Bhutan, is emerging from the mists of its self-imposed isolation and is more accessible than ever. Bhutan offers high mountains, lush valleys, pristine ecology, and incredible wildlife and birds, including the rare black-necked crane. This 13-day itinerary includes popular western and lesser-visited central parts of the country. You'll enjoy a range of cultural and natural activities, as well as moderately challenging (but relatively short) day hikes, all surrounded by beautiful, pristine nature.

Highlights

  • Drive through the hills and villages of Bhutan, with views of the mountains
  • Explore Bhutan's religious heartland, Bumthang
  • Learn about the rare, migratory black-necked cranes in Phobjikha
  • Visit the infamous fertility temple at Chimmi Lhakhang

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival to Paro Paro
Day 2 Flight to Bumthang Bumthang
Day 3 Bumthang Sightseeing Bumthang
Day 4 Bumthang Sightseeing - Tang Valley Excursion Bumthang
Day 5 Bumthang to Gangtey via Trongsa Phobjikha
Day 6 Gangtey & Phobjikha Sightseeing Phobjikha
Day 7 Gangtey to Punakha via Chimmi Lhakhang & Punakha Dzong Punakha
Day 8 Punakha to Thimphu Thimphu
Day 9 Thimphu Sightseeing Thimphu
Day 10 Thimphu to Haa Valley Haa
Day 11 Haa Valley to Paro - Hike to Kila Goemba En Route Paro
Day 12 Hike to Tiger's Nest Monastery Paro
Day 13 Farewell Bhutan!  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival to Paro

Paro valley
Paro Valley

Welcome to Bhutan! Landing in the Paro Valley is like entering another world. Cultivated fields cover most of the valley floor, and hamlets and isolated farms dot the landscape. After arrival, your Bhutanese guide will meet you and accompany you to your hotel in Paro. Depending on your time of arrival, we recommend taking a walk around central Paro to get a feel for the place.

Day 2: Flight to Bumthang

Bumthang Valley

Today's itinerary will depend on the timing of your flight to Bumthang. Preferably, you will have some time to go sightseeing in Paro in the morning, and then fly to Bumthang in the afternoon.

Depending on time and your interests, here are a few things you can see and do in Paro:

  • Paro Dzong. Also called Rinpung Dzong, or the Fortress of a Heap of Jewels. Constructed in the early 15th century as a diminutive fort, it was developed into a much more commanding fortress in 1646. This is one of the kingdom’s finest examples of traditional Bhutanese architecture. Once, great catapults here flung stones at invading Tibetans. Today it houses a monastic school.
  • Ta Dzong. This watchtower was built in 1649 to protect the undefended dzong, and renovated in 1968 to house the National Museum. The unusual round building is said to be in the shape of a conch shell. Displays include an impressive collection of thangkas, both ancient and modern, depicting Bhutan's important saints and teachers, as well as fearsome festival masks grouped according to their tsechu dances. There's a natural-history gallery with a 3D map of Bhutan, while the Heritage Gallery contains such oddities as an egg laid by a mule and a horse horn attributed to Guru Rinpoche.
  • Kyichu Monastery. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the country, built in the 7th century by Tibetan King Songsten Gampo. The story goes that a giant demoness lay across the whole area of Tibet and the Himalayas and was preventing the spread of Buddhism. Butter lamps are the most powerful offering because their light symbolizes wisdom. Just as a lamp dispels darkness, offering light from a butter lamp represents removing the darkness of ignorance to attain Buddha's luminous clear wisdom.

Bumthang is the religious hub of Bhutan, and after arriving and checking in to your hotel you can spend some time exploring the quaint little town.

Day 3: Bumthang Sightseeing

The Burning Lake

Today is devoted to getting to know Bumthang. There are many religious and secular sights to check out here, so you can choose what to see and do, depending on your interests and energy levels. Some suggestions are:

  • Jambay Lhakhang  was founded in 7th century by Tibetan King Songtsen Gompo. Guru Rinpoche is said to have taught the local king from the temple roof in the 8th century.
  • Chamkhar Lhakhang was originally a nine-story ‘iron castle’ palace belonging to 8th-century King Sidhu Raja. It was replaced by the more modest building in the early 20th century. It houses the ritual dance masks used at the Jampay Lhakhang Festival in late autumn.
  • Kurjey Lhakhang is named after the sacred power place where Guru Rinpoche left an imprint of his body on the solid rocks, which can be seen from inside the shrine. There are three large temples within the complex, surrounded by 108 stupas.  Upon entering, the first temple to the right is Guru Lhakhang, which houses the cave, dating from 1652. The middle temple, Sampalundrup, was built by the first King Ugyen Wangchuk in 1900, during his tenure as Trongsa Penlop. The third temple was recently constructed under the patronage of Her Majesty Queen Mother Ashi Kesang Wangchuk.
  • Kenchogsum Temple. Ten minutes' walk south of Tamshing is this small temple. It was restored in 1995 and looks new, but actually dates back to 7th century.
  • Jakar Dzong. The name translates as "castle of the white bird", and is in a picturesque location overlooking the Chokhor Valley. The current structure was built in 1667, and is one of the largest dzongs in Bhutan, with impressive fortress walls, an elegant structure, and a simple interior.
  • Wangdichholing Palace. This extensive palace was built in 1857 on the site of the battle camp of the Governor of Trongsa, Jigme Namgyel. It was the first palace in Bhutan not designed as a fortress. Both the first and second kings used Wangdicholing as their main summer residence. There are five large water-driven prayer wheels inside square stupas near the gates of the palace.
  • Swiss Farm. There is a small factory on the other side of the river that produces Swiss cheese, Bumthang honey, apple wine, and local beer called Red Panda. Visit to taste some locally made products.
  • Membertsho (Burning Lake) is on the Bumthang to Ura road. The significance of this place is that in the early 16th century, many religious items were discovered in a pond here.

Day 4: Bumthang Sightseeing - Tang Valley Excursion

Ugyen Choling Palace

This morning, drive up the hill on the farm road to Tang Valley and visit the mystical Ugyen Choling Palace. Ugyen Choling is a national treasure. The Tang Valley is the most off-the-beaten track destination in Bumthang, and it is known for its sheep and buckwheat (which dramatically flowers in October). Its remote location makes it one of the least-visited historical sites in Bhutan.

Day 5: Bumthang to Gangtey via Trongsa

Trongsa

Today, make the long drive to Gangtey (7-8 hours). En route, stop in Trongsa after about 2-3 hours of driving. 

Trongsa lies at the geographical center of Bhutan. Many of the shops here are owned by Bhutanese of Tibetan descent. The small town is located on the face of a ridge and at the crossroads of the lateral east-west highway, as well as the road leading south to Shemgang.

Stop to check out Trongsa Dzong, the largest and most impressively situated dzong in Bhutan, perched high on a cliff above the deep Mangdechu River gorge. It was built in 1648. The huge multi-level fortress has intricate wood carvings and a maze of courtyards and covered passages that follow the contour of the ridge.  

Also visit Ta Dzong, a watchtower above the town that's shaped like a tower with wings. It contains a shrine dedicated to Gesar, a legendary epic warrior king, and the views from the tower is spectacular.

Continue along the road from Trongsa to Gangtey, which is a winding. Pass many small villages, nomadic settlements, through yak country, and across the Pele La Pass (11,220 feet /3420 m.) as well as another, unnamed pass. Finally, descend into the beautiful Phobjikha Valley.

After your arrival in Gangtey, you can opt to take a hot stone bath (at an extra cost). These are popular in Bhutan, used to overcome various complications and illnesses. Traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath uses river rocks that therapists place in water, where they crack and steam, releasing key minerals and relieving deep-set aches.

Day 6: Gangtey & Phobjikha Sightseeing

Sightseeing in Phobjikha

After an early breakfast, begin a day of sightseeing and hiking in the Phobjikha Valley. Here are some of your options today:

  • Black-necked Crane Observation & Education Centre. These birds are named Thrung Trung Karmo in Bhutan, and are the subject of Bhutanese songs, art, and folklore. They are an endangered species, and migrate from Tibet in late autumn, typically staying in Bhutan until mid-March. About 300-400 cranes reside in the wetland in the center of the valley. The centre has informative displays about the cranes and the conservation efforts in the valley.
  • Gangtey Gompa. This monastery sits atop a hillock that overlooks the Phobjikha Valley. It was founded in 1613,  but newer buildings have been added.
  • Gangtey Nature Trail. This pleasurable walk will give you a good sense of the Phobjikha Valley. From the small hilltop overlooking Gangtey Gompa, head downhill through flower meadows to Simchubara Village, and from here through beautiful forest and into the open valley. After passing a chorten and Khewa Lhakhang, the trail ends at the Tabiding football ground. You can also start your hike from the lodge, which involves a 30-minute walk up to the Gangtey Monastery. The walk is approximately two hours.

Day 7: Gangtey to Punakha via Chimmi Lhakhang & Punakha Dzong

Punakha Dzong

Today, head to the Punakha Valley, the old capital of Bhutan. On the way, explore the valley and a couple of attractions. First, Chimmi Lhakhang. Traverse the Punakha countryside, walking through paddy fields to Pana Village to see Chimi Lhakhang, built in 1400 to subdue local demons. The temple is a popular pilgrimage spot, and is especially revered by women for its fertility powers. Later, check out Punakha Dzong. This dzong sprawls at the confluence of the Phochu (male) and Mochu (female) rivers. It was built in 1637.

Total distance from Gangtey to Punakha is 48 miles (78 km), 3-4 hours.

Day 8: Punakha to Thimphu

Dochula

Leaving Punakha, drive into the countryside towards the Thimphu Valley, the capital of Bhutan. En route, pass the Dochula Pass, from which there are magnificent views of the Himalayan range. Stop at the Dochula Monastery. The cluster of 108 chortens can be seen from all around. Descend to Thimphu after a drive of about three hours.

After arriving in Thimphu and a spot of lunch, pay a visit to the Memorial Chorten. It's very picturesque, with its golden spires shining in the sun, its tinkling bells, and an endless procession of elderly people circling around it. Erected by the royal grandmother Ashi Phutsho Chodoen in memory of her son the third king Jigme Dorje, it contains a fine collection of Buddhist statues and is a centre of tantric Buddhism.

Later, depending on your energy and interests, you can visit some other sites around the capital. Suggestions include:

  • Kuensel Phodrang, where the Buddha Dordenma resides. Said to be one of the largest Buddha statues in the world, it stands at 169 feet (51.5 m.) tall. Get a bird's-eye view of Thimphu from here.
  • Folk Heritage Museum. This museum gives you a glimpse into traditional Bhutanese life. It displays an impressive collection of typical household objects, tools, and equipment. There are regular demonstrations of rural traditions, skills, habits, and customs, as well as educational programs for children.
  • Royal Textile Museum. This is the place to learn about Bhutan's living national art of thagzo (weaving). The ground floor focuses on royal ghos, including the wedding clothes worn by the fourth king and his four wives. The upper floor introduces the major weaving techniques, styles of local dress, and textiles made by women and men. The museum shop offers some interesting books and fine textiles.

Day 9: Thimphu Sightseeing

Monks in Thimphu

Start today with a visit to the Changangkha Lhakhang. This fortress-like temple perched on a ridge above Thimphu, south of Motithang, was established in the 12th century. From the courtyard of the temple there is a great view of the Thimphu Valley.

Later in the day, you can continue sightseeing around Thimphu, with a combination of the following attractions:

  • Institute of 13 Arts and Crafts of Bhutan (Institute for Zorig Chusum). Opened in June 1997, the institute reflects Bhutan’s effort to provide opportunities for vocational training. Bamboo and wood crafts are especially popular in this region.
  • School of Astrology (Pangri Zampa Lhakhang). Bhutanese parents visit this Lhakhang to get blessings for their newborns. Built in 16th century, the Lhakhang consists of two temples.
  • Post Office. Philatelists will be interested in the museum attached to the post office. Five galleries trace the development of the Bhutanese postal system, from the earliest mail runners to Bhutan's idiosyncratic and highly collectible modern stamps. Most importantly, you can get your photo printed onto a Bhutanese Stamp and then mail it back home to your friends.
  • Tashichho Dzong. Also known as the ‘fortress of the glorious religion’, this dzong was initially built in 1641, and later rebuilt in its present form by King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk in 1965. The Dzong houses the main secretariat building with the Throne Room of His Majesty the King of Bhutan. The National Assembly Hall is housed in a modern building on the other side of the river. 

Day 10: Thimphu to Haa Valley

Riverside Dzong

Today, travel to the Haa Valley through countryside with many traditional villages and Bhutanese farm houses, where you'll see farmers working on their land.

Haa remains one of the least-visited areas in the country, and retains the air of an unspoiled, primeval forest. This valley only opened to foreigners in 2002 due to its proximity to the border with Sikkim and Tibet. Its wooded hills are an ideal setting for hiking and mountain biking. There are several pleasant walking trails in Haa and important temples to visit in the valley.Points of interest to add to your sightseeing itinerary include:

  • Yangthong Goemba, the charming upper chapels of which feature murals depicting Zangto Pelri (the paradise of Guru Rinpoche) and also the tshomen (mermaid deities) that are said to inhabit the pool just outside the monastery.
  • Chhundu Lhakhang. Seven miles (11 km) north of Haa is this local temple, one of several shrines dedicated to the valley's protective deity.
  • Lhakhang Karpo (Black Temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (White Temple). Believed to have been built in the 7th century, these temples are considered highly auspicious and a popular place of pilgrimage for Bhutanese

Day 11: Haa Valley to Paro - Hike to Kila Goemba En Route

Hike to Kila Goemba

Start at a leisurely pace and drive across the Chele La Pass. At 13,083 feet (3988 m.) is the highest road pass in Bhutan, snaking upwards through blue pine and rhododendron forests. On a clear day, the view sweeps away to the snow dome of Bhutan’s second-highest peak, Mt. Jhomolhari (23,996 feet/7314 m.).

Stop for a hike en route. Striding out along an Edelweiss-covered ridge, pass a sky burial site. Then descend for a two-hour hike through dense rhododendron forest, possibly sighting shaggy yaks, to Kila Goemba, an ancient nunnery situated in a craggy patch on the mountainside below. 

Kila Goemba is a serene retreat for 32 Anim (Buddhist nuns), who lead an undisturbed life of religious studies, prayer, and meditation here. The nunnery is one of the seven oldest nunneries in Bhutan. It was established in the early 9th century as a place of meditation. It has a timeless quality, which is ample reward for the effort of the hike.

After your hike, continue the drive to the Paro Valley.

Day 12: Hike to Tiger's Nest Monastery

Tiger's Nest Monastery

After breakfast, drive for about 25 minutes to begin your hike to one of Bhutan’s most revered pilgrimage sites, the Taktshang Lhakhang, popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery

The trek offers spectacular views of this sacred monastery, which is perched precariously on a sheer rock face 3000 feet (900 m.) above the valley floor. Legend has it that Guru Rimpoche, father of Bhutan’s stream of Mahayana Buddhism, arrived in the Paro Valley more than a millennium ago on the back of a tigress. He meditated for three months in a cave, which was converted into this monastery. 

The hike from the base to the cafeteria will take at least 90 minutes. From there, it’s about an hour’s trek through some stunning landscape to reach the monastery. On the return, stop once more at the cafeteria for lunch.

The trek is moderate and takes 2-3 hours in total. Ponies are available for the uphill portions at an additional cost.

Day 13: Farewell Bhutan!

Farewell Bhutan!

You'll be transferred to Paro International Airport in good time for your flight. Tashi Delek! We hope you will visit us again.