Spirit of Bhutan Tour

About the Experience

On our Spirit Of Bhutan tour, your heart will swell in the embrace of a country that covets happiness above all else. Every policy must pass a happiness filter to be enacted. 

Trekking through the velvet green valleys of a remote Himalayan kingdom, yak herders will greet you with wide smiles. The reverberating chant of monks residing in cliffside monasteries will be felt in your ribcage. This is the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and the colourful prayer flags and flowering alpine meadows are kindling for spiritual renewal.

Over thirteen soul-expansive days, you’ll trek through tidy rice paddy terraces, rural villages, through blue pine forests and sleep in Himalayan valleys peppered with sacred sites. You’ll have the opportunity to visit countless monasteries, nunneries and ancient fortresses. From the fever pitch of the Jakar festival to the fabled “Burning Lake” to the arrival of the rare black-necked cranes returning to their wintering grounds–Bhutan is a diverse, enlightening and panorama-packed destination.

It’s an itinerary of surprises at every turn from a 3-storey golden Buddha, the Snowman trek ‘finish line’ and whitewater rafting on the aggressive Pho and Mo rivers! The legendary Tiger’s Nest has its own magnetic pull and on the two-day Bumdra Monastery Trek, you’ll feel the ancient pulse of gurus, tigress legends and tall tales. 

A trip to Bhutan isn’t complete without an introduction to the “Divine Madman” and his 15th century artwork that centered on giant penises and his encouragement to laugh a lot and have sex whenever possible. 

Bonus: You’ll spend a night at the 5-star Zhiwa Ling Lodge–dubbed one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges of the World!” Zhiwa Ling means “Land of Peace” and this is undeniable. Come experience Bhutan and all its surprises.

 

 

 

Click here to see the full itinerary!
Spirit of Bhutan Tour

About the Experience

On our Spirit Of Bhutan tour, your heart will swell in the embrace of a country that covets happiness above all else. Every policy must pass a happiness filter to be enacted. 

Trekking through the velvet green valleys of a remote Himalayan kingdom, yak herders will greet you with wide smiles. The reverberating chant of monks residing in cliffside monasteries will be felt in your ribcage. This is the “Land of the Thunder Dragon” and the colourful prayer flags and flowering alpine meadows are kindling for spiritual renewal.

Over thirteen soul-expansive days, you’ll trek through tidy rice paddy terraces, rural villages, through blue pine forests and sleep in Himalayan valleys peppered with sacred sites. You’ll have the opportunity to visit countless monasteries, nunneries and ancient fortresses. From the fever pitch of the Jakar festival to the fabled “Burning Lake” to the arrival of the rare black-necked cranes returning to their wintering grounds–Bhutan is a diverse, enlightening and panorama-packed destination.

It’s an itinerary of surprises at every turn from a 3-storey golden Buddha, the Snowman trek ‘finish line’ and whitewater rafting on the aggressive Pho and Mo rivers! The legendary Tiger’s Nest has its own magnetic pull and on the two-day Bumdra Monastery Trek, you’ll feel the ancient pulse of gurus, tigress legends and tall tales. 

A trip to Bhutan isn’t complete without an introduction to the “Divine Madman” and his 15th century artwork that centered on giant penises and his encouragement to laugh a lot and have sex whenever possible. 

Bonus: You’ll spend a night at the 5-star Zhiwa Ling Lodge–dubbed one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges of the World!” Zhiwa Ling means “Land of Peace” and this is undeniable. Come experience Bhutan and all its surprises.

 

 

 

DAY ONE: LAND OF HAPPINESS

Upon arrival from Delhi, Calcutta, Kathmandu or Bangkok, our guide will meet us at the small and friendly Paro International Airport.

Suggested Flight Route: Bangkok (BKK) is the easiest route asit has the most flight options (2–4 flights daily). We recommend choosing Bhutan Airlines for their flight times are generally civilized. Please plan to arrive before 10am (local time) on day one!

Paro is situated in the flat valley bottom in a region peppered with more than 150 temples and monasteries. Depending on arrival times, we can visit the impressive Paro Rinpung Dzong. A dzong is a distinctive type of fortress-like monastery unique to Bhutan and this “Fortress on a Heap of Jewels” is a landmark example of imposing Bhutanese architecture.

We’ll take a leisurely one hour hike along the forested hillside from Ta Dzong to Zuri Dzong. We’ll pass by the Gonsaka Lhakhang (a revered old temple with a meditation cave) and then Zuri Dzong, with expansive views over the valley and Paro Dzong. The five-storey Zuri Dzong is considered one of the oldest dzongs in the area (dating back to 1352), and is home to the valley’s protector god. 

Our walk will continue down to the Uma Resort junction to absorb more astonishing views before our driver picks us up at the Paro bridge.

We’ll have the cherished opportunity to share tea or dinner with a local family and later, experience the restorative properties of a hot stone bath! We will also arrange an archery lesson today, putting a bull’s eye on a perfect first day in Bhutan.

 

DAY TWO: GOLDEN BUDDHA

We’ll rise early to take a one hour super scenic drive along the Paro and Thimphu river valleys to Bhutan’s lofty 2,320m (7,612ft) capital, Thimpu.   The required selfie stop en route is the magnificent Tamchhog Lhakhang, the hereditary place of worship for Bhutan’s iron bridge builder. If our itinerary coincides, we can visit the weekly market (held on weekends) and the iconic Memorial Chorten with it’s golden spire. Chorten is one of the most visible religious landmarks in Bhutan but differs from other stupas as it does not enshrine human remains.

We will then visit Changangkha temple, one of the oldest surviving temples in Thimpa. Founded in the 13th or 14th century, the compact temple sits on the tip of a verdant ridge overlooking the town. Devotees visit daily to circumambulate and turn the meditative prayer wheels. This temple also contains captivating wall paintings and hundreds of religious scriptures written in gold.

Next, we will visit the domineering statue of Buddha Dordenma, which commands a tremendous view of Thimphu valley. The huge 3-storey throne holds several chapels and the body of Dordenma itself is filled with 125,000 smaller statues of Buddha (not Matryoshka doll-style–but wouldn’t that be impressive?). 

In the afternoon, we will drive approximately 3 hours to the old capital, Punakha, via Dochu La pass. Perched at 3,050m (10,000ft), we’ll  stop for a very high and hot drink and take in the spectacular panoramic views of the Eastern Himalaya ranges.  From here, it’s easy to notice the dramatic change in climate and vegetation as we approach our accommodations in the low-lying eastern Himalayan town of Punakha at 1,250m (4,106ft). This area is known for Punakha Dzong, a 17th-century fortress at the juncture of the mighty Pho and Mo Chhu rivers that are split by the old dzong that sits on a promontory between the two.

 

DAY THREE: THIMPHU TO TRONGSA

Have a good stretch before hopping into our shuttle this morning as it will take around 5 hours to reach Trongsa, the gateway to central Bhutan at 2,180m (7,152ft). En route, we will stop at Tsangkha Tashicholing, a  monastery known for its elaborate arts and crafts training institute. Here, around 45 young and eager monks learn the traditional skills of woodcarving, sculpture, painting and embroidery.

Set amidst jaw-dropper scenery, Trongsa Dzong is the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family. We’ll visit Ta Dzong, the watchtower museum dedicated to the Wangchuk dynasty and learn of the tall tales surrounding the Dzong and the valley it has protected from internal rebellion for centuries. For museum junkies, Ta Dzong also features personal belongings of the former kings and queens of Bhutan.

Built by Chogyal Minjur Tempa, the 1st Governor of Trongsa in 1652, Ta Dzong has four observation points resembling a tiger, lion, garuda and dragon. 

Fun fact: In Hindu mythology, the Garuda is a legendary bird or bird-like creature that is the reliable mount (ie. private jet) of the god Vishnu. 

We’ll stay in Trongsa tonight. This town is situated on a steep ridge and the views of the deep valleys surrounding it are trance-inducing. Trongsa Dzong is visible from almost everywhere in town and appears nearly magical as the ridge it sits on unfolds into the clouds on its south side.

 

DAY FOUR: BUMTHANG VALLEYS

Today we’ll have a 3-hour drive that snakes through some of Bhutan’s most alluring landscapes to Bumthang, an area of impossibly high valleys at 2,580 to 3,100m (8,465 to 10,171ft). This is the spiritual, beating heartland of Bhutan and it’s witnessed in the countless legendary monasteries, temples and palaces.  

Bumthang is the collective name for the area of four valleys – Chokhor, Tang, Ura, and Chumey. Our guide will lead us on a riveting walking and/or driving tour of a variety of sacred sites including Jamba Lhakhang, Kurjey Lhakhang, Tamshing Lhakhang and Mebar Tsho (“The Burning Lake”).

The Burning Lake is one of Bhutan’s most important pilgrimage sites. According to Atlas Obscura, “in the 15th century, Pema Lingpa had a vision that treasure was hidden in a pool where the Tang Chhu River widens. When the locals questioned the validity of his prediction, he submerged himself in the water holding a lit butter lamp, and resurfaced with a chest and a scroll, the lamp still aflame.” Be forewarned, the lake would be better described as a pool along the river!

Later, we may have time to also visit Bhutan’s largest Dzong (Jakar), with its hypnotic location overlooking the Chokhor valley. We’ll be sleeping in Bumthang tonight, hugged by the sacred valleys and views.

 

DAY FIVE: MOUNTAINTOP MONASTERIES

Today we’ll strike off from the Swiss Guesthouse Hotel on a heart-thumpin’ 15km hike to Babzur via Petseling monastery. 

We’ll hike for roughly 1.5 hours to a tiny village called Changbi for a pitstop with restorative hot tea and snacks. Continuing on, we’ll pass by Petseling monastery, which is home to 70 monks. Built in 1769, this monastery is known for one particular flower, the Dongdola. It blossoms in both the summer and winter, and the powerful fragrance seems to be a gentle offering to the gods and goddesses. Cuckoos frequent this area as well, enjoying the serenity and surroundings just as the monks do!

From this vantage point, we’ll fill our memory cards with staggering panoramic views over the Bumthang valley. In the distance, we’ll also be able to see the finish line of Bhutan’s most challenging, high-altitude 25-day trail, the Snowman trek.

Fun fact: The Snowman trek is so named for the six mountains over 7,000m (23,100 ft. ) which the trek passes beneath. Crossing nine passes over 4,500m (15,850 ft). Or, you can stop to smell the Dongdolas instead!

We’ll trek onwards to the village of Babzur and its meadow blurred with sun-worn prayer flags and dramatic views of Kunzangdrak Gompa monastery. We’ll take five and enjoy our packed lunch here before walking another 1.5 hours through the shade of the blue pine forest until we reach the feeder road where our hike ends.

 

DAY SIX: CHUMEY VALLEY VIEWS

Today we’ll visit the fever pitch of the Jakar Festival, which takes place in Bhutan’s largest Dzong (Jakar), overlooking the Chokhor valley. We’ll see grinning locals who have walked for miles in their finest clothes to attend the celebration. They gather to watch animated masked dances, to pray and to gratefully feast. While the deep roots of the festival are spiritual, the dances are more akin to a play, telling stories of good triumphing over evil. Other dances depict significant historical events that surround the life of Bhutan’s beloved patron saint, Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche). 

The Jakar Fest provides an opportunity for people to socialize, relax and abandon their daily routine and it’s done in a colour way full of blessings, bright clothing and warm smiles.

We’ll make a group decision with our guide about how long we’d like to spend at the festival. Depending on the group’s interest, we can schedule a hike or arrange for more sightseeing before returning to our accommodations in Bumthang.

 

DAY SEVEN: GANGTEY GOMPA

Today our drive to Gangtey will be about six hours. This remote and tranquil area is a natural sanctuary for the hundreds of rare black-necked cranes that annually arrive the last week of October from the Tibetan plateau to roost for the winter amongst the farms and villages. 

The crane is considered sacred and there’s a festival dedicated to the bird’s return. The Black-necked species with an 8-foot wingspan, is the only alpine crane in the world. They favour the dwarf bamboo that grows in the valley’s alpine wetlands. In the Phobjikha Valley, locals honor and protect these elegant cranes as it is believed that they are connected to bountiful harvests and prosperity.

We’ll witness the immenseness of Phobjikha valley, a glacial region that has remained untouched by the modern world, as well as knock-out views of the Black Mountains.

Our next stop will be Gangtey Gompa, one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries (and recently extensively renovated). During the summer months, it’s inhabited by monks. Contentment is easily found in the undulating valleys at every turn. We’ll stay in Gangtey tonight and let our dreams take flight on the wings of cranes.

 

DAY EIGHT: PHOBJIKHA VALLEY

We’ll explore the Phobjikha Valley today at a casual pace. From the Dewachen Hotel, we’ll walk to the Black-necked Crane Information Centre to learn more about the valley and its famous migrating birds. From the Centre, we can easily walk to Beta Village and Gangtey Gompa.

We’ll walk along the Gangtey Nature Trail, past the farmhouses of Semchubara village and slice through the grassy plains and stands of blue pines covered in “old man’s beard.” Hopefully we’ll see some cranes, too! They are usually observed feeding on the valley marshlands from late October to mid-February.

At the end of the nature trail we’ll head to Kingathang village to visit a temple built by Bhutan’s Queen Mother. From Kingathang, we can walk via Yusa village back to our hotel. The total distance is 12 to 13km (7.5-8 miles) or 6 to 7 hours. 

Later, hamstrings humming, we’ll drive to Wangdi, a small mountain and riverside town originally considered Bhutan’s secondary capital. The town still mourns the destruction of their monastery, Wangdi Dzong in 2012. The dzong was gutted by fire in just a few hours–the blaze destroyed the centuries old building and the painstaking efforts that had been in progress for many months to rebuild after recent earthquake damage.  

It’s an odd twist of fate that the monastery was being renovated at the time of the fire, so most of the relics were safely in storage elsewhere.

After a full day of sacred sites and miles on foot, we’ll retire to our accommodations in Gangtey for a suja (butter tea) or Red Panda Weiss beer by Bumthang Brewery. 

Fun fact: Tuesday is “dry day” in Bhutan. No alcohol is served on Tuesdays, ever!

 

DAY NINE: PUNAKHA DZONG

Today we’ll embark on a 3km (1.9 mile) hike to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten through the village and rice paddy fields of Yebisa. We’ll begin by crossing the nerve-jangling suspension bridge below Khamsum Yuelley Namgyel Chorten to Yebisa and continue another 40 to 50 minutes up to the 30m temple. This section of the walk is gradual but there are some steeper parts. The reward is found at the top where we’ll have postcard views of the valley and surrounding villages.

After visiting the temple and posing for a dozen grinning group photos, we’ll descend for 30 minutes until we reach the suspension bridge where a shuttle will be waiting for us.

In the afternoon we’ll go rafting on the Pho Chhu (“Male”) or Mo (“Female”) Chhu river! Each has 10 to 15 class 2–4 rapids to help spike your adrenaline! 

After our whitewater experience, we’ll return to solid ground and the calm found in the deeply impressive Punakha Dzong or “Palace of Great Happiness”. 

We’ll stay in Wangdi tonight!

 

DAY TEN: CHIMI LHAKHANG

This morning we’ll walk for around one hour across the tidy terraced fields of Sopsokha village to Chimi Lhakhang (“Temple of Fertility”) built in the 15th century by the Lama Drukpa Kuenley–known best by his handle of the Divine Madman. One of the country’s most-loved saints, the Divine Madman was deemed a crazy yogi who taught in an unconventional way. His teachings were a curricula of outrageous behaviour, song and poetry–all vain attempts to awaken Buddha nature by laughing and having a lot more sex. You’ll see evidence of his antics/teachings throughout the country in the form of painted penises on local houses.

Semi-enlightened, we’ll return to Paro (a 4-hour drive). If time permits, it might be possible to drive up to Chele La pass today and visit Kila Gompa nunnery, reputed to be the oldest in Bhutan. The 9th century meditation site has seven small temples and several retreat huts cleverly built into the sheer cliffside where seventy nuns live in self-imposed isolation. 

Chele La Pass separates the valleys of Haa and Paro and at 3,810m (12,500ft), it is one of the highest vantage points as well as the highest drivable passes in Bhutan with edible views of the sacred mountains Jomolhari and Jichu Drakey.

This evening we’ll need to sort our luggage to repack for the trek. Anything we don’t need will be kept safely in Paro. Our accommodation tonight will be at the luxe 5-star Zhiwa Ling lodge–dubbed one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges of the World!”

Zhiwa Ling means “Land of Peace” and this is undeniable. The 45-room hotel faces the sheer rocky cliffs that surround Tiger’s Nest Temple. This strategic position is believed to bring good fortune to those who spend the night in the pampered embrace. Be sure to admire the Buddhist shrine upstairs–it’s constructed with 450-year-old wood from a remote monastery.

DAY ELEVEN: HIMALAYAN VISTAS

Today we begin our highly anticipated two-day camping trip trek high up on the hillside outside Paro. The trek begins with a one hour drive from Paro to Sang Choekor Buddhist College where we will start walking at an altitude of about 2,800m (9,186ft). The climb will be gradual through fragrant blue pine and juniper forest. After about three hours, we’ll reach the majestic mountainside temple, Chhoe Chhoe Tse Lhakhang.

We’ll continue climbing for another 20 minutes until we re-enter the shadows of the forest, and after about 40 minutes, we’ll emerge into an alpine meadow of chortens (Buddhist shrines) and colourful prayer flags flapping and snapping in the breeze. 

Our campsite is just below the nearby Bumdra Monastery, at about 3,800 meters (12,467ft). The snowy, sweeping Himalayan vistas are unreal. We will have an opportunity to visit the monastery and climb the 4000m (13,123ft) peak to swallow up the views before returning to camp.

Today’s walk is 15km (9 miles)–but with our heads swiveling to take in the vistas, our legs won’t even be aware of the distance covered.

 

DAY TWELVE: TREK TO THE TIGER’S NEST

We’ll begin today’s 16km hike with a descent through the haven of the forest and after a couple of hours, witness the emergence of numerous temples. From the gardens of Sangtopelri, we’ll be able to look down and see the signature roofs of Taktshang monastery far below. Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to this site riding on a tigress and meditated here for three months. 

This is one of Bhutan’s most holy sites and it draws pilgrims from Bhutan and neighbouring Buddhist countries in a powerful magnetic pull. We’ll keep descending through the primeval forest, to the famous and spectacular Tiger’s Nest monastery itself. Constructed in 1692, the cave where Guru first meditated is said to be the introduction of Buddhism to Bhutan.

From the sacred Nest it’s about an hour down to our end point, where we’ll meet our vehicle to return to Paro. Nearby, we can also visit Kyichu Lhakhang, a temple believed to have been built in 659 by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. Pilgrims walk around this temple, spinning its numerous prayer wheels.

 

DAY THIRTEEN: TASHI DELEK

Early in the morning, our guide will accompany us to the airport. With renewed spirit and pounding hearts we’ll embrace and wish each other “Tashi Delek” (goodbye and good luck!) until next time.

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