“A WANDER THROUGH WONDERFUL BHUTAN”

 

A 14 DAY JOURNEY TO THE LAND OF THE THUNDER DRAGON

 

3rd – 17th December 2019    

 

In Association with Bhutan Dorji Holidays


“My journey to Bhutan in 2017 with Ian Graham was the realisation of a long-cherished ambition. And it exceeded every hope and my wildest dreams! The beauty of the country, the charm of the people and the unswerving generosity and kindness I experienced everywhere on this unique trip was incredible. The spirituality of the country permeates every aspect of life… loving kindness, respect for all sentient beings, the care for the environment… and lots of laughing! No words are adequate for my profound gratitude to Ian Graham for enabling this unique and unforgettable experience.” J.Brennan.

 A journey to Bhutan – ‘The Last Remaining Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom ‘ – is an  exclusive and unique experience even for the most seasoned travellers. Its pristine natural beauty, uncompromising Buddhist culture and an environment that inspires spiritual as well as physical well-being combine to make it an unforgettable holiday destination.

It was these qualities that left such a deep impression on me when I visited Bhutan for the first time in 1973. At that time foreign visitors who were privileged enough to be granted an entry visa could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In those days there was virtually no infrastructure, no hotels and certainly no airport. In some places that I went I was the first European that people has ever seen. My visit then as a nineteen year old was a continuation of a strong family link to Bhutan which began with my grandfather’s first visit in 1921, and family members have been returning regularly ever since. I have literally grown up with Bhutan and its people as an ever present background to my life.

My grandfather with the First King of Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck, in 1921

With this tour it is my aim to share with others my love for this country and I have tried to put together an itinerary that will include something for everyone who feels drawn to experience any part of Bhutan’s rich culture. However experience with other groups has shown me that what is most appreciated is the pure, unspoiled nature of Bhutan and the chance to walk in a landscape that is so different from anything one will experience in Europe. With that in mind, this itinerary will include plenty of opportunities to enjoy walking through Bhutan’s magical natural environment while at the same time taking in some of Bhutan’s other unique cultural and spiritual sites. I hope you will feel sufficiently excited and inspired by what you read below to want to join me on this wonderful journey.

ITINERARY

Below you will find the planned itinerary but as those who are familiar with travelling in  remote places will know, sometimes circumstances beyond ones control ask for flexibility and readiness to make minor changes . Tashiding Travel and Bhutan Dorji Holidays will do their utmost to adhere to the published programme.

Day 1 PARO ( Sunday 2nd December ) A late morning departure from Delhi to Paro. This has to be one of the most spectacular flights anywhere as we fly closely past four of the five highest mountains in the world ( Mts Lhotse, Everest, Makalu and Kanchenjunga ) before the pilot brings our plane along the long winding valley into Paro. Only a handful of pilots are trained for this landing as it requires such special skills, using sharp eyesight and without the use of an automatic pilot.

View of Mt Everest from Drukair flight to Paro

After immigration we will meet the guides and drivers who will accompany us for the next two weeks. We will stay our first night in Paro, the only one night stop on our itinerary, to give us time to acclimatise to the altitude and perhaps recover from our jetlag a little. In the evening we will come together as a group for the first time.


DAY 2.  HAA VALLEY (Monday 3rd December)

Our journey today will take us over the Chele La Pass, at just under 4000m, the highest motorable road in Bhutan.( La is the Dzongkha word for Pass ) From the pass we will get a clear view of Mt Jomolhari, (7326m), Bhutan’s second highest and most sacred mountain.

Mt Jomolhari from Chele La

Haa was only opened to tourists in 2002 and still only a very small percentage of tourists to Bhutan visit this green valley. Before there were any roads into Bhutan from India, the few visitors to enter the country would do so on horseback via Haa, having first travelled through Sikkim and the Yatung Valley in Tibet.

On the way we will visit Keli Nunnery which is reached by a walk through lush forests of  fir  trees.

Keli Gompa is historically significant as a sacred meditation site and many saints have come here to find peace and seclusion.  Here the nuns, called Anims, live a life of   isolation and contemplation. There are about thirty nuns, or anims, living here, aged between 20 and 80. Their days begins and end with prayers. They rise at 3am. Some of the older nuns have retired for meditation in one of the many huts surrounding the Temple, while the younger ones pursue Buddhist studies and perform religious ceremonies.

After visiting the nunnery we will stop at the Chelela for a picnic and enjoy the magnificent views of the snow peaks with Paro and Haa valleys stretching out beneath us on either side.

A stay in Haa is the perfect gentle introduction to rural life in Bhutan. It is one of the most beautiful and pristine places in Bhutan with its unspoilt natural beauty, offering an abundant choices of walks through villages and paddy fields. As accommodation is limited, we will immerse ourselves further in traditonal Bhutanese life by staying in a homestay.


Day 3 HAA VALLEY (Tuesday 4th December ) Today we will explore Haa Valley, mainly on foot.


Day 4 PUNAKHA ( Wednesday 5th December ). Today we will travel to Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan. On the way we will stop of at the Dochu La (3100m) from where, weather permitting, we will see a magnificent panorama of the Bhutanese Himalayas, including Mt Gankhar Puensum, Bhutan’s highest mountain and the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Mountaineers are forbidden to climb the Himalayan peaks of Bhutan that are over 6000m high out of respect to the Deities who it is believed inhabit them. Dochula is also the site of the 108 Memorial Chortens or stupas.

Himalayas from Dochu La

The Druk Wangyal Chortens were built at the pass, under the patronage of the Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk. They were built as a memorial in honour of the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India. It particularly marks the victory of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck who dislodged the rebels from their camps (there were 30 camps) in Bhutanese territory from where they raiding Indian territory of Assam. After the war the king went back to Thimphu on 28 December 2003 and at this stage the 108 chortens were being built. They were completed in mid June 2004 and formally consecrated and sanctified with religious rites.

Druk Wangyel Chortens

A further two hours brings us to Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan, and at only 1200m, will be our lowest lying destination. Check in to hotel.

Journey time 5 hours


Day 5 PUNAKHA ( Thursday 6th December ). 

Punakha Dzong

This morning we will first visit the magnificent 17th century Punakha Dzong. It is one of the oldest dzongs in the country and the winter residence of Bhutan’s highest ranking spiritual figure, His Holiness the Je Khenpo. It is also where the coronation ceremonies of the Kings of Bhutan take place. Twenty one temples are contained within its walls, the largest of which is the monks’ hundred-pillared Great Assembly Hall. Here we will also be honoured to receive a Long Life Blessing from the Venerable Lama Dorji, the second ranking Lama living at the Dzong. This powerful sacred ceremony is not normally available to tourists.

After a blessing with Lama Dorji

Later in the day a pleasant walk through the paddy fields will bring us to the Chimi Lhakhang temple. Sometimes known as the Temple of Fertility it was built late in the 15th century by Lama Drukpa Kinley, otherwise known as the Divine Madman or Mad Monk. Many childless couples come there for a special blessing to help them conceive and from all accounts it is often a success. The history of this auspicious worship house with its ritual phalluses makes it a ‘must see’.


Day 6 PUNAKHA ( Friday 7th December ) Today an hour long, beautiful walk through paddy fields and a climb through woods will brings us to Khamsuem Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

A traditional Bhutanese farmhouse on the way to Khamsum Yuley Namgay Chorten

 Khamsum Yuley Namgay Chorten was built in 1990s  by Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangden, the mother of the 5th King, and dedicated to the King and for the well being of Bhutanese. It is majestically located on a ridge, with amazing views of the country side.

Khamsum Yuley Namgay Chorten

The pervading peaceful atmosphere in and around the Chorten invites one to connect to ones inner stillness. We will descend from the Chorten along a more natural path than the one we took to get there. The path will bring us at times to the edge of the MoChu river and a chance to rest on the huge rocks before a walk across a suspension bridge brings us to the place where our cars are waiting for us.

Later in the day, after a week of seeing lots of monks, we will visit a nunnery. The Sangchhen  Dorji  Lhuendrup Nunnery is quite new but its relative modernity hasn’t prevented it from already possessing an extraordinarily serene atmosphere. We may see young nuns studying on the grass or praying in the Temple


Day 7 ( Saturday 8th December) PUNAKHA TO PHOBJIKHA. A three hour drive from Punakha brings us to Phobjikha Valley. On the way we will cross the Pele La, a pass in the Black Mountains that form the frontier between West and Central Bhutan. 

Yaks grazing near Phobjikha

Phobjikha Valley


Day 8 ( Sunday 9th December ) PHOBJIKHA

The magnificent Phobjikha Valley is one of the few glacial valleys in Bhutan and one of the most beautiful spots to spend a couple of days taking nature walks through the villages and its open spaces. It is also the winter  home of the Black Necked Cranes which migrate from the central plateau of Tibet to escape the extreme cold there. As a way on ensuring the protection of the Cranes, all electricity cables in the valley are underground.

Gangtey Gompa Monastery

At the heart of the valley is the village of Gangtey that surrounds the 17th Gangtey Gompa Monastery. We will visit the Gompa today, after which we will take a two hour hike through the farmlands, woods  and open pasture of the valley. Black Necked Cranes will circle above us. At the end of the walk we will eat at a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse. After lunch you will have a chance to have a go at Archery, the national sport of Bhutan. We will then visit the Black Necked Crane centre.

Nature walk, Phobjikha

The farmhouse where we will enjoy a delicious lunch after our walk


Day 9 ( Monday 10th December) PHOBJIKHA

Today we will further explore Phobjikha Valley and in the evening visit the Gompa once again to attend the nightly Puja ceremony.


Day 10 ( Tuesday 11th December ) PHOBJIKHA TO THIMPHU

Today we drive to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, stopping for lunch on the way. After checking into the hotel, we can do a familiarisation wander through the centre, and perhaps satisfy your longing for a decent cappuccino and chocolate cake at Ambient Café.

Thimphu is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. From a small village forty three years ago when I first visited it, it has grown to become a bustling centre of commerce and tourism. With a population of nearly 100,000, it means that one in seven of the population of Bhutan lives there.

Thimphu from the air.


Day 11 ( Wednesday 12th December ) THIMPHU

A morning of sightseeing. Of special interest to some will be the Traditional Medicine Institute and the National Textile Museum. In Bhutan, equal emphasis is given to both allopathic and traditional medicines. The rich herbal medicines made up from medicinal plants abundant in the Kingdom are prepared and dispensed here. The Institute is also a training school for traditional medicine practitioners. With the opening of Textile Museum, under the patronage of  Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden, Bhutanese textile have reached new heights as one of the most visible distinct art form.

The Monastery within Taschicho Dzong

We will certainly visit the massive Taschichodzong, a fortress style building which houses the main Government offices and within whose walls is the country’s most important monastery. We will also visit the impressive Dordenma Buddha.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. 125,000 smaller Buddha statues have been placed within the Buddha Dordenma statue, 100,000 8 inch tall and 25,000 12 inch tall statues respectively. Each of these thousands of Buddhas have also been cast in bronze and gilded. The throne that the Buddha Dordenma sits upon is a large meditation hall.

Buddha Dordenma

In the afternoon we will visit Cheri Monastery, a few kilometres outside Thimphu. This monastery was built by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in 1620. A silver chorten inside the monastery holds the ashes of Shabdrung’s father. The goemba is situated about an hour’s walk from Dodena (alt. 2,600m).

Cheri Monastery

The trail commences by crossing a traditional wooden bridge that spans the Thimphu Chhu, then climbs steeply to the monastery. Being the place where the Shabdrung spent many years in meditation, Cheri today has numerous hermitages and small temples located on its slopes, as many monks come here for retreats, some lasting three years, three months, three weeks and three days. We will enjoy a slightly shorter period of meditation here.

Rock paintings on the way to Cheri Monastery

Evening to relax and shop or have more cappucinos


Day 12 ( Thursday 13th December ) 

Today we will return to the Dochu La to attend the annual Druk Wangyel Tchechu (Festival). The Tshechu takes place every December 13th at the Druk Wangyal Lhakhang Festival Ground located at Dochula Pass.  Set amidst the breathtaking backdrop of the snow capped peaks, the Dochula Druk Wangyal Tsehchu is an experience unlike any other and true exemplifies Bhutanese cultural traditions.

The Tshechu was established in 2011 by HM Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck in commemoration of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and the Armed Forces’ victory over Indian insurgent forces residing in southern Bhutan in 2003. Her Majesty mingles with the crowds during the afternoon. It provides a great day out for Bhutanese families who bring their picnics, and all dressed in their finest clothes.


Day 13 ( Friday 14th December ) THIMPHU to PARO

After a final morning in Thimphu to do some last minute sightseeing and shopping, today we retrace our steps back to Paro. If you are not already Dzonged- or Templed- out, we can visit Paro Dzong or Kichyu Lakhang. The 7th Century Kichyu Lakhang is one of the oldest and most beautiful temples in Bhutan and it was here that the great Buddhist master Dilgo Khyentse Rimpoche lived until shortly before his death in 1991. 

Morning mist in Paro Valley.


Day 14 ( Saturday 15th December )  PARO

Our last day in the Dragon Kingdom.

Today we visit the most iconic site in Bhutan, Taktsang Monastery, or Tiger’s Nest as it is more commonly known.

All Bhutanese Buddhists strive to make this pilgrimage at least once in their lives and each step they take on the trail counts towards credits for their future. Choose between a 3 hour hour round trip hike to the Monastery viewpoint or a longer 5 hour and more strenuous hike into the Monastery itself. For those who prefer a more leisurely ascent assistance can also be obtained from a mule or a pony’ although I can’t promise a gin and tonic in a crystal glass served on a silver tray, as I was given half way up in 1973.

Tigers Nest clings impossibly to a cliff of rock at 1000 metres above the valley floor and where Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a tigress to subdue the local demons followed by 3 months meditation in a cave still visible in the monastery. In 1998 the monastery was seriously damaged by fire and has since been painstakingly reconstructed to its original condition and consecrated by the 4th king in 2005.

Whatever your choice, you may be very ready for a traditional hot stone bath when you return to the hotel to soak away any aching limbs.

In the evening we will gather for our last meeting as a group with our guides and drivers where we can express our appreciation for their magnificent care, followed by a last dinner.


Day 15 ( Sunday 16th December )

I will wave you off on your morning flight back to Delhi, once again flying past the eternally snow capped peaks of Kanchenjunga, Makalu, Lhotse and of course Mt Everest. An unforgettable end to what I hope will have been an unforgetable holiday in beautiful Bhutan.

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TRAVEL INFORMATION


COSTS

The cost is €3695.00.p.p ( 2018 only )

 Single room supplement is €35.00 per night in Bhutan, if especially requested. If there is an uneven number of people in the group, and someone has nobody to share with, the person with the single room does not have to pay the supplement.

Single room supplement in Delhi is €60.00

As payments to Bhutan have to be made in dollars, in the event of fluctuations in the exchange rates or increase in local charges, Tashiding reserves the right to modify the final price upwards to a maximum of 10%. Prices given are based upon the exchange rate on 16th March 2018

This includes: Flights from Delhi to Paro and return from Paro to Delhi, first night in 4*hotel near Delhi airport, entry visa to Bhutan, full board accommodation for 14 nights in twin room ( doubles also sometimes available), all meals, transport, entry fees to all monuments, local tour guide(s), tips for lamas, guides and drivers.

It does not include: International flights to Delhi, Indian visa ( double entry ), hotel in Delhi on return journey, meals in Delhi, all personal expenses, health insurance, laundry etc

NB Druk Air also flies to Paro from Bangkok, Kolkata, Dacca, Kathmandu and Singapore. If you wish to travel on one of these routes please inform Ian Graham.


GROUP SIZE

The group will consist of a minimum of eight and a maximum of sixteen persons


HOTELS AND MEALS

In Bhutan I have selected hotels based upon my own experience and up-to-date recommendations from our local tour company. Apart from in Thimphu, hotels in Bhutan can be said to be charming and rustic, built mainly in traditional style. In some hotels not all rooms are of similar quality ( varying sizes and views ) but all have en suite facilities. Homestay accommodation is comfortable and conforms to standards set by the Bhutanese Tourist Board.

The food served is mainly buffet style with something for every taste, often combining the influence of Chinese, Tibetan and Indian cuisine.


PHYSICAL DEMANDS OF THE TRIP

The itinerary has been planned to suit people of normal mobility and physical fitness. We will be making some walks, so strong footwear is recommended, plus thick socks for entry into the monasteries. If you are concerned about your health and ability to handle high altitudes, please consult your doctor. The highest altitude we will go to is 3800 metres. But it is not my intention to be taking you on a Himalayan bootcamp. Now and then it may be possible to opt out of activities and enjoy a rest in the glorious landscapes.

Although distances between the places we will stay are relatively short as the crow flies, the topography of the land means that the real distance covered by road may be three or four times longer. I have tried to plan the itinerary so that not too many hours are spent on the road in one day. The longest journey, from Phobjikha to Thimphu, will take about six hours. We will travel in comfortable 4×4 cars, and of course there is the distraction of the magnificent scenery.

There is no malaria in Bhutan, but up-to-date hepatitis and tetanus vaccinations are recommended. Further health tips will be received by group participants nearer the time.


 WEATHER

In any mountainous terrain weather can be unpredictable and, like everywhere else climate patterns in Bhutan are changing. Daytime temperatures in the first half of December range between 18 degrees in Punakha  and 12 degrees in other places. However the strength of the sun’s rays make it feel even warmer; at higher altitudes of course morning and evening can be cooler and temperatures can drop below zero. Some hotel bedrooms are equipped with a wood burning stove and in many, hot water bottles are provided also. This is in addition to electric heating.

In December rain is limited mainly to occasional days of drizzle which means it is snowing at higher altitudes. When the clouds lift it is to reveal an evening more magnificent view than before.


PASSPORT AND VISA

All visitors to Bhutan need an entry visa and this will be arranged for you by Tashiding Travel.

You will also need to arrange for yourself a double entry visa for India. An e-visa is available online.

For both countries passports must be valid for at least six months after the day of departure.


HEALTH AND TRAVEL INSURANCE

Although health care in Bhutan is free for Bhutanese citizens as well as tourists, we recommend that you have a full health insurance.

WE FURTHER STRONGLY RECOMMEND THAT YOU HAVE A FULLY COMPREHENSIVE TRAVEL INSURANCE, INCLUDING A CANCELLATION POLICY, REPATRIATION COVER AND REFUND IN THE EVENT OF HAVING TO INTERRUPT THE JOURNEY BECAUSE OF ACCIDENT OR INJURY.