Highlights of Bhutan
After much debate here at My Way Travel we’ve agreed that our Simply itineraries are the perfect in-depth introduction to a country. They showcase the country’s main highlights and ensure you don't miss a thing. Simple!
Our Highlights of Bhutan itinerary focuses on the west of this small Himalayan Kingdom, visiting the capital, Thimphu; the picturesque Punakha valley; and the charming town of Paro. In just over one week you’ll get a real feel for Bhutanese culture and visit western Bhutan’s major dzongs and monasteries including the iconic Tiger’s Nest.
We've combined Bhutan with a stopover in Kathmandu: an easy and popular country combo. However, this is not set in stone and other routings (via Delhi or Bangkok for example) are possible.
- Spin prayer wheels at the photogenic Punakha Dzong.
- Learn how to cook Bhutanese cuisine in the home of a farming family.
- Join pilgrims on the trek to Taktsang Monastery: Bhutan’s most revered Buddhist site.
Kathmandu, Thimphu, Punakha, Paro, Tiger's Nest Monastery
Upon arrival in Kathmandu you will be met by your guide and transferred to your hotel. The airport is close to the city centre, but traffic can make the journey a little slow, especially in peak hours.
The capital of Nepal, Kathmandu is an assault on the senses: the smell of incense mingles with pungent spices and scooter exhaust; merchants shout to make themselves heard above the sound of motorbike horns; cars and cows share the streets which are lined with ancient temples alongside internet cafes. Be prepared for a sensory overload!
Whilst the 2015 earthquake brought devastation to much of Nepal and major damage to Kathmandu, the country’s spirit endures and the rebuilding is underway at a pace in the capital.
In the afternoon, meet up with your guide for an orientation tour focusing on the area around Durbar Square. Durbar means palace and it is on this site that the city’s kings were crowned and from where they ruled. Many of the surrounding buildings date back to the 18th century (some even older) and it still remains the traditional heart of the capital. The labyrinth of lanes that lead off from the square are lined with shrines and temples; teahouses and markets. Your guide will point out places of significant interest, such as Hanuman Dhoka - Kathmandu’s Royal Palace, and the intricately carved Kumari Chowk which is home to the young Kumari (living goddess).
Having got your bearings, return to your hotel where your evening is at leisure.
Spend the day exploring Kathmandu’s sacred sites.
First stop of the day is Pashupatinath Temple, one of Nepal’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. Situated on the banks of the holy Bagmati River, it is the oldest and most sacred Hindu temple in Nepal, which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Each year hundreds of Hindu pilgrims gather here, especially the sick and elderly who believe that those who die in Pashupatinath Temple are reborn as human and wish their bodies to be cremated at the funeral pyres that line the banks of this sacred river. Only followers of Hinduism are permitted to enter the main temple, but it is possible to visit the rest of the temple complex.
Your next stop is the Boudhanath Stupa, another UNESCO World Heritage site. The Boudhanath Stupa is the largest stupa in Nepal and the holiest Tibetan Buddhist temple outside Tibet. It’s a popular place of pilgrimage and buzzes with activity from dawn until dusk. Four pairs of eyes stare out from the base of the gilded spire which sits atop the great white dome; coloured prayer flags flutter in the wind. Join the endless streams of monks, pilgrims and locals as they stroll (in a clockwise direction) around the base of the stupa to gain merit.
In the afternoon, head out of Kathmandu to Bhaktapur, one of the three former royal cities of the Kathmandu Valley (the other two being Kathmandu & Patan) and home to some of the finest religious architecture in Nepal. Sadly, many of the ancient buildings were destroyed during the 2015 earthquake however the city still boasts more temples than neighbouring Kathmandu and there is plenty to see. Wander through the maze of narrow streets and you will see evidence of Bhaktapur’s rich cultural heritage: courtyards are filled with fired clay pots, women sit weaving cloth and craftsmen carefully chisel timber into furniture and statues.
After some time losing yourself amongst the alleyways, return to Kathmandu where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
After breakfast transfer to Kathmandu Airport in time for your onward flight to Paro, Bhutan. Request a seat on the left-hand side of the plane for the best views of the Himalayas and Mount Everest.
Frequently referred to as the last great Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan is a magical and fascinating place that is quite unlike anywhere else in the world. Rich in culture and Buddhist tradition, this remote country boasts a breath-taking, pristine landscape dotted with ancient monasteries and dzongs, untainted by commercialism and modernity. The kingdom’s underlying philosophy of Gross National Happiness, which measures the prosperity of the country by the health and happiness of its people, may seem fanciful, but Bhutan has doubled life expectancy in the last 20 years, remains the only carbon negative country in the world and is home to some of the friendliest people you will have the pleasure of meeting.
On arrival into Paro, having cleared customs you will be met by your guide and transferred to Thimphu, where the rest of your day is at leisure.
Thimphu is quite unlike other Asian capital cities. Whilst it’s a bustling metropolis in comparison to the rest of the country, with internet cafes and western restaurants, nightclubs and taxi ranks, it maintains a small-town, traditional feel and you’ll still observe many locals in national dress. Thimphu is in fact the only capital in the world without traffic lights.
Spend the day visiting some of Thimphu’s highlights.
You will visit the National Memorial Chorten that was built in 1974 as a memorial to the third King of Bhutan, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. For many locals, this Tibetan-style stupa provides the main focus for their daily worship and you will observe an endless procession of (mainly elderly) Bhutanese circumambulating the chorten to gain merit.
Additional stops will be made at the Tashicho Dzong and, if you happen to be in Thimphu at the weekend, the bustling weekend market.
Drive out of town into the hills and visit the recently built, 51-metre tall, bronze statue of Buddha Dordenma. The base of the statue houses a large meditation hall and an additional 125,000 smaller bronze Buddha statues.
After lunch there is the opportunity to understand more about Bhutanese tradition and culture with a visit to Thimphu’s Institute for Zorig Chusum. Traditionally there are 13 Bhutanese arts and crafts, and this institute was established to preserve and promote these through training and education. Students specialise in painting, wood carving, tailoring, or statue making and visitors are welcomed to watch craft demonstrations by the students. It’s also possible to visit the National Textile Museum for an insight into the history of weaving. It houses a beautiful collection of royal ghos.
Return to your hotel where the rest of your afternoon is at leisure.
After breakfast, visit Changangkha Lhakhang Monastery which is located on the outskirts of Thimphu, perched on a ridge overlooking the town. This fortress like temple and monastic school was built in the 12th century and is popular with new parents seeking auspicious names for their babies. The monastery has a resident astrologer: if you provide him with your date of birth, he’ll consult his charts and let you know which Buddhist prayer flag will offer you protection.
Depart Thimphu heading east to Punakha (a journey of approx. 2.5 hours). The road climbs steeply through pine forest to Dochu La Pass, marked by a plethora of prayer flags, where a stop will be made for tea. Spectacular views of the Himalayan mountain range can be enjoyed on a clear day from this lofty point, 3,140m above sea level. Stretch your legs by circumambulating the 108 chortens (in a clockwise direction of course) before continuing your journey to Punakha.
Sitting in a picturesque, low-level valley, Punakha enjoys a temperate climate that tends to be warmer than the rest of the kingdom, and is favourable for rice and fruit growing. It served as the capital of Bhutan for over 300 years and holds a significant place in Bhutanese history.
After checking in to your hotel, make a visit to Punakha Dzong. Built in the early 17th century, it was strategically positioned at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers, to protect against invasion. It served as the seat of government until the 1950’s and is now the administrative hub for the Punakha district and the winter residence of the central monastic body. Punakha Dzong is widely considered to be the most impressive and beautiful in the country: painted timber windows peek out from its towering white-washed fortress walls; vibrant murals depicting the life of Buddha adorn its interior.
After breakfast drive the short distance to Sopsokha and take a 20-minute walk through the rice fields of Punakha valley to Chime Lhakhang, which sits on a hillock in the centre of the valley.
Commonly referred to as the temple of the Divine Madman, it was built in the 15th century as a dedication to the non-conformist saint, Lama Drukpa Kunley, who practised some rather unique approaches to enlightenment, which predominantly revolved around sex. Legend has it that he defeated a demoness here using his ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom’, and the temple is appropriately revered for its fertility powers.
Chime Lhakhang lies in a rural region where farming is the main form of income, and you will visit a nearby farm house where the family will host you for a traditional lunch. It’s a fascinating insight into local life and your guide will act as translator allowing you to easily interact with the family.
In the afternoon visit Nalanda Buddhist Institute, a 25-minute drive from Punakha. Established in the 8th century, this monastic school provides accommodation and Buddhist education for around 125 monks of all ages. The monks are also taught English and visitors are welcomed to strike up a conversation to help them practice and perfect their English skills.
Return to Punakha where the rest of your afternoon is at leisure.
Drive from Punakha to Paro after breakfast. The drive will take approx. 4.5 hours, with a stop to stretch your legs and soak up the mountain views again at Dochu La Pass.
Paro enjoys a picture-postcard setting on the banks of the Paro Chhu River in the centre of Paro Valley, surrounded by rice fields and pine forest clad mountains. Its attractive main street is lined with traditional style buildings, housing handicraft and souvenir shops, restaurants and coffee shops.
After checking in to your hotel, make a visit to Paro’s impressive Rimpong Dzong. Built in 1646 to defend the valley against Tibetan invaders the dzong, like most in the country, now houses both the district government offices and the monastic body, with around 200 monks living and learning here.
Late afternoon transfer to a local farm house where, under the guidance of the resident family, you will try your hand at preparing a traditional meal. A staple of Bhutanese food is the fiery ema datse, large chillies in a cheese sauce, and this will be one of the dishes you’ll learn how to make. Datse is a feature of most Bhutanese meals and you’ll find it covering potatoes (kewa datse), mushrooms (shamu datse), essentially whatever veg is in season, so once you master the datse you’ll be able to rustle up several dishes! You’ll also be using traditional methods, such as cooking over a fire stove, to prepare your meal, as these techniques are widespread throughout the country. Once you’ve completed a selection of dishes, it’s time to sit down and enjoy the fruits of your labour with your host family and guide.
After eating transfer back to your hotel.
Depart Paro in a south west direction, following winding roads to Chele La Pass. As you travel and the road climbs, you’ll notice an increasing number of prayer flags lining the road to catch those important gusts of wind to carry prayers into the air. At the lofty height of 3,988m above sea level, Chele La Pass is the highest paved road in Bhutan and on a clear day offers impressive views of the sacred peak of Jhomolhari, as well as down the Haa valley.
From here take a scenic, 60-minute downhill hike to Kila Gompa nunnery, passing through wooded forest and rhododendron meadows. Allegedly the oldest nunnery in the country, Kila Gompa is dramatically located against the craggy mountainside and resembles a mini version of Taktsang Monastery. The resident nuns, of which there are around 50, have chosen to renounce their worldly life and live in isolation to concentrate on Buddhist studies. You’re likely to be the only visitors at the nunnery.
Having spent some time exploring, it’s a short walk to the road where your driver will be waiting to drive you back to Paro.
Before returning to your hotel, make a stop at Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the oldest temples in Bhutan, and the most venerated in Paro. The temple sees a constant stream of prayer wheel-spinning pilgrims.
We recommend a hearty breakfast in preparation for your day of trekking.
After breakfast, you will be met by your guide and driven to Ramthangkha – the starting point for your hike to Taktsang Monastery, a.k.a Tiger’s Nest.
Clinging to a cliff face, just over 3,000 metres above sea level this iconic monastery is considered to be one of the most venerated and sacred Buddhist sites in the world. It’s certainly one of the most photogenic. Legend has it that in the 8th Century Guru Rimpoche, founder of Buddhism in Bhutan, flew from the east of the kingdom on the back of a tigress and meditated here for three years, three months, three weeks, and three days.
Sadly, we are unable to provide a flying tigress and the only way to access Taktsang these days is on foot. Follow the steep trail as it climbs through pine forest, catching the odd glimpse of the monastery through the trees, passing rows of prayer flags strategically hung to catch the wind. After around one hour, depending on your fitness levels, you’ll reach the half way point which is marked by a small café and offers the clearest views of Taktsang so far.
After a break for tea and a snack, continue following the steep uphill trail. Upon reaching a ridge opposite the monastery (where a photo stop is obligatory) you descend a steep flight of stone steps before climbing uphill again to the entrance of Taktsang. This section of the trek will take around 1.5 hours.
Once inside the monastery complex there are small temples, meditation caves and ornate shrines to visit. The smell of incense fills the air and you are likely to hear the sound of monastic chanting.
It’s easy to while away an hour exploring, after which return to the halfway café for a well-deserved sit down and lunch. Then continue downhill to the base point where you will be met by your driver and transferred back to your hotel for a much needed rest.
After a leisurely breakfast check out and transfer to the Airport for your onward flight. At check-in don't forget to request a seat on the right-hand side of the plane for views of Mt. Everest.
- English speaking, local guide
- All accommodation listed
- Land transportation by private air-conditioned vehicles
- Any domestic flights listed (unless marked otherwise)
- One way flight from Kathmandu to Paro
- All admission fees at attractions, temples and activities as mentioned in the itinerary
- All meals listed, with tea, coffee and water
- Bhutan entry visa
- International flight reconfirmation.
- Nepali entry visa.
- International airport departure taxes
- Any meals not listed in the itinerary
- Drinks, other than tea, coffee and water
- Personal expenses (laundry, telephone, drinks, tip...)
- Travel insurance
- All other services not listed in 'inclusive'