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Twelve Day Cultural Tour of Western and Central Bhutan

Dochu La Stupas

Nestled between India and Tibet, the exquisite mountain kingdom of Bhutan has been isolated and protected for centuries by mighty Himalayan peaks. Because few visitors are allowed to enter the country, daily life rituals remain sacred and the landscape is relatively undeveloped. Tradition and Buddhism infuse every facet of life, from jingling brass bells of prayer wheels to ornate monasteries perched high above terraced rice paddies. Change is coming to Bhutan, but the country isn’t blindly adopting modern western culture. After all, Bhutan still defines prosperity by Gross National Happiness—measuring well being rather than consumption. This trip provides a unique opportunity to see how the Bhutanese balance development and tradition, and it’s enhanced by experienced local guides who proudly share their country’s culture with us. Shangri-La may be a fictional land, but you’ll find something akin to its wonders in the beauty of remote monasteries and in your interactions with Bhutanese people.

Wangdi Phodrang festival/Tsechu, Dancers, Wangdi Phodrang Dzong

Day 01: Arrive Paro

Flying into the country’s only airport, in the beautiful Paro valley, the clear mountain air, forested ridges, imposing monasteries and welcoming Bhutanese people in their striking national dress, provides a breath-taking first impression.

On arrival at Paro airport, after immigration and custom formalities, your guide for the trip will receive you and transfer you to the hotel in Paro. In the evening, you can stroll along Paro downtown to see the people and the local stores.
Overnight- hotel in Paro

Day 02: Hike to Taktsang Monastery

Today, we hike up to the famous cliff-hermitage called Taktsang, the “Tiger’s Nest.” This monastic retreat is built into a sheer cliff face high above the Paro valley. Legend has it that the Tibetan Buddhist saint Padmasambhava flew across the Himalayas on the back of a tiger and landed here, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The trail to the monastery climbs through beautiful pine forest and an occasional grove of fluttering prayer flags.

After visiting what is known as one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites in the country, we will go off the beaten track further up to the temples that are on the hill tops above Tiger’s Nest. It’s so peaceful there and you can really communicate with nature as you enjoy the views from the top be it that of mountains or the valley. No wonder that some monks have chosen this place to meditate for their life! To go down, we are following a different path that takes us through the pristine thick forest of oaks and rhododendrons festooned with Spanish mosses.
Overnight – hotel in Paro

Day 03: Paro – Thimphu

Paro is a most picturesque valley, with quaint hamlets clustered amidst terraced paddy fields. The town still maintains tradition by way of its architecture and simple way of life and your sightseeing includes; visit to The National Museum, formerly a watchtower holds unique and varied collections, ranging from ancient armor to textiles, thangkha paintings, stamps, coins, and natural history. Visit the Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong) built in 1646 during the time of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It now houses Paro’s monk body and the offices of the civil administration. Rinpung Dzong is the venue for the famous Paro Tsechu, held annually in the spring.

In the afternoon, take a drive to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, passing through idyllic countryside, with villages and paddy fields on either side of the road. Thimphu has a special charm and it is fascinating to sit and watch a gathering of local people in the town square, wearing their traditional dress and going about their business in a typically unhurried Bhutanese way.
Overnight: hotel in Thimphu

Day 04: Thimphu – Punakha

The morning sightseeing in Thimphu includes; Visit to the Institute of Traditional Medicine; Bhutan has long and rich tradition of medicine based on natural remedies derived mainly from plants and earth, and some animals. This institute has facility for out patients, training, research and production of traditional medicine. The courses to become traditional doctors entail six to eight years of strenuous study after high school. The institute has an exhibition room that imparts excellent look into the tradition.

Visit to the School of Traditional Arts and Crafts, the school offers a six-year course in the techniques of traditional art in religious and secular paintings, woodcarving, and clay sculpture and traditional mask making. One can see students working through progressive levels practicing precise rules of Bhutanese art. The school also has a showroom from where student works are sold at very reasonable price compared to town for same quality of work.

Visit to the Folk Heritage Museum; established in 2001, this is an interesting museum housed in a very old traditional house. The museum is a walk through the fast changing rural tradition, habits and skills, and those of the past. They organize special exhibitions annually on select subject pertaining to Bhutanese heritage.

In the afternoon, we will take a drive to Punakha (02 hours) across Dochu La (3050m) from where one can have a spectacular view of the Himalayas to the north when the sky is clear. The pass is marked by 108 chortens (Stupa) which are Buddhist reliquaries, memorials to the teachings of the Buddha. Sometimes actual relics of the Buddha or revered monks are inserted into the dome of the stupa, but whether or not there are relics inside, the stupas mark the landscape with reminders of the Buddha’s teachings. From here, it’s about a little more than hour’s drive down to sub-tropical Punakha Valley.

In Punakha, we will visit the Dzong that was built by Shabdrung, in 1637, on a strategic place at the confluence of Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. The Dzong has played a hallowed role in the history of Bhutan. It served as the seat of Shabdrung’s government, several foreign delegations were received here in 18th and 19th century, the election and coronation of the first King was observed in 1907 and the Third King convened the first National Assembly in the Dzong. The central monastic body continues to reside here in winter. The embalmed bodies of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Terton Pema Lingpa are housed on the top floor of the main tower. Damaged by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the Dzong has been fully restored by the present King from the latest fire in 1987.
Overnight- hotel in Punakha

Day 05: Punakha – Gangtey

After breakfast, drive to Wangduephodrang and visit the Dzong which is perched on a spur at the confluence of two rivers. The position of the Dzong is remarkable as it completely covers the spur and commands an impressive view both up and down the valley. 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 Gonpa (Monastery), the only Nyingmapa monastery in western Bhutan.
Overnight – hotel in Gangtey

Day 06: Gangtey – Trongsa

In the morning explore Phobjikha valley, hopefully sighting some black necked cranes, if you are there at the right time of year. Later, drive to Trongsa across Pele-la pass (3,300m/10,830ft). This pass is traditionally considered the boundary between western and central Bhutan. Further down the road, stop to visit Chendebji Chorten erected in the 18th century by a Tibetan lama to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was subdued at this spot. It is built in the Nepalese style, with painted eyes at the four cardinal points.

The landscape around Trongsa is spectacular and its impressive Dzong, stretched along a ridge above a ravine, first comes into view about an hour before the winding road suddenly leads you into the town.
Overnight – hotel in Trongsa

Day 07: Trongsa – Jakar

This morning, visit and experience the masterpiece of Bhutanese architecture at Tongsa Dzong. It was Shabdrung’s great – grandfather who founded the first temple at Tongsa in 1543. In 1647 the Shabdrung had begun his great work of expansion and unification, realizing all the advantages that could be gained from Tongsa’s position; he constructed the first Dzong at the place where his ancestors had erected the temple. The Dzong was called Choekor Rabtentse. In 1652, Minjur Tenpa, the Penlop of Tongsa, had the Dzong enlarged. The Dzong is built in such a way that in the old days, no matter what direction a traveler comes from, he was obliged to pass through the courtyard of the Dzong. This helped to make the Penlop of this Dzong as powerful as it had a complete control over the east – west traffic. The watch tower above the Dzong further strengthened its defense. The father of the first king known as the black regent and the first king served as the Governor of Tongsa before the emergence of the Bhutanese Monarchy, since then it has become a tradition for the young crown prince to serve as the Governor of this place before he is crowned.

Later, visit Ta Dzong on the hillside above the town built as a watchtower to guard Trongsa but recently converted into museum in 2008.

After lunch proceed to Bumthang, one of the most spectacular valleys in Bhutan and also the holy heartland of Buddhism. The 68 km. journey takes about 3 hours. The road winds steeply up to Yutong La (3,400m/11,155ft), and then run down through dense coniferous forest to enter a wide, open, cultivated valley, known as Chumey valley. From here it is about an hour to Bumthang, a most pleasant run in the soft, late afternoon light.
Overnight – hotel in Jakar

Day 08: Jakar

Bumthang is the general name given to a group of four valleys – Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura, with altitudes varying from 2,600 to 4,000m/8,530 to 13,125ft.

In the morning we will 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 castle of the white bird”, and then take a stroll through Bumthang’s market area before returning to the lodge.
Overnight – hotel in Jakar

Day 09: Jakar – Gangtey

A full day’s drive back to Gangtey, about 6 hours from Bumthang, past Trongsa on the west side of the Pele La pass. There are many interesting sights along the way and you can make frequent stops to stretch your legs and explore.
Overnight: hotel in Gangtey

Day 10: Gangtey – Paro

From Gangtey, the road gradually descends into the balmy Punakha valley, then begins a long climb back up to the Dochu La, where a stunning field of white chortens and colorful prayer flags send blessings up to the Himalayan sky; snow peaks line the horizon. From the La, it is only another hour to Thimphu. Stop here for lunch, then continue to Paro (just under 2 hrs), one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan with its slate-roofed farmhouses, graceful willow trees and rushing glacial river beneath snow covered peaks. Afternoon visit to Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the 108 temples constructed by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (only three remain), and one of the two oldest in Bhutan (the other is Jambe Lhakhang in Bumthang). Kyichu is built in a manner similar to the Jokhang in Lhasa. Inside there is a great golden image of Buddha Shakyamuni.
Overnight: hotel in Paro

Day 11: Chele La Ridge Hike

This morning, we will take a drive to Chele La (3750m), the highest motor able pass in the country and hike up along the meadow to Kung Karpo La (4100m). Weather permitting; we will enjoy the breathtaking views of the snowcapped mountains while walking above the tree line along the ridge that divides Paro and Ha valley. The short steep descent from the top will take us to the nunnery of Kila Gompa. Here the nuns, called anims, live a life of contemplation and seclusion, with daily prayer and spiritual practice. The temple itself is surrounded by numerous meditation huts, and many hidden caves lie inside the rocky cliffs. The gompa is surrounded by a lush forest dominated by tall firs. Sparkling mountain streams wind down the slopes, which are covered with a variety of wildflowers and plants.
About 30 anims, or nuns, live here, ranging in age from about 20 to 80 years. The community is one of the oldest of seven nunneries in Bhutan, and was initially established in the early 9th century as a meditation site. After being destroyed by fire, the temple was rebuilt and officially established in 1986 as an anim dratshang (religious community of Buddhist nuns).

Kila Gompa is historically significant as a sacred meditation site. Many renowned Buddhist saints have come here to find peace and seclusion. The main temple houses ancient statues of Chenrezig (Avalokiteswara) and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) among others.

Life here is simple. The day begins and ends with prayers. The anims arise at 3 AM and study Buddhist scripture until 8 AM when they go to the temple for prayers. The first simple meal of the day (rice, vegetables and tea) is eaten at 10 AM, after which studies continue until 9 PM when a simple supper is served. The nuns retire after a final session of prayer. Most of the nuns have given up properties and left their families to live with the bare minimum of material things. Their studies and subsistence are supported by the government.

Some of the older nuns have retired into meditation, while many of the younger ones pursue basic Buddhist studies and perform religious ceremonies. The course takes 5-6 years, after which they begin meditation, which can range from four months to three years. One young nun, when asked why she had chosen this life, replied “There is peace in thinking about others, apart from yourself.” Another said “If I was given back my youth, I would still choose this life but I would start it earlier. I have never been more at peace with myself.”

The walk down from here to the road is lined with small white chortens and it will take us about an hour.
Overnight – hotel in Paro.

Day 12: Departure

After breakfast in the hotel, drive to the airport in time to catch up your onward flight. Your escort will bid you farewell and soon the remote and legendary Dragon Kingdom disappears again behind its guardian mountains.

***These programmes can be customized to fit the interests of the guest. If our guests are interested in visiting Central and Eastern Bhutan, we can schedule programmes ranging from 12 to 14 days duration or even more. Everything is flexible.