Festivals and Mountaintop Temples of Bhutan - Atlas Obscura
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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 Valley, with stops at nearby farms and fortresses. While in Phobjikha, we'll witness the Black-Necked Crane Festival, an annual event celebrating the endangered cranes that winter in the valley. The festivities take place in the courtyard of one of Bhutan's most intricately designed monasteries, set against the backdrop of this isolated mountain valley. Returning west, our adventure ends with an ascent to the dramatic Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery.

Please note that this departure, scheduled to include the annual Crane Festival, follows a different itinerary from our usual Festivals and Mountaintop Temples of Bhutan itinerary. 

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

TRIP HIGHLIGHTS

  • Black-Necked Crane Festival: Experience the sights and sounds of the Black-Necked Crane Festival, set against the backdrop of one of Bhutan's most spectacular mountain valleys. 
  • Historic temples and monasteries: Visit seventh-century lhakhangs (temples) rich in Bhutanese and Buddhist history.
  • Tiger's Nest Monastery: Visit Taktsang Lhakhang (a.k.a. Tiger's Nest), a 17th-century temple built into the side of a cliff some 2,000 feet above the valley floor. 

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 $3,260 (the $500 deposit plus the $2,760 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 and local drivers.
  • From Paro Airport, we'll drive to Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, where we settle into our lodging for the next three nights. Bhutan's most developed city is home to the government, royal family, and head offices of international organizations.
  • After freshening up at the hotel, we’ll meet with our guide in the lobby for an introductory briefing, followed by an optional excursion through the streets of the capital. 
  • In the evening, we'll enjoy our first dinner together as a group. 
Day 2
Thimphu Explorations
  • Today we'll be exploring the capital of Thimphu, learning about both traditional and contemporary Bhutanese life. After a leisurely breakfast at the hotel—and bonding over inevitable jet lag—we'll set out for the Institute of Traditional Medicine, where traditional Tibetan and Bhutanese remedies are practiced and taught. 
  • At the nearby National Library, we'll be joined by Bhutan's Chief National Librarian, who will show us some of the highlights of the collection. 
  • 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.
  • To cap off the day, we'll visit the Buddha Dordenma, a gigantic gilded statue of the Buddha built to commemorate the centennial of the Bhutanese monarchy. 
  • This evening, we'll be joined for dinner by some residents of the capital to swap stories and learn about life in contemporary Bhutan. 
Day 3
Art in the Capital
  • Our day begins with an artist-hosted visit to the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, where students learn traditional Bhutanese art forms. After a short crash-course, we'll put our skills to the test by making some art of our own. 
  • After lunch, we'll see another side of Thimphu's art scene with a visit to VAST, a contemporary art studio. From there, we continue on to the Royal Textile Academy, which showcases the tremendous 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.
  • 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. 
Day 4
Dochula Pass and Punakha
  • 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 5
The Black-Necked Crane Festival
  • Today we'll make a day-trip to the stunning Phobjikha Valley. The drive is long (approximately three hours each way), but it's a spectacular one. Our route climbs from the subtropical greenery of Punakha to alpine regions boasting vast hemlock and rhododendron forests. We'll continue to Gangtey, a wintering site for the endangered Black-Necked Crane. 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. 
  • Our visit coincides with the annual Black-Necked Crane Festival, which takes place in the courtyard of Gangtey Goemba, one of Bhutan's most important -- and beautifully crafted -- temples. Settling in with local revelers, we'll take in traditional music and masked dances inspired by the cranes. 
  • Time permitting, we'll take a short walk through this spectacular alpine valley before making the return drive to Punakha. 
Day 6
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.)
  • Stopping in for a visit at a local farm, we'll meet the family who lives there for a glimpse of their daily life. Those who are interested can lend a hand as our hosts tend their gardens and their cattle. After washing up, we'll enjoy a relaxing and well-earned lunch at the farm. 
  • 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, the head 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. While at the dzong, we'll meet with a Buddhist astrologer to learn about the importance of astrology in Bhutanese culture, government, and daily life. 
  • In the late-afternoon, we'll head out to a nunnery located on a ridge just outside of Punakha, where we'll join and chat with one of the nuns over afternoon tea. 
  • Returning to our hotel, we'll have a little time to relax and freshen up before gathering for dinner. 
Day 7
Westward to Paro
  • Returning west to Paro (a drive of 5 or 6 hours), we re-cross the spectacular Dochu La and arrive in the afternoon. Paro is located on the banks of the Pa Chhu (chhu means “river”), which winds through this bucolic valley, once the hub for trade with Tibet.
  • The remainder of the day is free to wander the peaceful streets of Paro or relax on the grounds of the hotel. We can stroll through the marketplace and handicraft shops to pick up 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 may feel oddly modern after our time in Gangtey and Punakha. 
  • After dinner, we'll turn in early to prepare ourselves for the big upcoming day: the hike to Taktsang Monastery.
Day 8
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 free 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 9
Farewell & Departure
  • Today we say farewell to Bhutan. 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 8 breakfasts, 8 lunches, and 8 dinners during the tour.
  • Private transfers and excursions with your local guides.
  • Airport transfers.
  • Your visa for Bhutan.
  • An expert bilingual guide 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. 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 $2,760 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.