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Darjeeling,Sikkim and Bhutan

Overview

Natural wonders, Himalayan landscapes and rich Buddhist culture.
This part of the Eastern Himalaya has so much to offer. Bhutan is unique in its appeal, almost completely unchanged by Western influences, and one of the homes of Tibetan Buddhism. Sikkim is known the world over for its flora and huge number of Buddhist monasteries, including Rumtek, Labrang and the rarely-visited Phodang, with their impressive collections of paintings and relics. Darjeeling, situated 2000m above the plains of Bengal, is surrounded by tea plantations and is the archetypal hillstation (Darjeeling was once a summer home for British colonial rulers based in Kolkata); slightly faded, but still a lively centre for the different hill peoples. The view from Tiger Hill at sunrise is one of the most impressive in the Himalaya, with the impressive sight of Kanchenjunga dominating the northern horizon. The spring departure means you will take in the Paro Tsechu, Bhutan's most important and colourful festival, whilst those departing in autumn will visit festivals in Wangdi Phodrang and Thimpu.

 

Day1
You will arrive into Kathmandu and will transfer to the hotel. You are free today to explore Kathmandu.


Day2
Transfer in the early morning to the domestic airport terminal for the flight to Bhadrapur. On landing at Bhadrapur air, will transfer to Nepal/India border 30mins drive and then you will join the vehicles, and take a beautiful 5-6 hour drive from the heat of the plains through jungle, tea estates and pleasant hillside villages to the coolness of Darjeeling. This road largely follows the route of the famous Darjeeling Toy Train, once the normal mode of transport to the famous hill station. All being well, you should arrive by late afternoon.


Day3
A full day to explore the town and its surroundings. You will visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute founded by Tenzing Norgay and where many of the famous Sherpa climbers have been trained in mountaineering skills. Further out of town is the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, where many Tibetan handicrafts are made. All around are the world famous tea estates and there are several monasteries nearby, of which the most famous is at Ghoom (when the railway is working, it is possible to take the toy train to Ghoom and return by taxi). There are the bazaars and markets, and plenty of good restaurants and little eating stalls to tempt you.


Day4
After breakfast, we drive to Pelling (2,150m). Pelling gives spectacular views of the Mount Kanchenjunga, the guardian deity of Sikkim and the world's third highest mountain. In the afternoon you will walk to Pemayangse Monastery. This is one of the most important Nyingmapa monasteries in the area, and was first built as a small temple in 1705 by Latsun Chembo. The monastery houses numerous religious idols and on the top floor there is a wonderful seven tiered wooden structure portraying the heavenly paradise of Guru Rimpoche.


Day5
After breakfast you will be driven to Gangtok (1,437m), the capital of Sikkim and the largest town in the area. Along the way, you will visit Tashiding Monastery, another important monastery belonging to the Nyingmapa order. Built in 1717 by Ngadak Sempa Chembo during the reign of the third Chogyal Chakdor Namgyal, it is set in a spectacular location on the top of a hill that looms up between the Rathong and Rangeet rivers and is surrounded by a profusion of prayer flags that flutter in the air. Today’s drive is approx 5 hours.


Day 6
A bustling, friendly hill station perched on a ridge Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim. Now part of India, Sikkim was one an independent kingdom inhabited by Lepchas. Over the years Tibetans migrated over the border for trade but it was not until 1642 that Sikkim became an independent kingdom with its own Chogyal (King). Throughout history, Sikkim was invaded by Nepalis, Bhutanese and Tibetans but it always managed to preserve its independence. The British East India Company saw Sikkim as a gateway to trade with Tibet and in 1888 it came under British rule and the capital was shifted to Gangtok. Sovereignty was returned in 1895 and in 1947 after Indian independence the Prime Minister, Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim. However after Nehru's death his daughter Indira Gandhi had little patience for maintaining Sikkim and its monarchy (the Raja had married an American who was now queen of Sikkim) and in 1975 Sikkim became the 22nd state of India. Populated by Lepchas, Nepalis and Bhutias, most who follow Tibetan Buddhism the culture here is more akin to Tibet than India.
You will spend today exploring Gangtok. You’ll visit the 200 year old Enchey Monastery, which sits above the town. From Ganesh Tok and Hanuman we get a bird's eye view of Gangtok and on a clear day we can see the Himalaya in the distance. The Flower Show (or Flower Exhibition Centre) is famous for its floral exhibitions, especially in spring. Its orchid show from mid March to April is said to be one of the finest in South Asia (please note the Flower Show is often closed in December).
In Gangtok is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which specialises in research into Tibetan Buddhism and the language of Tibet. The institute houses an excellent collection of Tibetan Buddhist artefacts. There should also be time to explore the bazaars and markets and we can visit the Cottage Industries Institute where local handicrafts are made.
(Please note that sightseeing in and around Gangtok will be done around opening days and times of the various sights. The Cottage Industry and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology are closed on Sunday's and Public Holidays and the Flower Show is often closed in winter. Your leader will endeavour to show you as much as is possible in the time you are in Gangtok).


Day7
After breakfast you will set off for the drive to Kalimpong visiting Rumtek en route. 24km from Gangtok, Rumtek is the largest and most famous monastery in Sikkim. Founded in the 16th century, Rumtek served as the main seat of the Karma Kargyu lineage in Sikkim. The Karma Kargyu is one of the sects of Tibetan Buddhism and the Karmapa Lama is the head of this sect. When the 16th Karmapa arrived in Sikkim in 1959 after fleeing from Tibet, he found the monastery in ruins. As the place is considered to be auspicious, he had the monastery rebuilt and it became the main seat in exile of the Karmapa Lamas. When the 16th Karmapa died a new reincarnation was found in Rumtek. However, in 1999 the Tibetan Karmapa escaped from Tsurpu in Tibet and fled over the Himalaya to Dharamsala. Since then Rumtek has become embroiled in controversy as to who is the 'real' 17th Karmapa and armed guards now patrol the monastery. It contains some excellent Buddhist paintings and relics, and a good view towards Gangtok.
Leaving Sikkim we drive through the wild Teesta Valley through vast forest plantations to the scenic hill station of Kalimpong. There should be time this evening time to explore this tiny picturesque town. Today's driving time is around 4 hours.


Day8
After an early breakfast you will return to the plains, and turn east along the main road through the extensive tea plantations of lower Assam, to reach the Bhutan frontier at Phuntsholing. Rapidly becoming the commercial centre of Bhutan, Phuntsoling is a bustling border town but has many traditional chortens and the Kharbandi monastery.


Day9
An early start today for the magnificent drive through forest and over the hills to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Thimpu is a fairly small town, with a population of around 30,000, and is easy to get around. There is a quaintness to it, with no traffic lights, and town clocks painted in traditional Buddhist styles. Today is a long day of driving and we will reach Thimpu in the late afternoon. You will be able to take plenty of rest stops en route to break the journey.


Day10
You will spend today exploring Thimpu. You will visit the impressive golden topped Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 by the Royal Grandmother in memory of the third King, H M Jigme Dorji Wangchuk who died in 1972. The magnificent Tashichoe dzong (fort) is the main secretariat building which houses the National Assembly. There are amazing Buddhist paintings, beautiful buildings and a grand courtyard. There are plenty of shops and a government emporium to buy excellent Bhutanese souvenirs and the Post Office has collections of Bhutan's famous stamps.


Day11
In the morning you will set off to Punakha, until 1955 the capital of Bhutan. Punakha dzong lies at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu, the female and male rivers, and houses many sacred temples. Season depending, you will either be able to visit the monastery in Punakha dzong or the one in the Tashichho dzong as the monks commute between the two, and visiting is normally only allowed when they are not in residence. The Kyulrena, a large meeting hall, holds some interesting pictures of Milarepa, perhaps the most famous of the Buddhist saints. You will then continue through a rather drier landscape to Wangdiphodrang, which also has a fine dzong, situated on a ridge above the Tsang Chu in a very spectacular and commanding position guarding the surrounding countryside. After a good look around the dzong you will then head to the hotel in Wangdiphodrang, arriving in the late afternoon.


Day12
An early start for the drive to Paro. The road will take the group back over the Dochu La from where you continue into the broad, fertile Paro valley, with its massive dzong overlooking the rice fields and scattered houses. You should arrive in Paro by lunchtime. The rest of today and tomorrow are spent exploring the magnificent Paro Valley.


Day13
Paro Valley is considered to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan, with blue pine-covered hills and attractive solidly built houses among the paddy fields. You will be able to look around the outside of the Kyichu Lhakhang, and visit the National Museum. This is housed in an ancient watchtower with a superb view over the valley, and contains many interesting historic and religious objects, as well as a fine collection of Bhutanese stamps: Bhutan is a prolific producer of special issues. A little below the museum is the Rimpung, or Paro, dzong, the political and religious centre for the Paro district, which we should be able to visit. If we have time we can visit Drukyel dzong, commanding the route to Tibet, which was destroyed by fire in the 1950s, and on which restoration has not started. We can also walk up to the viewpoint cafe to see high on a cliff face way above us the famous monastery of Taktsang – 'Tigers Nest', which burnt down in 1998 but has since been restored to its former glory. The monastery, whose name means 'flying tiger', is only accessible on foot.
Paro Festival attracts thousands of locals and foreigners to see the monks dressed in colourful brocade, silk costumes and wearing painted masks re-enact the story of the gompa's particular divinity though music and dance. For several days there are masked dances, prayer meetings and a general carnival atmosphere as many villagers arrive to meet old friends and catch up with the mountain gossip. The festival culminates with the unfurling of a giant Thanka, three stories high, which has to be carefully folded away before the rays of the morning sun catch it.


Day14
Early morning drive to India/Nepal border and transfer to the airport to check in for the return flight to Kathmandu. The rest of the day is free to explore the city or stock up on Nepalese souvenirs.


Day15
After breakfast,Depart transfer.

Profile
Travel by private minibus and two flights.

 

 

Accommodation.
14 nights hotels.

 

 

Meals.
All breakfasts, 6 lunches and 12 dinners included.

 

 

What to Expect.
This is a busy but generally relaxed tour. There are some long drives of up to six hours, although road conditions mean that some days can be longer than this depending. Quoted driving times do not include lunch, photo and comfort breaks, which differ from group to group.
This trip consists of a journey intended to allow groups to see many areas and sights within a relatively short period of time. Being open minded and flexible will be of benefit to you on this trip. Road conditions are generally quite poor and many are narrow and can be bumpy, and as with all mountain roads delays can occur due to landslides or adverse weather conditions. The roads also take in many twists and turns on mountain sections; if you suffer from travel sickness you should bring the appropriate medication.

 

 

Group sizes and age.
Normally min. 6, max. 16, plus leader and drivers in India;local guide and drivers in Bhutan. Minimum age 18.

Any restaurant tips for Darjeeling?
There is a restaurant called Glenary’s which is perfect for cakes, pastries and Darjeeling tea and there are even great views of Mount Kanchendjunga on clear days. Kunga’s is one of the best restaurants for Tibetan cuisine – especially their excellent steamed momos.

 

 

What kind of food should I expect?
There is a huge variety available, so no one will be disappointed! The local cuisine is predominantly vegetarian, and there’s lots of rice-based dishes. You can enjoy traditional spicy curries and there are stalls selling tasty sweets and desserts and even Western food for those feeling a little homesick. Vegetarians and people with an aversion to spicy food people are easily catered for, and the leader will make sure a wide range of dishes are ordered for each meal.

 

 

Any good shopping tips for India?
The joy of shopping in India is the sheer scale of what's on offer: there are upscale boutiques in New Delhi, Mumbai and Calcutta to the crowded and sweaty markets of pretty much any town or village you come to. Handicrafts, art, leather goods, spices, hand carved statues, silk, the list goes on and of course includes cheap copies of popular Western brands!
Remember, outside of the proper shops, haggling is the key but don't waste your time trying to split the difference over a few pence - the best result is when everyone comes away happy!

 

 

What is the best way to take money to India?
The India rupee is a closed currency, meaning you can only get it upon arrival in the country. There are exchange facilities at all arrival airports, and ATMs are available pretty much everywhere as well in case you need to top up along the way. You can take pounds sterling, or travellers’ cheques if you prefer.

 

 

Do you have any advice about malaria and rabies?
We strongly recommend you contact your GP or a Travel Health Clinic at least 8 weeks prior to departure for up-to-date information.

 

 

Can I catch a Bollywood movie?
Fancy a night out in India just like the locals? Head to a Bollywood movie and join the local in an evening packed with entertainment. The Bollywood masala movies are a mixture of dance, drama and musical with a break in between as many of these movies run 3 hours movies. This gives you the option to leave the theatre discreetly should you wish. The songs and dances give the films a 60s musical feel, and you may well find the locals singing and dancing to all the songs. Movie theatres that you may want to visit are; Raj Mandir in Jaipur, Odeon in Canaught Place, New Delhi, Filmistan, Karol Bagh in New Delhi - but all cities have theatres. A word of warning--try to avoid the rush when entering and exiting the theatre and the crowded area and keep valuables with close to you zipped at all times and enjoy the show.

 

 

Any tips for free time in Darjeeling?
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (Toy Train) is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Batasia loop between Darjeeling and Ghum provides panoramic views on the surrounding hills and Mount Kanchendjunga. You will stop off at the Batasia loop for about 10 minutes as it is the most scenic spot on the route. A trip to Ghum museum is also recommended.
Tiger Hill offers the world’s best sunrise! 11km from Darjeeling a 4am start will allow you to experience the most magnificent sunrise over the Mount Kanchendjunga range. As the sun appears the mountains change colour and on a clear morning Mount Everest is visible.

 

 

What should I see in Gangtok?
The cable car in Gangtok, Sikkim provides spectacular views of the local market and the surrounding valleys. It also serves as a good transport connection between Deorali, Nam-Nang and Tashiling.

 

 

How do I obtain a Bhutanese tourist visa?
We will organise this for you. The cost is payable on entry to Bhutan and is currently US$20 in cash. You will need to send us a clear copy of your passport when you book, so that we can organise the Bhutan visa. Please ensure sure that we have this at least 4 weeks before departure. In addition, you will also be required to take 2 passport photos with you, as these will be required locally when processing your visa.

 

 

What can I do in the free time I’ll have in Bhutan?
Should you be in Thimpu during the weekend, it is definitely worth visiting the local weekend market at the end of town, beside the National Stadium. This is where residents come to buy their week’s supply of fresh food and vegetables from farmers. This is a great place for people-watching and souvenir shopping, as there are stalls selling a vast array of Bhutanese and Tibetan products. It’s also a great place to hone your bargaining skills, as there is no fixed price for any of the products on sale!

 

 

Any good local restaurants I should try in Bhutan?
Plums Café on the second floor of a building near the Clock Tower in Thimpu offers Continental, Chinese and Bhutanese food during its lunchtime buffet. Cheese momos (dumplings) and Keewa datsi (a cheese and chilli dish) with red rice are Bhutanese dishes that you must not miss out on. If you have a sweet tooth, you should try the Swiss Bakery over the road from this restaurant for delicious muffins and pastries.

 

 


What is the standard of hotels in Bhutan?
The hotels we use are good, reliable tourist class hotels, with twin rooms and en suite facilities, reliable electricity and water supply, good service and a variety of other amenities. Sometimes, depending on the location, the standard of hotels may be slightly lower, but we always do our best to find the most suitable option.

 

 

What is the weather like in Bhutan?
Bhutan has a varied climate. The south has mild, dry winters and hot, wet summers; here, the monsoon starts a little earlier and continues a little longer than further west in the Himalayas. Paro, Thimpu, and other temperate areas of Bhutan experience cold winters with sunny skies. Please note that while our departure dates do not fall within the normal monsoon season, there is always a chance of rain in Bhutan, and you should come prepared.
You will experience a range of temperatures during the trip, depending on the altitude. During the day temperatures will be approx 10°C-20°C. At night it may drop to single figures, but the temperature will normally stay above 10°C.

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