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Nestled between India and Tibet in the eastern Himalayas, the recently unveiled country of Bhutan is rich with hospitality, deep traditions and a passion for preserving the environment. When the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” finally opened its doors to tourism in 1974, travelers found a timeless Buddhist culture and a joyful land whose emphasis on “national happiness” was obvious. And although it has since experienced a cascade of modernization, the Bhutanese have carefully maintained a clear national identity. Averaging 4-7 miles per day, this walking adventure takes you to several regions with varying landscapes and elevations, from mild and fertile rice-growing terraces to high ridges with views of the magnificent, snowcapped Himalayas.
Your journey begins in Thimphu, the country’s vibrant capital, where traditional customs and a modern vibe easily coexist in a wide river valley framed by mountains. Walking routes are along well-trodden footways between white-washed farmhouses, villages, monasteries, temples and dzongs – at one time fortresses – immersing you in the natural beauty, history and culture as easily as Buddhist practices are woven into the fabric of daily life. In the fertile Punakha Valley, bananas, oranges and guava grow in abundance, piled high in its lively markets alongside colorful weavings and traditional handicrafts. From here there is the option to visit Gangtey Gompa, where the endangered Black-necked Crane descends each year from the Tibetan plateau.
At over 12,000 feet, Chelila Pass offers views of some of Bhutan’s highest peaks – Mt. Chomolhari, Mt. Tshering Gang, and Mt. Jichu Drake – all rising over 22,000 feet. Surrounded by these magnificent summits, you might take part in ceremonies honoring the Black-necked Crane or enjoy a picnic lunch among grazing yaks. In medieval-era temples and rural markets, visit monks and nuns, and perhaps play a game of khuru (traditional darts) with villagers. The tour culminates in the cultural center of Paro, where you have the chance to walk to the most famous monastery in Bhutan, “Tiger’s Nest,” dramatically perched on the edge of a cliff.
Join us for this cultural celebration led by experienced local guides who pack every day with surprises, exemplifying the country’s Buddhist ideal of living in the moment.
• 9 nights accommodations: 2 nights in Thimphu, 4 nights in Wangdue/Punakha and 3 nights in Paro
• All meals; local beer and wine included with dinners
• All transportation from the meeting point in Bangkok to the departure point in Paro
• Assistance of 2 expert, local guides throughout (for groups of 8 or more)
• Guided walks in Thimphu, Jigme Dorji National Park, Punakha Valley, Gangtey Valley, Pochhu River, Dochula Pass, Chelila Pass and Paro Valley
• Mobile phone rental - includes free phone rental, preferred calling rates and complimentary shipping
• All entrance fees and special events as per itinerary
Note: Please bear in mind that this is a typical itinerary, and the actual activities, sites and accommodations may vary due to season, special events, inclement weather or transportation schedules. Therefore unforeseen circumstances that mandate change may arise but any itinerary changes are made to improve the tour and our guests’ experience.
Day 1 - Transfer from Bangkok to Paro to Thimphu / City walking tour of Thimphu (3-5 miles, Easy)
The flight into this spectacular part of the world is like no other. The green wall of hills, known as dooars, is the gateway into Bhutan from the plains. They climb continuously higher as you fly north toward the Tibetan border. Silvery rivers thread the valleys, waterfalls plunge down the forested mountain sides and to the north, the great snowcapped peaks of the inner Himalayas rise up into the sky. Upon arrival, transfer to Thimphu. Once a rustic village, it is now the capital of Bhutan and sits in a broad, fertile valley of the Wang Chu River. Compared to Paro and Punakha, Thimphu is a bustling city, although a relaxed one, with a population of only 50,000 and the world’s only capital without a single traffic light.
After checking into your hotel, which is surrounded by a towering pine forest and situated just outside Thimphu, enjoy a traditional lunch before exploring Thimphu on foot. Your walk takes you among its many interesting sights: Thimphu Dzong (seat of the government and main monk body), the policeman directing traffic, a local archery match, crimson-robed monks, Indian laborers and gho-clad (traditional dress) professionals. Thimphu has a youthful exuberance and offers a wonderful juxtaposition of the old and the new. Afterwards continue your exploration in search of the perfect traditional weaving in a handicraft shop.
Returning to the hotel, gather for an orientation meeting and Welcome Dinner of Bhutanese cuisine – selections include red rice, fresh asparagus, momos (dumplings), and for those who want a spicy option, ema datsi (cheese and chilis).
Accommodations: Chuniding Resort - 2 nights
Day 2 - Jigme Dorji National Park and Cheri Goemba (3 miles, Moderate, with a 750 ft. elevation gain)
A short drive up the Thimphu Valley to the road’s end at Dodena is the entrance to Jigme Dorji National Park, one of Bhutan’s revered wildlife sanctuaries. From here you cross the Thimphu Chu over a covered wooden swing bridge adorned with hundreds of prayer flags. Then begin the ascent to Cheri Goemba, a small monastery perched on the hill with a view over the Thimphu Valley. This monastery was built in 1620 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the man responsible for many of Bhutan’s most historic dzongs and monasteries. It is here that he established the first Bhutanese body of Buddhist monks and scattered across the hillside are many small meditation huts where the devout monks and their students can seclude themselves for extended periods of meditation. Take off your shoes and visit the tiny temples and shrines within the complex and feel the spiritual atmosphere and ambience.
Following a transfer back to Thimphu and lunch at a local restaurant, you have the opportunity to visit the School of Traditional Arts and Crafts, the National Library, the newly built Textile Museum, the Heritage Museum and the Handicrafts Emporium, which displays the rich traditional crafts of the kingdom. Dinner this evening is Asian-Bhutanese cuisine at one of Thimphu’s finest restaurants.
Day 3 - Transfer to Punakha / Temple of the Divine Madman (4 miles, Easy to Moderate)
Our first stop this morning, after approximately 1½ hours of driving, is at Dochula Pass at an elevation of about 10,000 feet, where, depending on the cloud cover, you may have initial views of the high mountains. Here a short walk leads past rare Himalayan plants, flowers and birds, especially in the spring, and perhaps even a grey langur or red fox may be spotted.
Arrive in Punakha. This town, situated at an altitude of 4,430 feet, served as the capital of Bhutan until 1955 and is still the winter capital for the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and the main monk body. Blessed with a temperate climate and fed by Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha is the most fertile valley in Bhutan. The climate allows for two rice crops per year and is also suitable for growing fruit, with oranges, bananas and guavas in abundance.
This afternoon, walk through a small village to Chimi Lakhang (the Temple of the Divine Madman). Lama Drukpa Kinley, more commonly known as the “Divine Madman,” is one of Bhutan’s favorite saints. He traveled throughout Bhutan and Tibet using songs, humor and outrageous behavior to dramatize his teachings, believing that the stiffness of the clergy and social conventions were keeping people from learning the true Buddhist teachings. This site is still believed to hold fertility powers for women. From the vantage point of Chimi Lakhang, you take in the spectacular views of the Punakha Valley.
Accommodation: Punatsangchhu Hotel - 4 nights
Day 4 - Chorten Nebu Temple (6 miles, Moderate, with a 1,200 ft. elevation gain)
The walk this morning begins on a quiet country road before climbing steeply over a rough trail as you make your way through terraced fields of rice to the local Chorten Nebu Temple. Perched high on a hilltop with spectacular views of the Mo Chu Valley below, Chorten Nebu is over 200 years old and houses the images of the future Buddha and the statues of Kagyupa monks, Guru Dorji Chang and Mahakala. It is believed that long before the Chorten Nebu Temple was built during the time of the Divine Madman, this area was the meeting place of demons. One day when the Divine Madman passed by, he saw a meeting of all the demons and evil spirits. He picked up a burning piece of firewood with which he was able to scatter them, never to be seen again. From the burning firewood grew the old oak tree, which still stands today near the temple. From this tree sacred talismans are made to adorn the necks or the belts of children and livestock to keep them healthy.
After a picnic lunch on the lawn of the temple or perhaps in a local farmhouse, continue descending through small villages. With magnificent views from the temple, it is easy to understand why many consider the Punakha Valley to be one of the most beautiful in Bhutan. Although steep in places, the trail from Chorten Nebu towards the valley floor is wide and well defined, as it is frequently used by local people visiting the temple, as well as children walking to and from school.
Day 5 - Khamsung Yuely Namgyel Temple to Punakha Dzong (7 miles, Easy to Moderate)
Following breakfast and a drive through the Punakha Valley, your walk begins with a series of switchbacks to the Khamsung Yuely Namgyel Temple. From the viewpoint at this majestic temple, you are afforded grand views of the Mo Chu River Valley below. The walk descends from the temple and follows a well-worn path down the valley through rice fields and small villages. Along the way are stunning views, with terraced rice paddies providing a lush backdrop to the river below. Continue walking to the Punakha Dzong, which was constructed in 1637 and was the second of Bhutan’s dzongs as well as its seat of government for many years. From this spectacular setting you can look back to see the Khamsung Yuely Namgyel Temple perched on the hillside far in the distance. After a picnic lunch on the lawn of the temple or perhaps in a local farmhouse, you continue with a short walk from the dzong to your waiting bus and the return trip to the hotel. Dinner tonight is in a local restaurant where you can sample many of the traditional dishes.
Day 6 - Optional day in the Gangtey Valley (2-hour drive each way) OR Pochhu River Trail (4-6 miles, Easy)
Rise early this morning for a full-day optional visit to the incredible Gangtey Gompa, also known as Phobjikha, an enormous glacial valley along the western slopes of the Black Mountains. This broad valley is a natural reserve for an endangered species of crane – the Black-necked Crane. Its migration route brings it to Tibet in the summer where their numbers are dwindling because of disturbances in the Tibetan plateau. This species is revered by locals as the “birds of heaven,” and they honor them by ceremonies of “welcoming” in November and “farewell” in early March. The endangered cranes, of which only 300-400 remain in the world, winter here and as a mark of respect for the species, the government decreed that no electric poles should ever be installed in the valley. Because the cranes feed on dwarf bamboo roots growing here, there are also restrictions on building and development in the valley.
If possible and the timing is right, there may be a chance that you will be there during the annual Black-necked Crane Festival, which occurs in the courtyard of the 16th-century Gangtey Monastery. As the cranes flying overhead begin to circle down to lose altitude and return to their millennia-old wintering grounds, thousands of people gather and local children dressed in crane costumes sing and dance to honor the birds. If it not possible to see the festival you can still spot the cranes nesting and flying overhead – an amazing and serene sight. You will take a walk today along a valley trail which passes local farmhouses with many opportunities to meet the locals and interact with the children. After enjoying dinner in a local restaurant or farmhouse, embark on the journey back to Punakha. It takes about two hours to return, so it is a long day, but this valley is so amazing and remote that it is well worth the time spent in the bus.
If you do not want to take the excursion to the Gangtey Valley, another walking option is available near Punakha. Follow a trail along Phochhu River, starting near the second longest suspension in the world just above Punakha Dzong. This earthen packed trail is also used for mountain biking and continues along for several hours, bringing you through the villages of Nebtenkha with lovely views of the surrounding valley. Stop for a picnic lunch along the banks of the river then after lunch cross the Samdinkha Bridge, keeping your eyes peeled for the highly endangered White-bellied Heron along the water’s edge. Continue along a flat farm road where you eventually find your waiting bus. If you would like to extend your walk an additional two hours, a more moderate option brings you to Thamjee village.
Day 7 - Transfer to Paro / Royal Botanical Garden to Dochula (6 miles, Moderate)
After leaving Punakha en route to Paro, enjoy a walk through a forest with temperate vegetation. Arriving at The Royal Botanical Garden, which is 8,800 feet above sea level, take a short walk around the small lake where you may spot a Red Panda, one of the rare animals in the Himalayas. After enjoying a visit through the gardens, set off west towards the Dochula Pass. The trail takes you along switchbacks and under a canopy of trees where you may even spot an elusive pheasant. After walking for approximately two hours, you reach the pass and arrive at a small teahouse where you can eat lunch and drink tea. Meet the van for transfer to Paro, the last stop on this incredible adventure. The Paro Valley is steeped in rich culture, scenic beauty and hundreds of myths and legends. It is also home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples and monasteries, the country’s only airport and the National Museum. After settling into your comfortable accommodation, there is time to relax before a dinner of local specialties in the hotel restaurant.
Accommodation: Tiger’s Nest Resort - 3 nights
Day 8 - Chelila to Kila Gompa (7 miles, Moderate to Challenging, with 700 ft. elevation gain) / Easier walking options are available
After breakfast board the bus for the 1½-hour drive that climbs almost 5,000 feet above the valley floor to the Chelila Pass, one of the highest automobile-accessible passes in Bhutan at over 12,000 feet. From here you can view Mt. Chomolhari (24,000 feet), Mt. Tshering Gang, (22,700 feet) and Mt. Jichu Drake (22,300 feet). The more challenging walking option begins here with a steady hour-long ascent. For those who prefer an easier route, there are shorter walking options to a propitious place for hanging prayer flags. Both groups meet for lunch and then set off on the three-hour (mainly downhill) route. An approximate one-hour walk in a northeasterly direction brings you to the base of Kila Gompa, where a meditation retreat center is perched on the edge of the cliff. There is ample time to visit this nunnery monastery, which is nestled beneath a craggy patch on the mountainside. The nuns here lead an undisturbed life of religious studies, prayer and meditation. On departing this temple, walk along an undulating trail that brings you to the rendezvous with the waiting bus.
Day 9 - Bhutan’s National Museum to Taktshang (4 miles, Challenging with a 1,650 ft. elevation gain)
This morning you have the opportunity to visit Bhutan’s National Museum. Situated at the top of the hill above the Paro Dzong, the museum is located in what was originally the dzong’s watchtower. It boasts an interesting collection of thangkhas (painted or embroidered religious pictures), textiles, weapons, armor, household objects and a rich assortment of natural and historic artifacts.
Following the museum visit, walk to the most famous of Bhutan’s monasteries, Taktshang, perched on the side of a cliff, 2,800 feet above the valley floor. The 8th-century historical figure, Guru Rimpoche, is regarded as the second Buddha and believed to have had miraculous powers, including the ability to subdue demons and evil spirits. Taktshang is translated as “tiger’s nest,” and Guru Rimpoche is believed to have flown on the back of a tigress to the site of the monastery, where he then meditated in a cave for three months.
The well-traveled trail ascends a series of switchbacks through juniper and pine forests, until reaching a teahouse which provides spectacular views of the Paro Valley below and the monastery above. Enjoy lunch here then follow the trail onward to a viewpoint at the same level as the monastery (approximately 9,950 feet). Conditions permitting, it may be possible to walk all the way into Taktshang, which is truly a highlight. This evening a Farewell Dinner will be held in the hotel’s restaurant, where you can chat with your fellow travelers about your wonderful Bhutanese adventure.
Day 10 - Departure from Paro
This morning your guide(s) will accompany you to Paro Airport, where you will say goodbye to your newfound friends and board your flight to Bangkok.
Limitations & Restrictions
*Prices are per person based on double occupancy, are subject to availability at time of booking, and may change without notice. Single supplement may apply. Except for packages including air transportation, unless stated otherwise, airfare, taxes and government fees are not included. Offers valid for new bookings only. Member Benefits are per person and apply to first and second traveler only. Member Benefits are available only with advertised fare and are subject to change without notice. Your travel arrangements may be modified or canceled subject to the travel providers’ policies. Blackout dates and other restrictions may apply. We make every effort for accuracy at time of printing but reserve the right to correct errors. AAA Travel strongly recommends the purchase of trip protection insurance. Except for packages including air transportation, fares may not reflect additional fuel supplement or port charges and vary by provider.
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