Bordered by Tibet to the north and India to the south, landlocked Bhutan – the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ – is magical, mysterious and deeply fascinating. Rising steeply from 300m in leech-infested subtropical jungle to peaks soaring above 7,300m, the last surviving traditional Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas (around the size of Switzerland) is entered by a hair-raising flight through the mountains. Buffeted by cross-winds, the plane negotiates a series of steep, 90 degree turns between white-capped Himalayan crags to deposit you safely in what looks like the middle a golden field – the only stretch of land in the kingdom flat enough to accommodate an airstrip. The entire experience of arrival is a fitting introduction to a country whose surreal beauty and prelapsarian innocence is unique in today’s world.
Many say that Bhutan is akin to pre-invasion Tibet, a land in which time has stood still for centuries. It was only in the 1970s that the country emerged from self-imposed isolation to allow foreign travellers to visit. In 1999 television and the internet were introduced and in 2003 came income tax, unleashing the full force of the 21st century on this unsuspecting Shangri-La. Yet, Bhutan still crawls forwards with reluctance. Instead of ‘Gross National Product’ there’s ‘Gross National Happiness’; more than 80% of the 800,000 inhabitants are subsistence farmers; traffic lights and football hooligans are unknown; archery is the national sport, and men and women wear national costume. Matters of state are influenced by astrologers, the chanting of red-robed monks is the closest thing to muzak, and religion – Tantric Buddhism in the east and Red Hat Buddhism in the west – permeates every aspect of daily life. It must also be the only country on the planet that was dragged kicking and screaming to the notion of democracy, preferring instead to rely on the infallible judgement of its much-loved and revered king.
Rising steeply from 300m in leech-infested subtropical jungle to peaks soaring above 7,300m, the last surviving traditional Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas is entered by a hair-raising flight through the mountains. Buffeted by cross-winds, the plane negotiates a series of steep, 90 degree turns between white-capped Himalayan crags to deposit you safely in what looks like the middle a golden field – the only stretch of land in the kingdom flat enough to accommodate an airstrip. The entire experience of arrival is a fitting introduction to a country whose surreal beauty and prelapsarian innocence is unique in today’s world.
Best Action Plan
Travelling around Bhutan is fairly difficult, with much of the country undeveloped and unreachable by road. Most visitors are happy to remain in Paro, two hours drive from the capital, Thimphu. However, there are several other wonderful places to visit in the country, which can easily be seen on a 10-14-day trip. It’s also important to note that you can combine a trip to India with a dip into Bhutanese culture by visiting Paro for 4-5 nights.
Altitude warning: Bhutan is higher than most people are used to, so take time to adjust especially if you’re planning on trekking around Paro.
Day 1: Fly to Paro and make the two-hour drive directly to Thimphu to stay at the Taj.
Day 3: Make the two and a half hour drive to Punakha to stay at the Aman or at COMO’s Uma Punakha.
Day 5: Make the two and a half hour drive to Gangtey to spend 2-3 nights at the Aman or at the Gangtey Goenpa Lodge.
Day 7: From Gangtey drive for five hours to Bumthang to spend two nights at the Aman or a local hotel.
Day 9: From Bumthang drive six and a half hours to Punakha to stay for one night in order to break up the long journey back to Paro.
Day 10: Drive four and a half hours to Paro to spend 3-4 nights at Uma Paro, including one overnight trek which can be arranged with the hotel.
Seeing Bhutan the Aman way can be very expensive, so it can make sense to plan to stay in one or two Aman properties and then in cheaper, less luxurious but very atmospheric local hotels which can be arranged through reputable tour guides such as Greaves India or Wild Frontiers.
Where to Stay
On the pine-covered slopes of the beautiful Paro valley, Christina Ong’s Uma by COMO, Paro was, after Amankora (see below), the second foreign investment, luxury hotel to open in Bhutan. Offering a modern take on traditional Bhutanese values, the hotel is built of natural timber, stone and marble with a circular, glass-walled extension serving as dining room. There are 20 rooms and nine villas of which we love Villa 14, perched on the valley edge with glorious panoramic views rendering TV redundant. There’s a huge bathroom, a sitting/dining room with bukhari stove, a small kitchen for a wonderful personal butler and your own massage room.
Aman Resorts heralded the arrival of foreign investment in Bhutan with a unique concept: five hotels in one. Dotted throughout the country to highlight Bhutan’s different natural and cultural aspects, Amankora is the only luxury hotel to venture beyond the normal visitor itinerary, with architecturally diverse establishments not only in Paro and the capital Thimphu, but also in Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang (a sixth is planned in Trongsa). Although the buildings are all different (Paro’s, nestling in a forest 30 minutes from the airport, looks from a distance like an army encampment), the bedroom interiors are almost identical in all Amankoras: open plan, with bukhari log stoves and clad floor-to-ceiling in wood. With no TV in the hotel and a dearth of nightlife – even in the capital – entertainment comes in the form of expert lectures. All the hotels have spas.
A cheaper option is Zhiwa Ling, a small hotel with 45 rooms spread between eight cottages built in a classic Bhutanese style. Facing the base of the cliffs below the Tiger’s Nest, there’s a spa, teahouse and small restaurant.
When we stayed at the elegant Taj Tashi, a classic international hotel decorated with Bhutanese themes and Buddhist elements, Globalista found the food to be great, we enjoyed the spa and since we’d flown directly from India, we felt at home with the Taj service and style. It is in the centre of town (unlike Amankora), so you can easily walk out the front door and explore. The Taj also offers some charming activities like Bhutanese dart lessons and ones in the national sport of Archery. Try a Bhutanese feast – course after course of local delicacies. One of our members who stayed this year has advised us not to stay because the surroundings are now getting so built up and instead just skip to:
The 16-suite Amankora, which is perched on the heights of Motithang, and based on a Bhutanese dzong – a fortified monastery – with tall, tapering, whitewashed walls mixing the contemporary with traditional. As Aman devotees would expect, however, the softening details of carved painted wood are eschewed, to create a minimalist space where line, texture and perspective are all. The Amankora has just got a new (Texan) chef and the food is far better than the Taj.
In Punakha, Amankora is built around a traditional three-storey Bhutanese farmhouse with only eight suites in three rammed-earth dwellings and a small spa.
Overlooking the Mo Chu river, with some of the best views of any hotel in the world, Uma Punakha by COMO Hotels and Resorts is hot competition for the Amankora. This 9 room sanctaury (with 2 one-bedroom villas) modeled as a monastic retreat has a divine COMO Shambhala Retreat. Try the Bhutanese traditional stone bath while looking out on the Himalayas. The open plan restaurant and lounge bar serves the best food in Bhutan – along with Uma Paro – authentic Bhutanese delicacies along with a variety of international cuisines.
Another eight-suite property, Amankora in Gangtey has a small spa and wonderful views over the alpine-style valley. It’s cosy and has identical bedrooms to the Thimphu one. As you might expect at an Aman they pay attention to every detail – and even scatter green pines needles over the path to the entrance, to make a ‘carpet’.
Gangtey Goenpa Lodge has just opened and it is a very quirky / individual alternative to the Amankoras with their identikit bedrooms. There are twelve beautifully crafted open-plan suites with freestanding bath tubs looking over the valley, modern comforts and bukharis… it’s magical, and even has clouds that come into the main lodge, which has a temple vibe, lots of monkish colours and huge picture windows. The food is good home-cooking by a Swedish chef but the inexperienced service, recruited from neighboring villages, is attentive but in its infancy. The hotel is also starting Bhutan’s first hot air balloon trips.
Overlooking surrounding orchards, Amankora here has 16 suites split between four buildings, all with wood panelling, bukhari, bath, shower and daybed.
Where to Eat
Gastronomy has yet to reach the streets of Bhutan. Unless you are partial to ghee, rice and vegetables, spiced up with the explosive national dish of yak’s cheese-and-chili, stick to the excellent hotel restaurants. Bukhari at Uma Paro is a particularly attractive restaurant – a glass-walled tower like a giant pepper grinder pitched over the hillside – which makes even Bhutanese food taste delicious to the western palate, and whose menu includes such far-fetched delights as tiger prawn salad. The restaurants at Amankora are similarly excellent, with a daily choice of international and eastern dishes. Uma by COMO, Punakha and Uma by COMO, Paro are probably the best (see above).
Paro is famous for its hot-stone baths, which locals improvise by diverting the local stream to fill a trench and heating the frigid water over burning stones. At Uma, the technique has been refined in the amazing Shambhala Spa (Uma Paro), which occupies the entire lower floor of the main building – a beautiful space of tactile materials, with nature just beyond the window, but for the pool which is dramatically encased in a room of wall-to-wall black stone. In their speciality hot-stone bath you soak in herb-infused waters in a huge wooden tub, heated by sizzling hot stones while listening to the birds twittering outside. Followed by an ayurvedic massage, it is pure heaven.
Much of the joy of Bhutan lies in its natural beauty and in the observation of an ancient way of life. By law, houses must be built in the traditional style – wood-framed with mud and bamboo matting over a whitewashed granite base, their window- and door-frames carved and painted – so that even Paro’s high street, built in the 1980s, looks antique. Prayer flags flutter from shingle roofs, and wooden phalluses hang from the eaves to ward off the evil eye. It is not uncommon to pass fields where groups of men and women are building their own house. As for the sights themselves, dzongs and lhakhangs (temples) abound in picture-perfect settings. We recommend the following:
A highlight of any trip to Bhutan, Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a two-hour uphill hike through pine forests fluttering with multi-coloured prayer flags, past chortens* housing prayer wheels powered by murmuring streams, through a breathtaking landscape alive with songbirds and scented with daphne and sandalwood. And that’s just to reach the viewing point, from which you look down across a steep ravine to the multi-tiered, golden-roofed monastery shining in the sun. Perched on the very edge of the mountain, 700m above the valley floor, it appears to be hanging in space.
According to legend, in the eighth century Guru Rinpoche (who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Bhutan) flew to this spot on the back of a tigress, to meditate. The guru’s cave still exists beneath the monastery, which was built on this holy site some 900 years later. Due to a devastating fire in 1998, however, and fear of terrorist attacks by Maoists and Indian rebels and other ‘enemies of our religion’ from the south, security is very tight and, at the time of writing, you need an advance permit to visit the monastery itself. It is well worth the effort, however, and the additional one and a half hours of legwork. Descend the steep scarp via uneven carved steps, past deep waterfalls, past hand-prints left on the rockface by visiting angels, and climb the other side to reach Taktshang and its small quota of monks. A flying tigress would certainly have made the pilgrimage easier, but the pleasure is as much in the journey as in the arrival. Avoid the temptation of a partial lift to the observation point on the shaggy ponies – their A-frame wooden saddles are excruciating.
(* Chorten is the Bhutanese or Tibetan name for stupa, a memorial shrine and one of the earliest expressions of Buddhist architecture, ranging in size from very small to enormous.)
Bhutan’s National Museum is housed in a six-storey circular watchtower, originally built in 1651, above the famous Paro Dzong (Rinpung Dzong). It holds a fascinating historical record of the country – from thangkas and religious objects to a bizarre collection of stamps (including triangular, 3-D, and plastic ‘talking’ stamps in the shape of a singles disc), musical instruments, stuffed animals and an intricate carving representing the history of Buddhism.
Built in AD 659, Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan’s oldest and loveliest monasteries and a wonderful place in which to witness a Buddhist ceremony in progress. While pilgrims circumambulate the grounds, spinning prayer wheels as they go, the orgiastic sound of copper trumpets and horns, tinkling bells, conch shells and drums blares from within as the hypnotic chanting of the monks, seated low amid flickering butter lamps and bent doubt over their concertina-style books, reaches its climax.
Drukgyel Dzong (‘Dragon Victory’)
This monastery, just outside Paro, was built to commemorate Bhutan’s victory over Tibet in 1644 (see under Punakha, below). It has been virtually destroyed by fire and earthquake and is now reduced to an impressive ruin, but it once controlled the trade route to Tibet. Smugglers still ply this route, through the Tremo La pass, and they can be seen unloading their contraband of blankets and gewgaws from their ponies in the town below. In the distance towards Tibet rises the massive white peak of Mount Jhomolhari, while all around in the golden fields abandoned houses stand, so that one knows where to find the spirits of one’s ancestors should their services be required.
From Paro you can visit Chele La, the highest drivable pass in Bhutan at 3,810m. Uma Paro can arrange for you to ride a mountain bike down from Chele La into the beautiful Haa Valley, where the Indian army is stationed at the local dzong.
People come from all over the country and queue patiently to be seen by the doctors at the National Institute of Traditional Medicine. It contains treatment rooms, a pharmacy, a research centre and a small museum which explains some of the 229 plants, 20 minerals and 16 animal parts used in traditional Bhutanese remedies. There is also a shop where you can buy delicious organic mountain honey from eastern Bhutan and a range of natural incense.
Visit the National Textile Museum for examples of the famous art of weaving, showing the different techniques used and examples of national dress. Its shop sells quality products.
To experience the beauty of the countryside, head east over the Himalayas into ever-remoter territory. Rise through forests of chir pine, oak, cypress and juniper, aflame with magnolia, wild cherry and rhododendrons, on a road euphemistically known as the Highway, and descend again through subtropical banana, orange and cardamom groves into the Punakha valley. From its seclusion, you would never guess that, until 1955, Punakha was the capital of Bhutan, ruled from the dzong. There is no town to speak of, but the fortress-monastery alone, testimony to the monks’ warlike past, justifies the journey. It houses the remains of its founder, the Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, a monk who fled Tibet in 1637 with the army in hot pursuit (even Buddhists were not above factional in-fighting) and unified Bhutan, creating a political system which was to last until 1907, and founding dozens of dzongs and temples. The bone of contention was the Shabdrung’s abduction from Tibet of two vertebrae of the saintly monk Pema Karpo, which are now kept in Punakha Dzong under lock and key. Each February a festival takes place, during which monks don masks and costumes and perform centuries-old dances, commemorating the Tibetan defeat.
Today, Punakha Dzong remains the winter seat of the central monk body (they decamp to Thimphu on May 1). Rising above the confluence of two rivers, it houses 800 monks. Once past the first courtyard, with its civil and administrative offices, the dzong teems with life, some monks as young as five being kept in line by kudrungs, the whip-bearing disciplinarian monks. For a glimpse into a working dzong, it comes no better than this.
Visit Gangtey village and the magnificent Gangtey Goemba, where if the Gangtey Tulku is in residence you can ask for an audience for a blessing. Part of the Phobjikha valley in the Black Mountains National Park, Gangtey is famed for the rare black-necked cranes which fly here to escape winter in Tibet.
Made up of four valleys – Ura, Tang, Choekhor and Chhume – the Bumthang valley is a rural place of buckwheat and potato fields, pine forests and apple orchards. Visit the Wangdichholing Palace, built in 1857 as Bhutan’s first palace not constructed as a fortress.
Best of the Rest
You must make the most of the outdoor scenery and enjoy a hike, be it a short one-hour adventure or an overnight expedition. Speak to the excellent guides at Uma Paro and Amankora to work out which trek is best for you. The hotels’ adventure centres can also arrange fishing and white-water rafting trips. The country’s only golf course is in Thimphu.
Given the prevalence of archery, it is a miracle there are not more accidents from stray arrows winging their way from hi-tech carbon bows to an invisible target 150m away. Toxophilites are seen competing everywhere, the number of coloured strips of cloth attached to their belts an indication of their prowess. Learn this ancient skill the traditional way, using bamboo bow and arrows – less lethal and great fun. Uma and Amankora can arrange lessons at your hotel.
Not many people can claim to have had a personal audience with the Queen’s astrologer, but if you are offered the opportunity of a reading with Tsultrim Lama, a senior monk from Tshecheling monastery, don’t miss it. By consulting Tibetan texts – written by Manjushri, the goddess of wisdom and astrology, nearly 3,000 years ago – he will inform you of your birth animal, colour, stars, god, previous incarnations and much more besides. His readings are uncannily accurate. But whether you believe in astrology or not, Tsultrim Lama’s warmth and wisdom make this an unforgettable experience. Arranged courtesy of Amankora Thimphu, who will also provide a translator.
In the last five years Paro and Thimphu have seen a marked increase in shops aimed at tourists, selling handicrafts mostly made in Nepal but claiming to be from Tibet. Avoid these in favour of the colourful weekend market in Thimphu. This is where monks come to buy their prayer wheels and musical instruments. Careful sifting through the many stalls will reveal a treasure trove of goodies – sacred manuscripts bound between beautifully carved and stone-incrusted wooden boards, for example, or masks of gods and demons, silks, and silver brooches. Also in Thimphu you can purchase original thangkas – paintings of mandalas and other Buddhist themes made by senior students and monks of the Zorig Chusum (painting school).
Try Sangay Traditional Arts and Crafts, or Choki Handicrafts. Thimphu’s central Post Office holds a hoard of eccentric and fascinating stamps which you may purchase and for which Bhutan is famous.
The Paro Festival is held annually in late March/early April and is the largest of Bhutan’s many festivals. Hundreds of locals dress up in costume to take part in dances and masked morality plays, and prayer meetings culminate with the unveiling of a three-storey woven banner (thangka) of Guru Rinpoche. Alternatively, try Thimphu Tsechu in October.
How to get there
Druk Air flies from Delhi, Kathmandu, Calcutta, Bangkok and Dhaka, with the route from Kathmandu providing the most spectacular approach along the Himalayas. At the time of writing the only land entry to Bhutan was from Phuentsholing in West Bengal. The situation is constantly changing, however, so dispense with the strain by handing all arrangement to a specialist tour operator, such as Greaves India or Wild Frontiers. They will also handle the sticky matter of visa clearance, and the famous $250-a-day government-set tariff which was originally supposed to cover hotels, food, transport and guides in the country but obviously does not even begin to cover the costs of the hotels listed in this guide. Don’t even try to understand – somehow, it all works out.
The temptation to buy a pair of handmade square-toed felt boots, decorated with braid and floral cloth, such as are worn by men on formal occasions. They will look silly back at home.
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