Journey across the Roof of the World
From the outside, the neighbouring Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan appear to be fairly similar, however dig deep (20-days should do it) and you’ll discover a fascinating region of diverse cultures, distinct traditions and contrasting landscapes. If you have the time, it’s well worth incorporating all three destinations into one memorable trip.
Travelling from Nepal to Tibet and onto Bhutan, our Journey across the Roof of the World visits the region’s remote mountain monasteries, ancient temples and sacred stupas; travelling through a changing natural landscape of snow-capped mountains, and crystal-clear lakes, low-lying pastoral valleys and deep swathes of forest.
- Marvel at the diverse natural scenery & awesome Himalayan vistas.
- Spin prayer wheels as you travel, for good karma
- Stay overnight in a Nepali homestay for an insight into local life.
- Join pilgrims on their daily kora at some of the region’s most sacred sites
- Eat a traditional meal with a Bhutanese farming family
- Trek to Tiger’s Nest Monastery: Bhutan’s most revered Buddhist site.
Kathmandu, Panauti homestay, Lhasa, Gyantse, Shigatse, Samye, Tsetang, Patan, 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!
The remainder of your day is at leisure until early evening when you will be met by your guide for an evening stroll centred around the narrow alleyways around Assan and Indra Chowk. The streets are lined with food stalls and assorted shops selling everything from ceramic pots to pashminas. Rickshaws, bicycles, street vendors and animals crowd the streets. It’s an exhilarating assault on the senses. There will be the opportunity to sample some of the food items on offer including Lassi – a local drink made of curd, sugar and dried fruits. And a stop will be made at Tip Top, a well-known sweet shop which sells arguably the best Laddu and Pani Puri in the city!
Your guide will happily make restaurant suggestions for dinner, alternatively transfer back to your hotel.
Head out with your guide to explore Kathmandu’s ancient sites, focusing initially 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; Itum Bahal, which boasts the largest ‘bahal’ (Buddhist monastery courtyard) in the old town; and the intricately carved Kumari Chowk which is home to the young Kumari (living goddess).
A stop will also be made at one of Kathmandu’s most iconic sites: Swayambhunath, a.k.a the Monkey Temple. Perched on a hilltop on the outskirts of town, the stupa’s all-seeing eyes overlook the Kathmandu Valley. This deeply symbolic UNESCO World Heritage site is a fascinating mix of Buddhist iconography and Hindu deities. Sadly, some of the shrines were damaged by the 2015 earthquake, but the vast cone of the main stupa remains.
Return to your hotel where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Spend the morning exploring two of Kathmandu’s most 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 wish their bodies to be cremated at the funeral pyres that line the banks of this sacred river, believing that this will ensure their soul goes straight to heaven. Only Hindus are permitted to enter the main temple courtyard, but from a vantage point across the river it’s possible to view part of the courtyard and any activities taking place.
Continue on to 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.
Having completed your 'kora' return to Kathmandu where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
After breakfast, depart Kathmandu for 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, continue your journey eastwards to Panauti. Once a major trading centre with a royal palace, Panauti is now a quiet, well-preserved town, which is home to some interesting ancient temples and impressive Rana-era mansions. Its location at the confluence of three streams is considered sacred and pilgrims flock to the Tribeni Ghat to bathe in the holy waters. Also boasting a sacred riverside location is the town’s Indreshwar Mahadev Temple. Built in the late 13th century this Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is a prime example of Newari architecture.
Several Panauti families have joined forces to establish a home-stay program and your accommodation for the night will be in the home of a local family. Houses in the region are generally fairly narrow, multi-storey buildings, simply furnished yet clean and comfortable. Having been welcomed by your hosts there will be the opportunity to assist with the preparation of dinner and learn how to cook local dishes, before settling down together to eat.
After bidding farewell to your hosts, depart Panauti for Kathmandu Airport, arriving in time for your onward flight to Lhasa, Tibet.
On arrival into Gonggar Airport, having cleared customs you will be met by your guide and transferred to your hotel in Lhasa: a journey of 75-minutes through a scenic landscape.
Check in to your hotel and the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Lhasa, Tibet’s spiritual and political capital, is a city of contrasts. The western side, with its’ concrete shopping malls and glass-fronted high-rise buildings, shows a definite stamp of Chinese rule. However, the east of the city still retains an old-world Tibetan charm: its’ winding alleyways are lined with rickety whitewashed houses and lamp-lit temples full of prostrating pilgrims. Rise early and join the locals on their daily kora (pilgrim circuit) around Jokhang Temple and wander the surrounding labyrinth of backstreets for a true sense of life in Lhasa.
After breakfast you will be met by your guide who will transfer you to the outskirts of Lhasa, to visit two of Tibet’s most important Gelugpa monasteries: Drepung and Sera. Back in the day, these Buddhist institutions housed and educated a mind-boggling number of monks, with figures suggesting Sera was home to 5,000 monks whilst Drepung had a population of nearly 10,000, making it Tibet’s largest monastery! Drepung is so large that the kora takes a good 90-minutes.
Built in the 1400’s both monasteries continue to operate as a ‘university monastery’, housing different colleges for the study of Buddhism, although resident numbers are now in the hundreds rather than thousands. If you visit in the afternoon, you’re likely to witness monks animatedly debating Buddhist scripture and philosophy in the courtyard.
It’s not all about monasteries today! Whilst at Drepung you will visit Ganden Palace, which is where the Dalai Lama lived before Potala Palace was built. You will also make a stop at Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, which boasts the largest and most beautiful gardens in the country. It is also one of Lhasa’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On returning to Lhasa the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Overnight in Lhasa.
Your touring today focuses on two of Lhasa’s three UNESCO World heritage sites, and the city’s best-known landmarks: Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple.
You can’t fail to be impressed by Potala Palace. Perched atop the 130m high ‘Red Mountain’, this 13-storey, 1000+ room complex towers imposingly over Lhasa. Constructed during the reign of the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century, it took 7000 workers more than 50 years to complete and was the winter residence of subsequent Dalai Lamas until 1959.
Potala is divided into two parts: the White Palace, housing the Dalai Lama’s private living quarters; and the Red Palace which was used for religious functions and features the burial chambers of former Dalai Lamas. Inside you’ll find priceless, jewel-bedecked treasures, ancient sutras and beautiful murals. Security is tight and photography inside is forbidden.
Located a short walk from the Palace is the 1300-year old Jokhang Temple. This ancient temple is the holiest of holies for Tibetans: pilgrims from all over the country begin arriving at dawn, and a steady stream of worshippers continues throughout the day. In the centre of the temple is a revered golden statue of the young Buddha, in front of which every pilgrim will prostrate and pray. Join devotees as they make their daily kora in a clockwise direction around the periphery of the temple, passing through the atmospheric Barkhor neighbourhood.
Stroll back to your hotel where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Depart Lhasa after breakfast, heading in a south-west direction to Gyantse, one of Tibet’s best-preserved towns. It’s a long, but scenic drive that journeys over several dramatic mountain passes including Khamba La (4,852m) and the even higher Kora La (5,010m). You’ll also pass by the shores of Yamdrok Tso Lake: a vast expanse of freshwater surrounded by mountains. Yamdrok Tso is regarded as holy by Tibetans: they believe that circumambulating the lake in seven days will wash away their sins and earn them merit.
On arrival in Gyantse, check in to your hotel and the rest of your day is at leisure.
Once an important town for traders journeying across the Himalayas between India and Tibet, Gyantse has largely escaped the excesses of Chinese development and retains an authentic, Tibetan charm and laid-back vibe. If you’re feeling energetic, trek up to Gyantse Dzong from where you will be rewarded with incredible views over the old town, the surrounding plateau and mountains from its hilltop perch.
Overnight in Gyantse.
Spend the morning exploring Gyantse’s 15th century monastery – Pelkor Chode. Unusually, three different schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelugpa, Sagyapa & Kadampa), coexist peacefully under one roof here, while the architecture is a fascinating mix of Tibetan, Han Chinese and Nepali craftsmanship. The monastery’s most notable feature is the Gyantse Kumbum (pronounced goom-boom): a 32 metre-high chorten that houses numerous tiny chapels decorated in beautiful murals and intricate sculptures.
After visiting the monastery, depart Gyantse for Shigatse, the second-largest city in Tibet. Despite commercial development in recent years, it remains an important centre of Tibetan history and culture, and is home to the 15th century Tashilhunpo Monastery, and the Summer Palace of the Panchen Lamas, as well as being the birthplace of Tibetan opera.
Before arriving into Shigatse make a stop at the Shalu Monastery. This small monastery dates back to the 11th century, although much was destroyed and rebuilt in the 14th century. The monastery houses a number of significant religious treasures and is well-known for its murals. Rather interestingly, in its heyday it was allegedly a training centre for monks interested in trance walking.
Continue your journey into Shigatse and check in to your hotel.
Make an early morning visit to Tashilhunpo: one of the most important monasteries in Tibet, and seat of the Panchen Lama (second only in importance to the Dalai Lama). It’s an immense complex - more of a monastic city – comprising of numerous assembly halls, chapels and living quarters, which in its heyday was home to 5,000 monks.
Tashilhunpo isn’t short of fascinating treasures - ancient Buddhist manuscripts, bejewelled stupas and intricate murals - but arguably its’ most impressive site is the 26-metre tall, golden statue of the Future Buddha. Built in 1914 it took nearly 1,000 workers four years to construct. Each of the Buddha’s fingers is one metre long and it’s rumoured that over 300kg of gold was used in the coating, which is also dotted with precious stones.
If you have time, join the steady stream of pilgrims on their one-hour kora around the periphery of the monastery, which takes you into the hills behind the complex.
Having explored Tashilhunpo, depart in an easterly direction to Samye, arriving in the late afternoon. This small town, surrounded by barren mountains is a convenient overnight base from which to explore the historically significant Samye Monastery, which is where Tibetan Buddhism was established.
Overnight in Samye.
After breakfast visit Samye Monastery. Built way back in the late 700’s, this expansive complex, spread over 25,000 square metres, was the first Buddhist Monastery in Tibet and is well-known for its unique mandala design. The three-storey, central Wuzi Hall symbolises Mt Meru, the centre of the universe; outer temples and pagodas represent the oceans, sun, moon and other elements of Buddhist cosmology. For panoramic views over the whole complex, climb to the peak of Mt Hepo Ri which faces the monastery.
There will be plenty of time to explore, before driving the short distance to Tsetang, the main town of the Yarlung Valley. This culturally significant region of Tibet is considered to be the cradle of Tibetan civilisation, and there are a number of legends surrounding how the first Tibetan people evolved here, which your guide will share with you.
Check in to your hotel, then head out to visit the nearby Yumbulagang Palace, which is perched on a hilltop south east of Tsetang. Yumbulagang was the first palace to be built in Tibet, occupied by the first Tibetan King in the 2nd century BC. When the King moved his residence to Lhasa, many centuries later, Yumbulagang became a Buddhist temple and then a monastery. The murals and wall paintings that adorn the interior walls depict the early history of Tibet. It’s a 30-minute, uphill, stepped walk to the palace but it’s worth the effort and the surrounding views over the rural landscape towards the mountains are impressive.
Early departure to Lhasa Airport, arriving in time for your flight to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Upon arrival you will be met and transferred to your hotel in Patan. Located across the Bagmati River from Kathmandu, Patan is the oldest of the valley’s three ancient kingdoms. Also known as Lalitpur, meaning ‘City of Beauty’, it boasts the finest collection of temples in the whole of Nepal, and is a well-known hub for craftsmen and artisans.
Spend the afternoon strolling through Patan’s narrow alleyways accompanied by your guide, wondering at the extraordinary architecture and ancient sites. On the eastern side of Patan’s Durbar Square is the richly decorated, wing-roofed Royal Palace of Patan. Originally constructed in the 14th century, it predates the palaces in neighbouring Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. One wing of the Palace now houses an excellent museum packed with bronzes, sculptures and old photos.
Also found on Durbar Square is the 17th century Krishna Mandir, an Indian-style temple constructed entirely from carved stone; and the Taleju Temple, which is dedicated to the four-headed Hindu goddess Taleju Bhawani. A short walk away is the Golden Temple (or Kwa Bahal), which is neither a temple nor strictly golden – it’s a monastery decorated in brass and bronze, but beautiful nonetheless.
Before becoming totally 'templed-out'(!), stroll back to your hotel where your evening is at leisure.
Overnight in Patan.
Transfer to Kathmandu Airport in time for your flight to Paro in Bhutan.
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. 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.
As you arrive into Thimphu visit the recently built, 51-metre tall, bronze statue of Buddha Dordenma that sits on a hill overlooking the city. The base of the statue houses a large meditation hall and an additional 125,000 smaller bronze Buddha statues.
Continue into Thimphu and check into your hotel.
Overnight in Thimphu.
Spend the day visiting some of Thimphu’s highlights.
Begin at the National Memorial Chorten, 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.
Then, to make the most of the morning sun’s direction, 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.
Head back towards town for lunch, then continue to the Folk Heritage Museum. Set inside a three-storey, traditional-style house the museum recreates a rural Bhutanese household through demonstrations and an impressive collection of artefacts.
Within walking distance is Thimphu’s Institute for Zorig Chusum, where you will have the opportunity to understand more about Bhutanese tradition and culture. Traditionally there are 13 Bhutanese arts and crafts, and this institute was established to preserve and promote these through training and education. Students specialize in painting, wood carving, tailoring, or statue making and visitors are welcomed to watch craft demonstrations by the students.
If you happen to be in Thimphu at the weekend, visit the bustling weekend market, before the final stop of the day: the Thimphu Fortress, a.k.a Tashichho Dzong. There has been a dzong on this site since 1216, however fire destroyed many of the buildings over the decades and in 1962 King Jigme Dorji Wangchuk began a five-year project to renovate and enlarge the dzong using traditional methods (without nails or architectural plans). Nowadays, this impressive fortress houses the throne room and offices of the king, the secretariat and the ministries of home affairs and finance. It also serves as the summer residence of the central monastic body.
Overnight in Thimphu.
Depart Thimphu heading east to Punakha.
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.
Having checked into your hotel there will be time to freshen up. Then 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.
After exploring the temple, return to Punakha.
Overnight in Punakha.
After breakfast, visit the impressive Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten that sits perched on a hill on the northern side of Punakha Valley. Commissioned by Bhutan’s Queen Mother to promote world peace, it’s a fine example of traditional architecture despite being built in the 1990’s. It’s a 45-minute uphill walk to the chorten, following a trail through fields of rice, chillies and beans. However, the panoramic valley views across the Mo Chhu river towards the mountains are well worth the effort, especially from the chorten roof. The intricate murals that adorn the chorten’s walls and ceilings are equally impressive.
Return to Punakha for lunch.
In the afternoon, 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.
On your way back to Punakha stop at the Nalanda Buddhist Institute. 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.
Overnight in Punakha.
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.
On arrival you will be driven to a local farm house where you will be hosted for a traditional Bhutanese lunch. It’s a fascinating insight into local life and your guide will act as translator allowing you to easily interact with your host family.
After lunch transfer to your hotel where the remainder of your day is at leisure.
Overnight in Paro.
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.
Overnight in Paro.
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.
Overnight in Paro.
After a leisurely breakfast, check out and transfer to the airport for your onward flight.