Merak-Sakteng stands out as a distinct attraction in Bhutan. Unlike anywhere else in the country, it offers a visitor to experience a unique semi-nomadic lifestyle, culture and vernacular in one of the most scenic pastoral valleys in the protected area of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in Trashigang Dzongkhag (District), in Eastern Bhutan.
The people of Merak and Sakteng are known as the Brokpa (highlander) to the people living on the lowlands. The Brokpas have maintained their unique traditions and customs. The people of Merak are typically well built and taller than their colleagues from Sakteng. They live a semi nomadic lifestyle, primarily depending on Yaks for their livelihood.
The trek is a moderate (between 1,500m and 4,100m) traversing through the semi-nomadic villages of Gengu (3400m), Merak (3500m), Sakteng (2800m), Thakthi (2200m), and Joenkhar (1700m). Tour operators are not mandated to use a particular trail but the most common trail usually begins from Chaling and ends in Phongmey. Both these Geogs of Merak and Sakteng are an important watershed for Ngere Ama chu and Gamri chu rivers respectively.
The campsites have been designed aesthetically to blend with local architecture and ambiance. Enclosed by stonewall (with a gate to bring in the ponies to unpack trekking paraphernalia), the campsite is equipped with facilities such as tenting sheds, toilets, kitchens (in some), dining area and water supply. A signage describing the location, altitude, forest type, fauna, additional hiking trails in the locality, distance and time to next camp welcomes a visitor to each campsite.
DAY 01: ARRIVE AT PARO- PARO SIGHTSEEING
The flight into Bhutan takes you close to the great Himalayas, offering dazzling scenic views of some of the world’s highest glacial peaks. As you enter Paro valley, you will sweep past forested hills with the silvery Pa Chu (Paro river) meandering down the valley below. Paro Dzong (fortress) and Ta Dzong (watchtower) on the hills above the town will be a fine sight. Chen-Ray Travel & Tours representative will receive you with traditional welcome scarf and will drive to Thimphu with sightseeing along the way.
- Transfer to your hotel in Paro. Check in to your hotel and relax with a cup of welcome tea.
- Ta Dzong: Built in 1656 as a watchtower for Rinpung Dzong is now used as the National Museum which is a repository of not only precious works of art but also costumes, Armour and other hand crafted objects of daily life that provide a good snapshot of the rich cultural traditions of the country. It opens 7 days a week except on National Holidays.
- Rinpung Dzong: Built in 1646 by Lama Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyal and strategically located to thwart Tibetan incursions into the rest of the country, this Dzong became one of Bhutan’s strongest and most important fortresses.
- Dungtshe Lhakhang:Dungtse Lhakhang was constructed by the great bridge-builder Thangtong Gyelpo in 1433. It is said to have been built on the head of demoness, who was causing illness to the inhabitants. The building was restored in 1841 and is a unique repository of Kagyu lineage arts. You may or may not be permitted inside but can walk around this three-storey Chorten-type building.
- Overnight at Hotel in Paro.(L,D)
DAY 02: PARO-TAKTSHANG HIKE
- Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery: The hike to Taktshang Monastery perched on a cliff at 2950m/9700ft takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours as per your hiking ability. It is an uphill hike to the Monastery. There is a cafeteria (Taktsang Jakhang) on the half way.
Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava (the great Buddhist master) with his magical powers came to Taktshang in the eighth century, flying from the east of the country on the back of a tigress (a form that one of his consorts is believed to have taken). He is said to have meditated for about three months in a cave on the cliff and subdued the evil spirits. The primary Lhakhang was built around Guru Rimpoche’s meditation cave in the 1692 by the fourth Desi Tenzin Rabgay. This incredible monastery clings to the edge of a sheer rock cliff that plunges 900 meters into the valley below.
- On the way back you will have picnic lunch in the woods or some place by the river.
- Drive up the valley to view the ruins of the Drugyel Dzong, which once defended this valley from several invading Tibetan armies during the 17th century. It is now under re construction to its former glory.
- Kyichu Lhakhang: It was built in 659 by the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. The temple fell into disrepair but was superbly restored in 1839 by the 25th Je Khempo (Chief Abbot). He also contributed the outstanding statue of Avalokiteshwara, with eleven heads and thousand arms, which is located in the sanctuary.
- Evening at leisure or visit the Paro town with a street of typical Bhutanese traditional buildings for souvenir shopping.
- Overnight at Hotel in Paro. (B, L & D)
DAY 03: PARO-THIMPHU (55 KM/1 HOUR DRIVE)
- Drive towards the capital city, Thimphu.
- Stop at Tachogang: Tachogang Lhakhang (Temple) was built by Thangthong Gyalpo in the fifteenth century. The temple was likely constructed in 1420. While the Tibetan master was meditating here, he had a vision of an emanation of Avalokiteshvara and decided to build a temple as well as an iron suspension bridge at this location. Tachogang lies on the way from Paro to the capital Thimphu. A new temple at Tachogang was built in the seventeenth century by the Fourth Druk Desi (local leader) Tenzin Rabgye as the original was destroyed after it served as the main seat for the Five Groups of Lamas, a coalition of local leaders who had opposed the Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel (a Buddhist teacher who unified Bhutan) .
- Chuzom: The confluence of Paro (Pachu) and Thimphu (Wangchu) rivers. You can see three different types of Stupas – Bhutanese, Tibetan and Nepalese.
- Drive to Kuenselphodrang (Buddha Point) where world’s tallest Buddha Statue (169 feet) sits overlooking the Thimphu Valley. Enjoy the spectacular view of Thimphu city below.
- Folk Heritage Museum.
- Visit National Memorial Chorten (Stupa): The building of this landmark was envisaged by the third king, His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, as a monument to world peace and prosperity. Completed in 1974 after his untimely death, it is both a memorial to the Late King (”the father of modern Bhutan “) and a monument to world peace. The paintings and statues inside the monument provide a deep insight into Buddhist philosophy.
- Evening visit Tashichho Dzong the impressive fortress which houses the secretariat building, the throne room of His Majesty the King and various government offices. It is also the summer residence of the Chief Abbot and central monk body. Witness the Flag lowering ceremony before you enter the Dzong.
- Overnight at Hotel in Thimphu. (B, L & D)
DAY 04: THIMPHU-DODEY DRA HIKE & THIMPHU SIGHTSEEING
- Morning hike to Dodey Dra Monastery. Located to the north of Thimphu valley and is nestled among the rich pine trees above Samteling Palace, the residence of the Great fourth, our fourth king Jigme Singye Wangchuck. It has two hiking trails, one begins from the gates of the palace and another one from Dechenphu goenba. The former one is steeper but on an average both the hikes take up roughly 4 hours. The elevation gained from the ground of 2600m to the top is around 500m.
The Monastery was initiated by the 13th Je khenpo ( Chief Abbot) Yonten Thaye of Bhutan sometime around 1779. The monastery has 3 main temples and the name of the monastery itself is derived from one of the temples. Dodendrak literally translates a cave like temple between two giant rocks. The story goes that a small temple was built on a giant rock with concave head. The top and lower parts of the rock were one merged but it had broken into two, lower rock forming the base for the temple.
The artistic Buddhist painting on the rock is quite vibrant and visible from a distance. This hike ideal for people who love nature trails and it is also quite popular among the locals who visit the monastery on auspicious days to accumulate merit and enjoy the breath taking view of the Wang (Thimphu) valley.
- You can opt to have picnic lunch. (Your guide will arrange it).
- Visit the Royal Textile Academy and Museum: Was instituted in May 2005 under the patronage of Her Majesty Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck as a non-government, non-profit organization with the aim to educate, promote and preserve Bhutanese Textiles. It showcases the traditional methods of weaving and has large collection of dresses from the Royal family.
- Postal Museum – where you can also make a postage stamp with your own photo and can be posted in Bhutan.
- Centenary Farmer’s Market – popularly known as the weekend vegetable market where the local farmers sell their farm produce. Across the wooden cantilever bridge you will find handicraft shops.
- Witness an archery (National) game if one is going on during your visit.
- Traditional handmade paper factory – where age old traditional method of paper making is still followed.
- Overnight at your hotel in Thimphu. (B, L & D)
DAY 05: THIMPHU-PUNAKHA (71 KM/3 HOURS DRIVE)
- Drive to Punakha.
- Stop at Dochu-la pass (3,088m/10,130ft) stopping briefly here to take in the view and admire the 108 chortens, mani wall, and prayer flags which decorate the highest point on the road. If skies are clear, the high Himalayan peaks towards the north east will be revealed in all their glory. On a clear day, the following peaks can be seen from this pass (left to right): Masagang (7,158m), Tsendegang (6,960m), Terigang (7,060m), Jejegangphugang (7,158m), Kangphugang (7,170m), Zongaphugang (7,060m) a table mountain that dominates the isolated region of Lunana, and finally, Gangkar Puensum, the highest peak in Bhutan at 7,497m.
- Continue your drive to Punakha.
- En route do a short hike to Chime Lhakhang.This Lhakhang dates back to 1499 which was built by Lama Drukpa Kinley who is till this day known as a Divine Madman. Located beautifully on a hilltop, it is about 30 to 40 minute walk passing through a charming village set in lush terraced fields. Lama Drukpa Kinley is believed to have subdued a demoness residing in Dochu La with his ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom’ and a wooden effigy of this is preserved within. There are also statues of him along with those of Lama Zhabdrung, Sakyamuni and Avalokiteswara. Devotees receive blessings from his wooden phallus and iron Bow and arrow that lie here and childless women are said to have their wish fulfilled after visiting this Lhakhang.
- Visit Punakha Dzong, a massive structure built at the junction of two rivers. Punakha was Bhutan’s capital until 1955 and Punakha Dzong still serves as the winter residence of the central monk body. Bhutan’s first king, Ugyen Wangchuck, was crowned here in 1907. The fortress has withstood damage from fire, earthquake and flood over the centuries. The latest flood, in October, 1994, caused great damage to the fortress but miraculously spared its most holy statue.
- The 160 meters Pho Chhu Suspension Bridge is known for the longest suspension bridge in Bhutan, which gives you spectacular views of Punakha Dzong and the Pho Chhu Valley.
- Overnight at your hotel in Punakha. (B, L & D)
DAY 06: PUNAKHA-PHOBJIKHA (97 km/3-4 hr drive)
- After breakfast drive to the beautiful valley of Phobjikha. En route sightseeing in the valley of Wangdiphodrang includes: visit to the ruins of Wangdiphodrang Dzong built in 1638 was destroyed by fire in 2012. Legend relates that as the people were searching for the site of the Dzong, four ravens were seen flying away in four directions. This was considered auspicious sign, representing the spread of religion to the four points of the compass. The Dzong was situated at the confluence of Mo Chu and Tang Chu rivers. Drive further to Gangtey.
- Phobjikha Valley: This valley is famous for potatoes which is one of the cash crops of the region and an important export to India. Phobjikha is also famed for the migratory black-necked cranes that make it their winter home. This endangered species of birds arrives from Tibet towards the end of October. Known as ‘Thrung Thrung Karmo’ by the Bhutanese, the locals have great affection for these beautiful birds and are featured in many folk songs. Their departure by the end of February is marked by songs of lamentation. Details of their habitat and habits are available at the Crane Observation and Education Center. If you visit the place at the time when the birds are in residence, you may be able to get a close view from the hides specially constructed for this purpose.
- Gangtey Goenpa: Gangtey Goenpa (Monastery) was established by Pema Lingpa’s grandson who became the first Gangtey Trulku. The goenpa is affiliated with several other important goenpas in this region, including Tamzhing in Bumthang. Currently the ninth reincarnation, Kunzang Pema Namgyel is the abbot here. Besides the goenpa there are several schools, a Tibetan style chorten (stupa) and meditation centers where monks retreat for periods ranging from three days to three years. There is also a Buddhist college nearby that offers a nine-year course in Buddhist studies.
- Take Gangtey nature trail and explore Phobjikha valley.
- Overnight at your hotel in Phobjikha/Gangtey. You could opt to stay at a farm house to experience the life of a local farmer. (B, L & D) Please let us know if you like to stay at a farm house so that we can make the bookings accordingly.
DAY 07: PHOBJIKHA-BUMTHANG (145 km/5-6 hr drive)
- Drive to Bumthang with stops various mountain passes for picture.
- Chendebji Chorten: This Napalese style stupa lies on the banks of Nikka Chu at an extremely serene spot. It was built in the eighteenth century by Lama Shida of Tibet to suppress a demon who had been troubling the inhabitants of the valley. A smaller Bhutanese style chorten was constructed nearby by the Royal grandmother in 1982.
- Trongsa Dzong: The most impressive Dzong (Fortress) in the country – it is intricately layered into the hillside, in complete harmony with its surroundings. The structure is aesthetically designed and its clean lines boast a superb sense of proportion and space while finely carved woodwork and elegant paintings suitably embellish it. Following the instruction of Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel, the Dzong was built in 1644 by Chhogyel Minjur Tempa who later became the third Desi (Governor). The Dzong was named Chökhor Raptentse Dzong. The structure was enhanced by Desi Tenzin Rabgye in 1771 and now contains twenty-three temples. It is a veritable maze of corridors, courtyards and passageways leading to the multiple levels contained within the great outer impregnable shell.
- Ta Dzong: Literally meaning “Watch Tower” is located strategically above the Trongsa Dzong, it was built by Choeje Minjur Tenpa, the first governor of Trongsa, in the year 1652. The tower stood guard over the Trongsa Dzong to protect the main stronghold of the town from any external threats. It has now been turned in to a Museum.
- Continue your drive to Bumthang.
- Overnight at your hotel in Bumthang. You could opt to stay at a farm house to experience the life of a local farmer. (B, L & D) Please let us know if you like to stay at a farm house so that we can make the bookings accordingly.
DAY 08: BUMTHANG-SIGHTSEEING
- Start the day by visiting the Wangdicholing Dzong built by Trongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyal in 1851. It is considered a masterpiece of architecture in the country.
- Jambay Lhakhang:Believed to have built on the same day as Kyichu Lhakhang in Paro by a Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo in the year 659. The temple is dedicated to Maitreya or Jampa and the central shrine holds a large statue of the Buddha of the future, surrounded by four boddhisatvas. The statue is guarded by iron chainmail handcrafted by Pema Lingpa. Under the temple is said to be a lake in which Guru Rimpoche hid several Terma. The most spectacular festival, “Jambay Lhakhang Drup” is staged here.
- Kurjey Lhakhang:This monastery is the country’s most historical holy place – the complex is surrounded by 108 chortens (stupas), transforming it into three dimensional mandala patterned on the lines of the Samye Monastery in Tibet. ‘Kur’ means body and ‘jey’ is print – it is here that guru Padmasambhava meditated when he first arrived in the country, leaving an imprint of his body on the rock enshrined here.
- Walk half an hour to the 3rd temple Tamshing Lhakhang which means ‘temple of good message’. This temple was founded by Lama Pema Lingpa in 1501. The temple contains original wall painting from 1501 which it was never repainted.
- Overnight at your hotel in Bumthang or at a farm house with traditional hot stone bath with local drinks. Experience milking a cow in the morning. You can also join the host family to watch cooking or even help if you like. (B, L & D) (Please do let us know your preference so that we can make the bookings accordingly)
DAY 09: BUMTHANG-TRASHIGANG (273km/8-9 hour drive)
- Bumthang to Trashigang is the biggest national park in Bhutan called the Thrumshingla National Park. The 768 sq.km of this national park is located within the boundaries of four districts: Bumthang, Lhuentse, Mongar and Zhemgang and it was established in 1998.
- On this long drive, enjoy the natural beauty of the undisturbed environment and take pictures of some breath taking scenery like the Namling Bra (cliff) waterfall which falls down the deepest cliff in Eastern Bhutan.
- Overnight hotel in Trashigang. (B, L & D)
Day 10: Trashigang-Merak (Approx 6 hours drive)
- Visit Trashigang Dzong Trashigang means, ‘the fortress of the auspicious mountain’.The Dzong was built by Pekar Choepel in 1659, on the order from Trongsa Penlop in 1659. The site of the Dzong was occupied in 12th century by one of the king in the eastern Bhutan, settles there and built fort which he named Bengkhar.
- Drive to Merak,after a short drive you will reach Rangjung (small town). Continue up the hill with terraced rice paddies to Radhi village, from where dirt road starts towards Chaling village and continuing on, road snakes uphill towards Shaktimi meadow, with yaks and sheep grazing with some yak herders’ huts scattered on the hillside. Continue the climb to reach Mendula Pass at 3345m. Driving downhill after the pass will take you through the rhododendron forests, and meadows of Donmong chu (river) at 3145m. The dusty farm road continues up the valley, gradually gaining height through the rhododendron forests and shrubs and arrive at the first village Gangu (3430m) and 15 minutes later arrive the village of Merak located at an altitude of 3520m.
- Overnight in tent camp, Home Stay or local Guest House as available. (B, L & D)
Day 11: Merak-Sightseeing
- Explore Merak village. Visit the local village homes; meet with its local people. Merak is one of the most isolated valleys in Bhutan. Like the people of Sakteng, Merak people (Brokpas) are said to have migrated here few centuries ago from the Tshona region of southern Tibet. They arrived here after several months of journey across treacherous passes, set the shrubs on fire and settled down to make it their home called Merak, which literally means “Set on fire”. The inhabitants of Merak are similar to those of Sakteng in their language, dress, lifestyle and spiritual affiliation. However the people from Merak are said to be better built and taller than their counterparts in Sakteng. Till recently the houses were built of stones with very small windows and in most cases the houses were and still are one storied only. In Merak the custom of polyandry is practiced, with brothers sharing the same wife.
- Afternoon at leisure and prepare for tomorrow’s trek.
- Overnight in Merak village.
Day 12: Merak-Mitsateng Trek (Approx. 16km, 6 hours, 630m ascent and 1090m descent.)
- Begin the journey on foot. It is a relatively hard, as it crosses high pass and there are also a few smaller passes and ridges. Start early from the camp, towards the east with a gradual climb to the first pass at 3900m, from where you can look back for a last glimpse of Merak valley. Continue thereafter along the tree line with juniper and rhododendron forest on one side till we reach Nachungla Pass at 4150m. The views are incredible and endless, 360′ view with peaks of Bhutan, Arunachal and Tibet. Occasionally, you will come across Yak herders in their camp, and frequently we see caravans of yaks and horses along the trail. From the pass, it is a long descent to Miksateng campsite at 3060m.
- Overnight in tent camp.
Day 13: Miksateng-Sakteng (Approx. 6.5km, 2-3 hours, 81m ascend and 310m descent)
- Todays’ trek is an easy one. After breakfast, drop down to the river and after crossing it, follow the river basin for an hour. Then gradually make a climb towards a small pass with a small chorten (stupa) on the hill overlooking the Sakteng valley. From the ridge, we drop down to the valley, cross the river into Sakten village. We should arrive before the lunch time, allowing plenty of time to explore the area. The area has cell phone towers and electricity since 2012.
- Overnight in local home, camp of simple Guest House (Altitude of 2950m).
Day 14: Sakten Exploration
- Spend the day at leisure. Visit the village, local homes, temple, meet with people, who are happy to chat with you. See the lifestyle and unique living culture of this ethnic group. You can also visit the local School. Try the local liquor with a special ceremony. Sakteng is a wide valley at about 3000m, surrounded by mountains on all sides. Sakteng literally means bamboo field. The inhabitants of Sakteng are similar to those of Merak in their language, dress, lifestyle and spiritual afflictions. It comprises of around 200 households with three main villages, Sakteng, Tengma and Borang Tse but generally known as Sakteng, and the people are known as Saktengpa. Every winter, Brokpas take on drukkor or grain journey to the lowland village, where they have their regular host family, with whom they have close trading and social relationship. They live together as one family for weeks and barter their Yak products with maize and grains.
- Overnight in Sakten.
Day 15: Sakten-Trashigang
- The new farm road to connect Sakten is approaching fast. At the time of planning this trip, it took around 3hrs trek downhill from Sakten to the road head from where our vehicle can meet and drive you to Trashigang. The drive is around 2+hrs till the tarmac road and thereafter it is another 2-3hrs to Tashingang. This road takes you via Phongmey and Radhi villages, crossing acres of rice-fields to Trashigang.
- Overnight in the comfort of modern hotel in Trashigang.
Option 1: Trashigang – Samdrup Jongkhar (If you want to exit to India)
- Trashigang to Samdrup Jongkhar it is 180 km, it takes 6 to 7 hours drive. The high way was constructed in 1960s, opening eastern Bhutan to outside world, and benefiting marketing with neighbored Assam state.
- Visit a Private Monastic School at Barshon. The Monastic School is run by a High Monk providing free education to the monks from the surrounding areas that are mostly from modest families.
- On the way visit Khaling Blind school and Khaling weaving center. Samdrup Jongkhar is the entry and exit point of Eastern Bhutan through the Indian State of Assam.
- Overnight hotel in Samdrupjongkhar. (B, L & D)
Option 2: Trashigang – Paro by domestic flight (Airfare additional)
- Fly to Paro.
- Chelela Ridge Hike: The hike begins following the trail used by yaks and yak herders. This pass is along the forsaken ancient trade route. The trail takes you through forests filled with many species of Primula, junipers, firs, pine, oaks and shades of red and orange rhododendrons. From the pass you will have a panoramic view of the two valleys Paro & Haa and of course the beautiful Himalayan ranges of Bhutan. You can enjoy some breathtaking views of the snowcapped mountains while walking above the tree line along the ridge that divides Paro and Haa valley till we get to Dzonglela pass (3765 m), which is marked by a cairn of stones.
The short steep descent from the top will take us to the nunnery of Kila Goemba. Here the nuns, called anims, live a life of contemplation and seclusion, with daily prayer and spiritual practice. The temple itself is surrounded by numerous meditation huts, and many hidden caves lie inside the rocky cliffs. The goemba is surrounded by a lush forest dominated by tall firs and sparkling mountain streams wind down the slopes, which are covered with a variety of wildflowers and plants. The community is one of the oldest of seven nunneries in Bhutan, and was initially established in the early 9th century as a meditation site. After being destroyed by fire, the temple was rebuilt and officially established in 1986 as an Anim Dratshang (religious community of Buddhist nuns).
Farm road has been connected to the monastery and your car will pick you from here. But you can choose to continue your hike to the highway which will take you about an hour.
- Overnight hotel in Paro. (B, L & D)
Day 17: If you take option one on day 16
Samdrup Jongkhar – Guwahati, Assam (India)
- Guwahati (India) the capital city of Assam is 101 km from Samdrup Jongkhar and takes about three hours drive. Chen-Ray Travel & Tours’ representative will do all the exit and entry formalities and drop you to the Guwahati Airport.
- End of your travel in Bhutan. Our team will bid farewell. (B)
Day 17: If you take option two on day 16
- End of your travel in Bhutan. Our team will drop you to the airport and bid farewell.(B)