Bhutan: Himalayan Trek & Cultural Adventure

“The world has few secrets left, but Bhutan is one of them.” – Katie Hickman, Author of Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon

Bhutan is a country nestled in the Eastern Himalaya mountains, bordering Tibet and India, and regions of the country are some of the most remote in the world. For centuries, Bhutan remained in self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. This conscious policy of isolation, complemented by formidable geographical barriers, enabled the country to maintain its independence throughout its history. This tiny kingdom cautiously opened its doors to outsiders in 1974, and visitors have been mesmerized by its spiritual life and forbidden aura ever since.

Visit one of the most fascinating and welcoming places on earth by joining us on either a moderately strenuous mountain trek or on a more gently active cultural journey. The group will be together for the first two days of the trip, and then separate for several days before reuniting after the trek, making it ideal for friends or family members with differing activity interests and physical abilities to travel together. Both groups will have bilingual (English-speaking) local guides.

One of the best things about our high-altitude trek is that ponies will carry all your gear, meaning you need only carry a day pack while you trek, freeing you up to photograph your surroundings, learn about your fellow trekkers and soak up the culture of Bhutan. We hike for about six hours each day but do so at a moderate pace with plenty of time for stops. You will have a full complement of trekking staff who will be at your service and take great care of you, setting up your tents and preparing hot meals each day. If you have ever backpacked, this will feel quite luxurious

Our cultural journey includes moderate walks to monasteries, sightseeing in the capital and interacting with locals in what is essentially an original, unspoiled culture. There will still be some physical activity, but not nearly as rigorous as that of the trek.

This is truly adventure travel, where we give up comforts that we’re accustomed to and gain insight into another culture. The key is to relax, live in the moment, and not worry about the things we can’t control. We Westerners generally value punctuality, productivity, and assertiveness. Buddhist cultures tend to be more forgiving, relaxed about time, and polite and gentle in awkward situations. Be prepared to forgo your Western way of thinking and experience an alternate way of life in a country that measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ Gross National Happiness instead of financial benchmarks!

Trip Favorite Moments & Reviews

“Oh man. SO MANY. I don’t have a favorite moment. I did however have some amazing experiences and an overall sense of happiness while in Bhutan. I LOVE the people. I love their culture. Their philosophies. The Bhutanese I found to be shy, but once you start interacting with hem, they are so incredibly kind. Their smiles are intoxicating. Their quiet way of discussion is so pleasant to me. I would go back again and again.”

Michael K.

“One favorite moment was becoming very emotional in a beautiful way in the White Temple in Haa as our guide, Pema, was explaining the meaning and mindful intention behind much of the symbolism and ritual; I’ve always loved Buddhist philosophies, but even the details in the religion are loving, compassionate, and applicable to anyone in the world. Just beautiful.”

Priscilla N.

Details

  • Cost Per Person: $4,500
  • Optional Single Supplement: $400
  • Private Tour Minimum: 2
  • Activities: Trekking (difficult) and cultural activities (moderate)
  • Difficulty: Moderate/Difficult
  • Guides: Michael Keys

Other Info: $900 (estimated) flight between Bangkok and Paro not included For the cultural journey only, a $380 internal flight between Paro and Bumthang is also not included.

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Trip Highlights

  • Visiting Buddhist monasteries in a remote mountain region
  • Being one of the limited number of tourists allowed in Bhutan each year
  • Experiencing a society mostly uninfluenced by the West
  • Hiking on trails nestled beneath the Himalayas, while ponies carry your gear
DAY 1 >> ARRIVAL IN BHUTAN

We meet you very early in the morning today in Bangkok, Thailand, and take a flight together to Bhutan. The scenic flight into Paro offers a spectacular view of the Himalayan ranges. If you’re lucky, you may see some large mountain peaks jutting through the clouds. The approach and landing in Paro will be unlike any other flight you’ve taken!  Upon arrival, we’ll be greeted by our local hosts and taken sightseeing in the Paro valley. We start at Ta Dzong (a dzong is a distinctive type of fortress architecture found in Buddhist kingdoms), a monastery that was later converted into the National Museum in 1967. Inside the museum you will find many antique paintings, carvings, statues, textiles, and jewelry – a great way to start your visit to Bhutan. We’ll then transfer to the Rimpung Dzong which was built in the 17th century. This dzong is now an administrative center and school for monks. In the afternoon, we’ll check into the hotel, before heading to a festive dinner and an introduction to one of the well-loved dishes “chili cheese.”
Accommodation: Hotel Olathang or similar in Paro

DAY 2 >> PARO AND HIKE TO THE TIGER’S NEST

No trip to Bhutan would be complete without a hike to the Tiger’s Nest (Taktsang) Monastery, located on the side of a cliff almost 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley floor. This hike is moderately strenuous (a little over two miles each way and almost 3000 feet up, then back).  As believed by the Bhutanese, Guru Padmasambhava (a Buddhist saint who is famous because he converted the whole Paro valley to Buddhism) flew here on a Tigress’s back in the 8th century and meditated for three months. This hike, the exploration of the Monastery itself and lunch halfway down will take us the better part of a day, but we will have time to explore and shop in the Paro market this afternoon before getting back to our hotel for the evening.
AccommodationHotel Olathang or similar in Paro

DAY 3 >>

Today is the day where the two groups will temporarily go separate ways, before reuniting again on Night 7 of the trip. The trekker group will be following the Druk Path, an ancient trading route of approximately 30 miles and one of the most popular in the country (although you will rarely see others after the first day and before the last camp). On a trek in Bhutan, ponies carry all of the gear while you carry just a day pack. There will be guides, cooks, and camp staff throughout the trek. You can relax and let the staff take care of the details while you enjoy the hike from camp to camp. If you’ve ever done wilderness backpacking, a fully supported trek will seem like a luxury, with camp set up and teardown taken care of by the staff each day, as well as three hot meals a day.  In general, each day we will hike an average of six hours with elevation gains of up to 2,000 vertical feet in a day. Our maximum elevation will be 13,700 feet.

TREK: PARO TO JELE DZONG We’ll meet our ponies and our staff near the National Museum (8,036 feet) of Paro and head up the Du Chhu Valley. The trek follows a gravel road past a few farms for about an hour and then up through blue pine and fir forests to a steep ridge This first day can be quite arduous as we mostly climb in elevation today (until a short descent  to camp).  Our camp is situated below Jele Dzong, a monastery mostly in ruins but currently being rebuilt. On a clear day, we’ll be able to see Mount Chhomolhari and other snow-capped mountains in the distance.
Trekking: 5 miles, 4 – 5 hours
Altitude gain / loss: 3,503 feet / 269 feet
Accommodation: camping at 11,270 feet

CULTURAL ADVENTURE: HAA VALLEY  The drive from Paro to Haa Valley across Chlela Pass is spectacularly scenic.  If the weather is clear, you can get a good view of snow-capped Mount Jumolhari and Jichu Drake as well as other Bhutanese Himalayan peaks.  You may also encounter wild animals near the road.  Haa Valley is very unique and totally different from other places in Bhutan.  Because it is located very near the Tibetan border, it only recently began accepting tourists.
AccommodationHotel Olathang or similar in Paro

DAY 4 >>

TREK: JANGCHULAKA  We’ll begin with a steep climb out of camp to get to the Jele monastery for a brief visit, then continue ascending for another hour or so through a thick alpine forest and rhododendron bushes to a saddle at 3,590 meters (11,778 feet), where “lunch horse” and a smiling Bhutanese (most likely named Karma)  will be waiting with delicious hot food and the ever-present ginger tea. The trail follows undulating ridgelines that are sometimes in the trees and sometimes above the treeline, with beautiful views on either side. There are views of Mount Chhomolhari and other snow-capped peaks and you may also see yak herders along the way, or even surrounding our campsite, providing a glimpse into a nomadic lifestyle.  The sunrise from this camp is incredible.
Trekking: 5.8 miles, 4-5 hours
Altitude gain / loss: 1,726 feet / 526 feet
Accommodation: camping at 12,995 feet

CULTURAL ADVENTURE: PARO TO BUMTHANG Today we take a scenic 30-minute flight to Bumthang in central Bhutan.  We visit the sacred Kurje Lhakhang (temple), where Guru Rinpoche meditated for some months and left his body print.  There holy water nearby that is said to cure illness, so it’s good to take a sip (just in case). Jakar Dzong (roughly translated as “castle of the white bird”) is also one of the highlights today. According to legend, when the lamas assembled in 1549 to select a site for a monastery, a big white bird rose suddenly and settled on a spur on a hill. This was interpreted as an important omen and the hill was chosen as the site for the monastery. We will also visit two additional Buddhist temples, Kurje Lhakhang and Jambay Lhakhang. We may have some time for some gentle hiking in the area and shopping in the village or a visit to Lambay Lhakhang.
Accommodation: River Lodge or similar in Bumthang Valley

DAY 5 >>

TREK: JIMILANG TSHO Our trail follows a ridge for about 90 minutes to a saddle at 13,255 feet. The views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are astounding and stretch as far as the eye can see!  Then the path drops and follows the ridge back up to Jangchu La at 13,714 feet before again descending to camp for the night.  We’ll stay close to the shoreline of large Jimilang Tsho (Sand Ox Lake), known for its giant trout. To the west there are good views of Jichu Drake, at almost 23,000 feet high. The peak represents the protective deity of Paro. Our camp tonight is in a beautiful protected valley, with peaks protecting us on three sides and you will enjoy the view as you sip your ginger tea.  Perhaps you will want to enjoy a campfire this evening before your crew tucks you into your tent, along with a solar-powered lantern you can keep in the tent with you each night.
Trekking: 6 miles, 6-7 hours
Altitude gain / loss: 700 feet / 965 feet
Accommodation: camping at 12,726 feet 

CULTURAL ADVENTURE: BUMTHANG TO JAKAR  Today we will visit the Burning Lake of the Great Treasure Revealer “Pedma Lingpa,” who is an important figure in the history of Bhutan.  Then it’s on to a nunnery and the village nearby where we’ll visit the local government school and interact with students and teachers.  This evening we take a short drive to the Chumey Valley.
Accommodation: River Lodge or similar in Bumthang Valley

DAY 6 >>

TREK: SIMKUTRA TSHO  We hike along the large Sand Ox Lake for a bit before fording a small river and beginning our climb through dwarf rhododendron back up to another beautiful ridgeline, passing a couple of small lakes along the way. We’ll gradually climb to Phum La which, at 13,812 feet, is the highest point of our trek. A vast array of fluttering prayer flags (or “wind horses”) greet us and weather permitting, we’ll have views of the highest peak in Bhutan: Gangkhar Puensum.  Below us sprawls the entire Thimpu Valley, but we won’t reach Thimpu for another two days, thankfully.  A rocky and shallow streambed makes for a unique trail for about an hour.  We will reach our camp near the shores of Simkutra Tsho (lake) and enjoy the last evening of solitude together.
Trekking: 5 miles, 4-5 hours
Altitude gain / loss: 2,273 feet / 1,485 feet
Accommodation: camping at 13,415 feet

CULTURAL ADVENTURE: TRONGSA / PHOBJIKHA Today we visit Trongsa, in the center of the country and separated from both east and west by high mountain ranges. The dzong and surrounding town are perched above a gorge, with fine views of the Black Mountains to the south and west. It’s a sleepy and pleasant town, lined with whitewashed shops decorated with potted plants. The Trongsa Dzong is impressive, one of the most aesthetic and magnificent works of traditional Bhutanese architecture, and can be seen from great distances. It has been described as perched so high on a mountain that the clouds float below it.  After our visit, we will head to Phobjikha valley where we’ll explore the Gangteng Monastery, an important site for the Nyingmapa School of Buddhism.  The monastery dates back to the 17th century.  Afterwards we’ll have an optional walk around the nearby village.
Accommodation: Hotel Padmasambhava or similar in Phobjikha Valley

DAY 7 >>

TREK: PHAJODING  We say goodbye to our lake and descend past Thujidrag Goemba, a precipitous rock face. The descent continues through juniper trees to a campsite beside a community hall near Phajoding Goemba, an important pilgrimage site above Bhutan’s capital city of Thimpu.  There will be other campers nearby tonight and we may hear the nearby monks playing a lively game of soccer.
Trekking: 6 miles, 4-5 hours
Altitude gain / loss: 755 feet / 1,330 feet
Accommodation: camping at 12,103 feet

CULTURAL ADVENTURE: RETURN TO PARO / THIMPU After a flight back to Paro from Bumthang, we drive to Thimpu, Bhutan’s bustling capital city, for a bit of sightseeing and some down time.  Perhaps the only world capital without traffic lights, Thimphu keeps many of its traditions rather than adopting modern ways.
AccommodationHotel Migmar or similar in Thimpu

DAY 8 >>

TREK: THIMPU  It’s all downhill today – and quite steep, with a descent of 2,860 feet – on the three miles to the trailhead.  Along the way we will likely see local schoolchildren and monks making the pilgrimage up to Phajoding.  If we are lucky our driver will await us with treats at the end of the trail before we head into a well-deserved lunch at a fun and popular Zone in Thimpu – have you ever tried a yak burger?  This afternoon is free for you to enjoy. On weekends, we suggest a visit to the market.  However, after a trek like you just completed, you may want to schedule a massage, do some laundry, or watch Bhutanese television in the cocktail lounge!

CULTURAL ADVENTURE:  You’ll enjoy more sightseeing today in and around Thimpu, perhaps having tea at a private home or visiting more important places in an around the capital city.

Tonight, our groups reunite at dinner, full of stories to share of each group’s adventures.
AccommodationHotel Migmar or similar in Thimpu

DAY 9 >>

VISIT TO PUNAKHA Today is a long day as we drive the three hours up and over the Dochu La pass to Punakha. From the pass one gets a panoramic view of the Himalayas. For much of Bhutan’s history, Punakha was a center of political, social, and religious life and was the capital of Bhutan until 1955.  We visit the six-story tall Punakha Dzong, Bhutan’s most important historic and religious structure. Construction on this magnificent fortress along the river was started in 1637 and completed the following year.  In 2011 the royal wedding was held here.  We will also have a short hike today and you’ll get to try Bhutan’s national sport of archery before we make the long drive back to Thimpu for the evening.
AccommodationHotel Migmar or similar in Thimpu

DAY 10 >>

THIMPU SITES AND PARO  Today we visit a variety of sites: religious, political, intellectual, and commercial. The Memorial Chorten is a Tibetan-style shrine and a place of devotion for Buddhists. The Handcrafts Emporium is the market where you’ll find locally made crafts and souvenirs. We’ll also visit the local zoo to see the national animal, the Takin, which appears to be half goat and half cow.  After lunch we’ll visit a local hospital to see how traditional medicines are made.  In the late afternoon, we’ll drive down the valley to Paro and our hotel, which is close to the airport.
Accommodation: Hotel Olathang or similar in Paro

DAY 11 >>

DEPARTURE  From the Paro airport, we will fly back to Bangkok, where we can connect to our flights home, or extend our travels in Asia.

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Trip Accommodations

See daily itinerary for details about the accommodations. The hotels we use in Bhutan are clean and comfortable and each room has a private bathroom. However, they are not up to a similar quality level as the hotels we use for other Zephyr trips -- remember, Bhutan is remote and fairly new to tourism! For the trek, there will be four nights in hotels and six nights camping in a solo tent (unless you prefer to share a tent -- just let us know). For the cultural adventure, all nights will be in hotels.

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We meet early in the morning on the first day of the trip in Bangkok, Thailand. Our trip officially begins with a very early flight from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan, so you will need to arrive in Bangkok (airport code BKK) at least one day earlier. Zephyr will purchase and bill you for your flights between Bangkok and Paro, Bhutan. Paro is serviced by Druk Air, Bhutan’s national airline. Unless you plan to extend your trip, you may depart Bangkok on the last night of the trip, but should not schedule a flight out of Bangkok until after 7:00 pm local time.

WHAT'S INCLUDED?
  • Multi-lingual Bhutanese guide(s), experienced and licensed by the government. There will also be a Zephyr trip leader from the US to function as a host and logistics manager.
  • Double occupancy lodging is included. If you are traveling solo, we will match you with another traveler of the same gender. However, you may pay a single supplement to have your own room. Each person on the trek will have his or her own tent if desired.
  • All of your meals are included.
  • All your ground transportation is included once you meet your guides on the first day.
  • All group activities, entrance fees, and government taxes are included.
  • All camping equipment (tents, pads, dining tent, cooking equipment and staff) except your sleeping bag is included for the trek.
  • NOT INCLUDED Beverages, sleeping bag for trek, gratuities to your guides, personal expenses and travel to and from the destination. Airfare from Bangkok to Bhutan is not included but we will purchase this for you.

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