Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan

Sierra Club Outings Trip # 14700A, International

Highlights

  • Immerse yourself in the customs of a unique land still mostly untouched by the West
  • Visit traditional villages, a spirited Bhutanese festival, and hike lush forests
  • Explore the Buddhist approach to species and ecosystem protection

Includes

  • All lodging, meals and transportation within Bhutan, including an in-country flight
  • Interpretive and guiding services of a local English-speaking guide, well versed in Bhutanese culture and customs
  • All entrance fees, taxes, visa fee and gratuities

Details

DatesOct 30–Nov 11, 2014
Price$4,375
Deposit$200
Capacity15
StaffMargie Tomenko

Trip Overview

Please note that the trip dates have changed from what was originally published. If you have questions, please contact us.

The Trip

Druk Yul, The Land of the Thunder Dragon, known to the rest of the world as Bhutan, is wedged between India and Tibet. It is a country of peaks, alpine meadows, old-growth forests, terraced hillsides, and towns with a frontier feeling. While Bhutan is one of the smallest countries in the world, its cultural diversity and richness are profound. Strong emphasis is laid on the promotion and preservation of its unique culture.

Bhutan is one of the last remaining biodiversity hotspots in the world and is committed to preserving and protecting its rich environment through its government and environmental organizations. This commitment is apparent in the fact that the kingdom is one of the only nations whose forest cover has actually grown over the years. The forest cover has increased to over 72% of the country, with 60% of the country under protection. The array of flora and fauna available in Bhutan is unparalleled, due to conservation and its wide altitudinal and climatic range.

A World Wildlife Fund alert letter states that "Nowhere is there more potential for conservation success than in Bhutan. Few places on earth can match the breathtaking splendor of this country. Many conservationists consider Bhutan the last best hope for comprehensive conservation action in the Himalayas."

Bhutan boasts about 300 species of medicinal plants and about 46 species of rhododendrons. Some common sights are the magnolias, junipers, orchids of varied hues, medicinal plants, giant rhubarb, and trees such as fir, pine, and oaks.

Bhutan supports thriving populations of some of the rarest and most endangered animals on earth. Some high altitude species are the snow leopards, Bengal tigers, the red panda, the gorals (antelope), the langurs (monkey), the Himalayan black bear, sambars (SE Asian Deer), wild pigs, barking deer, blue sheep, and musk deer.

In the tropical forests of Southern Bhutan, one can come across clouded leopards, the one horned rhinoceros, elephants, water buffaloes, and swamp deer. You can even find the Golden Langur, a species of monkey that is unique to Bhutan.

Bhutan also has a great variety of bird species -- the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and is expected to rise as new birds are discovered. In addition, 57% of Bhutan’s globally threatened birds and 90% of the country’s rare birds are dependent on forests. Bhutan has about 415 resident bird species. These birds are altitudinal refugees, moving up and down the mountains depending upon the seasons and weather conditions. Of about 50 species of birds that migrate during the winters are buntings, waders, ducks, thrushes, and the birds of prey. Some 40 species are partial migrants, which include swifts, cuckoos, bee-eaters, fly catchers, and warblers.

Bhutan is also home to about 16 bird species that are endangered worldwide. These include the White Bellied Heron, Black Necked Cranes, Pallas Fish eagle, and Blyth’s Kingfisher to name a few. We plan to visit Phobjikha valley, an especially important locations of the endangered Black Necked Cranes.

Bhutan’s philosophy adheres to the belief and advocates that amassing material wealth does not necessarily lead to happiness. The fourth king emphasized that for Bhutan, “Gross National Happiness” is more important than “Gross National Product.” Bhutan is now trying to measure progress not by the popular idea of Gross Domestic Product, but by through Gross National Happiness. Thus, Gross National Happiness is now being fleshed out by a wide range of professionals, scholars, and agencies across the world.

Bhutan is struggling to enter the modern world while protecting these resources and maintaining its unique Buddhist culture. The political system of Bhutan has evolved over time. It has developed from a fragmented and a disoriented rule of the different regions by local chieftains, lords, and clans into the parliamentary democracy they have in place today. The progression to Parliamentary Democracy has been a carefully managed process that culminated in 2008 when Bhutan held its first elections countrywide and wrote a constitution. The King serves as the Head of the State, while the government is managed by the Prime Minister.

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. The bow and arrow play a significant role in many Bhutanese myths and legends; images of the gods holding a bow and arrows are considered especially favorable. Archery tournaments and competitions are held throughout the country and the sport is played during religious events, secular public holidays, and local festivals. We hope to witness an archery tournament while we are exploring this fascinating country!

While most trips to Bhutan are either cultural (visiting temples, monasteries, museums, etc.) or trekking (with long days of hiking and camping out), this outing seeks to find the middle ground, providing a blend of day hikes and visits to cultural sites. We will visit a number of sites of historic and cultural importance, and also do some hiking every day -- typically hikes of easy to moderate difficulty, ranging from a few hours to a half day. One hike will be longer (and more strenuous) than a half day -- to the Tiger’s Liar. There may be an option to rent a horse (not included in the trip cost) to go about half of the way (horses are not allowed to go to the top).

Itinerary

Day 1: Our meeting point is in the morning at Paro Airport in Bhutan. As you fly in, pick a window seat for the spectacular views of the Himalayan Mountains. We will be met by our in-country guide upon arrival. Once we've all assembled, we drive to Thimphu (about 90 minutes) and check into our hotel for an orientation meeting and lunch, our first meal of the trip. In the afternoon (as time permits), we have several options and we hope to do many or all of them! We can visit the Memorial Chorten, the Textile Museum, or a Monastery for the nuns. We definitely will go to see the national animal of Bhutan -- the Takin. Overnight at Thimphu.

Day 2: After breakfast, we will do some sightseeing in this incredible valley. We are in time to visit the Thimphu weekend market, which is in a permanent set of stalls where vendors from throughout the region arrive on Friday afternoon and continue selling their goods until Sunday night. It’s an interesting place to visit, where village people jostle with Thimphu residents for the best -- and cheapest -- vegetables and food. Then we move on to the Painting School, where traditional art is still kept alive through instructions in the art of painting Thangkhas (sacred Buddhist religious scrolls). We will also visit the Medicine Institute, where traditional medicines are prepared according to ancient practices. Then we drive to Lungtenzampa to observe the traditional silversmiths plying at their crafts and tour the Bhutanese traditional paper factory. Lunch will be served in a local restaurant. After lunch we drive North of Thimphu (40 minutes), where we than cross a lovely traditional bridge that spans two rivers and start our hike uphill toward the Tango Monastery. The hike to Tango Monastery will take about one hour. This temple was first built in the 12th century; however, the present building was established in the 15th century. After the visit, we start our drive back to Thimphu and stop at Pangri Zampa, two imposing white buildings in a grove of giant cypress trees. This temple was founded in early 16th century and presently houses the monastic institute for astrology studies. Overnight at Thimphu.

Day 3: This morning we depart Thimphu. The road climbs steeply through a forest of pine and cedar, festooned with hanging lichen up near Dochula pass (3,050 meters /10,000 feet). This pass offers panoramic views of the Himalayan mountain ranges. We will make our way to Lobesa, where we can hike to Chimi Lhakhang Temple on a small hill. This temple is dedicated to Drukpa Kuenley, the great Yogi in the 14th century (popularly known as “Divine madman” to Westerners). It is believed that this temple blesses women who seek fertility. We continue our drive north to visit the majestic Punakha Dzong (a dzong is a combination of a monastery and a fortress from ancient times, which typically contains administrative offices, temples, courtyards, and monks’ accommodations). Located between the Phochu and Mochu Rivers, this dzong is the most magnificent dzong of Bhutan and had served as the country's capital in the 17th and 18th centuries. It currently serves as the district administration and judiciary office as well as the winter home for Bhutan’s spiritual leader Je Khenpo and the 600 monks of Thimphu and Punakha. Overnight at Punakha.

Day 4: After an early breakfast, we will drive to Phobjikha Valley through Wangdue (1,350 meters / 4,430 feet elevation), one of the major towns and district headquarters of western Bhutan. We will continue our journey for another two hours and enter into the broad Phobjikha Valley (3,000 meters / 9,840 feet). The drive will pass through a forest of oak and rhododendron and often encounter gigantic yak. Phobjikha is also the chosen home of the rare black-necked crane, which migrates from the central Asiatic Plateau to escape its harsh winters. The other side of the pass that overlooks the valley is a realm of high-altitude dwarf bamboo, the favorite food of yaks. We will visit the Gangtey Monastery, perched atop a small hill that rises from the valley floor. The monastery is surrounded by a large village that's inhabited mainly by the families of the 140 gomchens (lay priests) who take care of the monastery. It is the only Nyingmapa monastery in western Bhutan and the largest in Bhutan, headed by its spiritual master, who is known as ninth Gangtey Tulku. After a picnic lunch there, we will hike down through the natural trail, arriving at our hotel after about 90 minutes. The valley of Phobjikha is one of the most beautiful spots in Bhutan. Overnight in Phobjikha.

Day 5: After breakfast, we will walk to the Crane Information Center, where we will look for cranes with a high-powered scope and view a quick documentary film about cranes. Then we will depart for Trongsa. The road climbs steadily, passing through semi-tropical vegetation and then continuing to Pele la Pass (3,300 meters / 10,989 feet). With an alpine environment of rhododendrons and dwarf bamboo, the pass is traditionally considered the boundary between West and East Bhutan. During the clear weather, we can view the high snowcapped peaks, especially Mount Chomolhari (7,314 meters / 24,355 feet). As we descend from the pass through the dwarf bamboo, we quite often see yaks grazing. Our destination is Chendebji Chorten. In the 18th century, a Lama known as Shida, built this chorten (or stupa) in order to nail into the ground the demon terrorizing the people of this valley and the Ada valley just over the ridge. After lunch we continue our drive to Trongsa, as we enter the valley, we see the huge fortress of Trongsa. Backing on mountain and built on several levels, the dzong fits narrowly on a spur that sticks out into the gorge of the Mangde River and overlooks the routes south and west. The view from the dzong extends for many miles, and in former times nothing could escape the vigilance of its watchmen. The drive to Trongsa Takes about four hours. Overnight in Trongsa.

Day 6: After breakfast, we visit the majestic Trongsa Dzong, built in 1647 by Shubdrung Nawang Namgyal. This dzong was the source of many important historical events in the making of modern Bhutan. After being dropped off at the junction of the road to the bazaar and the dzong, we will walk to the dzong. After our visit, we will drive to Taa Dzong -- formerly an ancient watchtower that's now now a beautiful museum dedicated to the Kings of Bhutan. We will enjoy lunch there. Then we start our drive to Bumthang, crossing the Yotongla Pass and heading into the first four valleys of Bumthang known as Chumey. We will make a short stop at Tsungney village, where we will observe weaving of the famous Bumthang fabric known as Yathra. We continue our drive for an hour and arrive at the Chokhor Valley. If time permits, our car can drop us at the Chamkhar Bazaar for sightseeing, then we can walk back to the hotel afterward. Overnight in Bumthang.

Day 7: Our sightseeing today will be followed in the style of Bhutanese tradition, which is clockwise. Our van will drop us off at the Kurjey Lhakhang. It is believed that the 8th-century guru Padmasambhava had meditated here and subdued the local deity known as Shelging Karpo. We begin our hike from here, crossing the suspension bridge to Tamshing Lhakhang, founded at the beginning of the 16th century by Saint Pema Lingpa. Next, we visit Konchogsum Lhakhang. Built in the 8th century, the temple is famous for its bell, which bears an inscription from the 8th century. Overnight in Bumthang.

Day 8: Our second day in Bumthang will include driving to Ura village, which is 10,000 feet above sea level. There are about 40 to 50 closely packed houses alongside cobblestone streets that give the village a medieval atmosphere. The drive to Ura takes about two hours; however we will stop at the Serthangla Pass, where we can get the view of Ura Valley down below. We will start hiking downhill from here until we reach the Ura Temple. After visiting the temple, we continue our walk through the clustered village of Ura, making frequent stops to talk with the villagers. Overnight in Bumthang.

Day 9: After breakfast, we are in for a treat. Today, we will attend an authentic Bhutanese festival! Jambay Lhakhang Drup happens to be one of the most popular festivals in Bhutan. It has a significant place in Bhutanese culture as it is celebrated with a dual purpose. First, it is a tribute to the honor of Guru Rimpoche, a saint who introduced the Tantric form of Buddhism in Bhutan. Secondly, this festival commemorates the establishment of Jambay Lhakhang (temple) in the 7th century. During this festival, a variety of traditional and mask dances are performed and each dance bears significant meaning. Other activities include: a famous drum beat dance, a clown dance called Dola Pangtoy Shazam, and Raksha Mangcham (a dance symbolizing life after death). This festival captures the attention of the onlookers and creates a magnificent spectacle. As this festival is really a five-day festival, we will not be able to enjoy all the festivities listed. We may have a chance to take a short hike. We will be flexible today to enjoy the unique festival and add some walks or tours as time and interest allows.

Day 10: This morning, we take an in-country flight back to Paro. This will save us the time of driving over the mountain passes both ways. Upon arrival, we will check into our hotel and enjoy lunch. As these flights are often late, this afternoon will be open. As time allows, we may visit some of the museums scheduled for tomorrow to ease that day, take advantage of other walks in this area, or maybe just visit town and experience the interactions with the locals. Overnight at Paro.

Day 11: After breakfast, we will visit Drukgyal Dzong, which was built in 1647 by Shubdrung Nawang Namgyal. The dzong was destroyed by fire and left in ruins as an evocative reminder of the great victories it was built to commemorate. On a clear day, you can get a magnificent view of the Mount Chomolhari (7,314 meters / 23,990 feet elevation). Then we drive south to Satsam Chorten, built in memory of the late Dilgo Khentse Rinpochey, and continue on to Kyichu Lhakhang, built in the 7th century by a Tibetan King, Songtsen Gonpo. After lunch, we will visit the National Museum of Bhutan, (Ta Dzong) which contains works of art, handicrafts, costumes, armor, and rare stamps. We will take a leisurely hike down to Rimpung Dzong and a traditional covered bridge at the river. If time permits, hike up the nearby hill to get a panoramic view of the Paro Valley. Overnight at Paro.

Day 12: This day will be a highlight hike -- and the most difficult of the trip -- to the spectacular Taktsang Monastery (Tiger’s Lair). This incredible monastery clings to the edge of a sheer rock cliff that plunges 900 meters into the valley below. The trail climbs through beautiful pine forest, where you'll see many of the trees festooned with Spanish moss and an occasional grove of fluttering prayer flags. We stop at the cafeteria (about halfway) to rest and enjoy refreshments. We continue the hike until we see, clearly and seemingly within reach, the Taktsang Monastery -- built in the 1600s and renovated in 2002. The history states that Guru Padmasambhava, the Tantric mystic who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, landed here on the back of a flying tiger, hence the name, Tiger’s Lair. Looking at the monastery and imagining how it was built, a flying tiger doesn’t seem so impossible after all. Lunch will be at the cafeteria, or we may choose to bring a picnic lunch instead. Overnight at Paro.

Day 13: Unfortunately, we will have to say goodbye to this lovely country and its people that we have come to know and understand a bit better. The van will take us back to the airport for our departing flights. The trip ends after breakfast. As we board our flights back over the Himalayas, we can look back at this wonderful country and hope to return soon.

Occasionally, changes may occur in the itinerary -- either in advance or during the trip. Please be aware that we will make every attempt to stay within this itinerary. However, if weather, equipment, Bhutan National Park Services, or any other condition causes a change, please be flexible and respect the decision of the leader. The safety of the group is our number one concern. While the hiking, temples, and monasteries in Bhutan are tremendous, we cannot guarantee that you will see all sites and species listed.  Sometimes trails are overgrown or closed for restoration, or rain has washed them out. There may be some hiking alternatives, based on conditions and time availability.

Photos

Details

Getting There

All flights into and out of Paro are on Druk Airlines, the national airline of Bhutan. Druk flies between Paro and Bangkok, Dehli, Calcutta, or Kathmandu. Your best routing will be through Bangkok; reservations and entry permits for this will be made for the group by our in-country tour operator, but the cost is not included in the trip price. Additional details with specific flight information will be sent to approved trip members. Remember in your planning that flights crossing the Pacific from the U.S. cross the International Date Line, so it takes two calendar days to get to Bangkok. For example, if you leave on the evening of October 27, you will arrive in Bangkok on the morning of October 29. Then you can fly to Paro on the 30th. On the return, even though your flight is 12 hours, you may well land before you take off.

Please make sure that your passport is valid at least six months past the end of the trip -- a requirement of many countries. Our in-country tour operator will arrange for visas for U.S. citizens. If you do not hold a U.S. passport, please consult with the trip leader. Evacuation insurance is strongly recommended. The leader will send out additional travel information. You are encouraged to arrive in Bangkok at least a day or two early to help overcome jetlag and to allow for missed/delayed flights or lost baggage -- unfortunately, not a rare occurrence.

Accommodations and Food

Our accommodations in Bhutan will be in simple but clean and comfortable lodges and hotels that have hot running water, electricity, and very attentive staff who delight in contact with foreign visitors. Meals will be in hotel dining rooms and in local restaurants. Vegetarians can be readily accommodated. Bhutanese cuisine is somewhat similar to Indian, but not as richly flavored. However it can be spicy; the national dish is Ema Dhatsi, hot chili peppers with cheese sauce, served as a vegetable, not a seasoning for something else.

Trip Difficulty

This trip is a blend of day hikes and touring. People comfortable walking for 4-5 hours in hilly terrain typically do not have a problem with our hikes. One consideration is that the areas of Bhutan we will be visiting are at altitudes between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. Many times, our bodies are not acclimated to that altitude for hikes. We tend to get out of breath easier. Our most difficult day will be the hike to Taktshang Monastery -- the Tiger’s Lair. The walk in takes about two+ hours and there is a gain of about 2,000 feet, starting at an altitude of about 7,300 feet. We return by the same route. The pace on our hikes will be adjusted to fit the group. All hikes are optional. Sometimes the alternative will be touring the town or a historical site; sometimes it will mean sitting on the bus while the rest of the group walks.

Equipment and Clothing

Good hiking boots or sturdy shoes will be required. Walking sticks are recommended. Otherwise there is no special equipment needed for this outing. Comfortable, casual clothing and a day pack for carrying raincoats, water, and lunches are all you need. Approved participants will be sent a more detailed list at a later date.

References

Books:

  • Zeppa, J., Beyond the Sky and the Earth. A volunteer educator's account of living and working in Bhutan for three years.
  • 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 help to start Bhutan’s first youth-oriented radio station, Kuzoo FM.
  • Sze, Elisie, The Heart of Buddah. A novel also taking place in Bhutan and places we will visit.
  • Armington, S., Lonely Planet Bhutan. Perhaps the best of the few travel guides for Bhutan. About half our hikes are covered here.
  • 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.
  • Inskipp, C. and T., and R. Grimmett, Birds of Bhutan. For birding enthusiasts.
  • Snelling, J., The Buddhist Handbook. An easy-to-read primer on Buddhism.
  • Myers, D. and S. Bean (Eds.), 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 generally 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.

Conservation

This tiny kingdom (about 700,000 people in an area about the same size as Switzerland) possesses the last intact, large-scale ecosystem in the Himalayas. The government has ruled that 60 percent of the country must remain forested. With Western influence in the area on the rise, Bhutan has adopted the philosophy that environmental and cultural preservation are the only means for remaining an independent country. Tourists must pay daily fees ($250 and included in the trip price) and be escorted by a licensed (bilingual) Bhutanese guide. Both of these measures are intended to assist in preserving the environment and culture.

Staff

Leader:

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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