The tour starting from western to central and back to western Bhutan to Haa Valley gives us real texture of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. Bumthang in central Bhutan has lot of hidden histories dating back to the 7th century. Landscape there is similar to Switzerland, hence the valley is also known as Mini Swiss. Haa is the extreme west of Bhutan bordering Tibet in the north and Sikkim, India in the west. Due to folds of mountains towards west, Sikkim is not accessible from Haa.
Road From Paro to Thimphu: The distance of about 65kms from Paro town takes one and half hours. Drive south following Pachu River to the confluence at Chuzom, which is also the hub of road network going to Paro, Haa, Thimphu and Phuntsholing. From Chuzom, the drive takes about an hour, staying close to Wangchu River in the valley floor, as we pass through villages and suburbs to the capital, Thimphu. En-route we can stop to view Tachogang temple and the nunnery at Wangsisina.
Thimphu: (El. 2250m) is Bhutan’s capital city and center of government, religion and commercial activities. About one and half hour drive east from Paro is a unique city with unusual mixture of modern development with ancient traditions. Home to civil servants, expatriates and monk body, Thimphu maintains a strong national character in its architectural style. It was a wooded farming valley until 1960s, when it became Bhutan’s official capital. The massive Tashichoe Dzong, about 700 yrs old, was carefully revamped in the 1960s by the Late Third King of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck to house the Royal and main government offices. Even today, it still has a few streets and no traffic light with estimated population of 100,000 people. Thimphu has many places and sights to visit, in addition to several days excursion possibilities. It has relatively more choice in terms of the accommodation.
Tashichoe Dzong: The fortress built in the 17th century serves as the office of the King, Ministers and various government organizations. It also is the headquarters for Central Monastic Body of Bhutan. Bhutan’s spiritual leader, Je-khenpo or Chief Abbot and the monks of both Thimphu and Punakha reside here during summer. It is also the venue for Thimphu festival in the fall season.
Folk Heritage Museum: A century old building is converted as museum to show the folks that how our forefathers used to live in the mid 19th century with all household belongings. The three-storied house is built with ramped mud wall and shingled roof.
Tango Monastery: The hike starts at an elevation of 2600m and takes about 45 minutes uphill. The monastery was founded in the 13th century by Phajo Drugom Zhipo, the founder of Drukpa Kagyupa School in Bhutan. It was enlarged to the present form in 1688 by Gyelsey Tenzin Rabgay, the 4th Temporal Ruler of Bhutan, similar to a Dzong. Now is the residence of young reincarnation of Gyelsey Tezin Rabgay.
Semtokha Dzong: the oldest Dzong built in 1629 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal at the end of the valley looks quite new and fresh, houses National Institute and Cultural Studies. The Dzong was renovated couple of years back with the funding from Indian Govt.
Zhilukha Nunnery: is housed in Drubthob Goemba (monastery) built in 15th century by Dubthob Thanthong Gyelpo, popularly known for his great work of building Iron Bridges in Bhutan. There are about 50 nuns who live and pray every day in the monastery. There are good views of the Tashichoe Dzong, Golf course and upper Thimphu.
Textile Museum: The National Textile Museum which was opened in June 2001 is worth a leisurely visit to get to know the living national art of weaving. Changing exhibitions introduce the major weaving techniques and style of local dress and textiles made by women and men. The small shop features works from the renowned weaving centers in Lhuntshe Dzongkhag, the ancestral home of the Royal family in north-eastern Bhutan. Each item is leveled with the name of the weaver and price.
National Memorial Chorten: was built by Royal Queen Mother, Ashi Phuntsho Choden Wangchuck in 1974 in memory of her son, His Majesty Third King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, also known as ‘Father of Modern Bhutan’. The stupa now stands as a symbol of peace, where people of all age come to pray and circumambulate for merit.
Buddha Doderma: is one of the largest sitting statues of Buddha Shakyamuni measuring 169ft (51.5m) on hilltop overlooking the Thimphu valley. The building of the statue was started in 2006 and finished in September 2015, commemorating the birth anniversary of Fourth King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Ground floor houses temple with over one hundred thousand smaller statues of Buddha itself, made of bronze and gilded in gold.
Takin Reserve: Takin (Budorcas Taxicolor) has been chosen as the national animal of Bhutan based both on its uniqueness and association with country’s history and mythology. It is said that Divine Madman, a popular Tibetan saint has said to have created the beast with his magical power at a large congregation of devotees. It resembles a calf from back, a goat from the front and continues to befuddle Taxonomists, who cannot quite relate to other animals. However, the animal looks like a Canadian Moose.
Road from Thimphu to Punakha: The drive from Thimphu to Punakha or Wangdue Phodrang (75kms) takes about 2½ hrs. The road climbs from Thimphu to Dochula Pass (3100 m), and then descends through ever changing forest into the semi-tropical valley of Punakha and Wangdue at about an elevation of 1250m. Dochula Pass en-route, provides spectacular view of snow-capped mountains of Eastern Himalayas, including Bhutan’s one of the highest mountains (Gangkar Phuensum – 7570m), on a clear day. The pass is marked with 108 stupas which were built in 2004 commemorating victory of Bhutanese Army over Indian group of militants; ULFAs, Bodos and KLOs.
Chimi Lhakhang: A fertility temple dedicated to Lama Drukpa Kuenley, a Tibetan Buddhist saint known popularly as ‘the Divine Madman’ and considered a folk hero in Bhutan for his unconventional ways. Lama Drukpa Kuenley originally built a black Stupa at the site; the temple was later built in the 15th century by his cousin, Ngawang Chogyal. The temple, flanked by nearly 100 tall prayer flags, sits atop a picturesque hill. It has long been a pilgrimage site for childless couples. This easy walk takes about less than 1 hr.
Punakha and Wangdhu Phodrang: are two separate districts, but they are located in one valley (20kms- 45mins drive apart). The accommodations may be either in one of these two towns but sightseeing generally includes both places. Punakha and Wangdue are located at lower elevation (El. 1250m) and they have pleasant winters. Cactuses, oranges, banana and sub-tropical plants are found here. Farmers are able to grow two crops in a year.
Punakha was once the capital of Bhutan, the tradition that is still held by the Central Monastic body and Jekhenpo (chief abbot), who reside here in Punakha Dzong during the winter and return to Thimphu, the summer capital. In Wangdue Phodrang, there is a small town along the Punatsamgchu River and large Wangdue Phodrang Dzong.
Punakha Dzong: or Pungthang Dechen Phodrang, “ palace of great happiness” is located on the confluence of two rivers ( Pho-chu and Mo-chu). It was built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in accordance to the prophecy of Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Master of the 8th century. The dzong still follows the ancient traditions; it serves as winter residence for chief abbot (Je-khenpo) and the monks of Central Monastic Body and Thimphu as the summer residence. The Building was damaged and rebuilt several times, due to flooding, fire and earthquake. The most impressive dzong of Bhutan is believed to be exact architecture of Zangtopelri (the Guru’s Paradise). It is an exemplary masterpiece of Bhutanese architecture. Annual 3 day festival is held here with Thongdrol, unfurling of huge painting on the last day in early spring.
Khamsum Yeulley:drive to the idyllic countryside north of Punakha to the village of Nyizergang, starting point for an hour gradual hiking ascent through cultivated fields and little hamlets to the Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, a shrine recently built by the Royal family. The shrine is an amazingly elaborate structure with a rainbow of Guru Rinpochhe’s images of his thoughts and superb views of the Punakha valley. The hike uphill takes about 1 hour and return through different route following ancient river side trails through white wash farmhouses and Aman Resort to Punakha Dzong.
Drive from Punakha to Trongsa: it is approximately 210km on the lateral highway that takes about 6- 7hrs. Drive down the valley to the town of Wangdue. From Wangdue, the road gradually winds way up towards the Pelela pass (El. 3420m) where we will stop for view of the snow capped peaks, including that of Bhutan’s sacred peak, Mt. Jhomolhari (El. 7314m). After crossing Pelela pass, descend and pass through the villages of Rukubji, Chendebji, Sephu, Langtel and several other villages and arrive Trongsa after 4-5hrs of drive. From Trongsa, the drive takes about 2 ½ hrs to Bumthang. Climb from Trongsa to Youtongla (El. 3550m) and descend into Chumey valley (2700m), the first of four Bumthang valleys. Then it is another 45 minutes, pass the villages of Zungney and Prakar, and cross Kikila pass (2860m) to Jakar, the administrative centre of Bumthang district.
Bumthang: is justifiably regarded as the cultural heartland of the Kingdom with its many temples, holy sites, language and traditions. It is here that most kings, rulers or priest were buried or cremated. Bumthang is comprised of four valleys; and Jakar (El. 2800m) in Choekhor valley is the administrative centre and the main town of Bumthang district.
National Museum: Ta-Dzong used to be the watch tower built in the 17th century and now houses the museum dedicated to the great monarchs and forefathers of Bhutan. Unlike other museums, this has two wings and central tower. The building has been restored and converted as museum in December 2008 with the help from Austrian Government.
Yathra Weaving Centre: Yathra is colorful wool weaving, pattern native of central Bhutan with deep colors. In the village of Zungney in the Chumey valley, there are shops, where we can see the weavers- at-work. You may be able to see the dyeing of wool using natural dyes and other processes.
Jampa Lhakhang: is another one of the geomantic temples (like Kichu in Paro) founded in 7th century by Tibetan King, Songtsen Gompo, and this time on the ‘left knee of the Ogress’, who was hindering the spread of Buddhism in the Himalayas. Later in the 8th century, Guru Rinpoche is said to have preached the local king Sindhu Raja from the temple roof.
Kurjey Lhakhang: is named after the sacred power place where Guru Rinpoche (8th century) left his body imprint (meaning: Kurjey) on the rock which can be seen inside the shrine. There are three large temples within the complex surrounded by a perimeter comprising of 108 stupas. Upon entering, the first temple to the right is dedicated to Guru Rinpoche (which houses the cave) dating from 1652 A D. The middle temple Sampalhundrup was built by the first King Ugyen Wangchuck in 1900 A D, during his tenure as Trongsa Penlop, governor. The third temple is recently constructed under patronage of Her Majesty the Grand Queen Mother Ashi Kesang Choden Wangchuck.
Tamshing Lhakhang: located opposite to Kurjey Lhakhang was founded by a religious treasure discoverer, Terton Pema Lingpa in 1501. Believed to be the reincarnation of Guru Rinpoche, he discovered many religious treasures around the country which were hidden by the Guru in the 8th century. The original murals on the walls still survive, which are considered to be the oldest extant painting in Bhutan since the 16th century.
Swiss Farm Area: A small factory, founded by Swiss Bhutanese produces variety of Swiss cheeses, clover honey, apple cider, wine, apple brandy and beer. It is interesting place to see some samples and purchase some to try.
Jakar Dzong: “Jakar Dzong” literally meaning castle of the white bird is located on picturesque ridge overlooking the Choekhor valley. The current structure was built in 1667 AD (refurbished in 1683 AD) is said to be one of the largest Dzongs in Bhutan, with impressive fortress walls, elegant structure but rather simple interior.
Mebartsho: A burning lake at the end of Tang valley. It is said to have found a relic from the lake by Terton Pema Lingpa in the 15th century.
Drive from Jakar to Trongsa: The drive to Trongsa, 68km and takes about 2-3hrs. Retrace the drive across Kikila Pass into Chumey valley, and then cross Youtongla (El. 3550m) pass into Trongsa.
Trongsa: (El. 2260m) lies at the geographical center of Bhutan. The town of Trongsa has been developing since 1980s, with many of the shops being owned by Bhutanese of Tibetan descends. This small town is located on the face of the ridge and the cross-road junction of lateral east-west highway, and the road leading southward to Zhemgang.
Trongsa Dzong: or Choekor Rabtentse is the largest and most impressively situated dzong in Bhutan, perched high on the cliff above the deep Mangde Chu River gorge. It was built in 1648 on the site of temple which was founded in 1543. The huge many-level fortress with its intricate wood carving has a maze of courtyards and covered passages that follow the contour of the ridge. First and second Kings ruled the country from this fort and all the successive kings have held the post of Trongsa Penlop (honorary governor) prior to being crowned as the king.
Kuenga Rabten Palace: 20 kilometers south of Trongsa lies the beautiful winter Palace, Kuenga Rabten of the second King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck. The Palace was used by Royal family while coming back from Bumthang in the first half of the 20th century. It is worth visiting the inner courtyard with beautiful woodworks and decorations.
The Palace is comprised of many books on Buddhism and Bhutan’s culture, affiliated with National Library in Thimphu.
Drive from Trongsa to Gangtey: The drive on the switched-back road takes about 3hrs to reach Gangtey or Phobjikha. After leaving Trongsa, the road winds for 14kms north-west via Tsamkhar to cross Mangde Chu River at Bjizam. After driving for nearly one hour, we can still see Trongsa Dzong, so close enough that we feel as though we can touch. Retrace through the villages of Tangkebji, Chendebji, and then through villages of Sephu Nikachu, Rukubji and climbing up the nomadic settlements and Yak country to Pelela pass (El. 3420m). A short distance after the pass, take another road, leaving the lateral highway, across small pass called Laog-la (El. 3360m) and descending into wide and beautiful valley of Phobjikha or Gangtey.
Phobjikha Valley: (El. 3000m) is a wide and beautiful valley, designated as conservation zone within the Black Mountains National Park, a natural habitat for wildlife, including nesting black-necked cranes from Central Asia (mid autumn till early spring). Because of the conservation measures, there is no electricity in the valley. The lodges use solar power cells to light which is turned off after the dinner. Hot water is provided in the bucket and rooms are heated with wooden stoves.
Gantey Gompa/Monastery: Site atop a hillock that overlooks the Phobjikha valley. It is headed by the ninth Gangtey Trulku (reincarnation) and is the largest Nyingma monastery in western Bhutan. It was founded in 1613 AD by Gyelse Pema Thinley, a grandson and reincarnation of influential treasure discoverer, Pema Lingpa. An incarnate line of Pema Thinley, representing the body aspects of Pema Lingpa, contrasted with mind and speech emanations. The monastery has been recently renovated and surrounding the monastery are village homes and hermitages.
Black-necked Cranes: or ‘Thrung Thrung’ as this bird is passionately known in Bhutan which has become of the subjects of many Bhutanese songs and folklore. They are seen among the painting on the walls of temples and thangkas (scroll paintings). These endangered species of cranes migrate from Tibetan Plateau in late autumn and typically stay till mid March. The wetland in the center of Phobjikha valley provides the nesting ground and natural habitat for these black-necked cranes. The Observation & Education Centre has informative displays about the cranes and conservation effort in the valley.
Drive from Gangtey to Thimphu: The drive from Gangey to Thimphu takes about 5hrs covering 125kms. From Phobjikha valley, climb to the pass (El. 3360m) and join the main east-west lateral highway, just beneath the Pelela pass. Descend through the changing vegetations to semi tropical, old Wandue Phograng town. Continue west and climb up to Dochu-la pass (El. 3050m), where we have another opportunity to view the peaks of the eastern Himalayas. Descend to Thimphu from Dochu-la takes about 45 minutes.
Haa: (El. 2670m) is another beautiful valley, quite like Paro but being higher, rice is not grown here. The main crops of the valley are wheat, barley, millet and potatoes. In the ancient times, this was an active trading post, through Amochu valley, which linked Bhutan with Dromo (Chumbi) valley of Tibet. Large areas are occupied by Indian Military Training (IMTRAT) camp centre, one of the reasons why this area is closed for tourist until 2001. In terms of the sight, there is not much to see here but the valley is quite beautiful and there are some large and interesting villages. Places we can visit here are lhakhang Karpo and Nagpo.
here are two roads connecting Haa, both of which are scenic. The road across Chele-la pass to Paro is 61 kms and takes about 2 ½ hrs drive. The other road follows the gorge of Haa Chu and Wang Chu rivers for 2-3 hrs to Chu-zom. From Chuzom, Thimphu is an hour northwest and Phuentsholing (border to India) is 4 hrs to the south.
Lhakhang Karpo and Nagpo: These two temples/monasteries are probably the most important site in the Haa valley. Lhakhang Karpo (white chapel) is the official residence of Haa monastic body. Lhakhang Nagpo (black chapel) on the slopes nearby is smaller chapel with a small lake inside the shrine. Both the temples are said to have been built by Pigeon emanation of Tibetan King Songtsen Gempo in the 7th century.
Paro Dzong: Its official name, Rinchenpung Dzong (fortress on a heap of jewels) was built and consecrated in1645 by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal on the site of five storey castle built in 16th century. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries it served as a bastion against invasion from the north. It is regarded as one of finest Bhutanese architecture – with intricate wood work, large beams slotted into each other and held together without nails. It houses the giant 30m x 45m Thangka (Thongdrol), commissioned in mid 18th century and is displayed on the last day of Paro Tshechu (Festival). Nowadays, it functions as the administrative and judicial headquarters of Paro district, residence for the 200 monks of Paro Rabdey (district monastic body).
Kyichu Lhakhang: is one of the most important Buddhist temples similar to Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang, before the advent of Buddhism in Bhutan. Tibetan King, Songtsen Gempo built the temple in 7th century, in order to pin down an ogress, obstructing him in flourishing Buddhism in the Himalayas.
Taktsang Monastery: Taktsang (Tiger’s lair) – or Taktsang Pelphug is one of the most venerated and famous monasteries of Bhutan. It is located on the face of a sheer 1000m cliff above the Paro valley. It is an impressive sight but accessible only by trek or pony. The walk to the Tea-house is a steep one hour uphill (about 350m ascent). From the Tea-house (El. 2795m), one can get a close-up view of Taktsang and most actually return back from here. After tea, snacks and rest, we will trek further uphill to a high observation point (3140m), where there is a Chorten (stupa). Continue down the flight of cliff-hanging steps on the narrow trail to a beautiful waterfall that plunges down the chasm and alongside is a retreat hermitage. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the great Buddhist tantric master, who spread Buddhism across the entire Himalayas is said to have flown here in 8th century on the back of a Tigress. During his visit, he meditated in the cave here for three months. In 1692, Gyesey Tenzin Rabgye, Paro Governor built a two storey temple here, which over a period of time was expanded and refurbished. In April 1998, tragically, two of the three temples were completely burnt down by fire. It has now been restored to its original splendor.
Ugyen Tsemo: from the view point overlooking Taktsang, another trail leads upward to the summit. Here there are three temples highly venerated as well but not on the usual tourist route. Zangdopelri (named after Guru Rinpoche’s heavenly abode), built in 1853 sits on the summit of opposite ridge across the chasm from Taktsang Pelphug. The small shrine and its balcony provide view of Taktsang. Ozergang is nearby hermitage constructed in 1646. Higher still and on the summit of ridge directly above Taktsang Pelphug, sits Ugyen Tsemo. Ugyen refers to Taktsang and Tsemo means top or the head. The temple was originally built in 1508 and restored recently in 1958. It contains some beautiful frescoes of Guru Padmakara and his followers. The view from Ugyen Tsemo is astoundingly beautiful. A day excursion to higher ridge of Bumdra can be done from here.
Peak Season ( March, April, May, September, October and November) – USD 3000/person
Lean Season (January, February, June, July, August, December) – USD 2400/person