Meet at the group hotel in Delhi. Transfers from Delhi Airport are provided.
Rendezvous at the group hotel in Delhi which is conveniently located close to the airport. Complimentary airport transfers are provided for all clients arriving on this day. We will have a first group get-together with Colin over dinner at the hotel. KE Land Only services begin with dinner and overnight at the group hotel.
ACCOMMODATION: Hotel with swimming pool
Fly to Paro in Bhutan, meet our Bhutanese hosts and transfer to our hotel in the Paro Valley. Afternoon first photo session at Paro Dzong.
We have an early transfer back to Delhi International Airport to check in for the Druk Air flight to Paro. This flight is one of the most spectacular of all mountain flights, with views of the Nepal Himalaya as we traverse that country heading east. Then, descending into the Paro Valley, there are splendid views of alpine forests, small monasteries, temples and flat-roofed farmhouses. The Paro Valley is enchanting. A single road lined with willows, clear mountain streams, families working in the rice paddies and one of Bhutan’s most impressive Dzongs (fortresses) creates a memorable first impression. Our arrival, we meet our Bhutanese guide and transfer to our hotel. Depending on our arrival time, we should have plenty of time on this first day to go out to take those all-important first photographs of the holiday. At the time of our visit in the early spring, the Paro Valley is just coming to life with fresh vegetation and blossoming fruit trees. Paro Dzong is something everyone will want to photograph and the short hike up to the nearby temple of Dzongdrakha, which is home to troops of capped langur monkeys, will give the group a great overview of the Paro Valley and its picturesque farmland. This is a great introduction to photography in Bhutan. We return to our hotel for dinner and overnight. Altitude at our hotel in Paro is 2400 metres.
Drive across the Chele La (3988m) into the Haa Valley. Afternoon photography in Haa Village and at Katsho Gompa.
After breakfast at the hotel, we board our private transport for the exciting drive into the Haa Valley, the most westerly and one of the least often visited regions of Bhutan. To get there, we must negotiate a narrow, but generally well-surfaced road which switchbacks its way up to the Chele La (3988m) one of the highest road passes in the country. We will take a break at the top and fish out our telephoto lenses to make the most of the 7000 metre, snow-capped Himalayan peaks which are visible to the north – Chomolhari, Jitchu Drake and Tserim Kang. Closer to hand, the road at the pass is lined with Buddhist prayer flags, some white and some many-coloured. These make great photographic subjects, too. Descending into the Haa Valley, we check in at our hotel accommodation and have lunch, before going out on a walking tour with our cameras to nearby Haa Village. Haa is one of the most culturally intact parts of Bhutan and there is a rich heritage of typically Bhutanese architecture, wooden framed and white-painted, which we can visit and photograph. Some of the buildings, including the roadside shops, can be richly decorated and hung with drying chillis. Today, we can also visit Katsho Gompa, one of the largest and most important monasteries in the valley. If we are lucky we might come across a game of ‘khuru’ in progress, which is rather like archery, but with the competitors throwing large darts at a target up to 20 metres away. People in Bhutan are very approachable and usually happy to be photographed, but be respectful at all times. Dinner and overnight at the simple, but comfortable Rigsum Resort, the only hotel in Haa.
A day of photography in the Haa Valley.
An early, pre-breakfast, start to capture the mix of morning mist and woodsmoke rising above the valley is an option. An unusual feature of the valley is the row of 3 rounded hills, called ‘rigsum’ which are said to represent Manjushri (the God of wisdom), Chenrezig (the Buddha of compassion) and Chana Dorji(the protector god of Bhutan). Later, there are lots of great photo opportunities in and around the Haa Valley, including two more famous monasteries, Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black Temple). Some of the most interesting objectives will involve a certain amount of hiking and Colin will make decision with the group as to which will serves the group best. The Haa Valley harks back to a simpler, more traditional time and we will look to take an easy walking trails amongst its wooded hills, during which we can incorporate a visit to a local home for tea and snacks – a most enjoyable way to spend a part of the day. We return to spend a second night at our hotel in the Haa Valley.
Drive across country and across the Dochu La (3050m) to Punakha.
Descending the Haa Valley we meet the Phuntsholing to Thimpu Highway at Chhuzom Bridge (2050m) (the entrance to the Paro Valley) after a couple of hours’ drive. From here, we drive eastwards, following the Wang Chu upstream through a mixture of rice fields and coniferous forest to a widening of the valley at Namseling. We pass Thimpu on our left-hand side, but don’t go into the town today. Instead, passing the impressive Simtokha Dzong in the middle of the valley, we begin the climb up towards the Dochu La (3050m). The newly improved road here passes through luxuriant temperate forest with lots of rhododendron and magnolia trees. Keep a look-out from the bus for the several species of deer and monkeys make their home in this forest. The Dochu La is marked by many prayer flags, a large chorten and 108 stupas. From a viewpoint just above the pass there is a magnificent panorama of the Eastern Himalaya, including the all of the giant 7000 metre peaks of Lunana. We will reach the Dochu La at around lunchtime where the Dochu La Restaurant provides a convenient place for us to take lunch. After lunch, we will drop down into the Punakha Valley, losing around 2000 metres of elevation over a distance of 50 kilometres and arriving at our Punakha hotel in the late afternoon. We will then go out to photograph the magnificent, 17th century Punakha Dzong, once the winter capital of Bhutan and still home to more than 1000 monks. Stunningly located alongside the Mo Chu (river), this is one of the architectural highlights of Bhutan. The elevation here is around 1200 metres and it is likely to be rather warmer than the Paro or Haa valleys.
Drive north to Gasa Dzong (2850m) where we stay in tented accommodation.
The road up to Gasa has only been in place for a few years and offers 4WD access to one of the most important dzongs in Bhutan. The drive takes us up into the Jigme Dorje National Park, following the Mo Chu and passing through a mix of rich agricultural land and semi-tropical forest. We start to get glimpses of the white-painted Gasa Dzong as we climb up to the village of Damji (2430m) and reach the site of our tented camp after 3 hours of driving. This region is inhabited by the Layaps, nomadic herders with a unique culture. Their main source of revenue comes from trading products derived from their yaks, such as yak hair textiles, cheese, butter and yak meat. They also harvest and sell cordyceps, (a fungus of extremely high value that is frequently used in oriental medicine). One of the great attractions of Gasa (apart from its dzong) are its hot springs and this afternoon there is the option to visit this series of riverside pools of different temperatures. We return to our camp for dinner and overnight. There is no suitable accommodation at Gasa Dzong, which is why we camp. This is camping in some style, with spacious tents complete with comfortable foam mattresses, a dining tent complete with table and chairs where you will eat your meals and relax and one (or more usually two) toilet tents. You will be served with a cup of `bed-tea` each morning and provided with a bowl of water with which to wash. Water for hand washing is also provided at each meal.
A full day of photography at the Gasa Tsechu.
We will spend the day at the Gasa Tsechu. The biggest and most important of Bhutan’s Buddhist festivals are called ‘tsechus’. The name means ‘tenth day’ and refers to the fact that they are held on or around the tenth day of the Tibetan lunar calendar. The focus of these events is usually a series of ritualised costume dances, performed by monks and by laymen or gomchens. Tsechus have a wider function, however, bringing together people from far and wide and providing an opportunity for them to meet and to trade and to dress up in the very best traditional clothing. Since Gasa is tougher to reach than some of the bigger festivals, we expect that most of the festival-goers will be locals and we will have a better and more authentic photographic experience as a result. At the festival, we need to be careful to act in an appropriate manner. Whist the Bhutanese are very accepting of the behaviour of outsiders, it is a definite ‘no-no’ to stray onto the dance-floor in search of the perfect shot – do not do this! We spend a second night at our tented camp.
At the Gasa Tsechu, afternoon drive back to Punakha.
Another day to soak up the colour and pageantry of this unique religious event. As well trying to capture the colour and movement of the dances, we will seek out some of the more interesting characters attending the show. People from villages as far away as Laya, to the north, will have come to the festival and their womenfolk wear distinctive conical hats made of strips of bamboo and colourful beadwork. If you can win their trust, there are some memorable portraits to be taken. In the mid to late afternoon we will board our transport for the 3-hour drive back to Punakha, where we check in at our hotel.
Drive to Thimpu and afternoon photo exploration in the Bhutanese capital.
For those who want another opportunity to photograph Punakha Dzong (this time, at sunrise) an early start is in order. Then, after breakfast, we drive back up to the Dochu La and descend to Simtokha Dzong, before turning off into the Thimpu Valley, reaching our hotel in the Bhutanese capital after a little under 3 hours. After lunch at the hotel, we have the whole afternoon to explore this very individual town. Amongst the photographic highlights are the massive and ‘monolithic’ Tasichoedzong, the National Memorial Chorten, the produce market, the handicraft workshops and the mix of ancient and modern shopfronts. There will be plenty of opportunity to buy souvenirs of Bhutan whilst in Thimpu. The town is also a great place for people-watching and this can provide lots of interest photographic subjects. Overnight at our Thimpu hotel.
Drive to Paro and spend the rest of the day at the Paro Tsechu.
After an early breakfast at our hotel, we board our transport for the short drive (1 hour and 15 minutes) to our Paro hotel. After dropping off our gear, we head out to Paro Dzong to immerse ourselves in the second day of the Paro Tsechu. Once again, we will want to experience and to photograph some of the masked dances. There are many such ritual dances during the course of the festival and these take place on the large paved courtyard at Paro Dzong. The dances are subdivided into three categories: those that are intended to give moral instruction, those that are designed to drive away evil spirits and those that celebrate the Buddhist faith in its many guises.
A second day at the Paro Teschu.
We return to Paro Dzong to try to capture the essence of what is one of the world’s great religious festivals. As much a spectacle as the festival itself are the throngs of local people who flock to the festival in their thousands, dressed in their finest clothes. All around the festival ground a tent city springs up with people trading all manner of goods and with stalls offering delicious food and drinks. Late in the day, a highlight is the procession of monks and dancers as they re-enter the dzong. We return to spend another night at our Paro hotel.
Hike to the Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery (3120m).
Today we enjoy a walk up to the most iconic site in the whole of Bhutan and one of the most important religious sites in the entire Himalaya, Taktsang Temple, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery (3120m). This spectacular monastery has a most stunning location, perched on a ledge of a cliff high above the valley. It was partly destroyed by a fire in 1998 but, thanks in part to international aid, is now completely restored to its former magnificence. To reach the monastery involves a return trek of 3 to 4 hours, but we will not be in a hurry and there are lots of great photo opportunities on the way. High up, there is a classic viewpoint for Taktsang, looking across the gorge to the monastic buildings which cling to the cliff wall opposite. There is a small café located at this viewpoint and this makes an excellent lunch spot. The whole day is dedicated to this hike and the photo possibilities it presents – the flower-lined pathways, pine forests and waterfalls, as well as the smiling monks that we meet along the way. In the afternoon we will return to our Paro hotel.
Paro Thongdrel (unfurling of the giant thanka) and fly to Delhi.
Today we will be up very early to witness the grand finale of the Paro Tesechu, which begins well before dawn. The festival culminates in the unfurling of a sacred silk thangka (so large if covers the face of an entire building), a once in a year event. The thangka is considered so sacred that just catching sight of it is said to absolve the viewer of all sins. The thankga will be rolled away again before dawn, hence our early wake up call, but the dances and blessing should continue until mid-morning. We will then return to the hotel and have some free time before going to the airport to take the Druk Air flight to Delhi. Arriving in Delhi in the afternoon, we have the use of day rooms at our hotel close to the airport. Some free time and then a final dinner at the hotel before transferring back to Delhi International Airport to check in for our homeward flight. KE Land Only services end on arrival at Delhi Airport.