In the Eastern Himalayas of South Asia between Tibet and several states in eastern and northeast India, is the Kingdom of Bhutan. This small country is still largely unknown to most Westerners, but Bhutan is one of the most enriching and culturally unique nations on Earth. It has no history of colonization, and therefore built a national identity without influences from foreign invaders. Bhutan’s national identity is centered around Buddhism, which can be explored throughout the country, and especially at the monasteries you must visit in western Bhutan.
Buddhism first arrived in Bhutan in the 7th century, when a Tibetan king extended the Tibetan empire south into the Indian state of Sikkim and the minor fiefdoms that would later become unified under the Kingdom of Bhutan. After their unification under a Tibetan lama and military leader named Ngawang Namgyal in the early 17th century, many of the nation’s most notable monasteries were built. These are the 6 monasteries you must visit in Western Bhutan.
Chimi Lhakhang Monastery
If you take a roughly fifty-minute car ride south from the ancient capital city of Punakha, you’ll come across a village called Sipsikha, also spelled Sopsokha. This village is quite unique, as visitors will find that cartoonish phalluses have been painted on nearly every structure in town. They are believed to be fertility symbols and are thought to deter evil spirits.
Across the village (you’ll have to walk a path between rice paddy fields) is Chimi Lhakhang Monastery. Nearby, an eccentric Buddhist master known as the Divine Madman is said to have used his penis to defeat two demons who had arrived in town.
The monastery is home to a large prayer wheel, as well as 108 smaller wheels. Here, you may get to witness young children training to become monks. A child becoming a monk is entirely up to the parents’ wishes. Any child whose parents choose this for them will be a monk for the rest of their life!
When you arrive, you may hear music playing. Be quiet and respectful, as prayers may also be in session. Remove your shoes as well and remember that no video or photography is allowed inside the shrine or holy areas of the monastery. Even though you can’t take photos, there’s no denying it’s among the monasteries you must visit in western Bhutan.
Changangkha Lhakhang Monastery
If you’re visiting the city of Thimphu and are in at least moderately good shape, you may want to pay a visit to Changangkha Lhakhang Monastery. The 12th-century monastery is located on a ridge high above the city and can be reached by following a narrow bike and trekking path through Kuenselphodrang Nature Park. The incline is gradual, but be careful, as there are sheer drops on the right side of the path.
The roughly 90-minute hike will take you through the forest and past a picnic area numerous prayer flags. Built by a Tibetan man named Lama Phajo Drukgom Shigpo, Changangkha Lhakhang Monastery is where parents bring their newborns to get named. Family names don’t really exist in Bhutan, so names come from the monks in the monastery. There, children also get blessings from a god of protection named Tamdrin.
Inside the monastery, you’ll find gorgeous murals and a shrine in the central courtyard. This courtyard is dedicated to a mermaid-like spirit called a tshomen. While you’re at the monastery, you should take the time to meet with the resident astrologer, who will use divination charts to recommend certain prayer flags for you after you tell him your birthdate. It was a fun and interesting experience that makes Changangkha Lhakhang Monastery one of my favorite monasteries you must visit in western Bhutan!
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Kahmsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten Monastery
A much shorter hike to a monastery can be found in the city of Punakha. There, you can take a roughly 40-minute hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal chorten. The mother of the current king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, built the monastery to protect the kingdom and spread peace and harmony throughout the world.
Though the hike is relatively short, I still suggest being in moderately good shape if you’d like to attempt it. After you cross the suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River, you’ll continue past rice paddies and chili fields, and even a spring and a prayer wheel.
The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal chorten is a gorgeous structure with breathtaking architecture. You can also find colorful paintings on its walls, as well as statues of deities on each floor inside. Unfortunately, taking photos or video of them is strictly forbidden. You can, however, take photos and film on the roof of the monastery, where you’ll have unrivaled views of Punakha Valley. The view is breathtaking and will allow you to see the surrounding area from a different perspective!
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Chagri Dorjeden Monastery
At the northern end of the Thimphu Valley, a little over nine miles north of Thimphu, is Chagri Dorjeden Monastery. This gorgeous, 17th-century monastery is nestled in the forested mountains of Jigme Dorji National Park, in an area known as Valley of the Tigers. Because it’s located at a higher elevation, I recommend wearing a heavy sweater or a warm jacket on this hike.
Those who attempt this hike need to be in moderate to good shape, as it’s pretty intense. You will follow a steep, rocky path up a mountain to reach the monastery. Chagri Djoreden Monastery actually clings to the side of the mountain, much like another, much more famous monastery near Paro. Parts of the path are nearly vertical, so be sure to wear your best hiking boots!
The halfway point of the roughly 45-to-60-minute hike is a stupa where you can rest. From there, you’ll continue past different species of goats until you reach the monastery. There, monks who have completed nine years of higher studies meditate for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days. Upon arriving, I knew this place was special and that it was one of the monasteries you must visit in western Bhutan
You’ll also find dormitories, as well as 108 prayer wheels further along. There is also a steep, narrow stone staircase that will take you to the very top of the monastery, but make sure to heed the nearby signs and stay quiet so as not to disturb the resident monks. At the top of the monastery, you can see the building where the unifier Ngawang Namgyal meditates for over three years, as well as views of the entire valley below!
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Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest Monastery)
Of course, no list of the monasteries you must visit in western Bhutan is complete without Paro Taktsang, better known as Tiger’s Nest Monastery. This gorgeous, 17th-century complex is Bhutan’s top tourist attraction. It’s located on the side of a cliff, high above the picturesque Paro Valley. The monastery is well-known not only for its location, but for the grueling hike it takes to get there. It’s only about six miles north of Paro, the city you’ll fly into if you’re traveling to Bhutan by plane.
Built around a cave where an 8th-century Buddhist master meditated for four months, Tiger’s Nest resides at the end of a steep, treacherous trail that takes roughly three hours to follow. At the midway point is the Taktsang Café, where you can rest and grab a bite to eat. From there, the hike continues through the forest and along a narrow path that literally clings to the side of the mountain. Thankfully, there are guardrails!
It’s the hardest hike I’ve ever done in my life, but as I attempted it during a major time crunch (more on that here), I managed the hike in about 90 minutes. However brutal the hike is, reaching Tiger’s Nest is a reward in itself.
You’ll have to stow your belongings—including cameras, as no filming or photographs are allowed inside the complex—at the security check before you enter. Inside is like something out of a dream. It feels sacred and peaceful there. There are multiple shrines dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava (the second Buddha) and you’ll have the opportunity to light a butter lamp and say a prayer. It’s honestly one of the most remarkable experiences you can have in Bhutan and will surely stick with you forever.
Even if you don’t identify as Buddhist, there is something undeniably magical about trekking to the monasteries you must visit in western Bhutan. Each one has its own look, feel, and charm, but I walked away from each feeling as serene and at peace as I’ve ever felt in my life. Add in the remarkable Bhutanese architecture, vibrant colors, and the way the monasteries show off nature at its best, and you have a recipe for beautiful, life-changing experiences. Book a trip to Bhutan today to explore these gorgeous monasteries for yourself!
Huge thanks to my friends Tsheten and Nidup from MyBhutan for showing me around their beautiful country!
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