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Foothills of Bhutan

For many, Bhutan is the ultimate destination: the summit of the wish list. A land of enchanting fables, old and new, Himalayan peaks that remain unclaimed out of reverence to the gods, and a world-leading focus on sustainability (the world’s first carbon negative country) that puts the rest of the world to shame. A bold tourist tariff has led the way in protecting the country from overtourism, and the progressive monarchy has financially supported citizens through recent challenges; it’s easy to see why Bhutan is held up as an example of how things should be.

Bumthang, Bhutan
Punakha (Bhutan Tourism Council)
Punakha Valley
Thimpu
Thimpu
Gangtey Lodge
Paro

Acclimatise in Paro, enjoying the surrounding valley’s beauty and culture, then fly east and gradually work your way back via some of Bhutan’s most striking locations. Wander through Bumthang’s green fields, see the sheltered Phobjikha valleys where the Black Necked Cranes land, find peaceful moments in monasteries and temples, and experience the distinctive, small-town feel of the capital. 

End your journey on a high with a couple of days’ trekking, fully supported and flexible in duration and hardiness, and camp under the stars with just enough mod cons to allow you to focus on the raw beauty of your surroundings. Approach the Tiger’s Nest from above to experience it at its very best, and soak up its distinctive spirituality ahead of the mid-morning traffic. Like so many things in Bhutan, this journey is beautifully balanced.

The garden of Bhutan

Bumthang is one of the best places to begin to experience Bhutan’s distinctive character. As soon as you step out into its rolling, green hills, you start to soak up the country’s renowned sense of serenity. The valleys and hillsides are covered with fields of crops and thriving dairy farms, creating an agricultural idyll. The goembas and lhakhang (temples and monasteries) scattered throughout the region punctuate the natural beauty with the ordered calm of manmade tranquil spaces.

In the picturesque Tang valley, village life has remained mostly unchanged for generations, and the equally peaceful and picturesque Ura valley is home to the Ura Monastery and its striking symbolic murals. If you’re feeling intrepid, follow the Chamkhar Chhu river and climb to Shertang La Pass to gaze at Gangkhar Puensum, the highest unclimbed mountain in the Himalayas. However you spend them, a couple of days here gets you in step with Bhutan’s laid-back rhythms.

Valley of the cranes 

Also referred to as Gangtey, after the monastery that overlooks the valley, the Phobjikha Valley is a vast glacial plain, surrounded by forest-clad mountains and peppered with farming hamlets and temples. It feels truly remote - electricity only arrived a few years ago - and is a designated conservation area renowned for the endangered Black Necked Cranes which migrate here between October and February.

If you’re there during the season, you may be lucky enough to be treated to the spectacular display of hundreds of monochrome cranes swooping down to roost. Take time out from your cosy lodge to follow the Gangtey Nature Trail through Phobjikha Valley, passing through pasture, pinewoods, a village and marshlands to the 15th-century Khewang Lhakhang temple - one of the largest in Bhutan - for uninterrupted valley views from its lofty location.

A sheltered haven

Sitting in a picturesque, low-level valley, Punakha is warmer than the rest of the kingdom, making it a natural place to enjoy a few mellow days among the fields of rice and fruit. Having also served as the capital of Bhutan for over 300 years, it holds a significant place in the country’s culture. Stroll between tranquil temples, each with their own story, from the 15th-century ‘Temple of the Divine Madman', revered for its fertility powers, to the intricate murals of the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten.

You can’t leave the valley without making time to acknowledge the magnificent Punakha Dzong, widely considered to be the most impressive and beautiful dzong in the country, with brightly-painted timber windows peeking out from white-washed fortress walls overlooking the water, and vibrant murals depicting the life of Buddha adorning its interior.

A different kind of capital 

Thimphu is unlike any other Asian capital city. Although a bustling metropolis in comparison to the rest of Bhutan, it maintains a genuine small-town feel; sink into the relaxed pace and get to know more about the country’s traditional culture. Discover an endless procession of Buddhist devotees circumambulating the perimeter of the Tibetan-style National Memorial Chorten to gain merit. Head to the fascinating Tashichho Dzong, and (if you’re in Thimphu over a weekend) experience the energy of the bustling market.

Wander out into the surrounding hills to admire the enormous bronze statue of Buddha Dordenma, and amble along a gradually inclining trail lined with miniature stupas to reach the significant Tango Goemba. Spend time at Thimphu’s Institute for Zorig Chusum, established to preserve and promote Bhutan's traditional arts and crafts, and watch awe-inspiring demonstrations from the students. Or, just take up a pew in a welcoming cafe and watch the world go by…

Stepping into the wilderness

Many people are drawn to Bhutan for its serenity, landscapes, spirituality and isolation, but its excellent trekking opportunities also exert an enticing pull. One or two nights on the trekking trail can take your trip to another level. The Druk Path is one of Bhutan’s most famous routes, passing through varied landscapes from thick forests to open valleys; trek along a section of the path which starts near to Thimphu, camping overnight along the way.

Whilst a certain degree of fitness is essential for all hiking, the exact route can be tailored to your needs and preferences, ensuring that you can fully focus on the path ahead. Immerse yourself in the unspoilt purity of Bhutan’s ‘great outdoors’, as the crisp air fills your lungs and the superlative scenery stretches off in every direction.

Away from the trail

Before and after trekking the trails, take a little time to adjust to Bhutan’s high-altitude conditions in comfort. For a country of its size, Bhutan has more than its share of luxurious lodges. Those run by top-end brands, such as Amankara and Six Senses, are utterly outstanding, and more than worth pushing the boat out for, but we particularly love the independents, such as the Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary and Gangtey Lodge.

Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary is a sumptuous spa lodge in the hills surrounding Paro with a homely, welcoming feel, complimentary spa treatments and extraordinary views over the mountains from all possible angles. The Gangtey Lodge is closely affiliated with the Gangtey Monastery and provides a truly immersive spiritual, culinary and cultural experience that plunges you straight into Bhutanese monastic life. A stay at either, or both, can really feel like the cherry on the cake.

Dropping down to the Tiger’s Nest

Picturesque Paro sits on a riverbank surrounded by rice fields and forest-clad mountains. It’s a town of intriguing streets lined with traditional-style wooden buildings, handicraft shops, restaurants and coffee shops, and the jumping off point for visiting one of Bhutan’s most famous landmarks: the instantly recognisable Tiger’s Nest monastery.

Clinging to a cliff face over 3,000 metres above sea level, the Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Taktsang, is one of the most venerated and sacred Buddhist sites in the world. The only way to reach the monastery is by following steep pilgrim paths through the pine forest, but visiting as the grand finale to your trek allows you to get ahead of the crowds. Rather than joining the constant stream of visitors on the main trail, head straight downhill from your overnight camp as dawn breaks, arriving at the Tiger’s Nest before anyone else, with the scent of incense and the gentle sound of monastic chanting filling the early morning air.

A note on cost…

The guide price of £3,190US$3,790 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying 2 nights in Paro, 2 nights in Bumthang, 2 nights in Phobjikha, 2 nights in Punakha, 1 night in Thimpu & 1 nights at Bumdra tented camp; all in our favourite mid-range hotels. How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.

Interest in upgrading? Bhutan is home to some of Asia’s finest lodges. We particularly love the combination of the sublime Gangtey Lodge and Paro’s finest - the Bhutan Spirit Sanctuary. Total trip price from £4,990US$5,990.

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