Festivals and Mountaintop Temples of Bhutan - Atlas Obscura

Bhutan

Festivals and Mountaintop Temples of Bhutan

Explore the remote Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, known for its vast expanses of untouched wilderness, deeply embedded Buddhist culture, and history steeped in tradition and legend.

On this immersive journey we'll take in the breathtaking sights of western and central Bhutan, beginning in Bumthang, the country's spiritual heartland. We'll then pass through the country's alpine regions and into the Phobjikha Valley, with stops at nearby farms and fortresses. Traveling west, we arrive in the modern-day capital of Thimphu in time for one of the kingdom's liveliest annual celebrations, the Thimphu Tsechu. Our adventure ends with an ascent to the dramatic Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery.

Our small group of 10 to 16 intrepid explorers will be traveling in the company of an expert local guide and an Atlas Obscura representative.

Please note that each of our Bhutan trips is built around a different annual festival, and therefore follows a different itinerary. This 11-day departure is scheduled to include the annual Thimphu Tsechu. 

TRIP HIGHLIGHTS

  • Thimphu Festival: Experience the sights and sounds of this spectacular festival, including elaborate masked dances performed the courtyard of an ancient fortress-monastery. 
  • Historic temples and monasteries: Visit seventh-century lhakhangs (temples) rich in Bhutanese and Buddhist history.
  • Wildlife and conservation: The Bhutanese constitution mandates that 60 percent of the country remain forested. During this beautiful time of year, we’ll have many opportunities to stroll and hike along mountain paths and through rural valleys, with chances to spot golden langurs, and the national animal, the takin.

TRIP COST

A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. We have a limited capacity, and we expect the trip to fill up quickly. The trip will cost a total of $3,890 (the $500 deposit plus the $3,390 final payment), which covers all fixed costs, including accommodations, local guides, and all meals and activities listed in the itinerary.

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TRIP?

If you have any questions that aren't answered in the itinerary, or would like to chat with someone about whether you think this adventure is the right fit for you, please don't hesitate to contact us! Email us at trips@atlasobscura.com or give us a call at 646-961-4857 anytime between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.

 

Itinerary
Day 1
Welcome to Bhutan!
  • Enjoy spectacular views as you fly over the Himalayas and make a dramatic descent into Paro Airport, one of the most technically challenging landings in the world. Mount Jhomolhari, at 23,999 feet, looms above the runway, with the glacial Paro Chhu River running down its slopes.
  • Once on the ground, you'll receive a big Kuzuzangpo la! (Hello and welcome!) from your Bhutanese guides, Atlas Obscura representative, and local drivers.
  • After resting and freshening up at the hotel, we'll set out to explore the town of Paro. Our first stop is the National Museum of Bhutan. The museum offers an excellent introduction to the country's cultural history, and the winding road that leads to it provides sweeping views of the valley below. 
  • From the museum, we continue to Paro Rinpung Dzong, where we'll meet and chat with some of the resident monks. Historically, Bhutan's dzongs acted as both monasteries and military strongholds, protecting the region from Tibetan invasion. Today, they continue to serve as monasteries as well as centers of local government. 
  • In the evening, we'll enjoy our first dinner together as a group. Our guides will host a trip briefing and overview, and we'll have the opportunity to ask questions about the fascinating days ahead.
Day 2
Mountain Flight to Bumthang
  • Today we take a short flight to Bumthang, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan.
  • In Bumthang, we'll explore on foot and make our way to the seventh-century Jambay Lhakhang Temple. It is said that the legendary Guru Rinpoche visited this temple multiple times and deemed it exceptionally sacred.
  • A short walk brings us to Kurjey Lhakhang, a large, active, and important temple complex housing 108 chortens (small shrines). Crossing a suspension bridge over the Chamkhar River, we arrive at  Tamshing Lhakhang, established in 1501. 
  • Cap off the day with a visit the cheese farm of Fritz Maurer, a Swiss native who settled in Bhutan over 45 years ago. We'll get to taste the cheese as well as the beer produced here.
Day 3
Breathtaking Views & the Jakar Bazaar
  • The morning begins with an optional hike to Tharpaling Monastery. Though challenging, the hike offers breathtaking views of the surrounding Himalaya. Before returning to town, we'll have a picnic lunch. 
  • Those who prefer not to hike can enjoy a leisurely morning to relax at the hotel or stroll around the village. 
  • After lunch, we'll regroup in the village of Zungney to check out the yathra factory. The brightly colored wool fabric is often displayed outside of local homes. We'll then continue to the Jakar bazaar for some shopping, or just to get a glimpse of the commercial life of this remote region. 
  • After dinner, return to our hotel for the evening. 
Day 4
Bhutan's Spiritual Heartland
  • Today after breakfast we'll take a short trip into Tang, one of the four valleys of Bumthang. A two-hour drive from Bumthang, the buckwheat-growing valley combines immense natural beauty with historical importance: Bhutan’s greatest spiritual figures came from here. 
  • On our way, we’ll take the time to visit the Pema Choling Nunnery. This nunnery is home to 300 Buddhist nuns who are practitioners of the soothing drum ceremony, which we may have the chance to witness.
  • The route will also take us to "Burning Lake." The saint Pema Lingpa jumped into the lake holding a butter lamp, and reemerged with the lamp still burning bright, proving himself the son of the great Guru. The lake remains a place of pilgrimage.
  • After a gentle, optional hike or time to relax, we return to town in time for dinner, then retire for the night at our hotel. 
Day 5
Phobjikha Valley
  • Today we'll depart for the stunning Phobjikha Valley, a drive that takes us through the steep-ravine valley of Trongsa. Strategically located on the east-west mule trails, Trongsa was the center of power during medieval times. In Trongsa, we'll visit Taa Dzong, built in 1652. Inside is a small chapel dedicated to King Gesar, an epic hero of Tibetan history, as well as a museum dedicated to the monarchs of Bhutan.
  • We'll continue into Gangtey Valley, home to Bhutan's black-necked cranes, now an endangered species. Conservation efforts by Bhutan and the World Wildlife Fund have been able to create a safe haven for these beautiful birds, which flock to the region's marshy wetlands from mid-October to early March for roosting. With luck, we might have the chance to see a few of the early-arriving flocks.
  • In the evening we’ll take a stroll in the glacial valley, returning for dinner and a night at our hotel in Gangtey. 
Day 6
Valley Visits & Wanderings
  • This morning, we'll make our way to Gangteng Gompa, a 17th-century monastery overlooking the lush Phobjikha hills and wetland. Gangteng's current head lama is an incarnation of the site's legendary founder and visionary, Pema Lingpa, a famous 14th-century blacksmith, saint, and terton (discoverer of spiritual treasures) who chose this site for the gompa. Within the complex, there is a central monastery, meditation hall, school, monks’ quarters, and courtyard.
  • During our visit, we'll meet a senior resident monk who has lived his life under strict vows of celibacy, discipline, and meditation—the minimum requirements for being a teacher to young novice monks. We'll also have the opportunity to attend a prayer ceremony dedicated to peace and all sentient beings.
  • Enjoy the temple's tranquil setting or walk to the surrounding villages, basking in the alpine scenery that distinguishes Bhutan’s high country.
  • After lunch, we'll visit a farmhouse to meet the family that calls it home. These farmhouses are generally home to multiple generations, with anywhere from five to 25 family members sleeping there at one time. While you'll notice that fairly recent introductions such as electricity and better roads have improved the local standard of living, day-to-day life still involves exhausting agricultural labor, just as for generations before. 
  • The family will also showcase their preparation of Ema Datshi. You'll have the chance to taste ara, a moonshine drink made from organic grains grown by the farmers.
  • We'll spend the night in Gangtey. 
Day 7
To Punakha, Bhutan's Ancient Capital
  • Continuing west, we drive approximately three hours to Punakha, a low-lying valley which served as Bhutan's capital until 1955. 
  • En route, we'll visit Chimi Lhakhang, a temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley. A national figure known as the “Divine Madman," Kunley was a Tibetan Buddhist monk and poet who lived from 1455 to 1529, working overtime to spread enlightenment through sex. You'll learn from your guides about this unconventional monk, the inspiration for the country's omnipresent phallus symbol. The walk to and from the monastery is about 45 minutes, with time to poke around the local shops. Inside the monastery, you'll find a book filled with notes of gratitude from hopeful but childless visitors who were later blessed with offspring.
  • Our next stop will be the magnificent Punakha Dzong, also known as the Palace of Great Bliss. This was once the winter fortress of Je Khenpo, chief hierarch of Bhutanese Buddhism. It was partially destroyed by glacial floods, but has since been carefully restored. It houses some of the country’s most sacred relics, including the preserved remains of the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the revered founder of the Bhutanese state. The Shabdrung's body is moved from Thimphu to Punakha every winter, as the lower elevation is more temperate. Our guides will translate some of the many Buddhist paintings and symbols for us. 
  • We'll spend the night in our Punakha hotel before heading to the present-day capital for tomorrow's festival. 
Anja Disseldorp
Day 8
The Thimphu Festival
  • This morning we'll drive over the Dochula Pass, which stands at an elevation of 10,170 feet. On a clear day, it offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Himalayas and Gangkar Puensum (24,734 feet), the world’s tallest unclimbed peak. The pass is home to 108 chortens built by the Queen Mother to pay tribute to the visionary leadership of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo. And, if you walk a little ways up the mountain and into the forest, you'll stumble upon a cluster of moss-covered meditation caves.
  • By midday we'll arrive in Thimphu, the capital. Thimphu's population of about 120,000 makes it by far the largest city in Bhutan. With a mix of Himalayan and Western influences, it's a city where bars and restaurants abound, but where you still won't find a single traffic light. 
  • After settling in, we will head out to the magnificent Tashichho Dzong to witness the annual
    Thimphu Tshechu. Joined by thousands of residents dressed for the occasion, we'll observe the lively and vibrant festival, including traditional masked dances performed in the courtyard of the dzong. 
  • After taking in the festivities, we'll return to the hotel for dinner and a good night's rest. 
Vertalm
Day 9
Exploring the Modern-Day Capital
  • After kicking off the morning with some traditional butter tea, we’ll return to the dzong for the final morning of the festival. We’ll enjoy the dances and, as a finale, the unfurling of the giant thangka. Also called thongdrols, these gigantic embroidered paintings are only displayed on special occasions. It's considered a blessing to see them. 
  • In the afternoon, we'll visit Buddha Dordenma, the largest Buddha statue in the country. This serene golden structure sits atop a hill, calmly overlooking the Thimphu Valley. There are 125,000 miniature Buddhas encapsulated within the statue's shining chest, which makes the capital's Buddha population higher than its human one.
  • We’ll also visit Jungshi Paper Making Factory, where you can observe the entire process of producing
    handmade paper using ancient traditional methods that have been practiced for generations. Deh-sho
    paper was originally used by monasteries for woodblock and manuscript books and also for writing
    prayer books. 
  • Our final stop of the day is the Royal Textile Academy, which showcases the great variety and beauty of the country's woven art. You can even take home a hand-embroidered gho or kira, the men's or women's national dress.
  • Time permitting, we might also stop by the Motithang Takin Preserve before returning to the hotel for the evening. The takin, an animal whose body looks like that of a cow and whose head looks like a goat's, is Bhutan's national animal. 
Day 10
Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) Monastery
  • This morning we'll set off for one of the most iconic and venerated Buddhist monuments in the Himalayas. The walk to Taktsang Monastery—the Tiger's Nest, set into a cliff face 2,600 feet above the Paro Valley floor—will be challenging but very rewarding. The sacred site takes its name from a mythical journey made by Lord Padmasambawa (Guru Rinpoche), in which he flew on the back of a tigress in order to meditate for three months and convert the valley to Buddhism. Since then, many of Buddhism’s most influential figures have visited the monastery.
  • The full hike, which includes dirt paths and stone stairs, takes about two hours at a moderate pace. There is even a small spot you can stop for tea on the way up—the most scenic cup of na ja you may ever sip.
  • The main building of Taktsang was badly damaged in a fire, but a major restoration was completed in 2003. The view from the teahouse is well worth the climb, and it is possible to hike all the way to the gompa (monastery), another 45 minutes, to visit the various shrines in the building. Tucked among the shrines there is also a slim crevice in the rock for the more intrepid. After slipping through, you can descend a set of wooden ladders into the stone cave where the nest itself—and its tiger—are said to reside.
  • We'll take our time descending from the Tiger's Nest. Our last afternoon in Bhutan is yours, to relax in the hotel or revisit the market. Tonight, our group will enjoy a final farewell dinner with our guides and driver, and have a chance to reflect on all that we've experienced together.
Day 11
Farewell & Departure
  • Our journey through Bhutan will end today. We’ll wake up for one last cup of local tea before going to the airport, to head home or on to your next destination.
  • Until the next adventure!
The Fine Print

 

YOUR EXPEDITION TO BHUTAN INCLUDES

  • All lodging in double-accommodation rooms in modern, well-equipped hotels throughout the trip. (Single supplement for a private room is available for $325. Otherwise we'll work to place singles together.)
  • All entrance fees, activities, and 10 breakfasts, 10 lunches, and 10 dinners during the tour.
  • Domestic flight from Paro to Bumthang. 
  • Private transfers and excursions with your local guides.
  • Airport transfers.
  • Your visa for Bhutan.
  • An expert bilingual guide. 
  • A full briefing packet for each explorer, including country information, final itinerary, logistical and contact information, recommended reading list, and packing list.
  • A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans, excited to explore all that Bhutan has to offer!

NOTE ON ITINERARY

Itineraries and pricing are subject to change. This particular tour has been designed with specific activities and events in mind, and schedules and availabilities may change in coming months due to inclement weather, forces of nature, and other circumstances beyond our control.

NOTE ON FACILITIES & PHYSICAL ACTIVITY

Adventure is always accompanied by an element of the unexpected. The most important thing to bring with you is a flexible, positive, and open-minded attitude. During this trip, you will be staying in three-star accommodations, while also spending time in areas with less predictable facilities. We recommend a medium level of physical fitness, since we'll be embarking on very active days together. You should be comfortable walking between three and five miles per day without difficulty, and spending extended periods of time on your feet. For those interested in trekking, there will be opportunities for longer and more challenging hikes on certain days of the trip. If you're uncertain about whether this trip is a good fit, please contact us and we'd be happy to discuss with you further. 

PAYMENT

A $500 deposit is required to secure your spot. This deposit is nonrefundable after three days. The final payment of $3,390 will be due by July 1, 2019. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $325 will be included in the final payment.

TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR

  • International airfare to/from Bhutan. We will assist with booking your Drukair flights in and out of Paro (to be paid separately).
  • Travel insurance (required).
  • Baggage charges.
  • Tips and gratuities.
  • Additional meals and drinks outside of Atlas Obscura offerings.

QUESTIONS?

Email us at trips@atlasobscura.com or give us a call at 646-961-4857 anytime between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.

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