Bhutan

Why October is the Best Time to Visit Bhutan

While there are good reasons to visit Bhutan at any time of year, in our experience, October is the best time to visit Bhutan. Want to find out why? Read on.

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October is autumn in Bhutan. While early autumn (September) can still be wet after the monsoon, by October the skies have generally cleared. That means you’ll be treated to beautiful Himalayan views.

October is peak season in Bhutan, so that does mean many popular tourist attractions will be at their busiest. But, we’re hardly talking Roman summer levels of busy-ness, here. Remember that travel to Bhutan is still quite restricted by the mandatory daily visa fee and package costs. And while we believe that Bhutan is a good-value destination rather than an expensive one per se, this cost does keep the number of visitors lower than in nearby Nepal, India, or Thailand, for example. So, even traveling to Bhutan in the peak season can be quieter than you might imagine.

Of course, peak tourism season in a destination is usually so for a very good reason. In October, conditions are at their best for visitors to Bhutan. As the temperatures are warm and the mountain views good, this is a great time to go trekking. Most of Bhutan is at a relatively high altitude—capital Thimphu is at 2,334 metres—so you do need to be prepared for colder conditions the further up you go. But freak weather events aside, October is a great time to do longer treks like the Jomolhari, Druk Path, or Laya Gasa treks.

If you’re not up for trekking, general touring is also great at this time. Conditions are clear and weather is good, so you’ll hardly have to worry about freezing or getting wet while out and about. While much of Bhutan’s altitude is high, some popular tourist destinations—like Punakha, with its wonderful fort—is ‘only’ at 1,242 metres. Travelers who want to enjoy a bit of warmth can definitely do this in Bhutan in October.

If you mostly want to sightsee in Bhutan but also want to do a bit of walking that isn’t quite a full-blown trek, walking holidays are an ideal option. These can be arranged in many parts of the country, but the Bumthang Valley and Central Bhutan are especially good at this time of year. As Bumthang is quite high in altitude (ranging from 2,600-4,500 metres), if you’re worried about the cold, you wouldn’t want to visit later in the year. It’s home to some of the oldest temples and monasteries in Bhutan, and is also very fertile, with gorgeous cultivated farmland and villages. It’s a perfect destination to combine easy sightseeing and some not-too-challenging walks.

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Buddhism is the dominant religion in Bhutan, and throughout the year you’ll come across lively tsechu (Buddhist festivals) somewhere in the country. But the autumn is a particularly rich time for festivals. While the dates change from year to year because they follow the lunar calendar, many of these fall in October, or late September/early November. Some festivals that are likely to fall in October include:

-     Thimphu Tsechu - 8th-10th October 2019

-      Wangdue Tsechu - 5th-7th October 2019

- Gangtey Tsechhu - 10th -13th October 2019

-       Royal Highland Festival - 23rd-24th October 2019

If you’re eager to experience one of these festivals, it’s important to book your trip to Bhutan as far in advance as possible. Hotel beds book up fast in the nearby towns around these festival times.

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Many travellers combine a trip to Bhutan with time in neighbouring Nepal, as Kathmandu is one of the few places from which it’s possible to fly to Bhutan. October is also a fabulous month to visit Nepal, after the monsoon and before the chilly winter, so if you want a two-for-one Himalayan adventure, October is the perfect time to do it.

There’s still time to plan a trip to Bhutan for October 2019! Get in touch with us at info@beyondtheclouds.org.nz to find out more.

A Quick Guide To Himalayan Buddhist Sites

So you’re planning a trip to the Himalaya and you keep reading about the stupa, chorten, mani, lhakhang, gompa, and dzong that you will see along the way. Wait … the what?

These terms can be confusing to travellers who aren’t so familiar with Buddhism, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help you understand what they all mean. Use this guide so you can spend more time enjoying - and understanding - what you’re seeing, and less time getting lost in language.  

1.     Gompa = Monastery

Ubiquitous in the Himalaya, gompa means monastery. Gompa can range in size from small structures to village-like campuses, but all serve the same purpose of educating monks or nuns and taking care of their surrounding lay community’s religious needs.

Gompa usually contain a courtyard, assembly hall used for prayer services, apartments for the monks, various temples, scripture halls, and a communal kitchen. Their primary function is as a university – engaging students in programmes of study to take them from novice to graduate geshe (the Buddhist equivalent of a PhD) over time. You may see children as young as seven years old who have been sent to begin their monastic education, as new entrants are welcome at any age.

A secondary function, which enables the gompa to partially provide for itself, is as a company providing religious services to the surrounding community. These services include the performance of rituals, reciting of prayers for ill or deceased loved ones, and selling blessed objects for protection or spiritual development.

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2.     Lhakhang = Temple

Lhakhang comes from the Tibetan language, and means “House of the Gods”, which we translate into English as temple or chapel. Lhakhang can exist both inside monasteries and separately, and some big monasteries will have multiple different lhakhang that you will visit.

Each lhakhang is dedicated to a specific god or saint, who you will see images of on the main altar inside. Many Himalayan monasteries will also have a gonkhang, which is a different type of temple dedicated to the wrathful protector deities. Gonkhang are dark and disquieting places, and women are traditionally forbidden from entering them.

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3.     Stupa/Chorten

Whether you hear it called a stupa or a chorten, this word means the same thing (stupa is from the Sanskrit language, chorten is from the Tibetan). This is one of the most recognisable Buddhist sites you’ll see across the Himalaya, and serves several different functions.

One function is as a reliquary – housing the remnants of the Buddha, his disciples, or saints. As well as ashes or bodily relics, these remnants can also be important scriptures, which are regarded as the speech of the Buddha, or a saint’s begging bowl.

Stupa can also serve a symbolic function, representing events in the life of the Buddha, or aspects of Buddhist theology. These ones are subtly differentiated by their shape and form, see if you can spot the differences!  

4.     Dzong = Fortress

This term is primarily found in Bhutan, as the fortresses of old in Nepal and Tibet are mostly in ruin nowadays. Dzong means fortified place, and can be used to refer either to a fortified watchtower or fortified palace.

In Bhutan, dzong are usually part-administrative and part-monastic, reflecting the duality and close connection of religion and government in the country. Their strong structure was necessary during past conflict and invasions, but these days serve only peaceful purposes.

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5.     Mani = Prayer

You’ll see and hear the word mani used plenty in the Himalaya, usually referring to either mani wheels (prayer wheels) or mani walls, which are long walls made of piles of stones that have been carved with auspicious prayers.

You may also think that prayer flags would be called “mani flags”, but in fact they’re not! Prayer flags are referred to as “lung-ta” which means “windhorse”, in reference to the idea that as the wind blows, it will carry the prayers on its back like a galloping horse.

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 6.     Lha-tse = Mountain God’s Shrine

Although you may not hear these words said much, you’ll definitely see the site they refer to on your Himalayan journey. Lha-tse refers to the small shrines planted at the top of hills or mountains, dedicated to the local mountain gods. Usually decorated with prayer flags, and sometimes armed with wooden spears or swords, these are maintained by local villagers for the purpose of appeasing the mountain gods, in a tradition that pre-dates Himalayan Buddhism.

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Now you know your lhakang from your lha-tse, we hope you enjoy exploring the Himalayas in confidence.

Haven’t booked yet? Contact us to have a chat about where you’d like to go in the Himalayas, get inspired by our Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet itineraries, and share this post with a friend who’s going there too.

16 Unmissable Things to See & Do in Bhutan

Bhutan is a delightful travel destination, but it’s also shrouded in a lot of mystery. Many would-be visitors know that there are beautiful monasteries and some high mountains, but struggle to know what else there is to see and do in Bhutan. Here’s a list of our favourites.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Paro Taktsang)

It's an unmissable icon in Bhutan - clinging like a swallow's nest to the edge of a cliff high above the Paro Valley, it makes many foreign visitors wonder how such a monastery could ever be built. It is only accessible by narrow mountain paths, and is surrounded by dense forested mountains and dramatic rocky drops. It’s one of the most popular places in Bhutan for pilgrims and awe-struck tourists alike, and is an absolute must-visit destination in Bhutan, whether you have two days or two weeks in the country.

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Punakha Dzong

A dzong is a fortified monastery building, found throughout Bhutan and Tibet. One of the most beautiful and important in Bhutan is the Punakha Dzong, where the kings of Bhutan have traditionally been crowned. It’s the administrative centre of Punakha District. Constructed in the mid-17th century, it’s the second-oldest dzong in Bhutan (the oldest is Simtokha Dzong, which is only a few years older than Punakha Dzong).

Chimi Lhakhang Monastery—aka, the Fertility Temple

The Chimi Lhakhang Monastery in Punakha District is commonly known as the Fertility Temple because it’s believed to be a powerful place for people wanting to have a child. The monastery buildings and the surrounding village are adorned with ornately decorative phalli, which many visitors find amusing, although they have important and serious meaning to the devout local people.

Check out our pilgrimage tours of Bhutan, during which you can visit the Chimi Lhakhang Monastery.

Black-Necked Cranes in Phobjikha

Black-necked cranes are one of the rarest varieties of crane in the world. Up to 500 of them come to the Phobjikha Valley in Bhutan for the winter, between late October and February, after spending the summer on the Tibetan Plateau, where they breed. The Government of Bhutan has made special efforts to protect the birds by establishing the Phobjikha Conservation Area. Wildlife and bird lovers will especially enjoy seeing the cranes in Phobjikha. Plus, the Black-Necked Crane Festival is held in autumn, making this one of the best times to visit Bhutan.

The Haa Valley

Between Haa and Thimphu is the picturesque Haa Valley. From Paro, cross the Cheli La Pass (3,810 metres) to reach the valley. It’s one of the least-visited areas in the country and retains the air of an unspoiled, primeval forest. Haa is home to a number of nomadic herders. Visit the 7th-century Black & White Temples, and go on a day hike or mountain bike ride.

Attend a festival

Bhutan has almost 200 festivals each year. These range from small local events in a village to great celebrations in the major monasteries of Paro and Thimpu. Attending a festival in Bhutan is an experience like no other. You’ll have the opportunity to mingle with friendly local people and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of ancient Bhutanese culture. 

Bumthang Valley

The Bumthang Valley is in Central Bhutan, and is one of the most beautiful and sacred valleys in the country. Explore the little-visited region with its many hidden delights, including a 16th-century palace (the Ugyen Choling Palace). Sample a Red Panda Beer at the local micro-brewery, nibble some Swiss cheese and enjoy a fondue dinner at the guesthouse run by a Swiss-Bhutanese family. 

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National Textile Museum, Thimphu

The Bhutanese people were a beautiful range of traditional textiles in their daily lives. To learn more about them, to see them being made, and to purchase some for yourself, visit the National Textile Museum in Thimphu. Royal garments are on display, as well as examples of textiles from different parts of the country.

Send home a personalised stamp from Bhutan Post in Thimpu

The Bhutanese capital, Thimphu, is a quirky little town, and one of the most interesting things to do there is to have personalised postage stamps made with your photo on them! These are legal tender, so you can send postcards home with them. You can also provide them with a picture ahead of time, so you’re stamps are ready to collect when you drop into the post office to pick them up.

Watch (or Play!) Archery

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport. The bows are made from bamboo, and the target sits 145 metres from the archer—which is much further than the kind of archery you may be used to seeing in the Olympics. It’s done in traditional dress, which adds to the beauty of the display. Guides in Bhutan will often arrange a casual match for their guests while touring Bhutan.

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Visit the Paro Weekend Market

If you happen to be in Paro during the weekend, check out the Paro Weekend Market. It’s not large, but it sells a range of Bhutanese food items, most of which you couldn’t find at home, like dried yak’s cheese.

Visit the Motithang Takin Preserve

Takins are an interesting-looking animal, also called a cattle chamois or gnu goat, and look somewhat like a cross between a moose, a goat, and a deer. They’re the national animal of Bhutan, although they can also be found in parts of India and China. Visitors can check them out at the Motithang Takin Preserve, a forested habitat on the edge of Thimphu.

Simply Bhutan Museum in Thimpu

The Simply Bhutan Museum in Thimphu is an immersive museum where visitors can see handicrafts being made, dress in traditional costume, see cultural performances, and more. One of the goals of the museum is to provide young Bhutanese people with job opportunities, so visiting the museum is supporting a worthy cause.

Rinpung Dzong, Paro (Paro Dzong)

The Rinpung Dzong in Paro (usually just called the Paro Dzong) is a monastery and fortress. Most of the chapels themselves are closed to tourists, but you can still visit the outside areas, and the architecture is especially stunning. Many fabulous festivals are held here throughout the year—it’s worth travelling here during a festival so you can experience these fabulous affairs.

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Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu

To the north of the capital, the 13th century Tashichho Dzong houses government offices, including the king’s throne room. This means that visitors can’t see much of the insides, but it’s still a must-visit attraction in the city. The architecture is beautiful, the surrounding gardens are large and well-kept, and the location on the banks of the Wang Chhu River is serene.

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Buddha Dordenma Statue, Thimphu

The 50-metre high golden seated Buddha statue on the outskirts of Thimphu is an impressive enough attraction if you take it at face value. But, inside are 125,000 miniature Buddha statues! Unlike many of the sights you’ll see throughout Bhutan, the Buddha Dordenma Statue is not very old—it was built in 2015 in honour of the 60th birthday of King Jigme Singye Wangchuck—at an expense of almost $100 million!

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Find out more about some of our Bhutan tours on the following pages:

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Eight Buddhist Pilgrimages in the Himalaya that Every Buddhist Should Take

Looking to combine your next adventure with a spiritual journey? Explore these well and lesser-known Buddhist pilgrimages in the Himalayas. The Buddhist power-places of Bhutan, Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal have many possibilities.

Is Trekking in the Himalayas Hard?

Many people like the idea of trekking in the Himalayas (whether that’s Nepal, Ladakh, or Bhutan) but don’t know whether it would be too far out of their physical comfort zone. There’s also a lot of confusion between mountain climbing and mountain trekking. Yes, thousands of people flock to Nepal each year to trek to Everest, but only a fraction of these actually attempt to climb the mountain! You don’t need to be a uber-fit superhero to enjoy trekking in the Himalayas.

Like many things in life, trekking in the Himalayas is easier and more enjoyable if you have a reasonable level of fitness. If you regularly attend yoga classes, the gym, go for bike rides, long walks, or swim, a Himalayan trek should not be outside your comfort zone. Of course, if you have any particular health issues—especially related to the joints, lungs, or heart—you should seek professional medical advice before planning a trip. But the Himalayas offer everything from low-altitude jaunts to weeks-long expeditions at high altitude, as well as everything in between.

It’s also important to realise that fitness and the body’s reaction to high altitudes are not related. Some very fit trekkers can feel the effects of altitude badly, whereas averagely fit trekkers may have no problems at all. There are ways to mitigate the effects of altitude but fitness is not necessarily one of them.

Here are a few different options for travellers with varying levels of fitness.

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‘Easy’

No Himalayan treks are necessarily ‘easy’. They all involve uphill and downhill walking over uneven terrain, often at high altitude and while staying in basic accommodation. But the following treks are popular among less experienced trekkers.

Annapurna Panorama Trek, Nepal

This trek is perfect for travellers wanting a short (four night) but spectacular trek in Nepal. Climb from pretty river scenery through beautiful rhododendron forests to Ghorepani, then up to Poon Hill for sunrise. The panoramic view from here of Dhaulagiri and the Annapurna range is superb. The trek continues through abundant rhododendron forests to a number of Gurung villages and more spectacular mountain views from Tadapani, before returning to Pokhara via Ghandruk. The highest altitude reached is at Poon Hill, which is 3,210 metres, but nights are spent at a lower altitude that should not cause any problems. This trek does involve a steep ascent up many stone steps on the first day, so trekkers should definitely carry poles to help the body along.

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Sham Valley Trek, Ladakh

The whole of Ladakh is high-altitude, and the capital city of Leh—where most travellers arrive—is over 3,000 metres. The highest point on the Sham Valley Trek is 3,800 metres. It’s really important that trekkers in Ladakh give themselves several days to acclimatise before heading off on a trek. Once that’s done, the Sham Valley Trek is an easy option. The three-four day route allows you to meander through the midst of Ladakh’s barren yet oftentimes surprisingly colourful landscape, pass monasteries, and stay in cut village homestays with the local people.

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Mid-level

If you know you’re pretty fit but don’t want to exhaust yourself while on the trip of a lifetime, check out one of these medium-difficulty options. They will challenging you without requiring years of training beforehand.

Druk Path Trek, Bhutan

The five-day Druk Path trek is one of Bhutan’s most famous. It highlights the great diversity of Bhutan’s landscape. It passes through a gorgeous landscape of blue pine forests, high ridges and pristine lakes. There’s also the opportunity to visit ancient dzongs and villages. The highest altitude reached is 4,235 m, so it’s important to take your time. Find out when is the best time to visit Bhutan here.

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Mardi Himal, Nepal

Mardi Himal is an under-visited mountain with a recently developed trekking trail that’s waiting to be explored. The mountain landscape is as spectacular as the nearby Annapurna region, but the trek itself is less challenging than the Annapurna Base Camp trek. This trek is an ideal option for adventurous travellers who want to get off the beaten path. Walk though pristine rhododendron forests (especially vibrant in March-April), cloud forests, and charming villages to high-altitude pastures where yaks graze. From Mardi Himal Base Camp, the entire Annapurna range is visible, including Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, and Machhapuchhre (Fishtail). Follow the Mardi Khola Valley for part of the way. If you are looking for a short, rewarding trek with stunning mountain views without the crowds, the Mardi Himal trek is the perfect choice. The highest altitude reached is 4,450 metres.

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Challenging

If you’ve done a lot of trekking before, and consider yourself fit and up for a challenge, there are plenty of choices in the Himalayan region. Longer, more difficult treks require good support, so make sure you have a good guide and porter.

Three Passes Trek, Nepal

The Three Passes Trek offers unparalleled views of dramatic summits and captivating valleys. Take in the entire Himalayan Range from Chukking-Ri and Gokyo-Ri, including the best views of Mount Everest’s summit. Follow the well-worn trail to Everest Base Camp via Kala Patthar before leaving the main trail to climb the Cho La Pass to the cobalt blue Gokyo Lakes and on to Gokyo Ri. The views are spectacular and you will see the spectacle of the Khumbu Icefall cascading from the Western Cwm. Crossing the Renjo La pass, follow a little of the route used for centuries by the Tibetan Traders via Nangpa La to get to Thame. Following the classical route, drop down to Lukla and fly back to Kathmandu. The highest altitude reached is 5,540 metres, which is very high, so be well prepared and know how to act if you or anyone in your party succumbs to altitude sickness.

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Laya Gasa Trek, Bhutan

Trekking in Bhutan is like nowhere else in the Himalayas. It’s an untouched natural wonderland. Rated as one of Bhutan’s most spectacular, the Laya Gasa trek takes you to Bhutan’s northern border with Tibet. Enjoy fabulous views of snow-capped mountains and experience the unique culture of the friendly Layap people in a truly remote corner of the Himalayas. If you’re trekking in October, don't miss the annual Royal Highlander Festival that takes place in Laya. See the local people showcasing their unique culture over a two-day event in the remote countryside. The highest altitude reached is 5,005 metres, so be prepared to stop or take it slow if you need to.

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Shopping for Handicrafts in Nepal, Bhutan & Ladakh

Shopping for Handicrafts in Nepal, Bhutan & Ladakh

A fun addition to any trek or sightseeing tour across the Himalaya is a morning or afternoon of retail therapy. There are so many beautiful products available across Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh, but, there is also a lot of poor quality ‘tourist tat’. If you have limited time for shopping in the region and want to go directly to the best places, follow our handy guide to shopping for handicrafts in Nepal, Bhutan and Ladakh.

A Handy Packing List for Trekking in the Himalaya

A Handy Packing List for Trekking in the Himalaya

As experienced Himalayan travellers, we have had plenty of trial and error with our packing styles. While the different regions of the Himalaya have different climates and conditions, there are many important similarities. When planning a trek in Nepal, Bhutan or Ladakh, it’s important that you pack properly. You don’t need to pack the kitchen sink, but under-packing or over-packing can both ruin a trip.