Bhutan is famous for many things: being the happiest nation in the world, having a vibrant Buddhist heritage, and hosting some of the most colourful festivals anywhere. I visited the country with the intention of getting to know its culture and people, but was truly blown away by how much there is to see. The Himalayan nation is not just blessed with a rich and unique culture; it’s also dotted with stunning natural landscapes and centuries-old architecture. Here’s a look at five of my favorite sights in Bhutan:

1. Tiger’s Nest or Paro Taktsang

Of all the impressive monuments of Bhutan, this is probably the most famous and photographed. The Paro Taktsang, also known as the Tiger’s Nest, is a legendary monastery that hangs precariously on the edge of a 3,120m-tall cliff overlooking the Paro valley. The Paro Taktsang has such a holy status because it’s believed this was where Buddhism began. Guru Rinpoche who brought Buddhism to Bhutan sought refuge here in the tiger lair cave tucked secretly underneath the temple complex, which was built in 1692 to worship him. The hike up to the Tiger’s Nest is a two-hour ascent but it’s relatively easy and the views are well worth it.

The Tiger’s Nest: one of the holiest sites in Bhutan

The Tiger’s Nest: one of the holiest sites in Bhutan.

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2. Punakha Dzong

Located at the confluence of the Pho Chhu (father) and Mo Chhu (mother) Rivers, the majestic Punakha Dzong looks like a modern-day Shangri-La enveloped in an air of mystery and bliss. Also known as "the palace of great happiness or bliss," the Punakha Dzong is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. Constructed in 1637–38, the Tibetan Buddhism palace was the administrative centre and seat of Bhutan’s government until 1955, when the capital was moved to Thimphu. Today, it’s still used as an administrative building that continues to be a whimsical place rich in legend and myth.

The majestic Punakha Dzong set against a spectacular backdrop.

The majestic Punakha Dzong set against a spectacular backdrop.

3. Dochula Pass

At just 30km (18 mi) from Thimphu , Dochula Pass is a popular spiritual site for both locals and visitors. On a clear day, it offers a majestic 360-degree view of the Himalayan Mountains, including Bhutan’s highest peak, Gangkhar Puensum. Most pilgrims come to Dochula Pass to pay respects to the Druk Wangyal Chortens, built by the eldest Queen Mother to honour the Bhutanese soldiers who perished in the fight against Indian rebels in 2003. From above, the sight of 108 chortens perched side by side, overlooking the mountains, is pretty spectacular.

108 chortens standing side by side in commemoration of the deceased.

108 chortens standing side by side in commemoration of the deceased.

4. Temple of the Divine Madman or Chimi Lhakhang

The Divine Madman is such a popular character in Tibetan Buddhism folklore that a temple, Chimi Lhakhang (translated to mean “Temple of the Divine Madman”) was built in his honour. The temple is believed to bless couples who seek fertility and it is frequently visited by those without children. To receive blessings, a lama places two phalluses, one wooded and the other made of bone, on the couple’s foreheads along with an archery bow that belonged to the Divine Madman himself. He then says a prayer and offers the couple a stack of names for them to randomly draw from. Their selection dictates the baby’s gender and name.

Caption: The Chimi Lhakhang temple with a whimsical story behind it

Caption: The Chimi Lhakhang temple with a whimsical story behind it

5. Tashichho Dzong

Blending seamlessly into the green valley surrounding it, the Tashichho Dzong is perched high above the capital city of Thimphu, in a regal and imposing kind of way. The Buddhist monastery and fortress has been the seat of the head of Bhutan's civil government since 1952 and presently houses the throne room and offices of the king and ministries of home affairs and finance. It was also the site of the lavish coronation of the present king in 2008 and plays host of the city’s biggest annual tsechu festival. By night, the fortress is lit up in beautiful white and red lights, illuminating it in a gorgeous glow.

Tashichho Dzong

Tashichho Dzong.

BONUS: Buddha Dordenma Statue

Although still undergoing construction, this larger-than-life statue of Shakyamuni is 51.5 metres (169 ft) tall, making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the giant statue, each of them cast in bronze and gilded. Located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park, the statue overlooks the Thimphu Valley and can be reached by road or by a short hike from the city.

One of the largest Buddha statues in the world.

One of the largest Buddha statues in the world.

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