Punakha festival: sample itinerary

Day 1

Arrive Paro International Airport. 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 early evening walk around town and soak in the atmosphere of this magical capital with its busy shops and bazaars and photogenic citizens in national dress.

Day 2

Thimphu sightseeing. We will visit the revered Memorial Chorten, the National Library and the School of Traditional Arts. In the afternoon you can take in more of the sights and culture of the capital, with the option of a trip to Simtokha Dzong (one of the oldest fortresses in Bhutan, dating from 629 AD).

Day 3

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 Chimi Lhakhang (Temple of Fertility) built in the 15th century by the ‘Divine Madman’ (Lama Drukpa Kuenley).

Day 4

Today you will visit Punakha Drupchen (the precursor to the annual festival) held in the imposing Punakha Dzong, “Palace of Great Happiness”.  Built in 1637, it is strategically placed at the confluence of two rivers, the Po Chu and the Mo Chu.  You will see locals dressed in their finest clothes who have walked from miles around to attend the festivities.  The Punakha drupchen is unusual because of the recreation of the battle scene in which the Shabdrung tricked the Tibetan invaders which takes place on the last day.  In 1639 the Tibetan army invaded Bhutan to seize Bhutan’s most precious relic, the Rangjung Kharsapani, a self-created image of Chenresig.  The Shabdrung concocted an elaborate ceremony in which he pretended to throw the relic into the Mo Chhu (river) and the disappointed Tibetans withdrew.  Today a special ceremony takes place in memory of this.  A group of 136 people dressed in battle garb perform a dance, then shout and whistle as they descend the front stairs of the Dzong.  Next, they proceed to the river to the accompaniment of cymbals, drums and trumpets.  At the river, the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) throws a handful of oranges representing the Rangjung Kharsapani relic into the river.  This is both a recreation of the Shabdrung’s trick and also an offering to the Luu, the sub-surface spirits in the river.  The singing and cheering warriors then carry their generals back into the Dzong as firecrackers explode around them.

Day 5

Today you can return to the Dzong to see some of the festivities on the first day of the festival.  After lunch return to Paro.

Day 6

Visit the impressive Paro Rinpung Dzong, one of the finest examples of Bhutanese architecture. You can also visit the National Museum. In the afternoon you can 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 you can also visit the 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang, a temple of historical significance and one of the most sacred shrines in Bhutan.

Day 7

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. You can have lunch at the Taktshang cafeteria from where you get a spectacular view of the monastery.

Day 8

Early morning your guide will accompany you to the airport to see you off onto your flight and wish you Tashi Delek (goodbye and good luck).