The tiny isolated Himalayan kingdoms of Ladakh, Sikkim, and Bhutan are squeezed between the powerful countries of China and India. For centuries their monarchs enjoyed absolute power in their mountain strongholds, venerated by their subjects as embodiments of gods, but in the 20th century the supremacy of these domains fell. In 1947, partition left Ladakh a part of India, Sikkim became India’s twenty-second state in 1975, and in 2005 Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy.
Won’t you join Far Horizons, and only 13 others on this 20-day journey through these three Himalayan Kingdoms. The enticing itinerary includes the remote high-altitude beauty and vibrant Tibetan Buddhist culture of Ladakh, one of the highest regions in the world, frequently called “Little Tibet.” From the capital of Leh, drive through dramatic scenery to view the elaborately decorated Buddhist sanctuaries, stupas, and former royal palaces to be found in the nearby rugged valleys and magnificent towering crags. Sikkim’s breathtaking landscape includes permanently snow-covered mountains and steep-sided valleys filled with verdant subtropical forests and stands of rhododendron. Scattered throughout are traditional Tibetan Buddhist monasteries filled with stunning murals and Hindu shrines of the Nepali people. In Bhutan, emerald rice paddies cascade down the hillsides, remote centuries-old monasteries cling to the cliffs, and massive Buddhist sanctuary-fortresses dominate picturesque towns where houses are decorated with magical charms to keep the evil spirits away. Truly an enchanting part of the world!
Along with Buddhist specialist and The Great Courses lecturer, Professor Malcolm David Eckel, delight in a unique adventure through these three Himalayan kingdoms on this memorable tour.
Depart on a flight bound for Delhi.
Arrive Delhi. Transfer to the 4-star Pride Plaza Aerocity, located at Delhi’s airport.
Fly to Leh, Ladakh, with the afternoon free to rest and adjust to the altitude. In the late afternoon, we visit the LEDEG Center (Ladakh Ecological Development Group). This Center promotes ecological and sustainable development in harmony with traditional Ladakhi culture. Overnight for four nights in the 4-star Grand Dragon Hotel. (B/ /D)
For centuries, Leh was an important trading center and the capital of the former Himalayan kingdom of Ladakh. Magnificently encircled by soaring mountain peaks, it is one of the highest permanently inhabited cities in the world. The inhabitants of Leh are predominantly Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition, and the old city is a rare example of an intact historic Tibetan-Himalayan urban settlement. We will spend our first day in Leh exploring the city. Situated on a precipitous hilltop, the white-domed Shanti Stupa offers a panoramic view of the city. The memorial holds relics of the Buddha that were enshrined by the 14th Dalai Lama. Shankar Monastery, of recent construction, is known for the paintings that ornament its walls and doors. Namgyal Tsemo Monastery was founded in 1430 and boasts a three-story high statue of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future. Towering over the old town, Leh Palace is the visual symbol of the traditional heritage of Ladakh. Built of stone, it is nine levels high and modeled after Lhasa’s Potala Palace. The upper floors once accommodated the royal family, with stables and storerooms situated below. The palace was abandoned during a siege by Kashmiri forces in the mid-19th century. The 11th century Spituk Gompa belongs to the Gelukpa, or Yellow Hat, order of Tibetan Buddhism and contains an unusual collection of masks used in sacred dances. Founded in the 16th century, the interior of Phyang Monastery exhibits a series of intriguing frescos and includes a 900-year old museum with an extensive collection of artifacts, including ancient Himalayan armaments. First opened in 2011, the Central Asian Museum, housed in a four-story stone tower that replicates an historic Lhasa mansion, focuses on Leh’s role in trade along the Silk Road. (B/L/D)
The massifs around Leh are home to several spectacular Buddhist sites. Thiksey Gompa, built in 1430, sits atop a mountain about 12 miles east of Leh. As part of the Gelukpa order, it contains several shrines, including one dedicated to the goddess Dorje Chenmo. The largest and most lavishly endowed monastery of Ladakh, the impressive Hemis Gompa, was built in the 17th century. It is adorned with brightly colored prayer flags that flutter in the breeze and fill the landscape with the blessings of the Buddha. Shey Monastery and Palace served as the summer seat of the Ladakhi kings. In its inner sanctum, there is an imposing, three-story statue of Shakyamuni, the Buddha of the present era. Founded in the 14th century, Stok Monastery is particularly well known for its library, housing a collection of 108 volumes of the Buddha’s teachings. In the afternoon we visit the SOS Tibetan Refugee Camp at Choglamsar, built for refugees who fled to Ladakh during the Chinese takeover of Tibet. (B/L/D)
Drive through scenic valleys and rustic villages to Likir Gompa. Established in 1065, this monastery is the site of a monastic training school associated with the Central Institute of Tibetan Studies and is the seat of Ngari Rinpoche, the younger brother of the Dalai Lama. Looming over Likir Monastery is a 75-ft-high golden statue of Maitreya Buddha. We continue to Alchi, the site of some of the most famous and important paintings in Western Tibet. Many are close to a thousand years old and depict the topography of Buddhist heavens, Buddhist divinities, and scenes of traditional Buddhist life. Our final stop is Basgo Gompa, rising over the ruins of an ancient Ladakhi town. (B/L/D)
Today is a travel day as we fly from Leh to Delhi and then connect to Bagdogra in the Darjeeling district of northeastern India, originally a part of the Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim. Here we board vehicles for our long drive through luxuriant tea estates, flourishing forests and rushing waterfalls to the beautiful hill station town of Pelling in Sikkim. Overnight for two nights in the charming Chumbi Mountain Retreat & Spa, with dazzling views of snow-topped Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world. (B/ /D)
Khecheopalri Lake is our destination this morning. Known as the ‘wishing lake, this sacred reserve is an important pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Hindus, who consider its waters to have the power to fulfill their desires. Continue to Pemayangtse, one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. Constructed in the 17th century, its distinctive Tibetan architecture features sloping roofs and richly ornamented doors and windows. We move on to visit the ruins of Rabdentse, the second capital of the former Kingdom of Sikkim, destroyed by an invading Nepalese Gurkha army in 1814. The remains of the palace are perched high on a hill with commanding views of the entire southwestern region of Sikkim. The three nearby shrines were used for worship by the royal family. (B/L/D)
Depart Pelling and drive along the Teesta River through lush mountain scenery to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. Along the way, we may see the snow covered peak of Mt. Kanchenjung, the third highest mountain in the world. This afternoon, we visit the Cottage Industries Emporium, a major training center for traditional arts and crafts. Our hotel for the next two nights is the Mayfair Casino & Spa, attractively located on 48 acres of luxuriant tropical forest on a hillside above Gangtok. (B/L/D)
Today we explore the marvels of Gangtok, a popular pilgrimage site after the construction of Enchey Monastery in the 1840s. We begin in the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a museum and research institute where scholars study the religion, history, language, art and culture of the Tibetan cultural region, including Sikkim. Within the compound is a museum housing important Buddhist manuscripts and works of Tibetan art. We walk up the hill behind the museum to see Do Drul Chorten, topped by a golden dome and encircled by 108 prayer wheels. Later, winding through typical Sikkimese villages and terraced paddy fields, we move on to Rumtek Gompa, the seat of the Karmapa Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Rumtek became the home of the 16th Karmapa after he fled Tibet in 1959. It has since become a site of controversy among rival candidates who are vying to become his successor. With majestic views of the city of Gangtok and encircled by mist-covered mountains and flourishing forests, it is the largest monastery in Sikkim. Within the complex, the central four-story building retains some of the rarest Buddhist art objects in the world, and the massive prayer hall is resplendent with luminous murals, statues, and paintings on cotton or silk. The highlight of the sanctuary is a thirteen-foot-high Golden Stupa studded with precious jewels. We move back down the mountainside and through an avenue of stately evergreen trees to Enchey Monastery. Enchey functions as a major pilgrimage site where worshippers pay homage to Gangtok’s protective deities. The monks belong to the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism that traces its origin to Guru Padmasambhava. Returning to Gangtok, we stop by the Directorate of Handicrafts, a museum displaying traditional arts and crafts of Sikkim. (B/L/D)
Depart Sikkim and drive to Kalimpong, a hill station in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal. This unique tropical region has a distinctive ecology that allows the cultivation of a wide variety of plants. Gladioli, carnations, anthuriums, lilies, marigolds, tuberose, roses and countless orchids are produced here for markets throughout India. We will wander through local gardens before visiting Zang Dhok Palri Monastery, a storehouse of important texts brought into India after the annexation of Tibet in 1959. Spend one night in the Hotel Mayfair Himalayan, a colonial-era former home of a British trading agent in the picturesque town of Kalimpong, in the foothills of the snowy peaks of the eastern Himalayas. (B/L/D)
Our ride today takes us through fertile sub-tropical fields and verdant tea plantations originally established by the British almost two hundred years ago into the Dragon Kingdom of Bhutan. We get our first taste of the calm and the orderliness of Bhutanese culture as we pass through the colossal Bhutan Gate into the town of Phuntsholing. On the way, we stop at Zangto Pelri Lhakhang in the center of the town’s main plaza. This modern structure was built to be a replica of Guru Padmasambhava’s celestial abode. Overnight for one night in the simple, 3-star Hotel Druk in Phuntsholing. (B/L/D
Our first stop on the way to Thimphu will be Kharbandi Gompa, located just outside Phuntsholing. This monastery was built under the supervision of the late Queen Mother Ashi Phuntsho Choden. Her palace still stands next to the sanctuary. The terraces of the monastery offer impressive views of Phuntsholing and the valleys of West Bengal below. Leaving the plains behind, we ascend into the mountains and drive to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital and largest city. Here we stop by the King’s Memorial Chorten, a shrine dedicated to Bhutan’s third king, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk, who is known as the father of modern Bhutan. The large whitewashed structure is crowned with a golden spire dedicated to World Peace. We end the day at the impressive Tashicho Dzong, a massive fortified monastery standing on the western bank of the Wang Chu River. Since 1952 it has served as the seat of government and contains the throne room and offices of the king. Tonight’s hotel is the 4-star Norkhil Boutique Hotel in Thimphu. (B/L/D)
As we leave Thimphu, we will stop to see Changangkha Lhakhang, a fortress-like temple built in the 12th century on a promontory overlooking Thimphu. The white-washed outer walls are equipped with long lines of metal prayer wheels. Dominating the inner sanctum is a statue of Chenrezig, the 1000-armed bodhisattva of compassion. We then ascend through dramatic mountain scenery of dense evergreen cypress forests, and then a profusion of colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind as we reach the summit of the 10,200’ Dochula Pass. With the snow-clad mountain peaks of the Himalayas above, we will stop at the crest to view the 108 red-banded chortens built to honor the Bhutanese soldiers who were killed in the December 2003 battle against Assamese insurgents from India. Our final destination is the Hotel Dewachen in Gangtey, our home for the next two nights. (B/L/D)
Today is the Gangtey Tshechu! Held in the large courtyard of the Gangtey Monastery, the festival celebrates the 8th century Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava who introduced Buddhism in Bhutan. Festooned in flamboyant costumes, the masked dancers twirl and spin as they showcase the many stories and legends of the culture. Around the edges of the courtyard, people from nearby communities, dressed in their finest clothes, gather to witness the mesmerizing performances. Later, we stop in the Black-Necked Crane Information Centre to learn about the rare black-necked cranes who migrate annually to this valley from their home on the high Tibetan plateau. (B/L/D)
Early this morning, we will return to the Gangtey Tsechu to see the Throngdal Ceremony when a large appliquéd religious banner, a sacred Thongdrel is unrolled and displayed once a year for a few hours on the last day of the festival. Composed of several layers, mostly of silk, it typically depicts a seated Guru surrounded by holy beings, and is the largest form of thangka paintings in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. The mere viewing of the unfurled Thongdrel is said to cleanse the viewer of any sins. Then we will walk to the Chimi Lhakhang, or Fertility Temple, originally erected in the late 15th century for the maverick saint Drukpa Kunley. Known as the “Divine Madman” for his unorthodox ways of teaching Buddhism, he adopted the phallus as his symbol. Childless women come to the monastery to be blessed with a thump on the head by the Lama with a large replica of a penis. The sanctuary is the repository of the original wooden phallus brought to Bhutan by Drukpa Kunley, and the interior is adorned with replicas of the icon. Standing nearby is a huge Bodhi Tree that is believed to have been brought as a sapling from Bodhgaya in India. We will also see Punakha Dzong, the second oldest and second largest dzong in Bhutan and one of the country’s most majestic structures. We will overnight in the Dhensa Boutique Resort in Punakha. (B/L/D)
This morning we head for picturesque Paro, location of Bhutan’s international airport. In the afternoon, we visit the imposing Kyichu Lhakhang. The heart of this temple is said to have been built in the 7th century by Songtsen Gampo, Tibet’s first Buddhist king, to mark the southern boundary of his Tibetan empire. The Zhiwa Ling Heritage Hotel, nestled in the hills above Paro, is our home for the next two nights. This is the only five-star hotel that is owned by Bhutanese, and it is lovely. Each stone bungalow is ornately bejeweled with intricate painted carvings. (B/L/D)
Ta Dzong, positioned on a hill overlooking Paro, was built in the 17th century in a circular shape to serve as a fortified watchtower. Formerly used as an ordnance depot for a rural militia in the event of war, it now is the National Museum of Bhutan displaying more than 3000 pieces of Bhutanese art and historical objects. After surveying this treasure trove of artifacts, we move on to Paro Dzong, also known as Rinpung Dzong, just down the steep slope. Built in the 17th century, this fort protected the Paro valley from frequent Tibetan invasions. Both the exterior and interior of the fortress are richly decorated with murals. Below is a wooden covered bridge that crosses the Paro River. In the afternoon, we will take a leisurely hike through rhododendron and oak forests to delightful Dzongdrakha Monastery, also known as the mini Tiger’s Nest. With luck, along the way we will spot monkeys swinging through the trees. (B/L/D)
Depart Paro on our flight to Delhi where we catch our evening international flights home. (B)
Arrive home or begin post-extension hike to Tiger’s Nest
Depart on the trek to Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Taktsang, a sacred Vajrayana Himalayan Buddhist monastery high on a cliffside of the upper Paro Valley and Bhutan’s most iconic landmark. (B/ /D)
Depart Paro on our flight to Delhi where we catch our international flights home. (B)
Price is based on double occupancy and includes:
Trip prices are based on a minimum number of participants. If this minimum number is not met, trip prices are subject to change. Should the prices need to change, Far Horizons will reach out to registered guests to discuss directly.
Should a roommate be requested and one not be available, the single supplement must be charged.
As a tour company that benefits from the cultural and natural riches of our destinations, we have a policy of donating to the scientific and cultural sites and projects which we visit. This has created a bond between Far Horizons and the academic and local communities that has helped us establish an extensive list of lecturers and contacts in each of our destinations. We ask that each participant donate to the noteworthy project we designate. The donation amount is $150.00 per person. Note that the donation is required as part of your registration for the trip and that it is non-refundable.
Prices are based on currency exchange rates keeping below a projected level. While it is unlikely, if the exchange rates should change substantially, Far Horizons reserves the right to charge an additional amount to the trip cost.
A deposit of $1000 per person is required along with your registration & health forms, which will be linked in the email confirmation you receive once you pay your deposit on our booking platform. Final payment is due 120 days before departure. Prior to departure, you will be sent a reading list and a tour bulletin containing travel information.
Cancellations received in writing at least 120 days before departure will receive a refund less a $500 per person administrative fee. Cancellations received less than 120 days before the departure date will not receive a refund. If for any reason you are unable to complete the trip, Far Horizons will not reimburse any fees. Upon registering for the tour, the purchase of travel protection with both trip cancellation and emergency evacuation is strongly advised. Links to recommended insurance policies will be included in the email you receive confirming receipt of your deposit.
International round trip flights are not included in the cost of the trip. If Far Horizons must change the trip dates or cancel the trip for any reason, Far Horizons is not responsible for any air ticket you may have purchased. Please send your complete air schedule as soon as you have it. NOTE: Please contact Far Horizons if you would like for us to handle your air ticketing.
The private tours of archaeological sites and talks by specialists are scheduled in advance and include a donation to each. Specialists working at these sites are excited about showing their work to interested enthusiasts. However, please be aware that there may be times when the director or a member of the staff may not be on site when our groups arrive due to other commitments.
Far Horizons expects all participants to be physically active and able to walk and climb independently throughout the full touring days. This includes walking over uneven terrain (uphill and downhill) for a mile or more at each site. You should expect to be on your feet for much of each day, averaging 3-4 miles of walking. As such, each participant should be able to walk unaided at a pace of 3 miles per hour for at least half an hour at a time, and to stand unsupported for at least 30 minutes. Bearing this in mind, we suggest that, if you have not already done so, you begin walking for a mile or two every day. We feel that this preparation will increase your enjoyment of the trip. If you have questions about your ability to keep up with the group or the strenuous nature of this trip, please contact the Far Horizons staff.
This tour is designed for flexible, energetic people who like to be active, have a spirit of adventure and a positive attitude. We have designed this trip to be as comfortable as possible, while also aiming to visit some remote or unique sites that other companies do not attempt to include in their itineraries. There may be days where we have very long drives and the conditions of the roads may vary. Hotels and transportation in some remote areas may not be up to western standards. There may be times when no bellhops are available; please pack with the understanding that you need to be able to handle your own luggage at times. At times we may be walking over uneven trails for a mile or more; hiking boots are strongly recommended. Not every meal will not be haute cuisine and several lunches may be picnics or box lunches. By maintaining a flexible attitude we will soon be captivated by the beauty of the natural scenery, the hospitality of the local people, and the fascinating sites we will see. Your flexibility and patience will be appreciated.
Changes in our itinerary, accommodations, and transportation schedules may occur. While we are committed to keeping as close to the published details as possible, sometimes it is simply not possible. Weather events, government affairs, or other factors out of our control sometimes come into play. A good book to read as well as patience, flexible attitude, and a sense of humor are essential.
This trip is designed for adventure loving travelers and may involve schedule changes, long drives in four-wheel drive vehicles over roads in poor condition, and local staff unaccustomed to western tour groups. Several of the hotels in the off-the-beaten-tourist-trail regions may not be up to western standards. Be aware that the itinerary travels through high altitude areas: Leh is more than 11,000’, Gangtok more than 5,000’ and Gangtey almost 10,000’ in altitude. It is recommended to arrive Leh a day early to adjust to the altitude. All participants are expected to be physically active and able to walk independently throughout our very full touring days, at times uphill on steep stairs or pathways. There will be lengthy walks to reach some of the remote monasteries.