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Gangtey (Phobjika) Valley Travel Guide

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Another day, and we were layering up for yet another adventure in Bhutan. Today, we are visiting Gangtey Valley. Gangtey Valley, also known as Phobjikha Valley, is a glacial valley located in the central part of Bhutan. Home to the region’s largest Nyingmapa monastery, endangered black-necked cranes, and numerous attractions and activities. In this Gangtey travel guide, explore the history, culture, nature, and adventures of Gangtey Valley.

Off we go around the mountains, through the forest, over the river. Gazing out the window almost as if the swaying trees hypnotised us. We wanted to stop every minute, either to soak in the beauty or capture it on our devices!

Below, you’ll find the must-visit sites in Gangtey and the best place to stay in Gangtey. Along with that, an anecdote of my time in Gangtey Valley. Let’s go on a trip to Gangtey, Bhutan.

Things to do in Gangtey (Phobjika) Valley

Go on the Gangtey nature trail

You will love the Gangtey Nature Trail, a popular hiking trail that offers panoramic views of the valley and its wildlife. The trail is approximately 5 km long and takes about 2 hours to complete. It starts from the Gangtey Monastery and concludes at Khewa Lhakhang, a temple near the main road. This trail winds through pine forests, meadows, streams, and villages, providing glimpses of cranes, deer, foxes, and more. The best time to visit is in autumn, with its golden and red hues, or winter, with its snowy embrace. Some interesting stops along the trail include Kumbhu Lhakhang, a temple dedicated to Sipey Gyalpo, and Damchen Lhakhang, crafted by Pema Lingpa’s grandson.

Visit the Gangtey Goempa

One of the main attractions of Gangtey Valley is the Gangtey Goempa or Gangtey Monastery. Perched on a hill, this 17th-century Buddhist monastery oversees the valley, providing a breathtaking view of the surroundings. It is the largest and the only Nyingmapa monastery in the region and follows the teachings of Pema Lingpa, a famous Nyingmapa saint. Renowned for its intricate architecture, exquisite paintings, and sacred relics. It is also the centre of religious and cultural activities in the valley, hosting annual festivals and events that attract thousands of pilgrims and tourists. The Gangtey Tshechu, a highly celebrated festival, takes place in October or November, showcasing vibrant mask dances and rituals. Another notable event is the Black-necked Crane Festival, occurring in November, dedicated to celebrating the cranes’ arrival in the valley.

Meet the Black-necked Cranes

Another highlight of Gangtey Valley is the black-necked cranes, or Trung Trung Karmo in the local language. These endangered migratory birds, arriving every winter from Tibet and China, stay until early spring in the valley. Locals revere and protect the cranes, believing in their role as the sixth Dalai Lama’s reincarnation, bringing blessings and prosperity. The best time to watch cranes is from November to February. The Black-necked Crane Information Centre, near the main valley entrance, is an ideal spot for observation. Offering education, a viewing deck, a telescope, and a camera for up-close observation, along with a library, souvenir shop, and cafeteria.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck National Park 

Spread across 1,730 sq km, this protected haven reveals diverse flora and fauna, harbouring endangered species. Nature enthusiasts can explore through trekking, camping, birdwatching, and photography. Encounter the red panda, Himalayan black bear, clouded leopard, golden langur, and majestic tiger in this untouched national treasure.

Gangtey Trek

Embark on a 90 km journey spanning three days, as the Gangtey Trek unfolds its natural wonders. Commencing in Gangtey and culminating in Tikke Zampa, the trek meanders through the charming villages of Gogona and Khotokha. Revel in panoramic views of mountains and valleys, immersing yourself in the rustic tapestry of Bhutanese life and culture. Ideal during the pleasant seasons from March to May or September to November, this trek promises not just a physical journey but a cultural odyssey.

Local cuisine and handicrafts

One of the best ways to experience the culture and lifestyle of Gangtey Valley is to try the local cuisine and handicrafts. The locals primarily base their cuisine on rice, buckwheat, potatoes, cheese, and chillies, infusing it with various spices and herbs. Some of the dishes that you should try are ema datshi, a spicy cheese and chilli stew, kewa datshi, a potato and cheese curry, puta, buckwheat noodles, and momos, steamed dumplings. Taste the local beverages, such as ara, a distilled liquor made from rice, wheat, or barley, or suja, a butter tea. Local artisans craft masks, bowls, carpets, shawls, and bags from wood, bamboo, wool, or silk. Buy these handmade treasures from local shops, and markets, or visit workshops and cooperatives where artisans work their magic.

Visit Gangtey: My Tale of Trails, Turnips, and Tranquil Marshlands

Envision a haven where silence reigns supreme. Majestic black mountains envelop the scene, and golden wetlands extend as far as the eye can fathom. The occasional melody of birdsong interrupts the symphony. Here, silence isn’t just a void; it’s a compelling presence, urging you to speak less, or maybe not at all. 

Sounds like a mythical place is it? Wait till you visit Gnagtey. And as our guide, Tashi said, “You haven’t been to Gangtey if you have not walked here.” Sceptical yet intrigued, we followed his lead. Our adventure began near Gangtey Monastery, where Tashi, with an air of nonchalance, suggested, ‘Let’s walk to the hotel?’ And so, our exploration unfolded.

Crossing the town, our eyes caught glimpses of the picturesque Gangtey Valley. Tashi, undeterred by the rocky trail, strolled in his formal leather shoes – a sight that struck us as both amusing and impressive. ‘Wow! Look at the sky,’ we exclaimed, ‘Look at those trees!’ We couldn’t resist the urge to roll down a grassy slope, embracing the pure joy of the moment.

Twenty minutes into our hike, the landscape transitioned into a valley of farmers, with fenced farmhouses scattered amidst nature’s bounty. As the trail narrowed, Tashi, always the storyteller, shared, ‘So the real trail begins now, and this is our only snack.’ Bursting into laughter, we accepted the plucked turnips from a kind farmer and began our adventure through the heart of Gangtey.

‘How do I wash this?’ I queried, holding up the turnip. Tashi, unfazed, simply bit into it, and I chuckled, ‘I am not so hungry anyway.’ The trail further narrowed, leaving behind farmhouses and cows, leading us around a mountain covered with a tapestry of pine and other trees. An hour later, the chill in the air signalled a shift in scenery, and we bit into the turnip, grinning at our newfound wilderness dining experience.

Reaching one of Gangtey’s scenic viewpoints, we witnessed the protected marshland below, where black-necked cranes soared gracefully. It was a moment of awe, contemplating a distant home and imagining life amid such serenity.

Capturing a few frames of the fluttering prayer flags, we continued our journey. ‘Where is our lodge, Tashi?’ we inquired. ‘Almost there, see Jamtsho over there?’ he pointed out. As we descended to the plain land, crossed a stream, and hopped into the waiting car, we drove a short distance to our lodge. The same distant home I’d seen from that viewpoint.

Gangtey had woven its magic on us! One step at a time, leaving us with memories of turnip snacks, pine-covered trails, and the soul-soothing presence of black-necked cranes. What an extraordinary adventure.

Where to stay in Gangtey

Ever wondered what it’s like to live in the middle of nowhere? I got a taste of it for a day, and now, I’m yearning for more – perhaps, forever?

If you find yourself in Gangtey, this is the place to be. Wangchuk Lodge sits on the edge of the forest and wetland, offering a mesmerizing view of the protected area. Remember that house we spotted on the trail? Well, it turns out, that was our lodge. 

With 8 cosy rooms, each accommodating 2 to 3 guests, a communal dining area that moonlights as a black-necked crane observatory. And a staff that’s as warm as the fireplace, this lodge is a gem. The food is not just hearty but downright delicious. 

I spent a lot of my time in the dining area, where I cosied up with a book by the heater, sipping on ginger lemon tea. Occasionally pausing to spot some of the area’s vulnerable bird species, especially the graceful black-necked crane.

Planning a trip to Bhutan? Read also:

Bhutan Travel Guide

Punakha

Vegetarian Food in Bhutan

Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey Into Bhutan by Jamie Zeppa

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