Bhutan treks The Ultimate Guide to Trekking in Bhutan
Bhutan treks The Ultimate Guide to Trekking In Bhutan
Bhutan treks The Ultimate Guide to Trekking In Bhutan Tiger's Nest Monastery
Bhutan treks The Ultimate Guide to Trekking In Bhutan
Bhutan treks The Ultimate Guide to Trekking In Bhutan

Welcome to the Bhutan Treks Guide

The Web's No. 1 resource for trekking in Bhutan

Our aim is to share with you our love of Bhutan and provide a free resource to help you plan an amazing trek in this awesome country.

 

On our site we have tried to cover everything you need to start planning a trek in Bhutan including details of all the trekking routes. More detail on all the critical things you need to think about  including when is the best time to trek and detailed itineraries for each trek are on separate pages on the site.  At the bottom of this page there are answers to the most frequently asked questions but please do contact us if you want to ask about anything to do with trekking in Bhutan.

We think Bhutan is the most exciting up and coming trekking destination. if you were lucky enough to have trekked in Nepal 40 years ago, before the mountains were populated with lodges, and seeing other people was a rare event then you will have an idea of what to expect when you trek in Bhutan. If you have climbed Kilimanjaro or trekked to Everest base camp more recently then you are in for a massive and very pleasant surprise. During 2017, only 3000 people trekked in the whole of Bhutan. This compares with 25,000 climbing Kilimanjaro each year and about the same number hiking to Everest base camp.

So if you like your trekking wild, unspoilt and with as few people as possible then Bhutan should definitely be on your hit list. And plan to go soon before news of how beautiful it is spreads and the hordes arrive.

There are a number of reasons why Bhutan is still as close to virgin trekking as you can get. First it is geographically very isolated as it is squeezed into a small high area on the southern side of the Himalaya  between Nepal, Tibet and Northeast India.  On top of this remoteness is the fact that Bhutan has a unique style of government (see more below) that places a very high priority on maintaining Bhutan's traditional values and way of life. The combination of these factors resulted in it being completely cut off from the rest of the world until the 1970s.

Even now, trekking permits are extremely tightly controlled by the Tourist Board and it is impossible to get a visa unless you book with an established Bhutanese tour operator.

First experiences of Bhutan

Plane landing in BhutanBefore you even land in Bhutan you know you are in for something special! Its only international airport is at Paro in a valley surrounded by steep mountains which make the flight approach a real white-knuckle ride. And this is not like the flight to Lukla in Nepal which is done in a very small plane. The flight into Bhutan is normally on a Boeng 737 or something similar and it still has to make a series of high speed banking turns at low level to make the approach to the runway. Hold onto your hat and enjoy the ride!

Bhutanese GhoAnd the surprises keep coming when you land. In most countries traditional dress has been relegated to occassional wear on high days and holidays. In Bhutan the traditional Gho is compulsary wear for all government employees and is the normal dress all the time for all the men.

This is the first visible sign of the very distinctive Bhutanese culture where prosperity is not measured as Gross National Product but as Gross National Happiness. And happiness is assessed against four measures, what the Bhutanese call the Four Pillars of GNH. These are Good Governance, Sustainable Socio-economic Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture and Environmental Conservation. All government policy has to be checked against these criteria and the King oversees this process to ensure compliance. Perhaps unsurprisingly Bhutan is the first country in the world to ban smoking on the grounds that it causes illness. So smokers beware: you will find it very difficult to find your favourite cigarette: you can bring some in with you ,and can smoke in private, but other than on the black market you won't be able to buy any.

As you begin your journey in Bhutan, the Bhutanese commitment to happiness is evident every where you look. The people are genuinely the happiest, kindest and most keen to please you will meet. Litter is almost non-existent, the crime rate is crazily low and is treated more as a sickness than an offence. Development is carefully controlled and there are none of the slums or ghettos you would find in nearby Nepal or India. They do not have the material wealth of others but they have a real passion for their country that they love to share with travellers. Visit it now and enjoy a unique experience.

What is trekking in Bhutan like?

 

 Trekking in Bhutan is unlike anything else you are likely to have done.

Mules trekking in Bhutan First, you will not find any Bhutanese porters: it is simply not culturally acceptable for them to work as porters. Bhutanese are all Budhhists and they believe that carrying for others as porters is degrading.

Everything you need for your trek therefore has to carried by mules, so a mulateer and his herd are a very important part of every trek. You still only need to carry a day sack but make sure to keep clear of the mules:they have a vicious kick.

Typical camp site on a Bhutan trekOn trips that go to very high altitudes like the Snowman Trek, Yaks take over from mules and you will have your own Yak train carrying all your kit.

Second you will not find any lodges on the mountains so all trips run as  camping expeditions with everything you need carried with you, even on longer trips.

And unlike on places like Kilimanjaro where there are well defined camp sites and you can struggle to find a place to erect your tent, in Bhutan, sites are more loosely designated and you will often find yourself as the only person there.

Food will vary a lot between operators but the better ones provide good quality meals and generally include a hot lunch as standard. You are unlikely to find anything unusual from home although Mars Bars seemed to have made the journey so if you have a particular favourite take it with you. And be warned: the Bhutanese national dish is "Chilli Cheese" and as the name suggests this is a bowl of fresh chillis cooked in a cheese sauce. Unless you have an asbestos lined mouth this is to be avoided or at least approached with caution.

So what are the best Bhutan treks?

 

The beauty of Bhutan is that trekking is still very early in its development, the downside of this though is that relatively few trekking routes have been established. In Nepal, there are lots of trekking routes that were originally footpaths that the local people used to travel around their mountain homeland. Nepalis were living all around the Annapurna Circuit long before anyone thought this would be a good trek.

And the reason for this is simple: for a very long time Nepal has been a small country with extremely limited areas of flattish land and a relatively large population. As a result, people have pushed higher and higher into the mountains to find space to live and farm. Bhutan by comparison is a relatively large country with a tiny population: even now it has only about 800,000 people. With such a low population and enough land in the valleys for everyone to live there is almost nobody living in the higher mountains. The only exceptions are small numbers of nomadic yak herders.

The consequence of this is that apart from the trekking routes that link Paro in the West and the capital, Thimpu, the other routes have been created specifically for tourists and are relatively new. A map of what we consider to be the five best treks in Bhutan is below.

Best Bhutan treks

Druk Path Trek

bhutan treks

This short trek is one of the most popular treks in the country as it passes through a gorgeous natural landscape of blue pine forests, high ridges and pristine lakes while at the same time offering the opportunity to visit some ancient lhakhangs, dzongs and villages.

The Druk Path Trek is a fairly easy hike to as the distances between rest camps is fairly short. The trail takes you through forests of fir, blue pine and dwarf rhododendrons at altitudes ranging between 2400-4200 m. On the third day hikers will arrive at Jimiling Lake, whose crystal clear waters are home to gigantic trout.

This trek also offers great views of Mt. Gangkar Puensum, the highest unscaled peak in the world. Interestingly none of the peaks in Bhutan are climbed as they are considered sacred and climbing is prohibited.

The trek itself links Paro in the west of Bhutan with the capital Thimpu and offers interesting trekking through the foothills of the Himalaya with great views of the larger peaks to the North. A highlight of this trek in the Spring months is the huge swathes of rhododendron. The best times to embark on the Druk Path Trek are between March-June or September-November.

Chomolhari Trek

Chomolahri trekAlthough this trek is still relatively short, it is a genuine high altitude trekking adventure taking you deep into the Bhutanese Himalaya. Starting in Paro the trek also ends in Thimpu but follows a more circuitous northern route.

This spectacular circuit trek takes you to Chomolhari Base Camp crossing three high passes in under two weeks. The route from Paro follows the river upstream for 3 days to the meadows at Jangothang, the basecamp for Chomolhari (7326m), a sacred peak on the border of Bhutan and Tibet. Then, after a day for exploration and acclimatisation above this camp, you turn away from the valley trail and climb to the beautiful Tsho Phu lakes. From here, you ascend to cross the high pass at Bonte La (4890m), which offers great views of Chomolhari and the nearby peak of Jitchu Drake. Now at high level, you trek via hidden valleys and along scenic ridges to reach a  campsite on the yak pastures of Thongbu, before descending on herders' trails to Drugyel Dzong.

Although not quite reaching into the 8000m class, this section of the Himalaya boasts some real giants, including Mt Chomolhari itself at 7314m and Jichu Drake  at 6794m. This is our favourite trek in Bhutan and if you have time to add  in visits to the Tiger's Nest and Thimpu, it makes for a really great adventure in this amazing country.

Chomolahri Laya-Gaza

Laya Gaza TreksWe thing the Laya Gasa Trek is the best practical long distance trek in Bhutan. Running along the border with Tibet, the trek offers amazing views of some of the most pristine and unspoiled landscapes in Bhutan. The trek begins at Drukgyel in Paro and takes you through gorgeous alpine meadows and high mountain passes with awe-inspiring views of Mount Jomolhari, Jichu Drake and Tsherimgang. You will trek through remote semi-nomadic village of Laya with unique culture, traditions and appearance.

Trout fishing in a sky blue lake with magnificent views of three majestic peaks  can be done on a rest day. You will also encounter rare species like the blue sheep, and with any luck, possibly even the snow leopard! The unique culture of the friendly Layap people is fascinating to experience and gives one a sense of being in a truly remote corner of our world.

From Laya, you descend to Gaza, where you can relax in their great hot springs.

Dagala 1000 Lakes trek

dagala 1000 lakes trekDagala Trek is the off beaten track as you hardly see trekkers on the trail. This is an excellent trek if you are good fit but don't had previous Alpine experience. As this moderate short day trek passes through various a lot of high altitude lakes, it somehow got the name the Thousand Lakes Trek.

Trekking amidst the picturesque lakes, you will get stunning views of some of the world’s highest Himalayan ranges including Mount Everest in Nepal, Jumolhari, Masanggang, Jichu Drake, Tiger Mountain in Bhutan and many more.

The trail also takes you through bird rich areas, alpine flowers, attractive meadows and several traditional Bhutanese villages.

Snowman trek

snowman trek routeThe Snowman is one of the most famous treks worldwide as is considered one of an elite group of super-otugh challenges. A great trek in its own right is is also the final leg of the Great Himalayan Trail. Reaching right to the eastern end of the Himalaya range, the Snowman trek follows the peaks of the Himalaya along almost all of Bhutan's northern border.

The Snowman trek is undertaken by only a handful of trekkers each season. The trek crosses eleven high passes over 4,500mrunning along the border of Bhutan and Tibet. With views of Chomolhari and Jichu Drake, you follow trails through yak herders encampments and isolated farming settlements as we prepare for our trek to Lunana. There is a  constant backdrop of 7000m peaks as you terk past tiny Buddhist monasteries and secluded villages that are isolated from the rest of Bhutan for many months of the year. A truly classic Himalayan trek that more than lives up to its reputation.

When is the best time to trek in Bhutan?

 If you are planning a trip to Bhutan for trekking there are two things you should factor into your thinking on when is the best time to go. The first of course is the weather as the high altitude trekking in Bhutan is very affected by the seasonal changes. The less obvious factor you should consider is the timing of the cultural festivals. These are incredibly spectacular and account for almost 90% of tourist vistis to Bhutan. This means they are busy but are a really worthwhile addition to any trekking trip.

Bhutan's weather for trekking

The first thing to know is that Bhutan, like the whole of South East Asia, has an annual Monsoon. This works its way up thorugh India in May, moving North as West bringing very heavy rain, high temperatures and high humidity. This makes trekking in the summer months very unpleasant indeed as not only would you have to contend with the regualr downpours but you will also have muddy trails and a plague of leeches. If this is your bag then June to August are the months for you.  

The second factor to bear in mind is that all of Bhutan is at high altitude:  even Paro, the international airport is  at over 2000m. The effect of altitude is to amplify all the seasonal changes: in the summer the sun feels hotter but in the winter it is a lot colder.

Graphs of the average rainfall and average temperatures in the lower parts of Bhutan are below which illustrate the combined effect of these factors. And of course, as you trek to higher altiudes the temperatures will drop about 1 degree for every 1000 ft of altitude gained. And overnight temperatues will be a lot colder. This means that, unless you share a genetic heritage with eskimos you should steer clear of December and for trekking. January should not be considered for trekking.

This leaves Spring, from February to early June,  and Autumn, from September to late November, as the best months for trekking.

Climate in Bhutan

Festivals in Bhutan

Far more so than for trekking, Bhutan is famous for its incredible calendar of cultural festivals.  These  involve massive, elaborate performances and are incredibly popular with tourists.

The main festivals are called Tshechu (Dzongkha: ཚེས་བཅུ།, literally "day ten") and are annual religious Bhutanese festivals held in each district of Bhutan on the tenth day of a month of the  Tibetan calendar. The month depends on the place so there is effectively an annual circuit of festivals to attend.

The Tschechu are in turn sometimes preceded by a Drubchen which is a traditional form of meditation retreat in Tibetan Buddhism that lasts for about ten days. It involves a large number of lay and monastic practitioners and is led by at least one High Lama. Within Bhutanese Buddhism this is a very powerful practice, and is said to act as a remedy to the negative forces at work in the world, and to promote inner personal peace, peace within the community and world peace.

The really big festivals and their dates are described below.

Paro Tshechu

Paro festivalParo Tshechu held in Spring each year and is one of the biggest festivals in the whole of the country Paro drawing in international visitors and local Bhutanese from neighboring districts. The highlight of the festival is the unveiling of the  "Guru Throngdel" which happens at dawn on the last day of the celebration. The Throngdel is a gigantic embroided prayerwheel painting (a thangkha) a. These are a mainstay of Bhudhist art and the ones in Bhutan are particularly impressive. 

Paro Tshechu Dates: March 27-31, 2018

 

 

Thimphu Tshechu & Thimphu Drubchen

Thimpu festivalNot surprisinglu the capital Thimpu hosts one of the biggest festivals in Bhutan,  the Thimphu Tshechu. This is immediately preceded by the  Thimphu Drubchen and  thousands of people travel to the capital city join in the meditation and prayers are at Tashichho Dzong.

When it was started by the 4th Desi, Gyalse Tenzin Rabgay in 1867 the Thimpu Tshechu was simply some basic dances performed just by monks. By the 1950s, this had evolved more into the spectacle it is today with elaborate masked dances performed by lay monks that adding, vibrancy , color and excitement to the festival . Mask dances like the Guru Tshengye (Eight Manifestations of Guru), Shaw Shachi (Dance of the Stags) are enjoyed because they are similar to stage-theater. Short cameo plays are also performed by costumed actors that given this is Bhutan are peppered with messages about health and social awareness messages.

 

Thimphu Drubchen Dates: Sept 26 – 29, 2018

Thimphu Tshechu Dates: Sept 30 – Oct 2, 2018

Punakha Tshechu

Punakha festivalAfter several requests made by Punakha District Administration and local people, Punakha Tshechu was introduced in 2005 by the 70th Je Khenpo Trulku Jigme Choedra and the then Home Minister His Excellency Lyonpo Jigme Yoedzer Thinley. This Tshechu was established to better preserve Buddhist teachings and keep alive the noble deeds of Zhabdrung Rimpoche, the unifier of Bhutan.

This festival not only plays an important role in preserving Bhutan’s rich culture and traditions but also provides devout Buddhists with an opportunity for prayer and pilgrimage. They reflect the richness of the Bhutanese cultural heritage and are very special for both Bhutanese and tourists who visit Bhutan.

Punakha Tshechu Dates: February 25-27, 2018

Black Necked Crane Festival

Black Necked Crane FestivalThe Black-necked Crane festival is celebrated annually in the courtyard of Gangtey Gonpa, in Phobjikha valley. Unlike other festivals, this festival is celebrated to mark the arrival of this endangered and majestic bird which becomes an inseparable part of the locals’ daily lives during winter.

Organized to generate awareness on the importance of conserving the endangered Black‐necked cranes, the one day festival includes cultural programs such as folk songs and dances (some with black-necked crane themes) and mask dances performed by the local people, crane dances and environmental conservation-themed dramas.
The festival has become a part of the local culture in Phobjikha valley ever since it was first initiated by the Royal Society for the Protection of Nature (RSPN) in 1998.

Black Necked Crane Festival Dates: November 11, 201

Other things to combine with your Bhutan trek

Bhutan is such a unique experience and they are working so hard to preserve its own very special culture that if you are taking time to trek there you really should try and fit in seeing some of the great cultural sites.  Festivals are talked about in "When to visit" above and these are a real highlight that are really spectacular. Apart from these great shows the iconic Tiger's Nest Monastery  is a must see and you should add to that list the cities of Thimpu and Punakha. 

You should bear in mind though that the Tourism Council of Bhutan's policy  is to promote what they call "High Value, Low Impact" tourism. This means you can't just do a trek and then sort yourselves out for the extra few days as your visa will only cover you for exactly the dates you book with a tour operator. You cannot do unsupervised travel at all and  a ninimum daily package  for tourists,  is between $250 and $350 per person per night. This  rate is pretty much all inclusive and covers standard hotel accommodation, all meals, all internal transport (excluding flights) and the services of a tour guide for the duration of your stay.

Hike the Tiger's Nest Monastery

hike to the tigers nest monestaryNothing about Bhutan is better known than the Tiger's Nest monastery and a day hike to visit this iconic destination should be one fo the first thigns you pencil into your plans. As you arrive into Paro at about 2000m a day hike to the monastery is a great way to accimatise.  If you have the time try and go twice and the monastery looks very different in the morning and afternoon lights. Nearly all the pictures you see are taken in the afternoon and if you just go in the morning you might be a little disappointed.

When you have hiked up to the  Tiger's Nest monastery you will find a relatively small building clinging precariously to vertical cliffs. This though is the holiest site in all of Bhutan which is a seriously religios country and it may come as a surprise if your guide clearly really believes the founder of Bhuddhism in Bhutan, the Guro Rinpoche,  arrived at this site flying on the back of a tiger!  Amongst all the hype about must-see destinations, the Tiger's Nest is one place that more than lives up to its reputation.

Things to do and see in Thimpu

Thimpu  is only an hour's drive from Paro and it is on the route for nearly all of the Bhutan treks either as a start or end point or as a place you travel through and it is definitely worth a day of exploing.

Key highlights in Thimpu are the spectacular Tashichho Dzong and the huge golden Buddha, Dordenna are must sees. The Taschiccho Dzong is the political and religious headquarters for the whole of Bhutan and as you tour it you can see clearly how closely state, government and religion work together in Bhutan.

The Golden Buddha, Dordena is more than a little gawdy covered in gold leaf but  towering 50m over the Thimpu valley it makes up for this by its sheer scale. And while you are visiting take time to visit to the Simply Bhutan Cultural Centre . This is surpringly good and not t all tacky and provides lots of interesting background on the history and development of Bhutan.

And last by no means list visit to Thimpu the archery arena. Archery is the Bhutanese national sport and you will either need binoculars or 20:20 eyesight to see the targets they shoot at over more than 400m.

Things to do and see in Punakha

Phallus in BhutanPunakha is about a 4 hour drive from Thimpu and as this journey which takes you over the beautiful Dochu La Pass at over 3000m it is a great experience in itself. From the pass you descend steadily until you reach the small village of Sopsokha, more commonly known as the Phallus village!!  This is huge fun and a great place to get out and stretch the legs.

A local priest became famous for his huge sexual appetite and he somehow incorporated this into his teachings on Buddhism. So phalluses  became associated with the strength and virility  and following this an artistic arms race broke out with  phalluses appearing everywhere and of course there was serious competition to have the biggest!!

 

 

Punakha DzongFrom Sopsokha, Punakha in only about thirty minutes further . Punakha  has the second largest and  probably the most stunning Dzong in Bhutan dominating the confluence of two major rivers it is a spectacular sight

 

FAQs about Bhutan treks

Q1 How do I travel to Bhutan for a trek?

Flying to Bhutan requires a certain amount of dedication as it has very limited connections with the outside world. The best routes in are to fly via Kathmandu in Nepal or Delhi or Kolkata (Calcutta) in India. All of these routings will probably require an overnight stop which also means you need a visa for your stopover destination. And make that two visas, one for the flight there and one for the flight home. Things are also complicated by the fact that the Bhutanese airlines are not on the online flight search engines so these flights have to be booked separately from the main international flights. For more detailed information on flying to Bhutan see here.

Q2 How do I get a visa for a Bhutan trek?

The short answer is you don't, we do. Only licensed Bhutanese tour operators can obtain visas- there is no unguided travel allowed in Bhutan.

Visas are only issued on arrival, but you must have applied in advance through a tour operator and receive visa approval before you travel. Keep a photocopy of your passport visa pages and flight ticket separate from the originals when travelling.

All visas are approved from Thimphu and are only issued to tourists booked with a local licensed tour operator, either directly or through a foreign travel agent. Applications for tourist visas are submitted by the tour operator.

Q3 What kit do I need for trekking in Bhutan?

The most important thing to bear in mind when planning your kit list for trekking in Bhutan is that you will experience huge swings in temperature during a day and between seasons. Coping with this is all about having lots of relatively thin layers. Our recommendations on clothing and the other kit you will need are here.

Q4 What is the hotel accommodation like in Bhutan?

Tourism in Bhutan is still closely controlled by the government and although there is no independent ranking system all hotels need to be approved by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. Wherever you stay you can expect reasonably decent accommodation which is clean and comfortable. Food is generally fresh and good and service is always very attentive. As well as locally owned hotels there are also some international hotel chains like Aman, Taj and COMO, but be prepared to mortgage the house and sell the wife if you choose one of these are rates are around $1000pp per night.

Q5 What is the local currency of Bhutan?

The local currency of Bhutan, The Ngultrum is pegged to the Indian Rupee, which is frequently used in place of Ngultrum.  All major currencies like US Dollars, Sterling Pounds and Euros can be exchanged at Paro Airport, or at Banks and Hotels in major cities. 

Q6 is Bhutan's timezone, dialling code and electricity voltage?

Bhutan has only one time zone. It is six hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+6 GMT), half an hour ahead of India (IST) and one hour behind Thailand. Bhutan is eleven hours ahead of New York city. The country dialling code is 975. Electricity runs on 220 / 240 volts, with circular two‐pin and three‐pin power outlets.

Q7 What food options are readily available?

Most Bhutanese cuisine consists of steamed rice (red and white) with a varied choice of spicy curries, both vegetarian and non vegetarian. Most hotels provide meals in a buffet‐style setup. There are usually continental, Indian, Chinese and Bhutanese dishes. The food in hotels is often the best in town, but in some of the main towns restaurants are increasingly becoming popular. All tourist hotels have good selection of international and Bhutanese beverages.

Q8 Are there any health precautions?

Avoid tap water and stick to mineral or filtered drinking water. If you suffer from motion sickness then you might want to take medication as the roads between cities are winding. You should also pack an adequate supply of any prescribed medications you may require while traveling.

Q9 respecting bhutanese culture

The Bhutanese  are very conservative in their thinking so please be considerate and in public areas avoid displays of affection (like hugging / kissing) and do not wear sleeveless t-shirts or mini skirts.

When you visit monasteries, temples and Dzongs you are not allowed to take pictures inside (you can take pictures in courtyards though) and you should take off your hat. Sneakers, jeans, mini‐skirts and shorts are not allowed. 

Smokers have to declare theircigarettes at the airport and pay 200% tax. You will be given a receipt to smoke. Smoking without a receipt is illegal in Bhutan and smoking is not allowed in public areas. There are designated smoking areas.

Always walk in a clockwise direction while visiting religious places or objects like temples, monasteries, Stupas, prayer flags etc. Please do not point a finger at a sacred object or place. It is considered being disrespectful.

Q10 What travel insurance will I need?

For all our treks you will need a specialist trekking insurance policy that will cover you for emergency evacuation. Policies vary depending on the highest altitude you will reach more and more information is provided on this here.

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