Let us take you to a moment in the kingdom of Bhutan: You're standing at the top of a mountain, complete silence except for the flapping of thousands of prayer flags that surround you, some brand new, some ripped and faded to white from old age. Looking down on the city and temples below you, you feel a presence of complete peace and...magic. A country riddled with mystery and curiosity, and yet so welcoming of travelers to visit and experience the magic of Bhutan for themselves. Santa Barbara Travel staff, Shawna Branchev & Ally Daisa, had the pleasure of visiting the Kingdom of Bhutan for the Amankora 7-day journey. A cyclical experience that takes you through the modernizing capital of Thimphu, the sub-tropical valley of Punakha, and the home of the famous monastery Tiger's Nest, Paro.
The capital of Bhutan, Thimphu, is the most populated and modern city in a country that doesn't seem to be touched by time. You are guaranteed to see historic Buddhist sites just as much as you're guaranteed to see monks with iPhones and DSLRs. It is quite the sight, a historic city in the middle of a technology transformation. Thimphu is surrounded by vast mountains and forests, with a booming downtown filled with nightclubs, restaurants, shopping and internet cafes. Thimphu is also the home of many artisans and craft shops, so you can take a tour of the Jungshi Paper Factory and the Royal Textile Academy, watch how these goods are made, and even purchase some to take home with you.
Thimphu offers so much variety to keep every traveler engaged. During the day, explore the capital city, shop around, make your own personalized postage stamp at the Bhutan Post Office Headquarters, and indulge in famous Bhutanese Momos, a South Asian dumpling that is frankly, quite addictive. In the afternoon, take the hike up to the Buddha Dordenma Statue, a 169 ft. golden Buddha that sits atop a mountain, keeping a watchful eye over the city of Thimphu. Inside this massive monument lies 125,000 smaller Buddha statues, also cast in bronze and gilded in gold. As you continue your hike, the Buddha gains distance and you can actually catch the beautiful view of him looking down onto the city of Thimphu.
Just a 2.5 hour drive from the capitol, Punakha Valley is a sub-tropical area of Bhutan which has a mildly humid climate and is famous for it's rice farming. Punakha is a great place for recreation, as they have rapid rivers, plentiful hike trails, and perfect weather for swimming. It is a great addition to your itinerary because it offers a stark contrast from the other areas of Bhutan - a tropical oasis just a couple hours from Thimphu. Your adventure in Punakha should begin with an evening settling into your resort, and taking full advantage of the infinity pool overlooking the rice fields (if you stay at the Amankora lodge). Your guide will have a full day planned for you the next day, perhaps hiking up to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten and visiting the famous Punakha Dzong.
The hike up to the Khamsum Chorten will definitely be a highlight. It starts off with a walk over a suspension bridge decorated in prayer flags, and the beautiful turquoise water of the Mo Chhu river flowing below you. The journey up to the temple consists of walking through rice fields where you will be surrounded by the beautiful cascading greenery. When you arrive to the temple, take in the beauty of the bright, magenta flowers and wide open gardens. During our particular trip to the temple, we had to patiently wait outside while the Queen's Mother finished up her prayer inside the temple. After a while, we all lined up and got to meet the Queen's Mother herself! An incredible experience. Insider tip: Keep going all the way up to the top of the Chorten and take in the 360° views of the valley. After a quick lunch back at your hotel, visit the Punakha Dzong. Arguably one of the most beautiful dzong in the country, this temple served as the capital of Bhutan and seat of government until the mid-1950's. It's size is so massive that it is usually the venue of many festivals and events in Bhutan, including the major Buddhist festival, Punakha Drubchen. You will have fun exploring the many alleyways and temples inside the Dzong, and seeing the monks adorned in their beautiful scarlet robes against the white-washed temples.
Paro is a 3-4 hour drive from Punakha and is home to the country's only international airport as well as Tiger's Nest, the famous monastery built into the cliffside of the upper Paro valley. Paro has gorgeous architecture and natural surroundings, but most people find themselves in Paro to see the National Museum of Bhutan, the Rinpung Dzong, and the famous Paro Taktsang. If you visit Paro you will most likely be invited to visit the National Museum of Bhutan. The museum possesses over 3,000 works of Bhutanese art, covering more than 1,500 years of Bhutan's cultural heritage. It's a great stop for educating yourself on Bhutan history. After the National Museum, take a quick drive to the Rinpung Dzong, which you can actually see from the Museum. The Dzong is home to many events and festivals including Tsechu, an annual religious Bhutanese festival. After your day of cultural immersion, stop by downtown Paro to shop for souvenirs and gifts.
If you're in Paro, chances are you are going to participate in the famous trek to the famous Paro Taktsang monastery, or more commonly referred to as Tiger's Nest. This sacred site was first built in 1692 around the Taktsang Senge Samdup cave where Buddhist master, Guru Padmasambhava, is said to have meditated for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, and three hours in the 8th century. The trek takes about 3-5 hours roundtrip, depending on your pace, and is filled with beautiful scenery along the way. The trek itself is of moderate difficulty, but can be quite enjoyable with the proper gear. See our recommendationshere. With incredibly breathtaking views and a deep dive into Bhutanese Buddhist history, this hike is a must for the active traveler. Curious about the incredible Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan? Contact us for more information.