The kingdom of Bhutan is located on the eastern slopes of the Himalayas between China (Tibet) and India.
Starting in the east of the country, our wonderful two-week adventure took us all the way across to the west.
This was a trial trip to Bhutan and was organised by Speyside Wildlife at the request of our guide, Duncan. It had been his childhood dream to go to Bhutan and he had prepared himself well; you would never have know it was his first visit. We were privileged to follow him on this fantastic journey.
The itinerary was arranged and managed by Langur Eco Travels, represented during the trip by our extremely knowledgeable local guide Sonam, his lovely nephew and trainee guide also called Sonam and known as Little Sonam for difference, and Pasa the sharp-eyed driver. We also had a great catering crew of five accompanying us along the way with their Yak Carrier. They all did a splendid job looking after us during our stay.
Sunday, March 1 — Day 2
We arrived in Delhi after a long flight and were glad to be taken to the Lemon Tree hotel for lunch and a rest. Later, we had a walk around the block and up to an area of wasteland where we found a lot of wildlife including some bee-eaters.
Monday, March 2 — Day 3
Flight from New Delhi to Guwahati, India, followed by a drive to Tashi Gasel Lodge, Samdrup Jongkhar, Bhutan
It was a short flight and we continued our journey by car to the Bhutan border. This was a long car journey and frequently held up by traffic delays. It was also mildly alarming for those of us not used to driving in India, with overtaking something of a free for all and traffic lanes largely disregarded. We did stop for some brief birdwatching on the way and saw some greater and lesser adjuvants on a rubbish tip. They are some strange looking birds.
By the time we reached the Bhutan border, it was dark and Sonam saw us through passport control before putting us on our bus to our first stop in Bhutan, the Tashi Gasel Lodge at Samdrup Jongkhar.
When we met at dinner, we compared first impressions; my room was otherwise unoccupied but Jean found ants, a moth and possibly a roach in hers. I tried to get a photo of the moth but it wouldn’t stay still long enough.
Tuesday, March 3 — Day 4
From Tashi Gasel Lodge, Samdrup Jongkhar to Dungsam Trashiling Resort, Deothang
Birdwatching started the next morning from the balcony which had a wonderful view. There was so much to see that I didn’t know which way to turn.
Our first breakfast was prepared by the ‘Yak Carrier’ feeding team who were to accompany us on the journey to provide breakfasts and lunches while out in the field.
The day was a combination of walking, birdwatching and riding on the bus along almost traffic-free roads. It was also the day when we discovered that comfort stops would be roadside occasions and behind a bush, if we were lucky.
When we arrived at our destination it was raining rather heavily but we managed to check in to our rooms without getting too wet. When the rain had cleared, we set off for a bit of birding and saw our first hornbills, a pair of rufous-necked.
Wednesday, March 4 — Day 5
From Dungsam Trashiling Resort, Deothang to Druk Deothjung Resort, Trashigang
Left: Main route
Above: Showing diversion
Below: Location of photos taking during diversion
We were told first thing that there had been a landslide blocking the road near the end of our journey. There is only the one road but Pasa had been told there was a farm track that we could try to get around it. This meant we needed to proceed at a slightly faster pace. We still managed plenty of great birding along the route and we had our first sighting of a giant squirrel as well as many new birds.
As we were about to sit down for lunch, a passer-by told us there were road works down the road. As we had to pass these during the workers’ lunch break, so as not to get too delayed, our lunch was postponed until we were passed it.
The detour route down the dirt track was quite exciting. On one occasion the bus got stuck and we had to get off to allow it to negotiate a bend. It was dark before we rejoined the main road and arrived at the hotel.
Thursday, March 5 — Day 6
From Druk Deothjung Resort, Trashigang to Trogon Villa, Yongkola, where we were to spend the next four nights.
We started the day as it was just getting light and we were able to take in our surroundings, with the wonderful views up and down the valley and of the Trashigang Dzong, before we set off on the next part of the journey.
As usual, we drove for a while and then walked and birded for a while. As we crossed the bridge over the river, somebody spotted a wall creeper on the nearby rocks. I had never seen one so close before. A little further on, we saw a small family of river otters and we watched them make their way up the river, playing as they went. We stopped at a rather pretty village on our way.
Lunch was taken down a forest track and during our walk afterward we had a brief sighting of a trogon. We also saw a group of capped langurs playing on the hillside below us and we stopped to watch them until they moved on out of sight.
Days 7-9 — Trogon Villa
We were to spend four nights at Trogon Villa Lodge as the area is particularly good for wildlife. The setting, on the hillside among farmers’ fields, was lovely but the rooms and dining area were cold and it took three days for the staff to set the correct number of places for dinner.
Friday, March 6 — Day 7
Our first morning started early and we drove up the hillside for a magical view with a hint of pink in the sky as the sun rose over the mist below us. Sonam led us to the top of a little gully by the side of a farmhouse on the hillside where there was a trickle of water and where the farmer had thrown some corn husks that had attracted laughing thrushes and various other birds.
We then set off into the forest where we had breakfast and spent the morning birding.
After lunch we had time to explore by ourselves.
We met up again at four for a short trip into the Phrumsengla National Park where we managed to see our first Kaleej pheasant skulking in the undergrowth.
Saturday, March 7 — Day 8
The day was spent up in the Phrumsengla National Park, following the main highway up towards the pass. It was a bit early in the year for the rhododendrons but some had just started flowering. We saw some great birds including a Besra sparrowhawk, of which I managed to get a photo. After lunch, Sonam pointed out the very rudimentary cabins where tour groups used to stay and suddenly Trogon Villa didn’t seem so bad.
We climbed steadily higher until we stopped to look over at the rocks on the opposite side of a hairpin bend where there were some bee-hives with a yellow-rumped honeyguide nearby. Further along, we came across some beautiful rock orchids. We stopped at a water-driven prayer wheel where Pasa took the opportunity to wash the bus.
Our last stop was a lovely, long waterfall that continued across the road.
Sunday, March 8 — Day 9
In the morning, we went down to the river bottom where it didn’t take Sonam long to find a tawny fish-owl sitting high up in a tree. We managed to get the telescopes onto it and had some great views.
Along the river, there were some interesting plants and flowers including one vegetable we’d had served for dinner the night before. There were also cannabis plants growing wild everywhere. We saw a crested kingfisher posing nicely on a branch over the river and some macaques on rocks in the water. Soon the day became positively hot and we saw many butterflies including the aptly named yellow pansy.
We had a walk round a small village while provisions were replenished before returning to Trogon Villa.
This was our last night at Trogon Villa and after dinner we set off in search of the Bhutan giant flying squirrel. We were not disappointed; Sonam found one. We watched it making small jumps and then it suddenly made a long jump and ‘flew’ with all four legs splayed out as glided across to the next branch. What a sight and what a great ending to our stay at Trogon Villa.
Monday, 9 March — Day 10
From Trogon Villa, Yongkola to Kaila Guesthouse, Jakar, Bumthang
We set off early and went up through the Phrumsengla National Park and over a pass. We stopped at the top to take some photos and the views were wonderful. Unfortunately, I wandered away from the guide and missed the first sighting of the Himalayan bluetail; sadly, I also managed to miss subsequent sightings of this bird.
Further on, we had breakfast at a height of 2,940 metres and from there we could now see snow-capped mountains in the distance. The trees there were covered in lichen and full of tits. Further along again, and overlooking the village of Sengor, we saw a Himalayan fox in the far distance and a flock of snow doves.
As we climbed higher, there was snow on the ground in many places and mist reduced visibility. We stopped at the top of Thrumshingla Pass. At 3,780 metres, it is the second highest pass in Bhutan and connects the eastern and central regions.
As we made our way down the other side, the visibility improved. This was blood pheasant country. Initially, they were difficult to see but then a whole flock of them crossed the road.
Our destination was the small town of Jakar, where the guesthouse was located. Its buildings were lovely and the rooms had hot stone fires in them: very nice indeed.
Tuesday, 10 March — Day 11
Kaila Guesthouse, Jakar, Bumthang to Yangkhil Resort, Trongsa.
We started early again as we were going to Tharpaling Monastery to look for the Himalayan monal, a gorgeous pheasant. We arrived as it was just getting light and we could hear chanting in the distance. We were only in the monastery courtyard for a moment before the first monal, a female, arrived. This was soon followed by a splendid male. We spent ages looking at it and Duncan fell in love.
We walked up the hillside to an height of 3,640 metres. It was hard going and several people felt a bit light headed and dizzy because of the altitude. After breakfast back in the courtyard, Sonam gave us a brief history of Buddhism using a display by the entrance to the temple.
Along the Trongsa-Yotongla Highway we came across a herd of yaks looking rather splendid. The lunch stop was at another great location with a view right across the valley. As we got near Trongsa we came across a small group of golden langurs, our first sighting of those lovely creatures.
The Trongsa Dzong is a splendid building and we all had a view of it from our rooms at Yangkhil Resort. Sonam told us that:
The Trongsa Dzong (fortress) was built in 1644 and was the seat of power of the Wangchuck dynasty before they became rulers of Bhutan in 1907. Built on the hillside high above the river gorges, with the only road connecting the east and west passing through its courtyard, it controlled the east-west trade for centuries. The first and second king ruled the country from here and, traditionally, each King of Bhutan must first serve as the governor here prior to ascending the throne.
After a brief rest, we set off in search of more golden langurs. We found a family group including a small baby across the other side of the valley and spent a long time watching them.
Wednesday, 11 March — Day 12
From Yangkhil Resort, Trongsa to Zhingkham Resort, Punakha
Dawn was just breaking as we set off to Punakha. There was a short delay due to a landslide that had blocked the road so we did some birdwatching by the river until it was cleared.
After breakfast, Duncan and Sonam noticed a bird in a tree some distance away. They photographed it and identified it as a pied wheatear. This caused some excitement as it was its first sighting in Bhutan and Sonam duly reported it and sent a group photo of all of us as people who had also seen it.
As we continued on our journey we came across another wall creeper. This one was even more obliging than the first one and we had some great views. We saw some trees with yellow flowers and were told it was lemon pepper. It smelled lovely and we suggested it would be nice in our porridge. On a cliffside, there were lots of house martin nests.
Suddenly, our driver, Pasa, stopped the bus. He had spotted something on the hillside and it was a Takin, the national animal of Bhutan. This is a strange animal and not listed as a species we would be likely to see.
Bhutan takin, Budorcas taxicolor whitei
The route took us past Pasa’s village where he stopped and collected a parcel from his wife. It was lemon pepper for our next morning porridge. We also met some young Buddhist monks nearby and one of them was his son.
We went across the Pelela pass, considered the gateway to central Bhutan, with an elevation of about 3,400 metres. A pretty stupa (a Buddhist commemorative monument) stands right in the middle of the road and we drove round it a couple of times for good luck. Then we made a slight detour from our route to look for black-necked cranes. These winter in the Phobjikha valley and Sonam had been told there were still a few there. They were still there and we found them.
Days 13 & 14 — Punakha
Our hotel, for the next two nights, was on a hillside overlooking Punakha Dzong.
Thursday 12 March — Day 13
We set off quite early as usual and, as we went up the valley, the sun was just pushing through the mist and we could just see the snow-capped mountains. Breakfast was taken at a lovely site by the river among many little butterflies.
Shortly after we crossed the boundary between Punakha and Gasa district, there was a health check-point. We all had to have our temperatures taken and our ages recorded.
We had lunch in a little park between a waterfall and the river where there were some beautiful ground orchids in the woods and good views of the mountains.
On the way back to Punakha, we stopped to photograph some interesting haystacks we had noticed earlier in the day and Sonam also pointed out an archery competition taking place on the opposite hillside.
In the afternoon, Sonam had managed to arrange a visit for us to the Punakha Dzong. This was built by Ngawang Namgyal, 1st Zhabdrung Rinpoche, between 1637 and 1638 and is the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan. It is certainly one of its most majestic buildings and we were the only foreign visitors while we were there.
The dzong houses the sacred relics of the southern Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, including the Rangjung Kasarpani and the sacred remains of Ngawang Namgyal and the tertoen Pema Lingpa.
Sonam gave us a brief introduction and then showed us inside one of the temples. We were allowed to take photos outside but not inside the temple.
After our visit to the Dzong we went in search of the white-bellied heron. This is a critically endangered species and, as counted in August 2018, there are less than 250 mature individual birds remaining in the world.
We found one on the other side of the river beyond the town. We had some great views of it by the edge of the river but we had to be very quiet and keep our distance to make sure we didn’t disturb it.
White-bellied heron, Ardea insignis
We also saw an ibisbill. It blended in beautifully with the rocks and if it wasn’t for its brilliant red bill we would never have spotted it.
Friday, 13 March — Day 14
From Zhingkham Resort, Punakha to Hotel Olathang, Paro.
Early the next day we set off for Paro, our final destination in Bhutan. We were all somewhat distracted by worries about our journey home because of the coronavirus epidemic but Duncan and Sonam kept us updated with the latest information.
Near our breakfast location there was a glorious cherry tree on which were many birds including a Mrs Gould’s sunbird, a new species for us. As we continued on our journey, we could just about see the peak of Mount Masanggang (Mt Gangkar Puensum) which, at 7,158 metres (23,484 ft), is the highest mountain in Bhutan and the highest unclimbed mountain in the world.
The road from the east to Thimphu goes across Dochula Pass, which is 3,100 metres high.
At the top of the pass are 108 memorial stupas known as Druk Wangyal Chortens. These were built by Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, the eldest Queen Mother, in memory of the 108 Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the 2003 fighting against Indian rebels during ‘Operation all Clear’ in which they were led by the fourth king.
The pass is normally busy but, due to the restriction on tourists, the road was almost empty. We had lunch among prayer flags just below its summit.
Driving past the outskirts of Thimphu, we could see the Buddha Dordenma on the hillside above it. The 52 metres tall giant statue of Shakyamuni Buddha was built in celebration of the fourth king’s sixtieth anniversary. Within this statue, there are 125,000 smaller Buddha statues, all in gilded bronze. Sonam also told us the third eye of the giant statue is a 100 carat diamond.
As we entered the Paro district, we saw some goral on the hillside. These are listed as near threatened due to habitat loss and hunting. Further on, we stopped to look at a couple of grey langurs and, as we continued down into the valley, we stopped again and walked along the river. There we saw some river lapwing and ibisbill.
Days 15 to 17 — Paro
This was our last stop and we spent the next three days here. We had an extra day due to a change of plan caused by the corona virus pandemic.
Saturday 14 March — Day 15
We were warned it might be cold up on the Chelela pass so I put on all the layers I had. We hadn’t gone far when a large-eared pika was spotted sitting outside its burrow. At breakfast in a clearing in the pine forest, we watched some yellow-billed blue magpie that were probably hoping for some scraps and, further on, there was a yellow-throated marten running down the hill. Duncan’s squeaking noises lured it back up the hill again and then it disappeared. Wow.
As we moved higher, the weather started closing in and then it started to snow. We saw a herd of yaks coming down the hill but by the time we reached the top of the pass we could hardly see anything. The pass is 3,988 metres high and most of us wanted to walk up a path to be 4,000 metres high. We had to walk carefully due to the altitude, visibility and the possibility of slipping in the snow.
We drove down the other side of the pass and just into the Haa district before turning back to re-cross it. Back at the pass we found people were placing 108 white flags on the hillside while a man was chanting. On the way back, we stopped every now and then to look for wildlife and saw a little flock of red-headed bullfinches.
Coming down into Paro, we had a view of the airport which is considered one of the world’s most challenging for pilots. Only certain aeroplanes and selected pilots are certified to land there.
Sunday 15 March — Day 16
Tigers nest, Paro Taktsang
On the way to the Tiger’s Nest, Sonam told us the legend of the monastery:
According to legend, Padmasambava, a Buddhist master also known as Guru Rinpoche, landed at Paro Taktsang to meditate when he brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the eighth century. He is said to have arrived on a flying tiger which had recently been his Tibetan concubine. He then meditated in a cave high on the mountain for four months after which he subdued the local demons and began the conversion of the Bhutanese to Buddhism.
We had breakfast in the car park where the paths to the Tiger’s Nest start. Not being as fit as I would have liked I reluctantly decided that I would have to settle for just going as far as the café. I found the steep path quite hard going. We made it to the café in an hour and a half, which was within the estimated time so we didn’t do too badly.
At the café, tea and biscuits were waiting for us and there was a wonderful view of the monastery on the hillside above. After a rest and refreshments, we walked on to the next viewpoint where Sonam, Duncan and four members of the group set off for the Tiger’s Nest. Most of the rest of the group went back to the café but three of us, with Little Sonam, went further up the path to a point almost parallel to the monastery. When it started to snow, Little Sonam thought we should turn back so we did.
From the café, we watched for the six that were going all the way and we could just see them at the Tiger’s Nest through binoculars. The walk back down to the car park was a lot easier than going up.
After a late lunch, which was our last meal with the feeding crew, Duncan gave a little speech. One the way back to Paro, we stopped to look for a black-tailed crake. Although we could hear it, we didn’t manage to see it but we had some great views of a solitary snipe instead.
Monday 16 March — Day 17
Since we could not fly out of Bhutan as scheduled, and had to stay an extra night, we had to change hotels. As it was a glorious day, Sonam thought it would be nice to go up to the Chelela pass again and this time we had great views of the mountains all around.
We spent much of the afternoon in town and then went looking for the crake again. We found two and then saw several ibisbills while birdwatching along the river.
After dinner at the hotel some of us went into town to take photos of the illuminated Dzong which looked splendid, though there were no lights on the bridge as it was being repaired.
Tuesday, 17 March — Journey home
It was a long journey back home with stop-overs in Bangkok and Dubai but we eventually arrived in London the next morning. All the flights were completely full of people trying to make their way back home as quickly as possible. Everywhere else there had been health checks but there was nothing at Heathrow.
It had been a wonderful adventure and we had been very well looked after. We only saw a small part of what Bhutan has to offer and I hope I will be able to go back one day to see more.