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Quynh's Dream Bhutan Tour

In a last minute decision I was fortunate to go to Bhutan in June, 2011 and took a tour that was similar to "Quynh's Dream Bhutan Tour".  If I go back again - No, when I go back again, I will stay in the Gantey Valley instead of Wangdue.

My Trip Report is my personal memories of the journey and you are inspired to visit the country as I did, do feel free to Contact me!  Enjoy reading and our Gallery will also inspire you to visit Bhutan.
                                                                                                                                    Quynh

Day to day itinerary

Day 01: Bangkok/Paro/Thimphu
Flying into the country’s only international 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 for the trip will receive you and transfer you to the hotel in Thimphu,  Bhutan’s capital, 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 which is 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. 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.
In the afternoon, Visit the National Memorial Chorten; the building of this landmark was originally envisaged by Bhutan’s third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, who had wanted to erect a monument to world peace and prosperity. Completed in 1974 after his untimely death, it is both a memorial to the Late King (“the father of modern Bhutan”), and a monument to peace. Continue to Jigme Dorji Wildlife Sanctuary, the largest protected area in the country. The park is home to several endangered species including the takin, snow leopard, blue sheep, tiger, red panda, and the Himalayan black bear. More than 300 species of birds have been cataloged within the park.

Approximate driving time: 01.5 hour. Altitude at Thimphu: 2400m

Day 02: Thimphu/Punakha
The morning sightseeing in Thimphu includes; Visit to the Institute of Traditional Medicine; Bhutan has long and rich tradition of medicine based on natural remedies derived mainly from plants and earth, and some animals. This institute has facility for out patients, training, research and production of traditional medicine. The courses to become traditional doctors entail six to eight years of strenuous study after high school. The institute has an exhibition room that imparts excellent look into the tradition.

Visit to the School of Traditional Arts and Crafts, the school offers a six-year course in the techniques of traditional art in religious and secular paintings, woodcarving, and clay sculpture and traditional mask making. One can see students working through progressive levels practicing precise rules of Bhutanese art. The school also has a showroom from where student works are sold at very reasonable price compared to town for same quality of work.

Visit to the Folk Heritage Museum; established in 2001, this is an interesting museum housed in a very old traditional house. The museum is a walk through the fast changing rural tradition, habits and skills, and those of the past. They organize special exhibitions annually on select subject pertaining to Bhutanese heritage.

In the afternoon, 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.

Approximate driving time: 03 hours. Altitude at Punakha: 1300m

Day 03: Phunakha/ Trongsa
Today you drive to Trongsa  across Pele-la pass (3,300m/10,830ft). 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.

In the afternoon, visit and experience the masterpiece of Bhutanese architecture at Tongsa Dzong.It was Shabdrung’s great – grandfather who founded the first temple at Tongsa 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. Later visit Ta Dzong on the hillside above the town built as a watchtower to guard Trongsa but recently converted into museum in 2008.

Approximate driving time: 03 hours. Altitude at Trongsa: 2200m

Day 4: Trongsa/Jakar also called Bumthang Valley
Proceed to Bumthang, one of the most spectacular valleys in Bhutan and also the holy heartland of Buddhism. The 68 km. journey takes about 3 hours. The road winds steeply up to Yutong La (3,400m/11,155ft), and then run down through dense coniferous forest to enter a wide, open, cultivated valley, known as Chumey valley. From here it is about an hour to Bumthang, a most pleasant run in the soft, late afternoon light.

After  lunch in Bumthang, we will visit Kurje Lhakhang, one of the most sacred places in the kingdom as Bhutan’s “patron saint”, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) meditated here. From Kurje monastery, a tarmac road heads south along the right bank of the river to Jambey Lhakhang. This temple, erected by the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo in the 7th century, is one of the two oldest in Bhutan (the other being Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro). We will visit Tamshing Lhakhang, founded in 1501 by Pema Lingpa. It contains interesting and ancient Buddhist wall paintings. Later on we will visit Jakar Dzong, “the castle of the white bird”.

Approximate driving time: 03 hours. Altitude at Jakar: 2600m

Day 05: Jakar/ Day trip Ura Valley
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/8,530 to 13,125ft.  Today you  take a day trip to Ura Valley - the last valley in Central Bhutan. Ura Valley, is also the highest in Bumthang. Wide open spaces characterizes the valley that sits in the shadow of the Thrumshing La (3800m, 12465ft), separating the East from the West of the kingdom. Ura village and its new monastery are a charming stop before the climb to the east. Cobbled streets and a medieval feel give Ura an unusual yet very attractive atmosphere. The old women of Ura still wear sheepskin shawls on their backs which double as a blanket and cushion.

Altitude at Jakar: 2600m

Day 06: Jakar/Gangtey or also named Phobjikha Valley
After breakfast, drive to back to Trongsa then continue driving 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 and also visit Gangtey Gonpa (Monastery), the only Nyingmapa monastery in western Bhutan.

Approximate walking time: 04 hours. Altitude at Gangtey: 3000m.

Day 7: Gantey/ Day Hike over Kayche La Pas
We take a drive till Longtey Village after the Pele La to go for yet another hike but across Kayche La (3700m) and back to Gangtey. We climb up gradually through the thickets of dwarf bamboos, birch, rhododendron, hemlock and fir to Kayche La, marked with some prayer flags. The other side of the pass is mostly meadows, and it’s all downhill walk to Gangtey through the long and beautiful stretch of meadows and farms.  This place holds a special interest to tourist as you can experience the Black Mountain Range and the Phobjika Valley which is famous for the winter habitat of the black-necked cranes.

Approximate walking time: 04 hours. Altitude at Gangtey: 3000m.

Day 08: Gangtey/Paro
In the morning explore Phobjikha valley, hopefully sighting some black necked cranes, if you are there at the right time of year (October). 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.

Paro is a most picturesque valley, with quaint hamlets clustered amidst terraced paddy fields. The town still maintains tradition by way of its architecture and simple way of life and your sightseeing includes; visit to The National Museum, formerly a watchtower holds unique and varied collections, ranging from ancient armor to textiles, thangkha paintings, stamps, coins, and natural history. Visit the Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong) built in 1646 during the time of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. It now houses Paro’s monk body and the offices of the civil administration. Rinpung Dzong is the venue for the famous Paro Tsechu, held annually in the spring.

Approximate driving time: 06 hours. Altitude at Paro: 2300m.

Day 9: Paro/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.” The walk down from here to the road is lined with small white chortens and it will take us about an hour.

Approximate walking time: 05 hours. Altitude at Paro: 2300m

Day 10: Paro/ Day Hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery
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

Day 11: Paro - Bangkok
After breakfast in the hotel, drive to the airport in time to catch up your onward flight. Your guide will bid you farewell and soon the remote and legendary Dragon Kingdom disappears again behind its guardian mountains.