Arrive at Paro International Airport from Delhi or Kathmandu. Paro is situated in a beautiful valley and is a fitting introduction to this charming kingdom. Your tour guide will meet you and take you on a drive along the Paro and Thimphu river valleys to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. You can stop on the way to take in the magnificent Tamchhog Lhakhang, the hereditary place of worship for Bhutan’s iron bridge builder. Take an afternoon walk around town and soak in the atmosphere of this magical capital with its busy shops and bazaars and photogenic citizens in national dress.
Thimphu sightseeing. We will visit the weekly market, the revered Memorial Chorten, the National Library and the School of Traditional Arts. In the afternoon we will drive up to the Radio Tower (offering splendid views of the city from a hilltop festooned with prayer flags), visit the Takin Reserve showcasing the unique national animal, the Takin, and then browse the striking collection of intricate textiles at the National Textile Museum.
Thimphu to Punakha. In the morning drive to the old capital, Punakha, via Dochu La pass at 3050 metres, where we will stop for a hot drink and enjoy spectacular panoramic views of the Eastern Himalaya ranges. In the afternoon visit the imposing Punakha Dzong, and Chimi Lhakhang (Temple of Fertility) built in the 15th century by the ‘Divine Madman’ (Lama Drukpa Kuenley).
Drive to Gangtey (at 3500 metres). Enjoy the views of the immense and remote Phobjikha valley and the black mountain ranges. Visit Gangtey Gompa (one of Bhutan’s oldest monasteries and currently under renovation). Overnight in Gangtey village where the villagers continue to live a traditional Bhutanese rural lifestyle. This is the site where black-necked cranes visit in their hundreds in November each year after spending the summer in Tibet. As a result no electricity is run to the valley to avoid disturbing their habitat.
Today we return to Thimphu via Wangdi, originally considered Bhutan’s secondary capital and commanding an important central position. We will stop for lunch or a drink in Wangdi although sadly the Dzong, built by the Shabdrung in 1638 on an auspicious site where four ravens were seen flying in four different directions, was badly damaged in a fire in June 2012 so there is not much to view until renovations works are complete. After lunch continue on your way. You should see plenty of flowering rhododendrons, orchids and magnolia to enhance the drive.
Today would be a good time to visit the local handicraft shops and purchase some souvenirs. After lunch we will drive back to Paro and visit the ruined Drukgyel Dzong (fortress of victory), constructed to commemorate the victory over Tibetan invaders in 1644 and destroyed by a butter lamp fire in 1951. Nearby we will also visit the 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang, a temple of historical significance and one of the most sacred shrines in Bhutan.
This morning you will visit Paro Festival. You will see locals dressed in their finest clothes who have walked from miles around to attend the festivities. They come to watch masked dances, to pray, and to feast. While the underlying purpose of the festival is spiritual, dances are more often like plays, telling stories where good triumphs over evil, or depicting significant historical events, especially surrounding the life of Bhutan’s patron saint, Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Rinpoche). There is inevitably a great deal of socialising as well. The occasion provides an opportunity for people to relax and forget the daily routine, and to dress in their finest clothes and jewellery, but it is also an occasion for prayer and blessings.
Early in the morning visit the Festival again to see the excitement of the thongdrel ceremony, where a large religious painting made of cloth is unfurled on the side of the Dzong, an event that only takes place on the last day of the annual festival. In the afternoon, visit Ta Dzong (‘the watch tower’) now housing the National Museum. Built on top of the hill above Rinpung Dzong, it was originally used to defend Rinpung Dzong and the Paro valley during times of war. Its unusual circular construction resembles a conch shell and it now contains a magnificent collection of Bhutanese artefacts – costumes, religious paintings, arms, textiles and a fascinating collection of Bhutan stamps.
Take a day walk to the ‘Tiger’s Nest’, the sacred Taktshang monastery which clings to the rock face 900 metres above the valley floor. Guru Rinpoche is said to have flown to the site riding on a tigress. He subsequently meditated here for three months. It is one of Bhutan’s most holy sites and draws pilgrims not only from Bhutan but also from neighbouring Buddhist countries. You can have lunch at the Taktshang cafeteria from where you get a spectacular view of the monastery.
Early in the morning your guide will accompany you to the airport to see you off onto your flight to Delhi or Kathmandu and wish you Tashi Delek (goodbye and good luck).