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March 29 ~ Paro

Monday, March 29/BANGKOK ~ PARO   The Druk Air flight KB#127 departs at 6:50 AM from the Bangkok airport and you need to check-in, two hours prior.  You should be at the Druk Air check-in counter, #11, no later than 4:45AM.   Please don’t ignore this time to check-in.  You can get delayed at check-in with excess baggage (20kg/44lbs per person), lines at the Customs counter, having a coffee, or buying port in the duty-free shopping so please be aware that you still have to get to the gate 30 minutes prior to take a bus out to the plane.  
   After a brief stop in Calcutta, you should arrive in Paro by 09:50AM.   If the weather cooperates, you might have spectacular views of four of the ten highest peaks in the world—Everest, Cho Oyu, Makalu, and Kanchenjunga—plus peaks in Bhutan such as Chomolhari, Jichu Drakye, and Tsering Kang. After meeting your Bhutanese guide at the Paro airport, drive to your hotel overlooking the beautiful Paro Valley.
     Paro is one of the prettiest valleys in the country with willow trees hugging narrow roads that parallel the Paro River (chhu) and set back from the river are clusters of sturdy three-story rammed-earth and wood farm houses painted with graphic displays of Buddhist iconographic art: flying phalluses and other Buddhist icons to ward off evil spirits or symbolize fertility. Notice the roofs held down by large smooth stones, and the fire-engine red peppers spread out to dry in the morning sun. 
  This is one of the most auspicious times to be in the Paro Valley as they celebrate their annual Tsechu festival, a religious festival honoring the great Buddhist saint, Guru Padmasambava. You have the opportunity to watch ancient rituals and dances in the company of local farmers, weavers, school children and monks.  It might give you a little insight into a day in the life of a Bhutanese.  And, you’ll probably see an archery match or two, as archery is the other religion practiced in Bhutan.  It can be a relaxed yet active day to get outside and decompress from the travel and adjust to the 7,600’ elevation.   Dinner will be at your hotel.

Tuesday, March 30/PARO TSECHU  In the early morning hour before dawn, the monks will gather to carry an exquisite 18th century sacred silk –appliquéd thangka known as a Tendrol, up the hill to display to all of the faithful.  The Buddhist clergy and monk body chant and perform rituals at the foot of this magnificent offering that covers the face of a three storey building for barely an hour as devotees line up to receive the blessing.  Go in the early morning for special blessing. Festival dancing will continue throughout the day.  It’s optional to stay for the day or just for the morning and then go for a hike in the afternoon.                     

Wednesday, March 31/NATIONAL MUSEUM & TAKTSANG  HIKE  In the morning, visit to the National Museum in Paro, a gem of a place, housed in a 200-year-old watchtower perched on a steep ridge overlooking the valley. It houses a fine collection of national costumes and fabrics, an extensive gallery  of thangkas, an impressive stamp gallery and other galleries showcasing armor and silverware.
  A few miles drive north from town, is the trailhead where you start a two-hour hike up to Taktsang Monastery (its name means “tiger’s nest”), perched on a cliff 2,700 feet above the floor of the Paro Valley. The hike follows a steep and wide switchback trail. You can also ride horses uphill to a teahouse for lunch. It’s an hour hike to the teahouse and another hour to get up to Taktsang.  If you’re ambitious, you can hike further up the mountain through old growth forest to old painted meditation caves.  After you walk back down to the trailhead and car, have your driver take you to the 5-star Bhutanese hotel to look around, have a drink or maybe even get a pre-arranged massage.
B,L,D… Hotel (8,000')

Thursday, April 1/THIMPHU    Drive 1 1/2 hours to Thimphu, the capital. You will be staying at the centrally located Hotel Druk and after a brief check-in,  you’re ready to see the sights. A visit to the Heritage Museum will give you an insight as to how the Bhutanese have lived and continue to live today in the countryside. Stop by the Post Office to look at their world- famous selection of stamps and postcards before visiting the Textile Museum.  From the Textile Museum, you can walk over to the Handicrafts Emporium and begin shopping and walking back to the hotel. At the end of the day, you might like to take a hike outside of town to the cave of Thimphu’s protectress diety.  Tonight you can enjoy dinner in a local restaurant and a night on the town that could include bowling, snooker and dancing.  Your guide will help you with those plans!

Friday, April 2/ PUNAKHA ~ THIMPHU to DOCHU LA to PUNAKHA  I suggest starting your day at the weekly market.  The marketplace is a huge field with covered stalls selling anything from datse or yak and cow cheese, buta or noodles, chilies of varying colors and sizes and all hot, as well as clothing, jewelry, handicrafts and a religious section with handmade red cloth and silk brocade, prayer books , ritual horns, bells, and cymbals, and other accessories for the religious life.  It is amazing to realize that all of the basics for life in Bhutan can be found in this market. 
After lunch, drive to Punakha (2.5) hrs), stopping for a short hike through terraced rice fields to a small hillock where Drukpa Kinley, a famous Bhutanese saint who is also known as the Divine Madman, built his temple, Chimi Lhakhang.  After offering butter and incense, you will receive a blessing and if you plan to have children, don’t forget to ask for the special blessing that Bhutanese get when they want to have a child, particularly, a son. Hike back to the vehicle and continue driving a short distance further to   and check-in to a lovely cottage, overlooking the river and valley below. Taje a 10 minute drive to the Punakha Dzong, originally built in 1637.  In the last ten years, this magnificent dzong had suffered serious damage from fire and flood and they have reconstructed the main assembly hall in the same way that it was originally built. This is an incredible opportunity to see the architectural style and artwork of the best artisans in the country, right after the Coronation.  If there’s time, drive further up the valley for a hike up to the new temple for  the King of Bhutan and a panoramic view.  Return to lodge for dinner and overnight.

Saturday, April 3/PUNAKHA TO TRONGSA (7 hours) Today you’ll journey through some of the densest forests in the world, and up and over magnificent mountain passes, marked by sacred chortens (temples) which you circumambulate for blessings. You are on the east west highway—a two-lane road, which you share with the pack ponies and yaks—that connects all the way to Eastern Bhutan. Before reaching the second pass, Pele La (10,825 ft.) that separates Western Bhutan from Central Bhutan, pause to photograph the high altitude dwarf bamboo. If lucky,you’ll find yaks browsing on this strange vegetation.
    Continue on a spectacularly scenic journey through the Black Mountains to Trongsa, experiencing numerous terrain changes as you pass from blue and chir pine forests to 40’-60’ rhododendrons covering a mountainside to more temperate forests. Stretch your legs along the road and photograph the changing terrain and the snow-covered mountains. There’s always a good chance of seeing large languor monkeys along the way.  Have lunch by the 18th century Chendebji Chorten, a Nepalese Chorten with ‘eyes’ focused in north, south, east, and west direction. It’s a peaceful place with a long Mani wall. After lunch, continue to Trongsa, located in a deep gorge carved from the Mangde River. Until the 1970’s,  it was only reached by mule and foot trails. Overnight halt in the Mangde Valley, staying at the comfortable Yangkhill Lodge.  Visit the new museum in the renovated Trongsa watchtower.

Sunday, April 4/TRONGSA TO BUMTHANG (3 hrs) Wake up early and witness the beauty of the Mangde Valley, the first plumes of burned juniper offerings blending in with the rising mist of the valley floor. Bhutanese believe this white smoke is a staircase to the next life, and the link with the spirits who guard over all sentient beings. Today we visit Trongsa Dzong, the fortress monastery built in 1648 to mark the boundary between eastern and western Bhutan. In olden times, all travelers going east or west had to pass through here to pay their tax. Unlike other linear dzongs, this one seems to drop several hundred feet down the side of a mountain.
   Afterwards, proceed to Chumey, a wide fertile valley cultivated with wheat, barley, potatoes, and buckwheat. Here the local women weave the famous ‘Bumthang yathra’, pure woolen cloth woven in the traditional method with exquisite colored patterns, which they make into smart jackets and coats. After visiting with the weavers and shopping for wonderful buys, you’ll continue to Bumthang for a late lunch.
   Bumthang is the religious heartland of the country. It was here that Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambava) converted inhabitants to Buddhism in the 8th century. Since that time the myths and legends of Bhutan’s most famous saint and his myriad incarnations have shaped the lives of all its beings.
   In the afternoon after lunch, you’re ready to stretch your legs on a walking excursion visiting Tamshang Monastery where up to 200 monks and their novices reside. As you circumambulate the temple, notice the temple accoutrements: Buddhist victory banners, tiered altars with torma cakes, made of barley and other prepared food offerings. The inner sanctuary dates from 1540 CE, and shelters some incredible decorative wall paintings of the life of Guru Rinpoche. Continue on foot, past small farms planted with buckwheat to the Three Buddha Temple (Konchogsum Lhakhang) known for its famous bronze bell. To a westerner these monasteries and lhakhangs are living museums, repositories of exquisite art. To the Bhutanese these are venerated places, where it is an honor to spend a lifetime.
   Continue on the trail, across a bridge to Kurjey Monastery, where Guru Rinpoche subdued an evil spirit who was threatening the local deities. A temple was erected on the spot where the demon was overcome, later the first King of Bhutan built a second temple, and lastly in 1984 the Queen Mother commissioned the third building with its impressive Wheel of Life. Look for the ‘hells’ of the sinner’s world, and the smoke staircase that will take you to heaven! Following the visit, take the farmers’ path to the Jambay Lhakhang Temple, the oldest temple in Bumthang. Notice the tsa tsa cones made from the deceased ashes. Later in the afternoon, you may enjoy a walk into town with its wonderful stores to explore the local shops––this is the place to purchase books on legends and myths! Or meet locals buying staples in the tiny shops crammed full of everyday items. If you’ve purchased a textile, pop into one of the local stores to purchase a small bar of oil soap, perfect for washing your delicate Bhutanese cloth.

Monday, April 5/BUMTHANG  Journey to Tang valley (1.5) to enjoy a very special invitation to visit one of the Kingdom’s few existing lings, a sacred resting place, and historical palace which will introduce you to an ancient way of life, practiced by many who keep a traditional home in Bhutan. Your hostess, one of the Kingdom’s most renowned writers, has kept her palace as a living museum so that travelers like you may come to know Bhutan in a more intimate way. The trip involves a 45-minute hike and/walk to her ancestral home. Return to lodge for overnight.

Tuesday, April 6/BUMTHANG TO PHOBJIKHA TO PUNAKHA (8.5) Today, depart for your 7 hour drive to Gantey in the picturesque Phobjikha valley known for its potato cultivation and important wildlife preserves. Over 300 rare black-necked cranes life in this swampy valley from October to March, after which they return across the Himalayas to Tibet and Central Asia. It is also the location of one of the oldest monasteries and temples in Bhutan, the 13th century Gompa Gantey. The birds might still be there so it is worth going.  Your guide will know if the birds are there and if it is appropriate to visit the area.  Visit the restored temple and photograph the nesting cranes in the marshy habitat. Proceed to Punakha to overnight.

Wednesday, April 7/PUNAKHA TO THIMPHU (2 hrs)TO PARO (2 hrs) & HIKE TO KILI GONPA, A NUNNERY NEAR PARO (2.5 hrs, rt) An optional early departure will get you up to the Dochu La, a 10,400’ mountain pass marked with hundreds of prayer flags and if the weather is clear, at a teahouse with a perfect view (and telescope) to enjoy with a hot a panoramic view of the majestic eastern Himalayan peaks.  Have breakfast in front of the fireplace.  After breakfast, drive toward Thimphu for lunch and any last minute shopping.  Continue on to Paro and drive up to to the trailhead to the Kili Gonpa nunnery.  Hike for about 1 ½ hours, have tea at the nunnery and if appropriate, hike up to ridge top for big mountain views.  Return to Paro for last night.