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Bhutan, a tiny Himalayan kingdom nestled between China and India, beckoned me for 25 years before I had the chance to visit in November 2019. Often referred to as the last Shangri-La, the three weeks I spent immersed in this enchanting country learning about the culture, hearing the monks chanting and admiring the exquisitely carved and painted dzongs (fortresses) and monasteries intoxicated my senses.
After a chance meeting with my ground operator Sangay at the New York Times Travel show, I worked with him to customize and craft my ideal Bhutan itinerary. Venturing to this coveted location to scout for my Bhutan photography tours exceeded all my expectations.
What is a good itinerary for a Bhutan trip?
Amongst my friends and family, I’m known as a prolific planner, with meticulous attention to detail. So, you can rest assured the 12 day Bhutan itinerary I’m suggesting in the Bhutan blog below includes all the must see and do experiences in Bhutan to guarantee an unforgettable journey.
Most people who venture to Bhutan only spend 5-7 days and visit Paro, Thimphu and maybe Punakha. I highly recommend extending your visit an additional week to culturally immerse in central Bhutan’s charismatic offerings in Bumthang, Trongsa, Phobjikha and Punakha. You won’t regret it!
You might also consider joining me for my intimate, immersive and carefully curated Bhutan photography tours, which I’ve customized with a number of special access, behind the scenes experiences. My tours are hosted by one of the most seasoned guides in the country, Garab, affording us unparalleled opportunities. As a result of Garab’s vast cultural and historic knowledge and connections, he hosted both Anthony Bourdain and Demi Moore during their Bhutan visits. Learn more about my Bhutan photography tours here.
Bhutan Itinerary Day 1: Paro
The Bhutanese visual delights welcome you immediately and will enrapture you throughout your visit. As you are landing in the early morning, beautiful rays caress the surrounding hills and enliven the intricate airport, which is hand-carved and painted in the same design present throughout the country.
PRO TIP: Since the airport is embraced by a stunning valley, video throughout landing and upon disembarking.
I recommend spending two days total in Paro – one day at the beginning and one at the end. Having a chill day your first day allows you to acclimatize to the 7500 foot (2300m) altitude.
After taking a brief rest at your hotel to drop your stuff and eat breakfast, try your hand at archery, the national sport since 1971. Since my ground operator Sangay is a national archery champion, he made it look way easier than it is.
After eliciting chuckles as a result of my arrow limply falling from my bow, I finally managed to have the arrow fly across the field, missing the target by a large margin. At least I provided entertainment right?
Start your bewitching journey with a visit to Kitchu Lhakhang, a seventh century temple. According to legend, this is one of 108 temples in Bhutan built by a Tibetan king in one day. Given my love for prayer wheels, I appreciated whirling smaller ones in the inner courtyard as well as the three massive ones flanking the outside of the temple.
Rinpung Dzong (Paro Dzong)
After admiring this smaller, historic temple, head to Rinpung Dzong, a 17th century temple that now houses administrative offices. Visiting here will give you an appreciation for dzong construction, design, and layout.
All dzongs have a central tower that divides the administrative from the religious portion. And, they are often built on hilltops as a historical defensive strategy.
Interestingly, all dzongs were built without nails or iron bars. I personally loved capturing some of the multi colored arched windows and interesting prayer wheel perspectives here.
FUN FACT: The movie “Little Buddha” was filmed at Rinpung Dzong.
If you are lucky, you might be able to photograph the monks thumping the gong and hear its reverberations punctuate the silence. I relished watching the monks’ red robes fluttering in the wind and contrasted against the white walls as they crossed the courtyards.
PRO TIP: Make sure to photograph the verdant Paro Valley from the arched windows at the back of the dzong. The late day light shining upon the multi-colored patches below is lovely.
If you have time, be sure to stop by the National Museum of Bhutan to peruse the 3000 pieces of art residing here, spanning 1500 years. Housed in a renovated watchtower from the 17th century, it provides a fascinating glimpse into Bhutan’s history.
Bhutan Tour Itinerary Day 2 – 5 : Bumthang
Bumthang is comprised of four areas located amongst glacially carved valleys, Chhoekhor, Chhume, Tang and Ura.
PRO TIP: To maximize your time, I recommend flying one way and returning overland. Make sure to have your camera or iPhone out to capture photos and videos of the snow-capped peaks during this scenic flight.
Since flights only run three days a week, you’ll need to plan accordingly. Also, be aware checked luggage limits are 20 KG (44 pounds) for domestic flights as compared to 30 KG (66 pounds) for international flights.
This video gives you a taste of the stunning Himalayan views you’ll experience on the flight as well as the exquisite details in one of the Bumthang monasteries.
Spending a few days in the Bumthang area will provide you with ample time to admire the myriad monasteries, attend a festival and spend an afternoon in a local village. Since the roads in this area are both bumpy and windy, I highly recommend bringing car sickness remedies with you. Read more about my favorite motion sickness remedies here.
Best Bumthang monasteries to visit
- Kenchosum Lhakhang – originally built in the 7th century and restored in the 15th century
- Tamzhing Lhakhang – founded in 1501 AD
- Kurjey Lhakhang – a well known Bhutanese pilgrimage site. Kurjey means “sacred body imprint” since it’s believed to house Guru Rinpoche’s body imprint. He introduced Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century.
- Jakar Dzong (Castle of the White Bird) – built in 1677. Make sure to check out the water powered prayer wheel as you are entering.
Bumthang village visit highlights
If you visit a village, make sure to try the local specialties, including buckwheat pancakes (Khooli) and buckwheat noodles (puta).
Chugo, a hard cheese made from Yak’s milk is another specialty. Truth be told, the flavor was a bit too strong for me.
Since the Bumthang area is also known for Yathra weaving (made from yak hair and sheep wool), it’s a great place to observe this striking art and purchase rugs, wall hangings or sweaters.
Attend a festival (tshechu)
If your visit coincides with festival season, definitely attend and witness the whirling kaleidoscopic dancers at these tschechus. Watching the ornately costumed monks twirling and jumping provides endless photographic opportunities of their eye-catching masks and headpieces. This festival video gives you a short preview of what you can expect.
FUN FACT: The first and last dancers to emerge are the most experienced and talented.
Noticing the young monks and locals in attendance delight in the performances as much as you will elevate your joy further. These annual festivals represent an important and significant gathering time for the surrounding villages, with people traveling significant distances to attend. They aren’t put on for tourists. Rather, festivals are an important part of each district’s cultural fabric, with the local attendees donning their finest ghos and kiras.
PRO TIP: Target smaller more remote festivals to minimize the number of tourists in attendance. By visiting Bhutan with me, you’ll have special access at the festivals not afforded to most visitors.
Bhutan Trip Itinerary Day 6 : Trongsa
Since many people don’t make it to Central Bhutan, they miss this jewel on the East West highway. After winding your way on roads flanked by misty trees and enchanting light rays, you’ll arrive at my favorite dzong, which also happens to be the longest.
PRO TIP: While the road to Trongsa is intoxicating, it will do a number on your stomach so be sure to have one of my favorite motion sickness remedies on hand.
With a cantilevered bridge, numerous courtyards, prayer wheels and monkeys, you’ll be enraptured by this picturesque location and the countless vantage points from which to photograph. This Trongsa dzong video provides a preview of its size and details.
Since this is one of the few dzongs where you watch monks crossing a courtyard from above, it provides some interesting and unique photographic opportunities.
PRO TIP: Make sure not to miss the views of the vast valley below from arched windows in one of the hallways. Given the naughty roving monkeys, don’t leave bags or tripods unattended lest they tempt these mischievous animals.
Bhutan Itinerary Day 7-8: Phobjikha
Black necked cranes
Phobjikha is a landscape and wildlife lover’s paradise. Given the variety of activities, it’s worth spending a day or two here. If you visit between November-February, you can see and photograph the elusive black necked cranes that migrate from their breeding grounds in Tibet for the winter. I reveled at hearing them honking through the mist as we photographed sunrise over the Phobjikha valley.
PRO TIP: Since the cranes are shy and typically at a distance, a long telephoto lens (400-600mm) is typically needed to capture good images of their black tipped wings and elegant black necks.
Unless you are a diehard birder, I don’t recommend bringing this lens due to the weight restrictions on the flights. I traveled with two bodies a Nikon D850 + 16-35mm and Nikon D 500 + 70-200 lens to capture all my images.
The good news is you can visit the Crane Visitor Center and see “Karma,” a beautiful crane that can’t be released due to a wing injury.
I loved exploring the Phobjikha vistas from various vantage points at sunrise and sunset, listening to the prayer flags fluttering and watching the light cast beautiful shadows across the amber and green terraced hillsides. This Phobjikha video provides an overview of the serenity awaiting you in this valley.
Watching smoke waft from the homes as fog caresses the valleys will transport you to another time.
My personal favorite prayer flags are the tall white prayer flags, known as Manidhar. They dot the Phobjikha hillsides and carry the flapping mantras to the heavens.
Gangtey Monastery’s restored carvings and paintings are alluring to photograph. Given its elevated vantage point, it’s an ideal location from which to appreciate the dazzling landscapes. If you are lucky, monks will shyly smile at you as they make their way around the monastery. I found myself drawn to the prayer wheels flanking the temple entrance.
PRO TIP: Make sure to do the Nature Hike that starts just below the Gangtey Monastery. Navigating from Gangtey Village through forests and along undulating hills will treat you to sweeping valley views and lighting changes. I cherished witnessing the residents’ daily rituals while traversing this path.
Bhutan Tour Itinerary Day 9-10: Punakha
When compiling my shot list for Punakha, I became obsessed with the cantilevered bridge leading into Punakha Dzong. Capturing images of monks or locals crossing this bridge became my top priority.
Given the play of light and shadows, numerous compositions exist. You can spend hours on this bridge conceiving various shots and waiting for those perfect moments (and I did!)
The Dzong itself has a variety of higher and lower vantage points and beautiful paintings within. After you finish your explorations, head to the suspension bridge that spans the turquoise river, Pho Chu, below. Despite being afraid of heights and typically suspect of suspension bridges, I enjoyed traversing this one and capturing images of people crossing it.
PRO TIP: Since I’m not keen on bouncing bridges, I timed my crossings for when fewer people were on the bridge.
Chimi Lhakhang (The Temple of the Divine Madman)
While researching Bhutan, I’ll admit I was a wee bit surprised by phallic symbols appearing prominently throughout the country, particularly at this temple. After learning they symbolize good luck and ward off evil spirits, their presence made more sense to me. Interestingly, many couples seeking pregnancies come to Chimi Lhakhang for fertility blessings.
Walking to this small temple, you will wander through a small village and rice paddies. You might get lucky and see residents harvesting rice or painters working on their latest creations. Given the leisurely pace you’ll be walking and shopping, plan to spend two hours strolling to the temple.
PRO TIP: If you are seeking trinkets and souvenirs to bring home, the village enroute is a great place to pick them up. I found some really cool silk bags, wine covers and paintings. They are flat and easy to pack, which is always a bonus!
Khamsum Yuley Namgyel
When scouting pictures online, this is one of the places I found myself most excited to see. It’s perched above a photogenic valley, with a snaking river meandering amongst the villages below.
Photographing this beautiful temple and the surrounding Punakha Valley around sunrise or sunset is quite a treat. Gurgling water trickling through the rice paddies will soothe you on your 45 minute uphill climb to the temple. Personally, I relished sitting outside and listening to the monks chanting and blowing their horns as the sun rays danced through the valley and lit up the undulating hills below.
PRO TIP: If you’ll be visiting the temple for sunrise or sunset, be sure to wear a headlamp as there are no lights on the trail.
Bhutan Trip Itinerary Day 11: Thimphu via Dochula Pass
Seeing the 108 stupas at this high pass cloaked in fog at sunrise is a favorite memory of mine. Living in San Francisco, I embrace the mystical feel fog imparts to scenes. The repetition amongst the stupas and the surrounding trees provides myriad photographic opportunities.
If you are lucky, the skies will cooperate and provide you with an expansive panoramic view of the surrounding Himalayas from this 10700 foot (3100 meter) vantage point.
The 108 stupas are a memorial to Bhutanese that died in a battle with Indian insurgents in 2003.
PRO TIP: Arriving earlier will allow you to avoid the larger tour bus crowds that inundate the site later in the day.
Located only 45 minutes from Dochula Pass, it’s a short, but windy drive.
Hand made paper factory
While I tend to gravitate toward rural locations over larger cities, it is worth spending an afternoon in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. For me, I found witnessing handmade paper being made fascinating. Seeing how they soak the bark, then process it to create the paper and ultimately dry it gives you an appreciation for this art.
PRO TIP: They sell notebooks, cards and paintings on the handmade paper, which are worth checking out in the gift shop after as these make wonderful, unique gifts.
I relish markets’ energetic bustle. Surveying the local produce and wares as people inspect and barter is something I savor observing. It’s also a great place to sample or buy some of the local produce. Given the prominence of chilies in Bhutanese cuisine, I found it fascinating to see how people examined and selected their chilies.
PRO TIP: Be careful of the “bum stinger” chilies, which are next level hot. My guide warned they radiate serious heat on your lips as you eat them and belly as you ingest them. Given their name, you can guess where else they might be painful. Consume these at your own risk. Given my sensitivity to spicy food, I took his word and didn’t sample them.
Arts and Craft School
If you’d like to see students weaving and painting, visiting the Arts & Crafts school is worthwhile to see young artisans plying their craft. It’s also a great place to purchase gifts, including high quality Thangkas (an intricate painting on cotton or silk typically including Buddhas or Mandalas).
PRO TIP: Since it’s closed on the weekends, make sure to schedule your time in Thimphu during a weekday.
Measuring 169 feet (51.5 meters), this golden Buddha is one of the largest of its kind. Interestingly, 125,000 miniature Buddhas reside inside its chest. Since I seek out photographing Buddhas wherever I travel, I particularly enjoyed seeing this towering Buddha, erected to honor Bhutan’s fourth king’s 60th birthday.
PRO TIP: I recommend visiting early or late in the day for the best light and the fewest number of people.
If you haven’t had a chance to see the good-natured cajoling and skillful prowess of archers, be on the lookout for the many archery grounds throughout Thimphu.
FUN FACT: The colored sashes hanging from their belts indicate how many targets they’ve hit.
If you try your hand at archery, you’ll have an even greater appreciation for their ability to hit a target 328 feet (100 meters) away.
Given that arrows limply fell from my bow and didn’t launch very far when I attempted archery, I have a new found respect for both the precision and distance involved. It was safer for everyone to be behind me as one had no idea where my arrow might end up.
Bhutan Itinerary Day 12: Hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery
The picturesque Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktshang), expertly perched and jutting from the rock face, is Bhutan’s most famous icon. This engineering marvel can be admired from various viewpoints throughout the hike.
Guru Rinpoche, also known as the Buddhist master Padmasambava, meditated here when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 8th century. Legend says he arrived on a flying tiger. An imprint of his body is also said to be found at Kurjey Lhakhang in Bumthang, an important pilgrimage site for many Bhutanese.
Since Tiger’s Nest monastery is a 5-6 hour roundtrip hike, involving a steep uphill climb and 700 stairs, make sure you are physically fit to embark on this moderately difficult hike. Located at 10,000 feet (3000 meters), expect to get winded during the 3000 foot (1000 meter) climb.
Wear sturdy hiking boots and bring plenty of water and snacks. While you can stop at a cafeteria with veggie food halfway up, we ate a big breakfast and powered through to maximize our time at this captivating monastery.
PRO TIP: I recommend saving the Tiger’s Next Monastery until your last day in Bhutan. You’ll not only be fully acclimatized, but also have a greater appreciation for Bhutanese history and architecture.
Be aware walking sticks, camera bags or cameras must be left in lockers before entering. My 26L Mindshift photo backpack filled the locker, so larger photo backpack will be challenging. Make sure to bring a lock with you to secure your valuables in case they are out.
PRO TIP: Treat your sore muscles to a hot stone bath at your hotel or a local farmhouse after this hike. You’ll thank me later!
Bhutan Itinerary Day 13: Fly Home
Leaving Bhutan, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the Himalayas. Since Bhutan’s departing flights are often delayed due to weather, overnight in your transit destination one night before your onward flight home.
PRO TIP: Request a window seat on the plane’s right hand side for the best Himalayan views.
I hope this 12 day Bhutan itinerary and comprehensive Bhutan travel blog ignites your excitement for visiting this tranquil jewel. Feel free to comment below or email me if you have any additional questions about Bhutan when planning your extraordinary trip to this unforgettable country.