Travel Sakteng Bhutan – The Home of Brokpa Tribes in Bhutan


Last updated on January 8th, 2019

Sakteng can be one of the best oases of Bhutan’s unique culture and tradition which is still not much known to other people. Located in the northern part of Trashigang Dzongkhag at somewhat equal altitude with its twin village Merak , Sakteng Bhutan is as culturally unique as it’s ecologically endowed.

But no matter whether it has dreamy landscapes, hectares of rhododendron blossoms and many more to boast about, travelling to Sakteng Bhutan is often perceived as a gruesome excursion. There is a proverb which says that if someone actually reached Sakteng, he could be either the best friend or the fiercest enemy of someone living there.

Sakteng Bhutan girls
Beautiful ladies in Sakteng.

But now this village being just at about one and half hours’ walking distance from the road end, this proverb too seems to be dying in oblivion of irrelevances. You don’t have to be a dear or the worst enemy of someone there now.

First view of Sakteng Bhutan
The first view of Sakteng village.

People travel Sakteng Bhutan looking at its credentials of having gorgeous mountains, breathtaking terrains and snow-capped peaks. The unique lifestyles of Brokpa tribes is also a source of great experiential culture tours in Bhutan.

Where is Sakteng Bhutan?

Sakteng is located on the south-facing base of Nakchungla Pass at an altitude of 2800 meters. Merak and Sakteng Bhutan are twin sister villages with similar geographical terrains and ecological endowments falling within territorial jurisdiction of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary.

Trashigang Merak Sakteng Map
Click on the map to view Sakteng location.

It’s said that people of these villages share same ethnic origin from Tshona region of Tibet, Nakchungla Pass separates the two just like nasal bridge does between our two eyes. People of Tawang, Zemithang and Ziro of Arunachal Pradesh also share ethnic origins.

It’s not a wonder that they speak same language and also look similar physically. Indians from Arunachal Pradesh visit Merak Sakteng for dairy products just like Bhutanese from Merak Sakteng go there for purchasing clothese and other basic stocks.

Sunset in Sakteng
Sakteng when sun is about to set.

There is also no road which connects Merak and Sakteng directly though they together form an administrative territory of Sakteng Dungkhag. An ancient trail that links these highland villages is now main trail of Merak-Sakteng Trek.

Permits to Travel Sakteng

All the tourists who travel Sakteng Bhutan on a minimum daily package won’t have to worry about permits. Your travel agent will keep them ready before you enter Bhutan.

Sakteng Bhutan tour
This curious sheep welcomed me to Sakteng.

However, tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives who are on independent travels will have to get entry permit from Paro Airport or Phuentsholing. You can use this permit within Phuentsholing, Paro, Haa and Thimphu.

Sakteng culture tours
Our team Entering Sakteng Bhutan.

To enter other places in Bhutan besides above four, you have get another permit for entering restricted places. This permit is issued at Thimphu Immigration Office. There is no service of issuing permits at Samdrup Jongkhar or Gelephu.

Sakteng wildlife park office

If you are driving your own car in Bhutan, you’ll need another permit from Road Safety and Transport Authority (RSTA) of Bhutan. To enter protected area of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary during Merak-Sakteng Trek, all foreigners need to get its permit from Merak or Sakteng Range Office at Nu.1,000/person.

How to reach Sakteng?

You can travel Sakteng either directly following its road from Rangjung or entering from Merak crossing Nakchungla Pass. In former it’ll be quick as you just have to walk for about one and half hours from road end to reach Sakteng.

Sakteng road
Sakteng People eating lunch at road end.

However, you’ll miss Merak-Sakteng Trek in it. And for people who aren’t acclimatized and accustomed of living in such a high altitude and walking through physically challenging ridges, undertaking Merak-Sakteng Trek in reverse is almost impossible.

Travel Sakteng Bhutan
First steps of 1.5 hours of walk from road point.

In Merak-Sakteng Trek, we must cross Nakchungla Pass before noon to avoid sight-threatening blizzards. And the distance between Merak and the pass is shorter compare to vice versa.

Rangjung to Sakteng
There are few places to rest along Sakteng Footpath.

There are public bus services to Trashigang from Thimphu, Mongar and Samdrup Jongkhar. Tourists can also take domestic flights to Yonphula Airport from Paro. But from Trashigang, you have to manage vehicles to reach you Sakteng Bhutan.

5 places to visit in Sakteng

#1 Sakteng Viewpoints

Sakteng village is basically in an expansive gorge of Gamri Chu. So if we go and climb on higher gradient from any side, the whole village looks very enchanting.

Sakteng Bhutan viewpoints
You are about to reach Sakteng from Merak.

When I visited Sakteng Bhutan last time, I went little above Sakteng guest house. Almost all photos of Sakteng village I share here were shot from that viewpoint.

#2 Village Lhakhang

The moment you enter Sakteng, you’ll be greeted by a view of this temple built below main footpath that leads to village.

Sakteng Temple
Temple of Trashigang Sakteng Village.

I was told that local festival of Sakteng happens on a ground that is at its front enclosed by a wall. The temple is a single storeyed and has simple architectural design.

#3 Nakchungla Pass

Nakchungla Pass is between Merak (altitude 3500m) and Sakteng (altitude 2800m). The popular Merak-Sakteng Trek is crossing this pass through ecological diversified Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, the best National Park in Bhutan. It would be hard to cross it during winter.

Merak Sakteng Pass
Crossing Merak-Sakteng Nakchungla Pass.

This largest National Park in Bhutan is a home of endangered animals like snow leopards, Himalayan black bears, red pandas, barking deers and other Bhutan wildlife species. You can also spot Blue Poppy, the national flower of Bhutan. You can also go for birds watching hikes at base of the pass.

#4 Sakteng Dratshang

If you go for a short hike above Sakteng, you will reach at this monastery. This temple is on a strategic mound overlooking the valley. During early hours of a day or towards evening, Sakteng village looks euphorically beautiful with gradual rise of mist and light smoke.

#5 Sakteng School

In Bhutan no student will be in other dresses besides gho and kira – at least during school hours. But students in Sakteng will come to school in their tribal dress which is also culturally accepted by education ministry.

Sakteng School girls
Sakteng School Inter-House Girls Football Competition.

The red checked girls and cold beaten boys look nice in their outfits to an extent you’ll be unable to control going with them, socializing and then taking unlimited pictures. But I didn’t take any gifts of stationery items for them. I should have done it.

5 things to do at Sakteng

#1 Merak-Sakteng Trek

If you are there in spring or autumn, Merak-Sakteng Trek is the thing you must do in Sakteng Bhutan. Since this trekking starts from Merak, you’ll be first travelling to Merak and then entering Sakteng after crossing Nakchungla Pass of altitude 4140m.

Merak-Sakteng Trek
Can you do Merak-Sakteng Trek?

Merak-Sakteng Trek is a journey through spectacular alpine landscapes and rich floras of Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary. On the highest point of Nakchungla Pass, it’s likely you’ll see snow even if it’s during spring and early autumn.

#2 Be a Yak Herder

Your cultural tour and expedition to Sakteng Bhutan would be incomplete one without experiencing nomadic lifestyles of yak herders. When you are there at Sakteng, ask locals if there is any yak herder’s camp nearby.

Sakteng yaks
Yaks – Strange Himalayan region Domestic animal.

If so, request to join them for a day or so for getting yourself first-hand experiences of associating with authentic culture and tradition of Sakteng. People out there are very accommodating and peaceful.

#3 Join Brokpa Tribes

When you are at Sakteng Bhutan, staying with family is by far better than staying in a guesthouse or in your own outdoor tent. It offers closer interactions with Brokpa. When we went Sakteng last time, we didn’t take even a single head of chili.

Grinding mill in Sakteng Bhutan
A Grinding mill in Sakteng Bhutan.

We joined one Brokpa family, and ate and slept in their house for 2 days. Household culture and tradition in Sakteng is almost similar with that of other rural Bhutan. Brokpa tribes indeed respect guests and treat well.

Fermented cheese of sakteng
My host opening fermented cheese to make Ema Datshi.

The moments of helping our host as she prepares Ema Datsi from their fermented yak cheese and then listening to stories of Yeti or migoi over a pot of buttered local ara was indescribable. Nu.2,000 we gave them the following day morning was nothing to match their genuine hospitality.

#4 Sakteng Walking Tours

The experience of walking around Sakteng village is like going back to a unique world of medieval Bhutan. The symmetrical arrangement of one storeyed houses built from large stones with all cultivable land outside residential area in all seems to be telling a story of how smart Bhutanese Brokpa tribes were in planning their settlement.

Sakteng short hikes
Short hike in Sakteng for searching viewpoints.

Your host will have spare dresses of Brokpa. Request them and roam around village wearing them. They are heavy and uncomfortable initially. But later you won’t feel like changing to your own dress. There is so much fun in doing outdoor photography in Brokpa dresses.

Merak Sakteng people dress
Dress of Merak-Sakteng village men.

During my travel there last March, one man was ready in selling off his dress to me at Nu.6,000 which is around USD $100. I didn’t purchase it though. You might consider taking one as a souvenir dress if you have cash. I was told many women actually weave such dresses just to sell.

#5 Outdoor Photography

Since the tribal community of Sakteng is still a far-flung and secluded place, people show reluctance when you take out your camera or phone to take photos.

Sakteng Bhutan girl
A girl posing with a pouch of fermented cheese.

You shouldn’t take it as rude gesture on their part. It’s just that they aren’t accustomed of appearing in screen like we urban dwellers do. However, young children come running for photography.

Sakteng outdoor photography
During outdoor photography in Sakteng.

I was told some travel agents make arrangements whereby few people are taken out for outdoor photography for tourists. But I don’t think it’s necessary. You get plenty of shots when you go around Sakteng for few hours.

Where to Stay in Sakteng

Sakteng is an offbeat tourist destination of eastern Bhutan. Given its distance from touristy places of Bhutan, many tourists actually don’t travel Sakteng. So you cannot expect standard hotels and lodges.

Weaving culture in Sakteng Bhutan
Our host woman weaving Sakteng Dress.

However, there is one guesthouse which is used during royal visits. When there are no VIPs, I was told they also accept tourists at nominal charge. But you won’t get anything besides room to sleep and mattresses.

Sakteng guest house
Sakteng preparing to receive HM the king of Bhutan.

Some tourists just resort in pitching their tents in an open meadow and then calling off their days of travel in Sakteng having meals they independently prepare.

Sakteng camping tours
You can also pitch a tent in Sakteng.

The third option, the one I would recommend would be just putting up with one of the households. Asking about charges at the time of requesting them would be questioning their hospitality. But leaving few bucks when you leave would be a good gesture.

Season to Travel Sakteng

Don’t travel Sakteng Bhutan during winter. A place located at an altitude of 2800 meters above sea level will be very cold. Its winter climate would be harsh especially for people coming from warm and low altitude places.

Posing with zetoe of Sakteng
Trying to pose with a bag of fermented cheese.

If athletics and acclimatized people can make there in winter, Sakteng Bhutan has its wintry charm though. The views of snow-carpeted meadow dotted by dwarf houses in contrast to pure distant snow-garlanded mountain peaks usually come as great settings for photography.

Sakteng Bhutan in spring
Sakteng Village in early Spring.

During summer, there won’t be many people at the village as they would have moved up to higher altitude pastures with their yaks. Unpredictable weather conditions and frequent road blocks also take away travel bliss during summer.

Brokpa family
Sakteng Brokpa family traveling south for Tshechu.

So spring and autumn are the best seasons to travel Sakteng Bhutan. During spring and autumn, people who have been away with their herds will convene at village before taking their herds to summer and winter pastures respectively. The local festival which honours their local deity Aum Jomo also happens in autumn.

Sakteng Travel Notes

When you travel Sakteng Bhutan, please be careful of what you do and speak with them. But it doesn’t mean the Brokpa tribes are most rowdy group of people. I don’t want you to hurt them emotionally which of course will be unintentional on your part. For this, note the following:

  • Never address people there as Brokpa. They consider it as a defamatory term.
  • Don’t display your disgust or hatred when they open their fermented cheese.
  • It’s rude to ask about charges before they even accept you at their house.
  • Request people if you want to take their photos especially elder people.
  • Government actually doesn’t want you gift children besides stationery items.
  • Smoking and shouting in their forest is a sign of disrespect to their deities.
  • The Merak-Sakteng Trek isn’t for people with blood pressure or asthma.
  • Take chocolates, sweets, biscuits and some good medicines to fight AMS.

The moment I entered Sakteng I was awed by the view of the village; cozily tucked in a gorge with mist hanging above making it dreamy. But little did I know that it was a mere prelude to far more enchanting experience I will be having with the people and their unique culture.

Sakteng Bhutan in morning
Sakteng looks dreamy in morning hours.

Sakteng Bhutan can be a place that is somewhat straight from some fantasy story books we used to read as kids. But it’s so secluded that no amount of research or reading Lonely Planet Guides can prepare you well.

Sakteng festivals
Returning from Sakteng with Brokpa Tribes.

Reading this article and looking at the pictures I shared won’t match the feelings you’ll have when you’re physically at Sakteng. Cameras fail to capture in true sense of its beauty and experiences. Sakteng is truly a surprise and you need to travel there at least once.

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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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