Royal Trek

On this trek one gets to walk along the historical route that the royal family used with hundreds of people and mules when moving between the winter palace in Trongsa and the summer palace in Bumthang in the early days of Bhutan’s monarchy. The visit to both the summer and winter palaces are included in this trip besides the usual sightseeing. The royal household moved to its Summer Retreat in Bumthang when Kuenga Rapten hotted up, and the heat and humidity brought out flies and insects, and move back from Wangdicholing palace to avoid the coldness of Bumthang. This route had been abandoned ever since the accessibility of road to this part of the country which is about thirty years ago, and the path is back into its complete wilderness form as nobody uses it now.

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

In the morning, we will take a drive to Thimphu along the windy road taking about an hour and then we will have sightseeing in Thimphu which 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, called drungtsho, 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, 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.

After lunch, you can have free time on your own to walk along the street to see the people and the local stores.
Overnight – hotel in Thimphu.

Day 04: Thimphu – Punakha

In the morning, visit the following: the National Library, with its extensive collection of priceless Buddhist manuscripts; the Institute for Zorig Chusum (commonly known as the Painting School) where students undergo a six-year training course in Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts; the National Institute of Traditional Medicine (outside only), where Bhutan’s famed traditional herbal medicines are compounded and dispensed.

After lunch, proceed to Punakha across Dochu La Pass (3050m). From here one can have a spectacular view of the Himalayas to the north when the sky is clear. The pass or the highest point on the road is marked by prayer flags fluttering on the hill and 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.

Punakha served as the capital town of Bhutan until 1955, and it is still the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). Visit Punakha Dzong, built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in the 17th century and situated at the junction of Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers.

Overnight: hotel in Punakha

Day 05: Punakha – Tongsa

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 the valley a few kilometers from the town. Then drive up a winding mountain road through oak and rhododendron forest 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 Tongsa

Day 06: Tongsa – Kuenga Rapten

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, take a drive towards south to the trail head of our trek and spend a day at Kuenga Rapten and its vicinity. It’s an interesting drive along the road to the border town of Gelephu in south, passing Takse Goemba and a large expanse of rice terraces in the lower Mangdechu valley. Farmhouses and temples dot the fields and you will see local farmers wearing the traditional woven bamboo hats of central Bhutan. We will visit Kuenga Rapten Palace which will give us an intimate insight into life of Bhutan’s monarchy in its early days, and we will also see the villages nearby the trail head of the trek. If we drive further down for another hour, we might see golden langur along the bank of Mangdechu. Golden langur is a highly endangered monkey species which can be seen nowhere else in the world other than in Bhutan.
Overnight: Camp in Kuenga Rapten

Day 07: Royal Trek Begins: Kuenga Rapten – Zangrongpang (04-05 hours)

Today, the first day of the trek, though it’s not a long one the ascent is going to be quite strenuous, it’s up all the way to the camp through the sparsely scattered households of Samchiling before we get to the meadow on the outskirt of the village which is used as the pasture for the cow herds. From here, the vegetation gets thicker to the forest of oaks and rhododendrons through which the trail goes along till we get to the camp at Zangrongpang which is another stretch of meadow used as the summer cow pasture, a spot facing Black Mountain. In the old days, it was here where the royal entourage or the caravan halted for the first night of their three day trip to Bumthang. Clusters of tents were pitched for the royal family and at a distance sufficient for the noise to be inaudible to the royal family, the porters – hundreds of men and women sought their protective camp sites mostly under trees, some near bushes and others near rocky caverns to avoid frost. The stopover for the second night used to be at Zangrongpang as well when the court moved from the other direction and it was here where the Nyerchen (store-master) of Kuenga Rapten Palace had to come with a big reception party to welcome the entourage.
Overnight: Camp at Zangrongpang (2200m)

Day 08: Zangrongpang – Tongle La (06-07 hours)

This morning, we start with a steep short climb on to the ridge straight above our camp from where you can have the last view of Kuenga Rapten and the vast area of sun-drenched terraced rice fields around. From here, there is a long stretch of path reasonably flat but quite narrow over the edge of the precipice and quite often we will come across old stone steps laid along the path which are badly in need of repair. After this long stretch of fairly flat path, we get on to a ridge along which we will gradually ascend through the forests of bamboo, spruce, hemlock, rhododendron, birch, fir and lots more till you get to Tongle La (pass) which is marked with a chorten (stupa). There is a long stretch of beautiful meadow running along the ridge that divides Tongsa and Bumthang valley, and the view is superb from here, be it of great snowcapped mountains or the valleys far beneath. It’s a perfect place of contemplation! Not to forget to come back to the pass to see the sun getting behind the Black Mountain, and to wake up early in the morning the following day to see the sunrise.
Overnight: Camp at Tongle La (3950m)

Day 09: Tongle La – Jakar

Today, we will start quite late as it’s just about 03 hour easy downhill walk to the roadside in the first valley of Bumthang known as Chumey. The path is much wider from here as it is being used by the herds of yaks and the cows from Bumthang, and it goes through a lovely forest of firs occasionally passing through patches of meadows.
Overnight: hotel in Jakar

Day 10: 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.
Overnight: hotel in Jakar

Day 11: 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.

About 3 1/2 hrs west of Trongsa, a side road branches off the main highway toward Gangtey. At the top of the ridge there are beautiful views of the great peaks. (Gang means mountain, and Tey means summit). Gangtey is the site of the only Nyingmapa (Old Sect) monastery on the western side of the Black Mountains. The monastery is headed by Gangteng Tulku, the ninth reincarnation. The original, Pema Thrinley, was the grandson of the Spiritual Treasure-Finder, Terton Pemalingpa, whose legendary deeds took place in and around the Bumthang valleys. His tradition is still followed here. Gangteng Tulku completed a three-year retreat here, and has many followers in the United States, with a dharma center in Crestone, Colorado. The village is inhabited mainly by gomchens (lay monks) who take care of the monastery. On the outside of the gompa are paintings of Hayagriva the horse-heaaded deity, the Wheel of Life, Zandog Pelri or the Heavenly Copper-Colored Mountain Abode (of Guru Rinpoche), and Shambhala. A short way beyond the village is Phobjika Sanctuary, home to the very rare and endangered black-necked cranes which late in the year (after November), migrate here over the Himalayas from Tibet’s Qinghai Plateau. These great birds, beloved in Bhutan and known as Trung-Trung, feed along the marshy Phobjika valley bottomlands, and fill the air with their haunting, melancholy cries. There are said to be only 1600 of the birds in the world, of which about 400-500 come to Bhutan in November and stay until March. The beauty of the cranes has given rise to many myths, legends, folktales and songs. It is said that every year when the birds come and when they leave, without fail they will first circle the monastery three times. Peter Matthiessen, in his book Birds of Heaven, says of them “These elegant birds, in their stature, grace and beauty, their wild fierce temperament, are striking metaphors for the vanishing wilderness of our once bountiful earth;” and “Of all the planet’s far-flung cranes, the least-known and most difficult to see is Grus Nigricollis, the black-necked or Tibetan crane; it was also the last to be discovered.”

Bhutan has a very strong policy of ecological responsibility, which corresponds to the national desire to conserve the cultural heritage; a full 20% of land area is set aside for the protection of natural resources. About 6 miles from Phobjika, deep in the forest and isolated from surrounding villages, is the Nature Study Centre, which contains displays and paintings of wild animals and plants.
Overnight: hotel in Gangtey

Day 12: 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 13: Departure

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

Also known as ‘The Royal Heritage Trail’

The Royal Heritage Trek is yet another tourism product developed to commemorate the past 100 years of the Monarchy’s royal heritage and historic travel route between the Bumthang and Trongsa Dzongkhags. Except for a few herders and the locals around, the trail has not been used for so many years as Bhutan moved into the modern era and so many roads were built throughout the country. It has now been rediscovered as a potential trekking route offering an invigorating adventure with every section of the trail contributing its own attractions.

The trail boasts of a blend of valued history, traditional mores and royal anecdotes which date back to as early as the 1950s. The trek traces the historical route King Jigme Wangchuck, the 2nd King of Bhutan, used when moving from his summer residence, Wangdicholing Palace in Bumthang, to his winter residence, Kuenga Rabten Palace in Trongsa. It was the first King who shifted the government seat from the old winter capitals in Punakha and Thimphu to Wangdicholing palace in Bumthang. In 1928, after the death of the first King, his successor built a new palace in Kuenga Rabten. With its warmer, more temperate climate the valley provided a welcome relief from the harsh winters of Bumthang. The Royal Family and its entourage moved in a majestic procession with hundreds of followers and riding horses trekking over the mountains. The journey took just three days then.

The second King died at his palace of Kuenga Rabten in 1952, after which his son King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk took over. The third King shifted the centre of government back to the old summer capital in Thimphu. The Royal Heritage Trail presents the visitors a look at the history of monarchy with an opportunity to explore it first hand after the royal family treaded the same route more than 50 years ago.

In addition to the rich and the unambiguous historical experience it offers, the trail has an abundance of flora and fauna. Over 40 species of birds have been identified including the Yellow and Black Billed Magpies and the Spotted Nut Cracker. Along the trail, you’ll also enjoy the splendor of violet primula and other beautiful wild flowers.

The trail is a 4-day moderate hiking, which starts from Wangdicholing, Bumthang and ends in Kuenga Rabten, Trongsa or vice versa.