Bhutan High School Expedition

Set out on a journey through magical Bhutan, the secluded “Kingdom in the Clouds.” Nestled within lush Himalayan valleys, this tiny Buddhist nation has slowly opened its doors to visitors, and we’re invited to experience its timeless way of life and centuries-old traditions. Hike between mountain villages, meet nuns and monks at temples and fortress monasteries, and get acquainted with farmers, artists, local leaders, and Bhutanese youth.

July 6 - July 19, 2019
Airfare is not included. We have arranged group flights from New York to Paro, Paro to Bumthang, and return to New York.

Trip Highlights

  • Climb to Bhutan’s crowning jewel, the iconic Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and record your experience in an essay or photographs.
  • Weave traditional textiles with local artisans, participate in a masked folk dance, and beat a Bhutanese drum during a chanting ceremony at a nunnery.
  • Aim your bow in an archery competition with local marksmen, and cheer on professionals at the National Archery grounds.
  • Hike through mountain forests and glacial valleys, and meet farming families for a firsthand look at daily life in these remote Himalayan landscapes.

Itinerary | 14 days

Days 1-3

Tucked in a valley amid the sky-scraping peaks of the Himalaya, Paro is the starting point for our expedition through Bhutan. Browse local crafts at artisan markets, visit the seventh-century Kyichu Lhakhang temple, and hike through emerald rice fields that blanket the valley floor. Get outfitted in ornately colored gho and kira, the Bhutanese national dress, which you will wear for formal occasions throughout the trip. Then set off into the country’s spiritual heartland.

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Days 4-5

Fly to Bumthang, home to Buddhist sites 
that date back more than a thousand years. Step inside the imposing walls of the hilltop Jakar Dzong—a fortress monastery and seat of government for Bhutan’s royal dynasty. In palace courtyards, learn the art of traditional masked cham dancing, and beat a Bhutanese drum during a chanting ceremony at a nunnery. Delve into the sacred significance of the Himalaya on a visit to a seventh-century royal Tibetan monastery, where monks will guide you through an elaborate cake-making ceremony to cleanse bad omens. Join a family in their kitchen and learn how to prepare handmade noodles and momos, dumplings made with buckwheat grown in the fields surrounding Bumthang.

Day 6-7

Follow the east-west trade route from Bumthang to the town of Trongsa, and explore the nation’s largest dzong. As you navigate its labyrinth of passages, learn about Bhutan’s historic and modern political structure, and discuss contemporary Bhutanese life. The next day, travel to Phobjikha, a pristine glacial valley at the base of the Black Mountains. Hike through virgin forests, and learn from rural farmers how to make fresh cheese, traditional butter tea, and hot chili dishes. Interview Bhutanese families about the recent introduction of television to rural villages or the country’s new democratic political structure.

Days 8-9

Spend two days discovering Punakha, the old royal capital of Bhutan. Explore the rice paddies surrounding the stunning Punakha Dzong, and interview villagers to get a local perspective on the country’s Gross National Happiness Index. Try your hand at traditional Bhutanese archery, then hike to the Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Temple for a bird’s eye view of the river valley below before camping on the riverside. Join Bhutanese high school students for a pick-up game of basketball or a volleyball match, and spend your evenings relaxing around a bonfire.

Days 10-11

Cross over the Dochula mountain pass, where we’ll hoist prayer flags during a traditional ceremony. Continue to Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city. Browse the bustling weekend market, and cheer on professional archers on the National Archery grounds. At the Bhutan Textile Museum and Academy, practice weaving alongside local artists, and meet artisans who create traditional jewelry or handmade paper. Enjoy a special opportunity to dine with government officials and discuss the evolution of the Gross National Happiness project.

Days 12-14

Our expedition culminates at the kingdom’s iconic landmark: the Taktsang Lhakhang, or Tiger’s Nest Monastery. Make the steep climb to this pilgrimage site, perched on a cliff face nearly 3,000 feet above the Paro Valley floor. Or opt to hike to a nearby viewpoint to photograph this stunning structure. Return to Paro for a farewell dinner at a family-run farm, and present your On Assignment project before flying home.

Our high school expeditions are for students in grades 9-12, and offer opportunities to get out into the field and discover fascinating destinations across the globe through the lens of an On Assignment project. Each expedition offers a choice of two or three areas of focus, such as photography, geology, or wildlife conservation. Students travel alongside a team of highly-qualified trip leaders—college graduates with extensive experience in the field, who love working with students. A National Geographic expert joins for a portion of the trip (four to eight days) to share their insights, and inspire students with their passion for the work they do and the places they will discover. The group size ranges between 14 and 28 participants, and the student-to-trip-leader ratio is usually between six and eight to one and never more than nine to one.
We will be traveling at high elevations ranging from approximately 7,000 to 10,000 feet. The expedition includes several full-day hikes at high elevations. To get the most out of the program, students should be physically fit and enthusiastic about outdoor exploration.
Throughout the expedition we stay in simple guesthouses and hotels. In Punakha, we spend two nights camping in tents.

Ashima Narain, Photographer & Filmmaker

Meet Our Experts

Photographer and filmmaker Ashima Narain is the former editor for National Geographic Traveler (India). She has covered a diverse range of topics that have sent her wading through mudflats in search of flamingos in Mumbai, hiding out in bear caves, climbing sail masts mid-sea, dining with Maharajas, and documenting the conditions of sari weavers in the holy city of Varanasi. In 2017, Time named Ashima one of the “34 women photographers to follow now.” Ashima was a judge on the first ever photography-based reality show on the National Geographic Channel, called Mission Covershot and her work has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, Marie Claire, Elle, and Teen People. Ashima will join the group in Punakha, Thimphu, and Paro.

On Assignment Projects

Tell the stories of Bhutan through photography. Practice landscape shots on rippling rice paddies and the soaring Himalaya, take portraits of people in traditional Bhutanese dress, and capture the spirit of a masked folk dance. There is a supplemental fee of $150 for this On Assignment project.
Hone your storytelling skills, finding creative inspiration in Bhutan’s culture and scenery. Pen an essay illustrating the atmosphere of an archery competition, write poetry from a mountain perch, or craft a narrative about modern-day royals.
Discover firsthand how Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) initiative has become a model for measuring progress, and gain perspective from locals on how increased contact with the global community is affecting traditional life.