You will arrive into Kathmandu and will transfer to the hotel. You are free today to explore Kathmandu.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After breakfast,Depart transfer.