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Bhutan

Festivals and Mountaintop Temples of Bhutan

Explore the remote Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, known for its vast expanses of untouched wilderness, deeply embedded Buddhist culture, and history steeped in tradition and legend.

On this immersive journey we'll take in the breathtaking sights of western and central Bhutan, beginning with the new and old capitals of Thimphu and Punakha. From the subtropical greenery of these small cities, we'll then pass through the country's alpine regions and into the Phobjikha and Gangtey Valleys, with stops at nearby farms and fortresses. We'll dedicate two days to the Jambay Lhakhang Festival, one of the country's brightest and liveliest celebrations. Our adventure ends with an ascent to the dramatic Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery.

Our small group of 10 to 16 intrepid explorers will be traveling in the company of an expert local guide and an Atlas Obscura representative.

TRIP HIGHLIGHTS

  • Jambay Lhakhang Festival: Spend two full days experiencing the sights and sounds of this spectacular festival, including folk dances, purification rituals, and a special midnight tradition.
  • Historic temples and monasteries: Visit seventh-century lhakhangs (temples) rich in Bhutanese and Buddhist history.
  • Wildlife and conservation: The Bhutanese constitution mandates that 60 percent of the country remain forested. During this beautiful time of year, we’ll have many opportunities to stroll and hike along mountain paths and through rural valleys, with chances to spot black cranes, golden langurs, and the national animal, the takin.

TRIP COST

A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. We have a limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill up quickly. The trip will cost a total of $4,990 (the $500 deposit plus the $4,490 final payment), which covers all fixed costs, including accommodations, local guides, and all meals and activities listed in the itinerary.

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TRIP?

If you have any questions that aren't answered in the itinerary, or would like to chat with someone about whether you think this adventure is the right fit for you, please don't hesitate to contact us! Email us at atlasobscura@worldexpeditions.com or give us a call at 1-855-596-6237 anytime between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.

Itinerary
Day 1
Welcome to Bhutan!
  • Enjoy spectacular views as you fly over the Himalayas and make a dramatic descent into Paro Airport, one of the most technically challenging landings in the world. Mount Jhomolhari, at 23,999 feet, looms above the runway, with the glacial Paro Chhu River running down its slopes.
  • Once on the ground, you'll receive a big Kuzuzangpo la! (Hello and welcome!) from your Bhutanese guides, Atlas Obscura representative, and local drivers.
  • From Paro Airport, we'll drive to the new capital of Thimphu and settle into our lodging for the next two nights. Bhutan's most developed city is home to the government, royal family, and head offices of international organizations.
  • After resting and freshening up at the hotel, we'll visit Buddha Dordenma, the largest Buddha statue in the country. This serene golden structure sits atop a hill, calmly overlooking the Thimphu Valley. There are 125,000 miniature Buddhas encapsulated within the statue's shining chest, which makes the capital's Buddha population higher than its human one.
  • In the evening, we'll enjoy our first dinner together as a group. Our guides will host a trip briefing and overview, and we'll have the opportunity to ask questions about the fascinating days ahead.
Day 2
Thimphu Explorations
  • Today we'll be exploring the capital of Thimphu, with a focus on Bhutanese culture. After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel—and bonding over inevitable jet lag—we'll set out for the Royal Textile Academy, which showcases the great variety and beauty of the country's woven art. You can even take home a hand-embroidered gho or kira, the men's or women's national dress.
  • We’ll visit a traditional farm just outside the city and learn more about a demanding rural lifestyle that remains unchanged to this day in many parts of the country.
  • We’ll hear the story of the takin, Bhutan’s national animal. You'll definitely want to take a snapshot of this unique creature, with the body of a cow and the head of a goat, when we stop by the Motithang Takin Preserve.
  • We'll also visit the country's seat of government, the Tashichho Dzong, an impressive Buddhist monastery and fortress. The dzong is surrounded by lush gardens and overlooks the Wangchhu River, which flows all the way down into India and Bangladesh.
  • This evening, we’ll try our hands at preparing some of Bhutan's most popular dishes, including its prized national specialty, Ema Datshi, made of spicy chilis, local cheese, green beans, ferns, and other seasonal vegetables.
  • We'll return to our hotel in Thimphu for a full night's rest before our journey onward to Punakha.
Day 3
Dochula Pass to the Ancient Capital
  • This morning we'll drive over the Dochula Pass, which stands at an elevation of 10,170 feet. On a clear day, it offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Himalayas and Gangkar Puensum (24,734 feet), the world’s tallest unclimbed peak. The pass is home to 108 chortens built by the Queen Mother to pay tribute to the visionary leadership of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. And, if you walk a little ways up the mountain and into the forest, you'll stumble upon a cluster of moss-covered meditation caves.
  • By midday we'll arrive at Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan. The surrounding valley is dominated by the impressive Punakha Dzong, which sits at the confluence of the Mho (female) and Pho (male) Rivers. 
  • En route, we'll visit Chimi Lhakhang, a temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley, a national figure known as the “Divine Madman." Kunley, a Tibetan Buddhist monk and poet who lived from 1455 to 1529, worked overtime to spread enlightenment through sex. You'll learn from your guides about this unconventional monk, the inspiration for the country's omnipresent phallus symbol. The walk to and from the monastery is about 45 minutes, with time to poke around the local shops. Inside the monastery, you'll find a book filled with notes of gratitude from hopeful but childless visitors who were later blessed with offspring.
  • After replenishing our energy over dinner, we'll spend the night at our Punakha hotel.
Day 4
Punakha Dzong
  • After breakfast, our day will begin with a short walk through the nearby fields of rice, chilis, and cabbage. We'll meander on toward the Khamsum Yuley Namgyal Chorten, a monument dedicated to the King of Bhutan. Its location offers commanding views of the valley floor up to the high mountains of Gasa. Once at the chorten you'll be treated to spectacular views of the whole Punakha Valley. (This beautiful walk is about two hours round-trip.)
  • We'll relax and rest our legs with a picnic lunch at a scenic spot near the river. 
  • Our next stop will be the magnificent Punakha Dzong, also known as the Palace of Great Bliss. This was once the winter fortress of Je Khenpo, chief hierarch of Bhutanese Buddhism. It was partially destroyed by glacial floods, but has since been carefully restored. It houses some of the country’s most sacred relics, including the preserved remains of the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the revered founder of the Bhutanese state. The Shabdrung's body is moved from Thimphu to Punakha every winter, as the lower elevation is more temperate. Our guides will translate some of the many Buddhist paintings and symbols for us. 
  • In the evening, you'll have the opportunity to rest, read, or write to your friends and family. For those interested in exploring the valley on foot, our guides can also take you on hikes around the Punakha Valley.
  • We'll spend another night in our Punakha hotel before the drive to Gangtey.
Day 5
Phobjikha Valley
  • Today we'll depart for the stunning Phobjikha Valley, a drive that takes approximately three hours. Our route climbs from the subtropical greenery of Punakha to alpine regions boasting vast hemlock and rhododendron forests. We'll continue into Gangtey Valley, home to Bhutan's black-necked cranes, now an endangered species. Conservation efforts by Bhutan and the World Wildlife Fund have been able to create a safe haven for these beautiful birds, which flock to the region's marshy wetlands from mid-October to early March for roosting. If the calendar favors us, we'll have the chance to see a few of the flocks.
  • After arriving around midday, you'll have a chance to sit back, relax, and enjoy a home-cooked picnic lunch. Afterward, we'll reconvene for a visit to the Crane Center to learn all about the rare birds and conservation efforts. We'll also get to meet the center's crane-in-resident, an injured bird that the center cares for year-round.
  • In the evening we’ll take a stroll in the glacial valley, stopping to admire the cranes if they've made their winter arrival. You'll often encounter local students on these walks eager to practice their English, an official language of education in Bhutan, along with the national language, Dzongkha.
  • After dinner together, we'll spend the night at our hotel in Gangtey.
Day 6
Valley Visits & Wanderings
  • This morning, we'll make our way to Gangteng Gompa, a 17th-century monastery overlooking the lush Phobjikha hills and wetland. Gangteng's current head lama is an incarnation of the site's legendary founder and visionary, Pema Lingpa, a famous 14th-century blacksmith, saint, and terton (discoverer of spiritual treasures) who chose this site for the gompa. Within the complex, there is a central monastery, meditation hall, school, monks’ quarters, and courtyard.
  • During our visit, we'll meet a senior resident monk who has lived his life under strict vows of celibacy, discipline, and meditation—the minimum requirements for being a teacher to young novice monks. We'll also have the opportunity to attend a prayer ceremony dedicated to peace and all sentient beings.
  • Enjoy the temple's tranquil setting or walk to the surrounding villages, basking in the alpine scenery that distinguishes Bhutan’s high country.
  • After lunch, we'll visit a farmhouse to meet the family that calls it home. These farmhouses are generally home to multiple generations, with anywhere from five to 25 family members sleeping there at one time. While you'll notice that fairly recent introductions such as electricity and better roads have improved the local standard of living, day-to-day life still involves exhausting agricultural labor, just as for generations before. 
  • The family will also showcase their preparation of Ema Datshi. You'll have the chance to taste ara, a moonshine drink made from organic grains grown by the farmers.
  • We'll spend the night in Gangtey. Tomorrow, to Bumthang!
Day 7
To Bumthang by Way of Trongsa
  • This morning, we'll continue our journey eastward to Trongsa, and then on to Bumthang, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. A 2.5-hour drive will bring us to the steep ravine valley of Trongsa, the powerhouse of ancient Bhutan. Strategically located on the east-west mule trails, Trongsa was home to the most powerful leaders during Bhutan's medieval age.
  • We'll visit the watchtower known as the Taa Dzong, originally built in 1652. Inside, you'll discover a small chapel dedicated to King Gesar, an epic hero of Tibetan history, as well as an excellent museum dedicated to the monarchs of Bhutan.
  • Over another two hours on the road, we'll gain some altitude before descending again into the Bumthang Valley, our home for the next four nights.
  • We'll enjoy a relaxed dinner in Bumthang after our long drive, and then settle into our hotel.
Day 8
Jambay Lhakhang Festival
  • After kicking off the morning with some traditional butter tea, we'll drive to the seventh-century Jambay Lhakhang Temple, site of the local festivities. It is said that the legendary Guru Rinpoche visited this temple multiple times and deemed it exceptionally sacred.
  • The Jambay Lhakhang Festival begins today with the ground purification dance and welcome folk dances by the women of Bumthang. The crowd will slowly pour in as the festival gains momentum. Over the next two days, you'll witness an array of different local, national, and Tibetan-style masked and folk dances
  • One highlight worthy of mention is the midnight naked-men dance (Tercham) that requires you to be at the chilly grounds at the stroke of midnight. We recommend you wear warm clothes so you are comfortable as you witness this unique tradition.
  • We'll spend the night back at our Bumthang hotel.
Day 9
Festival, Hiking & Swiss Cheese Farm
  • Today you have further opportunity to experience the Jambay Lhakhang Festival and its many dances and rituals, either in the company of a guide or on your own.
  • If you'd like to explore beyond the festival and into the nearby area, there are many sights in Bumthang well worth checking out. For those looking to explore on foot, excursions to Kurjey Temple and the surrounding villages will be organized. There will also be the chance to visit the cheese farm of Fritz Maurer, a Swiss native who settled in Bhutan over 45 years ago.
  • Dinner and overnight in Bumthang.
Day 10
Bumthang Tang & Ogyen Choling
  • Today after breakfast we'll take a short trip into Tang, one of the four valleys of Bumthang. A two-hour drive from Bumthang, the buckwheat-growing valley combines immense natural beauty with historical importance: Bhutan’s greatest spiritual figures came from here. 
  • On our way, we’ll take the time to visit the Pema Choling Nunnery. This nunnery is home to 300 Buddhist nuns who are practitioners of the soothing drum ceremony, which we may have the chance to witness.
  • The route will also take us to "Burning Lake." The saint Pema Lingpa jumped into the lake holding a butter lamp, and reemerged with the lamp still burning bright, proving himself the son of the great Guru. The lake remains a place of pilgrimage.
  • In the afternoon, we'll drive back to the Bumthang Valley and explore the town of Jakar and its local bazaar. Dinner and overnight in Bumthang.
Day 11
Mountain Flight & Valley Explorations
  • Today, we'll bid farewell to Bumthang and fly back to Paro. The mountain flight is under an hour and provides great panoramic views of the mighty Himalayas.
  • Back in Paro, there will be time to freshen up and have lunch before setting out to explore. Paro is located on the banks of the Pa Chhu (chhu means “river”), which winds through the bucolic Paro Valley, once the hub for trade with Tibet.
  • Our first stop in the afternoon is the National Museum, home to a wide assortment of historic artifacts. After, we'll have the chance to walk to the nearby Paro Rinpung Dzong. This traditional fortress houses the district Monastic Body and local government administrative offices. We’ll ascend a short hill behind the dzong to reach the Ta Dzong, a circular fortress that once protected the valley from Tibetan invasion. The impressive watchtower commands sweeping views of the valley below.
  • We will also visit the seventh-century Kyichu Temple, one of the oldest in the country.
  • Afterward, we can stroll through the marketplace and handicraft shops to select souvenirs and gifts, including postcards and Bhutanese stamps. Paro's downtown is barely a decade old, and you'll find Western coffee shops and bakeries scattered among craft stalls and corner stores. Though a small and compact little city, Paro will feel oddly modern after our time in Gangtey, Jambay, and Bumthang.
  • After dinner, we'll turn in early to prepare ourselves for the big upcoming day: the hike to Taktsang Monastery.
Day 12
Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery
  • This morning we'll set off for one of the most iconic and venerated Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas. The walk to Taktsang Monastery—the Tiger's Nest, set into a cliff face 2,600 feet above the Paro Valley floor—will be challenging but very rewarding. The sacred site takes its name from a mythical journey made by Lord Padmasambawa (Guru Rinpoche), in which he flew on the back of a tigress in order to meditate for three months and convert the valley to Buddhism. Since then, many of Buddhism’s most influential figures have visited the monastery.
  • The full hike, which includes dirt paths and stone stairs, takes about two hours at a moderate pace. There is even a small spot you can stop for tea on the way up—the most scenic cup of na ja you may ever sip.
  • The main building of Taktsang was badly damaged in a fire, but a major restoration was completed in 2003. The view from the teahouse is well worth the climb, and it is possible to hike all the way to the gompa (monastery), another 45 minutes, to visit the various shrines in the building. Tucked among the shrines there is also a slim crevice in the rock for the more intrepid. After slipping through, you can descend a set of wooden ladders into the stone cave where the nest itself—and its tiger—are said to reside.
  • We'll take our time descending from the Tiger's Nest. Our last afternoon in Bhutan is yours, to relax in the hotel or revisit the market. Tonight, our group will enjoy a final farewell dinner with our guides and driver, and have a chance to reflect on all that we've experienced together.
Day 13
Farewell & Departure
  • Our journey through Bhutan will end today. We’ll wake up for one last cup of local tea before going to the airport, to head home or on to your next destination.
  • Until the next adventure!
The Fine Print

 

YOUR EXPEDITION TO BHUTAN INCLUDES

  • All lodging in double-accommodation rooms in modern, well-equipped hotels throughout the trip. (Single supplement for a private room is available for $275. Otherwise we'll work to place singles together.)
  • All entrance fees, activities, and 12 breakfasts, 10 lunches, and 12 dinners during the tour.
  • Domestic flight from Bumthang to Paro.
  • Private transfers and excursions with your local guides.
  • Airport transfers.
  • Your visa for Bhutan.
  • An expert bilingual guide and an Atlas Obscura representative accompanying the entire trip.
  • A full briefing packet for each explorer, including country information, final itinerary, logistical and contact information, recommended reading list, and packing list.
  • A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans, excited to explore all that Bhutan has to offer!

NOTE ON ITINERARY

Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific activities and events in mind, and schedules and availabilities may change in coming months due to inclement weather, forces of nature, and other circumstances beyond our control.

NOTE ON FACILITIES & PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Adventure is always accompanied by an element of the unexpected. The most important thing to bring with you is a flexible, positive, and open-minded attitude. During this trip, you will be staying in three-star accommodations, while also spending time in areas with less predictable facilities. We recommend a medium level of physical fitness, since we'll be embarking on very active days together. You should be comfortable walking between three and five miles per day without difficulty, and spending extended periods of time on your feet. For those interested in trekking, there will be opportunities for longer and more challenging hikes on certain days of the trip. If you're uncertain about whether this trip is a good fit, please contact us and we'd be happy to discuss with you further. 

PAYMENT

You will be charged a nonrefundable $500 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $4,490 will be due by August 9, 2018. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $275 will be included in the final payment.

TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR

  • International airfare to/from Bhutan. We will assist with booking your Drukair flights in and out of Paro (to be paid separately).
  • Travel insurance (required).
  • Baggage charges.
  • Tips and gratuities.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.

QUESTIONS?

Email us at atlasobscura@worldexpeditions.com or give us a call at 1-855-596-6237 anytime between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.