Day 1: Fly to Paro/Travel to Thimphu (altitude: 7,700 feet). Early morning proceed to the airport to check in with Druk Air. If we are lucky, we’ll have glorious views of the snow capped Himalayas. On its way to Paro, Druk Air flies over eight of the ten tallest peaks of the world including Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga. The remarkable and steep descent into the Paro Valley is an awe-inspiring beginning to our adventure. Already you can feel the pace of life slow down.
After visa formalities and collection of baggage, we’ll meet with our local guide and the Driver. We’ll then drive through the beautiful agricultural valley of Paro to visit the the Rinpung Dzong (the full name of the Paro Dzong), which means "the fortress of the heap of jewels." This complex houses the administrative and religious headquarters for the Paro district. A part of Bernardo Bertolucci's movie, "Little Buddha," was filmed inside this Dzong.
After lunch, we will drive (1 and half hours) the winding road following the Pa Chu (Paro River) downstream to its confluence with the Wang Chu (Thimphu River), then up-valley to Thimphu, the capital. As we enter Thimphu Valley we will pass by Simtokha, the Dzong built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (the man who unified Bhutan). Simtokha is the oldest of the Dzongs, originally serving as a fortress to protect the region, an administrative center and the center for the monk’s religious activity. Simtokha now houses a language school where scholars of all ages study Dzongkha, the national language. Upon arrival in Thimphu (the only capital city no traffic light!), we'll check in to our centrally located hotel and have the rest of the evening free.
Day 2: Thimphu/Drive to Phobjikha (altitude: 4,500 feet). This morning we'll visit the Bank and the General Post Office to exchange money and to buy Bhutan's famous and beautiful stamps and postcards. Later in the morning, we will head eastward to Punakha Valley. The road winds through pine forests and small villages, and passes by chortens (stupas) and prayer flags before heading up to Dochula Pass (10,000'). The prayer flags on mountain slopes, bridges and high passes, transmit prayers to the Gods and keep up a constant communication with the heavens. At the pass, we'll see 108 newly built chortens (stupas) dedicated to Bhutan's continued peace and happiness.
As we descend from the Pass and continue our drive to the lowlands of Punakha Valley, we will notice the dramatic change in vegetation. At the lower elevation of the valley floor, cactus, banana plants, poinsettia and other semi-tropical plants dominate the landscape. After a few hours, we will come to the green terraced fields of Punakha Valley, where red rice and winter wheat are the staple crops.
In the village of Lobesa, we will enjoy a nice short hike to visit Chime Lhakhang, a temple dedicated to Drukpa Kuenley, who as a favourite saint of the Bhutanese people is known affectionately as "The Divine Madman". The temple is on a hillside in the middle of rice fields and has become a pilgrimage site for childless couples (learn more about Drukpa Kuenley from "The Blessings of Bhutan" by Russ and Blyth Carpenter and "The Divine Madman" by Keith Dowman).
Day 3: Punakha Valley. On our second day after breakfast, we'll visit the Punakha Dzong, the "Palace of Great Happiness" built in 1647 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the one who unified Bhutan. The Dzong lies between the Pho Chu (male river) and the Mo Chu (female river), and is the winter home of the central monk body.
When the Zhabdrung arrived in Punakha, he set up a camp at the confluence of the two rivers and that very night had a dream in which he heard the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tantric Buddhism. He then built a Dzong on that spot and placed the Rangjung Kharsapani there, the most sacred relic that he brought with him from his monastery in Tibet.
A devastating flash flood in 1994 washed away a major part of the Dzong. His Majesty the King personally supervised the reconstruction of the Dzong, a project that has occupied thousands of skilled craftsmen and builders during the past twelve years. The results of the restoration are amazing. You will be seeing the most magnificent architectural and artistic masterpiece in the Kingdom, just consecrated in an elaborate ceremony in May, 2003.
After the Dzong, we will enjoy a beautiful drive alongside the Mochu River through several small villages and past traditional farmhouses till we reach Serigang village. From here, we may opt to go on a short hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten (Stupa). A visit here is a good introduction to Tantric Buddhism in all its complexities. It contains some of the best Tantric art in Bhutan, and a visit there will serve as a balance to the more traditional Buddhist statuary and wall painting visible at the Punakha Dzong. The shapes and forms of the Tantric statues may surprise most visitors. The terrifying divinities are manifestations of peaceful gods, which assume these forms to subdue evil spirits that are hostile to Buddhist doctrine.
The nudity of most of the deities show that this world’s conventions are of no importance on higher planes, and the persons being crushed by the wrathful deities are either spirits hostile to Buddhism or primordial negative concepts such as ignorance, jealousy and anger. In Tantric Buddhism, numerous statues and paintings are also in the form of sexual union, which represents the union of knowledge and wisdom that permits the attainment of sublime state of enlightenment. After the hike, we will drive back to our hotel.
Day 4: Trongsa (altitude: 7,200 feet). After breakfast, we'll drive to Trongsa enjoying magnificent views of small villages, terraced fields, diverse forests of exotic Himalayan plants, trees and wildflowers. As we climb higher up and above the cloud the forest gets more beautiful with big 30-40 feet rhododendron trees, and massive hemlock and fir trees. Near the Pelela Pass (10,825 feet), we'll enjoy a nice walk through a beautiful forest of blooming rhodendron and fields of dwarf bamboo in a good high altitude birding area. This is a likely time to see yaks, as they live only in high altitudes.
Before reaching Trongsa, we’ll see the 18th century Chendebji Chorten, a whitewashed stone chorten (or stupa) built in order to nail into the ground a demon who had been terrorizing the inhabitants of the valley. The first sight of the Tongsa Dzong ( a “Dzong” is a fortress), the largest in Bhutan, is from across the valley. But the road winds another 12.5 miles before we’ll actually get there. Magnificent views around every turn!
Day 5: Trongsa to Jakar, Bumthang (altitude: 8,500 feet). This morning, we will visit Trongsa Dzong and explore the surrounding area. Built in 1647, it is the largest Dzong in the country. It is also the ancestral home of the Royal Family, and both the first and second kings ruled the country from Trongsa. The Dzong sits on a narrow spur that sticks out into the gorge of the Mangde-Chu River and overlooks the routes east, west and south. It was built in such a way that in the olden days, it had complete control over all east-west traffic. This helped to augment the strategic importance of the Dzong which eventually placed its Penlop (regional ruler) at the helm of a united country when His Majesty Ugyen Wangchuk became the first king of Bhutan. To this day, the Crown Prince of Bhutan becomes the Penlop of Trongsa before ascending the throne, signifying its historical importance.
After visiting the Dzong, we’ll continue our drive east to Jakar (Bumthang), crossing the Yutong La Pass (11,200 feet). We may visit "Sangna Thig Chog Lhakhang", the temple of prophecy on the way into Bumthang. This is a very special temple, newly built as per the predictions and prophesies of the oracle of Damchen Dorji Lekpa, one of the most important protective deities of the Nyingma School of Buddhism founded by Guru Rinpoche.
As we near the first of the four beautiful valleys of Bumthang, Himalayan blue pine dominates the landscape. In the village of Chumey, we’ll stop at a special wool shops. This place is famous for Yathra weaving, colorful hand-woven woollen textiles. In Jakar, we will spend three nights in small comfortable lodge.
Days 6-8: Bumthang Valley Cultural Trek. Bumthang is one of the most beautiful and sacred areas of Bhutan, known for the visits of Guru Rinpoche, when he was bringing Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. Guru Rinpoche is considered the second Buddha and the founder of Tantric Buddhism. The open and wide valleys filled with fields and farmers, and the gentle slopes of beautiful mountains dotted with many sacred temples and monasteries, make for an unforgettable experience.
After breakfast, we’ll begin our cultural trek. It will involve two nights camping and hiking through beautiful villages, past farm houses, people working in their fields, beautiful pine forests, and few comparatively small passes.
Day 9: Phobjikha or Wangdi (altitude: 9,800 feet). After breakfast, we'll drive back past Trongsa crossing the Yutong-la and Pele-la passes to the hidden valley of Phobjikha in the Black Mountains National Park. Circled by pine and rhododendron covered mountains, this is one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan. The rare Black Neck Cranes migrate from Tibet to Bhutan and use the swampy center of this valley as their winter residence from mid November to mid March. Considered a symbol of peace, black-necked cranes have been revered by Bhutanese people for centuries.
In Phobjikha Valley we'll visit the Black Neck Crane Information Center. The Center works to conserve cranes and the wetland ecosystem on which they depend. The centers various conservation and education programs and projects stress the interdependence between the birds and their habitat the relationship that exists between the birds, habitat and people.
If time permits, we'll enjoy a nice and easy hike through the beautiful valley among a cluster of traditional houses, past the village school and through a beautiful Himalayan Pine forest. We may also visit Gangtey Goenpa, perched atop the ridge overlooking the valley. The Gompa is directed by Gangtey Tulku, the ninth reincarnation (a “tulku” is a reincarnate) of Pema Lingpa. According to the Buddhist tradition and as a mark of their devotion, the cranes circle the monastery three times on their arrival in November and before they fly back to Tibet in March.
We may spend the night in Phobjikha (Gangtey) or continue to Wangdi Valley.
Day 10: Thimphu (altitude - 7,700 feet). After breakfast, we drive to Thimphu, crossing the Dochula Pass. Once in Thimphu, we will settle into one of the centrally located hotels.
We'll have the rest of the day to explore Bhutan's exotic capital city—a fascinating combination of traditional and contemporary life. There are numerous things to do here. A visit to Takin Preserve to see the Takin, Bhutan’s national animal is a favorite. Many visitors also enjoy visiting the handmade paper factory along with some interesting handicraft shops, where they sell masks, beautiful hand-woven textiles, carpets, jewelry and Bhutanese wooden products. Other choices include: a chance to see Bhutanese Archery Game - Bhutan’s national sport and an integral part of all festivities, and an evening walk to the Memorial Chorten, a sacred shrine built in honor of the current King’s father. The Chorten is an impressive three-story monument with Tantric statues and wall paintings of three different cycles of Nyingma teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. You will find many elderly people making the Kora (pilgrimage circuit).
Day 11: Paro (altitude - 7,400 feet). This morning we will drive back to Paro for our last two nights in Bhutan. Upon arrival in Paro, we will conclude our visit to the Dragon Kingdom with a hike to the magical temple known as Taktsang (the "Tiger's Nest). Taktsang is one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites in the Himalayan World. The temple itself is perched on a granite cliff that drops 2,000 feet to the valley floor. The name is derived from a legend that Guru Rinpoche flew across the mountains to this spot on the back of a tigress, reaching a cave in which he meditated for three months, converting the people of Paro Valley to Buddhism during his stay.
The path takes us through a forest of oak and rhododendron, arriving at a small chorten surrounded by prayer flags. With a little more effort, we will reach a teahouse and a spectacular view of Taktsang. That will be our lunch stop. Those who choose can hike further, to an overlook that is almost at eye level with the temple.
After a leisurely hike back, there will be time for last minute shopping and also packing.
Day 12: Paro to Bangkok. After a leisurely breakfast at our hotel, we'll drive to the airport to depart from the Land of the Thunder Dragon and return to Bangkok. Tashi Delek!
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