Bhutan is perhaps the most mysterious and diverse of all the Himalayan kingdoms, where for centuries a traditional Buddhist culture has thrived in isolation from the rest of the world.. It is a land of contrast – with lush forested valleys, fortified monasteries, sacred mountains, art and architecture unique to the region.. The captial Thimphu is charming and serene, a delight to explore.. The opportunity to explore the rural lifestyle and architecture of Bhutan via the beautiful Punakha and Haa Valleys
Bhutan is perhaps the most mysterious and diverse of all the Himalayan kingdoms, where for centuries a traditional Buddhist culture has thrived in isolation from the rest of the world. It is a country that puts its people and environment first – a place where progress is measured in gross national happiness not GDP, and that’s not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. It’s a place of lush forested valleys, fortified monasteries, sacred mountains, and art and architecture unique to the region. This journey begins in Paro and heads straight to Thimphu, where there are two days to discover the history and heritage of this charming and serene capital. Walk in the countryside and back in time with visits to the beautiful Punakha and Haa Valleys. Here the rural lifestyle and architecture of Bhutan is explored before returning to Paro. Finish with a true highlight – the spectacular Taktsang (the Tiger’s Nest), a small monastery clinging to a rocky cliff 900 metres above the valley floor. A journey through the astonishing beauty of the people, landscape and culture of Bhutan will have your happiness levels off the scale.
Paro – Thimphu
Welcome to Bhutan, the last Shangri-La. Depending on the clarity of the weather and your flight path into Paro (2,280m), you may be met with an awe-inspiring view of the massive eastern Himalayan peaks on your way in, including Kanchenjunga (the world's third highest peak) and Chomolhari (Bhutan's holy mountain). On arrival, you will be met at Paro airport and transferred to Thimphu (2736 m), the capital of Bhutan (65 km, approximately 75 minutes). The snaking road follows the Pa Chu as it winds downstream to its confluence with the Wang Chu, then up the valley to Thimphu. After settling in, there will be a briefing given by the tour leader in the late afternoon and any last-minute arrangements will be coordinated. Thimphu is a compact town that occupies both sides of the Thimphu Valley, bisected in the middle by the Thimphu Chu River. Time permitting, you will visit the King Jigme Dorji Memorial Chorten (built in 1974 in memory of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk), and take an orientation walk along the main street. If there is not enough time today, you will do this on Day 2.
After breakfast you will venture out to explore Thimphu, first driving to Buddha point (where a 51-metre-high gilded statue watches over the city) to enjoy an excellent panoramic view of the city. On your way back you will take a short hike around the small enclosure in the pine trees to spot Takin, the national animal of Bhutan – a unique goat-antelope creature. The next stop is the Zilukha Nunnery in Drubthob Goemba. You will then pass the vast white, red and gold Tashicho Dzong (Fortress of the Glorious Religion), located on the right bank of Thimphu Chhu. Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal (Bhutan's supreme leader in the first half of the 17th century) built the current structure in 1641, however the original building dates back to 1216. To this day the Dzong (which means fortress-monastery) serves as the seat of the government and home to about 300 monks during summer. You can then enjoy some free time in town for your own exploration. Sites to uncover in the capital include the National Textile Museum, Folk Heritage Museum, and the Voluntary Artists Studio Thimphu, an institution where children receive formal education in the art of traditional painting, sculpture, and woodcarving. Thimphu has an excellent range of handicrafts, most notably woven cloth, wooden masks, thangkas, silverware, jewellery, and bamboo crafts that come from all over Bhutan.
This morning, travel out the castle-monastery of Simtokha Dzong, the first built by Zhabdrung (in AD1629) and said to guard against a demon that escaped into the nearby rock. Next, climb the winding Dochula pass (3100 m) through beautiful tropical forest and sparse villages. The pass is marked by 108 chortens or stupas – built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed fighting Indian insurgents in 2003 – and gardens of colourful prayer flags. On the clear day you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the Eastern Himalaya, including Gangkhar Puensum, perhaps the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. The scenic Punakha Valley is drained by the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu (meaning 'Father' and 'Mother' Rivers) which enjoys a temperate climate which is ideal for farming. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1966. Here you’ll visit the white-walled, red-roofed Punakha Dzong, the administrative and religious centre and winter retreat of His Holiness, Je Khenpo – the chief abbot of Bhutan. This six-storey high monastery is one of the largest dzongs in Bhutan. Construction began in 1637, although sections of it have been restored after floods in 1994. The Dzong boasts intricately carved woodwork, prayer halls and beautiful religious paintings on walls and doorways.
Begin the day with a short 30-minute drive from the Punkha Dzong to the base of a hill where a ridge-top monastery sits. In this almost sub-tropical valley, begin a hike at a suspension bridge that crosses the Mo Chu river and cross through paddy fields before starting to climb a moderately inclined trail to the Kahmsum Yulley temple. This temple was built by the Queen Mother, Ashi Tsherin Yangdon Wangchuck, and is dedicated to the well being of Bhutan. It’s a classic example of Bhutan’s fine architectural and artistic traditions, and is the only one its kind in the world. It takes approximately 1 hour from the car park to hike up to the temple, and 30 minutes to descend. From the top you can take in sweeping views across the valley. Today there’s also the option to take a short walk to the Chimi Lhakhang – The Temple of Fertility. People from all corners of the country visit the Lhakhang to seek a blessing from Drukpa Kuenley, also known as the ‘Divine Madman’. A revered womaniser and drinker, this wandering preacher taught that sexual freedom was at the centre of Truth. On a 15-minute walk through the village of Sopsokha to the temple you will notice the phallic symbols painted on walls, a symbol of fertility and protection from evil. You can end the day at the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Temple and nunnery, where you’ll arrive in time for evening prayers at 6 pm. The magnificent gleaming structure sits perched on a ridge amid pine trees and overlooks the valleys of Toebesa, Punakha and Wangduephodrang.
Today you will travel to one of the most remote and sacred valleys in Bhutan – the Haa Valley. This area only opened to tourism in 2002 and has one of the strongest auras of stepping into the past, in a country that already feels lost in time. The surroundings mountains push up against the northern Indian state of Sikkim and the south of Tibet, and they are as wild, uninhabited, and unexplored as anywhere in the world. You will take a 170 km, 5–7 hour drive from Punakha to Haa, travelling down the spectacular Cheli La Pass (3990 m). This pass through dense spruce and larch forests has incredible mountain views as it zigzags down into the valley. Look out for the surrounding peaks and views of the Haa and Paro valleys. Continue down into the attractive little town of Haa, with traditional two storey wooden shops and a sprawling collection of buildings around a central dzong used by the Indian army. When you arrive, relax and take a walk around the town to meet the friendly local people. Tonight there’s the option to taste local dishes with dinner at a nearby farmhouse.
Enjoy a full day of exploration in this culturally rich valley, which is also known for being the ancestral home of the Royal grandmother. The two most important temples here are the seventh century Lhakhang Karpo (White temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black temple), which sit at the foothills of a group of hills known as Meri Puensum. Legend has it that King Songtsen Gampo released a black and a white pigeon to select sites to build the temples, which act as guardian sentinels keeping watch over the southern entrance to the valley. Travel back towards the Cheli La Pass, which is decorated with thousands of prayer flags, and have a picnic lunch in the surrounding pine tress. As you climb the hill towards the north of the pass – out of blue pine and rhododendron forest into windswept highlands – the mountain tops will appear one by one, revealing Himalayan peaks such as the Jhomolhari (7314 m), Jichu Drake (6794 m) and world’s third highest mountain Kangchenjunga (8586 m) located in Sikkim. A variety of birds can be also be seen and heard in the mountain landscape. You will then take a 45-minute hike through primeval forest from the road to Kila Goemba, one of the oldest Nunneries in Bhutan. The building almost to seems to suspend in mid air from the rock face, and it’s home to around 60 hardy nuns. If there’s time, perhaps practice some meditation in this place that’s been a spiritual retreat since the ninth century. Return down into the valley and back to Haa for the night.
Retrace the drive up the spectacular Cheli La Pass and return to Paro (approximately 2 hours). Upon arrival in Paro, visit the impressive Ta Dzong, a 17th century watchtower above the Paro Dzong that now houses the National Museum. It features an excellent collection of Bhutanese antiquities and treasures (including the King's famous 'dragon hat), an interesting assortment of costumes from the different regions of Bhutan, and a wonderful collection of painted and embroidered Thangkas (religious pictures). To discover more of the local history then the ruined Drukgyal Dzong, located 18 kilometres from the city, is a great place to explore. Built in the 17th century by the great Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, father and unifier of medieval Bhutan, the Dzong was burnt down by an accidental fire in 1950s. It was never rebuilt, left in ruins as an evocative reminder of the great victories it was built to commemorate. Explore the ramparts and relive the memories of a glorious past. This afternoon we will enjoy a traditional meal at Tshering Farm House. Try your hand at Bhutan's national sport with an archery lesson.
Tiger's Nest Monastery – Paro
After an early breakfast, prepare to hike to the legendary Taktsang (Tiger's Nest), a magnificent monastery, clinging on a rock cliff 900 meters above the valley floor. The legend, dating back to AD747, says that the Great Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhawa) flew here from northeast Bhutan on the back of a tigress to subdue the demons of Paro Valley. The guru then meditated in the holy cave that is the site of the Pelphug Lhakhang today. According to Tantric Buddhist mythology, the vanquished local deities became the protectors of the dharma and one of them, Singey Samdrup, is recognised today as the guardian deity of Taktsang. Guru Rinpoche is also believed to have concealed among the rocks of Taktsang various forms of Dharma treasures known as Ters, which were destined to be discovered later by Tertons (treasure discoverers) for the propagation of Dharma. Taktsang was severely damaged by fire in 1998 but the King commanded its immediate restoration. The royal command dictated that the original aura, authenticity and architectural splendour must be preserved at all costs. This project has been widely seen as an act of devotion involving all sections of Bhutanese society and as homage to the nation's cultural heritage. It also proved to be an opportunity for Bhutan's traditional artists and craftsmen to hone the skills inherited from their forefathers down the ages. You’ll hike through lush pine forest beneath thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags up into the mountains for a closer view of the temple. After approximately an hour’s walking, you’ll reach a small teahouse that has a wonderful panoramic view of the temple. You’ll take a refreshments and lunch break here. For those interested, it is possible to get a closer view by hiking another 45 minutes to an hour (each direction) to reach the small chorten directly across from the temple. Anyone not interested in hiking any further can relax at the teahouse and enjoy the view. Back in Paro, celebrate this Bhutan discovery with one final meal together.
After breakfast your driver and tour leader will transfer you to the airport for your onward flight. Please note that your departure flight is not included as part of the trip and must be booked separately.