Every now and then, I move about the world and do a little field research. A few of my dispatches over the last weeks have intimated at my destinations to Bangkok and Bhutan.
I’ve oft quoted Thorton Wilder: “There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.” I’m usually pleased with my wandering and encounters. On my most recent adventure to the distinctive Kingdom of Bhutan, I was astonished by my discoveries. Nothing prepared me for this tiny Himalayan country, memories still wash over me in waves. Staying in five individual Amankora properties, meeting gentle and kind locals, hiking through mountain landscapes unlike any other, dining on local delicious delicacies, wandering through colorful ancient temples, and learning Bhutanese customs, I’m already longing to return.
To begin, a description of the Aman properties in Bhutan. Amankora Resorts has five lodges throughout the country, situated in unsurpassed locations and offer Journeys of any duration with emphasis on 8, 10 and 12 days. Amankora, as the lodges are named are luxurious lodge resorts amidst glacial valleys, blanketed with evergreen pine forests, orchards and rice farms. The name Amankora is derived from aman, the Sanskrit word for peace, and kora, meaning circular pilgrimage in Dzongkha.
A comfortable adventurous circuit for an Amanjunkie! Devoid of crowds and the trappings of tourism, the kingdom of Bhutan is unlike anywhere else on earth. Traipsing between these five lodges will provide the best insights into Bhutanese life and traditions. Become a scholar of the Buddhist kingdom at the resorts, amid Bhutan’s natural splendor and rich ancient heritage.
In Bhutan, Your Travel Lesson is to understand how and why the Bhutanese prefer Happiness over Wealth.
After landing in Paro, the plane needles a path through the narrow craggy mountain pass that only 12 pilots are licensed to fly, the majesty of the mountain landscape may be your first impression. However, Paro, at over 7000 feet, the brilliant sapphire sky and warm sunshine may also draw your attention. Even in winter, your close proximity to the sun provides comfortable days.
Tourism is still tightly controlled, due to environmental impact and government concerns over the unspoiled landscape and culture. However, we can coordinate the perfect Journey with Amankora, organizing the most exceptional guides and drivers, routing and suggesting preferable activities: ALL, if you are inclined!
A Journey to encompass all five resorts over 10 – 12 days may look like this outline. Discover the lodges in Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang with a 10 or 12-night Journey to all five Amankora lodges. In upcoming posts, discover the individual lodges and the unique experiences available at each location.
Day 1 Amankora Thimphu Land in Paro and explore forested mountains dotted with Monasteries and Temples enroute to Thimphu. Begin with crossing one of the oldest suspension bridges outside Paro, a hint of how the Kingdom traverses rivers and mountain passes. Using 600-year-old chains, the bridge represents one of eight bridges built in 1433 by builder and architect Drupthob Thangtong Gyalpo. The old bridge bed resembles chain link fencing and a sister bridge has wooden slats, allowing cattle to cross the river. The bridge leads to your first Dzong visit – a suggestion of ancient sites to come.
In Paro, a stroll through the city with afternoon visits to museums and chortens offers a window into the ancient culture, before arriving for a night at Amankora Thimphu. Bhutan’s capital lies in a steep valley at an altitude of 7709 feet. Sited in a pine forest in the upper reaches of the Thimphu Valley, Amankora Thimphu is a quiet retreat from the hustle and bustle of the Kingdom’s capital. Dzong-like architecture incorporates high stone, white-washed buildings accessed through an enclosed arrival court. Built as a 16-suite lodge, think Le Corbusier meets traditional Bhutanese architecture.
Day 2- Transfer to Punakha for 3 nights Journey 3 hours to Punakha via a dramatic drive over the Mountain Pass of Dochu La. Sights along the way include one of Bhutan’s first fortress monasteries the 17th Century Simtokha Dzong. The charming Amankora Punakha lies east of the Dochu La Pass and just north of the resplendent Punakha Dzong and Puntsho Pelri Palace, which dominates the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Po Chhu rivers. The lodge is situated amidst lush rice fields. Amankora sets the stage for arrival by guests crossing a pedestrian suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River, with stunning views of the age old dzong.
Eight suites, located in three rammed-earth buildings, are surrounded by rice paddies and fruit plantations, and situated in an orange orchard with views across the fields to the Punakha Valley and beyond. The suites are cozy, featuring wood paneled interiors and a traditional wood burning bukhari stove. The four new Mo Chhu Suites are in a separate building and two feature separate living areas. The suites can be combined to offer two 2-bedroom units. Did I mention the swimming pool and the lovely courtyard of the communal dining space? Cows graze around the grounds, one in particular greeted me as I returned to my suite. I love the new suites, with sweeping views of the river below.
The sub-tropical valleys of Punakha and the surrounding mountain sides offer a large variety of attractive places to explore the outdoors; the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers are great for water adventures, alternatively you can discover monasteries including the Punakha Dzong.
Evening chanting rituals can be enjoyed at Sangchhen Dorji Lhuendrup Lakhang. An opportunity to sit and chant religious mantras seated in the midst of the roaring drums & blaring trumpets, you’ll be certain to discover your spiritual center.
Day 3-4 Punakaha Valley Activities include river rafting, hiking visit the Punakha Dzong, home of the remains of Bhutans first ruler and winter residence of the monastic orders leader and his monks. The Punakha Dzong is considered one of the most important and also one of the most beautiful Dzongs in the Kingdom. It was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in 1637 and was the seat of the government every winter until Thimphu was established as the permanent capital in 1955. It is still the winter residence of the Dratshang (Central Monastic Body). Take time to admire the impressive, colorful and detailed artistry of the surroundings, including huge statues of Buddha, Guru Rinpoche and Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, as well as paintings of one-thousand Buddha’s.
If you are feeling adventurous, walk across one of the longest suspension bridges in Bhutan. A short walk from the Punakha Dzong the bridge is built over the Pho Chhu river and serves as the main thoroughfare between Punakha town and the surrounding villages. We scurried across amid a red-robed group of monks out on their lunch walk. A warm winter day inspired many other monks to shed their robes and swim in the river below the bridge.
A popular option at Amankaro Punakha is a private riverside BBQ just below the lodge, sit under the shade of the pine trees enjoying the sounds of the river, views of the river and mountain peaks. Archery is the national sport, and this is a great spot to begin practicing!
A short drive from Amankora Punakha, through the valley floor leads to the Chimi Lhakhang, the auspicious 15th-century fertility monastery. A ritual fertility ceremony can be organized here if you are inclined. This Temple is located in the somewhat famed village with wildly colorful phallic symbols painted on the walls of the local homes.
Day 5 Transfer by car to Gangtey for 2 nights. Ascend a 3000-meter mountain pass with Himalayan views before reaching Gangtey in the Phobjika Valley. Stroll through Gangtey Village, lost in time, and visit the striking Gangtey Goemba at the head of the valley before taking a traditional Hot Stone Bath at Amankora’s Gangtey Lodge. The eight suite Amankora lodge provides an exclusive hideaway, with broad sweeping views of the stunning valley landscape, fields of dwarf bamboo and potato crops, and the 16th century Gangtey Goenpa in the nearby village of Gangtey. The lodge accommodation and guest areas are encompassed in one rammed-earth building with a combined living and dining room filled with cozy chairs, sofas and family style dining tables, with phenomenal views through the floor to ceiling windows over the valley and surrounding mountains. The spacious suites are identical in layout to those of Amankora Thimphu, with an open plan living and bedroom area, and have stunning views across the valley. There is a small spa at Amankora Gangtey with exceptional offerings.
Day 6 Explore Gangtey valley with either a gentle stroll along the Nature Trail or explore the famous Longtey Hike. Experience Amankora’s signature private dining experience in a traditional candle lit Bhutanese potato shed. The potato shed dinner is unforgettable, a small hand built stone building illuminated by hundreds of flickering candles. If you are visiting in fall through winter, you may glimpse the majestic endangered black necked crane at their breeding grounds.
Day 7 Three nights at Bumthang. A five-hour drive on a mostly paved road through dizzying mountain passes, dramatic landscapes and gorges, precariously perched farmhouses and temples on the country’s only east-west highway. Pass through dramatic landscapes to Bumthang and visit Trongsa Dzong the ancestral home of Bhutan’s monarch. The 16-Suite Amankora Bumthang sits across a terrace from the Wandichholing Palace, built in 1857 as the Kingdom’s first palace that served as the royal residence until it was moved to Thimphu in the 1950s. This is now the residence of a small monk colony and you will often catch glimpses of them walking across the gardens from your bedroom..
Stop in some of the small shops along the route and look for the deep-colored traditional Yatra textiles being crafted in Chhume Valley, home to one of Bhutan’s oldest weaving communities. A popular archery area, look for all day Saturday matches with the local villagers and cultivate your archery skills. Sipping whiskey with a local archer will unquestionably improve your game.
Bumthang Valley, at 8464 feet is covered in fields of buckwheat, millet and potatoes with apple orchards climbing the slopes to mix with deep pine forests.
Located within the town of Jakar in the Choekhor Valley, this area is the site of some of Bhutan’s most auspicious monasteries and temples and easy day walks can take you to these beautiful sites. Many of these ancient buildings such as the 7th century Jampa Lhakhang are decorated with vibrant wall paintings and richly adorned altars that all have fascinating stories behind them. The surrounding area is also famed for its cottage industries including Bumthang butter, locally brewed Red Panda beer, Emmental cheese and locally produced honey. Unlike its sister locations, Amankora Bumthang is located directly in the center of Bumthang Valley.
Day 8 Bumthang Valley. Heading up the Valley you can visit Jambay Lhakhang home of the early winter festivals that draw thousands of Bhutanese for their annual blessings and then visit the grand Kurjey Lhakhang, one of Bhutan’s most auspicious monuments, as well as Tamshing Monastery.
Day 9 Traverse the rarely visited Tang Valley with a midday picnic amid breathtaking surroundings. Visit temples and monasteries as well as Ogyen Choling Palace, filled with countless Bhutanese cultural treasures. The four valleys of Bumthang – Choekhor, Tang, Ura and Chhume offer numerous experiences whether you want to hike, bike, discover temples, watch wildlife, or learn more about the Bhutanese lifestyle and culture.
Day 10 Domestic short 45-minute flight from Bumthang to Paro. Paro is one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan. Sited in Balakha Village, just a 20-minute drive from Bhutan’s international airport and Paro town, Amankora Paro lies beneath the shadows of the imposing ruins of the 17th century Drugyel Dzong (fortress-monastery), nestled within a blue-pine forest of glistening conifers. The 24 suites are designed and built in a traditional Bhutanese style with natural rammed-earth walls, gently sloping roofs and wood-paneled interiors. Each room has a contemporary yet cozy feel, comprising of a king-size bed, traditional bukhari wood-burning stove and large terrazzo-clad bath.
At approximately 2,250 meters above sea level, the views from the lodge take in Drukgyel Dzong and stretch to the 7,300-metre snow-capped peak of Jhomolhari (or Chomolhari) and beyond.
Amankora Paro offers elegant dining which takes places either in the communal dining room or outside in the grounds surrounded by open fires and beautiful views.
Paro’s administrative center, Rinpung Dzong, is one of the most sacred Dzongs of Bhutan, and in this beautiful valley you can find some of the earliest temples in the Kingdom such as the 7th century temple Kyichu Lhakhang.
Day 11 Tigers Nest Hike. After making your own prayer flag at Amankora with one of the oldest local gentlemen, find a suitable location to practice your last Bhutanese ritual and tie your flag to an auspicious location. Begin early in the morning to ascend the cliff face and view one of Bhutan’s most dramatic and revered monuments, referred to as Tiger’s Nest or Taktsang, built in the 17th century.
Day 12 Explore nearby ruins as well as some of the valley’s oldest and holiest religious monuments. Take a short drive to Kyichu Lhakhang and participate in lighting 108 symbolic butterlamps, compose your prayer before exploring the nearby 7th Century Temple.
Day 13 Depart from Paro airport. The Amankora Journey can be modified to fill 8-10 and 12 days with original and stimulating Itineraries and include helicopter jaunts to shorten some of the drives, or merely to sightsee high above the valleys from a birds eye view.
Bhutan’s Amankora lodges are truly marvelous, but it is a delightful combination of the authentic inspired lodges, the genuine cultural offerings at each location and the warm Bhutanese people that make a trip to Bhutan so memorable– the people are particularly quick to laugh, share their culture and welcome visitors. After all, they’ve been ranked number one in the world for Gross National Happiness.
Advance planning is essential to visiting Bhutan and the Amankora Lodges.