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Kingdom in the Sky

Bhutan Walking Tour

Bhutan, the land of thunder dragon, nestled between India and Tibet, the exquisite mountain kingdom has been isolated and protected for centuries by mighty Himalayan peaks, with daily life rituals remaining sacred and the landscape is relatively undeveloped.
Tradition and Buddhism infuse every facet of life, from jingling brass bells of prayer wheels to ornate monasteries perched high above terraced rice paddies. Change is coming to Bhutan, but the country isn’t blindly adopting modern western culture. After all, Bhutan still defines prosperity by Gross National Happiness, measuring well being rather than consumption. This trip to Bhutan, provides a unique opportunity to see how the Bhutanese balance development and tradition, and it’s enhanced by experienced local guides who proudly share their country’s culture with us. Shangri La may be a fictional land, but you’ll find something akin to its wonders in the beauty of remote monasteries and in your interactions with Bhutanese people.

As ever this holiday is purely a suggested itinerary. It can be booked as it is or alternatively used as a starting point for creating your own ideal tailor made trip to Bhutan.

 

Day 01: Arrive Paro
Flying into the country’s only airport, in the beautiful Paro valley, the clear mountain air, forested ridges, imposing monasteries and welcoming Bhutanese people in their striking national dress, provides a breath-taking first impression.

On arrival at Paro airport, after immigration and custom formalities, your guide from Bhutan Excursions for the trip will receive you and transfer you to hotel in Paro.

Paro encapsulates a rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries, the country’s only airport, and the National Museum. Mt. Jomolhari (7,300m) reigns in white glory at 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.

Your sightseeing in Paro includes visit to the following places;

Rinpung Dzong
It was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual and temporal ruler of Bhutan; the Dzong continues its age-old function as the seat of the district administration, district court and the monastic body. The southern approach to the Dzong has a traditional roofed cantilever bridge called Nemi Zam. A walk across the bridge offers a wide view of splendor of the Dzong’s architecture and an opportunity to tread the same path as the ancient warriors.

Kyichu Lhakhang
The Jowo Temple of Kyichu is one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, originally built in the 7th century by the Tibetan Emporer Songtsen Gampo. It is considered to be one of the 108 border taming temples he built.

In 1971 HM Kesang Choden Wangchuck, the Queen of King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, built a Guru Temple next to the old Jowo Temple that was consecrated by HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Since then, the annual rites of great accomplishment for the deities Vajrasattva, Palchen Heruka, and Vajrakilava have been held in this temple for the well being of the country under the patronage of HM Kesang Choden Wangchuck.

There is a belief that the two orange trees in the courtyard of Kyichu Lhakhang bear fruit throughout the year.

Next in line, we will stroll along the street in Paro and see the local people going about their business in a typically unhurried Bhutanese way, wearing their traditional dress. It’s a fascinating sight!

Altitude at Paro: 2300m
Overnight: Hotel in Paro

Day 02: Hike to Tiger’s Nest
Today, we hike up to the famous cliff-hermitage called Taktsang, the “Tiger’s Nest.” This monastic retreat is built into a sheer cliff face high above the Paro valley. Legend has it that the Tibetan Buddhist saint Padmasambhava flew across the Himalayas on the back of a tiger and landed here, bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. The trail to the monastery climbs through beautiful pine forest and an occasional grove of fluttering prayer flags.

After visiting what is known as one of the most venerated pilgrimage sites in the country, we will go off the beaten track further up to the temples that are on the hill tops above Tiger’s Nest. It’s so peaceful there and you can really communicate with nature as you enjoy the views from the top be it that of mountains or the valley. No wonder that some monks have chosen this place to meditate for the rest of their lives!

Coming back, we are following a different path that takes us through the pristine thick forest of oaks and rhododendrons festooned with Spanish mosses.

Approximate walking time: 06 hours
Altitude at Paro: 2300m
Overnight: Hotel in Paro

Day 03: Paro - Thimphu
Take a drive to Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, passing through idyllic countryside, with villages and paddy fields on either side of the road. Thimphu has a special charm and it is fascinating to sit and watch a gathering of local people in the town square, wearing their traditional dress and going about their business in a typically unhurried Bhutanese way.

Thimphu, perhaps the most unusual capital city in the world is the seat of government, home to Bhutan’s royal family, the civil service, and foreign missions with representation in Bhutan. It is also the headquarters for a number of internationally funded development projects.

Visit the following places in Thimphu;

Buddha Dordenma Statue
This massive statue of Shakyamuni measures in at a height of 51.5 meters, making it one of the largest statues of Buddha in the world. The statue is made of bronze and is gilded in gold. The throne that the Buddha Dordenma sits upon is a large meditation hall.

The Buddha Dordenma is located atop a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley. The statue fulfills an ancient prophecy dating back to the 8th century A.D that was discovered by Terton Pema Lingpa (Religious Treasure Discoverer) and is said to emanate an aura of peace and happiness to the entire world.

Motithang Takin Preserve
A short distance up the road to the telecom tower is a trail leading to a large fenced area that was originally established as a mini-zoo. The king decided that such a facility was not in keeping with Bhutan's environmental and religious convictions, and it was disbanded some time ago.

The animals were released into the wild but the takins, Bhutan's national animal, were so tame that they wandered around the streets of Thimphu looking for food, and the only solution was to put them back into captivity. It's worthwhile taking the time to see these oddball mammals. The best time to see them is early morning when they gather near the fence to feed. It's a five-minute walk from the road to a viewing area where you can take advantage of a few holes in the fence to take photographs.

Weekend Market
Most of the Thimphu population and many valley dwellers converge on the bustling weekend market, held down by the riverside. A wide range of foodstuffs and local arts and crafts are sold at the market, which runs from Friday to Sunday. Otherwise, there is no use going there on other days. A visit to the market provides great photo opportunities, as well as the chance to mingle with local people and perhaps buy some souvenirs.

Handicrafts Emporium
Visit the government-run Handicrafts Emporium and privately owned crafts shops, which offer a wide range of handcrafted products, including the splendid Thangkha paintings and exquisitely woven textiles for which Bhutan is famous.

Tashichhodzong
The “fortress of the glorious religion” was initially erected in 1641 and rebuilt by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk in the 1960s. While other governments around the world ensconce themselves in fortresses of stone and steel, the seat of Bhutan's Royal Government is in a building that mirrors the country's culture and its people.

The building we see today is largely a modern affair, built in 1962 when His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuk moved the government to Thimphu after a fire at its original location.

The complex's central tower is original. Tashichhodzong houses the main secretariat building, throne room of His Majesty the King of Bhutan. During the warmer summer months the monk body headed by His Holiness, the Je Khenpo, makes its home in the Dzong.

Approximate driving time: 01 hour
Altitude at Thimphu: 2400m
Overnight: Hotel in Thimphu

Day 04: Thimphu - Punakha
We will take a drive to Punakha (02 hours) across Dochu La (3050m) from where one can have a spectacular view of the Himalayas to the north when the sky is clear. The pass is marked by 108 chortens (Stupa) which are Buddhist reliquaries, memorials to the teachings of the Buddha. Sometimes actual relics of the Buddha or revered monks are inserted into the dome of the stupa, but whether or not there are relics inside, the stupas mark the landscape with reminders of the Buddha’s teachings. From here, it’s about a little more than hour’s drive down to sub-tropical Punakha Valley.

In Punakha, we will visit the Dzong that was built by Shabdrung, in 1637, on a strategic place at the confluence of Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers. The Dzong has played a hallowed role in the history of Bhutan. It served as the seat of Shabdrung’s government, several foreign delegations were received here in 18th and 19th century, the election and coronation of the first King was observed in 1907 and the Third King convened the first National Assembly in the Dzong. The central monastic body continues to reside here in winter. The embalmed bodies of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal and Terton Pema Lingpa are housed on the top floor of the main tower. Damaged by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the Dzong has been fully restored by the present King from the latest fire in 1987.

Later, we will take a drive to Talo - the native hometown of the queens for our short downhill hike following the beautiful track that links the village of Talo and Nobgang where we will see villages and have intimate insight into the rural lives.

Approximate driving time: 03 hours
Altitude at Punakha: 1300m
Overnight: Hotel in Punakha

Day 05: Punakha - Gangtey
Drive up a winding mountain road through oak and rhododendron forest, and over a high pass down into the Phobjikha valley, surely one of the loveliest high altitude valleys in Bhutan. Phobjikha is one of Bhutan’s few glacial valleys, and chosen winter home of black necked cranes, migrating from the Tibetan plateau. Explore Phobjikha valley on foot and also visit 17th century Gangtey Gonpa (Monastery).

Approximate driving time: 03 hours
Altitude at Gangtey: 3000m
Overnight: Hotel in Gangtey

Day 06: Gangtey - Trongsa
Drive to Trongsa across Pele-la pass  at 3,300m. This pass is traditionally considered the boundary between western and central Bhutan. Further down the road, stop to visit Chendebji Chorten erected in the 18th century by a Tibetan lama to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was subdued at this spot. It is built in the Nepalese style, with painted eyes at the four cardinal points. The landscape around Trongsa is spectacular and its impressive Dzong, stretched along a ridge above a ravine, first comes into view about an hour before the winding road suddenly leads you into the town.

Visit the following places in Trongsa:

Trongsa Dzong
The masterpiece of Bhutanese architecture was founded by Shabdrung’s great – grandfather in 1543. In 1647 the Shabdrung had begun his great work of expansion and unification, realizing all the advantages that could be gained from Tongsa’s position; he constructed the first Dzong at the place where his ancestors had erected the temple. The Dzong was called Choekor Rabtentse. In 1652, Minjur Tenpa, the Penlop of Tongsa, had the Dzong enlarged. The Dzong is built in such a way that in the old days, no matter what direction a traveler comes from, he was obliged to pass through the courtyard of the Dzong. This helped to make the Penlop of this Dzong as powerful as it had a complete control over the east – west traffic. The watch tower above the Dzong further strengthened its defense. The father of the first king known as the black regent and the first king served as the Governor of Tongsa before the emergence of the Bhutanese Monarchy, since then it has become a tradition for the young crown prince to serve as the Governor of this place before he is crowned.

Ta Dzong Museum
Ta Dzong, the museum that is situated strategically above the Trongsa Dzong, the Ta Dzong served as the watchtower for centuries. Choeje Minjur Tempa built it in 1652. The museum focuses on the history of the monarchy, which had its cradle in Trongsa and the history of the Trongsa Dzong.

The Ta Dzong or the Tower of Trongsa Museum was renovated as state of the art museum dedicated to the Monarchs of Bhutan. The museum has total of eleven galleries styled along the National Museum in Paro. One gallery is fully dedicated to the history of Kings of the Wangchuck dynasty. There is also a gallery that showcases the history and the religious significance of Trongsa Chhoetse Dzong.

This 300-year-old monument showcases some of the rare and priceless artifacts of the Kingdom. These include the statues built in the 17th century to Bhutan’s rare royal possessions.

Approximate driving time: 03 hours
Altitude at Trongsa: 2200m
Overnight: Hotel in Trongsa

Day 07: Trongsa - Jakar
The road climbs rapidly through a series of hairpins out of Trongsa and there are great views back to the Dzong and out across the valley. After passing through cultivated fields for a while, we re-enter the forest and at a distance of 30 kilometers from Trongsa, we reach the Yutung La (3400m). Descending to a low point of 2650m at a village called Chumey, the scenery is once again totally different as we enter the wide-open Bumthang valleys. After a short climb to Kiki La, we turn a corner for a short descent to Jakar. From almost 20 kilometers away we can see Jakar Dzong, high above the village.

Bumthang is the general name given to a group of four valleys Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura, with altitudes varying from 2,600 to 4,000m.

Visit the following places;

Jambey Lhakhang
This 7th century monastery was one of 108 monasteries built to subdue evil spirits in the Himalayan region. Its present architectural appearance dates from the early 20th century. However the inner shrine with the Future Buddha is believed to be there some 1400 years ago. Jambay festival (in the late autumn) is famous for the Tercham. English speaking Bhutanese refer to this dance as the Naked Dance. Indeed some dancers appear naked!

Kurje Lhakhang
Located further along the valley, Kurje Lhakhang comprises three temples. The exciting thing here is comparing the 17th century structure on right side with the 20th century on the left (the one built by H.M. Ashi Kesang Wangmo Wangchuck, Grand-Queen Mother). A 108-chorten wall surrounds these three temples. Kurje is very special as the kings of Bhutan and other Royal Family members are cremated here.

Tamshing Lhakhang
Take a walk from Kurje Lhakhang to Tamshing Lhakhang. Terton Pema Lingpa, a re-incarnation of Guru Padmasambhava, founded this temple in 1501. There are very old religious paintings around the inner walls of the temple. Take an experience before restoration.

Jakar Dzong
Constructed in 1549 by the great grandfather of the first Shabdrung, the dzong was initially built as a monastery. It was upgraded in 1646, after the Shabdrung had firmly established his power. Jakar Dzong is now used as the administrative center for Bumthang valley, and also houses the regional monk body.

Approximate driving time: 03 hours
Altitude at Jakar: 2600m
Overnight: Hotel in Jakar

Day 08: Tharpaling Ridge Hike
We will take a drive to Tharpaling Monastery and hike along the beautiful alpine ridge above the monastery with stunning views of mountains and valleys. It’s so peaceful there and you can really communicate with nature as you enjoy the views from the top be it that of mountains or the valleys. They say heaven is a place on earth – perhaps this is one such place.

Altitude at Jakar: 2600m
Overnight: Hotel in Jakar

Day 09: Jakar - Punakha
A full day’s drive back to Punakha from Bumthang, past Trongsa on the west side of the Pele La pass. There are many interesting sights along the way and you can make frequent stops to stretch your legs and explore.

Approximate driving time: 08 hours
Altitude at Punakha: 1300m
Overnight: Hotel in Punakha

Day 10: Punakha - Paro
From Gangtey, the road gradually descends into the balmy Punakha valley, then begins a long climb back up to the Dochu La, where a stunning field of white chortens and colorful prayer flags send blessings up to the Himalayan sky; snow peaks line the horizon. From the La, it is only another hour to Thimphu. Stop here for lunch, then continue to Paro (just under 2 hrs), one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan with its slate-roofed farmhouses, graceful willow trees and rushing glacial river beneath snow covered peaks. Afternoon visit to Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the 108 temples constructed by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo (only three remain), and one of the two oldest in Bhutan (the other is Jambe Lhakhang in Bumthang). Kyichu is built in a manner similar to the Jokhang in Lhasa. Inside there is a great golden image of Buddha Shakyamuni.

Approximate driving time: 04 hours
Altitude at Paro: 2300m
Overnight: Hotel in Paro

Day 11: Chele La Ridge Hike
This morning, we will take a drive to Chele La (3750m), the highest motor able pass in the country and hike up along the meadow to Kung Karpo La (4100m). Weather permitting; we will enjoy the breathtaking views of the snowcapped mountains while walking above the tree line along the ridge that divides Paro and Ha valley. The short steep descent from the top will take us to the nunnery of Kila Gompa. Here the nuns, called anims, live a life of contemplation and seclusion, with daily prayer and spiritual practice. The temple itself is surrounded by numerous meditation huts, and many hidden caves lie inside the rocky cliffs. The gompa is surrounded by a lush forest dominated by tall firs. Sparkling mountain streams wind down the slopes, which are covered with a variety of wildflowers and plants.
About 30 anims, or nuns, live here, ranging in age from about 20 to 80 years. The community is one of the oldest of seven nunneries in Bhutan, and was initially established in the early 9th century as a meditation site. After being destroyed by fire, the temple was rebuilt and officially established in 1986 as an anim dratshang (religious community of Buddhist nuns).

Kila Gompa is historically significant as a sacred meditation site. Many renowned Buddhist saints have come here to find peace and seclusion. The main temple houses ancient statues of Chenrezig (Avalokiteswara) and Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) among others.

Life here is simple. The day begins and ends with prayers. The anims arise at 3 AM and study Buddhist scripture until 8 AM when they go to the temple for prayers. The first simple meal of the day (rice, vegetables and tea) is eaten at 10 AM, after which studies continue until 9 PM when a simple supper is served. The nuns retire after a final session of prayer. Most of the nuns have given up properties and left their families to live with the bare minimum of material things. Their studies and subsistence are supported by the government.

Some of the older nuns have retired into meditation, while many of the younger ones pursue basic Buddhist studies and perform religious ceremonies. The course takes 5-6 years, after which they begin meditation, which can range from four months to three years. One young nun, when asked why she had chosen this life, replied “There is peace in thinking about others, apart from yourself.” Another said “If I was given back my youth, I would still choose this life but I would start it earlier. I have never been more at peace with myself.”

Approximate walking time: 05 hours
Altitude at Paro: 2300m
Overnight: Hotel in Paro

Day 12: Departure
After breakfast in the hotel, drive to the airport in time to catch up your onward flight. Your escort from Bhutan Excursions will bid you farewell and soon the remote and legendary Dragon Kingdom disappears again behind its guardian mountains.