Hiking in the Hidden Kingdom, Bhutan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 15595A, International


  • Hike valleys, ridges, and Tiger's Lair
  • See rhododendron forests in bloom
  • Visit ancient fortresses, monasteries, and villages -- the living museums of Bhutan 


  • All meals and lodging
  • In-country transportation in our own van
  • English-speaking local guides


DatesMay 3–16, 2015
StaffMargie Tomenko

Trip Overview

The Trip

Wedged between India and Tibet, Bhutan is a country of peaks, alpine meadows, old-growth forests, terraced hillsides, and towns with a frontier feeling. The central valleys are mainly agricultural areas growing rice, corn, barley, apples, and potatoes. Forests of oak, conifers, and rhododendron cover the hillsides. This trip takes us through towns, dzongs (monasteries/forts), and temples for a rich look at the culture, traditions, and spirituality of the Bhutanese people. On the trip we move from fertile valleys to high meadows, glimpsing snow white peaks in a country that may be the most unspoiled and most ecologically intact place in the world.

We will travel in a comfortable van with our guide(s) and an experienced driver with most van trips lasting three to four hours. Our longest drive will be six hours, which includes a number of stops to take photos and stretch our legs.

We will have the opportunity to spend some time teaching English to young monks. We will visit a village farmhouse and help in the village garden.

Bhutan is not Shangri-La. Preservation of its culture and natural resources is its first priority, followed by economic development. This policy allows for a peaceful, stable way of life, which is endowed with happiness and a purpose often missing in more technologically advanced societies. We are coming to one of the least disturbed cultures in the world. It is the last of the independent Buddhist kingdoms of the Himalayas and is said to have one foot in the past and the other in the future. It is a place where the king stated that gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. The sense of being somewhere different, which begins as soon as you leave the plane, will remain with you.


Day 1: Arrive in Paro. The adventure begins when we arrive in Paro after the stunning flight from Bangkok. The flight to Paro, Bhutan has magnificent views of the world's highest peaks, which give way to the lush, green valley with its clear air, absence of noise, and the fragrance of pines. Temple-studded hills and prayer flags dotting the landscape will tell you that you are in no ordinary place. We will meet our guide and drive to our hotel in Thimphu, the only capital city in the world without a traffic light. After lunch we will visit the weekend market. This is the only time fresh produce is readily available and village people jostle with Thimphu residents for the best produce. An amazing variety of rice, vegetables, and fruit is available, as is dried fish, herbs, and fresh butter wrapped in leaves. There is a large handicraft section where you can buy arrows, baskets, horns, hats, and T-shirts. We will stop at Zangdopelri temple and the Changlimithang, where we might see some archery practice.

Day 2: Thimphu. We will have a morning of visits: the Institute of Traditional Medicine; the Painting School, where gifted students are taught painting, wood carving, and sculpture; and the Heritage Museum. After lunch, we visit the Textile Museum, the Gold and Silversmith workshop, and the Paper Factory.

Day 3: Thimphu. After breakfast we drive north to Dodinato start our walk to Cheri, the first monastery in Bhutan, built in 1620.  We may see tame mountain goats (jaru) and birds that are cared for by the monks. After a picnic lunch, we walk to Tango (horse head) Monastery, a center of Buddhist studies. We will return to Thimphu late in the afternoon.

Day 4: Thimphu-Punakha. We leave Thimphu and follow the road as it climbs steeply through a forest of pine and cedar, festooned with hanging lichen to Dochula Pass (10,000 feet). This pass (on clear days) offers panoramic views of the Himalayan ranges as we descend a series of hairpin bends to the fertile valley of Punakha (4,430 feet). We will stop and walk to the Chimi Lhakhang temple, crossing fields of rice. This temple is dedicated to Drukpa Kuenley, popularly known as “divine madman." Women seeking fertility come here for a special blessing. After lunch we will visit the interior of the Punakha Dzong, built at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu rivers. In the late afternoon, we'll visit the Khuruthang Bazaar and stroll through town.

Day 5: Punakha-Trongsa. The drive to Trongsa takes about six hours. We start early for the lush drive to the central valleys, where we will see hillsides of flowering rhododendron and abundant flora -- and potentially elusive fauna. We pass through semi-tropical vegetation on our way to Pele La Pass (10,989 feet), which has an alpine environment of rhododendron and dwarf bamboo. From here we will hike downhill, hoping to see yaks grazing. Our van will bring us to a picnic lunch at Chendebji Chorten, where we will take a short walk. As we enter Trongsa Valley we will see the huge fortress sitting on a narrow spur across the gorge. We will arrive at our hotel with its superb view of the mountains and the majestic Trongsa Dzong.

Day 6: Trongsa-Bumthang. This morning we will visit the Trongsa Dzong, where we will walk to the majestic Taa Dzong, built in the 17th century -- once an ancient watch tower, now a superb museum. Afterward, we'll continue our drive to Bumthang, a complex of four valleys -- Chumey, Choekhor, Tang, and Ura. Chumey and Choekhor are agricultural valleys, while Tang Ura depend mostly on animal husbandry. After crossing Yotongla Pass and into Chumey Valley, we arrive at Domkhar Palace, where we will have a picnic lunch. We will stop at Tsungney village, where we can see weavers making the famous Yathra fabric.

Day 7: Bumthang. Today we'll visit Jambay Lhakhang temple, where we start our walk through the clustered villages of Jakar, visiting monasteries and temples, crossing a swinging bridge, and making frequent stops to converse with villagers, monks, officers, and children who love to practice their English. If there is time, we can be dropped at the Chamkha Bazaar to walk back to our hotel.

Day 8: Bumthang-Ura. After breakfast we'll drive for two hours, stopping at Serthangla Pass (11,847 feet). We will walk downhill to Ura Temple and continue our walk to Ura village -- its cobblestone streets and closely packed houses giving the village a medieval atmosphere. Our lunch will be served at a village house. If time permits we will make a brief stop at Membartsho (burning lake) on our return to our hotel in Jakar.

Day 9: Bumthang. This morning we visit a monastic institute, where young monks are studying Buddhist philosophy. We have the opportunity to help these monks improve their English by engaging them in conversation and helping them with pronunciation. After lunch we will visit Jalikhar village, where we will stop by a farm house and participate in some aspects of village life: gardening, and mending.

Day 10: Bumthang-Phobjikha. After breakfast we return to Pele Pass, taking the road to the a beautiful glacial valley of Phobjikha, the winter home of hundreds of black-necked cranes that migrate from the Tibetan Plateau. We might see one or two cranes too weak to migrate. From Phobjikha Pass we will walk downhill to Gangtey Monastery and on to our hotel.

Day 11: Phobjikha-Thimphu. We return to Thimphu, making several stops en route for photos. Our lunch will be at Dochu La cafeteria, where we hope to glimpse the snow-capped mountains of northern Bhutan. The rest of the day we are free to stroll Thimphu's busy streets for shopping, photo taking, and talking to friendly school children.

Day 12: Thimphu-Paro. We will drive to Paro, check into our hotel, and begin our sightseeing of Paro valley. We have a short drive to the ruins of Drukgyal Dzong, built in 1647. The walk around this Dzong is shaded and leisurely. On a clear day we may get a magnificent view of Mount Chomolhari (24,356 feet). We will visit Kyichu Lhakhang, a temple built in the 7th century and Satsam Chorten. After lunch we will visit the National Museum of Bhutan (Ta Dzong), which contains art work, handicrafts, costumes, armor, and rare stamps. We walk down to a traditional covered bridge that's draped with prayer flags, where we meet our van and return to our hotel.

Day 13: Taktsang Monastery. After breakfast we drive to the start of the trail to Tiger's Lair, which climbs through a lovely pine forest, draped with Spanish moss. We will stop for tea at the cafeteria and continue the hike to this incredible monastery, clinging to the edge of a sheer rock cliff. There is some exposure on this trail. Those who do not want to complete the walk can stay at the cafeteria and still have a magnificent view of the monastery. In the evening we will have the final dinner at our hotel.

Day 14: Depart Bhutan. We'll enjoy breakfast together, our last meal of the trip, and say goodbye to our guide and Bhutan as we depart from Paro International Airport.



Getting There

Our adventure begins and ends in Paro, Bhutan.  We will all take a group flight from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan on May 3, 2015. The cost of this flight is not included in the trip price. The cost of this round-trip flight is expected to be between $900-$950. Druk Airlines, the airline of Bhutan, controls all flights into Bhutan. The leader will provide you with information on how to pay for this flight and the schedule at a future date. 

You are responsible for making and paying for your own flight arrangements to and from Bangkok. The leader will provide suggestions to approved participants in a bulletin. Thai, Cathay Pacific, United, Singapore, and Qatar airlines, among others, have regular flights to Bangkok. For a complete list of airlines, go to skyscanner.com.

Accommodations and Food

We will stay in comfortable, clean, and rustic lodges and hotels that have hot water and electricity. The staff is friendly and want us to feel like we are part of their family. Most of our meals will be in the hotel or lodge dining rooms, or in local restaurants. On some hikes we will have picnic lunches. Meals are often served as a buffet and you may choose from Western, Chinese, Indian, and Bhutanese dishes. Vegetarians are easily accommodated. A typical breakfast can include: oatmeal, eggs, buckwheat pancakes, and fried potatoes. 

Trip Difficulty

This trip is a blend of day hiking and touring. Anyone in good physical condition who is comfortable walking for 2-3 hours on hilly, rocky trails should have no difficulty with the hikes. Most of the hiking will be between 5,000-10,000 feet with two hikes starting at 11,000 feet and proceeding downhill. These two hikes are rated moderate/strenuous due to the elevation. The pace will be adjusted to fit the group. Sometimes there might be an alternative to the hike; other times the alternative will be waiting on the bus while the rest of the group walks. With proper pre-trip conditioning hikes, you can be prepared for this trip. Hiking is the only exercise that will totally prepare your legs and feet for this trip.

Just as important as being in good shape is maintaining a spirit of adventure. You should take pleasure in experiencing another culture and be comfortable traveling with a group. 

Equipment and Clothing

Hiking boots or trail shoes with gripping soles, rain jacket, rain pants, and a day pack are required. Participants will be given a detailed equipment list.  Daytime temperatures will be moderate: 65-75 degrees. Nighttime temperatures can be cool: 40-50 degrees.  



  • Bhutan. Lonely Planet. 
  • Crossete, Barbara, So Close to Heaven. Vintage Books.
  • Pommerat, Francoise, Bhutan.
  • Ra, Frank, Bhutan: Gross National Happiness.
  • Schickelgruber and Pommerat, Bhutan: Mountain Fortress of the Gods. Coffeetable book with great text and photographs.
  • Hickman, Katie, Dreams of the Peaceful Dragon.
  • Zeppa, Jamie, Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. A teacher's account of working in Bhutan.
  • Inskipp, C. & T and R. Grimmett, Birds of Bhutan. A book for bird enthusiasts.
  • Wangmo, Ashi Dori, Treasures of the Thunder Dragon.
  • Wehrheim, John, Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness.
  • Snelling, J., The Buddhist Handbook. An easy-to-read primer on Buddhism.
  • Small, Jeffery, The Breath of God. A novel of suspense, much taking place in Bhutan and places we will visit.
  • Napoli, Lisa, Radio Shangri-La: What I Discovered on my Accidental Journey to the Happiest Kingdom on Earth. A story of a young woman’s helps to start Bhutan’s first youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo FM.
  • Sze, Elisie, The Heart of Buddah. A novel also taking place in Bhutan.
  • Dompnier, R., Bhutan: Kingdom of the Dragon. A coffee table picture book, but there is also good text on the geography and history of the country.
  • Myers, D., and S. Bean, From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan. A detailed account of the cultural history of the incredible textiles and the fascinating national garb of the Bhutanese.
  • Indian Wildlife. Insight Guides. Good coverage of the mammals and wildlife in general found in the Indian subcontinent, including Bhutan.
  • Wangchhuk, L., Facts About Bhutan; The Land of the Thunder Dragon. Bhutan from a native's point of view. Encyclopedic in scope and presentation.


Few places on earth can match the physical splendor of this country. Most conservationists believe Bhutan is the last hope for comprehensive conservation in the Himalayas. The government is steering a path toward sustainable development. It aims to preserve the country's natural bounty, even at the cost of economic growth. In the words of the fourth king, "Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product." Whether Bhutan can succeed will depend on how well it can handle the pressures and problems that have overwhelmed other developing nations. Most Bhutanese depend on wood for heating and cooking. The birth rate is high. Free education has given rise to a new generation of young people questioning the nature-first paradigm. Television and the Internet have created great interest in what the West has to offer.

Buddhists believe in the sanctity of life, the preservation of nature, and giving back to the Earth what you have taken. The protection of nature and culture is an important part of the traditional way of life. The government is working with conservation groups and is integrating their concerns into policy. We will meet with some of these groups and hear firsthand how Bhutan is accomplishing these challenging goals.

We will see the positive and negative effects of Western culture on a traditional society. We will confront the dilemmas arising from our very presence. We provide an important source of revenue while impacting their resources and lifestyle. We may begin to question some of our Western ways, particularly our inequitable consumption of the world's resources. 

Perhaps this experience will make us better world citizens and involve us in searching for a balanced and sustainable way of life. Bhutan is learning from our successes and mistakes. Those of us perceptive and wise enough to open our hearts and minds will come away with a new awareness of the world we live in and the way we choose to live in it.



Margie Tomenko has been leading trips for the Sierra Club for more than 20 years. She loves the uniqueness of where she leads – Bhutan, New Zealand, Africa, and the Galapagos Islands. Margie is also a SCUBA diver, and enjoyed activities both below and above the water. After visiting Bhutan, she said “this unique and beautiful country is like stepping back in time to a more peaceful, tranquil environment." Margie is concerned with conservation and witnessed the effects of the needless destruction. She appreciates Bhutan’s goals of happiness and conservation. Feel free to call or e-mail her if you have any questions, or just want to chat about Bhutan!

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