JOIN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER CHRISTOPHER P. BAKER ON THIS ANCIENT HIMALAYAN KINGDOM OF BHUTAN PHOTO TOUR & WORKSHOP
Consistently ranked in the top ten “must see” destinations in the world, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is truly unique. A cradle of Buddhism that clings to its traditional ways, the country only recently opened its doors to foreign travelers. Thoughtful policies to protect the nation against mass tourism still limit visits to a fortunate few. But this stunningly beautiful country isn’t trapped in the past. Red-robed monks check their cellphones. And the well-educated, fun-loving locals are both well-informed yet deeply protective of the pristine environment and their cultural heritage. This happy harmony of ancient and modern is what makes Bhutan such an endlessly fascinating Shangri-La.
Then there’s the sensational photography! The sublime mountain landscapes with snow-capped peaks soaring above emerald forests and chartreuse rice fields… The monasteries teeming with monks in flamboyantly crimson and yellow robes… The flutter of prayer flags and the blurring whirl of prayer wheels… And, of course, the riotous religious festivals for which Bhutan is famous!
Our 2022 itinerary is timed to coincide with the Thamshing Phala Phoepa festival, in Bumtang, and the Gangtey Tshecho festival in Gangtey.
DAY 1 – OCT 1, Saturday: THIMPU
Arrive Paro in Bhutan via Bangkok. You’ll be transferred to our hotel in Thimpu–the Bhutanese capital and home to the royal family–and spend the balance of the day relaxing and adjusting to the elevation. This evening, meet with Christopher for our reception, tour briefing, and welcome dinner.
DAY 2 – OCT 2, Sunday: THIMPU
This morning we’ll make a pre-breakfast visit to the photogenic National King’s Memorial Chorten to witness devotees performing their early morning kora (circumambulation). After breakfast, we’ll head to the relatively new and giant gold-gilt Buddha Dordenma–the only one of its kind in Bhutan. Then into downtown Thimpu–a hub of contemporary commerce with a fascinating photogenic appeal, including traffic police wearing white gloves–to the bustling and pungent riverside Centenary Farmers’ Market, where we”ll photograph vendors selling incense, aromatics, dried chilies, strips of fatty pork and discs of datse (soft cheese), dried fish, mounds of barley and rice, and chunks of yak meat. Close by, the archery stadium offers a chance to photograph locals practicing this favorite national pastime. We’ll also visit Simply Bhutan, with its Phallus Garden. In late afternoon, we’ll visit the Tschichho Dzong, the massive 17th-century fortress-monastery that is the seat of the Bhutan government.
DAY 3 – OCT 3, Monday: THIMPU / PUNAKHA
After an early start, we’ll experience Thimpu’s rich traditional culture and photograph it close up at either the small Jungshi paper factory, where Bhutanese decorated paper is handmade in age-old tradition from the bark of the daphne bush; the National Institute for Zorig Chusum, a school where young students learn 13 traditional arts, from embroidery to mask-making and painting; the Gagyel Lhundrup Weaving Centre, where high-end hand-woven textiles are produced on traditional looms; and/or the Goldsmiths Workshop, where repoussé metalworkers hammer jewelry and arched torana gates gates. Then drive up to the Dochu La Pass (3,100 m), with its panoramic view of snow-covered Himalayan peaks plus 108 Druk Wangyal memorial chortens; here we’ll photograph a planting of prayer flags. We’ll lunch at a local café, then continue to Punakha, where we’ll end our day for the “golden hour” and “blue hour” at Panukha Dzong, Bhutan’s riverside former winter capital. Built in 1637, this magnificent six-stories-high edifice is renowned for its richly-gilded interiors and white-washed stupa.
DAY 4 – OCT 4, Tuesday: PUNAKHA
We’ll spend the day photographing in the beautiful Punakha Valley, with its rice terraces, mustard fields, and tiny villages, such as Talo, with its string of traditional houses scattered along a ridge. Our visits will also include a short hike to the hilltop Chimi Lhakhang, the picturesque Temple of Fertility, flanked by prayer flags and a pilgrimage site for childless couples; and to the Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Nunnery perched high atop a mountain. We’ll also take a short scenic hike past terraced rice fields to the pagoda-like Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, with its superb views over the Punakha Valley. Plus, we’ll photographing monks and villagers traversing the flag-draped Punakha suspension bridge: spanning 520-feet, it’s one of the world’s longest!
DAY 5 – OCT 5, Wednesday: PUNAKHA – TRONGSA – BUMTANG
After breakfast, we’ll set out for a scenic drive into Central Bhutan via the Pele La Pass (3,300 m), marked by chorten and a huge assortment of colorful flags waving in the wind. Arriving, Trongsa, we’ll photograph the massive 17th-century Trongsa Dzong—the original seat of power for the kings of Bhutan, with a splendid museum. We’ll then continue via the Yutongla Pass (3,400 m) into the Bumtang district, making a short stop in the scenic Chumey Valley to photograph in a traditional Yathra-weaving center at Zugney, where we’ll visit the homes of local weavers.
DAY 6 – Oct 6, Thursday: BUMTANG / TAMSHING PHALA CHOEPA FESTIVAL
Today we’ll focus our cameras on the Tamshing Phala Choepa Festival, at Tamshing monastery, as we witness monks dressed in grand silk robes and exquisite masks performing choreographed chams (dances) accompanied by traditional music on cymbals, large drums, and long trumpets. We’ll round out our day with visits to Jambay Lhakhang—a temple supposedly built in the 7th century to tame an ogress—and the fascinating Kurje Lhakhang monastery.
DAY 7 – Oct 7, Friday: BUMTANG / TAMSHING PHALA CHOEPA FESTIVAL
Another great morning today as we photograph the Tamshing Phala Choepa Festival. Between dance ceremonies there’s plenty of colorful local activity, such as archery and darts stalls where local kids try their skills. We may also visit the Jakar Dzong and Lhodrak Kharchhu monasteries, or simply take the opportunity to relax at our hotel this afternoon before dining this evening with a local family, including an educational and photographic session on local cuisine and dress.
DAY 8 – Oct 8, Saturday: BUMTANG – GANGTEY / GANTEY TSHECHU FESTIVAL
Today we’ll depart early as we return westward via the Yutongla Pass, with a brief stop at the Chendbji Chorten. Just beyond the Pele La Pass, we turn south into the vast bowl-shaped, glacier-carved alpine valley of Phobjikha. We hope to arrive the 17th-century Gangtey Goemba temple complex in time to witness this afternoon’s Gangtey Tshechu Festival, with its choreographed masked dances. In late afternoon, we’ll photograph in the exquisite hilltop hamlet of Gangtey, a short distance from our hotel.
DAY 9 – Oct 9, Sunday: GANGTEY / GANGTEY TSHECHU FESTIVAL
After breakfast, we’ll enjoy more colorful activities at the Gangtey Tshechu Festival. Considered one of the most beautiful of Bhutanese dzongs, the festival venue–Gangtey Goemba–boasts stunning woodcarvings and murals. Late, we’ll enjoy a private lunch with monks at the Damchoe Lhakhsang monastery—a chance for superb intimate portraiture. Later, we’ll make the most of the fantastic mountain landscapes, where we may chance upon nomadic yak herders camped in the valleys surrounded by the Himalayan peaks. The Phobjikha Valley is also a serene habitat for gray langur monkeys, while the high-altitude wetlands are the winter roosting grounds of the threatened black-necked crane (Grus Nigricollis): with luck, we’ll photograph both! Of course, we’ll visit the Black-Necked Crane Visitor Centre to learn about the bird’s ecology and of Bhutan’s conservation efforts to protect this species.
DAY 10 – Oct 10, Monday: GANGTEY – PARO
Today we’ll drive west to Paro, stopping again at the Dochula Pass, and/or Tachog Lhaktang and its ancient bridge draped with player flags. Time permitting, we may also break our journey by visiting the Semtokha Dzong monastery (the oldest fortress of the country, it now houses the School for Buddhist studies), where we may photograph a beautiful Bhutanese model wearing contemporary Bhutanese fashion inspired by the nation’s traditions. Arriving Paro in the afternoon, the balance of the day is free to relax at leisure.
DAY 11 – Oct 11, Tuesday: PARO – ‘TIGER’S NEST’
We’ve saved the best for last as we enjoy an early morning hike to Taktsang Lhakhang Dzong—Bhutan’s world-famous ‘Tiger’s Nest Temple,’ clinging to a vertical granite cliff-face at 9,300 feet elevation. Bhutan’s most iconic site offers stunning photo ops. Although not difficult, the hike takes five hours round trip and involves a Stairmaster workout on the home stretch! We’ll then relax in a traditional hot-stone bath. In late afternoon, we’ll visit a traditional farmhouse to photograph a family and share tea or coffee in their smoke-filled home setting.
DAY 12 – OCT 12, Wednesday: PARO
After breakfast, we’ll photograph the stupendous Paro Rinpung Dzong fortress-monastery in its magnificent riverside setting against the background of the snow-capped Himalayas. Later, you can try your hand at archery as we shoot a private archery session with Bhutanese in traditional garb. And we may also visit the 7th-century Kyichu Lakhang Dzong, one of the two oldest temples in Bhutan–a good venue perhaps to witness a Puja ceremony and the lighting of 108 butter lamps. This evening we’ll share our best images in a slideshow before our farewell dinner.
DAY 13 – Oct 13, Thursday: FLIGHT HOME
We’ll fly to Bangkok this morning for our onward flights home.
Trip cost: $7,475
- Photograph monks at such monasteries as Tschichho Dzong, Semtokha Dzong, and the sublime 'Tiger's Nest,' perched on a cliff-face.
- Shoot and thrill to the Tamshing Phala Choepa and Gantey Tsetchu religious festivals.
- Visit weavers' homes, a traditional golfsmith workshop, ancient markets, and more!
- Photograph Bhutan's top model in traditional kira and toego clothing.
You’ll get to photograph with acclaimed National Geographic photographer, author, and expedition leader Christopher P. Baker, the Lowell Thomas Award 2008 ‘Travel Journalist of the Year.’ Christopher’s images and self-illustrated articles have appeared in hundreds of magazines, from BBC, CNN and Newsweek to National Geographic, National Wildlife and Penthouse; as well as scores of calendars, brochures, coffee-table books and travel guidebooks. His work for National Geographic, not least, includes photographing the National Geographic Traveler Colombia and National Geographic Traveler Costa Rica guidebooks on assignment. Chris’ profession as a full-time travel journalist informs his work, which is also represented by Getty Images. His rich archive of images and travel experiences spans the world, from India, Sudan and Nepal to Morocco, Micronesia and the Marquesas Islands. Plus, Chris has led more than 100 tours and expeditions worldwide, including photo tours to Cuba, Colombia, and Oman for Jim Cline Photo Tours, as well as photo tours for Lumaria Workshops, National Geographic Expeditions, Santa Fe Photo Workshops, and UnCruise Adventures.