1. Paro Dzong:
The Rinchen Pung Dzong or Rinpung Dzong translates to ‘Fortress on a Heap of Jewels’ and is the finest illustration of Bhutanese architecture and craftsmanship you’ll see. So impressive it is that even Bernardo Bertolucci filmed scenes of his 1995 film Little Buddha here.
In 1644, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (the unifier of Bhutan) ordered the construction of the dzong on the foundation of a monastery built at the beginning of the tenth century by Padma Sambhava. The imposing fort served effectively to defend the Paro valley against numerous Tibetan invasions. So much so that British political officer John Claude White reported that in 1905 there were old catapults still in the rafters of the dzong’s verandah for throwing massive boulders at the invading army.
Even so, although the dzong survived the earthquake of 1897, it was severely damaged by fire in 1907. The fire destroyed all the jewels housed in the dzong and only one thangka – known as Thongdel – was salvaged. Today, it houses both the monastic body and government offices including the local courts.
In the first day of spring, the Paro Tshechu is held in the dzong courtyard – which is filled to the brim. To the northeast of the entrance, is a stone-paved area where masked dancers perform the main dances of the tsechu. A thondrol or a huge thangka of Guru Rinpoche, more than 18m square, is unfurled shortly after dawn on the final day of the festival. The Paro tshechu was commissioned in the 18th century by the eighth Desi (secular ruler of Bhutan) and it continues be a major draw for locals and tourists even today.
Below the dzong, a traditional wooden covered bridge called Nyamai Zam spans the Paro Chhu. This is a reconstruction of the original bridge, which was washed away in a flood in 1969. Earlier versions of this bridge were removed in time of war to protect the dzong. The most picturesque pictures of Paro Dzong are taken from the west bank of the river, just downstream from the bridge.
The dzong courtyard is open daily, but on weekends the offices are deserted and most chapels are closed.
2. The National Museum:
A top of the hill above the Paro Dzong is an old watchtower called Ta Dzong. The unusual building in the shape of a conch shell, with 2.5m-thick walls was completed in 1656. But, it wasn’t until 1967 that the structure was renovated to house the National Museum.
Cameras are not allowed inside the museum, but one can photograph the dzong from outside along with its surrounding areas. There are various galleries inside and the displays include an impressive collection of thangkas, both ancient and modern, depicting Bhutan’s important saints and teachers, as well as formidable festival masks. There’s a heritage gallery that displays a collection of religious statues and early stone carvings, plus a few original iron links from the nearby Tamchhog Bridge.
Driving to the museum involves a 4 km loop into the scenic Dop Shari valley. And once you get there, you can enjoy the magnificent view of the Ugyen Pelri Palace that stands across a medieval bridge below the dzong. It is said that there is an underground tunnel from the watchtower leading to the palace.
3. Drugyel Dzong:
Another site worth visiting while in Paro is Drugyel dzong or The Fortress of the Victorious Bhutanese. A 16km road passes up the valley to the ruins of this fortress-monastery, which was partly destroyed by fire in 1951. And although the fortress – built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1646 to commemorate his victory over raiding and pillaging Tibetan armies – was raged by the fire, the ruins remain an impressive and imposing sight still.
4. Kichu Monastery:
By far, Kichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries. King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet built it in 659. Legend goes that the King built it to overpower the left foot of a giant ogress that was thwarting the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet. Pilgrims circumambulate around the temple spinning its many prayer wheels, seeking blessings and offering prayers.
Upon entering the inner courtyard you’ll see a mural to the right of the doorway of King Gesar of Ling, the popular Tibetan warrior-king, whose epic poem is said to be the world’s longest.
This Monastery is the only temple in Bhutan that is dedicated to the 13th century saint Thangthong Gyalpo, also known as the bridge builder. Located across the river on the Thimphu-Paro highway, one must traverse through an iron chain bridge in order to get to the monastery. The bridge is one of the few remaining of the many that Thangthong Gyalpo built in his time.
The swaying of the old iron bridge for most visitors can be quite an experience before getting to the monastery that is located on a ridge high up on rocky hills.
5. Dungtse Lhakhang:
Dumgtseg Lhakhang is a sacred temple built in the form of a chorten in Jangtsa, Paro.
Located on the edge of a hill between Paro and Dopchari valley, across the bridge from Paro town, the temple was built by the saint Thangtong Gyalpo. The Buddhist iconography depicted in the Chorten is considered a unique repository of the Drukpa Kagyu School. While one story goes that the Lhakhang was built to subdue an evil serpentine force. Another story says that the Lhakhang was built on the head of a demoness.