here on a Sunday it is worth visiting this rustic local market to see the local produce and enjoy meeting the locals.
Archery. Located just next to the market area the archery field is also most active on a Sunday.
The valley of Haa is Bhutan's northern frontier bordering the Tibet. A century ago this region was the centre of the trade route to Tibet. The valley only opened to tourism in 2002 and is still little visited. The valley still exudes rustic charm and the traditional farm houses, farms, and tranquil atmosphere provide a great sense of calm and quiet.
Haa sits at an altitude of 2670m and because the road from Haa to Paro crosses Cheli La Pass at 3810m it is best to leave Haa until the end of you time in Bhutan when you are a bit better acclimatised. It would be ideal to drive from Thimphu or Punakha to Haa, spend at least day visiting the valley and then cycle over Cheli La Pass to Paro.
Cycle Haa to Paro 68km
The 26km ride with nearly 1200m of vertical climbing from Haa to Cheli La Pass is a challenge that will take a good few hours to complete. At the top enjoy a nice picnic lunch and enjoy panoramic views of both the Haa and Paro Valleys. From the pass is long switchback descent of 30km through primeval forests, refreshing pine trees, rhododendrons and alpine foliage.
Day Ride in Haa Valley 15km
A nice easy ride to explore the valley which includes visiting farm houses, market, temples, and a village exploration to see the traditional way of life in the countryside. An optional traditional hot stone bath at a farm house in the afternoon is a lovely way to finish out a relaxing day.
Bhutan's capital, Thimphu is as close as you can get to urban in Bhutan but it is probably best viewed as a large town rather than a city. It is the main place where you can see evidence of the modernisation of Bhutan with fashionable teenagers hanging out on the streets and modern looking hotels contrasting with the imposing dzong and traditionally clad older locals.
It is possible to transfer directly between the airport in Paro and Thimphu so you could make Thimphu the starting or ending point of your time in Bhutan. Unless you wish to explore up the valley there is probably no need to spend more than a night in Thimphu as there are other more impressive towns to stay in.
Day Ride to Dodina 26km
A nice day out from Thimphu is to ride north of the city up the Wang Valley. There are two walks that you can do: a one hour each way walk to Tango Goemba, a temple from the 15th century and important university for monks; the other is a monastery, Cheri Goemba, which lies within Wangchuk National Park and is considered Bhutan's first monastery. It takes about 45 minutes each way for this walk.
Cycle Thimphu to Punakha 63km
This ride features Dochu La Pass (3050m) but it probably the easiest ride that rides to this altitude. The climb out of Thimphu is not steep but at 16km in length it does take some time to ride. On a good day the views of the Himalayan Range are laid out in front of you. After visiting the 108 memorial chorten and maybe hanging a prayer flag it is time for an incredible 40km decent which takes you all the way down to 1200m elevation. You then turn off the main road and head a short way up the valley to Punakha.
Being the capital city there are plenty of sights around town to checkout.
Trashi Choose Dzong. Thimphu's dzong is as imposing as any in Bhutan but as it fits into a larger town it blends in more with the landscape rather than dominating it. As it is a central part of the government's and king's offices it is only open in the evening and on weekends. On a crisp clear evening is a lovely place to wander.
Weekend Market. If you are in town on a weekend make a visit to the market to see every possible product on display - plenty of things that you would never seen before.
The Painting School. If you are interested in art this is the place to go. Students are learning various arts and you can usually see classes in progress. There are several handicraft shops nearby.
Royal Textile Academy. Learn about the various forms and styles of Bhutanese weaving. There is a shop here of high quality pieces.
Punakha & Wangdue Phodrang
Punakha and Wangdue Phodrang (commonly shortened to 'Wangdi') lie 16km apart in the beautiful Punak Tsang River Valley. Amazingly, depsite the mountain scenery that surrounds this area, the valley sits an altitude of only 1200m. It is usually quite warm and humid here. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan for over 300 years.
There is a lot to see in this area and worth spending a few days to explore. Punakha is the preferable place to base yourself but you might consider a night in Wangdue Phodrang to shorten the ride to Gantey. The actual town of Punakha was mostly relocated a few kilometres downstream to the new town of Khuruthang and Wangdi has been mostly relocated upstream to the new town of Bajo. These relocations are government led as the old towns are considered unable to cope with modern day Bhutan.
Day Ride to Punakha Dzong
Phunakha Dzong is arguably the most beautiful in the country. It's position at the confluence of the Mo Chhu (Mother River) and Pho Chhu (Father River), long history, an towering construction make it a must visit destination of Bhutan. Taking a relaxing day to ride to the dzong along a lovely back road route is well worth it as something of a rest day. This ride takes you up the east side of the river along an unsealed road providing fantastic views over to the dzong. A highlight of the ride is the river crossing which takes you over the longest and highest suspension bridge in Bhutan. Watch the short video of the bridge ride. Once at Punakha Dzong you will have plenty of time to explore the dzong before riding back on the sealed road to your hotel.
Day Ride to Tashithang
This ride makes for a nice day ride away from the main sights of Western Bhutan. You ride north of Punakha to Tashithang passing through lush forests which are famous for their rhododendron trees, and an area well known for its birdlife and wild orchids. Return by the same route.
Temple of the Divine Madman
After descending from Dochula on the ride from Thimphu to Punakha you might start to notice something strange in the villages and towns: large penises painted on many of the homes. It is hard to explain the reason behind this to someone who is not Tantric Buddhist but it all relates to a historic character known as the Divine Madman who used songs, humour, and outrageous behaviour to dramatise his teachings to the common man. His sexual exploits are part of his legend. The temple dedicated to the Divine Madman is located between Punakha and Wandue Phodrang and it's a 20 minute walk or mountain bike from the main road to the temple.
Cycle to Gantey 70km
The ride from Punakha (70km) or Wangdue Phodrang (56km) is one of the most dramatic days on a bike possible. Starting from an altitude of around 1300m you will climb up into the mountains reaching 3300m at Lawa La Pass. It is an incredible and challenging experience, but one worth doing to witness the changing scenery and for the satisfaction to climb for over 50km on a bike in a single day. In this part of Bhutan the small amount of traffic that there is reduces considerably and the single lane road, mostly sealed, frequently potholed or reduced to short gravel sections, guides you up up up until eventually, on a clear day, you have fantastic views of Himalayan peaks. Gantey is not located on the main highway so near the end of the day you turn off the highway and take a side road which takes you over Lawa La Pass and then quickly downhill into the sparsely populated valley. The road does get pretty bad near the end which is doubly hard after a long day.