Bhutan - Land of the Thunder Dragon Photo Tour 2018
Tigers Nest Monastery; Punakha Dzong and an assortment of other spectacular temple fortresses; The Punakha Festival; colourful Bhutanese murals and paintings; stunning mountain scenery
Day 1: Arrival in Paro, road transfer to Thimphu
On a clear day, the flight to Paro is one of the most spectacular of all mountain flights, as one can see major Himalayan peaks such as Mt. Everest, Mt. Kanchenjunga, Mt. Makalu, and then on the final approach to Paro, Bhutan’s own snowy peaks come in to view: the sacred Mt. Jhomolhari, Mt. Jichu Drake and Tsheringma.
After arrival at Paro International Airport taking care of passport formalities, and having collected baggage, we will be met by an ORYX representative, who will be driving us to Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital. Immediately apparent upon arrival in Paro is the terminal building, which is built in traditional Bhutanese style, and a most welcome diversion from the shiny glass and metal structures that are the norm in airports the world over!
After lunch, we will visit Drubthop Thangtong’s nunnery, and Changangkha Lhakhang. Changangkha Lhakhang holds a commanding view over Thimphu at a site chosen in the 12th Century, and is a temple and monastic school – indeed it is the oldest temple in Thimphu, and a popular site with pilgrims. This evening on our Bhutan photography tour, we will pay a visit to the Dechenphodrang Monastic School, followed by Tashichho Dzong. Tashichho Dzong is the administrative and religious center of Bhutan, and houses various government ministries, the country’s largest monastery, the Chief Abbot (His Holiness the Je Khenpo) as well as the throne room of His Majesty the King of Bhutan.
Day 2: Thimphu Sighseeing
This morning on our Bhutan photography tour, we will embark on a hike to Cheri Monastery (also known as Chagri Dorjeden Monastery), which was the first monastic school founded by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche and the founder of the Bhutanese state (as a note: Zhabdrung is of Tibetan origin, and was a title used when referring to great lamas in Tibet. In Bhutan the title almost always refers to Ngawang Namgyal (1594–1651), or one of his successive reincarnations. Located around 15km outside of Thimphu, Cheri Monastery is a sacred site where Zhabdrung Rinpoche completed his three years and three months retreat. We start the hike by crossing a swingbridge over the Thimphu River, where after we have about 60 minutes of walking to reach the monastery. This morning, we may also pay a visit to the Pangri Zampa Astrology school for monks (the two Cypress trees outside the entrance are thought to be the largest in the country!).
After lunch today on our Bhutan photography tour, we will visit the Weekend Market, followed by Zangto Pelri Lhakhang – a private temple built that was built by Dasho Aku Tongmi (famed as the musician who composed Bhutan’s national anthem). Other highlights this afternoon on our Bhutan photo tour include:
1) National Memorial Chorten (stupa) – this Tibetan-style chorten is a prominent landmark in Thimphu, built in 1974 in memory of the “Father of modern Bhutan”, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. the Third Druk Gyalpo or “Dragon King” (the head of state) of Bhutan. The Chorten is an important place of worship for residents of Thimphu, and the four storey building is decorated with statues and iconography depicting complex tantric teachings.
2) Buddha Dordenma statue (an enormous statue of Buddha, at over 50 metres high, it is one of the world’s largest!)
3) A handmade paper factory: handmade paper is a popular product in Bhutan, and much of it is made from the bark of the Daphne and Edgeworthia tree species. Although mostly used for greeting cards and some other forms of stationary, the paper used to be used primarily for writing prayers and mantras, as well as for traditional manuscript books
4) National Emporium Weaving Center – This is a state run showroom which showcases hand-woven fabrics, masks, prayers wheels etc. Beautiful Kira’s can be purchased in Thimphu; a kira is an ankle-length dress that is the national dress for women in Bhutan. They can be purchased here, but are typically not cheap, as elaborate ones can take up to six months to create! The practice of making handcrafts is an important past time in Bhutan, as the manufacture of these products is used to supplement income in winter months when farming is difficult and business has slowed down.
5) Simtokha Dzong – the oldest Dzong build by Zhabdrung Rinpoche in 1629. It is a small Dzong, which sports a beautiful image of Lord Buddha dating back to around the same time as the construction
Day 3: Depart Thimphu for Punakha
This morning on our Bhutan photo tour, we will depart Thimphu early, as we head northeast for Punakha. En route, we drive over the spectacular Dochu La (3,140m). The top of the pass is littered with prayer flags, and is home to 108 chortens, an impressive sight indeed! If it is clear, we will have be able to view the eastern Himalayas, including Bhutan’s highest mountain Gangkhar Puensum, with an altitude of 7,550 metres above sea level. Incidently, this peak is the highest unclimbed peak in the world. Bhutan has an interesting history with regards mountaineering – it is currently banned completely, after a period stretching from 1983 to 1994 when it was legal. Four attempts were made on Gangkhar Puensum in that time, none successful, and after 1994, the Bhutanese government outlawed climbing of mountains higher than 6,000 metres. In 2004, mountaineering in Bhutan was completely outlawed.
Thereafter, we descend through some beautiful forests en route to the warm and fertile valley of Punakha. During our Bhutan photography tour, we will stop and pay a visit to Chimi Lhakhang, the famous fertility monastery built in 1456. A pleasant short walk through the paddy fields and farm houses ends at Chimi Lhakahng, a modest temple dedicated to yogi saint Drukpa Kunley, popularly known as ‘the Divine Madman’ (1455-1529). Tales of his exploits are legendary, and he is said to have brought Buddhism to Bhutan. Furthermore, the use of phallic symbols and carvings to drive away evil spirits is said to derive from Drukpa Kinley.
This afternoon we will visit the spectacular Punakha Dzong. The impressive fortress and monastery of Punakha Dzong serves as a magnificent reminder of the Bhutanese devotion to their religion. This was the second of Bhutan’s dzongs to be constructed and until the time of the second king it served as the seat of the Bhutanese government. We will spend time watching the festival this afternoon on our Bhutan photography tour.
Later today, and if time allows, we will drive out of Punakha to Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, which is stretched along a ridge with a river below (it is being rebuilt at the moment after a significant fire in 2012). Legend has it that when people were searching for a building sight for the dzong, four ravens were seen flying in four directions. The people considered it an auspicious sign of the spread of religion to the four points of the compass and Wangdue Phodrang was founded in that place in 1632 with commanding views of the valley below. We may also walk to Rinchengang cluster village, a village known for the skill with which is practices its traditional form of stone masonry.
Day 4: Punakha Sightseeing and festival
Today on our Bhutan photo tour, we have a morning hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, perched high on the strategic ridge above Punakha Valley in Yebesa (7 kilometres outside Punakha). The chorten contains the images of all the manifestation of the wrathful Dorji Phurpa (vajra kila). It was built to help remove negative forces and promote peace, stability and harmony in the changing world, and the well-being and long life of the beloved monarch. Although the Stupa is newly built, it is one of the most magnificent works of Buddhist architecture. Furthermore, the view from here over the Punakha Valley is stunning!
After that we will visit to Punakha Dzong, built in 1637 by Zhabdrung Rinpoche and located at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu. Punakha was the country’s winter capital for more than 300 years, and still serves as the winter residence of the Central Monk Body. The coronation of the 1st King Ugyen Wangchuk was held here at Punakha Dzong on 17 December 1907. The very secret relic called Rangjung Kharsapani, a statue of Avalokitesvara, which appeared miraculously from the vertebra of Tsangpa Gyarethe (the founder of the Drukpa School), was placed in this Dzong.
There we will view the festival. These are characterised by masked dancing, and are very colourful affairs! Each day will showcase different dances, and we have a lot to look forward to. During our time in Punakha, we hope to see the dance which is a re-enactment of the invasion of Bhutan by Tibet in 1639, when the Tibetan forces were defeated.
In the evening visit Khuru Novice School, and newly establish nunnery school.
Day 5: Punakha Sightseeing and festival
Our Bhutan photo tour has a full day at the festival.. The dancing takes place on ground that is purified and consecrated by lamas, so while we are watching the festival we are, in essence, on the perimeter of a religious ground. The dancers whether monks or layman, are in a state of meditation. They transform themselves into the deities, which they represent on the dance ground. They generate a spiritual power, which cleanses, purifies, enlightens and blesses the spectators.
One of the most interesting dances today is the Dance of the Judgement of the Dead (Raksha Mangcham). This dance is based on the Bardo (Book of the Dead). When beings die, they wander in an intermediate state known as the bardo. They cross the bardo to meet their judgement by the Lord of Death. Also present is the white god and black demon who have been with every being from birth. The dance is like a play which depicts the judgement of a sinner and a virtuous man who goes to heaven. The rakshas are the helpers of the Lord of Death.
Day 6: Drive from Punakha to Paro
Today on our Bhutan photo tour, we drive back to Paro via Dochu La (we will stop here again should clear skies allow views of the Himalayas). After lunch we will visit Ta Dzong (literal meaning is “watchtower”), which was built in 1649 to safeguard the main structure of the dzong below from the Tibetan invaders. It was converted to house the National Museum of Bhutan in 1968. It has 6 galleries, and a visit to the museum will give us an idea of the cultural and ecological richness of Bhutan (please note, no cameras are allowed inside).
After the museum, we will visit the large Paro Rinpung Dzong. In the evening visit to local handicraft shops and purchase some souvenirs and leisure time.
Day 7: Paro – Tigers Nest Monastery
After an early breakfast today on our Bhutan photography tour, we will embark on our hike to one of Bhutan’s most famous (and easily recognisable) landmarks, the Taktsang Monastery – best known as “Tigers Nest”. This is one of the most sacred places in Bhutan due to its association with Guru Rinpoche, who reputedly flew to Paro Takshang cliff in the form of Guru Dorji Drolo, mounted on a flaming dakini-tigress. He did this in the 747 AD, and spent three months at Taktsang, meditating in a cave and subduing evil spirits. The monastery is spectacular, and boasts commanding views over the Paro Valley, and is well worth the effort to reach it! Although severely damaged by fire in 1998, it has been meticulously restored and is in excellent condition.
**Please note that it is fairly tough walk uphill to the main viewpoint (close to the viewpoint cafeteria), and this section generally takes around 90 minutes to reach. This viewpoint has great views of Tigers Nest. However, the iconic views of Taktsang Monastery are achieved further uphill close to the Monastery – it takes a further 90 minutes of walking to reach Monastery, with some sections being quite steep. Altitude can also make the walk a bit more challenging, as Tigers Nest clings to a cliff at 3,120 metres above sea level (around 10,200 feet). The walk should not be attempted if you have any physical limitations, as the vertical ascent from the car park is around 900 metres / 2,950 feet. A horse ride up the mountain is an option, however your guide will discuss this with you on the tour. Note that the cost of the horse ride is exclusive of tour fee**
Later in the day, we will visit Kyichu Lhakhang, which is a short distance out of town. It is regarded as one of the most significant temples in the area, and is one of the 108 temples built in the 7th Century AD by King Songtsen Gampo of Tibet. Legend has it that a large portion of the Himalayas was besieged by an enormous and evil ogress, who was lying across the area to prevent the spread of Buddhism. King Songtsen Gampo gave orders for his people to build temples at key points on the ogress’s body, so as to sap her of powers, and Kyichu Lhakhang is thought to be located on her left foot (108 is a lucky number in Tibetan Buddhism, and also reflects the number of beads on a Buddhist Rosary).
Day 8: Paro and depart
Today sadly marks the end of our amazing journey in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”, as we say our good byes and depart.