Nestled in one of Bhutan’s most historic valleys in the western part of the country is the town of Paro. Located in a dzongkhag, or district, of the same name, Paro is a culturally-rich town and district. The uppermost part of the valley in which it lies has close connections to its Tibetan neighbors to the north. The town and the surrounding area are also home to several historical buildings and sacred sites. Many of the best things to do in Paro, Bhutan revolve around these sites and buildings.
Paro is also notable because it is the only entry point into the country for travelers arriving by plane, as it’s home to the country’s sole international airport. Its position high in the Himalayas makes Paro International Airport arguably the most difficult and most dangerous airport to land at in the world! It only has one runway, and only a handful of pilots are allowed the land there, and they can only do so in certain conditions.
I arrived in Paro on my very first day in Bhutan and unexpectedly returned just seven days later to make a quick exit from the country. What I had planned as a 12-day adventure became an 8-day trip as international borders threatened to close on me due to the coronavirus pandemic. Because of that, I didn’t get to explore the town as thoroughly as I would have liked. But I made sure to explore as much as I could in the little time I spent there. These are the top 5 things to do in Paro, Bhutan!
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Dine at the Champaca Café
Moments after I landed in Paro, my guide from MyBhutan, Tsheten, took me into town to get some breakfast. After driving past lots of beautiful, traditional buildings and handicraft markets, we arrived at Champaca Café to enjoy some momos.
Momos are a type of dumpling that can be found in South and East Asia, particularly in Bhutan, India, Nepal, and southwestern China. They’re similar to the bao that you can find throughout China, as well as Japanese gyozas and South Korean mandu, except they have more influences from the Indian subcontinent.
The momos at Champaca Café were a mix of veg and non-veg. The non-veg momos contained chicken and cheese, while the veg only contained cheese. Cheese, particularly yak and processed cheeses, is a staple of Bhutanese cuisine and can be found in many of the local dishes. I enjoyed both types of momo with a spicy sauce called ezay, which is made from chilies. This sauce can range in spice level throughout the country and is arguably its most popular condiment or sauce.
Outside of the momos, I also tried a salted butter tea called suja, which had a creamy consistency and an overwhelmingly buttery and salty flavor. I won’t lie, it’s not my favorite thing to drink in Bhutan, but it’s a local favorite. I always suggest trying everything at least once, so have at it and see if you like it!
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Try the Chogo at a Roadside Stand
All around Bhutan, you’ll come across small stands and shops by the side of the road. Many of them function like convenience stores, which sell local snacks, drinks, and staples like tea leaves, roasted rice, and dried chilies. As you approach, you’ll probably see strings of chunky, whitish nuggets hanging from the sides of the shops. The nuggets are actually a cheese called chogo.
Chogo is a dry cheese made from yak milk. It’s a popular local snack, but it may seem hard and unforgiving to Western palates. I tried a few pieces and found it very similar to a similar dried cheese I’d had in Uzbekistan the previous year. I don’t suggest biting into it, as you might break a tooth. Instead, pop it into your mouth, whole, and let your saliva soak into it to soften it up. You have to suck on it for a while for it to break down, so be patient!
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Hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery
The main attraction in the Paro area is the monastery called Paro Taktsang, better known as Tiger’s Nest. This world-famous Buddhist monastery clings to the side of a high cliff in the upper Paro Valley about 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of town. The sacred complex was built in 1692 around a cave where an 8th-century Buddhist master named Guru Padmasambhava is said to have meditated for four months.
Tiger’s Nest is the number one tourist attraction in Bhutan for good reason. It’s absolutely gorgeous, but its location means that reaching it can be difficult. It can only be reached by hiking a steep, difficult trail through a forest and up the mountain for upwards of three hours. Because of the amount of time it takes to climb up, visit the monastery, and then climb down, most travelers opt to begin their hike at 8 a.m. It’s easily one of the best things to do in Paro, Bhutan!
I highly recommend being in moderate to good shape before attempting this hike. I’m in pretty good shape, and this hike was intense even for me! It was easily the hardest hike I’ve ever done in my life, and I didn’t make it any easier on myself, as I rushed through it because of my tight schedule. I found myself out of breath several times, and the sun beating down on me was brutal.
At the midway point of the hike is a beautiful, traditional café called Taktsang Cafeteria. Most people make it there roughly 90 minutes into their hike, but because I rushed there, I did it in 50. Once you arrive, you can enjoy some traditional food to fuel you on for the remainder of the hike.
There, I recommend trying the red rice (a staple and specialty in Bhutan), scrambled eggs, dal, chilies, potatoes, and radishes. The radishes come in a delicious, creamy gravy, which tastes fantastic with the rice. I also enjoyed the potatoes, which were nice and hot, and the oily scrambled eggs were fantastic as well.
While you’re at the Taktsang Cafeteria, head outside to the terrace where you can get some breathtaking views of the surrounding area, including the monastery itself!
Tiger’s Nest Monastery
The trail beyond Taktsang Cafeteria becomes more gradual as it winds its way back into the forest. Keep your eyes peeled, as you’ll continue to get nice views of Tiger’s Nest and other nearby monasteries as you go. There’s a viewpoint further on. You’ll know you’re getting close to the monastery when the trail becomes steps that cling to the side of the mountain. There are guardrails there, but it’s still a scary climb!
Once you pass a waterfall, you’ll have another 287 steps to climb before you reach the security check. There, you’ll be asked to pack up your belongings and stow them in a locker.
Once you make it to the monastery, please note that you cannot film or take photographs, as it is a sacred location. But I can tell you, it did not disappoint. Tiger’s Nest became one my must-see destinations around the time I started traveling for a living in 2008, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be. The experience was moving and very peaceful.
Inside, I saw numerous shrines dedicated to the second Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava. I also lit a butter lamp to pray for my friends and family, as well as everyone affected by the pandemic, which was beginning to explode around the world. The experience was moving and very peaceful.
The hike back town to the road is more treacherous than you may think, so I suggest taking it slow so you don’t slip or fall. All in all, from the start of my hike to returning to the road took me about four hours, but keep in mind that it usually takes people at least two hours longer. Go at your own pace and enjoy the experience—it’s one of my favorite things to do in Paro, Bhutan!
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Visit Rinpung Dzong Fortress
Near Paro’s northern tip, almost due north of the airport, is another of the best things to see and do in Paro, Rinpung Dzong. This gorgeous structure is one of the Bhutan’s most beautiful fortresses. It’s located along the east bank of the Dochu River. Rinpung Dzong was built in the 1646, before Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and around the time the Tibetan Buddhist lama Ngawang Namgyal unified Bhutan.
Appearance-wise, it reminded me of the fortress I had visited in Punakha, Punakha Dzong. It’s smaller than Punakha Dzong and the one I visited in Thimphu, but it’s still very grand and colorful. Inside, you can see a beautiful painting of the wheel of life, which depicts the six realms or kingdoms. There are also courtyards, dormitories, administrative buildings, and a central tower, which divides the monastic and administrative sections of the fortress. The buildings are adorned with vibrant paintings of deities.
In total, roughly 160 monks live at Rinpung Dzong. When I visited, I saw that they had made some ritual cakes from wheat and cooked rice. The fortress is also home to roosters who roam the grounds. The monks wake up to their crowing every morning!
On the fortress’ lower level, you can also enjoy what I feel are the views of Paro. From the balcony there, you can see a palace, rice fields, the river, and the main town. There is no doubt in my mind that it’s one of the top things to do in Paro, Bhutan!
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Enjoy Bhutanese Craft Beer and Food at Namgay Artisanal Brewery
One of the best things to do while exploring Paro, Bhutan if you’re a foodie or beer lover is visit Namgay Artisanal Brewery. This gem, which overlooks Paro Airport, is the only brewery in the country that makes beer from red rice. It’s a cozy, homey space that features lots of wood décor and a warm atmosphere.
Their facility smells incredible. During my tour, I got to check out their massive fermenting tanks, hot- and cold-water tanks, and bottling system. I also sampled a flight of eight of the nine beers they produce, four of which they bottle. The other five can only be tried on tap at the brewery. Their red rice lager, milk stout, and local pale ales were my favorites, but you can’t go wrong with any of their products, which also include a German-like dark ale, a sour and fruity druk pineapple beer, and a hoppy IPA.
If trying their amazing beers wasn’t enough, you can also enjoy a meal at Namgay Artisanal Brewery! Go with the set menu item that comes with chili-and-cheese loaded ema dashti and the cheesy potato and chili dish called kewa dashti. It also comes with, pork, spinach soup, buckwheat pancakes, and cucumber salad with cheese. It only costs 450 Nu/$5.93 USD.
I suggest taking it easy on the chilies, as you’ll probably eat a lot of them during your trip. That said, the ema dashti is fantastic with the slightly bitter buckwheat pancakes. The pork and gravy with the red rice is creamy and melt-in-your-mouth tender. For a refreshing element, break it up with some of the Greek-like cucumber salad with cheese. I usually don’t love cucumbers, but this salad had me going back for more!
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My time in Paro may have been short—less than 24 hours in total—but I made sure to pack as much as I could into the time I had. What I experienced was a small, mountain town with an incredible amount of charm. The people I met there were kind and friendly, and my adventures there are among the most memorable I’ve ever had while traveling. And while I would have loved another full day in Paro to explore more of it, I experienced enough for me to say that it’s a truly awesome place. Book a flight to Bhutan today to get a taste of everything Paro has to offer!
Huge thanks to my friends Tsheten and Nidup from MyBhutan for showing me around their beautiful country!
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