This unique journey takes us into two deeply contrasting cultures and lets us bring them together through our photography. It takes us well beyond the usual sights and into the life of two different worlds, the iconic city of Calcutta and the Kingdom of Bhutan, where we will explore our own creativity and ways to make photographs from our experiences. Either of these places would make a fascinating destination, but bringing them together makes for a truly powerful experience.
- We’ve designed this journey specifically with photography in mind—to take advantage of the awesome landscapes, the warm morning and afternoon light, and to create opportunities to photograph and engage with local Bhutanese.
- Fine tune your esthetic eye and improve your photography skills with instruction and friendly critiques from Sean and Jock.
- All levels of photographers are welcome, as well as non-photographing spouses.
- Three full days of street photography in Kolkata, with colorful markets and temples, colonial architecture and old neighborhoods
- Visit the artisan’s colony at Kumartali just prior to the Hindu festival of Durga Puja
- Photograph all the major Buddhist fortified monasteries and temples in western and central Bhutan
- Camp beside a remote monastery where we have special access to shoot portraits of monks and local villagers
- Take-in the extraordinary forests, people and places as we cross five major passes above 2,800m (9,000’)
- Partake in three major Buddhist festivals with chanting, and colorful religious and cultural dances
- Homestay in a remote village with unique opportunities to photograph farmers and their village life
- Hike to and photograph the famous Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Monastery, perched on a sheer 800m cliff
- Camp overnight at the Chele La/Pass 3,811m with spectacular Himalayan views of Bhutan’s two most famous peaks
As photographers Jock and Sean think the best seeing happens when we wander, and our job is to make that happen and support participants in it. To help with it, we will also offer some provocative assignment ideas and exercises that are designed to get us past our habits of seeing. The focus will be on working with and “seeing the light,” defining your composition, and creating compelling content. As you work towards nurturing your shooting style, you’ll learn how to take in and personalize those breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities.
Photography Reviews and Critiques
Throughout the workshop we will arrange to have feedback sessions and reviews, both group and personal, of the work we do as we go. The idea is to respond to our pictures at the time, rather than waiting until after the trip, so that we can refine our shooting when we have a chance to do something about it.
The Photographer’s Open Eyes
Being flexible and open to the new opportunities that will be all around us is the cornerstone to seeking out and shooting compelling photographs. It's also the reason for this trip. Consider the following itinerary as an outline, and we’ll make every effort to keep our plans flexible so we can take full advantage of photographic opportunities as they arise. A photography tour is defined in great part by the participants, and we’ll work together as a group to help each other make the most of the.
You’ll certainly notice that the itinerary is packed with activities; and in order to make sure we have time to for editing and critiques, we may need to make changes on the spot. Unusual and surprising events appear out of nowhere like magic, and that’s just what we want. So we’ll keep our schedule and mental attitudes flexible and look for surprises woven into the framework of our plans.
Day 1, 9/25 arrive on your own Calcutta/Kolkata
Jock will already be in Calcutta at our hotel. Hopefully most of you will arrive earlier in the day so you have time to take it easy. We can all meet for a group dinner in the early evening. We stay at one of the colonial hotels, which have great character and is conveniently in the heart of the old city the Fairlawn Hotel or similar (D)
Days 2—4, 9/26—28 three full days of immersion in the wonders of Kolkata
Kolkata is one of the most colorful and culturally exciting cities on the planet. It’s also crowded, noisy, and hot, but that’s all a part of the exotic charm! We’ll spend time hanging out and photographing in places like the Hooghly Flower Market, the bustling train station, the striking Zoroastrian Fire Temple, and in the historically significant Jewish, Chinese and Portuguese neighborhoods. The trip is timed so that we are in Calcutta just prior to Hindu Durga Puja Festival, so we will visit the artisan’s colony at Kumartali where images large and small of Durga are being made. Such a situation can be overwhelming…and that’s part of the reason to be there. But in order to give us a starting point we will begin with a few simple exercises that will give us a framework in which to begin our photography. Fairlawn Hotel or similar (B,L,D)
Day 5, 9/29 fly to Paro Bhutan and tour the valley
We board a morning flight to the mountain airport in Paro Bhutan (at 2,35m). There are fabulous views of Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga (the world’s third highest mountain), and many of Bhutan’s sacred mountains are visible, including Chomolhari and Jichu Drake.
After completing visa formalities, we meet our local guide, Karma Tshering, and head straight away on a walk. On the way we visit the Ta Dzong, a 17th century fortress, that is now the national museum. This round tower used to serve as a watchtower for invasions from Tibet. The museum has a large collection of Bhutanese antiquities.
We continue on our walk past the imposing Paro Dzong (Dzong means fortress). In Bhutan a dzong serves to this day as both a monastery and government administrative offices. We cross a traditional cantilevered bridge and make our way towards Paro town. On the way we will pass the Ugyen-Perlir, a small palace belonging to the Royal family and if luck is with us we might find local men engaged in one of the popular archery tournaments. Archery is the national sport in Bhutan and most men grow up learning to shoot either with traditional bamboo two-piece bows or nowadays the more popular compound carbon fiber bows. It’s a short walk from here into town where we have lunch.
This afternoon we drive two hours to the nation’s capital, Thimphu and depending on time we visit some of the sites and have a chance to do some street photography and perhaps some shopping. We may visit the traditional medicine hospital, the Dechenprhdrang Monastic School, or the national library. There are many small shops selling Bhutanese textiles, Buddhist art, masks and the like. It’s worth noting that Bhutan is a great place to send postcards from! Bhutan probably has the largest collection of active postage stamps of any country in the world. The post office sells collector’s stamp books that make a great gift and of course you’ll find an amazing selection to send home. We have dinner at either our hotel or a local restaurant. Druk Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 6, 9/30 Thimphu Drubchen Buddhist festival, and the Punakha Valley
We rise early and make our way to Thimphu’s Tashichho Dzong and the performance of the Thimphu Drubchen. Here monks wearing sacred masks and colorful outfits, dance in dedication to Pelden Lhamo, the protective deity of Bhutan.
We then drive on the main two-lane meandering "highway" that will take us most of the way across Bhutan. It’s only about 16k to the Dochu La, but it’s a windy up, up, up all the way. We’ll be driving through mixed maple, oak and chir pine forests. At the pass there is a large grouping of Buddhist chedis (stupas/shrines) and an array of prayer flags. If the weather is clear there is a 30k wide, spectacular panoramic view of the Bhutanese Himalayas, including seven peaks that are over 7,000m. There’s a nice restaurant just below the pass where we’ll stop for tea and take in more spectacular mountain views. From here we proceed down, down downhill all the way to the village of Punakha. On this side of the pass we enter a damper climate and the hillsides are covered with hemlock, cyprus, rhododendron and magnolia trees. Our drive takes us further down into deciduous forests and the Punakha valley. We stay at a simple but elegant tented camp (with attached bathrooms in the back), beside the Mo Chu. (Chu means river.)
We spend the afternoon reviewing recent photographs and doing some exercises with Sean and Jock. If time allows we will visit the huge Punakha Dzong, otherwise we will visit this impressive fortified monastery tomorrow. This dzong repelled many invasions from Tibet, and was the capital of Bhutan up until 1966. It’s located at the confluence of the Mo and Pho Chu/Rivers. Mo means father, Pho means mother. Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal built the dzong in 1637. In 1651 Shabdrung died within the dzong, but due to fears of civil unrest and palace/court conspiracies, his death was kept a secret for more than fifty years. His body has remained there to this day. Due to the lower altitude of Punakha, the dzong serves as the winter residence for monks from Thimphu. If the Je Khenpo (head Abbott), is not in residence then we should be allowed to enter the main chanting hall. The hall was recently restored and enlarged, and is one of Bhutan’s most stunning Buddhist sites. Xplore Tented Camp (B, L, D)
Day 7, 10/1 rural walk to Khamsum Stupa, school visit
We spend this morning walking directly from our camp across a swinging bridge and up the hillside to the huge Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten (a chorten is a stupa), the side of a hill. The chorten was built by the Queen Mother to honor all Bhutanese citizens. Inside is a huge three-dimensional mandala, which symbolizes Buddhist “wheel of life.” From the rooftop of the chorten there is a beautiful view of rice fields, scattered homes and the Po Chu winding its way down the valley.
We might make a stop to visit a school or a village, then return to our tented camp where we can spend the afternoon doing some photography exercises and get caught up editing our work. Xplore Tented Camp (B,L,D)
Day 8, 10/2 Wangdi Teschu Festival
Today we head down the Punakha valley to the settlement at Wangdi and spend the morning immersing ourselves in the Wangdi Teschu—another exciting Buddhist festival. There is more great cham dancing and chanting. Sadly in June of 2012 Wangdi Dzong was engulfed in fire, created by an electrical short. King Jigme Wangchuk promised to help fund the restoration of this important religious site and it is still under construction. The dances are held in a large parade ground. This is a time when mountain villagers come from all over the country to pay homage at Wangdi Dzong and to celebrate. Adjacent to the dzong there is a large impromptu temple fair and market.
This afternoon we drive east to a cozy guesthouse situated beside the lovely Dang Chu/River. Here we will have time to relax, check our photos and do some more creative exercises with Sean. Kichu Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 9, 10/3 drive over the Pele La (3,400m) to Trongsa
Today we drive further east across the country. It takes about two hours to reach the high pass the Pele La at 3,400m. On route we enter the Black Mountains. This mountain range is known for its huge hemlock and cyprus trees covered with lichen, known as old man’s beard. Higher up we also see yaks grazing in fields of grass and dwarf bamboo. We can make some stops to visit a village or two to meet some local farmers and learn about their way of life. If the weather is clear at the pass there should be a view of Chomolhari (7219m), Bhutan’s most famous sacred mountain. Here we officially enter central Bhutan and continue through the Black Mountains descending some 1,500 meters as we go.
From the Pele La pass it’s roughly a three-hour drive to Trongsa. We stop for lunch at a restaurant near the Chendibji Stupa that is Nepalese in design--with the familiar eyes of Buddha near the top. This stupa marks the old walking trail that stretches across the country and it is meant to keep evil spirits from the Black Mountains at bay. This 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. (This is the river that Jock kayaked while on a whitewater expedition in November 2006. It was featured as a two hour Discovery Channel Documentary.) At the end of today’s drive, we’ll head into Trongsa for a look around town and perhaps enjoy a game of pool with some locals! Tashininjey Hotel (B, L, D)
Day 10, 10/4 visit Trongsa Dzong and Watch Tower, drive to Endocholing
We’ll rise early and head to Trongsa Dzong to hear the monks chanting and have a look around. There are lots of interesting alleyways and rooms and we can wander around on our own at this quiet time of day. Photo opportunities abound. Trongsa Dzong It is perhaps the most dramatic of all the dzongs due to its awesome location overlooking the Mangdi Chu and its sprawling medieval village-like interior. The main dzong was built in 1644, but the utse (central tower) dates back to 1543. The dzong was built directly over the original east-west path across Bhutan, forcing all travelers and their goods to pass through and be conveniently levied taxes by the Trongsa Penlop (governor).
Just above town is the seven-story tall Ta Dzong, with three huge watchtowers that were recently restored and made into a museum. Jock is close friends with the two Austrian architects, Thomas Schrom and Gotz Hagmuller, who rebuilt the watchtower and turned into a museum. (If you were with Sean and Jock in Kathmandu in the fall of 2012 then you’ll remember Thomas who gave us a lecture in the Patan Durbar/Palace.)
We now head off the main road and divert south to Endocholing village and arrive in the early afternoon. There is a small monastery with an abbot and a dozen monks, and we camp in tents beside the monastery. All meals will be served within the monastic compound, and we’ll have great food served here by a chef from Thimphu. There are simple but clean bathroom facilities here. Only a handful of foreign whitewater kayaking groups have ever stayed here, and we will receive an incredibly warm welcome from the curious monks and villagers. In this setting Sean and Jock will share some of their photographs and experiences at several Tibetan monasteries. We partake in some of Sean’s exercises that specifically relate to a kind of deeper portrait work that we might do here. Camping beside Endocholing Monastery (B,L,D)
Day 11, 10/5 Endocholing portraiture work, village visits and walks
We have the entire day to do as we please. Sean and I will give some portraiture instruction and we have arranged for the monks to work with us, in both their traditional robes and in their mask and Cham dancing garments. At other monasteries this is simply not allowed, and 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 options to go on easy walks/hikes from here. Just across the Mangdi Chu there are good chances of seeing the rare golden langur monkeys. Camping beside Endocholing Monastery (B,L,D)
Day 12, 10/6 cross Yotung La/Pass (3420m) and Kiki La/Pass (2,848m) to the Bumthang Valley
This morning we drive north back to Trongsa and then continue up to the Yotung La/Pass, and we return back to the cyprus forests found in cooler climes. There is more quaint village scenery as we make our way to the village of Chume, which is famous for unique Bhutanese woven fabrics. Today’s second pass, the Kiki La, isn’t a high one but it’s a beautiful site, as it’s adorned with hundreds of prayer flags. In this area we are now passing through extensive blue pine forests, and beyond the pass we head north and enter the Bumthang valley. With its numerous dzongs and gompas it is often referred to as Bhutan’s most sacred valley. Guru Padmasambhava brought "Tibetan Buddhism," to Bhutan and Tibet in the 7century. He visited the Bumthang valley on a number of occasions and the caves and other places where he meditated now have shrines and temples dedicated to him. Our hotel is on the outskirts of the town of Jakar and is within easy walking distance, and we’ll want to do some wandering around, but this slightly removed setting might provide us with a chance to do share some editing and think about shaping our work overall, so that we can use the following days to tighten up our projects. Wangdicholing Guest House (B,L,D)
Day 13, 10/7 Tangbi Temple Cham dancing festival, homestay in Tangsibi village
We’ve saved the best festival for last at the Tangbi village temple. We will see more Cham and other types of religious and ethnic dances. This is a smaller Buddhist festival and fewer foreigners visit here, so it should be easier to make your way through the crowds and photograph the various types of dances that have now become familiar. There’s also an impromptu market adjacent to the temple and more possibilities for great people photographs. At this point you’ll have experience photographing dances, so you in this more relaxed setting you might want to explore what happens backstage and around the peripheries, the human stuff that underlies the spectacle.
In the Bumthang valley there are many more temples we can visit and the downtown area of Jakar has some great small shops and eateries. From town we can see Jakar Dzong perched on a nearby hillside. It was built in 1549, and according to local legend when a group of monks were assembled to select a site for the dzong a white bird landed on the top of a small hill overlooking the village. This was taken as an important omen and the spot where the bird landed was chosen as the site for Jakar Dzong. Its promontory also happens to serve well as a watchtower for frequent incoming Tibetan invaders.
By now you may have had your fill of temples, so we’re going to take a break and head to the village of Tangsibi. Our friend and local partner, Ugyen Dorje’s family has a large traditional home in Tangsibi. They have generously offered to host us for the night and we will enjoy the hospitality of a local Bhutanese home. This will be different than stopping in a village to photograph, and we can do some of that all-important hanging around long enough to let our minds slow down and our eyes sharpen. Tangsibi Homestay (B, L, D)
Day 14, 10/8 morning in Tangsibi village, afternoon to Ura village
We will spend the entire morning simply hanging out in Tangsibi. You might want to set up some portraits or simply find compelling spot to wait for the right moments to enter your viewfinder.
In the afternoon we have a few options. We will probably head to our hotel and will work on our photographs and review our work. Alternatively we can go to the Burning Lake where the Tang Chu/River passes through a narrow canyon and is adorned with hundreds of prayer flags. We can visit another gorgeous, quintessentially Bhutanese village called Ura and there’s some easy walking/hiking we can do nearby. Wangdicholing Guest House (B,L,D)
Day 15, 10/9 fly Bumthang to Paro, drive to Chele La/Pass 3811m and camp
We take a morning flight to Paro and will arrive by midday. In the afternoon we visit some more sites in Paro and then drive up to the highest pass in Bhutan, the Chele La. From here we will hike a short way to our campsite and a viewpoint where there are some of the best Himalayan views found in the Bhutan in particular Chomolhari and Jitsu Drake are in full view.
We’ll be camping near the pass and will have a dining tent with a table a chairs, a mess tent, shower and toilet tents—and we will be well taken care of by our kitchen staff and crew. We will cross our fingers for clear weather and a gorgeous sunset. We’ll have a big campfire so be sure to think up a story or two! Chele La campsite (B, L, D)
Day 16, 10/10 morning mountain views, day hike to Tiger’s Nest 7k loop hike
We rise early to greet the sun, and since these mountains face east our best views are apt to be at sunrise. After a leisurely breakfast, we will head back down to Paro. We then make the hike up to Taktsang Monastery. On route we will stop for a picnic lunch. For photography the afternoon is the best time of day to view the monastery. Although it’s only a 7k walk up to Taktsang (also known as the Tiger’s Nest), there’s no reason to hurry as the views are quite spectacular all along the way. It’s a steep, but a wide trail and well worth the effort. Due to Taktsang being perched on the side of a cliff 800 meters above the valley floor, it’s certainly the most famous temple in Bhutan and is definitely one of the highlights of any trip to Bhutan! Guru Rinpoche (the first king of Tibet) was said to have flown here on top of a tigress and meditated here for three months. Nowadays, pilgrims from all over Bhutan come here to pay their respects. In 1998 most of the temple was consumed by a second fire, (the first was in 1951), but the original Lakhang (main temple), was built in 1684. We will receive a special permit to visit the temple interior, pass beside a 20-meter high waterfall and private meditation quarters for elderly monks. The hillside near Taktsang is also dotted with meditation sites.
Tonight we stay at the Gantey Palace Hotel, which previously served as an actual palace. It and has a wonderful warm atmosphere. There are traditional Bhutanese hot stone baths here. The bar has a lovely view of the Paro valley below. We have a celebratory final meal here this evening and share more of our wonderful photographs. Gantey Palace Hotel (B,L,D)
Day 17, 10/11 depart Paro for home via India or Thailand
This morning we bid our good byes to our local staff and board our homeward bound flight. Flight times to be announced. (B)
- Per person cost with 14-16 participants: $7,780.00, with 10-13 participants: $8,560.00
- Single Supplement: $1,100.00
- Flight Kolkata to Paro, Bhutan: $260.00
- Domestic flight Bumthang to Paro: $195.00
- Flight Paro to Bangkok: $395.00, or Paro to Delhi: $365.00
What is Included
- Your Bhutanese visa
- Expert leadership, instruction and support staff
- Ground transportation, minibus, van
- Porter tips
- Meals as specified, breakfast lunch, dinner (B,L,D)
- Bottled water, and tea and coffee with meals
- Accommodation as specified
- Group first aid kit
What is Not Included
- Mandatory travel health insurance. Trip cancellation insurance is strongly recommended
- Your Indian visa
- Customary but optional tips for local guides
- International air-fare and accommodation on route from home to Asia
- Personal expenses, including laundry, snacks, drinks, alcohol, etcetera
- Overweight luggage charges or similar fees
- At time of reservation: $1000.00 After registering, all future correspondence, billings and financial transactions will be handled directly by Jock.
- 60 days prior to departure: balance due
- Reservations are made on a first-come basis
Trip cancellation insurance is strongly recommended
- Minimum Fee: $1000, non-refundable
- 61-90 days or more prior to departure: 50% of land cost
- 60 days or less prior to departure: 100% of land cost
Once you sign up for the trip a comprehensive pre-departure document will be sent to you. This includes information and suggestions regarding visas, immunizations and insurance, clothing and equipment, etcetera.
For more information, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org