Bhutan 2009

Bhutan is one of the most isolated and pristine nations in the world.  For thousands of years travellers have been drawn to its remote, rugged beauty in search of their own Shangri-La.  Foreign influences and tourism are regulated by the government to preserve the nation’s traditional culture, identity and the environment.  In 2006 Business Week rated Bhutan the happiest country in Asia, and the eighth happiest country in the world.  The King promotes “Gross National Happiness” above gross national product.  The landscape ranges from subtropical plains in the south to the Himalayan Mountains in the north, with some peaks exceeding 7,000 metres (23,000 ft). The state religion is Vajrayana Buddhism, and the population is predominantly Buddhist, with Hinduism being the second-largest religion.  After centuries of absolute monarchic rule, Bhutan held its first democratic elections in March 2008, and is now a constitutional monarchy.

This itinerary takes us deep into the heart of the country, and into the wilds of the Himalayan foothills.   As well as visiting beautiful, traditional towns and monasteries, and marvelling at the spectacular scenery, we will also be looking for some of the country’s elusive mammal species, as well as some of the 770 species of birds that make this unique country their home.  In the past Bhutan has been known for its less than pleasant hotels, but this has changed in recent times, and we will be staying in hotels which are both lovely and comfortable, but are still strongly in the Bhutanese tradition and style.

This itinerary can be taken on its own, or back-to-back with the India itinerary.

Day 01; March 12th            

This morning we transfer to the airport for our Druk Air flight to Paro.  The flight into Bhutan takes us over the Himalayas, offering breathtaking views of the world’s highest glacial peaks.  As we fly into Paro valley we see the silvery Pa Chu (Paro River) meandering down the valley, the Paro Dzong (fortress) and Ta Dzong (watch tower).  On arrival we transfer to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.  After lunch we visit the National Library which houses an extensive collection of priceless Buddhist manuscripts, and  the Institute for Zorig Chusum (commonly known as the Painting School) where students undergo a 6-year training course in Bhutan’s 13 traditional arts and crafts.

Day 02; March 13th            

After breakfast we explore this beautiful upland valley looking for wildlife.  Thimphu valley is relatively dry, covered in stands of blue pine and temperate evergreen forests, and is home to a good variety of bird species, including hill myna, white-bellied yuhina, and plumbeous redstart.  Later we visit the King’s Memorial Chorten, a monument which is continuously ringed by people murmuring mantras and spinning their prayer wheels.  Construction of this landmark was the idea of Bhutan’s third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuk (“the father of modern Bhutan”) who wished to erect a monument to world peace and prosperity.  Completed in 1974 after the King’s untimely death, it serves both as a memorial to the Late King and as a monument to peace.

Later we visit Tashichhodzong, “fortress of the glorious religion”. This is the centre of both government and religion in Bhutan, as well as being the site of the monarch’s throne room and seat of Je Khenpo (the Chief Abbot).  Built in 1641 by the political and religious unifier of Bhutan, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, it was reconstructed in the 1960s in traditional Bhutanese style, without nails or architectural plans.

Day 03; March 14th            

After breakfast we visit Thimphu’s weekend market, which gives us a wonderful opportunity of mingling with local people and seeing what the locals buy.  Later we proceed to Dochula Pass (3,080m) which offers spectacular views over the high peaks of the eastern Himalayas.  From the top we descend into Wangduephodrang valley some 1,800m below.  The road passes through temperate leafy forest where rhododendrons and magnolias bloom in March and April, then moves into a semi-tropical zone where orange and banana trees, as well as cactuses, are found in abundance.  This afternoon we explore the forests around Wangduephodrang looking for birds, including black-chinned yuhina, black-breasted sunbird, red-breasted rosefinch and fulvous-breasted pied woodpecker.  This evening we visit the Wangduephodrang Dzong.

Day 04; March 15th            

After breakfast we continue on to Trongsa across Pele-la pass (3,300m/10,830 ft), the traditional boundary between east and west Bhutan.  The pass is marked by a large white chorten hung with prayer flags.  There is an abrupt change in vegetation at this point, with mountain forest replaced by high altitude dwarf bamboo.  We stop en route at Chendbji Chorten, which is based on Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath Stupa, with eyes painted at the four cardinal points.  It was built in the 18th century by Lama Shida from Tibet, to cover the remains of an evil spirit that was subdued at this spot.  Enroute we visit Trongsa Dzong.  Built in 1648, it was the seat of power over central and eastern Bhutan.  Both the first and second Kings of Bhutan ruled the country from this ancient seat.  All four Kings were invested as Trongsa Penlop (‘governor’) prior to ascending the throne, and the present Crown Prince now holds the title.

Later we drive to Bumthang, a journey of about 3 hours, over the Yutong-la Pass (3,400m/ 11,155 ft).  The road winds steeply up to the pass, and then runs down through coniferous forest into a wide, open cultivated valley known as the Chumey valley.  During our drive we will look out for birds including goldcrest, Blyth’s pipit, little bunting and red-billed chough.

Day 05; March 16th            

Bumthang is the name given to an area comprising four valleys: the Chumey, Choekhor, Tang and Ura, with altitudes varying from 2,600m to 4,000m.  It is home to many prominent Buddhist temples and monasteries.  This morning we visit several important sites, including Kurje Lhakhang, where the saint Padmasambhava subdued a local demon and left his body imprint on a rock; the Jambey Lhakhang (a 7th century temple); Tamshing Lhakhang (housing some of the oldest wall paintings in Bhutan) and Jakar Dzong (administrative centre of the region).

Day 06; March 17th            

After breakfast we drive to Gangtey, one of the most beautiful spots in Bhutan.  The surprise of finding such a wide, flat, treeless valley after the climb through dense forests is augmented by an impression of vast space, a rare experience in Bhutan where most of the valleys are narrow and enclosed.  A few kilometres beyond the Gangtey Monastery lies the village of Phobjikha.  This area is the winter home of several hundred black-necked cranes which migrate from the arid plains of the north to spend the winter in the milder climate found here.  They start their migration north again at this time, but we will hope to find some cranes still here.  Phobjikha, at an altitude of 2900m, lies on the periphery of the Black Mountain National Park.

This evening we visit Gangtey monastery. Perched on a small hill that rises from the valley floor, the Gangtey Monastery is the only Nyingmapa monastery on the western side of the Black Mountains and is also the biggest Nyingmapa monastery in Bhutan.  (Nyingmapa is the oldest of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.)  The Monastery is surrounded by a large village inhabited mainly by the families of the 140 Gomchens who take care of the Monastery.

Day 07; March 18th            

This morning we continue our journey to Punakha, visiting the Punakha Dzong.  Built strategically at the junction of Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu rivers in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the religious and administrative centre of the region, Punakha Dzong has played an important role in Bhutan’s history.  Damaged by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the Dzong has been fully restored by the present King.

Day 08; March 19th            

We spend this morning exploring Punakha valley, looking for birds including large grey babbler, Himalaya tree-pie, slaty-backed forktail, white-breasted kingfisher, yellow-billed blue magpie, Himalayan griffon and red-crowned jay.  This afternoon we take a short walk to the temple of Chimi Lhakhang, situated on a hillock in the centre of the valley.  The trail leads across rice fields to the tiny settlement of Pana, before following a stream downhill to Yoaka, and across more rice fields before making a short climb to Chimi Lhakhang.  The temple is dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenley who, in the late 15th century, used humour, songs and outrageous behaviour to dramatise his teachings and due to this he is known as the ‘Divine Madman’.

Day 09; March 20th            

After breakfast we drive to Paro.  This afternoon we visit Ta Dzong, which was built as a watch-tower to defend Rinpung Dzong during inter-valley wars in the 17th century.  Since 1967 Ta Dzong has housed the National Museum, with fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings and Bhutan’s exquisite postage stamps.  Later we walk down to Rinpung Dzong itself.  Built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the first spiritual and temporal ruler of Bhutan, the Dzong houses the monastic body of Paro, the office of the Dzongda (district administrative head) and Thrimpon (judge) of Paro district.  The approach to the Dzong is through a traditional covered bridge called Nemi Zam.  A walk across the bridge, over a stone inlaid path, offers a spectacular view of the architectural wonder of the Dzong as well as life around it.   

Day 10; March 21st            

This morning we explore the rural areas and forests of the Paro Valley, looking for Himalayan whistling thrush, green-backed tit, Hodgson’s redstart, Himalayan treecreeper and rufous-bellied hawk-eagle.  Later we take an excursion to Taktsang Monastery, which is one of the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, perched on the side of a cliff 900m above the Paro valley floor.  It is said that Guru Rinpoche arrived here on the back of a tigress and meditated at this monastery and hence it is known as ‘Tiger’s Nest’.  This site is recognised as one of the most sacred places in Bhutan, and is now visited by all Bhutanese at least once in their lifetimes.

Day 11; March 22nd            

After breakfast we transfer to the airport for our flight back to Delhi.  We have a day room at the Trident Hotel, where we will have our farewell dinner before transferring back to the airport for our flights home.

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