Essential Bhutan

Bhutan

Culture | Festivals

Magnificent scenery, welcoming people & ancient dzongs

11 days £2,495 pp This is the per person group tour price, based on 2 sharing. The price is subject to change with exchange rate and flight cost fluctuations.
Dates & Prices

Intro

This trip will be scheduled to take in a traditional Bhutanese festival.

Experience rich Buddhist culture and mountain landscapes on this fascinating tour of Bhutan. Fly into Paro (or enter by land from India) and then drive to the charming capital Thimphu with its plethora of cultural sights. Head to Gangtey and the wilderness of Phobjika Valley which welcomes migrating rare black-necked cranes in the winter. Travel eastwards to the dramatic valleys of Bumthang in central Bhutan and enjoy rural walks and village visits. Start the drive back via Trongsa to Punakha, home to the most striking dzong in Bhutan, and walk through paddy fields to the eye-opening Temple of Fertility. Finish your trip in Paro, visit the 7th century Kyichu Lhakang temple and hike up to the iconic Tiger's Nest monastery.

TIP: extend your trip and exit by road into West Bengal in India, or fly out to Nepal and experience the charm of Kathmandu.

TOUR HIGHLIGHTS

  • Sacred sites in Paro valley
  • Bhutanese art & culture in museums of Thimphu
  • See the largest published book in the world
  • Rural walks in remote valleys and mountain passes
  • Explore Bumthang's valleys by foot
  • Drink tea and eat with charming villagers.
  • Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival
  • Visit the Temple of Fertility in Punakha
  • Hike up to the iconic Tiger's Nest monastery

Places Visited

Thimphu - Paro - Gangtey - Trongsa - Bumthang - Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival - Punakha

What's Included

Arrival & departure transfers
Ground transport with driver
Domestic flights (if relevant - refer to itinerary)
Accommodation
Meals (refer to itinerary for meal plan)
English-speaking guides
Entrance fees to sites & parks
Itinerary & Map
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Day 1 : Arrival

On arrival in Paro, you will be met by a Travel the Unknown representative and transferred to Thimphu. On arrival in Thimphu check-in to your hotel, before an evening guided walk around Thimphu Main Street and market area. Overnight Thimphu. 

Meal plan: Dinner

Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and its governmental, religious and commercial centre.  It is nestled in the Wang Chuu river valley and is abundant in natural splendour, wildlife and culture.  Thimphu is a very unique city with an unusual mixture of modern developments alongside ancient traditions. With a population of about 100,000 people, it is perhaps the world’s only capital city without traffic lights. In fact, there are no traffic lights in the whole of the country. Here, policemen stand in decorated pavilions in the main intersections and direct traffic using hand gestures in a conscious effort to save their culture from modern influences. Every building is still decorated with Dzong-style features and Buddhism influences every part of daily life. There is a variety of cafes, bars, nightclubs and restaurants, and Thimphu is one of the few places in Bhutan to have ATM machines. Altitude: 2,320m.

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Day 2 : Thimphu

This morning you will have a sightseeing tour in Thimphu Valley including visits to The National Library, The Institute for Zorig Chusum, the Textile Museum and Simply Bhutan. 

After lunch, you will be transferred to Pangri Zampa, a 16th-century monastery, and later transferred to Buddha Point (Kuensel Phodrang). Later you will visit Trashichhoedzong, an impressive fort and the summer residence of Chief Abbot and central monk body. Overnight in Thimphu.

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The National Library houses the largest published book in the world. Called 'Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom', it weights over 60kg and is 1.52m high and 2.13m wide. Its pages are turned only once per month. The library itself was opened in 1967 to collect and preserve ancient Dzongha and Tibetan texts. Some of the most significant document are well-labeled in English and there is even a coulourful shrine inside the building.

The Institute for Zorig Chusum, commonly known as the Painting School, offers 4- and 6- year courses where students can learn the 13 traditional Bhutanese arts and crafts. Students start with woodwork, stonework and carving, then progress onto painting, sculpting, casting, wood-turning, blacksmith-y, ornament-making, bamboo work, paper-making, tailoring and weaving. Depending on the time you visit, you may even see some of the students selling their work outside and be astounded by their skills.

Trashichhoe Dzong ('Fortress of the Glorious Religion') is the centre of government and religion, the site of the monarch’s throne room and the seat of Je Khenpo or Chief Abbot. Built in 1641 by the political and religious unifier of Bhutan, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal was reconstructed in 1960's in a traditional Bhutanese manner, without nails or architectural plans.

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Day 3 : Thimphu - Gangtey

This morning you will drive to Gangtey, en-route visiting the Dochla Pass (at an altitude of 3080m). On arrival in Gangtey, check-in to your hotel before an afternoon walk around Gangtey village and visit Gangtey Goempa, the only Nyingmapa monastery in this region. Overnight in Gangtey. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The Gangtey valley is one of the most beautiful spots in Bhutan. Finding such a large flat valley without any trees after climbing through thick forest is extremely rare in Bhutan. Altitude: 3,000m.


Gangtey Goempa is an important monastery of the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism, located in central Bhutan. The monastery is most famed for the annual arrival of black-necked-cranes, that visit central Bhutan to roost. The monastery’s history traces to the early 17th century. 
 


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Day 4 : Gangtey - Bumthang

 This morning you will drive to Bumthang crossing the Pele-la pass (at 3300m above sea level). You will stop off for lunch in Trongsa and visit Trongsa Dzong and Ta Dzong.

This afternoon you will continue your journey to Bumthang across the Yutong-la pass (at 3400m above sea level). Overnight in Bumthang. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Ta Dzong is located above the Trongsa Dzong, and a short, steep walk from the main Trongsa town. Ta Dzong, which means “watchtower”, was built in the 17th century and was built to protect Trongsa from any external threats. 

Trongsa is situated on a steep ridge  that drops off into the clouds on its south side. It  offers spectacular views of the deep valleys surrounding it. The various hotels, guesthouses and restaurants all offer stunning views from their balconies. Trongsa Dzong is easily visible from anywhere in town and is always an impressive sight.

The Trongsa Dzong sits overlooking the Mangdechhu River. It was founded by Yingzin Ngagi Wangchuk, a descendant of Ngawang Chogyal and a revered follower of Kuenkhen Pema Karpo. In 1541, he meditated at the village of Yueli in Trongsa, a few kilometers away from the present Dzong. During the meditation, he saw a lit butter lamp below the  Goenkhang  ridge, which houses the guardian deities Palden Lhamo (Mahakali) and Yeshey Goenpo (Mahakali). Considering the place to be sacred, he built mediation quarters. Once during his meditation in the new quarter, the deity Palden Lhamo appeared and prophesied that this place would play an important role in spreading Buddhist teachings. After this incident, Yingzin Ngagi Wangchuk constructed a small temple and named it Mondrupley. Over the years, his disciples built many smaller meditation centers near the Mondrupley temple, which soon began to resemble a small village. The people of Yueli named this new village Trong-sar (new village).

Located in central Bhutan, Bumthang is considered the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. This district is dotted with many temples and monasteries, among which are some of the oldest Buddhist temples and monasteries. This beautiful valley of buckwheat and apples has a mysterious history as an abode of gods and is one of the richest cultural places in the country.

Pele La Pass is the traditional boundary between the east and the west. The pass is marked by large white chorten prayer flags and there is an abrupt change in vegetation at this point, where mountain forest is replaced by dwarf bamboo. Altitude: 3,300m.

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Day 5 : Bumthang

After breakfast, you will have an excursion to Jambay Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in the kingdom. Today you will experience the Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival, one of the most spectacular festivals in the country. Overnight in Bumthang. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The Jambay Lhakhang monastery is one of the oldest in Bhutan. It was built in the 7th century on the orders of Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. A small paved courtyard in front of the main temple every year hosts the Jambay Lhakhang festival that is very popular with tourists.

The Jambay Lhakhang Drup Festival is one of the most spectacular events in the country, brought to life through colourful costumes and historical masked folk dances. It is famous for its evening fire ritual (the Mewang), where crowds gather to witness the ritualistic naked dance (the Tercham). It is believed that, through these rituals, one will be purified of their sins and blessed with good fortune to bring fertility and a rich harvest.

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Day 6 : Bumthang

This morning you will have a tour of Bumthang Valley comprising of four valleys; Chumney, Choekhor, Tang and Ura (altitude varying from 2,600m to 4,000m). You will visit Kurje Lhakhang, the Jambey Lhakhang, Tamshing Lhakhang and Jakar Dzong. 

This afternoon you will take a short hike to Lhodrak Kharchhu Monastery, before making your way back to Bumthang. Overnight in Bumthang. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Kurje Lhakhang: The 8th century king of Bumthang, Sendah Gyab, was cursed with illness by the guardian deity named Shelging Karpo. The king then invited Guru Rinpoche from Yanglayshey (meditation cave of the Guru) in Nepal to Bhutan and in 746 AD. Guru Rinpoche visited Bumthang, subdued the demons and restored the King’s health. Guru Rinpoche meditated in a cave named Dragmar Dorji Tsegpa and his body imprints remained on the rocks, which is why the temple is named Kurjey Lhakhang, meaning:- The Temple of Imprints.  There are three main temples in Kurjey. The oldest temple was constructed by Minjur Tenpa in 1652 on the site where Guru Rinpoche meditated. The second temple was founded by Trongsa Penlop Ugyen Wangchuck in 1900 while serving as the 13th Trongsa Penlop. This temple is the most sacred as it was built in the place where Guru Rinpoche left his body imprint. The third temple was built in the 1990s. It was sponsored by the Queen Mother Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck.

Jambey Lhakhang: One of the oldest and most sacred temples in Bhutan. It is said to be one of the 108 temples built by Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in 659 AD in a single day, to pin down an ogress to the earth forever.

The Tamshing Lhakhang monastery is the seat of Lama Sungtrul Rinpoche, the current incarnation of Pema Lingpa (1450–1521), who built it in 1501. He was a famous saint, master of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism and the discoverer of spiritual treasures. It contains sacred religious scripts and paintings, among which are the portraits of Pema Lingpa himself. 

The Jakar Dzong was originally built in 1549 by Yongzin Ngagi Wangchuk, who came to spread the teachings of the Drukpa Kagyupa order in Bhutan. He saw a  white bird perched on the construction site and considered it a good omen, naming the dzong to mean 'White Bird Fortress'.

The Lhodrak Kharchhu Monastery was founded by Namkhai Nyingpo Rinpoche in 1984 who was recognized at a very young age to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan lama whose spiritual lineage dates back to the nearest disciples of the great 9th century master. Since then, the monastery has developed considerably and increased by almost four hundred monks. The monastery has become part of an extensive effort to preserve and revitalize Tibetan culture. The monks' regular curriculum includes reading, grammar, poetry, memorizing the daily prayers, learning dharma dances, drawing mandalas, learning the melodies of sacred rituals, learning the use of ceremonial instruments and the art of making sacrificial objects, karika, the basics of contemplation and instruction on the different stages of tantra.

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Day 7 : Bumthang - Punakha

After check-out, you will drive to Punakha, the old capital town of Bhutan. On arrival, you will check-in to your hotel, and the rest of the day will be at leisure. Overnight in Punakha. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The Punakha valley has a pleasant climate with warm winters and hot summers. Owing to the favourable climatic conditions, rice grows very well in this region and is the main cash crop cultivated here. Altitude: 1,200m.

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Day 8 : Punakha

This morning you will have a visit to Punakha Dzong, before visiting Chimi Lhakhang. After lunch, you will have a short hike through fields of chillies, and rice along the banks of the Mo Chhu to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, a stunning monument built in 1999. Overnight in Punakha. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten was built on a ridge above Punakha valley and took around nine years to build. It is said that the Bhutanese craftsmen consulted Holy Scriptures to construct this 4 storey temple. The temple was built by Her Majesty, the Queen Mother Ashi Tshering Yangdon Wangchuck.

The Chimi Lhakhang temple is commonly known as the Temple of Fertility. It sits on a hillock in the centre of the valley, a site that was blessed by the 'Divine Madman'. This is the maverick saint Drukpa Kuenleyis that was famously obsessed with his 'magic thunderbolt of wisdom'. Therefore it is not unusual to see phalluses (symbol of fertility) painted on the outside of houses! It is widely believed that if couples who do not have children pray at this temple, they are blessed with a child very soon. Besides its fertility blessings, the temple also works to fulfill other religious needs. The trail to the temple leads across rice fields through the tiny settlement of Pana, which means ‘field’. A walk through this village will give you a rare glimpse into the daily life of the Bhutanese.


The majestic Punakha Dzong, known as the Palace of Great Happiness, used to serve as Bhutan's religious and administrative centre until the 1950s. The inside courtyards and religious statuary hint at a deep historical and spiritual tradition. It is quite large, 
measuring over 180m long by 70m wide and has a six-story, gold-domed tower. The dzong sits at the junction of the Pho chhu and Mo chhu rivers and was built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Buddhist lama. Arguably the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan, it was the second to be ever built in the country. Bhutan's most treasured possession, the Rangjung ('Self-Created') Kharsapani image of Chenresig is kept here, but is closed to the public.  


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Day 9 : Punakha - Paro

This morning you will drive to Paro, visiting Simtokha Dzong en-route. On arrival in Paro, check-in to your hotel. This afternoon you will visit Ta Dzong, and have a short walk down the trail to visit Rinpung Dzong. Overnight in Paro. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Paro is the second largest town in Bhutan although small in size and population. Its main street is lined with buildings richly decorated in traditional architecture that house a scattering of shops and restaurants. Paro is an ideal base for exploring the surrounding attractions, such as Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest). After Bumthang, the valley is amongst the most beautiful in Bhutan. Altitude: 2,280m.

The Ta Dzong was originally built to be a watchtower, but it now houses the National Museum. Its extensive collection includes antique thangkha paintings, textiles, weapons, armour, household objects and a rich assortment of natural and historic artifacts.

The Rinpung Dzong, which means 'Fortress of the Heap of Jewels', has a long and fascinating history. Fine wall paintings line the wooden galleries of the inner courtyard, illustrating Buddhist traditions and knowledge.

Overlooking Thimphu Valley, the Simtokha Dzong is the oldest dzong to have survived a series of attacks as a completed structure. According to legend, the building was created to subdue a demon that was harassing travelers to the area. When the evil spirit vanished into a nearby rock, the dzong was built upon it to enclose and guard the demon. As a result, the dzong gained its name, literally translating to "atop a demon".

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Day 10 : Paro

Today you will have an excursion to Taktshang Monastery, also known as the Tiger's Nest (approx 5 hours walking tour). This afternoon you will drive to the ruins of Drukgyel Dzong followed by a visit to Kyichu Lhakhang in the evening. Overnight in Paro. 

Meal plan: Breakfast, lunch & dinner

Also known as the Tiger’s Nest, the Taktshang Monastery is perhaps the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries and is perched precariously on the side of a cliff, 900m above the Paro Valley. It is said that Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism and the Buddha of our time, came here on the back of a tigress to meditate, hence the name. This site has been recognised as a most sacred place and was even visited by the Tibetan Buddhist Lama, Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in 1646. All Bhutanese people visit this monastery at least once in their lifetime. On 19 April 1998, a fire severely damaged the main structure of building, but it has now been restored to its original splendour. 

The hike to the monastery is a 2-2.5 hour strenuous walk uphill. This can be broken down into three stages and a donkey can be used to ride up to two-thirds of the way. The first stage is trekking to the 
rocky outcrop across a ravine from the monastery, which takes approximately 45 to 60 minutes. Lunch will be served here later today.  The second stage is walking from the cafeteria to the lookout opposite the monastery, which takes close to one hour. The third stage is climbing down 475 steps in the cliff face to the bottom of the ravine, crossing over a stream and waterfall and climbing up another 300 steps to the entrance of the monastery. You will spend up to an hour here and view the cave where Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal meditated. 

Cameras are not allowed inside the monastery. 


It was in the Ruins of the Drukgyal Dzong that the Bhutanese finally defeated the invading Tibetans and drove them back. The peak of Jumolhari ‘Mountain of the Goddess’ can be seen on a clear day from here (7,329 mts/24,029 ft.).

The Kyichu Lhakhang temple complex consists of three temples. The first was built in 1652 on the site of the Guru Rinpoche's meditation in the 8th century. The second was built on the site of a cave that contains a most holy rock with the imprint of the Guru's body. The third temple was built in the 1990s by Ashi Kesang, the Queen Mother of the royal family. The three temples are surrounded by a wall that is made of 108 chortens (shrines).

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Day 11 : Departure

At an appropriate time, you will be transferred to the airport for your departure flight. 

Meal plan: Breakfast

Accommodation

Accommodation Title

All accommodation subject to availability. Final accommodation choices will be confirmed after booking.

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Hotel Thimphu Tower

Hotel Thimpu is located at the heart of Thimpu and is the perfect place from which to explore the city. The hotel is near to many of Thimpu's sights, including Memorial Chorten, Tashichho Dzong and Buddah Point. Guests can enjoy scenic views from Hotel Thimpu Tower across the city, including the iconic Clock Tower Square. The tower of the hotel is itself a landmark heritage building, yet it is also equipped with modern amenities and comforts to allow for relaxing stay.

Visit hotel's site
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Hotel Dewachan

Hotel Dewachan is located the edge of the stunning Black Mountains National Park is the Dewachen built in traditional style. Both the rooms (16 in total) and the cosy restaurant look out across the farm and Phobjikha valley.

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Village Lodge

Set amidst farmlands and a rural landscape, Village Lodge offers peaceful and basic accommodation in the centre of Bumthang Valley. Hotel services include a multi-cuisine restaurant, bar and lounge. Wi-fi is available in the hotel lobby.    

Visit hotel's site
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Drubchhu

Drubchhu Resort is a family run eco-resort, which has been created in the ruins of a 100-year-old granary. Drubchhu, translates to mean 'holy water', after the resort's natural spring that is believed to contain healing water. The accommodation is simple yet comfortable, and provides the perfect location to enjoy activities such as hiking and rafting. Guests can relax at Drubchhu Spa after a day of exploring - before taking in the scenic views across the surrounding paddy fields.

Visit hotel's site
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Village Lodge

Village Lodge is surrounded by paddy fields and lush forests. It combines the simplicity of rural life with the modern amenities to allow for a comfortable stay. Both the architecture and decor within the lodge have been inspired by traditional Bhutanese culture. Guests can enjoy an authentic local experience, where they are welcomed into the kitchen to watch and learn the art of Bhutanese cuisine. 

Visit hotel's site
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Reviews

I traveled solo with Travel The Unknown to Bhutan, the trip was very well planned and managed. Accommodation was top class for the region and the local guide and driver made me feel at home at all stages. I enjoyed being introduced to the local people and trying to understand their culture.

Tom Gallery , Tailormade Bhutan

Travel the Unknown and its in-country counterparts in both India and Bhutan were outstanding. The guides were experts on our destinations, friendly and personable, and tried their best to meet all our requests not on the itinerary. Received several calls throughout the trip asking about the tours and if we needed anything. Can't ask for more than that. All hotels and services were excellent I will definitely be traveling with Travel the Unknown again..

Richard Reilly (USA) , Classic Bhutan & Assam Cruise, India & Bhutan
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