2019 Cultural Tour
of the Kingdom of Bhutan
07 Nov – 19 Nov, 2019
Day 1 (Thursday) – Flight from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan
Super early flight to Paro (arrive 7am), Bhutan, on Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan (‘Druk’ meaning Dragon).In clear weather, views of the country’s landscape and eastern Himalayan peaks, give way to Paro valley as we land. The remarkable and steep descent into the Paro valley is an awe-inspiring beginning to our adventure. The first thing that we will notice as we disembark in Bhutan is the absence of noise and a feeling of peacefulness that is rare in most other Asian cities. And cool, clean fresh air as we step out of the plane.
Note about Flying into Paro International Airport
With surrounding Himalayan peaks as high as 5,500 m (18,000 ft), the airport in Paro, Bhutan is considered one of the world’s most challenging and dangerous airports to fly into. Flights are only allowed during the daytime and under VFR (Visual Flight Rules) where pilots must make their flight judgement by eye rather than rely on instruments. Its been reported that there are only a couple dozen pilots in the world who have the training and qualifications to land here. At 6,500 feet long, the runway at Paro is actually shorter than its 7,300 ft 2,200 m) elevation.
The following link details a pilots point of view about the challenges of flying into Paro International Airport (with some great pictures, diagrams and videos): Link
Be sure to check out the video “A View From The Hill” at the bottom of the page – its awesome!
After visa formalities and collection of baggage; as you exit from the arrival hall of Paro airport, you will be met by your guide and chauffeured (1 hour drive) to your hotel in Thimphu (7,700 ft) – the seat of government, religion and commerce in Bhutan. Thimphu was a wooded farming valley until 1961 when it became Bhutan’s official national capital. With an estimated population of 150,000 people, this unique city is filled with an unusual mixture of modern development alongside ancient traditions.
Upon arrival in Thimphu, check into your hotel and settle down…rest and start adjusting to the higher elevation.
After lunch visit National Memorial Chorten (Tibetan style Stupa), a monument to world peace and a memorial to the Late King (3rd King of Bhutan). Local residents flock here in the morning to chant their daily prayers as they walk clockwise around the Chorten, spinning prayer wheels as they pass fragrant columns of smoke from smoldering juniper branches that carry a stream of prayers to the mountain deities.
Visit to Prayer Flag Shop and one or two good Book Stores to purchase books to take up country and see books on Bhutan.
In the afternoon performance by Mr. Jigme Drukpa (Bhutanese Folk Performer/Songwriter/Ethnomusicologist).
Jigme Drukpa is the country’s leading traditional musician. Globalization is making Bhutan’s young people lose touch with the music of their ancestors. Jigme is trying to create something new with a band that includes traditional Bhutanese instruments, the violin and Indian instruments. He describes the charm and appeal of Bhutanese music and how he is trying to preserve his country’s musical heritage, while at the same time adapting it to the 21st century.
Day 2 (Friday) – Thimphu, Bhutan
We have one full day to explore Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city—a fascinating combination of traditional and contemporary life:
Institute of Traditional Medicine, where the medicinal herbs abundant in the kingdom are compounded and dispensed. Established in 1978, this institute collects medicinal plants from remote corners of the Bhutanese Himalaya, and then distributes pills, tablets, ointments and medicinal teas to regional health-care units around the country. The small museum details some of the 300 herbs, minerals and animal parts that Bhutanese doctors have to choose from. Of particular interest is yartsa goenbub (cordyceps), the high-altitude cure-all ‘Himalayan Viagra’ that is actually a caterpillar that has been mummified by a fungus. The curious ‘worm-root’ sells for up to US$25,000 per kilogram in China.
Royal Textile Academy, dedicated to educate, promote and preserve Bhutanese textiles. Bhutanese textiles have reached new heights as one of the most visible traditional crafts and as a distinctly Bhutanese art form. The textile academy has opened its exhibition on six major themes – warp pattern weaves, weft pattern weaves, role of textiles in religion, achievements in textile arts, textiles from indigenous fibers and the royal collection.
Farmers Market, where Thimphu residents mingle with villagers in an interesting urban and rural blend. People come from outlying rural villages to this market to sell vegetables and fruits, & other items including, chili peppers, spices, tea, butter and cheese.
Takin Preserve for a chance to see the Takins, (Bhutan’s national animal) – a rather odd mammal related to goats but resembling more an antelope. Takin also resembles a cross between a gnu and a musk deer. It has an immense face and a tremendously thick neck.
Evening Lecture/Question & answer session… with Mr. Kuenzang Dechen, a local expert, on Buddhism OR the roots of the present monarchy back to its origins as a fiefdom, and learn about “Gross National Happiness” OR on Bhutan’s new Democratic government. Mr. Kuenzang Dechen has a Master Degree in International Relations from the University of Hawaii and a post graduate diploma in US Economic Policy and Domestic US Legislation from Georgetown University, Washington DC. During his post graduate studies in the US, he also worked as a research intern in the International Relations Division at the East-West Center, Honolulu for two and a half years. He served in the Foreign service for about ten years between 1985 and 1994 and last served as a diplomat at the Royal Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi as the Head of the Economic Division. Thereafter for the last fifteen years, he has worked extensively as a consultant for the Royal Government of Bhutan and various international development agencies, primarily the EU, ACB and UNDP. He has also worked part-time as the Senior Policy Advisor to the UNDP and serves as a Board Director of the Bhutan National Bank. Kuenzang is also the author of “An Introduction to Bhutanese Iconography”
Hotel: Norkhil Boutique, Thimphu
Day 3 (Saturday) – Drive from Thimphu to Punakha (2½ hour drive)
In the morning drive to Punakha (4,450 feet), considered to be the ancient capital, where the climate is much different than the rest of Bhutan. It is almost tropical year round due to its low altitude.
Heading out of Thimphu the road gradually climbs through apple orchards and then forests of blue pine and cedar, festooned with hanging lichen high up near Dochu La Pass (10,230 ft.). This pass offers panoramic views of the Eastern Himalayan Mountain ranges (visibility permitting). The area around this pass is believed to be inhabited by numerous spirits, including a cannibal demoness. A temple in the Punakha Valley (which we will visit later) was built in honor of the Lama Drukpa Kunley who subdued these spirits and demons.
Here we can spend some time for tea/coffee and photographing the 108 Druk Wangyal Chortens (Stupas), commissioned by a former Queen as a memorial to those who lost their lives during the low intensity conflict in late 2001 when Bhutan evicted Indian rebels camped in the jungle on the Bhutan-Indian border. The remaining part of the drive to Punakha is mostly a descent along a series of hairpin bends, dropping down to the lowland of Punakha valley (4,450 ft).
After lunch hike a short distance to visit Chimi Lhakhang, a lovely temple on a small hilltop. This temple is dedicated to the famous and unorthodox 15th century Buddhist master, Drukpa Kunley or popularly known as the ‘Divine Madman’ in the west, who is associated with the phallic symbols you would have seen on your travels in Bhutan so far. It is believed that this temple blesses women who seek fertility. A popular pilgrimage spot for the Bhutanese, it is frequented by childless couples and parents who have difficulty raising children.
Later drive 15 minutes to visit Punakha Dzong, the “Palace of Great Happiness” and “a masterpiece of Bhutanese Architecture”, built in 1637 by Shabdrung Nawang Namgyel, the saint who unified Bhutan. The Dzong lies between the Fo Chu (male river) and the Mo Chu (female river), and is the winter home of the Central Monk Body. It is believed that the Mo Chu and the Fo Chu were once lovers, flowing in the same bed. One evening, after a quarrel, the Mo Chu left silently during the night, moving to the next valley. Ever since, the Fo Chu has been rushing down to the confluence, trying to catch his estranged lover. A devastating flash flood in 1994 washed away a major part of the Dzong. His Majesty the fourth King personally supervised the reconstruction of 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 of 2003. (The Dzongs are Bhutanese architectural masterpieces built in the past to serve a number of purposes. They served as administrative centers and as houses for the clergy. They were also used as garrisons by the army and people gathered in the dzong courtyards during festivities).
Hotel: Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
Day 4 (Sunday) – Punakha
Excursion to Tshochasa, the old age home for elderly monks, to lead a life of quiet contemplation, contentment, and dignity. The home design has been developed by Tsao & McKown Architects, USA following the American Disabled Act and is pioneering old-age friendly design concepts in Bhutan. The home does not have any steps so to enable the movement of elderly people. It is equipped with hand railings, with even toilets connected with ramps.
Hotel: Drubchhu Resort, Punakha
Day 5 (Monday) – Drive from Punakha to Gangtey (3 hour)
Today we continue further towards east. Soon after leaving Punakha we reach Wangdue, one of the major district headquarters of Western Bhutan. Along the way, the environment changes from semi-tropical to pine forest, and then to an alpine zone that is home to several species of rhododendron, dwarf bamboo, and Grey Langur monkeys. We deviate off the main road and take another route that leads into the remote alpine valley of Gangtey and Phobjikha (9,850 ft), crossing the 10,700-foot-high Lawa La Pass. This hidden glacial valley on the western slopes of the Black Mountains, is one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan, and the largest wintering site for the endangered Black-necked crane. As a part of the conservation effort, the Phobjikha valley has been declared a protected area. Until recently the Phobjikha valley’s only electricity came from solar. In 2011 underground cabled electricity is gradually connecting the valley to the national grid. Potatoes are this region’s primary cash crop once exported to India.
We join the local in their Crane Festival, held in the courtyard of 17th century Gangtey Monastery. The festival includes cultural programs such as folk songs and dances (some with black-necked crane themes) and mask dances performed by the local people, crane dances and environmental conservation-themed dramas and songs by the school children.
Afternoon enjoy the short walk through Gangtey Nature Trail (1½ hours), which leads downhill from Gangtey Monastery to the Khewang Lhakhang (temple). The trail descends to Semchubara village and drops down right at the chorten (stupa) into the edge of the forest, along the side of Phobjikha valley, ideal for spotting the cranes.
Finally visit the Crane Information Centre of the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), which has informative displays about the black-necked cranes and the valley environment.
Hotel: Wangchuk Dem’s Farm Stay, Gangtey
Day 6 (Tuesday) – Drive from Gangtey to Trongsa to Jakar/Bumthang (5 hour drive)
We start early for the fabulous drive to the central valleys of Bhutan, crossing Pele La Pass and Yotong La Pass. In the morning we return to the main highway and climb up to the Pele La Pass (10,825ft). This pass is traditionally considered the boundary between West and East Bhutan. Beyond Pele La is Longtey, Rukubji and Chendebji valley where people raise sheep and yaks. The houses here are clustered amid extensive fields of mustard, potatoes, barley, and wheat. Enroute past 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 last leg of our drive is, crossing streams, waterfalls, passing farmlands and villages as well as primordial forests that have never been inhabited because of the deities believed to reside there. The road finally emerges from the gorge and follows Mangde Chu river valley, then its turns and heads straight north to Trongsa. The first sight of the Trongsa Dzong one of the largest in Bhutan, is from across the valley. But the road winds another 12.5 miles before we will actually get there.
Visit the spectacular Trongsa Dzong. Built in 1647, 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 Wangchuck 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.
We will also, visit Ta Dzong Museum, dedicated to the Monarchs of Bhutan, which had its cradle in Trongsa, and the history of Trongsa Dzong.
Following lunch depart for Bumthang valley (8,500 ft), the cultural and historic heart of the kingdom. From Trongsa, the road rises rapidly through a series of hairpin bends until you arrive at Yotong La Pass (11,200 ft). From here the road descends until you arrive at Chume Valley (the first of the four valleys) we will visit several center of “Yathra” weaving. Yathra is the name for the colorful, hand-woven woolen cloth (often with geometric designs) that is produced in this region. Distinctive patterns and bright, earthy colors enliven the fabric, which is used for a wide variety of purposes and sought after throughout Bhutan. Continue our drive to Jakar (district headquarters) crossing the Kiki La Pass (9,500ft).
Hotel: Ugyenling, Jakar
Day 7 (Wednesday) – Drive from Jakar to Tang
Bumthang is the general name given to the complex of four valleys – Chume, Choeker, Tang, and Ura. Bumthang is also the spiritual heartland of Bhutan, known for the visits of Guru Rinpoche (the Second Buddha) when he was bringing Buddhism to Tibet and Bhutan in the 8th century. 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.
This morning explore Jakar valley. Leisurely walks through meadows and villages connect the temples and sightseeing. Visit Jamba Lhakhang. According to legend, Jamba Lhakhang was one of the 108 temples built in AD 638, by a Tibetan Buddhist king in order to overcome a giant ogress who laid across regions of the Himalayas in order to prevent the spread of Buddhism. The central figure in the sanctuary is the statue of Jampa, the Buddha of the future. There are also three stone steps inside believed to represent past, present and future. They are slowly sinking into the ground. The faithful say that when all the steps disappear the future Buddha will arrive.
And visit the impressive Kurjey Lhakhang (where the Guru Rinpoche subdued a local demon and left his body imprint on a rock). Followed by short walk to Tamshing Lhakhang, a temple dedicated to Saint Pema Lingpa and containing some of the oldest wall paintings in Bhutan. Afternoon drive about one hour to Tang Valley (9,200 ft) and the village of Ogyen Choling.
En-route visit Pema Choling Nunnery, where over 100 nuns, mostly teenagers and young women, study and practice. We will spend the morning with them, interacting and learn about their lives, in the stone courtyard in the center of their dormitories and classrooms.
Ogyen Choling Manor is a national treasure, privately owned by the same family for hundreds of years. It’s remote location makes it one of the less frequently visited historical sites in Bhutan, hosting fewer than two hundred guests per year. The best part of the Manor is the quaint museum housing permanent exhibits on three floors in the main building and the Utse, the central tower. Traditional living quarters are recreated to capture the realistic ambiance of the ancient lifestyles and conditions of the households. Everyday kitchen and weaving utensils, war weapons–including gun powder made from petrified yak dung-tools and farming implements are the main part of the exhibits.
Hotel: Ogyencholing Guest House, Tang
Day 8 (Thursday) – Tang
A leisurely day in Tang valley!
In the morning we will raise prayer flags in a ceremony of loving kindness, peace, compassion, and wisdom. And we will hear a lecture by Mrs. Kunzang Choden. (born 1952) is a Bhutanese writer and one of the owners of Ugyencholing mansion. She is the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English. Choden was born in Tang. Her parents were feudal landlords. At the age of nine, her father sent her to school in India, where she learned English. She has a BA Honours in Psychology from Indraprastha in Delhi and a BA in Sociology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has worked for the United Nations Development Program in Bhutan. Kunzang is also the author of many books such as Folktales of Bhutan, Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti, Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan, The Circle of Karma, Chilli and Cheese- Food and Society in Bhutan
In the afternoon we visit the Ogyencholing Museum, and Ugyencholing village to interact with locals.
Hotel: Ogyencholing Guest House, Tang
Day 9 (Friday) – Tang – Chume (Prakhar Festival) – Jakar
Early morning we return to Jakar and continue to Chume valley to attend the last day of Prakhar Tsechu (A festival of mask dances and religious performances depicting the rich cultural heritage of Bhutan. It is both a cultural and social event). Prakhar Tsechu is small and intimate where ornate masked dancers and beautifully – dressed local people mingle with visitors. The dances are considered one of the best in Bhutan and are performed by the monks of Nimalung Monastery. Evening return to Jakar.
Hotel: Ugyenling, Jakar
Day 10 (Saturday) – Drive from Jakar to Trongsa to Punakha (6 hour drive)
We say good-bye to Bumthang and drive to Punakha, via Trongsa. We will retrace the road with few stops for pictures that you have missed during your earlier journey to Central Bhutan. Even though we are on the same road we will be pleased to find the return drive just as interesting because new and different scenes will again unfold on every turn.
Hotel: Four Boutique, Punakha
Day 11 (Sunday) – Drive from Punakha to Paro (3½ hour drive)
In the morning drive to Paro (7,400 ft) across Dochu La Pass. After lunch visit the following sights in Paro:
National Museum. Perched above Paro Dzong is its Ta dzong (watchtower), built in 1649 to protect the undefended dzong and renovated in 1968 to house the National Museum. The unusual round building is said to be in the shape of a conch shell, with 2.5m-thick walls. The Ta dzong suffered damage in the 2011 earthquake but is due to reopen as the nation’s premier museum. Until then a sample of the exhibits are currently on display in an adjacent annexe.
Rinpung Dzong (the full name of the Paro Dzong), which means “the fortress of the heap of jewels.” A “dzong” is a fortress. This complex now houses the administrative and religious headquarters for the Paro district. A part of Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie, “Little Buddha,” was filmed inside this dzong.
Hotel: Janka Resort, Paro
Day 12 (Monday) – Paro (Hike to Tiger’s Nest)
Enjoy an optional hike to visit the famous Taktsang (also known as “Tiger’s Nest”) Monastery, and one of the 13 most venerated pilgrimage sites of the Himalayan world. Taktsang marks the spot where the 8th- century Indian mystic, Guru Padmasambhava, arriving on the back of a flying tigress, meditated after bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The sight of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery at an elevation of 10,000 feet and clinging to a cliff some 3,000 feet above the valley below is one of the highlights of your stay in Bhutan. A pilgrimage to Taktsang is the dream of a lifetime for the devout. The hike to the monastery takes about 7 hours for round trip, and is challenging, but unforgettably thrilling and mystical. (Riding ponies provided till the Cafeteria). Vegetarian lunch is served in the little Cafeteria on the way back down.
*Optional for those who do not hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery:
Excursion to Chele La Pass…Set out on a road that climbs almost 5,000 ft above Paro valley floor to Chele La Pass (12,500 ft). The 23 miles (37 kms) to Chele La Pass makes an interesting road excursion and is an excellent jumping-off point for day walks. Chele La separates Haa and Paro valley, it is one of the highest motor able pass in Bhutan. The drive will be Bhutanese slow, twisty, curvy switchback mountain driving. However, it is beautiful through dense blue pine, spruce and larch forests according to the seasons. On a clear day, we will enjoy tantalizing glimpses of some of Bhutan’s highest peaks. Upon reaching the pass, western Bhutan appears before us, with its unspoiled Haa valley, the mountains of Sikkim to the west, Mt. Chomolhari and Tibet to the north, and the patchwork fields of the Paro valley to the east.
Kyichu Lhakhang (temple) one of the oldest shrines of Bhutan (dates back to 7th century. According to legend, Kyichu Lhakhang was one of the 108 temples built in AD 638, by a Tibetan Buddhist king in order to overcome a giant ogress who laid across regions of the Himalayas in order to prevent the spread of Buddhism.
Spend the evening at leisure or a walk through downtown Paro. Celebrate the conclusion of our adventure at a farewell dinner.
Day 13 (Tuesday) – Flight from Paro to Bangkok, Thailand (by Druk Air)
After early breakfast – drive to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok, Thailand