9 days Bhutan Tour
Step into a realm frozen in time. Walk into the corridors of medieval fortresses and feel the pulse of yesteryears. Find out why harmonious living with nature matters, why age-old values are indeed timeless, and why material wealth is not a measure of one’s happiness and well-being.
Places to visit: Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue, Trongsa and Bumthang
Altitude variation: 1,000 to 3,300 mabsl
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. Enroute to the capital city, Thimphu, travel via passages hewn from sturdy mountains and along banks of pristine rivers fed by glaciers. Enroute, see Tachhogang, 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. Enroute see Semtokha Dzong,
Bhutan’s oldest monastery-fortress built in 1627, and 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.
Other attractions on the way are:
- 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 folk life traditions.
- White-bellied Heron: 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 is also critical to the 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 they take off or descend, the
birds 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 reflect and contemplate within a setting that is
serene, meditative and filled with natural delights.
We travel further eastward on 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, 3,300 meters absl, traditionally divided east and west Bhutan. Today, trimming 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: There is so much history and mysticism associated with the stretch of road leading to Trongsa Dzong. 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 a 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 palace–fortress, 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 Bhutan the Wangchuck dynasty, the present succession of Kings. Built without using a single 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 making a unique textile called Yathra 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 flat lands, each with its own characteristics and appeal. On the whole,
the district is a usual feast of spectacular natural scenery strewn with highly venerated
Buddhist monuments and sacred sites, thus earning the moniker “the Spiritual
Heartland of Bhutan”.
- Jampa Lhakhang: built in 640 AD by the 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 will appear as the future Buddha after the era of present Buddha Shakyamuni has come 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 called Sindhu Raja 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.
- Tamshing monastery: This structure is the key heritage of Bhutan’s greatest native saint where spiritual legacy can be seen all over the country. Pema Lingpa, one of the finest revealers of spiritual 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 pool formed by the fast-flowing stream 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 on his head, bringing along a box 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.
No visit to Bhutan would be complete without visiting the Kingdom’s ancient capital at
Punakha. Drained by the Phochu (male river) and Mochu (female river), the valley also
known for its beautiful climate and agrarian wealth, is quintessentially rural teeming with
local lore, Buddhist heritage and villages hugging mountains and river banks. All
around, the views are ethereal, rain or shine, and the atmosphere rejuvenating.
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, bequeathed through the supernormal powers of a 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, 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. The visualization takes the form of a Buddhafield, comprised of a pantheon of deities. 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 highlander communities of Laya & Lunana, Snow Leopard, glaciers and bountiful wild flowers.
Season and weather permitting, we return by rafting along the course of the Mochu till Punakha Dzong. Safety is assured and the river pristine and unpolluted. As we drift along the river, we will keep an eye out for White-bellied Heron, one of the world’s rarest birds.
We 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 15 th century “fortress of victory” at Drukgyal and then Bhutan’s oldest temple at Kyichu built in 639 AD. The temple houses Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Thereafter, visit a farmhouse, and enjoy a traditional Bhutanese meal with the host family.
Departure from Paro International Airport.