The southern circuit is the ecological hub of the country comprising of seven southern districts of Bhutan, namely, Samtse, Chukha, Dagana, Tsirang, Sarpang, Zhemgang and Pemagatshel. Zhemgang, one of the districts in southern Bhutan is ideal for nature oriented tours though the cultural highlights are irresistible. The famous Dunmang hot spring is in Zhemgang district. There are also other hot springs in Sarpang district.
Other tour activities and attractions includes the Phibsoo Wildlife Sanctuary, the Royal Manas National Park, the tropical fruits and numerous species of medicinal plants and the culture of the Khengpas and the Lhotsampas.
The Lhotsampas are the ethnic race of Nepalese origin, settled in the southern part of Bhutan. Mostly Hindus, their rituals and festivals are very colorful.
Traversing the realm of Kheng culture
Inhabitants of Zhemgang are culturally called the Khengpas. The region remained closed to tourism for many years. In the recent years only a small part was opened for bird watching. This newly opened region is the jewel of tourism in Bhutan. Zhemgang people here are grouped under three regions of upper, middle and lower Kheng.
If you are interested in the last of the animist traditions in Bhutan, this is the region. They invariably celebrate a number of shamanistic practices which is locally known as Bon. Khengpas are adept artisans and are known for their bamboo products like wine containers, baskets, matted bamboo carpets and other cane products.
In the good old days this region cultivated a substantial amount of cotton, a major part paid as tax to the government, besides textiles woven out of cotton. Historically there are traces of the advent of Guru Rinpoche (from the 8th century) though visible records can be seen mostly from the 15th century.
Temples like Buli lhakhang in Buli village and Tharpa Choeling is associated with the treasure revealers Terton Pema Lingpa who is famous for the Peling tradition of Buddhism. The Bhutanese Royal Family is a direct descendent of Pema Lingpa. Traditionally, the Kheng region was divided into three regions of Chikhor (Uper Kheng), Nangkhor (Middle Kheng) and Tamachok (Lower Kheng).
Chikor (upper kheng)
Chikhor or upper Kheng comprised of eleven villages of Nimshong, Thashong, Zangling, Thrisa, Bardo, Khomshar, Langdurbi, Digala, Radhi, Wamling and Shingkhar. All of these eleven villages fall in the upper Kheng.
Nangkor (middle kheng)
Nangkhor or Middle Kheng consists of nine villages situated between the Mangde River and Dakphay and Dunmang villages. The villages are Dakphay, Norbugang, Kikhar Tali, Buli, Goling, Zhobling, Nyakhar and Tsheldang. This region had four noble families in the past.
Tamachok/Matpala (lower kheng)
The villages of Bjokha, Dali, Panbang, Nangla, Goshing, Shidrong Toed, Phangkhar, Edi, Mamung, Gomphu, Subrang, Zurphel, Tshangla Jong and Berti below Tama and above Bjokha villages form the Tamachok or the Matpala villages.
The inhabitants of Sarpang are a mixture of almost every ethnic group in Bhutan comprising of the Sharchopas, Ngalops, Bumthaps, Khengpas, Kurtoeps and then Lhotshampas.
The vastness of agricultural land has enticed many farmers to Sarpang. Majority of the inhabitants are the Lhotshampas and nature worshippers which makes a great diversity of cultural experiences. The summer months are not recommended due to heat and humidity of the region.
Let us reveal the colours of the fall festivities or mesmerize you with some animist rituals. Sarpang district is one of the newly opened destinations when Gelephug was made feasible for entry and exit of tourists. At the moment Gelephug is the only destination opened for cultural highlights.
Explore the South Circuit’s Natural side
We often call the southern circuit as the hub of Bhutan’s unique nature trips. Talk of Zhemgang, we have the endemic species of primates called the Golden Langur. Next we have the Rufous-necked Hornbill which is another speciality. It is the only circuit where we can watch wild gaurs, elephants, rhinos, tigers, clouded leopard and any you would want to see in a tropical jungle.
Zhemgang’s altitude rises from 300m to almost 3000m above sea level. This makes a good haven for flower enthusiasts from spring till early summer. Sarpang is basically a low land region and the best known flowers in these regions are the tropical orchids.
Summer is the bane of tourism in the southern circuit. Due to monsoon rains, tours to these regions can be restrictive. Otherwise spring, autumn and winter are ideal bird watching months in the southern circuit. Zhemgang itself is a haven for many specialities in the Himalayas. Almost all the extinct species in the north-east Himalayas are still seen in the south circuit.
Highlights are endemic Golden Langur, tigers, clouded leopards, elephants, wild gaurs and many more. Manas is accessible from Zhemgang as well as from Sarpang. Excursions on the great Royal Manas Park and Kayaking on the Manas River are the highlight. As for Sarpang, the highlight will be Phibsoo Wildlife sanctuary. Do not expect 5 star hotels in these areas though tented camps will be readily available.
Explore the Kheng region on foot and you will be surprised to see a world you have not seen. Some villages still live traditionally in bamboo huts roofed in traditional bamboo leaves. Water is still being carried in small bamboo containers. The remoteness of Zhemgang region is itself a trekker’s delight. Explore the unexplored that is the watch word. As for Sarpang the best trekking route available is the one to the Royal Manas National park.