Eight days gives you time enough to get to know Bhutan’s nature a little better with a trip to Phobjika to see the rare dancing black necked cranes, and drop into the exquisite Haa valley. And you’ll still of course visit impressive dzongs and ancient monasteries, including the incredible cliff-top Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) in the Paro valley.
Strong emphasis is laid on the promotion and preservation of its unique culture. By protecting and nurturing Bhutan’s living culture it is believed that it will help guard the sovereignty of the nation.
Morning flight to the Bhutanese city of Paro (55 mins approx), our entry point located in a beautiful valley at 2,280 m, where a warm welcome awaits. Enjoy your first impressions – there are so many small difference to be noticed in this high Himalayan town. The architecture and the dress are immediately noticeable, as too the jovial faces, prayer flags and the cool, fresh air.
We return to visit Paro at the end of our journey, and so now make our way to the capital city of Thimphu (2,400 m) which is an hour’s drive away. We’ll settle you in to the hotel and have lunch.
Thimphu is centre of government, religion and commerce. It’s a lively, rapidly growing place as a result of Bhutan’s increasing prosperity. Yet tradition and modernity seem to sit reasonably comfortably together.
After lunch, we embark on a tour to take in the highlights of Thimphu. Read more about some of the sights of Thimphu that we’ll visit here.
Not quite done with the Bhutanese capital yet, we drive to a vantage point above the city towards a tiny zoo to be astonished by the sight of an animal that seems more out of the pages of a mythical story book. The Takin, the national animal of the Druk Kingdom, is as strange a creature as you’ll ever see – an interesting concoction of a goat and moose.
We then head further to a nunnery, Drubthob Lhakhang. En route, you can capture a fascinating sight of the city from high above. We’ll make a short visit to the local vegetable market to see what’s in season on return to the city centre. After lunch, we drive to Punakha (70 km / 3 hrs approx) via the Dochu La (3,050 m). Again, mountain views can be spectacular, weather permitting.
Capital of Bhutan until 1955, Punakha 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. Afternoon activity will include a walk to the temple of the Divine Madman – Chimi Lhakhang. The walk takes you across farmlands and through a small farming village before ascending to the hilltop temple with commanding views of the river valley below. A look around the village on your return gives you the low-down on typical farm life.
The day starts with a drive to Yambesa (7 km from Punakha) stopping by the Mo Chhu River from where we hike through a beautiful pastoral setting to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten (40 mins approx.) It’s an impressive 30 m tall chorten, dedicated to protector deities, perched high on the hill with a bird’s eye view of the valley below.
After lunch at a farmhouse, we make a visit to the striking 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 centre for 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.
Punakha to the Gangte Region (2900 m) with a stop-over at Wangdue Phodrang
Located south of Punakha and the last town before central Bhutan, Wangdue Phodrang (45mins) is like an extended village with a few well-provisioned shops. The higher reaches of the Wangdue Phodrang Valley provide rich pastoral land for cattle. The district is famous for its fine bamboo work, stone carvings, and slate, which is mined further up a valley. Stretched along the hilltop above the confluence of the Punakha Chu and Tang Chu rivers, the imposing Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is the town’s most visible feature.
Resume the drive towards Gangte, a.k.a. Phobjikha, (2 hrs approx.). Broad yak pastures, rhododendron and pine forests and the winding narrow road leads to a serene bowl shaped valley made to look more remote by the non-existence of power cables and telephone connections. Flanked by the enigmatic yet untouched Black Mountains and the winter abode (Oct-Mar) to the migratory Black Necked Cranes, the Gangte Valley has an unassuming charm about it .
Reaching the valley, we head to one of the farmhouses to take our lunch and try out some local produce. Fortified, we then take a circular walk along the Nature Trail (2 hrs approx) to emerge out onto the ridge – the site of the 450 year old Gangte Monastery which houses one of the largest prayer halls in Bhutan and gives shelter to about 100 resident monks.
En route to Paro, we again make a halt at Dochula pass to break our long drive in time for the lunch amidst the Himalayan vista. Down the road, pull over at Simtokha Dzong. This dzong, built in 1627 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, stands on a low ridge 8 km down the valley from Thimphu. Nowadays it is home to the Institute for Language and Culture Studies. The most noteworthy artistic feature of this dzong is a series of over 300 finely worked slate carvings behind the prayer wheels in the courtyard.
The lovely valley in which Paro is nestled encapsulates a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries and the National Museum. Mt. Jhomolhari (7,314 m) dominates the northern end of the valley; its glacial waters plunging through deep gorges to form the Pa Chu (Paro river). The Paro valley is one of the kingdom’s most fertile, producing the bulk of Bhutan’s famous red rice from its terraced fields.
Our long-awaited morning hike up to the famed Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s nest), an iconic Bhutanese landmark. The upward climb will take around 2 hours and stunning views compensate for the energy expended. Local lore claims that it is here that Guru Padmasambava landed on the back of a Tiger in the 8th century, and then proceeded to meditate for three months. In 1684 a monastery was built on the site to commemorate the event. Midway on the descent, we take lunch at the terraces of a Government run cafeteria facing the Tiger’s Nest.
The remainder of the day has in store for us:
Drukgyel Dzong: Located 15km to the north, this ruined dzong, with a picturesque village nestling below its ramparts, was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate his victory over the Tibetan invaders. Though largely destroyed by fire in 1951, the towering outer walls and central keep remain imposing sights. On a clear day, there is a splendid view of Mt. Jhomolhari from the approach road.
The “fortress of the mountain of jewels“ was also built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on a hill above the township. The approach to the Dzong is through a traditional covered bridge (called the Nemi Zam) and then up a paved stone path running alongside the imposing outer walls. The Valley’s annual springtime religious festival, the Paro Tsechu, takes place in the courtyard of the dzong and on the dance ground on the hillside above.
On a ridge immediately above Rinpung Dzong is Ta Dzong, built as a watchtower to protect the Dzong. (“Ta” means “to see” in Dzongkha, so the watchtower of a dzong is always called a “Ta dzong”). Because of their function, watchtowers are always round in shape. In 1968, Paro’s Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the National Museum. It now holds a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings, an exquisite range of Bhutanese postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural history
Leaving Paro to the west by road, and after driving through pine and rhododendron forest, we begin our climb of the Chele-la pass (4,200 m), the highest mountain pass in Bhutan. From here one has splendid views of the high himal, including the magnificent peaks of Jhomolari, Bhutan’s most sacred peak at over 6,700m, and Jichu Drakey. A 22 km descent from the top of the pass brings us to the erstwhile restricted zone of Haa. The Haa Dzong is presently occupied by the Bhutanese military, but the views from outside its walls are stunning. After a picnic lunch there are visits to the Monastery of Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) followed by the Lhakhang Nagpo (Black Temple). The central shrine of Lhakhang Nagpo is said to resemble that of the Jowo in Lhasa, Tibet.
The three giant hills looming over the fringes of Haa Valley are popularly known today as ‘Rig Sum Goenpa’, signifying three deities: Jambayang, Chana Dorji and Chenrizig.
Return to Paro.
Early morning drive to Airport for the return flight to Kathmandu. Journey ends on arrival at Kathmandu Airport.