Bhutan & Nepal Photo Itinerary
Day 1: Kathmandu, Nepal
Arrive in Kathmandu, the storied capital of Nepal. For centuries this city backdropped by the Himalayas has been a center of religious art and architecture in both Hindu and Buddhist traditions and is renowned for its ancient temples and urban squares. Settle in at Dwarika's, a heritage lodge that evokes the palaces of Nepal's Newar kings, where we stay among artifacts dating back to the 14th century. This evening, gather with our Expedition Leader for a welcome dinner in a private room at our hotel.
Day 2: Dhulikhel—Himalaya Photography / Bhaktapur
Rise early and drive east to the traditional Newari village of Dhulikhel in the foothills outside Kathmandu. Here, we behold a dramatic panorama of Nepal’s high Himalayas, rising in a serrated line before us. More than 20 peaks are in view along the rock and ice spine, including Annapurna and Lhotse. After plenty of time to capture photos in the changing light, we have lunch in view of the mighty mountains before continuing to Bhaktapur. One of three ancient city-states in region along with Kathmandu and Patan, Bhaktapur is part of the UNESCO Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Site. Containing some of the best-preserved temples in the region, Bhaktapur offers the feeling of an open-air museum that is still the site of vital daily life. Durbar Square is the hub of the city’s architectural heritage, a former royal palace complex that housed a sequence of kings from the 14th–18th centuries, until the Gorkha conquest in 1769. The latter established the Kingdom of Nepal that persisted until 2008, when Nepal was declared a democratic republic. Bhaktapur is also renowned as one of Nepal’s premier handcraft centers, and we see artisans making intricate wood carvings, Thangka paintings on canvas, terracotta pottery, traditional dance masks, and garments woven of handloomed textiles. Return to Kathmandu for a second night.
Day 3: Bharatpur / Chitwan National Park
Fly this morning to Bharatpur on the Terai plains of southern Nepal and transfer to our luxury ecolodge, Meghauli Serai, for the next three nights. This serene safari base is ideally situated on the edge of the Rapti River near Chitwan National Park, in the largest area of undisturbed wilderness along the base of the Himalaya. Its location is the best in the Chitwan region for wildlife photography, which we take full advantage of during our stay. The area surrounding the lodge has a high sighting rate for one-horned rhinoceros, crocodile and gharial. and we occasionally see a highly elusive Bengal tiger.
Days 4 & 5: Photo Safari in Chitwan National Park
Chitwan National Park, established in 1973, is Nepal’s first national park and was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984. It covers 360 square miles of subtropical lowlands and is home to about 50 mammal species and more than 500 species of birds. We spend our days exploring the park on 4x4 safari drives, hoping to capture images of the its most famous wild residents. While sightings are never guaranteed, we have good chances of photographing rhinoceros, Asian elephant, crocodile, leopard, sloth bear, sambar deer, wild boar, monkeys and jungle fowl, all in their natural habitat. Our Expedition Leader positions us in the best light and at ideal angles for excellent wildlife photos, with opportunities for photo shoots at sunrise and sunset, weather permitting. River safaris can also be arranged. A chance to track tigers is a special highlight, as we join our Expedition Leader and a local guide to search for footprints and pugmarks that mark the tigers' hidden presence in the park.
Day 6: Bharatpur / Kathmandu Valley World Heritage Tour
Return to Bharatpur airport this morning for our flight back to Kathmandu. On an afternoon tour, photograph two of seven designated cultural sites in the Kathmandu Valley that have earned the region UNESCO World Heritage status. Our first stop is the vibrant Tibetan Buddhist enclave of Boudhanath. The white-domed stupa that dominates its low skyline is the largest in Nepal and a sacred pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists from around the world. Continue to Pashupatinath Temple, the oldest temple in Kathmandu and one of the most sacred Hindu sites in Nepal. The massive complex dedicated to the god Shiva is a sprawling collection of smaller temples, ashrams, images and inscriptions raised over the centuries along the banks of the holy Bagmati River, where funeral pyres line the river's edge. Continue to our hotel to spend the night.
Day 7: Paro, Bhutan / Thimphu
Fly this morning to the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”—the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. If the skies are clear on our flight to Paro, we'll see the highest peaks on the planet visible below in a serrated white spine and capture striking aerial images as we approach the green trough of the Paro Valley. Rich in culture, lush in scenic beauty, and steeped in history and legend, Paro offers a bucolic welcome to the kingdom. From Paro we drive to Thimphu, Bhutan’s idyllic capital and a stronghold of traditional Bhutanese art, architecture and culture. Surrounded by mountains and monasteries, this seat of government and commerce on the Wang Chuu River is a harmonious mix of modern development and ancient traditions. It's also the only national capital without traffic lights. After checking in to our hotel, visit Thimphu Dzong late this afternoon. This Buddhist monastery and fortress was built in the 13th century, reconstructed over the years, and has served as the office of the king and seat of civil government for the country since 1952.
Day 8: Dochula / Punakha Valley
En route to Punakha, cross Dochula Pass, a 10,171-foot saddle marked by 108 chortens, fluttering prayer flags and a panorama of the entire eastern Himalaya. The road drops dramatically into the Punakha Valley, descending through evergreen oak and rhododendron forests into fertile lowlands lush with rice, oranges, bananas and guavas. Punakha is the former capital of Bhutan and the winter residence of the monastic body. After lunch at a traditional local restaurant, set off for a short hike to Chimi Lhakhang Temple, a small shrine dedicated to one of Bhutan’s favorite saints, the 15th-century Lama Drukpa Kunley. A rag-clad lotharian who used humor, songs and outrageous behavior to dramatize his teachings, he became known as the "Divine Madman" and is still beloved as such today. The peace of the Bhutanese landscape is palpable as our path to the temple ambles through green pastures and rice paddies, passing farmers and livestock in the terraced fields. We’ll pause periodically along our route to photograph these serene scenes.
Day 9: Punakha
This morning we visit Khamsun Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, a temple dedicated to the well-being of the kingdom, its people and all sentient beings. Built atop a high ridge, the temple offers magnificent views of the Punakha Valley. After a picnic lunch, explore the massive Punakha Dzong, known as the "Palace of Great Happiness." Straddling the confluence of the Po (Father) and Mo (Mother) rivers, the monastery is Bhutan’s best-known fortress. Built in 1637, it was the seat of government until 1955 and home to Bhutan’s religious establishment. Capture entrancing photos of the palace, which occupies one of the most scenic dzong sites in Bhutan; maroon-robed monks and guests must cross a wooden footbridge over the river to reach it.
Days 10 & 11: Gangtey Valley—Black-Necked Crane Information Center & Gangtey Monastery
Cross a high pass to reach the wide glacial valley of Gangtey, often referred to as Phobjikha, regarded as one of the most scenic destinations in Bhutan. Rich in exceptional biodiversity, this sacred and protected region of forest and wetlands is home to a number of rare and exotic wildlife species, including the globally endangered black-necked cranes that migrate to the valley each autumn from their summer breeding grounds on the Tibetan Plateau. Local people believe that along with their arrival comes a good potato harvest and prosperity for the valley. Learn more about these elegant birds – the world’s only alpine crane species -- on a visit to the Black-Necked Crane Information Center, managed by Bhutan’s Royal Society for the Protection of Nature. Powerful spotting scopes are available to seek out these showy avian denizens, several hundred of which make the journey each year. With a bright red crown, slender black neck, and a wingspan up to 8 feet, the birds are the subject of Bhutanese folklore songs, and are painted on the walls of homes, businesses and temples throughout the country. We also visit magnificent Gangtey Goemba Monastery, perched atop a hill that overlooking the valley. The 17th-century monastery is surrounded by a large village inhabited mainly by the families of the 140 gomchens who take care of the sacred Buddhist site with deep devotion.
Day 12: Paro
A half-day drive returns us to Paro. Situated in the mountainous northwest of Bhutan, the Paro Valley is rich in natural beauty and culture, abounding with myths and legends. At the National Museum, a repository of more than 3,000 works of Bhutanese art housed in a renovated 17th-century round watchtower overlooking the city, view the collection that includes precious bronze statues, thangka paintings, musical instruments, clothing and handicrafts that cover more than 1,500 years of Bhutan's cultural heritage. We also visit a local farmhouse where we'll participate in a traditional archery lesson—keep your camera ready for shots of the action. Archery is the national sport of the kingdom, and tournaments and competitions are held throughout the country, often during public holidays and local festivals called tsechu. Though archery historically is a martial art, it is practiced by the peace-loving Bhutanese for physical exercise and to hone concentration.
Day 13: Paro—Tiger's Nest Monastery
Our final morning in Bhutan holds a most impressive sight: Taktsang Monastery, also known as the “Tiger’s Nest.” The famous subject of many photographs, this complex of 17th-century temples clings to the side of a precipitous cliff nearly 3,000 feet above the valley floor. Its name is derived from myth, which holds that Guru Rinpoche, the tantric mystic who brought Buddhism from India to Bhutan in the 8th century, landed here on the back of a flying tigress and stayed to meditate in a cave for three months. Gain an initial vista as we hike to a viewpoint opposite the monastery, while those who choose to tackle the entire challenging journey will have their effort well rewarded with unsurpassed views of the temples, surrounding peaks and valley below. Afterward, there may be time to do some last-minute shopping before saying farewell to this most captivating country.
Day 14: Paro / Bangkok, Thailand / Depart
Our Himalayan sojourn concludes as we depart from the Paro airport on a group flight to Bangkok, where we connect with onward flights.