Combine the multiple fascinations of touring with the sense of freedom and separation derived from trekking and also experiecing the culture of the Kingdom of Bhutan. This easy to moderate trip aims to illustrate Bhutan's essential inherent charms within a program that is not overly strenuous. The western and central regions together form the country's cultural heartland. It was from within these more gentle, temperate valleys that the Buddhist faith gradually spread to embrace and unify the nation.
You will travel from sacred sites in Paro to Bumthang, journeying across this allegorical shin to retrace the steps of Guru Rinpoche, the most eminent of Bhutan's long line of holy figures. Your journey passes through the imposing settlement of Trongsa, birthplace of the 20th Century monarchy. You will then embark on a trek through Trongsa's stunningly beautiful landscape, a setting that is both a tremendously rich source of natural life and stirring legend. You have the opportunity to join the unique blend of homage and revelry in villages spanning across Takin Village Trail. Your Bhutan journey then takes you through Gangtey valley housing largest wetland in the country to the warmer valley of Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan and via Dochula pass with panoramic views of Himalayas unto the cautiously modernizing capital of Thimphu.
Early this morning we depart to Bhutan. Nearing Paro valley in the Kingdom, which is home to country's one and only Paro International Airport, we can see the massive peaks of the eastern Himalaya, including Kangchenjunga, (the third highest mountain in the world) and Chomolhari, Bhutan's second largest and the holiest mountain. On arrival, we complete visa formalities and proceed through Customs and Immigration to meet our Bhutanese guides and drivers in the arrival hall.
After lunch and having freshend up, we head out to explore the historic and cultural landmarks of the district. This bucolic valley was once the center of trade for goods coming in from Tibet. The town of Paro lies on the banks of the Pa Chu (chu means “river”), and its tiny streets are lined with brightly painted shops and restaurants.
We’ll drive through town to the most obvious landmark, the great Paro Rimpung Dzong. Bhutan’s dzongs originally served three purposes: as a fortress, an administrative center of local government, and a residence and focus for the monks’ religious activity. We’ll ascend a short hill behind the dzong to reach Ta Dzong, a circular fortress that once protected this valley from Tibetan invasion. The impressive watchtower commands sweeping views of the valley below. It also houses Bhutan’s National Museum, which, since 1968, has been the home of the country’s most cherished relics.
Time permitting; we can also visit Kyichu Lhakhang (lhakhang means “temple”)- one of the oldest and sacred temples in Bhutan built around 750 A.D. by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. The king pledged to build l08 temples to the Buddha during his lifetime, many of which were demon subduing temples. Kyichu Lhakhang is believed to be holding down the left foot of an ogress whose body is so large it covers Bhutan and most of eastern Tibet.
If time and energy levels permit, w can embark on a beautiful hike back to our hotel. Tucked in a pine-clad hillside outside of Paro, it’s easy to see how the Zhiwa Ling, meaning “place of peace,” got its name.
Today our itinerary will be flexible as flight to Bumthang can depend upon the weather. Your guide will coordinate for the day's activity accordingly. This flight offers spectacular views of the Himalayas and the valleys beneath crafted by the rivers that flow from the glaciers forming rich and fertile lands for settlements. To the right of the plain, the Black Mountain range is prominent. At the foothills of it lies the Monpa land that we shall visit in the next few days.
Bumthang is considered as one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan (Bumthang literally translates to “Beautiful Valley”). The valley also has the country’s highest concentration of ancient temples and sacred monuments. Its history is punctuated by numerous visits from Padmasambhava as he brought the Buddha’s message to Bhutan. He meditated in many local caves that now have temples and shrines dedicated to him.
Once in Jakar Valley, we check into our hotel and freshen up and late afternoon visit a farmhouse nearby to participate in making of local delicacies like bumthap puta (noodles) and khooli (pancake). Also our host today will show us how to prepare Bhutan's popular ema datsi (chili cheese), and Suja, local tea churned with yak butter and salt. This will also give us aplenty time to learn about our host and her family and how extended family lives in this part of the village harmoniously.
Later we take a walk back from the farmhouse towards our overnight hotel. Along the way, you will get glimpse of countryside and rejoice in the hardwork put into the farm lands by the farmers.
After breakfast, we will embark valley hikes around Chamkhar region visiting some of the most revered temples in the himalayas; Jambay Lhakhang, contemporary of Kichu lhakhang in Paro, Kurje Lhakhang, a 17th-century temple, now features a spectacular new monastery built in traditional style. From Kurje, we begin our rambles through the countryside, crossing a footbridge over rushing Chamkhar Chu and wending our way through the ripening paddy fields to Tamshing. Tamshing was founded in 1501 by Pemalingpa, “the treasure discoverer.” Pemalingpa was a famous 14th-century blacksmith from Bumthang who became one of the five prominent Tertons amongst thousands in and around Tibet, Bhutan and India.
We then continue our walk towards Kenchosum Lhakhang which is adorned with golden color and there are about 300 monks practicing Buddhist studies and meditation in the monastery. We will take some time to meet and interact with the lamas (Monk). We end our walk with a visit to the Swiss Project – an industrious complex producing cheese, beer, apple juice, and honey. Evening srtoll around in quaint little town of Chamkhar.
Afterbreakfast, we drive a couple of hours to arrive in the buckwheat growing valley of Tang, one of the remotest valleys in Bhutan and one of the four valleys of Bumthang. Tang combines immense natural beauty with a history of hosting the greatest collection of eminent spiritual practitioners. One such spiritual leader, Longchen Rabjam, and his descendants have built the Ogyenchholing, the palace of bliss and today which has been converted in to a Mueum. We will take a tour of this now private museum and if we get a chance, we will meet the hostess Azhi Kezang Choden who is also a Bhutanese writer and a historian.
On the way back to Chamkhar, stop by to visit Pemachholing Nunnery, home to about 300 Buddhist nuns and practitioners of the powerful drum ceremony. The hymns from the Buddhist text are sang in tune with the hand-held drum and bell. We will sit down in the main shrine of the nunnery and attend choed- drum ceremony to bless us for longevity and cleansing ourselves from misfortunes and negativities. Later we may interact with some of the few English-speaking nuns to understand their ordained lives and their choice to live in celibacy.
We have an opportunity for a short hike to the Burning Lake, or Mebartsho, where the king of treasure revealers, Pema Lingpa, is said to have performed his first miracle here uncovering the sacred treasures hidden by Guru Rinpoche in 8th century. In the evening, hot stone bath can be arranged for those interested to try.
This morning we drive approximately two hours to Trongsa. Here we’ll meet our horsemen and camp staff. Our luggage will be loaded onto the pack animals and we’ll embark on the first stage of our trek. Today’s hike involves a long, steep climb. Take it slow and easy, as a steady pace will help you get into a rhythm and will make the climb more manageable. As we gain elevation, we have views of the valley interspersed with hiking in dense oak forests. The trail takes us over the Dhemlay La Pass at ~10,000’. There is a great view of the entire Nubchutey area from the pass.
Our first night’s camp is just below the beautiful Kasiphey Monastery, built in 2000 by Gangtey Tulku Rimpoche and housing over 50 monks who are studying and practicing Buddhism here.
Time: 5-6 hours
Elevation gain: 485m/1,600’
Elevation loss: 360m/1,200’
Today’s hike begins with a descent to the river with stunning views of terraced fields and ancient farm houses along the way. We hike along the Mangdu Chu River for about an hour. The last hour or so, we take a winding uphill trail past an old chorten to the village of Drongthang, our home for the next two nights. After settling in, we can explore the village, and enjoy evening time with the village headman and elders.
Time: 4-5 hours
Elevation gain: 300m/1000ft
Elevation loss: 360m/1200ft
The name of the village is derived from the name of the National Animal of Bhutan, called the “takin”. It is believed that hundreds of takins resided in the meadow where the village is located. The village is divided into upper and lower regions and we camp in the middle with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. Today we enjoy a rest day with an opportunity to mingle with local villagers. We will visit a farmhouse to see how the local brew locally made wine called “arak”. Those who are feeling energetic can embark on a short excursion to surrounding villages.
Tonight there will be a celebration in our honor with traditional songs and dances by our new villager friends followed by dining ogether with the locales.
This morning’s hike is a gentle downhill to the Mangdu Chu River. Along the way we pass through several small hamlets and terraced fields overlooking the river and its valley. After lunch at a scenic overlook, we gradually make our way up to the village of Bemji with its lovely manor house. Here we camp in the schoolyard. If we’re lucky, some school children will visit our camp and regale us with their pretty voices and traditional songs.
Time: 4-5 hours
Elevation loss: 90m/300ft
Those who want, can attend the morning assembly at the school and listen to the students sing the Bhutan national anthem (a cappella) and have a brief meditation before beginning their day. We can also visit them in their classrooms briefly before we head out on the trail. On this morning’s hike, we first descend to the river, crossing over to the opposite bank and the opposite side of the valley. Rounding the mountain side we drop into the valley and the village of Bjizam. Here our vehicle await us and after enjoying a nice picnic lunch, we drive to the Phobjikha Valley crossing over the Pele la pass at 11,000’.
Time: 4-5 hours
Elevation gain: NA
Elevation loss: 330m/1,100'
Gangtey is home to the endangered black-necked cranes and the conservation efforts of Bhutan and WWF have created a safe haven for these beautiful birds, which flock the marshy wetlands in winter for roosting and a visit to the Crane Center sheds light to this legacy. Reaching Gangtey, you have the option to enjoy nature trail hike along the ridge of Phobjikha valley. The trail is gentle and easy through pinewoods and countryside and whole of the time keeping yourselves along the ridge and wetlands onto your right. Submerge yourself with nature and look out for closer spots to see the roosting sites of these birds in winter.
Nature Trail Hike;
Hike Length: 2.99Kms/1.8Miles
Hike Time: 1.5 Hours easy
Elevation Loss: 140m/462Miles
After breakfast, we depart for the small town of Punakha (3 hours’ drive). As we descend nearly 6,000 feet from Lawala Pass, we notice the dramatic change in vegetation. Punakha is the ancient capital of Bhutan. The valley is dominated by the impressive Punakha Dzong, which sits at the confluence of the Mo (female) and Po (male) rivers. Built by Shabdrung in 1637, this massive dzong is one of the holiest in Bhutan. It houses some of the country’s most sacred relics, including Shabdrung’s preserved remains. The Central Monk Body move from Thimphu to Punakha every winter as the lower elevation is more temperate. After lunch we will visit the dzong. Afternoon enjoy the luxury of the camping by the riverside. You will be treated with traditional hot stone bath, getting your hands on archery and darts, relaxation in the camp area.
An early-morning departure takes us across Dochu La to Thimphu. En route we stretch our legs on a short hike to Chimi Lhakhang, a small temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, affectionately called the Divine Madman. He is one of Bhutan’s favorite holy men in spite of—or because of—his irreverent methods of teaching the dharma some 500 years ago. (Writer and National Public Radio correspondent Eric Weiner calls this “trickster extraordinaire” the “Howard Stern of Tibetan Buddhism” in The Geography of Bliss.). Women who are having trouble conceiving come here to pray and receive the resident lama’s blessings, which the resident lama punctuates by tapping the women on the head with a wooden phallus.
By early afternoon we arrive in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and largest city, with a population of about 100,000. Home to the government, royal family, and the head offices of international aid organizations in the country, Thimphu is a mix of Himalayan and Western sensibilities—internet cafés and discos abound. After we check into the cthe hotel, the rest of the day is yours to explore.
THIMPHU, The bustling “Big Apple” of Bhutan promises a day of captivating sights and sounds. If it’s the weekend, we’ll hit the colorful market, where, in the words of Eric Weiner, “every manner of vegetable and craft is sold: apples the size of your head and Buddhas by the bushel.” It’s also a wonderful opportunity to mingle with Thimphu residents and villagers from the outlying areas, and shop for souvenirs.
Later we visit at Tashichho Dzong, a vast building constructed by hand and without a single nail. It houses government offices, the king’s audience chambers, the Je Khempo (head of the Drukpa Kagyupa sect of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan), the national assembly, a multitude of temples, and many monks. We then swing by shops selling traditional Bhutanese weavings, silverwork, coral and turquoise beads, and prayer flags.
Depending on our time and interest, we’ll make additional excursions to the handicrafts school, National Textile Museum, Drubthob Gompa nunnery, archery grounds, a paper factory, or a game enclosure where those curious ox-like animals called takins live.
This morning we drive from Thimphu to Paro (about 2 hours). On tap for today is a stunning excursion to one of the most important religious sites in the entire Himalaya: Taktsang Lhakhang, the Tiger’s Nest. This magical monastery clings to a vertical granite cliff 2000 feet above the valley floor. The legend of Taktsang dates from 747 ce, when Guru Rinpoche, in the wrathful form of Guru Dorji Droloe, arrived here on the back of a tiger and subdued the evil spirits of the region. The guru then meditated in a holy cave, the present-day site of the Pelphug Lhakhang. According to Tantric Buddhist mythology, the vanquished local deities became protectors of the dharma and one, Singye Samdrup, is recognized as the guardian of Taktsang. Guru Rinpoche is also believed to have concealed terma among the rocks of Taktsang.
We drive to the trailhead and, like many pilgrims before, hike up a mountain path toward Taktsang. After about one hour, we reach a small teahouse with wonderful views of the monastery, and if we walk another hour, we can get an even closer look from the small chorten (shrine) directly opposite. On the other hand, if we don’t feel much like hiking, we can admire the Tiger’s Nest from the valley floor or partway to the teahouse.
Upon returning to Paro, we can relax at the hotel or do some last-minute exploring in town. Tonight we enjoy a farewell dinner to celebrate our journey through the Land of the Thunder Dragon.
Hike Time: 5-6 Hours Return
Elevation gain: 1,200m/3,960ft
Elevation loss: 1,200m/3,960ft
We bid farewell to our newfound friends of Bhutan. Your guide and driver will accompany you to the airport for your departure.