Bhutan: New Views of the Buddhist Kingdom
with Sean Kernan and Jock Montgomery
May 9–21, 2016: 13 day photography tour and creative workshop
Your first experience of Bhutan is extraordinary. Flying in via Druk Royal Bhutanese airlines you land in a deep, wide valley surrounded by distant Himalayan peaks on a single cement runway. This is your 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 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 on the runway set in a verdant valley, surrounded by steep hills and billowing clouds? Don’t succumb. Focus on something nondescript, mid-distance to the horizon. Let your attention drift to the periphery. Try to absorb the vast panorama opening up before you. As you walk toward the terminal, contain your excitement. Let your thoughts absorb the full extent of the vision. Gather in everything from a bird soaring in the distance to a 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. As a photographer, writer, and teacher, he knows how to turn photographers into creative artists, challenge those already accomplished in their craft, and give new direction to anyone open to a new approach. Placing his unique creative practice in a context like Bhutan is how an extraordinary experience can be made into something only a camera in the hands of someone in a creative state can capture.
Accompanying Sean will be 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 two-thousand-year-old tradition, a person whirling around behind a colorful wooden mask is not just an accomplished dancer but a connection to a culture and way of life few of us experience.
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.
Sean Kernan discusses the creative process and his unique approach to photography
As photographers Jock and Sean think the best ‘seeing’ happens when we wander. Our job is to make this happen and support each participant. We will also offer provocative assignment ideas and exercises designed to get us past our habits.
The focus will be on working with understanding light, defining composition, and creating compelling content. As you work towards 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 arrange to have feedback sessions and reviews, both group and personal.
- Learning from internationally renowned writer, photographer, and teacher Sean Kernan and photographer and adventure travel guide Jock Montgomery
- Photograph the major Buddhist fortified monasteries and temples in western and central Bhutan
- Camp beside a remote monastery where we have special access to photograph private Buddhist ritual dances
- Take-in the extraordinary forests, people and places as we cross five major passes above 2,800m
- Partake in a private Buddhist festival featuring cham dancing, monastic chanting, colorful clothes, and intricately carved masks
- Hike to and photograph the famous Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery, perched on a sheer 800m cliff
- Enjoy sunrise photography at the Chele La, a 3,811m pass with spectacular Himalayan views of Bhutan’s two most famous peaks
by Sean Kernan
Day 1: Thimpu
Arrive at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok at 4:50am for a 6:50am flight to Paro, Bhutan. A company representative will meet you. You should plan on staying at a hotel near the airport the night before. We recommend the Novotel Airport Hotel. If prefer to fly into Paro from another location serviced by Druk Royal Bhutanese Airlines (Delhi India, for instance), please contact us.
On the flight in, you 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. We visit our first dzong; these are fortified structures that now serve as monasteries, government offices, or both.
We cross a traditional cantilevered bridge and make our way towards the town of Paro and have lunch. We 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, the national library, or the post office–which has the largest collection of active postage stamps of any country in the world.
We have dinner at either our hotel or a local restaurant. Jock and Sean will give an introductory briefing about the tour.
Day 2: 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. If the weather is clear there is a 30 kilometer wide, spectacular panoramic view of the Bhutanese Himalayas. At the pass, the hillsides are covered with hemlock, cypress, rhododendron and magnolia trees.
Just below the pass, we stop for tea and then proceed downhill for almost 50 kilometers to the Punakha valley. We check into our hotel and spend the afternoon reviewing photographs and doing some exercises with Sean and Jock.
Day 3: Punakha
In the morning, we head across a swinging bridge and up the hillside to the huge Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten on the side of a hill. This stupa was built by the Queen Mother to honor all Bhutanese citizens. Inside is an imposing huge three-dimensional mandala, which symbolizes the Buddhist “wheel of life.” From the rooftop there is a beautiful view of rice fields, scattered homes, and the Po Chu winding its way down the valley.
In late afternoon, if time allows, we will visit the huge Punakha Dzong, If the Je Khenpo (head Abbott), is not in residence then we should be allowed to enter the main chanting hall. The hall, recently restored and enlarged, is one of Bhutan’s most stunning Buddhist sites. We may also make a stop to visit a school or a village.
In the evening, we return to our hotel in Punakha.
Day 4: 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 will 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 3,400-meters. In clear weather, there is a view of Chomolhari at 7,219 meters, Bhutan’s most famous sacred mountain. We then begin a 1,500-meter descent into Trongsa, stopping on the way at a restaurant near the Chendibji Stupa–with the familiar Nepalese eyes of Buddha near the top.
Late afternoon we pass through some charming villages and agricultural landscapes. Beyond the bridge at Nikkachu village much of the road has been cut into the cliff side 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: 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 and its sprawling medieval village-like interior. We will wander around interesting alleyways and rooms and listen to monks chanting. Every step offers a unique photo opportunity.
Later, we will visit then the seven-story tall Ta Dzong, another fortified monastery with three huge watchtowers recently restored and made into a museum.
In the evening, we will have time to continue our workshop exercises and photo reviews.
Day 6: 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 with an abbot and a dozen monks.
We camp in tents beside the monastery. All meals will be served within the monastic compound. Only a handful of foreign whitewater kayaking groups have ever stayed here. We will receive an incredibly warm welcome from the curious monks and villagers. The food is excellent and prepared by a chef from Thimphu.
Later in the day, Sean and Jock will share some of their photographs and experiences at several Tibetan monasteries.
Day 7: Endocholing
We will 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 instruction that can be used later in the day to photograph a ritual, Buddhist dance ceremony. We have arranged for the monks to allow us access before and after the performance as they put on their traditional robes, masks, and Cham dancing garments. This is a rare photographic opportunity. Jock will bring a printer so we can share prints of our work with the monks and locals.
There are also options to go on easy walks from here, perhaps to see the rare golden langur monkeys.
Day 8: Bumthang
In the morning we drive north, back to Trongsa through the cypress forests found in cooler climates and up toward our first pass, Yotung La. We will 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 into an extensive blue pine forest and 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. We can wander about town as well as edit our photographs.
Day 9 & 10: Bumthang
Today and tomorrow, we visit many of the numerous Buddhist monasteries, and temples that dot the Bumthang valley. We will pause, take time to engage with the spirit of these special places, and allow pilgrims and local worshippers alike to welcome us.
Nearby are an impromptu market and we can call on private homes (owned by relatives of our guide Karma), presenting opportunities to photograph people and daily life. In the town of Jakar we can visit some great small shops, eateries and even a pool hall that local monks frequent!
We may also go to the Burning Lake where the Tang Chu passes through a narrow canyon adorned with hundreds of prayer flags; or we can also visit another gorgeous, quintessentially Bhutanese village called Ura.
Day 11: Paro
In the morning, we fly to Paro and check into our hotel.
In the afternoon, we visit some sites in Paro and then drive up to the highest pass in Bhutan, Chele La, at 3,810-meters. We will hike around, taking in the spectacular scenery and photographing a stunning sunset.
At the hotel, we will have a chance to make edits to our photographs before the next evening’s final show.
Day 12: Paro
After a leisurely morning, we will 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 three months.
After a picnic lunch, we arrive at the monastery in the late afternoon when the light will be optimal. The seven kilometer walk, along steep has a wide trail, is perched 800-meters above the valley floor, offering spectacular views. After passing a 20-meter high waterfall, we will receive a permit to visit the temple interior where we will see a private meditation quarters for elderly monks.
In the evening, we will have our final dinner and slide slow.
Day 13: Paro
We bid our goodbyes to our local staff and board our homeward bound flight. Flight times to be announced.
In 1983, Jock moved to Nepal to train raft guides and lead river expeditions and treks across much of the Himalayas. He was based in Kathmandu for twelve years and now makes his home in Bangkok, Thailand.
He has been leading trips in the United States since he was a teenager. He now leads river running, sea kayaking, trekking and mountain biking trips; as well as expeditions across the Himalayas, throughout Southeast Asia, North America, Greenland, Patagonia, Ecuador and the Galapagos islands.
He is in demand as a commercial and editorial assignment photographer. He teaches and leads private photography workshops throughout Asia.
Sean Kernan is a photographer, writer, and teacher who came to photography from theater.
He has exhibited at galleries and museums in the U.S., France, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and Korea. He is the author of two monographs, The Secret Books (with Jorge Luis Borges) and Among Trees.
His photos and articles have been published in numerous magazines in the U.S. and Europe.
Karma Tshering. Karma is a licensed, high altitude trekking, mountain biking and cultural guide and he has been leading trips since 1998.
Karma is extremely outgoing and friendly, and he has great enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge of Bhutan’s history, people, language and religion. He is a strong rider and when time allows he’ll gladly ride with us.
November 18 – 30, 2015
Prices (in US$)
- $800/single supplement
- $975 round trip from Bangkok. Contact us if you wish to arrive in Paro, Bhutan from another location.
- This trip will have 8 – 12 participants.
- Deposit: $1,500 (non-refundable)
- Balance Due: 90 days prior to departure
- 61-90 days prior to departure 50% of trip cost
- 60 days or less prior to departure 100% of trip cost
What is Included
- Round trip flight from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan
- Domestic flights inside Bhutan
- All ground transportation inside our destination(s)
- All entrance and photography fees
- Bhutanese Visa
- Hotel porter tips
- All meals except first and last day as noted in itinerary
- Bottled water, tea and coffee with meals
- Accommodation as specified
What is not included
- Travel insurance is required for emergency medical needs. Trip cancellation insurance is strongly recommended
- International airfare into Bangkok
- Customary and optional tips for local guides
- Personal expenses including laundry, snacks, drinks, alcohol, etcetera
- Overweight luggage charges
1) Send Deposit
2) Complete Trip Application Form
Download and complete the form below. Send it using the email on the form.
3) Purchase Travel Health Insurance
Traveler’s health insurance is required for all Compass Rose Expedition trips.
We strongly recommend trip cancellation insurance.
4) Send Copy of Passport
We need a copy of your passport to make reservations. Send a copy of the main page (the one with your photo) to the same email as listed on the Trip Application Form.