11 Nights | 12 Days
While GNH is Bhutan’s gift to the world, how different is a GNH country from others? What is so special about Bhutan? Are the people happy?
These are questions most people who have not been to the country ask. The Experiencing GNH Trip will answer these questions. Apart from showcasing Bhutan’s middle path approach to development and the importance placed on preserving and promoting the country’s unique culture and environment, you will be taken to sites that reflect GNH. You will see and experience how modernity has perfectly blended into the Bhutanese culture. As your trip ends, you will find answers to your questions. You will realize why the world has embraced GNH and other elements that make Bhutan special.
If we are to point out one product that has attracted the world to Bhutan and elevated Bhutan’s position, it is undeniably Gross National Happiness (GNH). Over the last couple of years it has become a subject dissected by scholars and critics; a literature in itself.
Bhutan is the home of GNH and it sprung from the pine clad palace of Samtenling, when the Fourth King, Jigmi Singye Wangchuck said in the early eighties, that “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product.” A very philosophical statement, its essence is very simple, propounding the fact that accumulation of material gains alone is not the gateway to happiness, which is the ultimate desire of all human beings.
While wealth is one of the elements for happiness, there are other factors, abstract in nature, without which even the world’s richest man cannot live happily.
With this concept, Bhutan embarked on a unique form of development, where economic development received equal footing as promotion and preservation of the culture, and environment. Good Governance was given prominence and within a short span of time, the merits of GNH became visible. Bhutan developed, its GDP soared, but there was no affect on the environment. Despite the forces of modernization knocking on the country’s doors and entering the nation, Bhutan’s age old values, embodied in its culture remained intact.
It wasn’t long before GNH flew beyond Bhutan’s borders. It became an international anthem, a literature in itself, with several eminent scholars discussing and dissecting the concept. Countries such as Brazil, Japan and even France started adopting and implementing GNH in its policies. GNH reached its pedestal when the United Nations endorsed it and even dedicated one day of the year to Happiness, as World Happiness Day.
Bhutan, a country that very few had heard of gained popularity and today, the Himalayan Kingdom sparkles in the sky amidst other stars.
Environment is a crucial aspect of GNH. The small Himalayan Kingdom houses over 5,400 species of plants, including 300 species of medicinal plants, some thriving even at 3,700m above.
It has 369 species of orchids, of which 82 are unique to the Kingdom and 46 species of rhododendrons.
The tropical evergreen forests growing below 800m are repositories of a unique biodiversity. The tropical vegetation of the lower zones gives way to dark forests of oak, birch, maple, magnolia and laurel. Above 2,400m altitude is the home of spruce, yew, and weeping cypress, and higher still, growing up to the tree line, is the east Himalayan fir.
At about 5,500m are low shrubs, rhododendrons, Himalayan grasses and flowering herbs. Bhutan’s national flower, Blue Poppy grows above the tree line 3,500 – 4,500m elevation.
Day 1: Arrive at Paro international airport
The GNH Excursion will begin the moment you step into the airline taking you to Bhutan. Adorned in the traditional Bhutanese dress, the airline’s crew, personifications of the inheritated and innate Bhutanese hospitality and humility, will welcome and greet you in the traditional Bhutanese way. You will notice how friendly Bhutanese are and if your seat is next to a Bhutanese, do not hesitate to ask any questions. Bhutanese are by nature very friendly and will answer all your queries. It is because of the strong social fabric and network that have bonded the people for years.
In what is defined as one of the most enthralling flights, you will see the jewels of the mighty Himalayas, including Mt. Everest, Mt. Jomolhari (Mountain Goddess), Mt. Jitchu Drake and others. The scenic view of Paro valley before you land is another beauty and the landing itself is thrilling.
At the airport, our representative will welcome you in the traditional Bhutanese custom, with a khaddar (white cloth), a symbol, wishing you luck during your stay here.
After checking into your hotel and a quick lunch, we will visit some of Paro’s historically significant places, such as the Rimpong Dzong (“Fortress on a Heap of Jewels”), the former Ta Dzong (Tower), which has now become the national museum and Kyichu monastery, one of Bhutan’s oldest, build in the 7th century.
During these visits, you will see how Bhutanese culture, one of the core tenets of GNH, has been preserved. Apart from the structures and relics, the formal dresses people wear is another epitome of Bhutanese culture.
In the evening, we will visit a farmhouse and also take a stroll of Paro town. You will be treated to a hot stone bath after which we will have dinner. There will be traditional Bhutanese entertainment.
Night halt at the hotel.
Day 2: Taktshang (Tiger’s Lair) Excursion – Thimphu
A visit to Bhutan will be incomplete without a trek to Taktshang monastery, one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites and associated with the great 8th century Indian Tantric Saint Guru Padma Sambhava. The hike will start after half an hour’s drive and will take approximately five hours to go up and return.
Taktshang monastery is another epitome of GNH. The hundreds of people, who visit the monastery, reflect the spiritual aspect of Bhutanese life and GNH, which propounds that the material and spiritual in unison will bring forth happiness. The Tiger’s Lair also reflects Bhutanese culture, especially architecture, which is unparalleled.
Following an ancient footpath flanked by water-driven prayer wheels, you will reach Taktshang monastery, precariously perched on a hair-raising ravine about 3,000 metres above the valley floor.
Legend has it that the eight century Buddhist Tantric, Guru Padma Sambhava meditated in the cave to subdue evil forces who were obstructing the spread of Buddhism. It is believed that he came to Taktshang, in a fiery wrathful form, riding a Tigress. The monastery has also seen many Buddhist saints meditating in and around the temple. Some, known as Tertons (Treasure Discoverers) have discovered numerous hidden treasures, particularly teachings hidden by Guru Padmasambhava.
Upon arrival at the road point from Taktshang, a fleet of bikes will be waiting for you. We will bike to the ruins of Drugyel Dzong, the fortress known as the “Castle of the Victorious Drukpa”. It symbolizes Bhutan’s victory over the Tibetan invasions of the 17th and 18th centuries.
We will return to the hotel biking.
During dinner, you will interact with people you can talk with about GNH, especially lecturers of Paro College of Education. From GNH the concept of Green Schools has been incorporated in Bhutan’s education system. You could discuss these with the lecturers and others.
Halt at hotel.
Day 3: Paro – Thimphu
The journey to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital is about an hour. After checking into our hotel, Thimphu’s excursion will begin, by visiting the National Memorial Chorten (Stupa), built in memory of The Third King, Jigmi Dorji Wangchuck, also known as Father of Modern Bhutan.
It is here that you will see elements of GNH, manifested by the scores of old people chanting prayers and sitting by the huge prayer wheels. Unlike the West, Bhutan has no old age homes. However, most of the senior citizens spend their time in centres such as the Stupa. Economic support is provided by their families. There are stories of these old people finding their partners at these places.
The next visit will be to the statue of the world’s largest Buddha, followed by the 12th century Changangkha Lhakhang, Takin Zoo and drive to Sangaygang, which offers the best view of Thimphu city. The Folk and Heritage museum, Institute of Traditional Medicines Services (ITMS), a nunnery and the local handmade paper factory are other places we will visit. The Bhutanese government pays equal attention to traditional medicines. In the past, Bhutan was referred to as the “Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs.”
The next visit will be to the GNH centre, located in the centre of Thimphu town, where meditation and other basics of GNH are propagated. You can interact with the people there are even participate in some of the programs, such as meditation.
Visits are being arranged especially keeping in focus elements of GNH, which are symbolised in all these places. For instance, the 12th century Changangkha Lhakhang is revered as the protecting deity of all born in Kawang gewog (sub-district). Thus, everyone born in Kawang visit the temple. It is a tradition that has continued for times immemorial.
Similarly, Bhutan used to be called as Lhojong Menjong “Southern Land of Medicinal Herbs.” This is still kept alive today through the ITMS, while the living arts and crafts of Bhutan can be witnessed at the Folk Heritage Museum.
After lunch, we will visit the Majestic Tashichhodzong, the seat of governance, which houses the Office of the King, the Throne Room, some ministries and the Head Abbot’s (Je Khenpo) residence. The office of the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) is also located in the Dzong. If possible, we will arrange a small discussion with officers of GNHC.
Next on the list will be a visit to the archery field. Archery is Bhutan’s national game and we will witness a match.
During dinner, a cultural show will be organized. You will be entertained by Bhutanese songs and dances, which is a core ingredient of Bhutanese culture and performed during festivals and other social celebrations. You will also have the opportunity to interact with Bhutanese experts of GNH, the country’s folklore, music and others.
Halt at hotel.
Day 4: Thimphu – Punakha
We will move early morning. After about 45 minutes drive from Thimphu, we reach Dochula Pass (3100m), which offers the first glimpse of the eastern Himalayan Ranges, with snow capped peaks. The Pass is exotic and the 108 stupas built around a mound add to the grandeur of the place. The Druk Wangyel Lhakhang (temple) at Dochula is one of the latest additions to Bhutan’s glorious architectural and cultural masterpieces, built in honour of the Fourth King.
Dochula is also a haven of Bhutanese flora and fauna.
Few kilometers drive and we reach the Lamperi Botanical Garden, where we will play a game of Khuru. It’s a popular traditional Bhutanese sport. It involves throwing darts outdoors with a target approximately 10 meters (33 ft) to 20 meters (66 ft) away. While playing the game players actually stand near the target as other players are throwing the darts from far away using all their strength.
Every time they hit the paperback-sized target players sing and dance.
Usually “Khuru” player builds their own pair of Khurus.
Lunch will be served at Lamperi and we will then continue the journey to Punakha.
Before reaching Punakha, we will bike to Chimi Lhakhang, a 15th century temple dedicated to Lam Drukpa Kuenley, popularly known as the Divine Mad Monk. The temple is called the Temple of Fertility, where the Phallus is still worshipped. Barren couples from all around the world come to receive blessings from the phallus. It is said that women conceive after they receive the blessings.
After few minutes drive we reach the Punakha Dzong (Fortress), which from far resembles a ship on a mass of still water. The 1637 Dzong is one of Bhutan’s most historically significant icons. It was here that representatives from all parts of Bhutan swore allegiance to Penlop (Governor) Ugyen Wangchuck in 1907 enthroning him as Bhutan’s first hereditary King, leading to the birth of the Wangchuck Dynasty.
The Dzong also houses some of Bhutan’s most precious relics. Built at the confluence of two rivers, the Pho (Male) chhu (water) and Mo (female) chhu (water), the Fortress is an architectural wonder.
Towards the evening we will take a stroll around Khuruthang town.
Halt at hotel.
Day 5: Punakha – Trongsa
After an early breakfast, we begin our journey further east to Trongsa. En-route, we will visit ruins of the Wangduephodrang Dzong, built in 1638 by the Zhabdrung, which was tragically razed to the ground by a fire in 2012.
We will then drive through landscapes covered by forest on all sides and take the route to Gangtey Goenpa and Phobjikha valley. While the former is the seat of the Peling Tradition of Buddhism, the latter is the roosting valley of Black Necked Cranes, who flies into the area in winter from Tibet and Mongolia.
Phobjikha valley also symbolises GNH, especially the manner in which development and conservation has been balanced. You can interact with the people, who will tell you the need to sacrifice material gains for conservation, or the Black Necked Cranes. The landscape is filled with alpine forests, meadows, and flowers, including different species of Rhododendrons, Legumes, Magnolia, Weeping Cypress (national tree of Bhutan), etc.
At Phobjikha we also see red, pink and white rhododendrons (Rhododendron hodgsonii, R. keysii, R. kesangiae, R. ciliatum).
We then move further crossing Pelela (Pass, 4,000 meters), the traditional boundary between western and central Bhutan. A drive along the winding roads will take us to Chendebji, where stands a stupa built by King Zhida. It resembles the Boudanath Stupa of Nepal. We will have our lunch at Chendebji.
On our way to Trongsa, we see varieties of high altitude birds such as Finches and Bush Warblers, Brown Parrotbill, Spotted Laughingthrush and Himalayan Griffon.
We arrive at Trongsa after few hour drive. Trongsa Dzong (Fortress) was built in 1647 and is the biggest dzong in Bhutan. It is very historic, for Bhutan’s unification began from this Fortress, which was the seat of Jigmi Namgyal, the First King’s father. Even today, the crown prince has to become the Trongsa Penlop (Governor) before ascending the Throne.
Night halt at hotel.
Day 6: Trongsa – Bumthang
After breakfast we will visit Trongsa Dzong (Fortress) and the Ta Dzong (Tower). We will then move towards Bumthang, crossing yet another pass (Yotongla pass 3,500 m.) We can sight Brown Parrotbill, Chestnut-crown Laughingthrush, Black-faced Laughingthrush, Hill Partridge, Chestnut-tailed Minla, Gold-naped Finch and Darjeeling Woodpecker.
Chumey valley in Bumthang is one of the most beautiful valleys and we will have our lunch there. We will visit some of the yathra (cloth made from sheep wool) making houses.
We drive further for another hour and arrive at Bumthang, Bhutan’s mythical and one of the most religious valleys, flanked by prayer flags, stupas and monasteries.
We will check into a hotel and rest for the evening.
Day 7: Bumthang Sightseeing
We begin after breakfast and visit the Castle of the White Bird (Jakar Dzong), which is today the district’s administrative centre. The establishment of offices within the Dzongs (Fortresses) are also very much a GNH insignia, for this tradition was passed down from the 17th century.
One of the oldest surviving man-made structures in Bhutan, a temple dedicated to Buddha Shakyamuni, Jambay Lhakhang, was built in 639 AD as part of an oath by Tibetan emperor Songsten Gampo to subdue a demoness who lay spread-eagled across the Himalayas obstructing the teachings of the Buddha.
From there, we drive a short distance to Chakhar and then to Kurjey Lhakhag. Albeit oblivious today, Chakhar is the site of the legendary “Nine-Storied Iron Castle” built by Sindhu Raja (king) in the 8th century and the innumerable myths surrounding it. Kurjey, meaning “Body Imprint on Rock”, has temples built against a wall of cliff. The imprint belongs to the 8th century saint Padmasambhava who mediated in a rock cave and, using his tantric powers as well as guile and guise, subdued the evils who tormented the people in the vicinity.
After lunch at our hotel, we drive to Tamzhing monastery which preserves the remains of the works of Terton Pema Lingpa who, in the 15th century, discovered many secret tantric teachings hidden by Padmasambhava. Pema Lingpa was an artist and sculptor extraordinaire but, more importantly, one of the five “King Tertons” – treasure revealers – of Vajrayana Buddhism. Our last visit for the day is the “Burning Lake” (Mebertsho) in Tang where Pema Lingpa, challenged by a local warlord, took a dive into a pool with a lighted butter lamp on his head and re-emerged from the lake with the lamp intact and holding a hitherto unknown statue in his hands.
GNH is not just about culture, temples and monasteries. At Bumthang, we will visit the cheese factory, bee hives and taste some of the local delicacies, such as puta (noodles), Khuli (pancake made of barley). The beauty of the landscape will be sufficient to answer all questions about the environment.
We will also visit the site, where the GNH centre will be established. Those wishing to undergo meditation can also do so.
Night halt in Bumthang.
Day 8. Bumthang – Mongaar
In what is one of the most beautiful drives, you will be treated to sights of floral delights, especially various species of Rhododendrons, Rubus, Acer, Aconitum, Delphinium, Ranunculus, Clemantis, few species of orchid such as Coelogyne, Pleione, Cephalenthera, conifers such as Fir, Hemlock, Pine, Juniperus, Primulas, Androsac, etc.
We will reach Thriumshing La National Park covering Bumthang, Lhuentse, Zhemgang, and Mongar districts. Bhutan has designated one area there as Insitu-Rhododendron Garden. The Garden showcases the Kingdom’s rhododendron diversity in their natural habitat in an area of approximately 2 hectares harboring 22 different species of rhododendron in assemblage.
Thrimshing La National Park is home to many endemic species namely Daphne ludlowii, Lobelia nubigena, Vanda griffithii, Rubus sengorensis, and Pedicularis spp. It is also has Red Panda, reptiles, amphibians and different avian fauna.
This high altitude park area also has Spotted Nutcracker, Red-billed Chough, Fire-tailed Sunbirds, Great Parrotbills, Stripe-throated Yuhinas, Snow Pigeon, Orange-flanked Bush Robin, White-browed Fulvettas, Grey-crested Tits and Coal Tits.
As we move further, we will be entering the wet sub-tropical forests, a stretch that goes all the way to Lingmithang and is known in some circles as the “birding capital of the world”. It is undoubtedly the finest birding place in the Himalayas. The lush forests are home to several rare species and if interested one can scour for Shortwings, Bar-winged Wren Babblers, Black-headed Shrike Babblers, Ward’s Trogon, Slender-billed Scimitar Babblers, Yellow-rumped Honeyguide, Barbets, Golden Bush Robin, Chestnut-breasted Partridge and many other rare species.
From Lingmithang, we arrive at Mongar and check into a hotel. Arriving at Mongar marks the beginning of your eastern Bhutan experience. Many towns in eastern Bhutan are built on the sides of the hills which contrast to the west where they develop on the valley floor.
Overnight at the hotel.
Day 9. Mongar – Trashigang
We will visit Mongaar dzong, which was built in 1953 at the orders of the Third King, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck and then move to Trashigang. The drive is again a flora and fauna delight.
En-route, we will visit Dramtse Monastery, one of the most revered in the East. The monastery is very famous for the mask dance called as the “Dramtse Ngacham,” which is performed at all religious tsechus.
After Dramtse we will reach Trashigang and take a stroll of the town. You can get to know the people and the culture of Eastern Bhutan.
During dinner, you will be entertained by showcasing Bhutanese culture. You will also be meeting senior citizens who will narrate you stories of the past and folklores.
Halt at hotel.
Day 10 – Trashigang to Tashiyangtse and back
After breakfast we will drive for 48km to Tashiyangtse, a small town rich in Bhutanese arts and legend.
On the drive to Tashiyangtse you pass the small town of Duksum located on the Drangme Chhu (Bhutan’s biggest river) and its tributary. It is a few kilometers past Gom Kora, associated with Guru Rimpoche, who is said to have subdued evil forces there. A large boulder sits in the garden of Gom Kora (Gom Kora) Temple and its is said that if anyone can climb below the rock and emerge from its summit, he will be forgiven of his sins.
Duksum, a small weaver’s town where you can find a fair amount of weavers producing some very nice work will also be visited.
We will arrive at Chorten Kora, where one of the most famous festivals in Bhutan is observed. It is said that a pious Princess from the Dakpa tradition of neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh state (Assam), entombed herself alive in the chorten for the benefit of all sentient beings. Chorten Kora Tshechu is held to honour this ultimate sacrifice.
We drive back to Trashigang.
Before dinner, we will organize Bhutan’s traditional (national) game, archery for you.
Overnight at hotel.
Day 11: Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar
This will be a long 180 kms journey. So we start early. We will stop at Sherubtse College in Kanglung (22kms from Trashigang) and interact with students and professors of the institute. The college is Bhutan’s only university. During the interactions, you will know a lot about Bhutan, GNH and the form of education practiced.
From Kanglung, we move further, crossing Yongphula, where the eastern domestic airstrip is located. We will stop at Khaling, and visit the School for the Disabled. As a GNH country, Bhutan gives equal importance to those who are impaired.
33 kms later, we will reach Wamrong, where we will have our lunch. We will be passing through Kharungla Nature Park, another treasure house of birds and flora.
From Wamrong, the journey takes us through tropical and subtropical forest cover. We will be passing Narphung and arrive at Deothang. If time permits we will visit the Monastery and Buddhist Institute at Deothang.
Upon arrival at Samdrup Jongkhar, we will check in and rest for the day.
Day 12: Samdrup Jongkhar – Guwahati
From Samdrup Jongkhar, we will be taking the 100 km drive through the Indian state of Assam to Gauhati Airport, for your journey out of Bhutan. You will be escorted by our representative.