Travel to Panbang Zhemgang – Least Explored Parts of Bhutan

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Last updated on January 25th, 2019

In the far southern part of Zhemgang lies Panbang, the promising land of ecotourism and unique culture tours of the country. Encircled by Manas River tributaries and hills of thick forest dotted with simple man-made huts, it offers great opportunities for us to observe and then appreciate the harmonious relationship between man and nature.

The unique cultural site of the country, Panbang Bhutan adjures to be explored, but is often being disregarded in the mainstream tourism of Bhutan. Zhemgang Dzongkhag is one of the least developed districts of Bhutan.

Therefore, Panbang is quite removed from Bhutan’s touristy places like Paro, Thimphu and Punakha. Infrastructure is poor at best and tourists cannot travel Panbang in all seasons. So it’s quite easy to conclude as to why it’s one of the least explored parts of Bhutan in tourism sector!

Zhemgang Bhutan attractions
Welcome to Panbang – Where past still lives in modern times.

Travelling to Panbang Bhutan will be a journey through a maze of blessings and curses. Blessings – you won’t be squeezing through crowd of tourists like in Thimphu and Paro. You can have Panbang Bhutan almost to yourself and quality of various services you avail will be better. But on the down side, slack tourism means information and tips for traveling to the place is scanty.

This is where this Travel Guide to Panbang will prove helpful!

However, this Travel Guide to Panbang Bhutan won’t cover all the places and all things to do at Panbang Zhemgang. I will need quite an amount of time to explore Panbang then. This Travel Guide to Panbang Bhutan was written out of my one-week’s personal experiences of exploring Panbang Zhemgang keeping in mind ‘something is better than nothing’.

Panbang Zhemgang Travel tips

Where is Panbang Zhemgang?

Panbang is a small town at the southern most end of Zhemgang Dzongkhag which is just about 12km from nearest Indian border gate. It is a commercial centre of four gewogs of lower Kheng. So it’s now Panbang Dungkhag (Sub-District).

Dasho nishioka house in Panbang
Dasho Nishioka’s house in Panbang.

It’s connected with southern towns of Bhutan like Gelephu and Nganglam. Tourists can travel to eastern Bhutan via Nganglam and then to central Bhutan via Gomphu. You can reach Mongar in about 3 hours from Panbang town. Road is new and good.

Agarwood in Panbang planted by Nishoka
Agarwood Trees planted by Dasho Nishoka.

The unique kheng culture and rich bio-diversities of Panbang Bhutan are now making it the best centre of ecotourism and unique culture tours of Bhutan. So travel Panbang Bhutan and experience unique tour packages and ecotourism at best.

Dasho Nishoka hanging bridge of Panbang
Dasho Nishoka’s hanging bridge in Panbang.

Panbang is where we get to see volunteerism footprints of Late Dasho Nishoka – a Japanese agriculturist. An old house where he lived once now surrounded by stretch of agar woods provide an insight of his then Panbang life. It’s said that the hanging bridge of Panbang is also constructed by him. Walking over it is heart-pumping and nerve-wrecking experience.

How to Reach Panbang Bhutan

The first thing you need to decide is from where you want to travel Panbang Bhutan. You’ll need this to process your necessary travel permit and come up with good Panbang travel itinerary. Tourist permits of Bhutan specify where permit holders are allowed to travel.

Panbang Bridge - Chegarzam
The starting point of hike to Waterfall Viewpoint.

There is a Bhutan-India border gate from where Indian tourists can travel to Panbang town by road. Indians living in places like Barapeta, Bahabari and Baksa can enter without permit. But you cannot travel beyond the hanging Panbang bridge without it.

Panbang waterfall
Tourists having fun at base of Panbang twin waterfall.

However, if you have a permit issued at Phuentsholing Immigration Office and then stamped in Thimphu, you can travel Panbang Bhutan and go farther into places like Sonamthang, Goshing and Bjoka.

Top Bhutan river rafting
River Rafting – Bliss of Panbang Bhutan.

There is no Immigration Office at Panbang Bhutan that issues permits. If you are in Thimphu or Paro, you can travel Panbang Zhemgang through following routes:

  • Paro – Gelephu Airport – Panbang (Paro-Gelephu Flight)
  • Thimphu – Trongsa – Zhemgang – Panbang (Road)
  • Thimphu – Tsirang – Gelephu – Gomphu – Panbang (Road)
  • Phuentsholing – India – Gelephu – Panbang (Road)

My Panbang Travel Route

I live in Thimphu and I didn’t have Travel Guide to Panbang. So I had to choose the most economical route. But obviously I didn’t take the first route for the reason you know about. After calculating possible travel cost in all routes, I took the third route. Thimphu to Gelephu, public transport service costed me only Nu.375.

The same bus doesn’t travel Panbang Bhutan though. So, I was at Gelephu for one night’s inevitable layover. Karmaling Hotel with charge Nu.750 treated me well. I have booked the Panbang bus ticket in advance with a help from my friend who works at Gelephu. Bus fare was Nu.210.

Rafting at Manas Park
Expansive nature beauty of Manas National Park.

This bus travels via Gomphu and not via India though it would take lesser time in latter. Therefore, unless you’re traveling in a private car or taxi, don’t travel via India. And also if you haven’t travelled this route before, traveling via Gomphu would be better.

Best Time to Travel Panbang

Panbang Zhemgang is in sub-tropical climatic zone. This means temperature will be hot in summer. Therefore, you can travel Panbang Bhutan in Spring, Autumn and Winter. Don’t travel during summer months of June, July and August.

Best Bhutan fishing tours in Panbang Zhemgang
Panbang is good place for Responsible fishing Activities.

During summer, temperature at Panbang Dungkhag would cross even 30 degree Celsius at times. And heavy downpour might scrap off your itinerary and take out your travel charm. However, in other seasons temperature will be just cool and moderate.

Permits to Travel Panbang

Indians who want to explore Panbang Bhutan and don’t want to travel beyond the bridge won’t need any permit. Otherwise, you’ll need Bhutan Permit issued from immigration offices of Phuentsholing or Paro.

Manas Park peacocks
Peacocks in Jungle of Manas National Park.

But this permit holder can travel only within Phuentsholing and Paro. The rule is same with tourists from Bangladesh and Maldives.

Panbang Zhemgang culture
Making new friends at Panbang Zhemgang.

So to travel Panbang Zhemgang, you’ll need ‘Extended Permit’ issued at Thimphu Immigration Office in addition to above permit. If you are driving your own car or bike, you will also need a ‘Route Permit’ issued by Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) of Bhutan.

Bird watching tours in Panbang
We can see number of hornbill in Panbang.

Tourists who are on minimum daily package (USD $250), every permit or document required will be processed and kept ready by your travel agent before you reach Bhutan. If you want to travel Panbang Zhemgang, they will also process even special permit to enter Manas National Park of Bhutan.

Things to Do at Panbang | Panbang Tourist Attractions

#1 Manas River Rafting

Manas River is the biggest river as it’s a river mouth of Chamkhar Chu, Drangme Chu and Kurichu combined. This large basin is indeed a good platform for rafting, kayaking and canoeing at different water rapid levels and riverside camping at Panbang Bhutan.

River rafting in Panbang
Rafting in Panbang Manas River.

A community based river rafting services provider River Guide of Panbang takes care of all these aspects at reasonable price. You can check out their website for details of these services and other village level ecotours they provide at Panbang Zhemgang.

#2 Manas National Park Safaris

Royal Manas National Park of Bhutan that stretches to about 1200 sq.km is a home to more than 300 birds and 80 mammals. Many of them are now endangered species. You want to see rare animals like tigers, guars, golden languars and leopards at stone-throw distance, travel Manas National Park Bhutan.

Bhutan elephant riding safari
Preparing for Manas Elephant Riding Safari.

The park also has elephant riding safari services for Nu.50/person. This will measure up to be a good experience if you travel Panbang with your friends or families in a group. But don’t let a mindset of animal activist overrule your adventure-seeking mindset. Elephants aren’t chained and tortured here like in other countries.

Walk in Manas Park
The walking trail in Royal Manas National Park.

But you have to inform Manas Park officials about it one day in advance. Otherwise all elephants will be sent in jungle for grazing and you’ll miss a chance to ride and perhaps bathe them. I have also missed it. As of now there is no Jungle Jeep Safari in Manas Park.

#3 Bird Watching Tours

Zhemgang Panbang bird watching
You can also go for bird watching excursions in Panbang

Sub-tropical thick jungle of Royal Manas National Park is also good for birds watching tours and hikes. During evening, you can see flocks of hornbill and other native birds retreating to their homes. With good cameras and appropriate lens kit, you’ll be able to get wonderful photos of those birds in your collection.

#4 Kheng Cultural Tours

People in Panbang Bhutan and nearby villages live simple life. Many still have houses with thatching grass or banana leaves roofing. Currently there is no homestay in Panbang Bhutan. However, just join any family and immerse in their living culture and traditions. People are quite reserved at first. However, after few rounds of conversation they become open.

Bhutan local wine Bangchang
I was served with this local drink – Bangchang.

In Panbang Dungkhag, Sonamthang, Bjoka and Goshing are some of the few villages in which you can have grand culture tours. During my travel to Panbang Dungkhag, I also explored Marangduth village and went with farmers to work in their fields. It was wonderful exercise. I could experience rural lifestyles of Panbang community people at a closer level.

#5 Bjoka Basket Weaving

You must have seen quite a varieties of cane products in handicraft shops of Paro and Thimphu. More than 60% of them come from Bjoka. People in Bjoka are gifted with talent of weaving artistic bamboo products like Bangchung, Zem, hats, baskets and other containers.

making bamboo hats

You can travel this place to learn the art of bamboo baskets weaving. Bjoka is about 35km from Panbang town. Bjoka Naktshang is a three-storied house of once powerful and influential Bjoka Khochoe. A visit in this house and then listening oral tradition narratives will be like a moment of turning many pages of unwritten Bhutanese history.

#6 Swimming and Fishing

There are no restriction in swimming in rivers of Panbang town. Indeed people go for swimming whenever they feel like to. Except for monsoon months, swimming at Panbang town during other seasons will be an exciting experience.

Panbang zhemgang fishing tour
I didn’t go there for fishing though.

However, there are some restrictions in fishing like in other places. You’ll need to get pass/permit for fishing and you must use only prescribed fishing tools. Manas River of Panbang Bhutan has trout and masheree fishes. You are not allowed to go for latter.

Travel Panbang for elephant back safaris
Tasting organic wild potatoes with local people.

Panbang Fishing tours will be great excursion. You’ll be fishing in a fresh tropical river flowing through unspoiled thick jungle of Bhutan. Mouths of Mangde Chu and Drangme Chu are best fishing sites in Panbang. Bhutanitis has Panbang Fishing Tour Package.

#7 Hiking and Trekking

When I was at Panbang Zhemgang, I hiked to Galabi viewpoint near Panbang Dungkhag office. It was a short hike from the town. However, I could get good views of Sonamthang and other nearby villages. You can also go hiking to Goshing and Bjoka following the ancient trail which starts from Panbang town.

Panbang Zhemgang viewpoint
Local tourists at Panbang Galabi Viewpoint.

One of the most popular and perhaps the longest trekking trails to travel Panbang Bhutan starts from Tingtibee. In this trekking, you’ll travel through villages like Gomphu, Mamung Trong, Pantang and Shillingtoe. During one night hold at Gomphu, you can treat yourself at Dunmang Tsachu (hot spring).

#8 Riverside Camping

Camping in Panbang
Riverside Camping in Panbang. Courtesy: Paddle Bhutan

During winter and autumn, tourists would love camping near river banks. River Guides of Panbang Bhutan actually has tour package that includes riverside camping and campfire in their Panbang travel itinerary.

#9 Waterfall ViewPoint

Just above Gomphu-Panbang road, there is one attractive waterfall. It’s a good place to stop for outdoor lunch or picnic. Except in monsoon when waterfall becomes problematically bigger, it’s a photographers’ delight in other seasons when weather is also fine.

Bhutan waterfall

If you want to seek little more adventure out of it, hike to its viewpoint. But this hike means crossing long suspension bridge Chengarzam and walking upriver for about 1.5 hours through thick tropical forest. However, view of the waterfall is beautiful when you are straight to it.

Hotels to Stay in Zhemgang Panbang

Manas Hotel & Lodge

Manas Hotel and Lodge

Manas Hotel and Lodge is at Sonamthang; in few minutes’ walking distance from Panbang town. Its rooms are nice with reasonable charge. I feel it’s the only budget hotel in Panbang Bhutan. For queries and advance booking, you can contact Mr. Leki Dochen (Manager) at +975-17918864/Email [email protected].

Marang Jungle Camp

Panbang Hotel

This eco-lodge is owned by RGP. Unless you travel Panbang Bhutan through them, staying in this lodge will be quite expensive. But in many cases, tourists travel Panbang through them as they also provide trekking, rafting, bird watching and culture tours. For queries and advance booking, you can contact Mr. Ugyen (Manager) at +975-17150141/Email [email protected].

Misc Tips of Panbang Town

Transportation

During my travel within Panbang town, I didn’t see many local taxi cabs. Therefore, I had to try my luck in hitchhiking private vehicles. Some other times, I just walked. If you are to travel Goshing or Bjoka villages from Panbang town, you’ll definitely need a vehicle.

Dresses

Temperature in Panbang Bhutan is high in summer, moderate in autumn and winter. So you don’t have to take warm clothes during summer.

Manas park boating services
Boat service of Manas Park cost Nu.10 per person.

However, during morning and evening in other months, it is bit cold due to nearby rivers’ water breeze effects. Therefore, you need to take warm clothes. There might be drizzle at start of autumn. You might consider taking raincoats or umbrellas if you travel Panbang in autumn.

Cultures

People there are of unique ethnic origin of Khengpas who survived by finding foods from forest. You can have experiences of exploring unspoiled authentic village life of Khengpas. Since this Dzongkhag isn’t opened to tourism fully, you’ll be surprised to see prevalence of various shamanistic practices and Bon festivals.

Bonism festivals of Zhemgang
Kharphu – Bon Festival of Shemgang.

Bonism as a social system or religion was prevalent in Bhutan before arrival of Buddhism. Bon religion considers trees, ponds, rivers, caves as entities as they are owned by deities. So people will be careful while using them as not to disturb and infuriate those deities.

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About Author

He is a Bhutanese currently residing in Singapore. He is a passionate traveller, blogger and photographer. DrukTrails is basically a small world of his passions. You can find rants of his experiences of traveling various destinations.

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