This morning, travel out the castle-monastery of Simtokha Dzong, the first built by Zhabdrung (in AD1629) and said to guard against a demon that escaped into the nearby rock. Next, climb the winding Dochula pass (3100 m) through beautiful tropical forest and sparse villages. The pass is marked by 108 chortens or stupas – built in memory of Bhutanese soldiers killed fighting Indian insurgents in 2003 – and gardens of colourful prayer flags. On the clear day you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the Eastern Himalaya, including Gangkhar Puensum, perhaps the world’s highest unclimbed mountain. The scenic Punakha Valley is drained by the Pho Chhu and Mo Chhu (meaning ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ Rivers) which enjoys a temperate climate which is ideal for farming. Punakha was the capital of Bhutan until 1966. Here you’ll visit the white-walled, red-roofed Punakha Dzong, the administrative and religious centre and winter retreat of His Holiness, Je Khenpo – the chief abbot of Bhutan. This six-storey high monastery is one of the largest dzongs in Bhutan. Construction began in 1637, although sections of it have been restored after floods in 1994. The Dzong boasts intricately carved woodwork, prayer halls and beautiful religious paintings on walls and doorways.
Hotel: Punakha Zhingkham Resort, 2 nights
Day 4: Punakha
Begin the day with a short 30-minute drive from the Punkha Dzong to the base of a hill where a ridge-top monastery sits. In this almost sub-tropical valley, begin a hike at a suspension bridge that crosses the Mo Chu river and cross through paddy fields before starting to climb a moderately inclined trail to the Kahmsum Yulley temple. This temple was built by the Queen Mother, Ashi Tsherin Yangdon Wangchuck, and is dedicated to the well being of Bhutan. It’s a classic example of Bhutan’s fine architectural and artistic traditions, and is the only one its kind in the world. It takes approximately 1 hour from the car park to hike up to the temple, and 30 minutes to descend. From the top you can take in sweeping views across the valley. Today there’s also the option to take a short walk to the Chimi Lhakhang – The Temple of Fertility. People from all corners of the country visit the Lhakhang to seek a blessing from Drukpa Kuenley, also known as the ‘Divine Madman’. A revered womaniser and drinker, this wandering preacher taught that sexual freedom was at the centre of Truth. On a 15-minute walk through the village of Sopsokha to the temple you will notice the phallic symbols painted on walls, a symbol of fertility and protection from evil. You can end the day at the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Temple and nunnery, where you’ll arrive in time for evening prayers at 6 pm. The magnificent gleaming structure sits perched on a ridge amid pine trees and overlooks the valleys of Toebesa, Punakha and Wangduephodrang.
Day 5: Haa Valley
Today you will travel to one of the most remote and sacred valleys in Bhutan – the Haa Valley. This area only opened to tourism in 2002 and has one of the strongest auras of stepping into the past, in a country that already feels lost in time. The surroundings mountains push up against the northern Indian state of Sikkim and the south of Tibet, and they are as wild, uninhabited, and unexplored as anywhere in the world. You will take a 170 km, 5–7 hour drive from Punakha to Haa, travelling down the spectacular Cheli La Pass (3990 m). This pass through dense spruce and larch forests has incredible mountain views as it zigzags down into the valley. Look out for the surrounding peaks and views of the Haa and Paro valleys. Continue down into the attractive little town of Haa, with traditional two storey wooden shops and a sprawling collection of buildings around a central dzong used by the Indian army. When you arrive, relax and take a walk around the town to meet the friendly local people. Tonight there’s the option to taste local dishes with dinner at a nearby farmhouse.
Hotel: Risum Resort, 2 nights
Day 6: Haa Valley
Enjoy a full day of exploration in this culturally rich valley, which is also known for being the ancestral home of the Royal grandmother. The two most important temples here are the seventh century Lhakhang Karpo (White temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black temple), which sit at the foothills of a group of hills known as Meri Puensum. Legend has it that King Songtsen Gampo released a black and a white pigeon to select sites to build the temples, which act as guardian sentinels keeping watch over the southern entrance to the valley. Travel back towards the Cheli La Pass, which is decorated with thousands of prayer flags, and have a picnic lunch in the surrounding pine tress. As you climb the hill towards the north of the pass – out of blue pine and rhododendron forest into windswept highlands – the mountain tops will appear one by one, revealing Himalayan peaks such as the Jhomolhari (7314 m), Jichu Drake (6794 m) and world’s third highest mountain Kangchenjunga (8586 m) located in Sikkim. A variety of birds can be also be seen and heard in the mountain landscape. You will then take a 45-minute hike through primeval forest from the road to Kila Goemba, one of the oldest Nunneries in Bhutan. The building almost to seems to suspend in mid air from the rock face, and it’s home to around 60 hardy nuns. If there’s time, perhaps practice some meditation in this place that’s been a spiritual retreat since the ninth century. Return down into the valley and back to Haa for the night.
Day 7: Paro
Retrace the drive up the spectacular Cheli La Pass and return to Paro (approximately 2 hours). Upon arrival in Paro, visit the impressive Ta Dzong, a 17th century watchtower above the Paro Dzong that now houses the National Museum. It features an excellent collection of Bhutanese antiquities and treasures (including the King’s famous ‘dragon hat), an interesting assortment of costumes from the different regions of Bhutan, and a wonderful collection of painted and embroidered Thangkas (religious pictures). To discover more of the local history then the ruined Drukgyal Dzong, located 18 kilometres from the city, is a great place to explore. Built in the 17th century by the great Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, father and unifier of medieval Bhutan, the Dzong was burnt down by an accidental fire in 1950s. It was never rebuilt, left in ruins as an evocative reminder of the great victories it was built to commemorate. Explore the ramparts and relive the memories of a glorious past. This afternoon we will enjoy a traditional meal at Tshering Farm House. Try your hand at Bhutan’s national sport with an archery lesson.
Hotel: Tashi Namgay Resort, 2 nights
Day 8: Tiger’s Nest Monastery – Paro
After an early breakfast, prepare to hike to the legendary Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), a magnificent monastery, clinging on a rock cliff 900 meters above the valley floor. The legend, dating back to AD747, says that the Great Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhawa) flew here from northeast Bhutan on the back of a tigress to subdue the demons of Paro Valley. The guru then meditated in the holy cave that is the site of the Pelphug Lhakhang today. According to Tantric Buddhist mythology, the vanquished local deities became the protectors of the dharma and one of them, Singey Samdrup, is recognised today as the guardian deity of Taktsang. Guru Rinpoche is also believed to have concealed among the rocks of Taktsang various forms of Dharma treasures known as Ters, which were destined to be discovered later by Tertons (treasure discoverers) for the propagation of Dharma. Taktsang was severely damaged by fire in 1998 but the King commanded its immediate restoration. The royal command dictated that the original aura, authenticity and architectural splendour must be preserved at all costs. This project has been widely seen as an act of devotion involving all sections of Bhutanese society and as homage to the nation’s cultural heritage. It also proved to be an opportunity for Bhutan’s traditional artists and craftsmen to hone the skills inherited from their forefathers down the ages. You’ll hike through lush pine forest beneath thousands of brightly coloured prayer flags up into the mountains for a closer view of the temple. After approximately an hour’s walking, you’ll reach a small teahouse that has a wonderful panoramic view of the temple. You’ll take a refreshments and lunch break here. For those interested, it is possible to get a closer view by hiking another 45 minutes to an hour (each direction) to reach the small chorten directly across from the temple. Anyone not interested in hiking any further can relax at the teahouse and enjoy the view. Back in Paro, celebrate this Bhutan discovery with one final meal together.
Day 9: Depart Paro
After breakfast your driver and tour leader will transfer you to the airport for your onward flight. Please note that your departure flight is not included as part of the trip and must be booked separately.