A continuation and completion of the numerous activities offered at the five Amankora Lodges in Bhutan.
Truth be told, my love of Gangtey is close to the Amankora Punakha Farmhouse for different reasons. Gangtey truly provides a look at a very typical Bhutanese life: agriculture and farming; as the lodge is surrounded by potato and turnip fields.
The eight suite Amankora Gangtey provides an exclusive hideaway, with broad sweeping views of the stunning valley landscape, fields of dwarf bamboo and potato crops, the 16th century Gangtey Goemba Monestary is in the nearby village. 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. Floor to ceiling windows frame majestic views, you’ll wake, dine and bathe with these breathtaking views, leave your shutters open to wake with the exquisite morning lite. Meals are enjoyed inside and on a massive sunny terrace, soak in deep tubs with expansive valley views from the patchwork of small local farms to the blue pine forest that towers from the mist.
The Gangtey village is home to the ancient altars and ramparts of the massive Gangtey Goemba. The massive wild rhododendrons grow in forest size plots, spring time blossoms set the hillsides ablaze in color. The list of activities is varied including hikes, romantic dinners in an authentic potato shed, a hot stone soak in a wooden tub, situated in a candlelit stone hut on a hill, a ten-minute walk from the lodge. You have the unique opportunity to soak in a wooden tub out in the open and enjoy this traditional Bhutanese healing experience. The sliding bamboo doors allow full privacy yet offer open views of the magnificent Phobjikha Valley. Your body will benefit from the minerals in the heated stones and the healing effects of the local Khempa herb. Sit back and unwind in the bath for as long as you wish as you sip on a cup of hot apple cider and watch the sun set.
If you are looking for a picturesque hike through some of the most beautiful parts of Gangtey, this is the one. A 30 minute drive will take you to the starting point in Longtey village, and the hike takes about 3 – 5 hours. The trail initially takes you through a small village where the Nomad yak herders put up their camps in the winter. Seeing the Nomads was part of my enchanting visit to Bhutan, the story of their Himalayan mountain life, small villages inhabited by locals who live pretty much off the grid, happy in their pursuits of herding yak and wandering the high mountain passes and arriving every fall to sell their Yak based products.
From here you continue upwards through mystifying old-growth rhododendron forest. For the next two hours or so, you might feel like you are in the settings of Lord of The Rings surrounded by towering ancient trees which appear to be living creatures surrounding you. The last section through the forest is slightly steeper uphill until you reach the pass with impressive views of the Gangtey Goemba, the Shedra (monastic school), the lodge and the rest of the valley. This is a lovely spot for lunch before you continue on the path as it slopes down the valley towards the idyllic Kumbu village. Many days we would pass locals enjoying picnics or taking a moment for, as my guide Sangay explained ‘”taking a sun bath, Aum Gwen.” Living in the moment is a traditional Bhutanese lifestyle.
The Phobjikha Valley is part of the Black Mountains National Park, one of Bhutan’s most important wildlife sanctuaries. Each winter it is home to a flock of 300 rare black-necked cranes which arrive from Tibet. The arrival of the cranes carries much symbolism in Bhutan.
Bhutan is a country shrouded by religion, superstition and ancient myths. Rules of social behavior are age-old. Ancient methods of conducting rituals and caring for their environment and for each other as well as the codes of behavior, manners, sensibility and religion haven’t changed much in lifetimes. We hiked above the valley nesting grounds and heard the honking calls to the flock.
A five-hour drive on a mostly paved road through dizzying mountain passes, dramatic landscapes and plunging gorges, precariously perched farmhouses and temples on the country’s only east-west highway. Pass through these impressive landscapes to Bumthang and stop to visit Trongsa Dzong, the middle point and a wonderful picnic location at the ancestral home of Bhutan’s Royal family. The drive with gaping canyons, cascading waterfalls, small rest stops crosses two mountain passes: Pele La at over 11,200 feet and Yotong La at 11,236 feet. A pre-modernization view of this road can be enjoyed by watching an old film “Travelers and Magicians”, an award-winning Bhutanese film. The film is a tender reminder of the gentleness of the Bhutanese, we went to Karaoke with our drivers and guides, most of the songs were sweet Asian love songs.
The 16-suite Amankora Bumthang sits across a sunny 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 orchards.
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. You should not leave Bumthang without experiencing at least a few of them, Amankora provides an extensive list on visiting shops where the locals make hand made paper, hiking, personal experiences, bird watching..a plethora of activities.
Have you milked a cow? To get real insight into how farming is done without machines and modern technology, get an early start and visit one of the local farmhouse in the valley. First, you will be given the opportunity to take part in milking the family’s cows. Back in the farmhouse, you will get to see and participate in butter churning and local cheese processing. You will also get the chance to taste the freshly made dairy products. If you wish, the farmhouse owner will prepare a traditional Bhutanese breakfast for you.
Bhutanese name giving ceremony at Sey Lhakhang. Coming to Bhutan is an enthralling experience and getting a Bhutanese name is a onetime opportunity. Should you wish to have a Bhutanese name from Sey Lhakhang, we can arrange a small ceremony followed by name giving by Lama. You will have to provide your date of birth. After Lama receives your date of birth he will perform a Buddhist name calculation and present you with a name. Then he will explain the meaning of your name. With the new name and blessings, you will light the butterlamps for wellbeing. This blessing will take place in the private altar room of the monastery. Monks will serve you some milk tea with Bhutanese snacks.
Among the many hikes offered here, this one is a favorite. Shugdrak is one of the four holy cliffs which every human being should visit during the course of their lifetime. The hike up to the temple is easy and the view from the top is beautiful beyond words. The drive to the starting point for the Shugdrak hike takes you along the river down Choekhor Valley. The trail starts shortly after passing Thangbi Goemba on your left. Initially, you will walk upwards through flower meadows before catching a smaller trail which leads towards a handful of farmhouses. It continues past an old water mill and then straight up to Shugdrak, beautifully situated on a cliff overlooking the surrounding valleys. Steps imprinted in the mountainside lead up above the roof top of the temple where hermits reside in a charming farmhouse surrounded by prayer flags, and with spectacular views in several directions. This is the perfect spot for a picnic lunch before continuing on your journey back to the lodge.
Visit a local farmhouse to understand Bhutanese life and enjoy a home cooked lunch prepared by the owner. If you wish to experience not just traditional Bhutanese food in authentic surroundings, but also Bumthang specialties made from local products such as buckwheat, we would like to take you for a very different lunch experience. The family you will visit has cooked for the Royal Family for generations, and their idyllic farmhouse is located in Dorjibi village nearby the river further into Choekhor valley. By the time you arrive at their house, the lady of the house, Aum Tshomo, will have spent the entire morning preparing a range of local dishes, including some of the Royal Family’s favorites for you to enjoy along with a taste of their homemade local wine, ara.
Take a short flight back to Paro and end your Bhutanese adventure here, the climatic Tigers Nest hike awaits you. 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 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.
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. Adjacent to this temple is a unique round building where you can lite 108 Butterlamps, a traditional ceremony.
Again Amankora offers their top ten list of local activities, one could spend a month in Bhutan, hiking, biking, temple hopping, museums, and enjoying instructional classes.
Bhutan talks more about Gross National Happiness (GNH) than Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is considered to be the measurement of performance for the well-being of all Bhutanese. This concept was introduced by the fourth Druk Gyalpo, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the early 1980s and has been considered revolutionary by the global leaders around the world. We can arrange for a private lecture with Khenpo Phuntshio Tashi, director of the National Museum, who is an expert on this topic.
For biking enthusiasts, we recommend that you follow the main road about 6 kilometers downhill to Zhiwaling Hotel. From here, turn right and conquer the steep hill upwards before turning left after a small chorten. Continue on the gravel road parallel to the main road which takes you thru tranquil village surroundings and provides insight into the valley’s farming traditions and rural life. After 14 kilometers, you will end up in town where you can enjoy a beer and momo (local dumplings) in the frequently visited Sonam Trophel restaurant.
Lighting of108 Butterlamps in one of the Bhutan’s oldest temples dating back to the 7th century, Kyichu Lhakhang is an experience of a lifetime. The Butterlamp or karme represents the dispelling of the darkness of ignorance. The lighting of butterlamps is an offering of light to the deities and is one of the most common means of increasing one’s merit. It also helps to focus the mind and aid meditation. The sacred and incredibly beautiful Kyichu Lhakhang is located a 20-minute drive down the valley and is a tranquil and appropriate location for this ritual. The 7th Century temple is beautiful, and the courtyard has rare orange trees, the only area of Paro where oranges grow is in this sacred courtyard.
Tiger’s Nest is one of Bhutan’s most revered monuments. It literally hangs off the face of a cliff 10,240 feet above the valley floor. The legend states that Guru Rimpoche flew from Singye Dzong in Kurtoe to the present day Taktshang on a mythical tigress and meditated in the cave before bringing Buddhism to Bhutan. Hence, the Taktshang Goemba is built around this cave. The four-hour round trip offers spectacular views of the Goemba and the valley below. Horses or mules can be arranged on request to help lighten the journey.
I enjoyed many of these experiences combined with massage treatments, shopping for local crafts and antiques and cooking classes.
Bhutan’s Amankora Lodges are truly marvelous, it’s not only their unique locations, their distinct architecture and amazing guides, it’s a 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 Bhutanese people are particularly quick to laugh, share their culture and welcome visitors. After all, Bhutan has been ranked number one in the world for Gross National Happiness.
I ended my Journey wanting more of this unique Kingdom.