We fly in to Paro with Druk Air, Bhutan's national airline, and after clearing customs and immigration, we're met by our group leader. There will be a pre-trip briefing on arrival at the hotel, followed by an afternoon/evening at leisure in Paro, to allow some acclimatisation; Paro is 2280m above sea level. Overnight at Kyichu Resort on the banks of the Paro Chhu (Paro River).
We spend the day sightseeing in and around Paro. We visit the ruined fortress of Drukyel Dzong ("dzong" means fortress-monastery), which still attracts visitors due to its imposing location. The fort defended the Paro Valley from invasion by Tibet in the early 17th century. On a clear day, Mt Chomolhari (7320m) can be seen towering over the dzong. Further along the beautiful Paro Valley we come to the watch tower known locally as Ta-Dzong, which now houses the National Museum of Bhutan. The seven-storey museum highlights various aspects of Bhutanese culture and history dating back to the 7th century; there are excellent displays of all facets of the country's rich cultural history including traditional costumes and battle dress, priceless jewellery and specimens of the kingdom's unique flora and fauna. We take a short walk downhill to the Rinpung Dzong which serves as the administrative centre and school for monks, before walking a little further and crossing the traditional bridge into Paro Town. In the evening we drive two hours (65km) to Thimphu and overnight at Hotel River View or similar.*In September 2011 a large earthquake in the area caused damage to the National Museum in Paro. Due to this damage the museum has been closed in the interests of public safety. A re-opening date is not yet known, if at the time of your tour the museum has not re-opened alternate sightseeing will be arranged.
Bhutan's compact capital (population about 50,000 Bhutan had its very first census in May 2005) is easily explored on foot. We visit the Indigenous hospital, where traditional healing arts are still practiced, the Art & Craft school, the National Library, the Royal goldsmith workshop and the Handicraft Emporium with its famous weaving, woodcarvings and paintings. In the afternoon we visit the memorial chorten (a "chorten" is a stone Buddhist monument, often containing relics) dedicated to the late King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the founder of modern-day Bhutan. We'll also visit the 15th century Changangkha monastery and Motithang mini zoo, where we'll see the rare "takin" (the national animal of Bhutan), before driving out of town for a view of the Thimphu Valley. We also visit the new Drupthob nunnery temple and browse the local market. Overnight Thimphu.
From Thimphu, we drive for about three hours to Wangduephodrang (locally known as "Wangdi") via Punakha, changing climatic zones from mountainous to tropical. On the way, we cross over Dochu La, a 3150-metre-high pass marked by prayer flags and a chorten and, if the weather is fine, a view of the eastern Himalaya including the highest mountain in Bhutan, Mt Gangar Punsum (7520m). We drive through forests of rhododrendron and magnolia, before the road descends into the warmer lowlands around Punakha. We visit the Punakha Dzong, which once served as the old capital of Bhutan. This remarkable fortress is built in 1637 between two rivers and has survived many glacial floods and fire. Every February there is a procession known as the Punakha Serda to commemorate the victory over the Tibetans. From there it's just 45 minutes' drive to Wangduephodrang where you can stroll around the market area. Overnight Wangdi Kyichu Resort.
*On the 24th June 2012, the beautiful Wangduephodrang Dzong was completely destroyed by fire. It was one of the oldest and most substantial dzongs in Bhutan built in 1638. Renovations were underway when the fire started and so most of the historic relics had been put into storage and were saved from the devastation of the fire. Re-building is already underway to restore the dzong to its former glory.
Day excursion to the Gangtey Gompa valley, at an altitude of 2800 metres. Gangtey Gompa is a Buddhist complex which includes monks' quarters, a meditation centre, schools and a small hotel all overlooking the Phobjikha Valley, a designated conservation area which borders Black Mountain National Park. This is one of the most isolated gompas in Bhutan; there's no telephone and no electricity (to protect wildlife).
This beautiful valley is home to the rare Black Necked Cranes which migrate from the Tibetan plateau to escape the harsh winter. About 200 to 300 cranes live in this valley and the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) is taking every measure to ensure their protection; during the 4-5 months that the cranes are in residence over winter, for instance, the villagers are not allowed to make loud noises or fish in the river that runs into the valley. We explore this fascinating glacier-carved valley before returning to Wangdi for the night.
Today will be a long drive, crossing three passes over 3000 metres high along the way. The route offers magnificent views of the Himalayas and a beautiful landscape of scattered hamlets, and rhododendron and pine forests. A picnic lunch will be served at the 18th century Chendebji chorten. After an hour and a half we'll arrive at a small town known as Trongsa, meaning "new village". The town mainly consists of newly arrived Tibetan refugees but the most impressive building here is the Trongsa Dzong. The whole of Eastern Bhutan was controlled from this fortress during the mid 17th century. Visitors are not allowed inside the building but it is spectacular from the outside. After another two hours we reach Bumthang and visit the Chume weaving center. Overnight at Karma Tobden GuestHouse.
Comprised of four smaller valleys, the deeply spiritual region of Bumthang in Central Bhutan is shrouded in religious legend. It is believed to be the first part of Bhutan to be inhabited and tales of Guru Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche), who lived here in the 8th century, and his reincarnation Tertons, still linger. Bumthang is also known for its hand-spun, hand-woven woollen cloth called "yathra", which can be seen hanging for sale outside houses. We visit the Jakar Dzong, the 7th century Jambay Lhakhang, and the Kurjey, Tamshing and Kunchosum monasteries. This sightseeing day is a round trip so it is more interesting done on foot. Overnight Bumthang. (B,L,D).
Traditional Buddhist festivals in Bhutan are colourful affairs with dancing in elaborate traditional costumes and sometimes masks, and the Jambay Lhakhang is one of the most spectacular. The dancing is designed to bring blessings to the spectators, instruct onlookers as to the Buddha's teachings and protect the monastery and the Kingdom from bad luck. Witnessing this important festival offers a rare insight into Buddhist culture.
Today we take a two-hour excursion to Ura Village (3100m), a small village with cobblestone streets where the local women wear traditional sheepskin shawls. We'll visit the new Ura monastery and, on the way, stop at the Mebartso, meaning "burning lake", where prayer flags and clay offerings indicate its spiritual significance. Legend has it that there is a temple at the bottom of the lake. We'll take a stroll around the village and return to the guest house. In the evening we may take a pleasant evening walk to the nearby Swiss farm where apple juice, cider, cheese and other dairy products are made.
Today we drive back to Wangdi. This is a windy place, thanks to its location on an exposed headland overlooking the Punak river, but it affords great views. It is also home to Wangdi dzong, which sits atop a ridge high above the river. The hillside below the dzong is covered in cacti, which were planted centuries ago to deter invaders. Wangdi was once the capital of Bhutan. Overnight at Wangdi Kyichu Resort.
We drive Paro today, via Lobesa, with a short walk past farm houses and through fields to Chimme Lhakhang. This monastery was built in the 15th century and is dedicated to the famous Lama Drukpa Kunley, the "divine mad man". He is one of the most famous saints in Bhutan and his temple is visited mostly by childless couples, for good luck. We have lunch at Thimphu and drive back to Paro, stopping off to visit the oldest building in Bhutan, the Simtokha Dzong, which now serves as a Buddhist university. Overnight Kyichu Resort.
Day hike to Taktsang (Tiger's Nest) monastery, through villages and pine forests; it takes about 2-3 hours. It is all uphill so for those less energetic, horses can be arranged, for an extra cost. The monastery, which clings to a huge granite cliff 800 metres above the Paro valley, was devastated by fire in 1998 but the Royal Government has taken steps to restore it to its original condition. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche came here in the 7th century on a flying tigress and meditated in a nearby cave for three months where demons trying to stop the spread of Buddhism were subdued and converted. During the end of the 17th century a monastery was built on the spot where Guru Rinpoche meditated and it is now a pilgrimage site; every Bhutanese hopes to visit the monastery once in their lifetime. Stroll back to Paro. Evening at leisure. Overnight Kyichu Resort.
Our trip officially ends after breakfast with a transfer to the airport.