Day 1: Paro/Thimpu
Welcome to Bhutan! After being greeted by our friendly local guide, we’ll leave Paro late morning and drive to Bhutan’s capital city Thimpu (about 1.5hrs), stopping off at Tamchog Lhakhang along the way. This temple was built by Thang Thong Gyalpo of Tibet at the foot of the Phurdo mountains. The colourful, prayer-flagged iron bridge which spans the Paro River is great to photograph and quite something to walk across with its swaying action and swirling waters visible through the mesh ‘floor’ beneath you.
After lunch and hotel check-in, we’ll visit the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, commonly called ‘the painting school‘, where young Bhutanese learn the art and crafts of their ancestors: Textiles, Painting, Sculpture, Paper making, Bamboo Craft, Jewelry, Bone and Furniture. This fascinating visit gives us a glimpse into ancient traditions and you’ll have lots of opportunities to photograph the artisans at work as they create their beautiful pieces.
There’s a shop where you can buy some of the students’ work and if time permits we may visit the Sangey Arts Gallery (opposite the Institute) or Buddha Arts Gallery if you’re interested to see (and bring home) beautiful Bhutanese paintings & handicrafts.
Before sunset we’ll be heading uphill to a great vantage point where we can capture beautiful views of Thimpu and Tashicho Dzong which houses the secretariat building, throne room, office of the king, and central monk body.
Hotel: Zhingkham Resort
Day 2: Thimpu/Dochula Pass/Punakha
Today we have an early start with a sunrise photo shoot at the impressive Buddha Dordenma Statue, a 51.5m high seated Buddha gilded in gold. The throne that the Buddha sits on is a large meditation hall and within the statue are 125,000 smaller Buddha statues, also gilded in gold. It’s located on top of a hill in Kuenselphodrang Nature Park and overlooks the Southern entrance to Thimphu Valley so if the weather is clear we’ll have an excellent view of the valley and the mountains around.
Mid-morning we’ll leave Thimpu and make our to the Punakha district, crossing over one of the Himalayan mountain ranges via the famous, winding Dochula Pass. At it’s summit of 3100 metres we’ll visit the impressive Druk Wangyal Chortens – 108 stupas built by the eldest queen, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. We may also be able to see Bhutan’s highest mountain Mt. Masanggang in the distance – its peak reaches 7158 metres.
We’ll enjoy lunch with views over the rice terraces at Sopsokha in the Punakha Valley, a pleasant village often referred to as the Fertility Temple Village – the reasons will become clear when we explore the village and Chimi Lhakhang in the afternoon.
Late afternoon we’ll check in to our hotel and you’ll have time to download and sort through your photos to select those you want to show later.
After an early dinner in the hotel we’ll have a Photo Review Session where your instructor will give you individual feedback on your favourite 20 photos. This is a great opportunity to get inspiration and feedback from both your instructor and fellow photographers and to get tips on how you can improve your photography and what skills you can work on.
Hotel: Lobesa Lodgeit
Day 3: Talo Festival
Get ready for an action-packed day of photography at the Tsechu Festival in Talo, a picturesque village scattered along a ridge above the Punakha valley at an altitude of 2800 metres.
A Tshechu is a grand religious event, celebrated once a year and spanning several days, where the entire community come together to witness religious mask dances, receive blessings and socialize. It’s believed that everyone must witness the mask dances at least once to receive blessings and wash away their sins. Every mask dance has a special meaning or story behind it and many are based on ancient stories from as far back as the 8th century.
The dances are fascinating to watch and photograph and so are the spectators! There’s so much colour, movement and action and you’ll have enough time to be able to move around and approach the scenes from different angles, try different lenses and get creative with your shutter speed and aperture settings.
There will also be lots of activity around the festival, including a market, and this is a great opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture and experience the joyous festivities with the locals.
Hotel: Lobesa Lodgeit
Day 4: Punakha
Good news! Today you can enjoy a lie-in! Mid-morning we’ll go to Punakha (about 40mins drive) to visit Punakha Dzong, justifiably described as the most beautiful Dzong in Bhutan.
The name means “the palace of great happiness or bliss” and that describes our previous visit there very well. This dzong made a deep impression on us during our last photography tour and we all wished we’d spent more time there as there’s so much to explore and photograph and the monks we met were very obliging and friendly. Watching one of the ceremonies when the monks chant is a very moving experience and I was very happy that we weren’t allowed to photograph that particular ritual as we often forget to put the camera down and just soak up the ambience and allow ourselves to enjoy the moment.
We’ll break for lunch in Punakha and then return to the dzong in the afternoon and we’ll finish the day’s shooting with a sunset photo shoot overlooking the dzong from across the river. Bring your tripod as we can do some interesting slow shutter speed techniques to blur the movement of the water.
Hotel: Lobesa Lodgeit
Day 5: Talo Festival/ Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten
Today we depart extra early to arrive at Talo at 5am for the most of important day of the festival.
Witness the sunrise procession of villagers and monks and the unfurling of a massive thongdrel – a traditional, silk appliqué thangka which is raised before dawn and then rolled down again by morning. Viewing of the thongdrel is said to cleanse one’s sins.
After the procession, we’re treated to more mask and folk dances, culminating in the deeply religious and historic performance of the Zhungdra by the Talo dance troupe.
After lunch we’ll visit the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, built by the third Queen Mother. It’s a beautiful example of traditional Bhutanese architecture and art, and the only one of its kind in the world. Getting there involves an easy hike through the rice paddies and then a hike up a steep hill (good training for Tiger’s Nest!).
Late afternoon we return to our hotel to relax, download photos and prepare for our second Review Session.
After dinner we’ll have another Photo Review Session so you can show your photos, get feedback, and learn and be inspired by your instructor and follow travelers.
Hotel: Lobesa Lodgeit
Day 6: Dochula Pass/Tiger’s Nest/Paro
We’ve saved the best for last! We’re up early on our last touring day to catch the sunrise at Dochula Pass before driving to Paro which we should reach by late morning.
After hotel check-in and lunch, we leave for the most rewarding and iconic trek of the trip – up to the stunning Taktshang Monastery (Tiger’s Nest), one of Bhutan’s most sacred sites. It’s the country’s most recognizable cultural icon and is perched 800m up a seemingly-sheer cliff. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche flew to this site on a tigress’ back to subdue a local demon. Thereafter, he mediated here for 3 months.
Tiger’s Nest is a very interesting monastery which you can photograph from lots of different angles as you climb higher and higher up the mountain. When we visited last time, it was wonderfully peaceful and we spotted beautiful birds and cute squirrels along the way. At the monastery we met a few of the monks who were based there and it was fascinating hearing the stories of where they came from and how they ended up there.
We end the tour with a well-earned, celebratory dinner in Paro.
Hotel: Paro Tashi Namgay Resort
Day 7: Travel home
We bid a sad farewell to the fascinating Kingdom of Bhutan and make our way back to our home countries.
Note: The itinerary may change due to weather conditions, festivities, or other unexpected events.