Vignettes of Bhutan
5 Days. Mid-range Hotels
Pre-tour Briefing: H.E. Office (Kathmandu Guest House) 3 pm on day prior to Day 1. Full attendance necessary for briefing with emphasis on passport, visa and flight ticket checks.
a landlocked kingdom situated at the eastern end of the Himalayas. The Bhutanese call their nation Druk Yul, which literally means ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. A self-imposed exile from the outside world saw life here virtually unchanged until the early 60s, and recent developments, from limited air access, the internet, mobile phone connections, to democratic elections in 2008, have seen Bhutan rapidly modernise.
Wedged between the mighty powers of China and India, the Bhutanese have consciously maintained a firm grasp on many of their traditions as a way of guaranteeing and preserving their sovereignty and unique culture.
A multitude of factors has influenced the social fabric of Bhutan. Religious and cultural influences form a common thread, which can be seen running through the country’s government, its art, architecture, literature and music, and indeed the entire social make-up of the kingdom.
The population consists predominantly of three ethnic groups: the Ngalops of the western and central region, the Sharchogpas of the east, and the Lhotsampas, recent immigrants of Nepalese origin who settled mainly along the southern plain.
More than 80 percent of the population lead agrarian lives in villages, often in rough, remote terrain. They are, however, not above enjoying the lighter moments in life and are known to be a sporty lot. The Bhutanese zealously celebrate religious festivals and holidays with indigenous sports such as traditional archery, dego (discus), and khuru (shot put). These occasions are always large social gatherings which include feasting and drinking.
Religion is the other major value system that holds the Bhutanese people together. Tantric Mahayana Buddhism of the Drukpa Kagyu sect has survived unblemished here for centuries and continues to be
the officially adopted religion of the state. It is a religion that is more about tolerance than fanaticism - the people of Bhutan are allowed to practise any faith of their choice.
Bhutan holds the unofficial title of ‘The Happiest Country’ in Asia, according to the quaintly titled survey, the ‘World Map of Happiness’.
Bhutanese art and craft, inevitably religious in character, exists in 13 forms that are together called the zorig chusum. These 13 forms include textile weaving, wood and slate carving, painting, blacksmithery, and pottery, all of which have elaborate techniques and traditions passed on through successive generations.
See Bhutan now! For this Buddhist nation is slowly-but-surely emerging to take its rightful place on a larger, modern world stage.
DAY TO DAY PLAN –
Day 1: Fly Kathmandu to Paro
(2,280m) & Drive to Thimpu (2,400m)
Morning flight to the Bhutanese city of Paro (55mins approx.), our entry point, located in a beautiful valley, where a warm welcome awaits. Jovial faces, prayer flags and the cool, fresh air of this high Himalayan city are immediately noticeable. Without wasting any quality time on this journey of lifetime (at least for some!), we make our way to the capital city of Thimpu (1.5hr approx.). The sights along the way will certainly ‘up’ your excitement levels about your visit which is soon to unfold. After lunch, city orientation, and then free time follow. (D)
Centre of government, religion and commerce, Thimpu is a lively place, and an interesting combination of tradition and modernity. Home to civil servants, monks and expatriates, Thimpu maintains a strong national character thanks to the adherence to traditional architectural practices.
After lunch, we embark on a tour to take in the highlights of Thimpu. The visit will include:
The National Memorial Chorten:
The building of this chorten was the idea of Bhutan's third King, H.M. Jigme Dorji Wangchuck ('the father of modern Bhutan'), who had wished to erect a monument to world peace and prosperity, but was unable to give shape to his idea during his lifetime due to pressures of state. After His Majesty’s premature death in 1972, the Royal Family and Cabinet resolved to fulfil his wishes and erected a memorial that would perpetuate his memory as well as serve as a monument to peace. The National Memorial Chorten was consecrated on 28 July, 1974. The finely executed wall paintings and delicately fashioned statues within the monument provide a deep insight into Buddhist philosophy.
The National Library:
The Library was established in the late 1960s, primarily to conserve the literary treasures which form a significant part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. It now houses an extensive collection of Buddhist literature mostly in block-printed format, with some works several hundreds of years old. This collection, known as the Choekey Collection, mainly comprises Buddhist literature written in Choekey, the religious script of Northern Buddhism.
As well, the Library also includes works written in Tibetan and in Dzongkha, Bhutan’s national language. There is a small Foreign Book Collection, mainly comprising of works written in English, on subjects such as Buddhist studies, Bhutan, the Himalayan region and Bhutan’s neighbouring countries.
Institute for Zorig Chusum:
Commonly known as the Painting School, the Institute offers a six-year course on the 13 traditional arts and crafts of Bhutan. On a visit, one can see and often talk with students and learn a little of the various skills and disciplines taught.
The ‘fortress of the glorious religion’, was initially erected in 1641 and rebuilt by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck in the 1960s. Tashichhodzong houses some Ministries, the King’s Secretariat, and a central group of monks. It is open to visitors during the Thimpu Tsechu (held in autumn) and whilst the monks are resident in their winter quarters in Punakha.
Day 2: Morning, more around Thimpu.
Afternoon drive to Punakha (1,250m)
Not yet done with the Bhutanese capital, we drive to a vantage point above the city, to a tiny zoo to be bemused by the sight of an animal that would seem more at home in the pages of some mythical storybook. The Takin is the national animal of the Druk Kingdom. It is a strange creature, as you’ll see – almost a cross between a goat and a cow.
We then visit the nunnery, Drubthob Lhakhang. En route are wonderful views of the city from high above. On returning to the city centre, visit the local vegetable market.
After lunch, drive to Punakha (70 kms/3hrs approx.) via the Dochula pass (3,050 m). Again, mountain views are spectacular, weather permitting.
Capital of Bhutan until 1955, Punakha is the winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot). Blessed with a temperate climate and fed by the Pho Chu (male) and Mo Chu (female) rivers, Punakha is situated in the country’s most fertile valley. Afternoon activity will include a walk to the temple of the Divine Madman- Chimi Lhakhang - the walk is through farmland and past farmhouses to a hill with commanding views of the river valley below. A farmhouse visit provides and insight into farm life. (B,L,D)
Day 3: Morning, more around Punakha.
Afternoon drive back to Paro
Start with a drive to Yambesa (7kms from Punakha). Drop off point is by the Mo Chhu River. Hike through beautiful pastoral countryside to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten (40mins approx.) – an impressive 30m tall chorten, dedicated to protector deities, and perched high on the hill with the bird’s eye view of the valley below. After lunch at a farmhouse, visit Punakha Dzong. Placed strategically at the junction of the Pho Chu and Mo Chu rivers, the dzong was built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to serve as the regional religious and administrative centre. Damaged over the centuries by four catastrophic fires and an earthquake, the dzong has been fully restored in recent years by the erstwhile monarch. Return drive to Paro (4hrs approx.). (B,L,D)
Day 4: Paro and Environs
Our much-awaited morning hike up to the famed Taktsang Monastery (Tiger's Nest), an iconic Bhutanese landmark. The upward climb will take around 2 hours and stunning views compensate for the energy expended. Local lore claims that it is here that Guru Padmasambava landed on the back of a Tiger in the 8th century and then proceeded to meditate for three months. In 1684 a monastery was built on the site to commemorate the event. Midway on the descent, lunch is on the terrace of a cafeteria facing the Tiger’s Nest. (B,L,D)
The remainder of the day has in store:
Drukgyel Dzong: Located 15km to the north.
This dzong, with a picturesque village nestled below its ramparts, was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal to commemorate his victory over Tibetan invaders. Though largely destroyed by fire in 1951, the towering outer walls and central keep remain imposing sights. On a clear day, there is a splendid view of Mt Chomolhari from the approach road.
The ‘fortress of the mountain of jewels’ was built in 1646 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on a hill above the township. The approach to the Dzong is through a traditional covered bridge (called the Nemi Zam) and then up a paved stone path running alongside the imposing outer walls. The Valley’s annual springtime religious festival, the Paro Tsechu, takes place in the courtyard of the dzong and on the dance ground on the hillside above.
On a ridge immediately above Rinpung Dzong is Ta Dzong, built as a watchtower to protect the Dzong. (“Ta” means “to see” in Dzongkha, so the watchtower of a dzong is always called a ‘Ta Dzong’). Because of their function, watchtowers are always round in shape. In 1968, Paro’s Ta Dzong was inaugurated as the National Museum. It now holds a fascinating collection of art, relics, religious thangkha paintings, an exquisite range of Bhutanese postage stamps, coins and handicrafts, together with a small natural history exhitibion.
Day 5: Fly Paro to Kathmandu
Early morning drive to the airport for the return flight to Kathmandu. Journey ends on arrival at Kathmandu Airport. End of Expedition. (B)