Arrive in Kathmandu and transfer to our hotel. The evening is free to relax.
Today we fly to Paro. If the weather is clear we should get fantastic views of much of the eastern half of the Himalaya including Mts. Everest, Kanchenjunga and Chomolhari. Upon arrival we transfer to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan (approx 1hr). Thimpu is a fairly small town, with a population of around 90,000, and is easy to get around. There is a certain quaintness to it and all the houses and shops are painted in traditional Buddhist styles. Today we will visit Semtokha Dzong (fort) and Tashichho Dzong, which is the centre of the Bhutanese government.
This morning we spend a bit more time exploring the charms of Thimpu. We will visit the Memorial Chorten, which was built in 1974 in memory of the third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, as well as a local painting school. We leave Thimpu and drive east to Punakha. The route climbs steeply in places to the Dochula Pass. At 3050m (10,000ft) the views over the eastern Himalaya are magnificent although the clouds may obscure this spectacle. We descend to the valley floor and continue to sub-tropical Punakha. At an altitude of 1350m the difference in temperature and flora is apparent. Punakha was the old capital of Bhutan and the dzong was the second one to be built in Bhutan. This remarkable fortress is built between two rivers and it has survived many fires, an earthquake and a glacial flood. Along the way it has been repaired and added to and has several interesting features to protect it against invasion. En route we will also visit Chime Lhakhang, a 15th Century monastery built to honour one of the more folkloric saints of Bhutanese tradition, Lama Drukpa Kuenley. The Lama was known for his foul-mouth, alcohol-smelling breath and insatiable lust towards women. Yet he is revered as a great saint by most Bhutanese who come from all corners of the country to visit Chime Lhakhang
Today we drive to Bumthang, often referred to as the spiritual heart of Bhutan. En route we will visit the ruins of Wangduei Dzong situated on top of a high plateau between the Punak Chu and Dang Chu. We will stop for lunch at Chendebji Chorten and later visit the weavers in Chumey where we can see women weaving yak wool into traditional Bhutanese textiles known as Yathra.
Today we witness one of Bhutan's famous festivals - the Domkhar Festival (also known as the Bumthang Festival). Festivals in Bhutan are very colourful affairs and are a celebration of the country's greatest Buddhist saints, Guru Rimpoche. Bhutanese come together during festivals to watch various dances such as the black hat dance or the treasure dance which normally have a long history and tradition going back centuries. Most of these are masked dances and the masks themselves have an important significance. The Domkhar Festival, in Central Bhutan, is more intimate and less touristy than some of the other bigger festivals.
Today we start our 3-day trek. We drive about 30mins to Thangbi Lhakhang and the starting point of our trek. There is time to look round the gompa before we start walking. Our path will take us through small villages, blue-pine forests, meadows and bamboo shrubs. We cross the river by bridge and follow the undulating trail all the way to the area called Ngang Yul, which directly translates as Swan Land after the swans which once inhabited the valley (but are, sadly, now gone). At the heart of the valley is Ngang Lhakhang (Swan Temple) at an elevation of 2,800m. The story goes that a Lama had a dream about how to build a temple, he shot an arrow into the air and where the arrow landed he built the temple. We will camp here overnight. (Approx. 14kms, 4.5-5.5hrs walking)
Today we start a gradual ascent towards the Phephe La Pass (3,465m), the highest point on our trek. We will be passing through beautiful forested areas and will have plenty of opportunity to make stops and take in our surroundings. About 10 minutes before the top if it is clear we can see Gangar Punsum in the far distance. The top is a cleft in a forested ridge marked with a cairn and prayer flags. We have an easy descent through forest for about an hour before the valley opens out as we pass an old gateway chorten. The forest here is interspersed with clearings where animals graze on the lush grass pasture. As the valley widens we see cultivated land and herders huts. A large village comes into view - this is Takung and we camp just outside the village (2,900m). Approximately 16kms, 7hrs walking)
Today, the last day of our trek, we hike for 3-4 hours (10km), first up for a short while and then down all the way to Gamling (2505m). From here we will be met by our vehicle and drive to Trongsa (roughly 3hrs). En route we will stop at Mebar Tsho (Flaming Lake) which gets its name from the legend of Pema Lingpa who entered the lake with a butter lamp and returned a long while later with treasures and holy books - today the lamp is still burning in the lake! Today this holy site, with its bright prayer flags, is a pilgrimage place for many Bhutanese. (The drive is 103km and will take approximately 3 hours).
Today we start off by visiting the impressive Trongsa Dzong, a masterpiece of architecture with a maze of courtyards and passageways and 23 temples. The Trongsa Museum is built in the old watchtower. We then head back over the Pele La to Wangdue Phodrang, where we will spend the night.
In the morning we drive back to the beautiful broad, fertile Paro Valley, with its famous dzong overlooking the rice fields and scattered houses. The Paro valley is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Bhutan. Its blue pine-covered hills and attractive, solidly built farmhouses among the paddy fields are dominated by the massive Paro Dzong also known as Rinpung Dzong, which we will visit. We will have the opportunity to visit the National Museum which is housed in an ancient watchtower with a superb view over the valley, and contains many interesting historic and religious objects, as well as a fine collection of Bhutanese stamps.
We drive to the car park below Taktsang monastery, where we set off walking. It is an uphill hike taking 2 - 3 hours to the viewpoint cafe and is steep in places. The famous monastery, whose name means 'Tiger's Nest', is only accessible on foot but is well worth the effort. The monastery clings to a huge granite cliff 800 meters above the paro valley. It is believed that the great saint Padmasambhava came in the 7th century on a flying tigress and meditated in a cave for 3 months. The demons who were trying to stop the spread of Buddhism were subdued and he converted the Paro valley to Buddhism. During the end of the 17th century a monastery was built on the spot where the saint mediated and it is a pilgrimage site for every Bhutanese to visit once in their lifetime.
We transfer to the airport to check in for our flight back to Kathmandu. The rest of the day is free for individual sightseeing or shopping. You may want to visit the famous Durbar Square in the heart of the old city. Here is the old royal palace, with its intricate woodcarving and four fine towers. Or you may wish to visit the monkey temple at Swayambhunath or take an optional trip to Bhaktapur, the medieval city a few miles east of the capital. Bhaktapur has its own Durbar Square with many temples and statues and a maze of narrow streets, which are generally quieter than the capital.
For those on group flights, these depart in the afternoon and will arrive in the UK the same day. Please note that sometimes due to opening times, holidays or festivals we have to change the timings of the sightseeing around. We will endeavour to show you all the sights in the time available. In case it is not possible to visit any of the sights described in the notes above an alternative will be provided.