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Bhutan

Festivals and Mountaintop Temples of Bhutan

Be one of the lucky few to experience this tiny, landlocked nation during its lively festival season. Celebrate the Land of the Thunder Dragon alongside locals through traditional Bhutanese dance, song, and cuisine. 

Perhaps best-known for its chart-topping measure of Gross National Happiness, this Himalayan nation is home to dramatic landscapes, mystical temples, and fewer than one million people. On this unique trip, you’ll see firsthand how Bhutan is one of the greenest and most sustainable countries on the planet. 

This adventure is designed for travelers of all ages and most levels of physical ability and is limited to 25 explorers. (See “Note on Hiking and Health” in the Fine Print.)

Highlights

  • National Festivals: Experience the sights and sounds of two teschus (festivals)—the first, in Thimphu, is the largest of Bhutan's Buddhist festivals. The second, in Gangtey in the Phobjikha Valley, is less frequented by tourists. At each, you’ll see traditional religious and tantric dance performances and celebrate, pray, and receive blessings for the year ahead.
  • Wildlife and Conservation: The Bhutanese constitution mandates that 60 percent of the country remains forested. During this beautiful time of year, we’ll hike through Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Park, explore the Royal Botanical Park, and spot birds, wild goats, and grey langurs. 
  • Spiritual Practice: Raise peace flags on the Dochula Pass, meet with Buddhist spiritual leaders, and take in the evening chants at historic temples.
  • Cultural Exploration: Sandwiched between two of the largest and most quickly growing countries in the world—India and China—Bhutan has preserved its unique culture. Stay in a local farmhouse, get a traditional hot-stone bath after a long day’s hike, and meet with locals to learn about a fast-growing economy that prioritizes “values-based development.”

Optional Extension to Nepal

In these four extra days of exploration, you'll see Mount Everest from the air (if you dare), visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites, temples, and royal squares in Kathmandu, and learn about how this ancient country continues to rebuild and transform after 2015's earthquake. 

Note on Flights

Flying in and out of Bhutan is an adventure in itself! Flights to Bhutan will be arranged through Delhi and are included in your trip costs. For travelers staying for the extension, all inter-country flights are included; your flight path will be: Delhi–Paro–Kathmandu–Delhi. The early morning flight over Mt. Everest is optional and not included (estimated cost $200). 

Payment

$250 non-refundable, non-transferable deposit is required to secure your spot, as we have a very limited capacity, and we expect this trip to fill quickly. The trip will cost $3,999—the $250 deposit plus the $3,749 final payment—and will cover all fixed costs including all hotel accommodations, all meals, and all the activities listed in the itinerary below. For an additional $1,789, you can join us for our three-day extension in Nepal.

Itinerary
Day 1
Arrive in Delhi & Begin Your Adventure
  • Arrive in Delhi before 5 p.m. If you’ve never been to India before, consider coming in a few days early to explore its bustling capital city and to acclimate. (Perhaps a visit to the Sulabh Museum of Toilets?)
  • This evening, we’ll jump right in at a welcome reception with your fellow travelers. Dive into the flavors of India, sampling biryani, chat, and daal before heading back to the hotel to get a good night’s sleep before the next day’s flight to Bhutan.
Day 2
Arrival in the Land of Thunder Dragons
  • After some morning chai at the hotel, head to the airport in Delhi for a direct flight to Paro. As we head to Bhutan, enjoy spectacular views as you cross the Himalayas (including views of Mount Everest, depending on cloud cover) and begin your dramatic descent into Paro Airport, one of the most technical landings in the world. Mount Jhomolhari, standing at 23,999 feet, looms above the runway, with the glacially formed Paro Chhu River running down its slopes. 
  • From Paro, which has a population of roughly 20,000, we’ll make our way into Thimphu Valley, about an hour’s drive. Most of our journey through Bhutan will be on the one road through the Kingdom. Just 1.5 lanes wide, with as many as a dozen hairpin turns in a mile, the drive itself is an adventure. Take in stunning views as we drive through scenic countryside, rare pine forests, small villages, and breathtaking mountain passes.
  • Before dinner, we will head to Terton and VAST Art Galleries, two of the country’s first and recently opened art galleries in the heart of Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. At dinner, you’ll be joined by local Bhutanese to dive into discussion about the country’s Gross National Happiness while tasting Bhutanese dishes such as Ema Datshi, made of spicy chilis, local cheese (sometimes made of yak’s milk), green beans, ferns, and other seasonal vegetables.
Day 3
Markets, Temples, and Teschus
  • We’ll wake early to see the morning mist at the largest Buddha statue in the country at Kuensel Phodrang (or "Buddha's Point"). Then, we’ll head to Thimphu Tsechu, the largest religious festival in Bhutan. This Tsechu honors Guru Padmasambhava, “one who was born from the lotus,” an Indian saint who contributed enormously to the diffusion of Tantric Buddhism in the Himalaya regions of Tibet, Nepal, and Bhutan around 800 A.D. We’ll see and experience the festival’s dances, such as the Dance of the 21 Black Hats, the Dance of the 16 Drum-Beaters from Dramitse, and the Dance of the Stag and the Hounds. During each, you’ll be amazed by the colorful skirts, animal masks, and swordsmanship. We’ll learn about the importance of this festival and the dance’s symbolism in Bhutanese life.
  • After lunch, we’ll visit the Royal Textile Academy for a private tour to learn about the living art of weaving in Bhutan—important both for the economy and the preservation of Bhutanese culture. We’ll then explore the biggest and best farmer’s market in the country, Centenary Farmers’ Market, and have a discussion about food in the country, including the important role of red rice.
  • Tonight, we’ll continue our culinary exploration of the Kingdom and be joined at dinner with local conservation experts who will share their knowledge about the country’s unique position of being the first carbon negative country on the planet—and the delicate role that tourism plays in the country’s economy and environment.
Day 4
Prayer Flags and Peaceful Sunsets
  •  First, we’ll visit the National Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 in memory of the late Third Druk Gyalpo (King) of Bhutan. At the chorten, we'll continue our exploration of Bhutanese art, finding an extraordinary depiction of Buddhist teachings crafted in paintings and sculpture.
  • As we head out of Thimphu town toward Punakha, we’ll first visit a paper factory. The factory is reliant on the health of the surrounding Daphne (evergreen) tree forest, and will offer an opportunity to reflect on the delicate balance between environmentalism, tourism, and the economy. Then, we’ll stop at the Dochula Pass, which offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Himalayan Mountain Ranges and Gangkar Puensum (24,734 ft), the world’s highest unclimbed peak. On top of the pass we will raise prayer flags in a ceremony dedicated to kindness, peace, compassion, and wisdom. Up the Dochula Pass, we’ll also observe the 108 chortens built by the Queen Mother to pay tribute to the visionary leadership of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.
  • This afternoon, we’ll explore the Royal Botanical Park at Lampelri and learn about the 46 types of rhododendrons, 115 ferns, and 46 bird species. The park, established in 1999 as part of the King’s Silver jubilee, is central to Bhutan’s conservation efforts, created to serve as a living museum of biodiversity and a rescue center for rare or threatened floral species.
  • Tonight, with a deeper understanding of the environmental richness of this nation, we’ll take in the sunset views during dinner, looking out over the Punakha and Wangdue Valleys.
Day 5
Through the Punakha Valley
  • This morning, we’ll explore the Mo Chhu River in the forest of the Jigme Dorji National Park, which spans all three climates of Bhutan. If you’d like, make the hour-long trek to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. A splendid example of Bhutanese architecture, this chorten’s details were drawn from religious scripture and took nine years to complete. If you choose not to hike, take the time to rest, meditate or explore the park’s wonders and perhaps catch a glimpse of one of the 37 known species of mammals living in the park, including the barking deer, the Bengal tiger, and the red panda.
  • After lunch, we’ll follow the river to the impressive Punakha Dzong (the Palace of Great Bliss), the winter fortress of Je Khenpo, chief hierarch of Bhutanese Buddhism. Sitting at the confluence of the male (Pho) and female (Mho) rivers, the dzong was partially destroyed by climate change-induced glacial floods, but has since been carefully restored.
  • After exploring the Dzong, we’ll depart via Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge, hovering over the river with stunning views of this fertile valley.
  • This evening, we’ll visit the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lhakhang Nunnery and temple complex. The temple complex, in addition to serving as a learning and meditation center for the nuns, also provides trainings such as embroidery, tailoring, statue making, and the famous thangka painting. You’ll see examples of this artisanship including a 14-foot bronze statue of Avalokiteshvara, intricate paintings, and stunning ornamentation. We’ll rest here to take in the mesmerizing evening chants, before heading to dinner.
Day 6
Deities, Demons, and a Farmhouse Stay
  • Start the day early with a sunrise drive to the Gangtey Teschu (festival). Take in the sacred mask dances from the courtyard of Gangtey Goenpa Monastery, which is the roosting ground of the rare black-necked cranes. At the festival, celebrate with the valley’s residents in their sword dancing and ritual ceremonies that cleanse away evil spirits and bring luck for the months to come. With symbolism unique to this region, you’ll see dancers imitate important deities and demons, and also receive their blessings. If you’d like to take a break from the excitement of the festival, take in a picturesque hike on the Gangtey Nature Trail which starts at the monastery (2 hours, moderate difficulty).
  • In the afternoon, we’ll head through a designated conservation area and to the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park. Because of the presence of the large flock of black-necked cranes that winters in the valley—about 260 of them—Phobjikha is one of the most important wildlife preserves in Bhutan. We’ll visit the Crane Center to learn all about the rare birds and the work of the NGO to protect the species while promoting community development.
  • Tonight, we’ll cook dinner with a family at a local farmhouse—which is where we’ll also stay the night. (Note: there may be some triple occupancy this night.)
Day 7
The Saint of 5,000 Women
  • In the morning, we’ll pass through Wangdue Phodrang, the capital of this district, and take in views of the temple (of the same name). Built in 1638, it was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2012.
  • Next, we’ll stop at Chimmi Lhakhang. Famous for being a fertility shrine, this monastery was built in 1499 by the “Saint of 5,000 women” who adorned it with many, many phalluses. Also known as the “Fertility Temple,” it was blessed by the rogue Buddhist leader Drukpa Kunley, known as the “Divine Madman,” who worked overtime to spread enlightenment through an active sex life. Observe the sacred symbol of Drupa Kunley’s phallus or “Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom” and then take a break to walk through rice paddies surrounding the temple before we continue our drive back to Paro.
  • This afternoon, we’ll stop at the Paro Bazaar for a stroll and some shopping in the rows of shops built in traditional architecture. This colorful market not only has many souvenir “Thunderbolts of Flaming Wisdom,” but also other handicrafts, street food and opportunities to chat with locals at one of the tea shops.
Day 8
Up the Tiger's Nest
  • Today, we’ll hike to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktshang), one of Bhutan's most venerated pilgrimage sites. According to legend, Padmasambhava landed at Paro Taktsang to meditate when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the seventh century. He is said to have arrived on a flying tiger that had recently been his Tibetan concubine. He then meditated in a cave high on the mountain for four months, after which he subdued the local ‘demons’ and began the conversion of the Bhutanese to Buddhism. For those without flying tiger concubines, take your time making your way up on this 4-hour trek.
  • Later in the afternoon, reward yourself with a visit to a farm house for a traditional hot stone bath —available for singles, pairs, or even small groups!
  • Feeling refreshed, we’ll have a final farewell dinner.
Day 9
Departure to Delhi or Kathmandu
  • We’ll wake up for one last cup of Bhutanese tea before heading to the airport for an 8:30 a.m. departure to Delhi, or, for those staying on for the extension, to Kathmandu.

If you are taking the extension—

  • After our arrival and customs at the Kathmandu airport, we’ll check into our Nepalese bed and breakfast.
  • We’ll enjoy our first Nepalese meal together and a discussion of Nepalese culture with our local hosts.
  • This afternoon, we’ll take in the Swayambhunath Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose name translates to “sublime trees.”
  • Enjoy dinner watching the crowds in one of the three royal squares and try Raksi, a locally brewed spirit, before exploring the square by night.
Day 10
Panoramic Views and Kaleidoscopic Prints
  • After breakfast at our hotel, join us on a moderate, four-hour hike from Nagarkot. We’ll take in views of Panchkhal valley and Banepa town and stop for lunch at Dhulikhel, offering stunning panoramic views of the Himalayas. (If hiking’s not for you, we can set up a private car to bring you to Dhukikhel or make suggestions for you to explore the city on your own this morning.)
  • Reward your hike with tea and treats in the Patan Durbar Square back in the city before visiting the refugee handicraft center. Here, we’ll be able to watch and learn about the importance of textiles—and the immigrants who make them—to this mountain nation.
  • We’ll enjoy dinner in a nearby restaurant, joined by local guests from the NGO community to discuss the impact of the still-recent earthquake on Nepal and the revitalization efforts since.
Simon/CC0 Public Domain
Day 11
Everest, Bouddhanath, and Meditation
  • If you’d like, awake early (5:30 a.m.) to take a flight to witness sunrise on Mount Everest. (The plane is a small one—sometimes just six seats! Additional costs will apply—about $200.)
  • We’ll all then head to the Pashupatinath Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most sacred Hindu temples. Hindus pilgrim here to spend their final days before death, to be cremated on the banks of the river and travel with the water to the holy Ganges river.
  • From here, we’ll visit Bouddhanath, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 14th century, this stupa (shrine) in Nepal is not only the largest, but also considered its holiest. You’ll see monks in maroon robes toting prayer wheels as worshippers pray on their hands and knees. Nearby, khukuri knives, Tibetan jewelry, masks, and hand-woven carpets are sold in surrounding stalls. We’ll explore here, before stopping for a lunch of Tibetan noodles at a small restaurant nearby, with the sounds of monks chanting in the distance.
  • This afternoon, we’ll travel to the Kopan Monastery on the outskirts of the city. The monastery was established in the late 1960s to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the path to ultimate happiness and freedom from suffering. You will be welcomed to wander in the monastery’s gardens, grounds, and library. Explore the Tara Shrine, view the paintings of the four Dharma kings of Tibet, and take in the thangkas of the eight Indian masters who established the Buddhist philosophical system. Later, stroll past the Tantric College under the shadows of the eight stupas of Enlightenment, representing the eight great deeds of Shakyamuni Buddha. While we’re here, more than just observe, we’ll also take a short meditation course.
  • Tonight, we’ll learn traditional cooking and enjoy a farewell feast, guided by a local chef. Known for noodles and dumplings, we’ll use local and seasonal ingredients to craft a feast worthy of this spectacular city.
Day 12
Changu Narayan and Departure
  • On our final morning, we’ll head to our last UNESCO World Heritage site, Changu Narayan. Located high on a hilltop, this complex of beautiful temples is also home to several intricately carved statues and a museum of Nepali artifacts. You’ll observe the lasting effects of the 2015 earthquake, as this site continues to rebuild for the future while honoring its past.
  • After our morning visit, you’ll have some final free time on your own to do some shopping and exploring in the Bhaktapur neighborhood before we depart to catch our flights back to Delhi and on to our final destinations.
The Fine Print

This Atlas Obscura Bhutan trip is conducted in partnership with Insider Expeditions, a travel company with extensive experience designing and leading trips to Bhutan and elsewhere. Please email us at [email protected]atlasobscura.com with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.

NOTE on final itinerary

Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific events in mind, and schedules and availabilities may change in coming months. If any activity or person that is advertised is missed or not available, it will be replaced with an activity or person of equal interest and value.  A final itinerary and briefing packet will be ready two weeks before the trip.

Payment

You will be charged a non-refundable, nontransferable $250 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $3,749, or $5,538 if taking the extension, will be due on June 12, 2017. You can also choose to pay in two stages, with the second portion of the balance due on July 28, 2017. All reservations will be final after this date, and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $599 will be included in the final payment for those joining only for Bhutan, and an additional $205 for single accommodations in Bhutan and Nepal.

Note on Visas

Visas are required in India, Bhutan, and Nepal. The visa requirements vary for each traveler depending on your country of origin and whether you’re planning to come early or stay late in any of our destinations. Once you book your spot on the trip, you’ll receive an additional questionnaire that will allow us to help you arrange the necessary visas. Visa fees are estimated at $40 for India (transit visa), $50 for Bhutan, and $25 for Nepal, but this is subject to change. Atlas Obscura will secure all Bhutanese visas on behalf of travelers per Bhutanese regulations, but Indian and Nepalese visas can be secured by the traveler. We are able to facilitate this process for an additional support fee.

Note on Hiking and Health

Bhutan is known for its nature walks and trekking, boasting some of the most beautiful terrain and views in the world. This trip is accessible for most travelers, and we’ll give options for different difficulty levels of hikes—including no hikes at all! That being said, nature walks are a key part of the adventure, so if you’re not comfortable walking longer distances (two hours at a slow pace), this trip might not be the best fit for you. Approximate distances for hikes are included, but as the average elevation in Bhutan is 8,000 feet above sea level and most hikes are uphill, the difficulty of a hike is often less about the distance and more about the climb. Due to elevation, often in remote areas, explorers with asthma or heart conditions may want to consider looking into a different trip.

Note on Hotels

Hotels are Bhutanese and Nepalese 3 to 4-star hotels with inspiring traditional architecture; while in Gangtey, Bhutan, we’ll stay in farmhouses (where triple occupancy may apply).

Flight arrangements

Expect to arrive at Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport by 5:00pm (IST) on Thursday, September 28. For your departure, we recommend leaving Delhi after 1:15pm on Friday, October 6 for the regular program; for those returning from the extension in Nepal, we recommend departing Delhi on Monday, October 9 after 5:30pm to allow for a minimum two-hour layover.

Travelers are responsible for

  • Transportation and flights to and from New Delhi, India.
  • Visas to India, Bhutan, and (if applicable) Nepal.
  • Baggage charges.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.