8 Days: Western Bhutan
A full one-week trip encompassing the major sites of western Bhutan, from Paro to Gangtey and back.
We'll take you on an overland journey from Paro to Thimphu to Punakha valley via the Dochula Pass, and head from there to Gangtey via Wangdue. Gangtey is the winter home of the famed black-necked cranes, which we will learn more about there.
Day 1: Welcome to Bhutan!
Your experience of this enchanting kingdom begins with a flight over the Himalayas into the Paro valley —truly one of the world's most spectacular sights. You will view the world’s highest, most majestic peaks and enjoy the view of the approaching valley with its primeval alpine forests, monasteries, temples and farmhouses nestled in splendid mountain isolation. Your Bhutan Visa will be stamped in your passport on arrival. After clearing customs & immigration your guide and/or driver from Bhutan Trips will greet you and then depart for Thimphu, a short two-hour drive from one main valley to the next—through paddy fields, apple orchards, and farmhouses.
Thimphu is the capital city of the Kingdom of Bhutan. One of the charms of this unique capital is Bhutan’s own version of the colonial traffic policemen—who double as de facto traffic lights—who will fascinate you with their elaborate hand gestures. After lunch we'll visit the Handmade Paper Factory, where papers are made from the fiber from daphne and edgeworthia fibers. Other highlights of the day will include a visit to the Kuensel Phodrang (popularly known as Buddha Point) where a gigantic Buddha is built on top of a mountain overlooking the city. We will finish the day with a visit to the Handicraft Emporium, which has all types of handicrafts for sale. Overnight at at your hostel, where we will also have dinner.
Day 2: To The East
After breakfast the day begins with the visit to the National Memorial Chorten, built in honor of our late majesty, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. The paintings and images inside the monument provide a rare insight into the Buddhist philosophy of the country. We'll also visit the Dupthop Lhakhang (temple), one of the few surviving nunneries in Bhutan. After those visits we'll stop by the National Library, stocked with Ancient Buddhist manuscripts; and the Art & Craft School, where traditional art is still kept alive through instruction in the art of painting Thankas (sacred Buddhist religious scrolls).
After lunch in Thimphu we'll drive for about an hour to Dochula (a.k.a. Dochu-la) Pass, where the road climbs through forests of pine, cedar, and rhododendron; festooned with hanging lichen high up near Dochula Pass (10,000 ft/3,050 m), decorated with scenic Himalayan vistas and fluttering prayer flags. This pass often offers panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain ranges, including Gangkhar Phuensum (24,836 ft./7,570 m), one of the highest unclimbed peaks in the world. After heading down a bit from the pass we'll eventually arrive at your lodge, where we'll enjoy dinner before heading to sleep for the night.
Day 3: Onward to Punakha
After breakfast we'll descend further along a series of hairpin bends to the fertile Punakha valley, through temperate forests of rhododendrons and magnolias, to a semi-tropical zone rife with oranges, bananas, and cacti. We'll stretch our legs via a short hike through the rice paddy fields and villages to the Chimi Lhakhang Temple, built by the “Divine Mad Man” Drukpa Kuenley and dedicated to fertility. This is an important pilgrimage site for infertile women from all over Bhutan who wish to have children. After lunch we'll visit Punakha Dzong (fortress), built in 1636, the winter home of the Je Khenpo, and ancient capital of Bhutan. This dzong is scenically located between the Mo Chu (female) and Pho Chu (male) rivers. After spending a bit of time inside and outside of the fortress we'll continue driving to your lodging, where we will retire for the day.
Day 4: Gangtey & Phobjikha Valley
After breakfast we drive to the north of Punakha to take in a beautiful hike to Khamsum Yueley Namgyel Chorten (stupa), from where you can get a magnificent view of the northern valley of Punakha.
After lunch we continue our drive to Gangtey Valley, which lies on the flank of the Black Mountains. A few miles further south is the fascinating valley of Phobjikha. The gentle sloping hillside of Phobjikha is described as “the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas." This is the winter home of blacked-necked cranes, which migrate from the arid plains in the north to winter in milder, lower climates. Along the way we'll pass Wangdue, the district headquarters of western Bhutan where we'll make a short stop to view the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, dramatically located on the spur of a hill at the confluence of the Tsang Chu and the Dang Chu rivers. We then steadily climb upwards, passing through semi-tropical vegetation and then diverging from the main road right before Pele-La Pass (10,800 ft/3,300 m).
This is as east as we'll go for this trip! After visiting the pass we'll double back and spend the evening at your lodge near Gangtey.
Day 5: Hiking in Gangtey
After breakfast we'll set off for a beautiful day hike through the valley, including a picnic lunch. We'll be staying at the same lodging as the night before once we've finished for the day.
Day 6: Return to Paro
Today we'll be able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast before starting our drive back west. Along the way we'll grab lunch at a traditional roadside restaurant, visit the site of Tachog Lhakhang—an ancient chain bridge—stop for any scenic photos, and eventually end up back in Paro at the end of the day, where you first arrived into the county. Dinner at your lodge in Paro.
Day 7: Tiger's Nest Monastery Hike
After breakfast we'll drive north of the valley to visit the Drukgyal Dzong, built in 1647 by the great Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, father and unifier of medieval Bhutan. The dzong was destroyed by accidental fire in 1950's and is now left in ruins as an evocative reminder of the great victories it was built to commemorate. We'll explore the ramparts, and on clear days we can experience an unforgettable view of Mt. Jhomolhari (a.k.a. Chomolhari or Jhomulhari, 24,000 ft/7,314 m). After the visit we'll drive back to Satsam Chorten for an hour or so hike to the viewpoint of the world famous Takshang (a.k.a. Tiger’s Nest) Monastery.
The trail to the monastery climbs through beautiful rhododendron and pine forest, where many of the trees are festooned with Spanish moss, and the occasional grove of fluttering prayer flags. We will recess for light refreshment at the cafeteria halfway up, and then walk a short distance until you can clearly see Takshang Monastery. Built in the 1600's, this incredible monastery clings to the edge of a sheer rock cliff that plunges 3,000 ft/900 m into the valley below. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava, the tantric mystic who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, landed here on the back of a flying tigress. After reaching and exploring the temple we'll head back down, where lunch will be served at the cafeteria. Then we'll walk back to the the trailhead for the drive back to your hotel, where we'll have dinner.
Day 8: Farewell!
After breakfast or lunch (depending on your flight time) you will be driven to the nearby Paro Airport to board your flight out of Bhutan. Tashi Delek! (Goodbye, and best of luck!)