Paro

Your gateway to Bhutan, Paro is a charming small town surrounded by forested valleys and luxury resorts. 

Paro is the major gateway to Bhutan, being the home of the country’s only international airport. The town (calling it a city would be going too far) also boasts Bhutan’s National Museum and one of the country’s most impressive dzongs Bhutan’s dzongs are massive fortified monasteries and Paro’s Rinpung Dzong is a classic example of the bold architecture. As they house  government and religious authorities, you will see public servants moving about the buildings, as well as the monks who live there. Once a year their flag-stoned courtyards become the setting for tsechu festivals in honour of Guru Rinpoche, the patron saint of Bhutan. These colourful festivals featuring spectacular masked dances are a cultural highlight and hugely popular. The spring-time Paro Tsechu is one of the most internationally renowned and hotels and flights fill up fast so booking early is vital.

Although a small town, Paro also has one of the country’s better shopping strips, perfect for picking up a last-minute souvenir.


Surrounding Paro is a picturesque valley swathed in forests and sprinkled with significant Buddhist buildings and luxury resorts. What’s more, there are trailheads for accessing magnificent Himalaya treks. The valley also lays claim to what is arguably Bhutan’s most famous attraction, the gravity-defying Taktshang Monastery, also known as the Tiger's Nest. This beautiful assembly of temples, festooned with prayer flags, clings precariously to a sheer rock face and demands a stiff hike up a mountain from pilgrims and tourists alike.

 

When to go

Paro is a year-round destination but is at its best in autumn and spring. October to November boasts crystal-clear mountain views and cool day-time temperatures. March to May is the time for magnificent rhododendron blooms and the Paro Tsechu, the town's biggest religious festival.

Visa requirements

Visas are not issued outside the country. Instead you will receive a Visa Approval when you book and pay for your trip and the visa will be stamped into your passport when you enter the country. Bhutan doesn't place a limit on the number of visitors; however, it does shun backpacker tourism by charging a minimum daily tariff. The tariff includes all accommodation, food and transport costs, plus a US$65 per day royalty levied by the government to fund development. Currently the tariff is US$250 per person per day for groups of three or more in high season (March-May and September-November) and US$200 per person in low season (December-February and June-August). The surcharge for singles and couples is US$40 and US$30 per person per day. The US$65 royalty is halved after day 8 and removed after day 14. For more information see www.tourism.gov.bt

Money

The Bhutanese ngultrum (Nu) is pegged to the value of the Indian rupee. Ngultrums come in 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 500 and 1000 Nu notes. One ngultrum is made up of 100 chetrums (Ch), and there are coins of 5, 10, 20, 25, 50 Ch and 1 Nu. Rupees are accepted in Bhutan but ngultrums are not accepted in India. Credit cards are accepted in some shops and ATMs can be found in Paro and Thimphu.

Transport

Transport is provided as part of your tour package. Larger groups will have a minibus while couples and singles will enjoy a private vehicle, usually an SUV. Vehicles are late models and well maintained.

Health and safety tips

Beware - the fresh mountain air may come as a shock to the system! Paro is a very safe city though you should always exercise care at night. In any case nightlife options are minimal. Any excursion in Bhutan will involve driving along winding mountain roads, so if you suffer from carsickness bring along your favoured medication. If you are planning to trek in Bhutan you should make sure you are aware of the symptoms and treatment of altitude sickness.

Emergency details

Singapore Embassy :

The nearest embassy is in New Delhi, India (E-6 Chandragupta Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110021; tel: 91(11) 4600 0800; www.mfa.gov.sg/newdelhi).

Police :
All tourists are allocated an official guide who you should ask to assist you in any dealings with the local police in an emergency.

Basic greetings
English Dzongkha
Hello Kuzuzangpola
How are you? Gadabey zhug yoe la?
Fine, thanks Legsom beyra yoe, kadrinche
Goodbye Logzel hong
Excuse-me! (to get attention) Na nyena mey
Thank you Kadrinche
Yes Enn la/Lasola/Tubla
No Men/Mitub
OK Tub
What's your name? Nagi tshen gachimo?
My name is… Ngyigi ming… enn
Nice to meet you Na dang cheychugmi dilu semgayi
Are you on Facebook/Twitter? Na facebookdang twitterna yoega?
Where’s an internet café? Yongdel zhabtog laglen thabsa gatey yoebmo?
Where can I get a taxi? Nagagi lakhor gateyley thobga?
Where is the bus/train station? Numgkhor bus dang rail zhagsa gatey enna?
A one-way/return ticket to… Chogtsig shogzin troesa…
Do you have a room for one/two? Nalu michig/nyi ki khangmig yoega?
When's check out? Namthoen jyo gopmo?
Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar? Nagi ngalu zhakhang/changkhang legsomchig gateyoega sungnangmey
A table for two, please Mi nyiki doenlu chogcheychila
A menu, please Zheythochig zhugeyla
The bill, please Tsibill zhugeyla
Where's the toilet? Chabsang gateylu yoepenna?
Help! Charogchi zheynangmey

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Taktshang Goemba

Taktshang is Bhutan's most renowned and photographed monastery, or goemba, and one of the country’s most important religious sites. Perched on a cliff around a cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated, the 'Tiger's Nest' can only be accessed via a steep trail. There are spectacular viewpoints and a couple of cafeterias on the way, and several chapels to inspect inside the monastery. Allow several hours for the return journey and the visit to the monastery. Horses are available for the part of the uphill journey.

Rinpung Dzong

Dzong is a distinctive type of fortress architecture found in Bhutan. Rinpung Dzong is likely to be the first Dzong visitors to Bhutan will see. Dzong exemplifies traditional Bhutanese architecture and are the headquarters of regional authority, both monastic and secular. Most Dzongs host an annual Buddhist festival, the tsechu, and Paro’s is one of the biggest. Many Dzongs were built as fortresses during Bhutan’s formative years. Rinpung Dzong is a good example, with its massive thick walls and strategic arrow slits. Inside there are separate sections for government and the monks. The central tower in the main courtyard is six storeys high, and contains several chapels and holy statues.

Drukgyel Dzong

Visit the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong as the sun is lowering in the sky. It’s an impressive place in a moody setting. The ominous-looking mountains beyond beckon modern-day trekkers. The dzong sits on a once-important trade trail leading to and from Tibet and long ago experienced skirmishes with invading Tibetan forces. It caught fire in 1951 and although plans for restoration are often mentioned, it remains an atmospheric ruin.

Kyichu Lhakhang

Sublimely serene, Kyichu Lhakhang is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, its Jowo Temple is said to have been built in the 7th century by a Tibetan king. Inside is an ancient statue of Sakyamani Buddha. It’s a timeless place with elderly pilgrims circumambulating the temple murmuring prayers and spinning prayer wheels.

National Museum

The National Museum’s highlights include the ritual objects, sacred cloth paintings (thangkhas) and exquisite statues which play such important roles in this country’s Buddhist culture. The collection also includes a natural history display of stuffed Himalayan animals and stone-age implements from the earliest days of human occupation. While the museum’s permanent home, the Ta Dzong, or watchtower, is undergoing renovations following earthquake damage, a selection of the museum’s collection is on display in a nearby building. The museum is open 9am–4pm November to March and until 5pm April to October.

Shop

Chencho Handicrafts

As well as offering the chance to purchase traditional Bhutanese textiles you can watch them being made at Chencho Handicrafts. Several local women operate the back-strap looms creating intricate and colourful weaves. The owner of the shop is also very knowledgeable and can describe and explain the textiles and their use in traditional garments. A traditional gho (for men) or kira (for women) is great to wear to a tsechu (festival).

Budget $$

Made in Bhutan

Paro’s main street is awash with souvenir shops and Made in Bhutan is one of the best. But many items come from India and Nepal and so are not genuine souvenirs of Bhutan. However, most shops, including Made in Bhutan, will openly tell you which is which. Items on sale here include silver jewellery, Bhutan’s renowned wooden bowls, musical instruments, hand-woven textiles, and statuary and other religious paraphernalia.

Budget $$

Sunday Market

The Sunday Market in Paro is an authentic affair, with mostly vegetables and fruits. Some you will be familiar with, while others, such as fern fronds, red rice and dried yak cheese, will probably be new to you. Snack stalls sell momos (steamed dumplings) accompanied by fiery hot chilli sauce. Local hand-made incense, cooking utensils and even farming implements make for quirky souvenirs. The market is adjacent to Paro’s archery ground and there’s a good chance that there will be a match or practice while you are there. You’ll hear singing and chanting if there’s a competition.

Budget $

Vajrayana Art Gallery

The Vajrayana Art Gallery displays and sells original art by Paro local, Chhime Dorji. His paintings blur the lines between mystical and realistic Buddhist themes, with scriptures, chortens and prayer flags all featuring prominently. Whether you are after something spiritual and moody or colourful and vibrant, you should find a suitable memory of Bhutan here.

Budget $$$

Dine

Bukhari Restaurant

Bukhari is named after a type of traditional wood-fired heater and a hefty one sits centre stage in this circular, capacious yet warm restaurant. Wrap-around windows reveal a forest scene while honey-coloured wood keep things cosy. Bukhari prides itself on using as much local produce as it can while delivering fine International and local cuisine. For dinner, western and Indian favourites are tempting, though the Bhutanese set meal is the quintessential experience here. Soups, salads, sandwiches, pizzas and yak burgers round off the everyday menu.

Budget $$$

Sonam Trophel Restaurant

Sonam's is Paro's most popular 'tourist' restaurant and your guide will need to have booked early to get you in. It's a great place to try some classic Bhutanese dishes, with the chilli factor toned down for those new to the cuisine. International dishes also grace the menu. The fixed-price meal consists of numerous courses and you certainly won't leave hungry.

Budget $$

Taktshang Cafeteria

The Taktshang Cafeteria is a most welcome sight about one hour into your slog up to Taktshang Monastery. Most pilgrims will settle for a cup of tea and some sweet biscuits while taking in the splendid outlook to the Tiger's Nest. Depending on how you time your visit, your guide can organise a full buffet vegetarian lunch here.

Budget $


Tshernoyoen's Café

Outside of the upmarket resorts, the only place you are going to find espresso coffee in Paro is at the friendly Tshernoyoen's Café, near the Town Square. It’s a rather wind-blown and forlorn square, but you will find the café, which is just off the square, a very welcoming place and a great opportunity to mix with locals. They also have filter coffee and a small range of home-made cakes on offer.

Budget $

Yue-Ling Restaurant

Yue-Ling is one of the better ‘tourist' restaurants that guides bring their guests to. It’s friendly, cosy and predictable, providing several courses of International and Bhutanese cuisine. If you are in luck, their excellent momos, small steamed dumplings filled with either meat or vegetables, will have been prepared the day you visit.

Budget $$


Stay

Hotel Gangtey Palace

Gangtey Palace can make a good claim to be Paro’s most atmospheric hotel. Part of the building is over 100 years old and it was built for the governor (Penlop) of Paro. It also hosted the first king of Bhutan when he was in Paro. It looks out across the valley towards the mighty Rinpung Dzong. The biggest (deluxe) rooms are found in the central tower, though all the rooms are delightfully furnished in Bhutanese style. The lack of televisions and phones adds to its charm. The cosy bar is perfect for mingling with other travellers at pre-dinner drinks.

Budget $$

Sonam Trophel Hotel

The Sonam Trophel Hotel is Paro’s best budget choice and owned by the same family that runs the popular tourist restaurant (in a separate building). Like the other budget hotels it resides right in town, so expect some noise. There are just 10 rooms so it isn’t geared for big groups. Instead you get friendly personal service.

Budget $

Tiger Nest Resort

As suggested in the name, views of the famous Taktshang monastery are available from Tiger Nest Resort. Rooms are warm, capacious and squeaky clean with a light touch of Bhutanese decoration. There’s a bar and large dining room boasting a stone fireplace. Outside there’s a huge deck to soak up the sun while taking in the valley view. The resort is about 10 minutes drive north of town.

Budget $$


Uma Paro

The elegant Uma Paro is the city's ideal romantic getaway. Privacy, luxury and traditional chic pervade the stone-and-wood architecture, from the standard rooms to the opulent villas. In between are the recommended valley-view rooms and suites. Asian-theme spa treatments include Ayurvedic massage and Bhutanese hot-stone baths, while the heated indoor swimming pool is a rare and welcome find in Paro. Top all this off with arguably the best restaurant in the valley and you have an excellent accommodation choice.

Budget $$$

Zhiwa Ling Hotel

Zhiwa Ling’s cavernous lobby usually elicits a gasp when guests catch sight of the massive wooden columns and beams, every square inch of which is intricately hand-carved and ornately painted. The concept here is to combine 5-star comforts with traditional architectural design and Zhiwa Ling pulls it off with flair. Rooms are enormous yet comfortable and cosy with under-floor heating and all the mod-cons you could desire. There is a spa, teahouse, multi-cuisine restaurant, and the impressively named Mad Monk Bar.

Budget $$$


Black-Necked Crane Festival

11 November

This delightful community festival is held in the bowl-like Phobjikha Valley and celebrates the arrival of the endangered black-necked cranes which spend winter in the valley. Many of the dances and songs are performed by local school children.


Haa Summer Festival

5 July

Haa is a beautiful valley adjacent to Paro. This festival during the rainy season celebrates traditional Bhutanese life, and showcases cuisine and archery displays. This is also the time when the endemic poppies bloom in the surrounding mountains.


Nomads Festival

22 February

This low-key festival is based in Bumthang and celebrates the culture of Bhutan’s nomadic people that move seasonally from the high alpine pastures. Tourists can sample authentic dishes, dress like a local, watch traditional performances and even ride a yak!


Paro Tsechu

March/April

Travellers, photographers and the curious from around the world join throngs of locals to witness the spectacular masked dances in the courtyards of the monumental Rinpung Dzong. The festival culminates in the unfurling of a giant thondrol portraying Guru Rinpoche.


Punakha Domchoe and Tsechu

March/April

Punakha celebrates two consecutive festivals featuring colourful rituals and vibrant masked dances at its striking dzong which sits at the confluence of two rivers.


Thimphu Tsechu

September/October

Along with the Paro Tsechu the three-day Thimphu Tsechu is hugely popular and attended by thousands of spectators. Colourful and theatrical masked dances are interspersed with folk songs.


Culture

The Paro valley boasts some of Bhutan’s most important and spectacular Buddhist sites in a compact area. A good way to visit Paro’s Rinpung Dzong is by driving up to the National Museum, which overlooks the dzong. The museum is ordinarily housed in the circular Ta Dzong, or watchtower, but owing to earthquake damage, it is currently located in a nearby annex. After visiting the museum, head down to the dzong to explore its secular and monastic quarters. Be sure to inspect the serene and impressive religious statues inside the lhakhangs (temples). Walk down from the dzong to the pretty cantilever bridge over the Paro River. Your driver can collect you from near the bridge and take you into town for meal in Paro town.

Northwest of Paro a road follows the Paro River to Kyichu Lhakhang, an ancient and venerable Buddhist temple, and then on to Taktshang Goemba. Taktshang, the famous Tiger’s Nest monastery, is a cliff-hugging architectural wonder with a fantastical mythology. Buddhist saint Guru Rinpoche apparently arrived here on the back of a flying tigress. Allow several hours for a visit to Taktshang. It’s a tough hike up to the monastery, but well worth it. Horses are available for part of the journey. Further up the valley, the haunting ruins of Drukgyel Dzong, are particularly atmospheric in the late afternoon. Although the road now extends beyond the ruins this point traditionally marks the start of several of Bhutan’s renowned high-altitude treks, including the daunting 25-day Snowman trek.

Places to visit:
National Museum, Kyichu Lhakhang, Taktshang Goemba, Drukgyel Dzong