Welcome to Bhutan, a land where mystery and legend go hand in hand. On arrival, you will be met at Paro airport and transferred to Thimphu (2736 m), Bhutan’s capital city. After settling in, meet your small group and tour leader for a welcome meeting. If time permits, join your leader for an orientation walk to get acquainted with Thimphu’s main street, and visit the National Memorial Chorten, a stupa built in honour of Bhutan’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. This evening, join your group and leader for an included welcome dinner at a wonderful restaurant that’s a favourite with the locals. Learn about the rich history of Bhutanese cuisine as you tuck into a traditional feast, including seasonal vegetables and the country’s signature dish – red rice with a tasty chili cheese. You may like to try some Bhutanese peach wine or perhaps some Ara, the national spirit, served neat and hot.
After breakfast you will venture out to explore Thimphu. Stop off at Buddha point, named after its giant gilded Buddha statue, and take in panoramic views of the city. Take a short hike through pine trees where your leader will help you spot takin, the national animal of Bhutan, a unique goat-antelope creature. Carry on to the Zilukha Nunnery then pass by the fortress and monastery of Tashichho Dzong, sitting on the banks of the Thimphu Chhu river. After lunch, your leader will weave together the fascinating cultural heritage of Bhutan during visits to the National Textile Museum, Simply Bhutan Heritage Museum (where you can try your hand at Bhutan’s national sport: archery), and the Voluntary Artists School in Thimphu, an institution where young people receive formal education in the art of traditional painting, sculpture, and woodcarving. Thimphu has an excellent range of handicrafts, most notably woven cloth, wooden masks, thangkas, silverware, jewellery, and bamboo crafts that come from all over Bhutan.
This morning, visit Desho Paper Factory to see a traditional method of making paper by hand. Next, travel out to the castle-monastery of Simtokha Dzong, built to guard against a demon that is said to have escaped into the nearby rock. Next, drive the winding Dochula pass (3100 m), marked by more than a hundred chortens built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed fighting Indian insurgents in 2003. Then continue to Punakha and before arrival, stop at a local village and take a short walk to the Chimi Lhakhang – The Temple of Fertility. Your leader will explain how people from all corners of the country visit the Lhakhang to seek a blessing from Drukpa Kuenley, also known as the ‘Divine Madman’. A revered womaniser and drinker, this wandering preacher taught that sexual freedom was at the centre of Truth. On the walk through the village of Sopsokha to the temple you will notice the phallic symbols painted on walls, a symbol of fertility and protection from evil. Arrive at your resort in Punakha and enjoy fabulous views of the valley.
Begin the day with a short drive to the base of a hill where a ridge-top monastery sits. In this almost sub-tropical valley, begin a hike at a suspension bridge that crosses the Mo Chu river and pass through paddy fields before starting to climb a moderately inclined trail to the Kahmsum Yulley temple. Built by the Queen Mother, the temple is a classic example of Bhutan’s fine architectural and artistic traditions. From the top you can take in sweeping views across the valley. After a lunch, you’ll visit the white-walled, red-roofed Punakha Dzong, the administrative and religious centre and winter retreat of His Holiness, Je Khenpo – the chief abbot of Bhutan. The Dzong boasts intricately carved woodwork, prayer halls and beautiful religious paintings on walls and doorways. End the day at the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Temple and nunnery, where you’ll arrive in time for evening prayers.
This morning, pass through lush forests and luxuriant vegetation as you make the scenic drive to Phobjikha. Here you’ll find a spectacular valley rich with wildlife – keep an eye out for serows, a mystical goat-like animal, and muntjacs, also known as barking deer. Make an afternoon visit to Gangte Gmba, an expansive monastery with magnificent views of the valley. This hilltop complex is one of Bhutan’s two main centres of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism. Your guide will provide a local perspective on the subjects of Buddhism and happiness – the two most important pillars of Bhutanese culture. With happiness at front-of-mind, the Bhutanese government employ a Gross National Happiness index to measure the wellbeing of its people and to convey the importance of non-economic factors such as sustainability, culture and community vitality.
Start the day with a visit to the centre of the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) where you will learn about the vulnerable black-necked cranes who fly to Bhutan each winter. The Phobjika valley receives more of these lovely visitors than any other part of the country, and the RSPN have taken special measures to protect them, as well as 13 other vulnerable species. Read informative displays on the cranes’ habitat and behaviour, and use the centre’s spotting-scopes to search for cranes in the valley. Wild cranes will only be visible during the winter months, but if you visit outside of this period you may still have the chance to see black-necked cranes that are being rehabilitated in the centre. In the afternoon, join your leader on a gentle two hour hike around the valley and learn about the flora and fauna that call this majestic preserve home. Start off from a hilltop overlooking Gangte Gmba, wander down through flower meadows and beautiful forests, passing by a chorten, the village of Semchubara and the Khewa Lhakhang temple.
This morning, begin the journey to Paro. On arrival, visit the impressive Ta Dzong, a 17th century watchtower that now houses the National Museum. Enjoy some free time to wander in the Paro town before making your way to your Feature Stay accommodation, a resort in the heart of the Paro valley that beautifully blends into its mountainous backdrop. An eco-friendly property, the resort features solar lighting, mud-brick walls, wooden roofs and rooms built in a traditionally Bhutanese style with modern comforts in mind. In the afternoon, visit Kaja Throm, a local farmers market, before enjoying dinner with your group.
Miraculously balanced 900 metres above the valley floor sits Taktsang, or the Tiger’s Nest, a beautiful monastery and Bhutan’s most recognised building. After breakfast, begin a hike through plentiful pine forests, passing beneath thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags. Your leader will guide you up into the mountains for a closer view of the temple, sharing the legend of its history along the way. Reach a small teahouse and stop for lunch and refreshments while taking in truly unforgettable views. For those interested, it’s possible to get a closer look at the Tiger’s Nest by hiking another hour each way to reach the temple. Anyone not interested in hiking further can relax at the teahouse and soak it all in. Back in Paro, immerse yourself in traditional Bhutanese culture as you visit a farmhouse for a home-cooked final dinner.
After breakfast your driver will transfer you to the airport for your onward flight. Please check with your tour leader about the exact departure time from the hotel. Please note that your tour leader may not be with you as the group may leave on different flights.