Nepal, India and Bhutan
Arrive in Kolkata. You will be met at the airport and whisked off to the larger than life, Fairlawn Hotel in Sudder Street, just down the road from the Indian Museum. Sudder Street is a melting pot of beggars, travelers, shops, restaurants, rickshaw wallahs, taxis and hotels. Kolkata has long been recognised as the cultural capital of India and the countries friendliest urban centre. There is also plenty to see and do within walking distance of the Fairlawn Hotel. Overnight Fairlawn Hotel, Kolkata
An easy paced city tour taking in such attractions as Victoria Memorial, Howrah Bridge (Rabindra Setu), the Mother Teresa Calcutta Centre, the flower market, Kali Temple and St Paul’s Cathedral is scheduled for today. Overnight Kolkata. Overnight Fairlawn Hotel, Kolkata
Today we board the Kanchenjunga Express at Sealdah Station bound for Siliguri at 06:00 hours. It’s a long drive from Kolkata to Siliguri with a lot of traffic and other Indian stresses competing with your vehicle so the train is much less chaotic as well as being a fun experience. Experience India on an Indian train, a delightful memory that will stay with you for a long time. The Kanchenjunga Express arrives at NJP Station in Siliguri at approximately 18:30 hours after a 12 hour trip. Train trip, twelve hours. Overnight Siliguri.
An early start is scheduled today. You travel along the foothills of the Himalaya all the way to the border of Bhutan, through tea plantations, forests and villages before arriving in Jaigaon. This is where you exit India and complete all customs and immigration formalities before entering Bhutan at Phuentsholing where all Bhutanese entry formalities are organised. When you enter Bhutan, you’ll be met by your Bhutanese guide Bhupen, who will accompany you for the duration of your time in this tiny and mystical country. Even though the drive time from Siliguri to the border is six hours, you need the early departure so all border formalities can be completed in order to get a good start the next day when you leave Phuentsholing for Paro. The transformation when exiting Jaigaon and entering Phuentsholing is nothing short of dramatic, the change of culture, custom and architecture (to name but a few) is astounding. Welcome to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. Altitude 150m. Drive time six to eight hours. Overnight Phuentsholing.
The drive from Phuentsholing when you begin to climb off the Indian plains is simply magnificent. In fine weather, you will have incredible views of the vast plains of India spreading out endlessly towards the horizon, which will eventually peter out into the ever present haze. It is strikingly obvious how the Himalayas form a mighty barrier rising like a wall from the plains. The roads in Bhutan are very steep and windy with many switchbacks, as well as being very narrow, so there is plenty of time to take in the magical scenery. Today you drive approximately 165kms and your drive time from the border to Paro is around eight hours, so this gives you an indication as to what the roads are like. As you are traveling with the only Overland Company to drive vehicles into Bhutan, you are always the centre of attention - with people young and old constantly waving at you and wondering what the strange vehicle is all about. Once at the Rema Resort, you can try a hot stone bath, a very traditional Bhutanese custom… there are several chances whilst in Bhutan for trying this centuries old local delight. Altitude 2,250m. Drive time seven to nine hours. Overnight Rema Resort, Paro.
Drive fifteen kilometres to Ramthangkha, from here it’s a one to two hour hike to a viewpoint of the Taktshang Goemba, also known as ‘Tiger’s Nest’. (A pony can also be taken to the viewpoint.) From there, its another one to two-hour hike to the monastery itself, the ponies can’t be taken beyond the view point. Built in the 1600s, this incredible monastery clings to the edge of a sheer rock cliff that plunges 900m into the valley below. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava, the tantric mystic who brought Buddhism to Bhutan, landed here on the back of a flying tiger. After ‘Tiger’s Nest’ there is free time to stroll around the very picturesque Paro; perhaps visit Ta Dzong (an ancient watchtower, which now houses the National Museum) or Rinpung Dzong. Oddly enough, the countries main airport is located here in Paro, not Thimphu. Drive time one hour. Overnight Rema Resort, Paro.
Thimphu is the modern capital of Bhutan, and you will arrive here from Paro mid-morning. There is a wonderful outdoor market in Thimphu. The stalls offer many colourful local items such as yak tail dusters, butter teacups, turquoise from Nepal and Tibet as well as musical instruments. Take in a city tour in the capital today, including the Changangkha Monastery, the newly completed sitting Buddha and we observe Bhutan's most stately and arguably most impressive building, Tashichhodzong. You may also wander around Thimphu at your leisure. The town is made up of just three lines of shops and is the only capital in the world without traffic lights. Bhutan now has a parliamentary democratic constitutional monarchy and Thimphu is the headquarters for the government. "Gross National Happiness" is one of the defined objectives the government is aiming to achieve in Bhutan. Altitude 2,350m. Drive time two to three hours. Overnight Thimphu.
After leaving Thimphu, the road climbs steeply to Dochula pass (3050m). There are 108 Buddhist Stupas overlooking the Himalaya at the pass. Stop and take in the views before heading down the valley for Punakha (district). Have lunch and then take around fifteen minutes to walk to Chimi Lhakhang, the temple of the Divine Madman located near a small village between Wangdue and Punakha. Continue to the Punakha River Camp where you can relax in a hot stone bath; a very traditional Bhutanese custom and a centuries old local delight. Altitude 1,310m. Drive time four to five hours. Overnight Punakha River Camp.
After a hearty breakfast - for those with an adventurous streak - white water raft about fifteen kilometres to the Punakha Dzong. Visit the imposing dzong, winter seat of the Je Khenpo (Chief Abbot) and ancient capital of Bhutan. For those who aren’t interested in rafting to the dzong, you will be able to drive in your vehicle into Punakha. Overnight Punakha River Camp.
Trongsa is the capital of Trongsa District in Central Bhutan. The first temple was built in 1543 by the Drukpa Kagyu Lama Ngagi Wangchuk who was the great grandfather of Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the person who unified Bhutan. Trongsa Dzong (Chokhor Raptentse Dzong) is the largest dzong fortress in Bhutan and used to be the seat of power for the Wangchuck Dynasty before they became rulers of Bhutan in 1907. Traditionally the King of Bhutan first becomes the Penlop (governor) of Trongsa before being named Crown Prince and eventually King. Built on a mountain spur high above the gorges of the Mangde Chhu, the Dzong controlled east-west trade for centuries. The only road connecting eastern and western Bhutan passed through the courtyard of the dzong, at the command of the Penlop the massive doors could be shut, dividing the country in two. The dzong is also a major monastic complex with two hundred or so monks. You will have an afternoon and the following morning in Trongsa, giving you plenty of time to explore the dzong and surrounds… and perhaps even listen to the monks praying. Altitude 2,200m. Drive time four to six hours. Overnight Trongsa.
The morning there will be enough time to thoroughly explore the Museum Of Monarchy in the Tower of Trongsa perched high above the dzong. The Museum is home to the royal collection, and tells the history of Trongsa as the seat of the royal families. The museum is unique in the fact that even those who don’t usually make a habit of visiting museums leave this one enthralled. Leave Trongsa after lunch for Bumthang. Drive time three to four hours. Overnight Bumthang.
A visit to Bhutan isn’t complete without a visit to the Bumthang District. Bumthang is described by many as the Switzerland of Bhutan and referred to as the religious and cultural heartland of the country. It is also home to some of the oldest monasteries and Buddhist temples in Bhutan. Visit Jambay, Tamshing and Kurjey Lhakangs, as well as Jakar Dzong. Jakar is the administrative capital of Bumthang. You spend two nights in Bumthang. Altitude 2,600m. Overnight Bumthang.
Drive day to Enduchholing. This community is well off the tourist path and only a handful of visitors have been there. You will presented with a cultural night with mask dances performed by the monks and cultural folk dances performed by local women.
Endochhuling Dzong is perched on a hillside overlooking the Mangde Chhu River 50 km south of Trongsa. It was the winter palace for Sir Ugen Wangchuk. The dzong still houses a small monastic school that teaches its students Buddhism and the art of local mask dances. You will camp in the palace grounds for the night because there are no hotels in the area. Altitude 1,300m. Drive time seven to nine hours. Overnight Enduchholing.
IIn the morning take a village walk through the local Enduchholing community, visiting the school, farms and the local co-operative weaving centre where the local women turn stinging nettle into beautiful floor rugs, table clothes and place mats. After lunch your overnight destination is Zhemgang, a small village overlooking a beautiful and picturesque valley with views for literally miles and miles. Accommodation in Zhemgang is quite basic as the only foreigners who travel through here are usually NGOs. You have one night in Zhemgang to allow for an easy driving day to Gelephu the following day. Drive time four to five hours. Overnight Zhemgang.
Your last drive day in Bhutan is 130kms of the usual winding roads with spectacular views and typical Bhutanese life unfolding around you - similar to when you entered Bhutan - but this time you are slowly making your way down to the Indian Plains to the border at Gelephu. At Gelephu, you complete your exit formalities. You spend one more night in Bhutan before exiting back into India, into the state of Assam. Gelephu is located on the edge of the plains of India. Drive time six to eight hours. Overnight Gelephu.
Before departing Siliguri, you transfer into jeeps before continuing up the Teesta River to Gangtok. You leave the Overland Vehicle in Siliguri for around seven days. You uses jeeps because the drive time in the bigger vehicle is very slow - the road becomes very steep, narrow and windy with many switchbacks in Sikkim and the hills of Darjeeling. Altitude 1,430m. Drive time, four to five to hours. Overnight Mintokling Hotel, Gangtok.
Gangtok is the capital and largest town in Sikkim. Gangtok means ‘hill top’. Today, the city is a centre of Tibetan Buddhist culture and learning, with several monasteries, religious educational institutions, and centres for Tibetology. This morning you will have a tour of Gangtok’s attractions, which will include Rumtek Gompa, 20 kms from the Mintokling Hotel - the hotel we stay in, located just below the palace. The afternoon is left free, giving time to explore this easy going, modern and quite ‘hip’ city. Photos do very no justice for the mountain views from Gangtok. Overnight Mintokling Hotel, Gangtok.
Morning departure to Lachen. Lachen is a small and still relatively unknown town in North Sikkim. The name Lachen translates to big pass. Lachen stands on a grassy flat which is surrounded by pine clad mountains with their snowy peaks and black cliffs. The village comprises of less than two hundred houses and only until recently, many of the inhabitants spent the summers tending their yak on alpine pastures bordering Tibet. Altitude 2,750m. Drive time six to seven hours. Overnight Lachen.
Thirty kilometres beyond Lachen lies Thangu, altitude 3,950m and a further thirty-minute drive is Chopta Valley with an altitude of just over 4,000m. The drive to Thangu is spectacularly windy and scenic. There will most likely be snow on the ground and the Chopta Valley may well have iced over rivers that can be crossed over by foot. This part of India isn’t seen by many tourists as it is such a remote area; hence the area has remained virtually untouched and is still in a pristine condition. You take a day trip to this area. Alternatively you can spend the day in Lachen, relaxing and exploring the town and local Gompa as well as mingling with the friendly and curious locals. Altitude 2,750m. Overnight Lachen.
Drive back through Gangtok and exit the state of Sikkim, heading for Darjeeling. Follow the Teesta River, cross the Teesta Bridge and from there continue uphill to the old British Hill Station with another spectacular drive. Overnight Windemere Hotel, Darjeeling
A highlight in Darjeeling is the hotel. The Windamere Hotel is an
old Colonial Hotel dating back to the 1800’s and the times of the
British Raj Tea Planters. Its main house is ‘Ada Villa’; formerly a
British Raj boarding house for bachelor planters away from home. The
rooms are exactly the same as they were back then, with roaring coal
fires; hot water bottles in the beds; huge closets and, best of all, a
personal and warm service from the staff that is second to none. The
rest of the hotel is made up of various “heritage houses”, nestled in
wonderfully blooming gardens and peeking out from behind picket fences
and climbing roses. It is the only building that is situated on
‘Observatory Hill’ with phenomenal views of the surrounding valleys. The
food is legendary, with both Continental and Indian menus. Altitude
2,130m. Drive time six to seven hours.
The name Darjeeling is synonymous with tea... and quite rightly
so as tea from this district is found all over the world. Many Tibetans
reside here, and a large proportion of the population have Nepali,
Bhutanese and Sikkim origins. Free day today, there are plenty of
options. If the weather is good, you can get up early for a breathtaking
sunrise view of the Kanchenjunga. Wander over to the famous Himalayan
Mountaineering Institute, enjoy Lloyds Botanical Garden, shop at the
Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, check out the Himalayan Zoological
Park and Snow Leopard Breeding Centre … or just relax and be pampered at
the Windamere, lapping up the views and hospitality. Overnight Windemere Hotel, Darjeeling
After a leisurely breakfast, board the Toy Train for a three-hour ride to Kurseong. The Makaibari Tea Estate is a hop, skip and a jump from Kurseong; enjoy a home stay here and are accommodated in separate homes in the village on the estate. Makaibari claims to be the world's first tea factory, established in 1859. You will be guided around the estate where you can see tea still been picked the way it has been for centuries and learn how the tea is processed in the factory. Altitude 1,460m. Train ride three hours. Overnight home stay, The Makaibari Tea Estate
Depart Makaibari in jeeps, stop briefly in Siliguri where you are reunited with the your Overland Vehicle and then it’s only a short drive to the Indian / Nepali border. Once entry formalities are completed for Nepal drive to Dharan, which is used only as an en route stopover. Be accommodated in a Country Club which has even been frequented by British Royalty.. Drive time seven to nine hours. Overnight Dharan.
Drive day to Chitwan National Park through the rural farms, countryside and villages of the Terai. We have a quick stop at the Koshi Barrage where you are almost guaranteed sighting Gangetic Dolphins, which are an endangered species. Drive time eight to ten hours. Overnight just out of Sauraha.
Enjoy an elephant jungle safari, a canoe ride on the Rapti River
and actively participate in elephant washing at Chitwan National Park.
There are opportunities to spot wildlife from the many species of deer
to the one horned Indian rhino; there are also many types of birds,
including kingfishers to hornbills. However, you will need a lot of
jungle magic to spot the elusive tiger. If you do, consider yourself as
being one of the very few fortunate ones. Overnight Sauraha.
Depart Chitwan National Park for Kathmandu at 08:00 hours. After
leaving the Terai, where the Great Indian Plains finish (..or start);
you drive through huge and delightful hills and ranges - the foot hills
of the Himalayas - until you climb over the rim of the Kathmandu Valley
and enter Kathmandu. The gods will be with you if you don’t run into a
traffic jam. The traffic in this city can be absolutely horrendous...
Altitude 1,300m. Drive time six to eight hours. Overnight Kathmandu.
Members of the group who would like to participate in an optional Mount Everest scenic mountain flight will be picked up at approximately 05:45hrs and whisked off to the airport, returning to the hotel later for breakfast before taking in the sites of Kathmandu. Your city tour includes a visit to Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple), Pashpathinath, Durbar Square (Kathmandu) and Bodhnath. Overnight Kathmandu.
End of trip. You are bid farewell and we will arrange transport to get you safely to the airport.