Eastern Bhutan is one of the least explored regions of the kingdom and offers one of most authentic experiences for adventure-oriented tourists. The entire region is awash in unspoiled natural beauty, towering cliffs and pristine forests with great variations in altitude and climatic conditions.
In addition to the regular Buddhist festivals, travellers to Eastern Bhutan will be able to experience some of the country’s most ancient spiritual practices while observing Animistic and Bon religious rituals.
The lush, breathtaking environments of the eastern region make it a perfect location for day hikes or longer treks. Accommodations in this rural area are a bit more Spartan than other parts of country but with the option to either camp out beneath an ocean of stars or experience the unbridled warmth and hospitality of the locals during a homestay you’ll never miss the comforts of your hotel room.
The Eastern circuit includes the districts of Mongar, Lhuntse, Tashi Yangtse and Tashigang
Trashigang: The Jewel of the East – Trashigang spans the easternmost corners of the kingdom, skirting up to the edge of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is the country’s largest district, with an altitude ranging from 600m to over 4000m.
Bhutan’s largest river, the Dangmechu, flows through this district. Trashigang town is set on a scenic hillside and was once a bustling trade center for merchants looking to barter their goods in Tibet.
Today it is the junction of the East-West highway, with road connections to Samdrup Jongkhar and then into the Indian state of Assam. Trashigang town is also the principle market place for the semi-nomadic people of Merak and Sakteng, whose unique way of dress stands out from the regular Bhutanese Gho and Kira.
Trashigang Dzong or ‘The Fortress of the Auspicious Hill’ was built in 1659, to defend against Tibetan invasions. This imposing fortress is strategically situated high atop a spur overlooking the Dangmechu River. According to legend it is said that upon seeing the Dzong, invading Tibetan armies remarked that the Dzong was “not on the ground. It is a Sky Dzong” before retreating. It has been the political stronghold of Eastern Bhutan for over 300 years.
Mount Meru is the site of the palace of the Druk Chhoglay Namgyal (victory of Bhutanese Over enemies in all directions). It is accessible only from the north, via a narrow road, paved by blasting through the cliff-side. Due to its location Trashigang Dzong is one of the most strategically placed Dzongs in Bhutan. The present Dzong was enlarged by Dzongpon Dopola, in 1936.
Trashigang Dzongkhag is the largest district in the country. Its aboriginal inhabitants are known as the Tshanglas. Trashigang dzong sits majestically on a high ridge overlooking the Dangmechu and the Gamrichu.
It was built in 1651 and over the years has played a crucial role as the administrative center of the district. In the 17th century it was also essential in defending the province as it withstood several Tibetan attacks that were launched from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.
Every village in the district has its own distinctive annual festival but the highlight is the three day Tshechu that is held in Trashigang Dzong during the 7th to 11th days of the tenth month of the Bhutanese calendar (December). The Tshechu is attended by the Brokpas, a semi-nomadic people that reside in the valleys of Merak and Sakteng, the Khengpa community and people from as far as Samdrup Jongkhar, Pema Gatshel and Trashiyangtse.
Preparations for the Tshechu begin 2 days prior to the actual festival. On the 7th day of the month the monks perform ceremonial ablutions or thrue. On the 8th they have rehearsals in preparation for the Tshechu. Then on the 9th of the month the Tshechu begins proper. On the 10th day the Thongdrol of Neten Chudrug (Sixteen Arhats) is unfurled amidst a flurry of mask dances. On the final day, the old Thongdrol of Guru Tshengyed is displayed. The unfurling is accompanied by the performance of Guru Tshengyed Chhams.
One of the newest dzongkhags (district) in the country, Trashiyangtse was established as a distinct district in 1992 and spans 1,437 sq km of sub-tropical and alpine forests. With its wealth of natural, historical and cultural resources Trashiyangtse is destination that visitors to Bhutan will never forget.
Trashi Yangtse: Elevation 1750-1880m
A 2 hour drive from Trashigang is Chorten Kora, modeled after Boudhanath stupa in Nepal, where local people and Dakpa people from Arunachal Pradesh (India) gather in February/March for a festival to circumambulate the chorten. A similar festival in Gom Kora takes place 10 days later. Bumdeling to the north is home to wintering black-necked cranes and to Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory, the national butterfly of Bhutan. Important religious sites are found all over the Dzongkhag and include Pemaling in the alpine area; Rigsum Gonpa, Dechenphodrang ney and Omba ney (the Taktshang of East Bhutan) between 2000 and 3000m, and Gongza ney and Gom Kora along the Drangme Chu (800-900m).
Trashiyangtse is an ethnically and culturally diverse district and the inhabitants include Yangtseps the regions indigenous dwellers, Tshanglas, Bramis from Tawang, Khengpas from Zhemgang and Kurtoeps from Lhuentse. This rich cultural tapestry has resulted in an interesting mix of languages and cultural practices in the region.
The people of the region have developed incredible skill at woodworking and paper making. The items they produce such as traditional wooden bowls are prized throughout the country. An Institute for 13 Arts and Crafts (Zorig Chusum) has been established in the region leading to a greater number of skilled artisans.
Bomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary is located in north-western part of Bhutan and covers an area of 1,545 sq. km with 420 sq. It has one of the richest temperate Fir forests in the eastern Himalayas and provides an ideal protected habitat for big cats like Tigers and Leopards.
The district is also home to a number of other rare animals including Barking Deer, Himalayan Black Bears, Red Pandas and hundreds of Black Necked Cranes that migrate to the region every winter.
Chorten Kora Festival
The Chorten Kora Festival is set in Trashiyangtse, the easternmost district of Bhutan. To arrive in Trashiyangtse you must drive for two hours from Trashigang following the banks of Dangmechu and Kholungchu rivers.
Dakpa Kora is held on the 15th day of the 3rd month corresponding to 28th February and Drukpa Kora (circumbulation by the Bhutanese) is held on the 30th day corresponding to 15th March every year (Check with your tour operator to confirm these dates).
The Chorten (Stupa) was built by Lama Ngawang Loday in 1740on the site where a demon was subdued. The chorten was dedicated to the memory of his late uncle, Jungshu Pesan. It is believed to be a replica of the Boudhnath stupa in Nepal and was consecrated by the 13th chief Abbot of Bhutan Je Sherub Wangchuk. Today, it is considered one of the most important historical Buddhist structures.
It chorten was built so that pilgrims could visit the temple in Trashiyangtse instead of making a trip to Nepal. Further, a legend states that a young girl from Tawang, believed to have been a Khando (Dakini) agreed to be buried alive inside the Chorten. For this reason a ritual known as Dakpa Kora is organized every year where hundreds of people from Arunachal Pradesh known as the Dakpas make it to Chorten Kora to circumambulate.
In the north-eastern corner of Bhutan lies the ancient region of Kurtoe or Lhuntse as it is known today. It is the ancestral home of our Kings and hosts several of the sacred sites of pilgrimage in the country. It is located 77km from Mongar (3 hours’ drive) and is one of the most isolated districts in Bhutan.
The landscape is spectacular, with stark cliffs towering above river gorges and dense coniferous forests. The region is famous for its weavers, and their distinctive textiles are generally considered to be the best in the country. Kurtoep women are especially adept at weaving a textile called Kishuthara..
This mighty fortress, popularly known as Lhundub Rinchentse sits upon a hill overlooking the Kurichu River. It was constructed in 1654 by the Trongsa Penlop Chogyal Minjur Tempa upon the site of an older temple built by Nagi Wangchuk in 1552. Today the dzong is the administrative and the religious centre of the district. It houses many sacred artifacts that were installed by the 4th Druk Desi Tenzin Rabgay.
The tiny village of Kilung is a twenty minute drive from the Dzong on the route towards Kurtoe Dungkharg . This village is inhabited by the Tshanglas who migrated and settled here during the late 1880’s. In the village you will come across the Kilung Lhakhang situated on a ridge overlooking the Kurichu River. It was built on the former site of the Kilung Gyalpo, a regional chieftain. This temple houses the sacred chain mall that was once used to recapture a statue that miraculously flew away from the Lhuentse Dzong.
This is another monastery that is definitely worth paying a visit. It was founded in the 18th century by Pekar Gyatso and until recently was under the patronage of the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorji. The daughter of 1st King, Ashi Wangmo lived here at the monastery as a nun. The monastery is easily accessible from a feeder road.
The house of Dungkar, one of the noble lineages from Kurtoe was home to the Trongsa Penlop Jigme Namgyal, the father of the Wangchuck dynasty. Dungkar Naktshang the ancient home of the Dungkar Chojie and the ancestral home of the Wangchuck Dynasty, stands amid a scenic backdrop of towering mountains overlooking the tiny Dungkar village below. There is a 40km dirt road from Lhuentse leading up to Dungkar Lhakhang. The Dungkar expedition is an exciting and magical voyage into Bhutan’s past.
Gangzur village is situated around two kilometers from the Dzong. . This village is famous for its pottery as its women folk are skilled artisans of this dying art. The Government is now making efforts to revive it through financial support. When in Gangzur you will definitely want to witness the women displaying their skills.
This village is located about two hours walk from the Dzong. It is a pleasant journey taking you over gentle slopes amongst pine trees. This village is known throughout the country for its signature woven textile, the Kishuthara. The women sit in a row a makeshift textile cottage, weaving intricate designs and patterns. Picking up a Kishuthara here will be much cheaper than buying one from the handicraft shops in the capital.
Lhuenste is one of the easternmost districts in Bhutan and borders the autonomous region of Tibet. As the ancestral home of our Kings it hosts a number of important and sacred monuments. The most important amongst these is Lhuntse Dzong, a majestic fortress that sits upon a high ridge overlooking the Kurichu River.
A small hermitage and a temple was built in 1552 by Ngagi Wangchuk and later enlarged to its present state by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal.
Almost every village in Lhuntse boasts of festivals that are unique and distinct from those in other communities in Bhutan. Two notable festivals are the Cha and the Ha festivals. They are celebrated to honor the deities and avert misfortunes. However, the most important festival is the annual three day festival. The Tshechu is normally celebrated in the month of November and draws large numbers of people together for the religious celebrations. During the Tshechus attendees can cleanse their sins by watching masked dances and can also receive blessings from sacred relics that are publicly displayed.
One of the most interesting and visually appealing aspects of these Tshechus is the colourful attire of Kushithara that Lhuentse is famous for. You will come across various intricate and beautiful patterns of Kira and rich ornaments on display.