- Ground Operators
ur first experience of Bhutan is extraordinary, landing in a deep, wide valley surrounded by distant Himalayan peaks on a single cement runway. This is our starting point to a tiny, land-locked country with fewer than 800,000 people: a place ruled by a king who tells his people to “love their country intelligently,” a place still inextricably hinged to a distant past, a place where the past is present.
As soon as you step onto the tarmac, you will be tempted to grab your camera. Who can resist the image of a lone Airbus A319 in a verdant valley, surrounded by steep hills and billowing clouds? Don’t succumb. Instead, focus on something non-descript, mid-distance to the horizon. Let your attention drift to the periphery. Try to absorb the vast panorama opening up before you. Gather in everything from a bird soaring in the distance to the sole of a shoe slapping the cement. Then reach down. Take your camera in hand. Capture what was unseen just a moment ago.
Sean Kernan uses such exercises in workshops around the world to turn photographers into creative artists. Accompanying Sean is Jock Montgomery, a professional photographer and adventure travel guide who has been to Bhutan more than a dozen times. He has the experience and connections that will offer unusual access so we can get behind obvious facades. The dzong hanging onto a cliff is not just an architectural wonder but a fortified protection from invaders; a monk prostrate before a statute is not only a man seeking enlightenment but a relationship to a 2,000-year-old tradition.
We are excited to offer this new way of viewing the familiar, and familiar ways of seeing the exceptional. Most importantly, we want you have fun with us on this creative venture into a land where—even today—tigers fly and dragons thunder.
Click here to read a personal invitation from Sean Kernan.
As photographers, Jock and Sean think that the best seeing happens when we wander. Our job is to make this happen, and to support each participant. We will also offer provocative assignment ideas and exercises designed to get us past our habits of seeing. The focus will be on working with light, defining composition, and creating compelling content. As you work toward nurturing your shooting style, you will learn how to take in and personalize those breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities. Throughout the workshop, we will have feedback sessions and reviews, both group and personal.
Being flexible and open to new opportunities is the cornerstone to seeking out and shooting compelling photographs. We will make every effort to keep our plans flexible so that we can take full advantage of photographic opportunities as they arise.
Day 1: Depart Bangkok / Arrive Thimpu, Bhutan
Arrive at Bangkok’s International Airport in time for our 6:50am flight to Paro, Bhutan. (Plan on staying at a hotel near the airport the night before; we recommend the Novotel Airport Hotel.) On the flight in, we should have fabulous views of Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, and many of Bhutan’s sacred mountains. After completing visa formalities, we meet our local guide, Karma Tshering. Then we visit our first dzong; these are fortified structures that now serve as monasteries, government offices, or both.
We make our way toward the town of Paro for lunch, then drive two hours to the nation’s capital, Thimphu. Depending on time, we may visit a few sites such as a traditional medicine hospital, the Dechenprhdrang Monastic school, or the national library.
Day 2: Drive to Punakha
For most of our trip, we will drive on the main road of Bhutan, a two-lane meandering “highway.” After a long and winding morning through mixed maple, oak, and chir pine forests we arrive at Dochu La, a pass with a large grouping of Buddhist shrines and prayer flags, and—if the weather is clear—a spectacular panoramic view of the Bhutanese Himalayas. Just below the pass, we stop for tea and then proceed downhill to the Punakha valley. We check into our hotel and spend the afternoon reviewing our work and doing some photography exercises.
Day 3: Exploring Punakha Valley
In the morning, we head to the huge Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. This stupa was built by the Queen Mother to honor all Bhutanese citizens. Inside is an imposing, three-dimensional mandala that symbolizes the Buddhist “wheel of life.” From the rooftop there is a beautiful view of rice fields, scattered homes, and the Po Chu River winding its way down the valley. Should time allow, we will visit the huge Punakha Dzong. If the head abbott is not in residence, we will be allowed to enter the main chanting hall, one of the country’s most stunning Buddhist sites.
Day 4: Drive to Trongsa
We drive further east for about two hours and enter the Black Mountains, known for their huge hemlock and cypress trees covered with lichens. As we gain elevation, we see yaks grazing in fields of grass and dwarf bamboo. We may stop to visit a village, meet some local farmers, and learn about their rural life.
We eventually reach the high pass of Pele La at 11,150 feet. In clear weather there is a view of Chomolhari, at 23,684 feet Bhutan’s most famous sacred mountain. We then begin a 5,000-foot descent into Trongsa. Beyond the bridge at Nikkachu village, much of the road has been cut into the cliffside and there are spectacular basalt rock faces and sweeping views of the Mangdi Chu far below. We will check into our hotel in Trongsa and later spend some time in town, perhaps enjoying a game of pool with the locals.
Day 5: Exploring Trongsa
After an early breakfast we head to Trongsa Dzong, perhaps the most dramatic of all the dzongs due to its awesome location overlooking the V-shaped gorge of the Mangdi Chu River and its sprawling, medieval village-like interior. Later, we visit the seven-story-tall Ta Dzong, another fortified monastery with three huge watchtowers recently restored and made into a museum.
Day 6: Drive to Endocholing
In the morning, we head off the main road and divert south to Endocholing village, arriving in the early afternoon. There is a small monastery here with an abbott and a dozen monks. We camp in tents beside the monastery, enjoying meals prepared by a chef from Thimphu and served within the monastic compound. Only a handful of foreign groups have ever stayed here.
Day 7: Exploring Endocholing
We have the entire day to focus on our photography and try out new ways of viewing the world. Sean and Jock will provide some portraiture tips that can be used to photograph a Buddhist dance ceremony. We have arranged for the monks to allow us rare access before and after the performance, as they put on their traditional robes, masks, and Cham dancing garments. There are also options to go on easy walks from here, perhaps to see the rare golden langur monkeys.
Day 8: Drive to Bumthang
In the morning we drive north, back to Trongsa through the cypress forests found in cooler climates and up toward today’s first pass, Yotung La. We visit the village of Chume, which is famous for its unique Bhutanese woven fabrics. We then proceed to the second pass, Kiki La, a beautiful site adorned with hundreds of prayer flags. We now head down into the Bumthang valley, often referred to as the country’s most sacred valley because of the numerous dzongs and gompas. Our hotel is on the outskirts of the town of Jakar.
Days 9 & 10: Exploring Bumthang
We have two full days to view a local monastic festival. This is a smaller Buddhist celebration that few foreigners visit, so we should have unencumbered chances to photograph the always colorful and dramatic dancing. Nearby are an impromptu market and more temples, both with opportunities to photograph people and daily life. We may also go to the Burning Lake, where the Tang Chu River passes through a narrow canyon adorned with hundreds of prayer flags, or we can visit another gorgeous, quintessentially Bhutanese village called Ura.
Day 11: Fly to Paro
In the morning, we fly to Paro. This afternoon, we visit some sites in Paro and then drive up to the highest pass in Bhutan, 12,500-foot-high Chele La, to take in the spectacular scenery and photograph a stunning sunset.
Day 12: Exploring Paro
After a leisurely morning, we head up to Taktsang Monastery, known as the Tiger’s Nest due to its precipitous location on a high vertical cliff. Guru Rinpoche (the first king of Tibet) was said to have flown here on top of a tigress and meditated for three months. The four-mile walk runs along a wide trail perched half a mile above the valley floor, offering spectacular views. After a picnic lunch, we arrive at the monastery in time for the optimal late afternoon light. We will receive a permit to visit the temple interior, including the private meditation quarters for elderly monks.
Day 13: Depart Bhutan
We bid our good-byes to our local staff and board our flight back to Bangkok.
2015 Dates: November 18 to 30, 2015
Duration: 13 days / 12 nights
Starting City: Bangkok (airport code – BKK)
Ending City: Bangkok (airport code – BKK)
Land Cost: $6,435 per person
Single Supplement: $800
Minimum – 8 participants
Maximum – 12 participants
Internal Asia Airfare: $975 per person
(Please contact us for airfare quote if you wish to arrive in Paro, Bhutan from another location)
Included in Land Cost
• All accommodations, based on double occupancy
• All taxes and service charges
• Domestic flights inside Bhutan
• All ground transportation using private, non-AC vehicles
• All entrance and photography fees
• Bhutanese Visa
• All meals after arrival in Bhutan (Lunch Day 1 to Breakfast Day 13)
• Bottled water, tea, and coffee with meals
• TourDirect’s Medical ($25,000), Accident and Evacuation Insurance ($500,000) and Assistance Plan
What is not included
• International airfare to/from Bangkok
• Gratuities to local staff
• Items of a personal nature, such as alcoholic beverages, laundry, phone calls, etc.
• Trip cancellation, travel delay, or baggage insurance.
(Note: This optional coverage is highly recommended and can be purchased through TourDirect)
At TourDirect, we will assist you in obtaining any necessary visas or other travel permits required for your journey, all done through our Visa Service Partner. Detailed visa instructions, application forms, and information about applicable visa fees will be included in your Pre-Departure Packet.
You must have a valid passport with an expiration date more than 6 months from the date of your return to the U.S. The passport must also have at least 2 blank pages for each country that you will be visiting in Asia.
Thailand: No visa is required for most foreigners staying in Thailand for less than 30 days.
Bhutan: A visa is required for all foreigners traveling to Bhutan. The required Visa Authorization will be obtained on your behalf by TourDirect, with the actual visa stamped into your passport on arrival in Paro.
No immunizations are required for entry into Thailand or Bhutan, or to return to the U.S. However, proof of yellow fever vaccination is required if you are coming from (or have recently visited) a country that has risk of yellow fever. Several immunizations are recommended by the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
A copy of the CDC’s recommended immunization list and additional health information will be included in our Pre-Departure Packet.
High Altitude: Please note that we will reach altitudes of more than 10,000 feet on this tour, with sleeping elevations above 8,000 feet. Anyone with a history of medical problems, particularly cardiac or respiratory, should consult a doctor before considering this tour. A medical certificate, signed by a physician, will be required from all participants for this tour.
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