Study Focus: Bhutanese history & culture
- Students arriving on Druk Air at midday from Bangkok will be greeted warmly at the airport by their Bhutanese guides and transferred by tourist bus 1-hour to the capital city of Thimpu.
- Lunch will be served in Thimpu before checking in to a comfortable hotel on the outskirts of town and having a group orientation session.
- The afternoon hours will be spent exploring some of the many fascinating things to see in the area. Students will learn the ancient art of paper making from the bark of trees and visit a nature reserve to see Takin, Bhutan’s endemic national mammal. They will learn the fascinating folklore of how this half goat, half cow came to be through the magical powers of a “Divine Madman.”
- The weekend market in another interesting stop, to see produce displayed in the world’s cleanest open air market graced with green marble floors. Only fruits and vegetables are on sale here; there is no butcher shop or meat section.
- Toward evening we will climb to a hilltop with a commanding view of the city and meet some of the young Bhutanese school children that come to pray here before their exams at the base of one of the world’s largest Buddha statues.
- Dinner will be served at our mountainside resort followed by a presentation from our Bhutanese hosts on the history and culture of this remarkable hidden kingdom.
Overnight: Peaceful Resort, Thimpu
Study Focus: meditation practices / traditional games / ancient fortresses (Dzongs) and the social roles they serve both past and present
- Our first full day in the Land of Happiness will be a great one. Right after breakfast at our hotel, we drive 30-minutes to the border of Bhutan’s largest national park, cross a beautiful covered bridge over the Timphu Chhu river, and begin a steep climb to Chari Monastery. Along the way students will see a unique chorten (stupa) holding the remains of a yak that carried the founder of the monastery here all the way from Tibet in 1620.
- Reaching the lofty monastery after an hours hike, students are likely to see wild goral, elusive goat/antelopes that live in remote mountain reaches but feel safe enough near this sacred site to be closely observed. Lama Pasa, the principal of the monastery, has agreed to instruct students on this trip in the ancient Buddhist art of meditation. Chari Monastery is one of Bhutan’s most revered meditation centers so it is quite an honor for international students to receive lessons here.
- Learning to calm the mind from the stress of studies and the hectic pace of everyday life can be one of the greatest gifts a person receives. It will be the perfect introduction to a trip that could well prove transformational.
- After several hours in the quiet meditative chamber of the monastery with only the sounds of temple bells, the wind in the cypress trees and the murmur of the river far below, we will descend to the riverside for a picnic lunch. After our meal, our Bhutanese guides will teach students the art of “Duh” – Bhutanese archery – the national sport. They will also teach students how to play “Khuru” – Bhutanese ground darts and “Degor” – flat stone tossing. All are great fun!
- We now head to Tashichho Dzong, an massive fortress built in 1702 that houses Thimpu’s main secretariat building and central monk body. Here amidst the monumental buildings, elaborately adorned in woodcarvings and paintings, students will learn a wealth of knowledge about Bhutanese social structure, history and spirituality.
- The Royal Palace, adjacent to the Dzong, is off limits to visitors but students will learn about the Wangchuck dynasty of Bhutanese Kings that forged this tiny country, defended it from the two largest nations on earth and brought it squarely into the 21st century while retaining strong cultural traditions. Returning to our hotel we will enjoy a delicious dinner and end a perfectly peaceful day in the peace of nature.
Overnight: Peaceful Resort, Thimpu
Study Focus: geology of the Himalayas / Bhutan’s biodiversity / river hydrology & ecology
- Today is a day for adventure as we depart Thimpu right after breakfast and drive towards Punakha, the ancient capital of Bhutan and the winter residence for the monk body. Leaving Thimpu the road climbs steeply via a series of zigzags over the Dochula Pass, 3,048m (10,000ft). On a clear day spectacular panoramic views can be had of the eastern Himalaya, including Bhutan’s highest mountain, Gangkar Punsum, 7,550m (24,770ft). These summits are so sacred to the Bhutanese that no climbers have ever been allowed to scale them.
- Students will have time here to take in the incredible view and learn how the world’s highest mountain range was formed. They can also explore an amazing complex of 180 chortens with colorful prayer flags surrounding the area. The road from here drops down through pine, cypress, rhododendron and oak forest emerging into the more temperate Punakaha Valley with its cherry, apple and pear groves and lovely terraced fields of rice, wheat and barley.
- We will stop in this rich botanical area to hike in the Royal Botanical Garden, home to wild tiger, leopard, bear, deer and the rare red panda. Lessons in Bhutan’s phenomenal biodiversity will be brought to light for students here as they discover some of the country’s 5,500 species of vascular plants, 770 species of birds and 165 species of mammals – many of them endemic to Bhutan.
- Leaving the Botanical Garden at mid-day, we will descend to the banks of the Mo Chhu, the “female” river that joins the Pho Chhu (male river) at the site of the country’s most beautiful ancient fortress, Punakha Dzong. Students will enjoy a picnic lunch on the banks of the river before having a comprehensive safety briefing for the rafting adventure they will embark upon.
- The Mo Chhu is a beautiful, aquamarine river with light rapids (grade 2-3) that offers students safe lessons in river hydrology and riparian zone ecology.
- At the conclusion of the river run students will have an opportunity to explore the riverbed for benthic organisms. Armed with dip nets, collecting trays, magnifying lenses and stream invertebrate charts, students will set off in two teams to see which can collect and properly identify the most macro invertebrates. It’s a fun as well as educational exercise. Anyone wanting a bath this evening can enjoy a cold one in the river before we set off to Lobesa village for an overnight home stay at a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse.
- A traditional dinner will be served after the sunset ceremony at the family altar during which holy water is poured back from a small container into a large jug before prostrations. Students will have a number of private rooms for sleeping this night with floor mattresses covered in beautiful Tibetan rugs.
Overnight: family farm house, Lobesa village, Punakha
Study Focus: community temples / traditional Bhutanese farm life / local legends
- We rise early this morning with the family, enjoy a warm breakfast and set off on a short hike up the hill to Chimi Lhakhang, a small 15th century temple famous for its fertility rites. It also serves as the local community temple.
- The “Divine Madman”, Lam Drukpa Kuenley, credited with creating Bhutan’s strange cow/goat bovine, is said to have built part of this temple himself. Villagers flock here daily to pray, especially childless couples or those that have lost children before or during birth.
- Returning to our farmhouse it’s now time to take on the morning chores. Students will learn how to milk a cow and churn butter by hand before preparing Bhutanese butter tea served with puffed rice.
- Depending on the season they will learn how to plant, harvest and winnow rice in the nearby terraces, how to mold mud and rice straw bricks for house construction and other daily tasks of farm life.
- At noon we will conclude our farming lessons and walk to a nearby restaurant overlooking the village for a delicious lunch.
- Following the midday meal students will be transported by bus to their hotel to wash up and dress properly for a visit to Bhutan’s most beautiful Dzong.
- Punakha Dzong sits at the scenic confluence of the Pho and Mo rivers and is rich with stories and myths that the Bhutanese guides will share with the students.
- Built in 1637 and first named Pungthang Dechen Phodrang (Palace of Great Happiness), this was the site where the Wangchuck dynasty was established in 1907 and the first National Assembly was held in 1953. Apart from the historical significance, this fortress exudes a charm from another era that students will surely feel.
- Time will be taken in this magical setting for each student to find a quiet corner of the Dzong where they can privately reflect on the past in their journals and absorb the medieval and spiritual atmosphere.
- Leaving the Dzong over an ancient covered bridge, students will then have an opportunity to walk a short distance and cross Bhutan’s longest suspension bridge over the Pho Chhu, the country’s largest river.
- Returning to our hotel for the night, everyone will enjoy a fine dinner and creature comforts they are more used to, like a hot shower.
Overnight: Meriphuensum Resort, Ponakha
Study Focus: high elevation flora & fauna / endemic species / camping skills
- Today we step back in time trekking an ancient trade route with pack mules that connects Thimpu with Paro and once linked India with Tibet and China. After breakfast at our hotel in Punakha we return by bus to Thimpu (3-hours) to start our trek. Watching the Bhutanese pack up our camping gear and provisions on our team of mules and ponies is like a scene from the silk route days.
- Our route will take us to our highest point of the trip at 3,600m providing wonderful opportunities to explore the rich flora and fauna of Bhutan’s high country. Many endemic species of flowering plants and butterflies can be found here, including the rare blue poppy, Bhutan’s national flower.
- A picnic lunch will be served during a break in the 4.5-hour ascent giving everyone the energy they need to reach our base camp at Phajoding set beside a small lake. Setting up a comfortable, high altitude camp is a lesson in itself and students will assist with every task from collecting firewood, to pitching tents and preparing dinner.
- There is nothing more magical than sitting around a campfire under a star-studded sky sharing tales of adventure after a hearty mountain meal. After a hard day of climbing everyone should sleep soundly.
Overnight: Phajoding Camp
Study Focus: school service project
- Sunrise over the Thimpu valley is a wonderful sight to behold as a sea of fog covers the valley floor and the high summits of the eastern Himalayas glow in the early light of dawn. Following a good hot breakfast and some time to explore the high country, we pack up our camp, hitch up our mule team and begin the descent back down the mountainside.
- On reaching the valley floor we will have a chance to freshen up at the riverside and enjoy lunch before setting off to visit a local Bhutanese school. Visiting students will be surprised to see that general assembly period in every Bhutanese school is a meditation time. The school visit will provide a chance for international students to learn more about Bhutan’s unique approach to education and to share some of their own culture with local children. Songs, games and lessons in world geography can all be part of the program.
- Visiting students will introduce themselves and tell a bit about their own cultural heritage and their country of origin as they mark the spot on a world map that will later be donated to the school. If time permits, it might also be possible to paint an international friendship mural on a blank school wall to commemorate the visit. A painting of the earth from space, or a world map, can be surrounded by handprints of each student in different colors of latex paint. Once dry, the visiting students would then paint a small flag of their country and their names in the palm area of each handprint.
- When school closes for the day it will be time for us to move on too. We have a one-hour bus trip from Thimpu to Paro, a beautiful valley surrounded by high mountains that is home to many of Bhutan’s oldest temples and only international airport.
- After checking into a lovely resort beside the river and having a delicious buffet dinner, there will be time to share stories and Bhutanese legends around a fire.
Overnight: Tashi Namgay Resort, Paro
Study Focus: sustainable tourism / Tiger Nest temple / Bhutanese mask dancing
- Our last full day in Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) as the Bhutanese call it, will take students to one of the architectural wonders of the world.
- Fortified by a big breakfast, we set off early on a 30-minute drive up the Paro valley to the spectacular site of Taktsang Monastery, more popularly know as Tiger’s Nest Temple. This is the most sacred site in the kingdom and the most visited. Built precariously on the ledge of a sheer granite cliff 900 meters (3,000ft) above the Paro valley, this temple is an architectural feat almost beyond belief. The Bhutanese believe that Guru Rinpoche arrived here in the 8th Century on the back of a tigress and meditated at this monastery, hence the name “Tiger’s Nest.” It certainly took a profound act of faith and nerves of steel for 15th Century monks to construct it.
- There is a no more iconic image of Bhutan than this monastery, bathed in wisps of cloud and seemingly inaccessible, as one slowly ascends the steep trail to reach it. Many tourist groups choose to ride to the base of the monastery on ponies and mules rather than climb, but you will never see Bhutanese opting for this easy way out.
- Buddhists believe that you gain great merit towards your next life making the pilgrimage to this site, but you risk being reincarnated in a lower form – perhaps a mule, if you use one of these sentient beings as a beast of burden. The trek will take 3–4-hours for students to reach the monastery but there are great vistas and lovely moss draped forests along the way to rest and enjoy the view.
- At the summit, anyone suffering from vertigo may choose to sit back and enjoy the view while the more daring work their way down and up over 800 granite steps set into the sheer cliff face to reach the temple complex. By midday more and more tour groups will be coming up the mountain on mules so we will retreat to the sanctuary of a cafeteria located half way down the mountainside to take our lunch.
- While hiking back to the valley far below students will take part in a clean up project. Sadly, this is the most littered tourist trail in all Bhutan as careless visitors cast their empty plastic water bottles in all directions. As a student project, we will post signs in different languages (Chinese, Thai, French, German & English) at the start of the trail asking visitors to please respect the this sacred site by packing out what they pack in.
- A lovely pine grove at the base of the mountain with a deep carpet of pine needles will serve as a good resting place at the completion of the trek. Here we will hold an open forum discussion on the benefits and impacts of tourism on a small country like Bhutan, a country that may well have the most enlightened tourism policy in the world.
- Our final afternoon will be at leisure with some interesting options. Students in search of souvenirs will find a wonderful row of shops along Paro’s main road. With no hustle, hassle or even salesmanship pressure to buy, shopping in Bhutan is a delight and there are great treasures to choose from.
- Not a shopper? How about a traditional Bhutanese “hot-stone” bath to easy those tired muscles from three days of trekking? In the colder climes of Bhutan, farmers use large wooden bath tubs filled with clean mountain water and fresh herbs to cleanse themselves. Red-hot stones from an outdoor fire are carefully added one by one to a chamber at one end of the tub until the desired temperature is attained. After an hour-long soak, bathers feel incredibly relaxed and rejuvenated.
- Our final night’s dinner will be a joyous affair featuring traditional delicacies and spectacular outdoor performances by Bhutanese masked dancers. A candle circle closing ceremony will offer everyone a chance to share feelings about their journey together. Though their time in Bhutan is sadly coming to an end, students may experience a renewed and profound happiness for a journey through life that has just begun.
Overnight: Tashi Namgay Resort, Paro
- A large buffet breakfast will be served at the resort before students are transferred by bus to the nearby airport for the return flight home.
- According to time-honored tradition, students will be sent home wearing traditional silk scarves presented ceremoniously to each by their Bhutanese “brothers” and “sisters.”