The flight into the Himalayan airport of Paro is so challenging, I am told, that there are only eight pilots certified to land here. At an elevation of 2,250 metres, only visual landings are possible, and pilots constantly have to adjust their heading on approach as they descend through valleys in order to make it to the runway. It also makes for breathtaking views of snow-capped mountain peaks, welcoming visitors to the last bastion of Vajrayana Buddhism – a spiritual practice known to be one of the most profound schools of teaching in the Buddhist world.
Perched high on the mighty Himalayan range, the Kingdom of Bhutan has defied globalisation; instead, it is a country that has forged a pact with its past to preserve a unique cultural heritage and the land’s exquisite natural beauty, with sacred monasteries sitting precariously on sheer cliffs, fluttering prayer flags lining the high ridges, glacial river valleys, evergreen forests, and red-robed monks adding to the omnipresent magical aura that prevails.
Stepping off the Druk Air plane in Paro from Bangkok, the airport is hardly a beehive of activity. The carefully controlled tourism policy of the Bhutanese government has seen only 62,773 international tourists and 146,797 regional tourists arriving in the country in 2016. For the Bhutanese people, the main goal in life after all is happiness. The mandate [in Bhutan] of Gross National Happiness (GNH) means that economic development – a goal for most other countries – is seen here as only a means to the real goal of happiness.
In the foreword of the book by Gyonpo Tshering, The Bhutanese Guide to Happiness – 365 Proverbs from the World’s Happiest Nation, the Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, writes: “The concept of Gross National Happiness originated from the wise mind and compassionate heart of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan. His unique philosophy guides as well as measures Bhutan’s growth and progress, not by its Gross Domestic Product, but by its GNH. It is based on the conviction that material wealth alone does not bring happiness or ensure the wellbeing of its people, and that economic growth and modernisation should not be at the expense of the people’s quality of life. Bhutan’s philosophy of governance, based on GNH, which is now acclaimed by economists and planners the world over, also reflects the spiritual and cultural values that have guided us through the ages.”
When Aman Resorts arrived in Bhutan over 15 years ago with five lodges scattered throughout some of the country’s most scenic locations, it was the first luxury hotel group to arrive in the mountain kingdom. Located in Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Gangtey and Bhumthang, Amankora (deriving its name from aman meaning “peace” in Sanskrit and kora or “circular pilgrimage” in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language) offers bespoke, multi-destination itineraries with a dedicated guide and private driver. The lodges are all small, offering between eight and 24 suites, adding to the exclusivity that has become such a hallmark of Aman.
I’m here for “The Short Loop Amankora Journey”, consisting of a two-night stay at each of the lodges in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha – a week-long discovery that will go on to reaffirm my “Aman junkie” convictions, with a discovery of some of the very best Bhutan has to offer; an experience that can only be described as magical.
The arrival experience at each of the three lodges is on foot – the absence of cars and traffic make for absolute peace and tranquility around the buildings. In Paro, after climbing up a hill on a footpath through a pine forest, the lodge suddenly appears in sight. In Punakha, the lodge is reached after a walk over a private suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River and then a short drive with a buggy. Likewise, at Amonkora Thimphu, the entrance makes a lasting impression with its location next to a forest. Everywhere, the welcoming smiles of staff make you feel instantly at home.
With the exception of the main building at Punakha lodge – a century-old farmhouse – all are new buildings, designed to provide a “hideout” feeling while blending in with the natural surroundings and following Bhutanese architecture – but with a contemporary interpretation – with white-washed irregular façades and traditional carved wooden roofs. In line with Aman’s philosophy of understated private luxury, the spacious suites are decorated in a rustic way with light-coloured wood in warm and earthy tones, large windows, bukhari wood-burning stoves, and crisp white linen.
In the bathrooms, there are marble tops and freestanding tubs, while bathroom amenities have been specially created to help nourish the hair and body, and to protect it from the high altitude and cold weather.
Every night with turn-down, a little surprise awaits on your pillow; normally something with a local touch like a hand-held prayer wheel, a book or prayer flag, while a cookie jar is replenished daily. Personally, I love a proper turn-down. And with it being winter during my visit, I especially enjoyed the hot water bottle tucked into the bed and the fireplace that was lit every evening.
There are no televisions or bar fridges in the suites and, admittedly, I missed neither. Such peace and quiet in a beautiful, close-to-nature destination is a rare luxury, and your appetite and other whims are well-catered for with an all-inclusive package: meals and house drinks, laundry, return Paro airport transfers, visa processing, and spa treatment (and as previously mentioned, private your guide and driver).
Although the lodges are spread across several hours of drive from each other, their interior design is very similar. When checking into a new lodge, there’s an immediate familiarity with your surroundings.
Mealtimes quickly becomes another daily highlight after our group informs the respective chefs of our wish to try Bhutanese cuisine (depending on the lodge, standard menus consisted of Western and Pan-Asian choices). But it’s the unique cuisine of Bhutan that really tickles our fancy. All meals are enjoyed at leisure whenever you please, or even set up as a picnic when out trekking or sight-seeing.
At each of the lodges, Amankora Spa offers a treatment menu with unique traditional plant-and herb-based therapies – highlights being the signature hot stone bath or Himalayan salt scrub and massage at Paro, or Thimphu’s hot oil massage.
Despite all these indulgences, a standout is the exceptionally thoughtful and intuitive service that is maintained in a consistent way at each of the lodges – a star element of Aman. After staying at the lodges for six nights, I can’t recall ever seeing housekeeping or gardeners – yet my suite was always immaculate and bed made, while the environment is always spotless.
Guests can choose between a myriad of activities, from archery (the national sport of Bhutan) to private talks with local experts on a variety of topics, or entertainment, such as traditional dances. Although itineraries can be pre-planned, there’s also enough flexibility to adapt to whatever activity is on offer at each lodge.
Excursions are devised to immerse guests in and give them rare insights of Bhutanese life and traditions, from hikes to iconic sights like the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Paro to astrology readings, visits to temples, historic sights and farmhouse lunches, as well as activities like biking through local villages and farmland, rafting or kayaking.
What strikes me particularly about Bhutan is how time seems to have stood still – all for the good – and the warm and friendly nature of the local people. Indeed, it may be one of the very last remaining destinations of its kind, and I can completely understand why the Bhutanese want to keep it that way.
As the tourism office advises: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footsteps.