13 days Bhutan Tour
Bhutan is old, varied and beautiful! It is tranquil and rejuvenating. Yet it is also changing, inexorably. So get to see Bhutan by traveling deep into its untrodden interiors where time stands still and life still is a dream-like trance, a world within a world.
Places to visit: Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, Trongsa, Bumthang, Mongar,
Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse, Lhuentse and Samdrup Jongkhar (optional)
Altitude variation: 500m to 3,300m absl
Arrival at Paro International Airport, Bhutan’s window to the outside world. Visitors
are transported into another-worldly realm of quaint traditional houses, farms,
ancient monasteries and monuments which hearken back to days of yore. This is a
Himalayan civilization at its best, preserved amid hauntingly rugged mountains often
dubbed as the Abode of the Gods.
Visit the National Museum, Bhutan’s repository of history, arts and crafts, and other expressions of culture which have shaped the country’s identity for eons. Visit Kyichu Lhakhang, built in 639 AD, making it the oldest temple Bhutan. It has an ancient statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Symbolically, Kyichu marks the period of the introduction of Buddhism in Bhutan and its sway thereafter leading to the formation of a vibrant Buddhist culture in the country. Stroll along the Tshongdue town to get glimpses of people and their lifestyle, house and architecture, and various commercial outlets like art and craft shops, coffee houses, and other urban amenities.
Drive higher up into the Paro valley and embark on an uphill hike of approximately
two hours to Taktsang monastery, an icon of the Himalayan Buddhist world. The
monastery hangs precariously on a vast granite cliff with spectacular views of the
Paro valley. Padmasambhava, the founder of Vajrayana Buddhism, meditated at the
site of this temple in the 8 th century, followed by numerous Buddhist masters who
discovered spiritual treasures and attained enlightenment here. It is said that
celestial beings (Dakinis) descended from the heavens to donate their hair to be
used as the foundation support during the construction of the temple.
Upon return from Taktsang, visit the 17 th century “fortress of victory” at Drukgyal. Thereafter, visit a farmhouse, and enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal with the host family.
On the way to the capital city, Thimphu, travel via passages hewn from sturdy
mountains and along banks of pristine rivers fed by glaciers. Enroute, see
Tachhogang, the temple and homestead of the 15 th century “Da Vinci of the
Himalayas”, Thangtong Gyalpo, who built iron-chain bridges all over the region.
Discover Bhutan’s capital city and what makes it the heart of the Kingdom’s art, culture, lifestyle, governance, and commerce. About one-fifth of Bhutanese live in the city, making it a crucible of the country’s multi-ethnic and multi-cultural tapestry. Thimphu is not just where the King resides or the central government functions; it is also the bastion of spirituality with temples, monasteries and other vestiges of Buddhism.
Visit the world’s largest statue of Shakyamuni Buddha at Kuensel Phodrang. With its serene poise, the statue overlooks the capital city, gently reminding its residents of the merit of cultivating compassion, and pursuing peace and happiness in their daily lives.
Drive to the Takin’s Preserve located at the northern flank of the city and find out why this almost mythical animal has assumed a great importance in Bhutanese folk life. Visit the premises of the Institute of Zorig Chusum, the 13 Traditional Arts and Crafts of Bhutan, and discover the ancient techniques of Bhutanese textiles, sculpting, carving, painting, carpentry, etc.
Enroute, see Tashi Chhodzong, the 17 th century temple-fortress straddling the left flank of Wangchhu (river) while on the right bank sits the Parliament Building. The former is replete with history, of both glory and intrigues, and now houses the office of Bhutan’s King and several government ministries besides the residential quarters of the Chief Abbot and clergy. The more modem & sprightly Parliament Building houses the nation’s highest legislative bodies and the office of the Prime Minister.
Visit the Centenary Farmers’ Market for an insight into the lives of Bhutanese farmers who comprise nearly 60% of the total population. The visit is also an opportunity to see first-hand the life-style of rural Bhutanese. Wind up the day with a stroll along Norzin Lam, the throbbing centre of the capital city with its sundry shops, hotels, restaurants, coffee houses, and discotheques. This is an opportunity to meet Bhutanese from all walks of life: youths, monks, businesspeople, and various ethnic groups.
Head into the interior to feel the pulse of the rugged, the adventurous and the less
explored façade of Bhutan. The route is historically significant: it was along this
footpath, row replaced by paved road, that Bhutanese moved between their summer
capital in Thimphu and the winter capital in Punakha. The 75-km stretch is
remarkable for its numerous sights and sounds of Himalayan wildlife, alpine flowers,
terraced rice fields and villages, and temples and stupas lodged amid mediaeval-like
settings. The drop and gain in altitude is pretty significant as one traverses between
1,000 and 3,100 meters above the sea level in just one day.
See Semtokha Dzong, Bhutan’s oldest monastery-fortress built in 1627, and then enjoy the breathtaking views at Dochula Pass, 3,100 meters above the sea level. From this historical pass, one gets a 360° panoramic view of the mighty Himalayan mountains, including five peaks above 7,000 meters. This awe-inspiring sight, combined with 108 Buddhist stupas built on a mound nearby, make the Dochula sojourn one of the highlights of any visit to Bhutan.
Descending into the warmer Punakha-Wangdi valley, take a short hike from the highway to Chimi Lhakhang, the vaunted temple of fertility, blessed by the 16 th century “Divine Madman” Drukpa Kuenley. The temple is worshipped for its power to grant the boon of children to barren couples, supposedly bequeathed through the 500-year-old wooden phallus hung in the temple’s inner sanctum.
Wind up the day by stepping into the corridors of the magnificent Punakha Dzong. This palace-fortress, set like a ship sailing on a vast ocean, is flanked by two rivers (male and female) and houses Bhutan’s most prized spiritual treasures. A marvelous sight to behold, Punakha Dzong is a perfect specimen of Bhutanese architecture.
Bhutan is not defined by its modern towns or recent developments. Its history
originated from villages, valleys and mountains as did its culture, traditions and
identity. Therefore, a peek into rural life is truly a measure of what Bhutan was, is
and will be.
The village of Changyul sits a few blocks away from the historic Punakha Dzong. Its antecedents are as compelling as the Dzong’s itself. It is said that some 500-700 years ago, a young woman and a man fell in love, simple and pure like a flower blossom, only for their romance to end in a soul-wrenching tragedy.
Faced with the cruel social convention of the time, the lovers took their own lives and what endures to this day is a timeless song chronicling the episode and the original house in which the girl lived. Visit the remnant of this roadside house and, one may, as a token of prayer and faith in the eternity of love, lay a floral wreath there.
Khamsum Yulley Namgyel stupa: Buddhists believe in Karma, the phenomenon of cause and effect, which defines the destiny of every animate being. To attain spiritual merit and good Karma, we visualize and meditate. One such physical manifestation of visualization is the stupa of Khamsum Yulley in upper Punakha valley which, upon a mere glance, is said to confer boundless merit and pave our passage to Nirvana. The visit takes us via Jigme Dorji National Park renowned for the highlanders communities of Laya & Lunana, Snow Leopard, glaciers and bountiful wild flowers.
On our way to Phobjikha, we pass by:
Wangdue Dzong: Take a glimpse of Wangdue Dzong, built about 500 years ago, standing on a hillock as a testimony of Bhutan’s medieval power and glory. The Dzong is the stronghold of Sha valley which is famous for its ornamental speech (traditional ballads), indigenous foods, and oral folk traditions.
White-bellied Heron habitat: the Punatshangchu (river) enroute has assumed global importance today as the key habitat of the White-bellied Heron, a gigantic bird with a magnificent wingspan. Less than 50 of this critically endangered bird exist in the world and about half are found along this river basin.
Punatshangchu basin: this basin is critical to Bhutanese economy and Bhutan’s ambition to be a leader in green energy with two huge hydropower projects, each with a capacity to generate more than 1,000 MW of energy, constructed downstream.
Phobjikha: at 2,900 meters absl, Phobjikha is one of Bhutan’s largest glacial
valleys, beautiful to behold and visited each winter by hundreds of “celestial birds”:
the Black-Necked Crane, flying down from the Tibetan Plateau. As the birds take off
or descend, they circle the nearby ancient Gangtey monastery three times, as if in
deference to the spiritual powers that be.
While in Phobjikha, undertake the Black-necked Crane Hike, and then visit the Crane Information Centre and the Gangtey monastery which houses a Buddhist college. Phobjikha is also well-known for its high-altitude flowers, numerous species of butterflies and Himalayan birds besides unique high altitude human habitations. To be in Phobjikha is also to self-reflect and contemplate within a setting that is serene, meditative and filled with natural delights.
We travel further eastward along ancient trails trodden by kings and saints in the past as they went about sowing seeds of spiritual faith or consolidating political domains. Enroute, we come across:
Pelela Pass: this strategic mountain pass, 3,300m absl, traditionally divided east and west Bhutan. Today, brimming with alpine flowers, Yak and sheep, the pass commands a stunning view of the Black Mountain range which harbors a forest eco- system unlike any in Bhutan.
Chendebji Stupa: on crossing the picturesque Rukubji village and its beautiful mustard fields, we reach Chendebji where a stupa soars into an azure blue sky. Built to contain demonic forces in 18 th century Bhutan, the stupa gazes intently into the four cardinal directions reminding one of spiritual awakening and transitory nature of existence.
Road to Trongsa Dzong: there is so much history and mysticism associated with this road. Local people recount stories of Garp Lungi Khorlo, the “wind-borne messenger”, who could walk to and fro Punakha Dzong and Trongsa Dzong in a day, a super-human feat by any stretch of imagination; a dreaded demoness at Nyala Duem who terrorized the people in the vicinity; and local deities and their fiefdoms such as Muktsen of Nubi, Ap Phola Vehn (???) of Tangsibi, and Garab Wangchuk of Trongsa Dzong.
Tsheringma Drupchu: the water from this water-driven prayer wheel is said to endow blessings of sweet and melodious voice to aspiring singers through the supernatural powers of the Goddess of Music and Longevity, Tsheringma, who resides there.
Trongsa Dzong: Bhutan’s biggest, this formidable Dzong was the centre of power in medieval Bhutan. It guarded the eight realms of eastern and central Bhutan – Sharchog Khorlo Tsibgyed – and gave birth to the Wangchuck dynasty, the present succession of Kings. Built without using a single iron nail, the fortress sprawls over an entire mountain spur below which flows the Mangde Chu (river). Apart from palace rooms and administrative quarters, the Dzong has about 30 temples.
Ta Dzong: a few kilometers drive uphill from Trongsa Dzong lies the Ta Dzong or the Watch Tower. Built with a circular base, in the olden times this watch tower was used to spy on approaching invaders and alert the rulers in the Dzong. Today, it has been converted into a museum dedicated to the Kings of Bhutan.
Chumey Yathra weave: upon crossing Yotongla Pass, 3,300m absl, we meander downhill to the village of Chumey, known for its unique textile called Yathra spun from sheep wool and Yak hair. We can see local women making diverse clothes from this product on a local loom called Thri Thag. This region also produces Bumthang Mathra, a textile from which Bhutan’s national dresses – Gho for men and Kira for women – are woven.
Bumthang literally means “the valley of a thousand plains”. Sure enough, it is
endowed with numerous flatlands, each with its own characteristics and appeal. On
the whole, the district is a visual feast of spectacular natural scenery interspersed
with venerated Buddhist monuments and sacred sites, thus earning the moniker “the
Spiritual Heartland of Bhutan”.
- Jampa Lhakhang: built in 640 AD by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo, this temple is a precious milestone of Bhutan’s earliest recorded history. It houses the statue of Jowo Jampa – Maitreya – who is destined to appear as the future Buddha after the era of present Buddha Shakyamuni comes to an end.
- Chakhar Lhakhang: this small temple is said to stand on the site of the historical “nine-storied iron castle” built by a King Sindhu Raja of Bumthang in the 8 th century AD. The country’s earliest known ruler, the king played a defining role in the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan.
- Kurjey Lhakhang: Kurje means “body imprint” and it is here in the interiors of a rock cliff over which temples were later built that the 8 th century Buddhist master, Guru Padmasambhava, meditated and destroyed evil spirits. With the evils led by Shelging Karpo subdued under dramatic circumstances, the Guru left behind his body imprints which to this day attract pilgrims from all over Bhutan and beyond.
- Tamzhing monastery: This structure is the key heritage of Bhutan’s greatest native saint whose spiritual legacy is spread all over the country. Pema Lingpa, one of the finest revealers of Vajrayana treasures, built and lived in this monastery which still preserves his handiworks such as paintings, iron appliances (he was a famous blacksmith as well), carpentry and masonry works dating back more than 500 years.
- Mebar Tsho: Literally the “Burning Lake”, it was here at this dark swirling pool at Tang that Pema Lingpa performed what is dubbed the “miracle of the then century”. With a lighted butter lamp on his head, he plunged into the pool and resurfaced, with the butter lamp intact, clutching in his hand a trunk of religious treasures (statue and scriptures) of profound significance. The place is thronged by pilgrims to this day.
- Visit agriculture enterprises like cheese and honey making units besides sampling indigenous dishes.
Drive uphill to Phrumsengla Pass, 3,400m absl, now designated as the Phrumsengla
National Park. The park is interspersed with blue pine and mixed forests and harbor
numerous animal species including the Bengal Tiger and Leopard. From the pass’
summit, we descend to the banks of the Kurichu (river), an altitude drop of almost
2,500 meters. Enroute, we pass by the waterfall at Namling before entering the semi-
tropical zone between Yongkola and Limithang often dubbed the “birding capital of
the world”. An estimated 500 species of birds have been sighted and recorded in this
area, some endemic, others globally endangered or threatened, because of which
the Bhutanese government has enforced strict conservation policies.
On approaching Limithang, we see the ruins of the palace-fortress of Zhongar whose ruler governed much of eastern Bhutan in the olden days. Quite a few folk stories and local anecdotes about the fortress and its rulers abound which are being recounted to this day. Limithang and the adjoining Gyalpozhing town boast of Kurichhu hydro-power plant, Bhutan’s only information technology college, and a host of horticultural initiatives spearheaded by the government. From Gyalpozhing, we drive uphill to Mongar town where we stop for the night.
We visit the district of Lhuentse and return to Mongar the same day. This journey of
roughly 70 kms takes us into a region known as the birth place of Bhutan’s kings but,
for this trip, we will confine our visits to the following:
Takila: across expansive terraced rice fields and farm houses lies the world’s biggest statue of Guru Padmasambhava, considered by Vajrayana Buddhists as the Second Buddha. The statue sits imposingly on a hillock overlooking valleys far and beyond. A mere glance of the statue is said to pave way to ultimate liberation through transference of soul or consciousness after death.
Khoma:At Khoma watch a live demonstration of how Bhutan’s finest textile, Kishuthara, is woven by the womenfolk there. This cloth, intricately designed and embroidered, is highly coveted and worn only during ceremonial or festive occasions. It takes about a year to weave one piece, thus making it a collector’s item in the textile world. We will also partake in an “alcohol feast”, a hallmark of the people in this village.
Lhuentse Dzong: see the district headquarters and center of local polity, culture and religion. Return to Mongar.
This is our journey to the heartland of the Tshangla, a dialect spoken by nearly one-
third of Bhutan’s population. The terrain is highly rugged and villages more or less
hang precariously on steep mountain slopes. The local culture is also slightly
different from the rest of Bhutan, thus spawning customs, traditions and beliefs which
are uniquely indigenous.
Enroute from Mongar, we pass through villages which produce indigenous vegetable dyes used in Bhutanese textiles. At Sherichhu, we will stop to look at organic products like soap and lemongrass oil. Further on, we will find out how lemongrass oil, widely used as fragrance or raw material by the global perfume industry, is extracted in the wild.
Just before reaching Trashigang Dzong, we take a brief detour to look at the remnants of what used to be Bhutan’s longest iron-chain suspension bridge built by Thangtong Gyalpo in the 14 th century. Once upon a time this bridge played a pivotal role in bringing together communities who were otherwise divided by deep gorges and swollen rivers and hence, for lack of interactions, developed their own languages and became self-sustaining independent entities in themselves.
After lunch in Trashigang and enjoying the view of its magnificent Dzong, we travel further east to Radhi to meet village women who are skilled in the craft of weaving textiles from raw silk. Especially in spring and winter, these women will be out and about weaving fabulous cloth pieces which are used to make the men’s dress or Gho. On our way back to Trashigang, we visit the roadside Buddhist institute at Rangjung and interact with the Buddhist monks there. If time permits, we will also visit the nearby nunnery at Khardung.
Trashi Yangtse district is filled with sacred sites and monuments dating back
centuries. Our first stopover is Gomphu Kora where every year in March people from
the eastern region gather to circumambulate a temple from dusk till dawn as part of
an ancient tradition. A large rock near the temple is believed to contain the sacred
“Vase” containing the “Nectar of Immortality”.
A little further on lies Gonza (Gungja) Nye, another hallowed site of spirituality, where Guru Padmasambhava was served midday tea by his spiritual consort Yeshey Tshogyal, hence deriving the name of the place. Higher up from here, near the crest of a mountain, lies Ombha Nye, where one can see the sacred syllable “OM” imprinted inside a rock cave.
Dongdi Dzong is situated on a small mound just before Trashi Yangtse town. This Dzong is one of the oldest of its kind in the region and was rebuilt by Terton Pema Lingpa (15 th century) after it had fallen into disrepair. In Trashi Yangtse town, we visit the famous Chorten Kora, modeled after the Boudanath Stupa in Kathmandu valley, Nepal, and contains entombed a princess from the neighboring Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is said the princess was so religiously inclined that she decided to sacrifice herself as the main Zhung (relic) inside the stupa for the well- being of all sentient beings.
For lunch, we will try the fiery Urka Bangala, the famous chili dish from Trashi Yangtse much coveted for its lip-snacking taste. We will then visit Trashi Yangtse College of Zorig Chusum, followed by brief interactions with the local Dapa and Phob makers. Dapa and Phob are wooden serving plates and bowls respectively made from wood burls some of which cost thousands of dollars apiece. We will also look at the craft of Desho (traditional Bhutanese paper-making).
Lastly, we will drive a short distance away to Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to the black-necked Crane, Bhutan’s national butterfly Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory/Swallowtail, the Ramsar (wetland protected under international convention) site, and other wildlife species endemic to the park.
This trip is the highlight of our sojourn in eastern Bhutan. We drive to Sakteng in the
extreme-east, the home of the Brokpa, the nomadic highlanders who eke out their
living by raising Yak. The Brokpa culture and customs are unlike any in the world:
their entire dress, for example, is fashioned from yak and sheep skin. They are
legendary singers and their Yak Dance (Yak Chham) and Ache Lhamo Chham
(Dance of the Celestial Sisters) are enthralling to watch, the latter even included in
the UNESCO World Heritage of Performing Arts. Besides, once every three years,
the community’s menfolk parade stark naked, except for a face mask, visiting every
household and taking across blessings of protection from deities and prosperity.
Sakteng however is not just about the nomads. The entire area is designated as Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary which harbors Bhutan’s national flower Blue Poppy, nearly 50 species of rhododendron, and Red Panda, among a host of others. Interestingly, the park is also protected as the sanctuary of the Yeti/Snowman; the area abounds with tales of encounters with this elusive creature in the olden days.
We can either fly to Paro via the airstrip at Yongphula or head south to Samdrup
Jongkhar for onward departure from Guwahati airport in Assam, India.
On our way drive to Samdrup Jongkhar, we take a glimpse of Sherubtse, Bhutan’s
first-degree college, and then travel a further 38 kms to meet the visually-impaired
(blind) children at Khaling School for the Blind. The children will perform a musical
item or two for us.
We stop for lunch at a small roadside town called Wamrong and then continue to Dewathang where, if time permits, we may stop briefly at the Chokyi Gyatsho Institute. The monks at this institute are pioneers of zero waste management and among the world’s first to implement the concept of “happy village”, drawing from Bhutan’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness. At Samdrup Jongkhar, we soak ourselves in sub-tropical climate and take a tour of this bordering town with India.
Departure from Guwahati Airport.