The Isolated Kingdom of Bhutan

View Full SlideshowView Full Slideshow

Ask A Question
Download Trip Details
Get Our eNewsletter

At the eastern end of the Himalayan Mountains, where the arid plains of India meet waves of dense green forest rising toward the high Tibetan Plateau, the small country of Bhutan remained isolated and overlooked for centuries.  Virtually the storied Shangri-La of the Himalayas, this tiny Buddhist kingdom opened to foreign visitation in the 1970s and has managed to maintain its unique cultural identity, and traditional customs, by moderating the number of outside visitors through the use of high per diem visitor fees.
"Bhutan and its people were both amazingly beautiful! The country is magical!"
- U. Vaughn
While the Himalayas surrounding Bhutan have kept it in geographic isolation, this same seclusion has shielded the nation from the cultural shock waves that globalization has created in other parts of the developing world.  Monk lighting candles in templeRoughly the combined size of Maryland and Delaware, and fondly referred to by the Bhutanese as Druk Yul, Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is a colorful kaleidoscope of photogenic traditional culture, architecture and landscapes rapidly disappearing in neighboring Himalayan countries.
The strong fusion of church and state in Bhutan is visible in the spectacular buildings called dzongsTibetan for fortress. These striking white-washed citadels house both government officials and Buddhist monks and are the centerpiece of larger towns. We arrive in time for three autumn festivals, including the Thimphu Tsechu, one of the country’s most colorful and traditional. Spectacular Bhutanese mask dances are a highlight of our photographic excursion into this timeless world.
While traveling to Bhutan’s central valleys, our journey takes us through farming villages with photogenic terraced landscapes, dense blue pine and juniper forests where yak herding provides the local livelihood, and over mountain passes above the tree line up to 13,000 feet. Each day brings something new—vistas of great beauty, monuments with rich architectural and decorative detail, images of traditionally-attired villagers, picturesque contoured farmlands, vibrant markets, and temples with thousands of colorful prayer flags waving in the sun. With luck, we may see rare migrant black-necked cranes returning to Phobjikha Valley.
Expect to photograph alot of people—willing photo subjects happy to interact with inquisitive foreigners: monks chanting in incense-filled monasteries while lighting scores of butter lamps; craggy-faced, weather-worn elders; children—a lot of children—wearing traditional hats decorated with ornaments that ward off evil spirits; plus artisans, dancers, religious pilgrims, archers, weavers, yak herders—and more.
Traditional dancer in BhutanWe photograph men wearing the national dress—a knee-length robe (kho) tied around the waist by a slim belt, with a cotton or silk vest with broad white cuffs underneath. At the waist is a small sword for chopping betel nuts, meat and wood. Every man from the King to his most humble subject wears this same costume. Bhutanese women wear the ankle-length kira—a brightly colored, intricately woven rectangular piece of fabric, wrapped and folded around the body, pinned at both shoulders with silver brooches, and bound at the waist with a woven belt.
Although Bhutan has long been a stalwart holdout from modernity, change is coming to this small mountain kingdom.  The introduction of television, cell phones, internet and an experiment with democracy are quickly altering Bhutan and its people. The unique photographic opportunities of well-preserved and long-guarded traditional culture may not last much longer!
Join us on our photo journey into this mystical realm of the thunder dragon. Here, for a time, you can still glimpse a truly rich and lively Buddhist culture where age-old customs and enduring traditions remain a part of everyday life.

Tour Itinerary

Day 1
Depart from the US.

Day 2 (Sep 22 in Bangkok)
Arrive in Bangkok, Thailand, and check into our airport hotel.

Day 3
We meet very early this morning for our flight to Paro, Bhutan. After we check into our hotel and rest, we have lunch at a local restaurant. In the afternoon we have a leisurely exploration of the small town of Paro, located at 7,500 feet in the emerald green Paro Valley, giving us time to adjust to the high elevation. We visit Kyichu Lakhang also known as the sacred jewel of Bhutan, one of the oldest temples in the Kingdom. (BLD)

Day 4
A 3-hour drive takes us over scenic 13,000-foot-high Cheli La mountain pass to the mountain-ringed Haa Valley at 9,000 feet. With clear weather sweeping views of Mount Chomolhari, Jichu Drake and other Himalayan peaks can be photographed from the pass. We stop at Kila Nunnery, one of the few nunnery monasteries in Bhutan, before our road descends into the Haa Valley. Closed to outsiders for decades, the picturesque valley is one of the most deeply traditional regions in Bhutan. Following lunch in a local restaurant, we visit the Lakhang Karpo (the White Temple), one of the oldest in the valley, as well as a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse. (BLD)

Day 5
This morning we photograph the Cham (masked) dances of the Haa Tsechu, the annual religious festival for the Haa Valley. Following lunch in a local farmhouse and an opportunity to photograph daily farm activities, we have a 4-hour drive through an idyllic countryside of terraced rice fields interspersed with pine forests with a rhododendron understory to Thimphu, the tiny capital city of Bhutan nestled in a 7,600-foot-high valley. En route we stop at Dobji Dzong, perched on a high ridge amidst forested mountains. (BLD)

Day 6
In the morning we photograph the narrative Cham dances—Black Hat Dance, Dance of the Stag and Hunter, Dance of the Wrathful Deities—theatrically performed by monks in honor of Guru Rinpoche at the annual Thimphu Tsechu festival held inside the large courtyard of Tashichho Dzong. Later, a short drive north of the valley brings us to Dodina village, where a 40-minute walk through a forest of oaks leads to Cheri Monastery, built in 1688, and impressive views of the Thimphu Valley. We visit the monastery’s main temple and brightly-painted inner courtyard before returning to Thimphu. (BLD)

Day 7
A short drive into the mountains takes us to the Great Buddha statue for photography of the massive gold-gilded structure, only completed in 2015, in early morning light. We drive about 2.5 hours to Punakha, stopping at 10,000-foot-high Dochula Pass for scenic views of the Himalayas and the Druk Wangyal Chortens in clear weather. After descending into the terraced valley of Punakha, we take a short walk through mustard fields and tiny villages to Chimi Lhakhang (the Temple of Fertility). The temple, flanked by nearly 100 tall prayer flags, sits on a picturesque hilltop and has long been a pilgrimage site for childless couples. We end our day with a visit to the Nunnery Vocational School. (BLD)

Day 8
Field workerFrom the village of Nezigang, a 30-minute scenic morning walk past terraced rice fields and small hamlets brings us to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten. From the recently-built elaborate pagoda-like shrine we can capture superb views of the Punakha Valley. Following lunch we visit Panukha Dzong, Bhutan’s former winter capital built at the confluence of the Mo Chu and Po Chu (Mother and Father rivers) in 1637. Six stories high, with a white-washed stupa, intricately carved timbers, and richly-gilded interiors, the dzong is a majestic photo subject. (BLD)

Day 9
A morning drive brings us to vast bowl-shaped Phobjikha Valley, carved by glaciers and surrounded by the Himalayan peaks. En route we stop at Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, damaged by fire but undergoing a major renovation which should be completed at the time of our visit. The high-altitude wetlands of the Phobjikha Valley are the winter roosting grounds of the threatened black-necked crane. We visit the crane center in the afternoon to learn of Bhutan’s efforts to protect this stately species. (BLD)

Day 10
Perched on a mountainside overlooking Phobjikha Valley is the Gangtey Monastery dating back to the 17th century. This morning we photograph the masked dancers at the annual autumn Gangtey festival held in the courtyard of the monastery. Later we have a 6-hour drive to Bumthang with short stops at the Chendebji Chorten, a Nepalese-style stupa, and the Yathra Weaving Center in scenic Chumey Valley. (BLD)

Day 11
This morning we photograph the ancient and sacred monasteries of Jambay and Kurjey, as well as Tamzhing Monastery, built in 1501 and one of the most culturally significant in Bhutan. After a visit to a local farm we drive to Ngang Lakhang monastery, founded in the late 1500s, in the village of Thangbi. A walk over a suspension bridge brings us to the monastery. (BLD)

Day 12
We drive to Trongsa, the ancestral home of Bhutan’s royal family, in the morning. In the afternoon we visit Trongsa Dzong—spectacularly sited overlooking the precipitous ravine of the Mangde River—and Ta Dzong, the royal heritage museum. (BLD)

Day 13
A 6-hour drive returns us to Thimphu, with stops for lunch and photo opportunities en route. (BLD)

Day 14
In the morning we drive to Paro, stopping at Simkotha Dzong, one of the oldest in Bhutan. Later we visit the National Museum of Bhutan, housed in a watchtower built in 1649. Nearby is imposing Paro (Rinpung) Dzong, towering over the town on a steep hillside and reached by a picturesque covered bridge. (BLD)

Day 15
Perched on a sheer cliff at 10,200 feet above the Paro Valley, Takstang Monastery (the Tiger’s Nest), Bhutan’s most iconic dzong, is our destination today. This site has long been recognized by innumerable pilgrims as a place of incredible religious significance. The Tiger’s Nest is only accessible by foot or horseback—we hike up through pine forest to reach the retreat, stopping for lunch at a teahouse midway. (BLD)

Day 16
We transfer to the Paro airport for our return flight Bangkok and transfer to our airport hotel. (BLD)

Day 17 (Oct 7)
Depart Bangkok for home. (B)

Accommodations are slowly being developed in Bhutan, and although better than 7 to 10 years ago, some hotels may lack the service and quality of international hotels. In remote areas it may be necessary to stay in a guesthouse where bathroom facilities will be shared.

Activity Advisory Our Bhutan Photo Safari has a high altitude component of 10,000 feet above sea level at two photo locations. One excursion while traveling between photo locations may reach 12,000 feet for a short time during the drive. Expect several extended periods of hiking on dirt trails to religious shrines situated in remote locations.
Print this Page

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Enrollment Information

The Isolated Kingdom of Bhutan

Sep 21, 2020 - Oct 07, 2020

A deposit and completed and signed Registration Form are required to reserve a place for you on a Joseph Van Os Photo Safari.


All prices are quoted in US dollars and all payments must be paid in US dollars. For deposits only, we accept Visa,  MasterCard or American Express. Final payment of the trip fee must be paid by check or bank transfer. Trip deposits are non-refundable and non-transferable.
A deposit of $800 per person is required. Full payment of the trip fee is due 120 days prior to departure date. We must receive written notice of your cancellation, at which time cancellation fees in the following amounts apply:

If Written Cancellation is Received:                                                Cancellation Fee:
90 days or prior:                                                                                  100% of deposit
89 to 61 days prior:                                                                             50% of entire trip fee
60 or fewer days:                                                                                100% of entire trip fee
Emergency evacuation insurance is REQUIRED for this tour. As noted in Section 3 below, we send a brochure for trip insurance to US and Canadian residents. The policy offered includes the emergency evacuation coverage required for this trip. Participants purchasing trip insurance on their own—that is, not through our office—should confirm that emergency evacuation is included in their policy.

No partial refunds are made for unused portions or services of a trip for any reason whatsoever. Trips are sold as a package only. This policy also applies to tour extensions and independent travel arrangements. Cancellation fees are not transferable.

Protect your travel investment and purchase a trip insurance policy that includes emergency evacuation coverage. A trip insurance brochure will be sent with your enrollment confirmation.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris are within the capabilities of average people in good health. Some of these trips require the capability of walking for several miles over uneven trails, stepping from a small boat to a wave-washed rocky beach, flying in small planes and helicopters, and occasionally hiking at high elevations—all while carrying an assortment of camera equipment. If you have concerns about your own capabilities and/or fitness as it relates to a trip, please inquire with our office before reserving a space. By forwarding a signed Registration Form and trip deposit, you certify that you do not knowingly have any physical or other conditions of disability that would create a risk for you or other trip participants and you agree to inform our office in writing if changes in your health occur any time prior to the tour. We reserve the right to request a doctor's statement of good health. The company's or trip leader's judgment shall provide the ultimate determination of an individual's ability to embark upon or to continue a trip. Once a trip has been confirmed, medical circumstances will not be considered as exceptions to our cancellation policy. We assume no responsibility for medical care or for special dietary requirements. “Meatless” meals are normally available at most locations. Due to the remote nature of many photo locations, and the growing diversity of today’s dietary trends, participants requiring special food items are encouraged to bring their own.

Tour members are asked to refrain from smoking with or near the group.

Participants will receive three emails before the trip departs: 1. Initial Tour Information sheet confirms the deposit and provides pre-departure information. 2. Invoice/Practical Information provides clothing and photo gear recommendations, climate data, applicable health advisories and reading list. Visa information will also be included (if applicable). 3. Final Tour Information includes arrival instructions, itinerary revisions (if any), hotel addresses, trip telephone contact information and participant list. We provide the trip leader's telephone number(s) and/or e-mail address with final documents so you can inquire about special photographic questions you may have regarding your trip. We welcome your calls or e-mail messages to

Information supplied upon enrollment describes the specific costs that are included in your trip fee. Generally these costs include lodging in double room occupancy, all meals (specified in the itinerary as BLD denoting breakfast, lunch or dinner), ground transportation during the trip in vans or small busses, air transportation as specified, meal and baggage tipping, and guide services provided by the trip leaders. Not included are airfare or other transportation from your home to the trip staging location, airport departure taxes, insurance, alcoholic beverages and bar expenses (plus bottled water and soft drink expenses on international tours outside of North America), tips and gratuities to local guides abroad, phone calls, passport or visa expenses, laundry or items of a personal nature. Gratuities to Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris trip leaders are optional and always appreciated. Rates are based on group tariffs; if the trip does not have sufficient registration, a small party supplement may be charged.

Single accommodations are available for a supplemental cost in many locations; see the pre-departure trip information or call our office for details. You will be charged the single supplement fee if you desire single accommodations or if you wish to have a roommate, but one is not available. In some remote locations, clients with single rooms are infrequently compelled to share a room due to circumstances beyond our control. In such cases, appropriate per diem refunds will be made reflecting the direct cost of the single room at the facility where clients are required to share. There is no additional single supplement fee on ship-based cruises, if you request a roommate and one is not available.

Cost increases may occur unexpectedly due to rising costs of airfares, ground transport, fuel surcharges, accommodations and currency fluctuations, among others. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. may be compelled to amend prices, and we reserve the right to do so without prior notice. An increase in trip prices shall not be sufficient grounds for any refund of funds paid for the trip other than as determined by the terms of our cancellation policy.

Whenever possible, our trip participants are lodged in comfortable, modern hotels. We select among the best available accommodations, but refrain from extravagance. Some interesting photographic destinations are far removed from modern amenities, however, and where necessary we will be accommodated in rustic country inns, cabins or tented camps.

Meals are always a special part of our trips for the camaraderie they engender and the opportunity they provide to try new foods from different areas. Depending on the trip and specific locale, participants order restaurant meals from the full menu or, less frequently, table d'hôte. Some trips include picnic lunches in the field. Fruit juice for breakfast and coffee or tea are included with the meals. Soft drinks are included with meals on tours within North America. Participants are responsible for their own bar tab (including bottled water, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages on tours outside of North America) at restaurant lunches and dinners.

Our itineraries are intended as examples only. Participants should allow for flexibility due to changes in weather, natural history or cultural events, or other logistical arrangements deemed necessary by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. or our leaders.

The second tour leader (and any subsequent additional leaders) listed for each trip on the website will be added as the group size warrants. If only one space remains on a trip, and logistics permit, we accept two persons traveling together, even if it exceeds the trip maximum.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. and/or their Agents act only as agents for the passenger in regard to travel including, but not limited to, sightseeing, meals, lodging, transportation, and all other services whether by railroad, motorcar, motor coach, boat, ship or aircraft and they assume no liability for injury, damage, loss, accident, delay or irregularity which may be occasioned either by reason of defect in any vehicle or for any reason whatsoever, or through the acts or default of any company or person engaged in conveying the passenger or in carrying out the arrangements of the trip.

They can accept no responsibility for losses or additional expenses due to delay or changes in air or other services, sickness, weather, strike, war, volcanic eruption, terrorist acts, political unrest, quarantine or other causes. All such losses or expenses will have to be borne by the passenger, as trip fees provide for arrangements only for the times and locations stated. Baggage is at the owner's risk entirely.

The right is reserved to 1) substitute hotels of similar category for those indicated and to make any changes in the itinerary or transport where deemed necessary, or caused by changes in air schedules or equipment substitution; 2) cancel any trip prior to departure, in which case full refund of the paid trip funds will be given, but Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. is not responsible for any other trip preparation expenses such as penalized or non-refundable air tickets, visa fees and medical related expenses; 3) substitute trip leader(s) for the leader(s) originally specified, in which case the substitution is not a basis for participant cancellation or refund other than provided by our normal cancellation policy; or 4) accept or retain any person as a member of any trip.

Trip prices are based on tariffs and exchange rates in effect at the time of publication and are subject to adjustment in the event of any change therein.

A Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section must be signed by each participant prior to the commencement of the trip. Participation by any trip member will be declined in the absence of the signed Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section, with no trip fee refund. No modification to the Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section will be accepted.

Should Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., or anyone acting on their behalf be required to incur attorney's fees and costs to enforce this agreement, the enrolling trip participant(s) agree(s) to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. In the event a lawsuit is filed, the enrolling participant(s) agree(s) to do so solely in the County of Lewis in the State of Washington. Certain ship owners require the use of pre-printed ticket forms that limit the ship owner's and operator's liability. When such tickets are used, the passenger is bound by the terms of these tickets with respect to the passenger's legal relationship to the owners and operators of the ship, their agents (Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc.), and the ship's crew.

The Isolated Kingdom of Bhutan: Moderate Activity Level

Small bus travel.  This tour has a high altitude component of 10,000 feet above sea level at two photo locations. One excursion while driving between photo locations may reach 12,000 feet for a short time. Expect several extended periods of hiking on dirt trails to religious shrines situated in remote locations.  Optional "Tigers Nest" monastery hike is 4 miles round-trip with 1700 ft. elevation gain.  Horses are available for part of that hike.  Expect Spartan accommodators and lack luster food at some locations.

Trip Details
Sep 21 - Oct 07, 2020
Fee: $6,595 from Bangkok, Thailand
Deposit: $800
Limit: 12 participants
Activity Level: ModerateModerate
Bangkok-Paro-Bangkok flights arranged at additional cost; approximately $860 (economy)–$965 (business class)
  • Experience unique traditions and customs fast disappearing from the Himalayan world
  • Photograph the distinctive white-washed fortress architecture of many notable Buddhist dzongs and monasteries
  • Capture the color and spectacle of three of Bhutan’s autumn festivals
  • Create images of daily rural life still found in Bhutan’s quiet villages and farms
Tour Leaders
Eric Rock

Eric Rock

The magic of a JVO tour is: not only is the tour well organized and executed, but the type of customer is always well travelled, competent, educated and flexible. You can’t find a better group or way to travel.
   —R. La Bayne