The allure of Bhutan, this Himalayan Kingdom in the clouds, had travelled across the mountains to our shores through vivid National Geographic-esque photos: of smiling gho-clad children; of a monastery hanging off a mist-covered mountain; of stunning landscapes where rivers wind through valleys dotted with ancient dzongs. These pictures accompanied enchanting stories of a good king who measures progress in terms of Gross National Happiness instead of GDP, and a revered “Divine Madman” monk whose crazy wisdom has inspired generations of Bhutanese to paint a colourful phallus over every doorway.
I had to go.
We planned our trip for November, so as to visit in perfect autumn weather, while just skipping the peak tourist season. We wanted to avoid drives longer than 3 hours, so we traversed the country Paro-Thimphu-Punakha-Gangtey, and doubled back Punakha-Thimphu-Paro, stopping to spend at least one night at each point, staying in some of the most captivating properties I’ve ever been.
Having only recently opened its doors to the world, Bhutan has tread the tourism path gingerly, prudently adopting a “high-end, low volume” approach to circumvent the detrimental effects of mass tourism. Hence they were cautiously selective in choosing the luxury lodges that would have a place in this precious kingdom. Consequently, this tiny land is now home to some of the most beautiful and luxurious accommodations in the world. They invited 2 of my favourite hotel groups to create magical journeys across Bhutan: COMO’s 2 beautiful resorts are set in the beautiful valleys of Paro and Punakha, and Amanresorts’s Amankora Journey is the only circuit of lodges that covers 5 valleys, taking travelers from Paro to Bumthang.
These places are gorgeous and well worth visiting, and many of the experiences in our itinerary were simply unforgettable. However, the most poignant part of our journey was when we left the tourist path – teaching English to young monks in a monastery, talking with children in a local primary school, and spending time with our Bhutanese friends.
Paro: A Breathtaking Arrival
The tiny Druk-Air plane navigates a precipitous descent through the Himalayan peaks to land at the plateau on which Paro’s small airport stands. Climbing down from the plane, a picture of the smiling king and his beautiful queen greet you. It feels like we have landed in another world.
The Aman guide, Tenzin, greets us at the entrance and takes us to the SUV that brings us to the first Amankora property. A bed of fallen pine leaves carpets the path leading to the beautifully austere stone and glass building hidden in the woods.
There’s luxury in the simplicity of the suite, and we sit and read in the bed by tall windows overlooking the forest, revelling in the peacefulness of our new surroundings.
In the late afternoon, Tenzin takes us to Amankora’s archery grounds to try our hand at their national sport, before we settle down to a delightful spread of Bhutanese cuisine — delicious momo dumplings, chilli and cheese peculiarly but perfectly combined in ema datshi, a delectable hogay salad of cucumbers, onions and cheese. A traditional folk musician plays a Bhutanese fiddle by the log fire as we dine. After dinner, we adjourn to the lounge where a wizened gentleman teaches us to make traditional prayer flags. Next, we head to the spa for a soak in a traditional hot stone bath, in a wooden tub filled with medicinal herbs, heated by smouldering river rocks rolled through a hole in the wall.
As we lower ourselves into the soothingly hot water, we marvel at how it is only Day One and already we feel fully immersed in Bhutanese tradition.
Thimphu: Temples and Fortresses
Leaving the exploration of Paro for when we return towards the end of the trip, we take a leisurely breakfast before the 1 hour drive to Thimphu. A single winding road leads to a valley of scattered low rise buildings and a population of 80,000. This pocket-sized municipality is Bhutan’s capital and the largest city in the country.
Amankora Thimphu sits secluded within a hilltop pine forest, a short drive from the city centre. The Dzong-inspired architecture places 16 suites in whitewashed-stone buildings around a large central courtyard, where in the cool evenings, sconces and lanterns are lit and masked traditional dancers leap around the flames of a fire pit.
Like Amankora Paro, the rooms are luxuriously simple, with wood-panelled walls, a warming fire in a wood-burning bukhari stove and a free-standing terrazzo soaking tub. Despite the urge to stay ensconced in Amankora’s comfort, we venture out to the city, where a variety of museums enlighten visitors about traditional medicines, textiles and history. The Folk Heritage Museum is actually a preserved, furnished 3 storey rammed-earth and timber hut that gives an insightful glimpse into life in 19th century Bhutan. After 5pm, you can wander through Tashichoe Dzong, or “fortress of the glorious religion” which, as impressive as its name implies, is a building of stunning grandeur and beautiful architecture that houses the King’s throne room, seats of government, and in summer, Bhutan’s central monastic body.
Punakha: Picnics and Palaces by the River
The road from Thimphu to Punakha ascends to the awe-inspiring mountain pass of Dochu La, a staggering 3140metres up in the sky. A cluster of memorial chortens marks the peak, a bittersweet reminder of lives come and gone, and prayer flags flutter in the wind, carrying the hopes of the living to the world. Standing on the edge on a clear day, the Himalayan ridges stretch out across the horizon, providing an unparalleled vantage point on top of the world.
The third stop of the journey is the tranquil Punakha valley. A suspension bridge garlanded with colourful prayer flags crosses a gurgling river, leading to the charming traditional farmhouse (once the Queen Mother’s), that is now the most intimate and authentic of the Amankora lodges.
The shaded courtyard overlooking a sea of rice terraces, is a most delightful spot to take breakfast, especially in the mild autumn weather. But yet more enchanting is the private riverside BBQ experience, one of the many exclusive activities Aman organises for its guests. In the light of the afternoon, we set out to the secluded spot on the riverbank, where a beautifully set table awaits. As you watch the river running by, a private chef stands over a grill preparing a feast for uniformed waiters to serve on silver platters. When the sun sets, torches and lanterns are lit and it becomes a candlelit dinner in a wood clearing. We walk back to the courtyard to see traditional dancers from the local village performing around a fire. It is magical to sit in the light of the dancing flames, wrapped in a shawl, sipping hot butter tea, and enjoying the songs in the air.
A definite highlight is the Punakha Dzong, which sits at the river’s confluence — a beautiful, majestic palace set against nature’s perfect backdrop. We pass it again from a different vantage point when we go river rafting, crossing underneath the long wooden bridge that leads to the entrance of the monastery. There’s an immense tranquillity that the river brings to the valley. At some stretches the raft tumbles over rapids, but mostly we drift in absolute serenity, the soothing sounds of the river broken only by birds splashing across the water as they take flight. We take a picnic by the river as well, mats and a picnic spread prepared by Aman laid out by our guides. Here again, lying on the bank under the willows, we are struck by the profound peacefulness of our surroundings.
Phobjikha Valley: Hikes, Hot-stone Baths and Beautiful Bhutanese Children
From the quaint riverside tranquillity of Punakha, the Amankora journey takes us to the vast, awe-inspiring expanse of the Phobjikha valley. The glass-enclosed main building of Amankora Gangtey sits atop a hill, and whether you are sipping tea in the lounge or dining at the communal dining table, you can glimpse the breath-taking view of the valley stretched out below and, in a distance, the 16th century Gangtey Goempa (the monastery where I meet a young trulku, or reincarnated lama).
Phobjikha valley is a hiker’s paradise, where trails weave through forests of soaring, silent rhododendron, wide open plains where grassy fields stretch beyond line of sight, local villages where farmers look up from their work in the fields to smile and wave. The valley is also home to the rare black-necked cranes, stories about which are weaved into Bhutanese folklore, and whose arrival into the valley each November is celebrated locally with a lively festival culminating in the courtyard of the Gangtey Goempa. This is a beautiful monastery, one we spend a morning exploring before lunch at the gorgeous terrace of adjacent boutique-luxury Gangtey Goempa Lodge, which has, yet again, spectacular vistas across Phobjikha valley.
Each excursion, our guide Tenzin leads us through the beautiful landscape, eventually settling us down at a perfect picnic spot — a grassy knoll by a brook, an empty plain with views of the mountain rising all around — and lays out a large mat, blankets and tiffins filled with a vast picnic spread.
Tired after a long hike, the Amankora spa has the perfect antidote. The signature treatment is the Himalayan hot stone massage, which employs smooth, heated river stones to ease away any aches and leave you deeply relaxed. But Amankora’s must-try experience is the traditional hot stone bath. We had experienced one the first day in Paro, but the Gangtey experience is something else altogether. A short walk from the lodge, lies the wooden shed of a local farmer. Outside, a roaring log fire is lit, and Amankora staff greet us bearing cups of tea. Inside the shed is an authentic hot stone bath, filled with steaming water and herbs, and surrounded by candles set into the walls. Once we settle into the soothing waters, the doors open to reveal an awe-inspiring view of the remote valley, and it is the most magical experience to watch the sun set from this enchanting place.
The other impossibly romantic Amankora experience not to be missed is the potato shed dinner, a nine-course Bhutanese meal in a stone hut lit by hundreds of flickering candles and warmed by a roaring wood-burning bukhari.
It’s astonishing to discover such luxury in such remoteness. Yet the most memorable experience is our visit to the local primary school, where we are welcomed to teach the older classes. Simple wooden buildings stand alone in bucolic pastureland. The children in their ghos and kiras have ruddy cheeks and shy smiles and execute their polite “Hello, how are you?” perfectly. We come bearing colourful stationery for the 200 children, which they accept with such delight it makes us wish we had managed to pack more presents, and almost feel ashamed about the excesses children back home grow up with. On exam day, the children take their low tables and pencils out to the field and sit cross-legged in quite possibly the most picturesque exam hall in the world.
The Gangtey valley is beautiful, romantic, and unspeakably peaceful. Add the angelic faces of the happy local children to the picture and our fate is sealed. We fall in love with the place.
Punakha: Young Monks and English Lessons
After our idyllic stay in Gangtey we back-track to Punakha again, this time setting up base at Uma Punakha, the valley outpost of COMO hotels. When we arrive, a floating mist lies over the intimate lodge, nestled in the hills. We have been confronted with a multitude of unforgettable views, but nothing takes our breath away like the incredible vista from Uma’s terrace. From this vantage within the Himalayan mountains, terraced fields in various hues of green drop away towards the valley floor, where the river glitters as it curves through the vale. We lounge on the outdoor sofa, sipping tea as the sun sets.
There are 11 rooms here. The aesthetic at COMO is simple, pared-back luxury, nothing out of the ordinary until you draw the bedroom curtains to reveal the wall of edge-to-edge, floor-to-ceiling glass that opens the space to the gorgeous valley immediately beyond. The room to book is one of the 2 COMO villas, which have a terrace offering the same unbelievable view and bukhari fires within the living room.
We are back in Punakha to teach English at the local monastery. For centuries, monasteries across Bhutan have provided a refuge for the poorest of children, sent by parents who can’t afford to give their children food and education. The abbot is kind and fatherly but speaks little English, and is delighted to receive volunteer teachers. 12-14 young monks sit cross-legged on the wooden floor in a room empty save for scratched leather trunks that hold their belongings. The boys are sweet and eager to learn, (though their shyness necessitates sweets and pencils as incentives to answer questions!), so lessons are a delight.
Returning to Uma, we take dinner at our favourite canopied table on the restaurant terrace, right by a blazing bukhari. The food served here is excellent, the best Bhutanese cuisine we have on the journey. The convivial lodge manager Thamu often joins guests for dinner, providing excellent company as well.
So our time in the valley slips peacefully by.
Thimphu: A Parliamentarian, Llama and Princess
We return to the capital for business meetings and to catch up with Bhutanese friends.
On this leg, we stay at the impressive Taj Tashi hotel. In contrast to the boutique luxury lodges we have thus far encountered, Taj Tashi stands tall over Thimphu, its Dzong-architecture lending the impression of a palatial fortress. What Taj Tashi lacks in intimacy and remote luxury, it makes up for in grandeur. A spa, heated pool, 2 restaurants, conference hall — all the accoutrements of a 5-star hotel are in place. Every night, bonfires are lit in the outdoor courtyard, and traditional dancers perform an elaborate hour-long show for guests as they sip on cups of hot butter tea sprinkled with crispy puffed rice, a delicious and comforting traditional drink.
It’s a luxurious place to return to after busy days, filled with a myriad of interesting meetings: We have lunch with our friend, Tashi Wangmo, a local member of parliament who engages us in riveting and insightful conversation about Bhutanese government and culture. We have tea with the son of a friend, who happens to be a reincarnated lama. We have dinner at the foreign secretary’s home with dinner guests who include a princess and an adventurer-explorer. Our Aman guide, Tenzin, introduces us to his beautiful wife and baby son. I follow my husband, the venture capitalist, to visit the Thimphu tech-park. He follows me, the doctor, to visit the local hospital. Our days are filled with fascinating conversations and wonderful people, and our stint in Thimphu is over all too soon.
Paro: The Tiger’s Nest
The journey brings us full circle, back to Paro. We end our trip in my favourite of the lodges in Bhutan, Uma Paro. There are 20 rooms and suites in this hideaway but to truly experience the luxury of the resort, a stay in one of their 9 amazing villas is requisite. We are so fortunate (again!) to receive an upgrade to the COMO villa, a sprawling house with 2 bedrooms, ensuite bathrooms with walk-in-wardrobes, a large living and dining room with a bukhari stove, and kitchen. Beyond a small courtyard where a firepit and alfresco hot-stone bath-tub await, the villa has its own spa suite. Back out front, the glass doors of the living room open to a wood-decked terrace with beautiful, sweeping views of the valley below. Each villa has a private butler who sees to our every need from lighting the fire, preparing an elaborate candle-lit dinner, making reservations and tour arrangements, and basically pampering us with warm, attentive service.
For such an intimate boutique lodge, the array of luxury amenities is remarkable. The COMO Shambhala spa is a vast retreat equipped with a gym, yoga studio, sauna and a beautiful heated indoor pool. We can choose to have treatments (that include Asian-inspired massages and Ayurvedic therapies) in our villa’s spa suite, but decide to take the hot-stone bath within one of the private bathhouses. This is our third hot stone bath, each experience very different but all wonderful. COMO’s hot-stone bath is indoors, with windows shaded by slatted blinds looking out towards Paro valley. At night, candles surround us as we soak in the herb-filled water, and city lights dotting the valley twinkle outside.
Our last night, we dine at Uma’s Bukhari restaurant, a circular pavilion with views of the surrounding alpine forest in every direction. The Bhutanese set dinner is a delicious 8-course gastronomic affair. I savour the momo dumplings, ema datshi curry and hogay salad I have come to love, knowing my stay in Bhutan is drawing to an end.
The images of Paro’s Taksang, or “Tiger’s Nest” monastery, were one of the things that had lured me to Bhutan. At the end of the trip, we finally make our way to visit the famed monastery, which sits on a precipice 2000 feet above the valley floor. So it goes that Guru Rinpoche flew on the back of a flying tigress and landed here, where he meditated in a cave for 3 years before subduing the local demons, consecrating Bhutan for Buddhism.
There are no flying tigresses available, so we settle for the next best thing — a mule. We go up halfway by horseback before continuing on foot, eventually making the dizzying ascent up a flight of hundreds of steep, narrow stone steps, high up in the mountain. Each time the woods part, we catch sight of Taksang shrouded in mist as it clings to the edge of the cliff, reminding us the trek is all worthwhile. We cross a suspension bridge festooned with thousands of prayer flags, passing a waterfall that drops through the gorge into a sacred pool. Then we arrive.
Inside, there is a peaceful, meditative hush, and a cool stillness. In one room, our guide Yaarob lifts up a hatch in the ground, and we peer in to see…nothing. Just a deep, dark, emptiness. This is the cave in which Guru Rinpoche stayed to meditate, Yaarob tells us.
There is a tiny courtyard, and we climb up to look over a parapet. As we take in the mesmerizing view of Bhutan spread out thousands of feet below, a light breeze carries the sound of quiet chanting from within the ancient monastery. At that moment, the air feels so mystical and the view so surreal, that all the stories, of divine gurus and flying tigresses, seemed within the realm of possibility.
Druk Air flies to Paro daily from Bangkok, and twice weekly from Singapore. Uma by COMO and Amankora by Amanresorts offer tailored journeys and lodging through Bhutan.
Get your copy of Prestige October to read more about the author’s exploration of the culture, politics and people of Bhutan.