Remote Central Bhutan offers a wealth of cultural and natural attractions that are rarely visited by outsiders. On this 12-day tour of Western and Central Bhutan, you can get a taste of it all. Hike along quiet rural trails to working monasteries, where you may be the only traveler. Drive along remote mountain roads over high passes with views of the high Himalaya. Explore the dzongs and other cultural riches in the small towns and villages of Bhutan. See Bhutan both on and off the beaten track.

Highlights

  • Admire the rare, migratory black-necked cranes in Phobjikha
  • Explore Bhutan's religious capital, Bumthang
  • Take a moderate day hike to the beautiful Tiger's Nest Monastery
  • Visit the very center of Bhutan at Trongsa

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrival in Paro - Transfer to the Thimphu Valley Thimphu
Day 2 Thimphu Sightseeing Thimphu
Day 3 Thimphu to Phobjika Phobjikha
Day 4 Gangtey & Phobjikha Sightseeing Phobjikha
Day 5 Gangtey to Bumthang Bumthang
Day 6 Bumthang Sightseeing Bumthang
Day 7 Bumthang to Punakha via Trongsa Punakha
Day 8 Punakha Sightseeing Punakha
Day 9 Punakha to Paro Paro
Day 10 Paro Sightseeing Paro
Day 11 Hike to Tiger's Nest Monastery Paro
Day 12 Farewell Bhutan!  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrival in Paro - Transfer to the Thimphu Valley

Buddha overlooking Thimphu

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 the capital, Thimphu, located in a large valley and overshadowed by high peaks. It's about an hour's drive from the airport.

Choose to rest, or visit a few points of interest, depending on your time of arrival. Good places to start sightseeing in Thimphu are the Memorial Chorten and Kuensel Phodrang. In the evening, take a walk along Thimphu's high street and get a feel for the culture of this small capital city.

Day 2: Thimphu Sightseeing

Monks at a monastery in Thimphu

Today, explore Thimphu according to your own interests. The following are options, although you don't need to include them all:

  • 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.
  • Kuensel Phodrang (Buddha Point). Where the Buddha Dordenma resides, this is said to be one of the largest Buddhas in the world, standing 169 feet (51.5 m.) tall. Look down on Thimphu from the viewpoint.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 3: Thimphu to Phobjika

Beautiful traditional Bhutanese architecture

Leaving Thimphu, head into the countryside towards the Gangtey Valley, home of the rare blacked-necked cranes. The drive ascends gradually to the Dochula Pass, which is over 10,300 feet (3139 m.). There are magnificent vistas of the Himalayan range from the pass.

Located near the pass is the Dochula Monastery, a tribute to the service and leadership of the king. It's a unique cluster of 108 chortens, and is an attractive place to stop and take some photos. The descent to Wangduephodrang is vibrant and colorful, with fluttering prayer flags adding to the rich landscape of terraced farms and rivers. 

Wangduephodrang is the last town on the highway before you enter central Bhutan. Wangdue Dzong was lost to a devastating fire and is being rebuilt. You can choose to stop at a viewpoint where you can see the ruins of the dzong. 

Continue towards the Phobjikha Valley, a wide glacial valley with a central stream meandering through open grassland and thickets of dwarf bamboo. Farmland occupies slopes where potatoes and turnips are grown. The forest beyond the farms is mostly coniferous, with blue pine, birch, maple, and several species of rhododendrons. The local cattle and horses graze on the bamboo, preparing the ground for the cranes that come in winter.

Time to Phobjikha: 5-6 hours

Day 4: Gangtey & Phobjikha Sightseeing

Sightseeing in the Phobjikha Valley

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 5: Gangtey to Bumthang

Membertsho (Burning Lake) 

After breakfast, head out across the Pele La Pass (10,826 feet/ 3,300 m.), which is marked by a chorten and an array of prayer flags. On a clear day, you can get spectacular views of the highest peaks of the kingdom. It's quite common to spot yaks and herders on this pass. This point marks the boundary between western and central Bhutan, as well as the western border of the Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park.

Beyond Pele La is Longte Valley, where people raise sheep and yaks. You’ll come to the village of Rukubji, with its big school and gompa. The houses here are clustered amid extensive fields of mustard, potatoes, barley, and wheat. As you drive down through rhododendron trees and ferns, you’ll reach Chendebji village. This was once a night halt for mule caravans traveling from Trongsa.

Just below Chendebji village is the Chendebji Chorten, a large white structure beside a stream. This chorten is modeled after Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, Nepal. The last village before you reach Trongsa is Tangsibji, which provides full view of Trongsa Dzong and its distinctive roof.

Trongsa Dzong, built in 1645, is a vast white fortress that appears to grow directly up from the narrow green ridge on which it is constructed. It is one of the most powerful dzongs, and even today the crown prince of Bhutan must first become the Trongsa Penlop (governor) before he can become Bhutan’s king.The ancient watchtower of the dzong has been now turned into a historical museum. It provides a good view of Trongsa town and the surrounding valley.

Continue on to Bumthang, the spiritual heartland of Bhutan. This journey will take you over one of the most scenically beautiful routes in Bhutan via the Yotong La Pass (11,236 feet/3425 m.). As you enter the Chhume Valley (the first of the four valleys that comprise the Bumthang Valley), you can visit a center of Yathra weaving. Yathra is the name for the locally produced hand-woven woolen cloth. Distinctive patterns and bright, earthy colors enliven the fabric, which is used for a wide variety of purposes and sought-after throughout the country.

Note: Today's drive to Bumthang transverses scenic landscapes and local villages, and takes about 7-8 hours. The drive can be adventure in itself. Due to a road-widening project on the West East Highway, the road can be bumpy and rough. Rather than driving both ways by car, one may choose to fly to Bumthang from Paro and retrace your drive back.

Day 6: Bumthang Sightseeing

Sightseeing in Bumthang

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 7: Bumthang to Punakha via Trongsa

Trongsa Dzong

Today, make the long drive (7-8 hours) to Punakha, going via Trongsa.

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. 

Leaving Trongsa, the road winds north west via Tsamkhar to cross Mangde Chu River at Bjizam. Pass through farmland and villages, and cross the Pele La Pass (11,220 feet/3,420 m.). 

Day 8: Punakha Sightseeing

Suspension bridge over the  Punakha Chu (River)

After an early breakfast, set out on a  beautiful day hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Monastery. A 30-minute drive from Punakha Dzong will bring you to the base of the hill on which this temple is built. From the car park, cross a suspension bridge and walk through rice fields before you start climbing a moderately inclined trail surrounded by pine trees. It takes about one hour from the car park to hike up to the temple, and 30 minutes to hike down. Soak in the serene natural beauty and participate in the rite of lighting butter lamps in the temple. 

Continue walking through paddy fields until you reach Chimmi Lhakang, built by the great Lama  Drukpa Kinley in 1400 to subdue local demons. The temple is a popular pilgrimage point for all Bhutanese, and is specially revered by women for its fertility powers.  

Later, visit the Punakha Dzong, which is sprawled at the confluence of the Phochu (male) and Mochu (female) rivers. It was built by Shabdrung Nawang in 1637 and serves as the winter residence of the head abbot, Je Khenpo, and the headquarters of the district administration.

Day 9: Punakha to Paro

Dochula

Head out into the countryside towards the Paro Valley, a roughly four-hour drive away, stopping en route at the Dochula Pass for lunch, photographs, and to hoist prayer flags for well-being, good health, love, and success. 

Other sites that you can see en route to Paro include the Royal Botanical Garden at Lamperi, and Tachogang Lhakhang. The gardens are below Dochula Pass, and are a nature recreation and eco-tourism site. It's home to more than 28 different species of rhododendron flower, and more than 300 species of medicinal plants, plus an orchid conservation area. Tachogang Lhakhang is at the base of a mountain across the Pa Chu River. It was built in the early 15th century by the great iron bridge builder and poet, Yogi Thangtong Gyalpo, who also built many iron bridges throughout Bhutan and Tibet. The temple is privately run by the descendants of Thangtong Gyalpo. 

In the evening, enjoy a walk up and down the high street of Paro, taking in the sights and sounds.

Day 10: Paro Sightseeing

Paro

Today is devoted to exploring quaint Paro and its surrounding areas. Your sightseeing itinerary can include:

  • 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.
  • Drugyel Dzong ruins. The name means victorious fortress, and it was built 1644-49 to commemorate the Bhutanese victory over the Tibetan-Mongol forces. In 1951 it was engulfed in fire by accident. On a clear day, Mt. Jumolhari, Bhutan's holy peak, can be seen from here. 

If you'd rather get active than embark on general sightseeing, today you can choose to hike to Drakharpo Monastery. After a short drive from Paro, hike for about 90 minutes to the monastery, which has a small community of monks living nearby. The main temple room is precariously perched on the edge of a rocky cliff. There are some sacred sites to view, including the body-imprint of Vajrayogini and a stone boot belonging to Guru Rinpoche. The monastery is built on a mountain dotted with underground caves.

Day 11: 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 12: Farewell Bhutan!

Depart Bhutan

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

Map

Map of Nature & Culture in Western & Central Bhutan - 12 Days
Map of Nature & Culture in Western & Central Bhutan - 12 Days