The Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan lies along the lofty ridges of the eastern Himalayas, bordered by China (Tibet) to the north and northwest, and by the Indian states in the south and west respectively. Opened for tourism in 1974, after the coronation of the present King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most exclusive tourist destination. The country still retains all the charm of the old world, and travelers experience the full glory of this ancient land as embodied in the monastic fortresses, ancient temples, monasteries and stupas which dot the countryside, prayer flags fluttering above farmhouses and on the hillsides, lush forests, rushing glacial rivers, and – perhaps most important of all – the warm smiles and genuine friendliness of the people.
2 Nights Thimphu (alt. 2400m/7875ft) - The capital town of Bhutan and the centre of government, religion and commerce, Thimphu is a unique city with unusual mixture of modern development alongside ancient traditions. Although not what one expects from a capital city, Thimphu is still a fitting and lively place. Home to civil servants, expatriates and monk body, Thimphu maintains a strong national character in its architectural style.
2 nights Punakha (alt. 1300m/4265ft) - Punakha served as the capital of Bhutan until and still it is the winter seat of Je Khenpo (the chief abbot). Blessed with temperate climate and owing to its natural drainage from Pho Chhu (male) and Mo Chhu (female) rivers, the Punakha valley produces abundant crops and fruits. There are splendid views of the distant Himalayas at Dochula pas (alt. 3,050m) on Thimphu – Punakha road.
2 Night Gangtey / Phobjikha (alt. 3000m/9845ft) - The valley of Gangtey is one of the most beautiful spots in Bhutan. The surprise of finding such a wide, flat valley without any trees after the hard climb through dense forests is augmented by an impression of vast space, and extremely rare experience in Bhutan where most of the valley’s are tightly enclosed.
1 Night at Tongsa (2,300m/7,545ft) This town, perched on steep slopes above a river gorge, forms the central hub of the nation and is the place from where attempts at unifying the country were launched in former times. The landscape around Tongsa is spectacular and its impressive dzong, stretched along a ridge above a ravine, first comes into view about an hour before the winding, mountain road leads you into the town itself.
3 Nights Bumthang (2,600-4,500m/8,530-14,765ft) Bumthang is one of the most spectacular valleys in Bhutan and also the holy heartland of Buddhism and home to some of its oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. Tales of Guru Padmasambhava and the tertons ("religious treasure-discoverers") still linger in this sacred region. The fertile valleys are covered in fields of buckwheat, rice and potatoes. Apple orchards and dairy farms are also common sights here. This serene region is one of the most peaceful places in the kingdom.
3 Nights Paro (alt. 2200m/7218ft) - The beautiful valley of Paro encapsulates within itself a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is home to many of Bhutan's oldest temples and monasteries, Museum and country's only airport. Mt. Chomolhari (7,314m) reigns in white glory at the northern end of the valley and its glacial water plunge through deep gorges to form Pa Chhu (Paro River). Paro is also the most fertile valley in the Kingdom producing a bulk of the locally famous red rice from its terraced fields.
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Fly into the Himalayas with Druk Air, Bhutan's National Carrier. The green wall of hills known as ‘Dooars’ or gateways to Bhutan rise ever higher as the plane flies north towards the Tibet border. Silvery rivers rush along the valleys, waterfalls plunge down forested mountainside, and to the north, the great snowcapped peaks of the inner Himalayas rise up to the heavens. Farm houses dot the hillsides on either side of the plane. As the aircraft enters the Paro valley, look down and you will see Paro Dzong on the hillside overlooking the Paro Chu (river), with Ta Dzong, formerly a watchtower and now the National Museum, above it.
Our representative will meet you at Paro airport, and after completion of the arrival formalities you will be transferred to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, an exciting blend of tradition and modernity.
Dinner and overnight at your hotel in Thimphu.
Today we will explore the Thimpu City. Thimphu sightseeing will include visit to National Memorial Chorten: The building of this chorten was originally the idea of Bhutan’s third king, H.M. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck (“the father of modern Bhutan”), who had wished to erect a monument to world peace and prosperity, but was unable to give shape to his idea in his lifetime due to pressures of state.
Tashichhodzong: The “fortress of the glorious religion”, was initially erected in 1641 and rebuilt by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the 1960s. Tashichhodzong houses some ministries, His Majesty’s secretariat, and the central monk body. It is open to visitors during the Thimphu Tsechu (held in autumn) and while the monk body is resident in its winter quarters in Punakha.
We will take you to the local traditional market where all village people assemble to sale their products – vegetable, fruits etc.
We will have lunch at a local town restaurant with typical Bhutanese red rice and curry. Later we take you to the city center to have your own time to explore. There are several Handicrafts shops: A wide assortment of colorful, hand woven textiles and other craft products is available for purchase at the government-run Handicrafts Emporium and many smaller crafts shops around the town.
Back to hotel for freshen up and later in the evening we take you to a Bhutanese farm house where you can interact with the local host and experience a traditional folk show. After Dinner drive back to hotel and enroute see the beautiful illuminated Dzong of Thimpu from a distance. It is a good opportunity to take some nice night shot with a tripod.
Drive to Punakha (70 Km) via Duchula pass. An hour and drive from Thimphu will take you to this pass (3050 meters), from here one can have superb view of the Mountain ranges on a clear day. Drive on to Punakha which served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and still it is the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). Blessed with a temperate climate and fed by the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha is the most fertile valley in the country. Enroute we will have lunch near Chimi Lathnag and explore the possibilities of some village life photography with lush agricultural field on terraced land and harvesting. Continue driving to Punakha Dzong. Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the Dzong was built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative center of the region. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the Dzong has been fully restored in recent years by the present monarch.
Later we take you to your hotel to have a relaxed evening followed by dinner.
Today we drive further up the Punakha valley along the scenic Mo Chu River towards Gasa.
Gasa has become a tourist destination because of its pristine forests and the exceptionally scenic location of its Dzong. The high altitude makes farming difficult, although government programs seek to establish mustard and summer vegetable planting programs. Residents herd yaks and dzos – crossbreed of Cow and Yak. A narrow road from Punakha, which is mostly unpaved, reaches up to the Dzong. We will have lunch in Gasa and while coming back we will have the opportunity to try River Rafting in the Mo Chu River.
Back to the hotel for Dinner.
After breakfast, drive to Wangduephodrang. Wangdue district is famous for its fine bamboo work, stone carvings, and slate which is mined up a valley a few kilometers from the town. Then drive up a winding mountain road through oak and rhododendron forest, and over a high pass down into the Phobjikha valley, surely one of the loveliest high altitude valleys in Bhutan. Phobjikha is one of Bhutan’s few glacial valleys, and chosen winter home of black necked cranes, migrating from the Tibetan plateau. Explore Phobjikha valley and also visit Gangtey Gompa (Monastery), the only Nyingmapa monastery in western Bhutan and the richly renovated monastery offering rich architecture and paintings.
Stay overnight at the guest house, or Hotel.
During the Morning we will go for a walk and meet the School children close to your hotel, who all walk for hours to reach their nearest school. Phobjikha is a paradise for nature lovers and hikers. There are lots of great places for hikes around the valley. Spend the day exploring the Phobjikha Valley, including a visit to the Phobjikha Sanctuary with an opportunity to view the majestic black necked cranes (Nov-Mar only) and Gangtey Gompa (Monastery), dating back to the 16th century and the only Nyingmapa monastery in western Bhutan. In the afternoon enjoy one of the many walks available traversing the stunning surrounds of this spacious valley.
Overnight at your hotel in Phobjikha.
Continue on to Tongsa across Pele-la pass (3,300m/10,830ft), the traditional boundary between east and west. The pass is marked by a large white chorten and prayer flags. There is an abrupt change in vegetation at this point, with mountain forest replaced by high altitude dwarf bamboo. Stop en route at Chendebji Chorten, patterned on Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points. It was built in the 18th century by Lama Shida from Tibet, to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was subdued at this spot.
Arrive at Tongsa in the afternoon and check into the lodge for the night.
After breakfast, walk by Tongsa Dzong (built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1647) and climb up a steep path to visit the Ta Dzong (watchtower), dedicated to the epic hero, King Gesar of Ling. Then drive to Bumthang, 68 km. from Tongsa, a journey of about 3 hours, over the Yutong-la pass (3,400m/11,155ft). The road winds steeply up to the pass, 28 km. from Tongsa, then runs down through coniferous forest into a wide, open, cultivated valley known as the Chumey valley. On arrival in Bumthang, check in at your lodge. After lunch, visit Kurje Lhakhang (“where the saint’s body is imprinted on a rock”), Jambey Lhakhang (7th century), Tamshing Monastery (housing some of the oldest wall paintings in Bhutan), and Jakar Dzong (administrative center of the region). Stroll in the village, visit the little handicrafts shop at the entrance to the town, and perhaps take refreshments at a local restaurant.
Dinner and overnight at the lodge.
One of the most spectacular festivals in the country, called Jambay lhakhang Drup is hosted here. The festival lasts for five days. The highlight of the festival is the fire ritual that is held in the evening where crowds gather to witness the ritualistic naked dance (no Photography allowed). We will explore the Bumthang valley and experience the colourful festival . We will also visit Kurje Lhakhang, one of the most sacred places in the kingdom as Bhutan’s “patron saint”, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) meditated here. From Kurje monastery, a tarmac road heads south along the right bank of the river to Jambey Lhakhang. This temple, erected by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, is one of the two oldest in Bhutan (the other being Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro).
After lunch, we will visit Tamshing Lhakhang, founded in 1501 by Pema Lingpa. It contains interesting and ancient Buddhist wall paintings. Later on we will visit Jakar Dzong, “the dzong of the white bird”, then take a stroll through Bumthang’s market area before returning to the lodge.
Today we have another day to enjoy the festival and also we have the opportunity to take a drive to Ura Valley one of the most interesting villages in Bhutan. There are about 40 closely packed houses along cobblestone streets, and the main Ura Lhakhang dominates the town, giving it a medieval atmosphere. You will have plenty of time to take landscape photo, people in the villages harvesting and engaged in daily life. Back to Bumthang Valley in the afternoon.
Today we take a morning flight to Paro from the small air field at Bumthang. This 30min flight is an alternative to 8 to 9hrs long journey through the same road. We reach Paro airport and transfer to Hotel. We take early lunch and then go for a short village visit and interact with some village family and see their house hold activity. In the afternoon we visit a farm house and try a unique traditional Bhutanese Hot stone Bath. The stones are especially collected from the river which has medicinal value and is very relaxing and beneficial for authorities, blood circulation, skin diseases etc.
This will be followed by a traditional Bhutanese dinner with the head of the family of the farm house.
After early breakfast we take you to an excursion to Taktsang Monastery, also known as Tiger's Nest. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche, founding father of the Bhutanese form of Mahayana Buddhism, arrived here on the back of a tigress and meditated at this monastery. Taktsang was damaged severely by fire in 1998 but was restored again. It is a place really worth visiting in the Paro Valley. It needs a 3-hour trek from the road head. You first drive from Paro on the road to Drugyel Dzong for about 8 km and then commence your trek to the monastery. The monastery from the road head appears as inaccessible but it lures you can't stop yourself from reaching there. The monastery structure is a man made wonder and it is difficult to believe that how could this structure be built on such a location. On our way back we will have a picnic lunch organized among the woods and then visit Drugyel Dzong that is where the road ends. On a clear day the towering peak of Mount Jomolhari, (7,314 m / 24,000 ft) appears as a backdrop. This mountain marks the frontier with Tibet, and is regarded as sacred. Drukyel Dzong, with a delightful village at its foot, is built on a rocky spur that blocked the Paro valley - protected it from invasions from the north - it means "fortress of the victorious Drukpas". In 1951 a butter lamp fell and started a terrible fire. Only the walls remained and Drukyel Dzong became no more than a dramatic silhouette falling into ruins. On reaching at your hotel you have a free evening. You can go for a short stroll in the down town market to observe the city life of Bhutan.
Have the entire day free at the town for your personal activity. The town of Paro has unique character with traditional shops, emporium, eateries, and coffee center. Take your time to laze around this beautiful town along the Paro River. You can also spend time in your hotel spa. This is also a buffer day in Paro just in case the flight from Bumthang to Paro does not operate in bad weather, date mismatch etc – which is a common phenomenon in Bumthang.
Today we check out after breakfast and fly out from Paro to Delhi in India.
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Prices are per person in a double room. Single travelers must pay single supplement: US$490
Before you travel to Bhutan, please read this document (PDF) with some information on visa, language, money, electricity, photography and shopping
Payment for this workshop will be split into two installments. To secure your spot on the workshop you pay an immediate deposit payment of US$ 1000. This deposit is non-refundable. The remaining balance is due 5 months before the tour. Please read the Terms and Conditions
Author: Chris Marquardt