Adventures of a lifetime – Bhutan and The Amankora Journey
LuxuryBARED member Dr Alison Coll shares her memories and experiences of a recent trip to Bhutan. It’s a destination that’s been on her radar for some time, and she and her husband decided to make the journey staying in Amankora properties – in fact, five distinct lodges, each one in the country’s most alluring venues or cities. ‘We appreciated the one-stop-shop nature of this solution, as guided by my travel guru Claire Parsons at LuxuryBARED. It alleviated all the stress that would have been involved had I attempted to book on my own,’ she says. Alison shares her stories about the kingdom’s scenery, culture and the Amankora lodges.
Why go, why Amankora?
The word kora means a circular journey, and this in essence is what we did, travelling between the Aman lodges in Bhutan to experience the difference between western, central and eastern parts of the country. Amankora is a collection of five luxurious lodges dotted around the country, making it easier to navigate and get to know this small mountain kingdom in supreme comfort and style.
Each Aman lodge is created with the same theme but with small differences. They are beautifully designed to merge into their setting, either in existing properties or new builds, and all are in sync with the environment. The rooms are almost, but not quite, mirror images of each other.
Bhutan is the only Buddhist democracy in the world. It eschewed the outside world for decades (television was only introduced in 1999), and few destinations still hold the promise of the truly authentic, the untouched, the unspoilt and the unique.
Getting there: some amusing sights
Flying into Paro (the country’s only international airport) is a unique experience – it is acknowledged as the most difficult airport approach in the world. As you fly towards Bhutan, you pass Everest at the same elevation, and then soon after, the plane makes swooping corkscrew turns past rocky terrain and gilded temples on its approach to landing.
We flew to Bhutan via Delhi, deciding to overnight there to be sure of making our connection in case of delays. Other connection points for Drukair are Bangkok and Kathmandu.
Check-in and check-out for any of the five Amankora lodges is generally done at either Amankora Paro or in Amankora Thimphu, where we checked in. A sixteen-suite lodge, it is a 90-minute drive from the airport. The scenery was refreshingly different from most other countries: the roadways were entirely absent of western advertisements, signs or logos of any kind. Instead there were numerous posters of little maxims and homilies, advising people to be cognisant of the nature around them, to think of the family and to be healthy. Bhutan has a higher accident rate than neighbouring India, so the authorities encourage safe driving. Seat-belt use is not mandatory, and the general consensus is that you are more at risk if you buckle up – so no one does.
The signs you will see along the route say things such as, ‘faster sees disaster’, ‘after whiskey, driving is risky, ‘speed is the knife that cuts the life’, and many more in the same rhyming vein.
When you arrive at the airport you will be allocated a car and a guide who remains with you for the whole journey. We were visiting all five Aman lodges in succession, but some people do fewer, and others do a mix of Aman and other lodges. All the guides speak excellent English (most schooling here is in English). Having the same guide throughout can have its positives and negatives. Continuity and getting to know each other over a period is a definite plus, but if the guide is slightly lacklustre or just not that enthusiastic, it can deflate the experience.
Thimphu, an introduction and blue skies
One night at Thimphu, now the capital of Bhutan, is adequate. We spent the next morning on a whirlwind tour of the city, and because the previous night it had rained, that morning we had the beautiful blue skies typical of October, we were told.
Every district has a dzong, which was originally used as a fortress but now has bi-functionality for administrative and religious purposes. Thus we went to our first of many dzongs, all very similar, their beauty depending on their location. The next two visits were to a local market and on to a very large sitting Buddha, one of the largest in the world and built in the past few years. We were also taken to watch the national sport of archery, with traditional and modern bows.
Punakha, and fertility of a kind
We then set off on the two-hour drive to Punakha. Here is one of Aman’s two smaller lodges of only eight rooms each, but they plan to expand to twelve and to add a pool. It is set in a beautiful warm valley where a profusion of tropical fruits grows, despite the fact that our phones forecasted snow on arrival and temperatures below freezing.
To reach Punakha we needed to cross the Dochula Pass, at 3,100 metres, where 108 memorial stupas (small monuments) were built to celebrate the eldest Queen Mother. As we entered the valley, we followed the Mo Chhu river and came across the breathtaking view of the Punakha Dzong, considered the most beautiful in Bhutan. We then followed the river to reach a suspension bridge, which we had to cross on foot to reach our second Amankora lodge, a traditional Bhutanese farmhouse surrounded by paddy fields and rice terraces in the heart of the Wangdue Valley.
For guests like us, who have opted to pinball between all the Aman lodges, Amankora’s designers decided that while the setting and surroundings may change, there should be continuity between the spacious wood-clad accommodations throughout the journey. Personally, I am not sure I quite agree with this idea. I think individuality in each property would be more interesting, as each area is different.
Dining styles varied at all the lodges. At some you ate at small tables on your own, as was the case in Thimphu. In others, as in Punakha, you ate family-style on two large tables in the dining room, which we did on the first night. Oddly, no one was very sociable, preferring to sit at small tables outside. We followed suit the next night.
The food choice was either a Western menu or Bhutanese fare, which was how it was most of the time in all the lodges, with occasional exceptions. The Bhutanese food was excellent, very light and beautifully flavoured, with side-dishes of chillies to pump up the heat if required.
The next day was our only full day in Punakha, and it was busy. In the morning we visited the dzong, and then a nunnery that was built by Bhutan’s Queen Mother in more recent times. We then returned for lunch at the lodge and prepared for a hike to a fertility temple, which was a couple of hours walking uphill but fairly gentle.
En route we went through a small village with numerous craft shops selling many fertility souvenirs of a phallic design, icons of which are also inscribed on many of the houses in order to improve luck in that domain.
Women with problems conceiving come to the temple to see the monk, who blesses them, after which they walk around carrying a giant carved penis. If they conceive soon after, they have to bring their child back for the monk to bestow a name on the infant. Fascinating stuff.
Gangtey and its monastery
The next morning we left for Gangtey Lodge, another small facility of eight suites. It is set in the remote Phobjikha Valley, a glacial area that sits at 3,000 metres. This is the winter habitat of the rare black-necked crane, considered sacred by the locals. The birds often arrive at the end of October, but unfortunately this year there were none.
The drive to get there was around three hours over high mountain passes, with vertiginous drops by the road’s edge. We arrived at our beautiful accommodation in time for lunch, walking over soft, springy, green pine needles to reach the main room with its panoramic views over grassy plains and the Gangtey Goemba monastery. The air was clean and bracing, with no evidence of pollution.
This lodge was small, compact and very friendly. It emanated a feeling of welcome in the dining room and lounge that extended to the guests. Everyone talked to each other, and we all ate convivially around two tables. The food was excellent, both the Western and the Bhutanese menus.
After lunch we took a stroll around the village. There were many small buildings spread out over a large expanse, giving a feeling of solitude. Dominated by mountains, this landlocked country is marked by valleys and lowlands, carved by rivers and fed by glacial melt and monsoon rains. Settlements and villages make up the population centres.
The next morning we took a walk to the monastery, a brisk uphill jaunt in the bright sunny air for about 30 minutes. Here we saw the young monks learning by rote, reciting the prayers as one.
This was followed by a nature walk through a forest to take us down to the plains where the cranes normally congregate, and where there are viewing platforms. Onwards from here, we trekked through the plains to the black crane information centre to learn about these endangered birds. This round trip took all morning; we then returned for lunch and an afternoon of archery.
This we tried using old-fashioned Robin Hood-type bows – exhilarating and actually easier than I would have expected (not that we hit any bull’s- eyes but we did get close to the target in our 45 minutes of trying). However, a word of warning: make sure you get an arm guard, as the twang of the bow on the arm leaves a nasty bruise.
Bumthang: a treacherous road, festivals and food
The next morning, we were leaving for the Bumthang lodge, which involved the longest journey. It is described by Aman as a five-hour drive on its website, but in reality it takes eight hours, or if you are very lucky, maybe seven. The reason for this is the road. At present it consists of a narrow, two-lane mountain road that zig-zags around numerous passes, with landslides affecting passage. Every now and again a small stretch is smooth and normal, followed by holes and bumps. Speed is not an option, nor is keeping to one’s side of the road. Each driver stays in the middle, and you hope they go to the correct side in time, which they do seem to.
Apparently, if you travel in the wet season, the journey can take a couple of days. There is now an airport in Bumthang, so you can fly back to Paro, but in the past it was a car journey both ways. It doesn’t take much for the flight to be cancelled – poor visibility or heavy rains and you will be driving back, so always leave enough time before your flight out of Bhutan.
Bathrooms along the journey are infrequent, not of the best quality and lack paper. It is worth reminding your guide that you might be needing a stop in plenty of time. Our journey was broken halfway at a place called Trongsa for a picnic lunch and seeing another dzong.
The town of Bumthang and its surrounding valley are known as the spiritual hub of the country, with no fewer than 29 temples and monasteries, including the ancient Lhakhang temple, built in the 7th century.
The Aman here has sixteen suites, and meals are served at individual tables. This was probably our least-favourite lodge, partly due to the fact we had a ground-floor room facing onto a large, grassy square by the restaurant. If we were in our room with the shutters open we had no privacy, but with the shutters closed we were in a gloomy interior where the lighting was poor. We often wanted to shower when we got back from a walk, and this meant sealing off the room from the outside world, as the bathroom was in the room with no separation. Also, the food at Bumthang was not on a par with the other lodges: reasonable but not fantastic.
The morning began with the ubiquitous visit to the dzong and then a very long walk around the outskirts of the town to four other temples, ranging from the aforementioned 7th century one to a fairly modern version. It was a baking-hot day, and walking along a road is not particularly edifying. Once we went more off-road the view was slightly more attractive. Personally, I felt this was one walk that could have been done by car.
While at the dzong we were able to watch a dance rehearsal for a festival that was happening the next day. This was fascinating, especially as we would be returning the next morning to see the performers in costume.
Lunch was arranged by Aman at a couple of its lodges with local farmers. The farmers’ wives cooked a typical meal in their homes. Specialities in Bumthang tend to be different from the rest of Bhutan, featuring many items made with buckwheat. The lunch was delicious, and well worth opting for when offered as part of the all-inclusive deal. This set-up is also offered in Paro.
The next morning was free for us to attend the festival performance at the dzong before catching our flight to Paro, a mere 30 minutes instead of the gruelling eight-hour drive on the way in.
We had a lazy start before attending the festival performance. We had been warned it would be much more crowded than the rehearsal the previous day, but despite this we were quickly given a front seat. En route there were numerous stalls selling crafts and food, with a feeling of festivity everywhere. Inside there were large family groups with hampers of food, which they constantly munched from.
The performers were all in costume, all with a different significance, and there was commentary before each ‘act’ explaining the meaning in Bhutanese and English. This festival was to go on for three days but we stayed for only about 90 mines. The people-watching was as illuminating as the show.
It was then time to board our internal Drukair flight for the 30-minute journey from the Choekhor Valley to the Paro Valley, our final destination.
Paro and the Tiger’s Nest
For many, Amankora’s 24-room Paro lodge is the launching point for a journey to the Land of the Thunder Dragon. For us, though, in the shadow of the snowcapped 7,315m Mount Jomolhari, straddling the border with Tibet, it was a grand finale.
However, there was still the piece de resistance, the four-hour hike to the country’s iconic attraction: the Tiger’s Nest. It is here at Paro Taktsang, as with many moments in this wondrous country, that it feels as though time stands still.
The lodge is 30 minutes from the airport and town, and on arrival you walk through a large pine forest strewn with fallen pine needles. The suites are in three different buildings, separate from the main building, which houses the lounge and dining room. Here we dined at night at long tables, which was once again extremely sociable. There is also an outside dining area with fire pits.
The next morning was an early start for our long trek to the Tiger’s Nest. The monastery is around 800m above the valley floor, which is already at 2,200m. This is why this hike is normally left to the end of every trip, to allow people to acclimatise. Generally in two parts, the first part is moderately gentle and winds around the mountain, taking you to a cafeteria, where at least 50 per cent of the hikers remain. Up to this point you can go by horseback, on an assorted range of very scruffy small animals, not really horses or mules, more like very unkempt ponies. They are mainly led by locals and children. The people taking this route tend to dismount and stop at the cafeteria; the horses go no further. Our guide offered them to us. We refused, and only later did he inform us that it wasn’t very safe as they can run off, sometimes injuring riders. We were glad we had declined but wondered why this hadn’t been mentioned when the offer was made.
We had set off at 8am but later learned that some guides take their groups at 7am, a better option as the horses tend to start around 8am. The horses tend to wander from side to side with no control by the rider, and walkers are constantly on the lookout for the beasts to avoid being run over or pushed over the edge. An early start gives you good headway.
It’s moderate exercise but not particularly taxing, especially if you are used to walking or indulging in sport. Certainly, we had no problem with the altitude or breathlessness, nor did we hear of anyone else who did.
The views as you reach the top are amazing, as is the monastery. When you consider there are monks living in this draughty old stone building all year round, you can’t help but admire their devotion. Furthermore, they have to repeat our hike up and down on a regular basis for groceries and other essentials. For all the hikes, good walking shoes are advised. Our guide supplied walking sticks each time.
The next day, our final one, was an exploration of Paro, where we visited another dzong, the temporary home of the National Museum, and a final temple.
The dzong was another variation on a theme, with expansive views over the whole town and surrounding plains. Above this was the museum. Its original home was destroyed in an earthquake, and so it is now in a temporary structure. It was extremely well laid out and brought further insight into much of what we had seen on our travels. This included examples of endemic wildlife; festival masks and the significance of each; the formation of the country’s democracy; and the structure of the present-day royal family.
We couldn’t leave Bhutan without seeing one final temple, so we chose to visit an extremely old one, dating from the 9th century and related to the very old one in Bumthang.
Finally, we had a walk down the main street of Paro, not like any town high street we usually come across. In many shop windows, and fighting for space with pictures of the royal family, were numerous carved and painted penises, sitting next to hardware, electrical goods and everyday items.
It was then time for lunch, another farmhouse meal laid on by Aman. It was interesting as both such meals we enjoyed on this trip were very different. The farmer’s wife in this case spoke perfect English and used to work for Aman, whereas the one in Bumthang spoke no English. However, there was an obvious difference in visible affluence. In Bumthang the room we sat in had a large flat-screen TV and numerous electrical appliances. In the cloakroom was a proper working lavatory and a washing machine. In Paro the lavatory was basic, the room had no evidence of technology, the kitchen consisted of pots on a fire, and the room the hostess was most proud of was the shrine room.
The food in part was also quite different, probably more basic and not quite as good. However, it was a significant book end to an enlightening journey.
Departure and reflections
An interesting finale to our journey was the flight back to Delhi. As we approached the plane, we noticed an extremely long red carpet off to one side but gave it no consideration. On taking our seats, one of the cabin crew came up to us and informed us that their Majesties would be boarding shortly and there were to be no photos. The King and Queen of Bhutan and their small son, and what seemed like the whole royal household, then boarded the plane and sat in front of us. How often is one on a plane when the announcements include your Majesties, ladies and gentlemen?
To conclude, some of our views in general on Amankora. The guides did seem to vary, and I think this can make or break your trip. A good guide will ensure you have an amazing trip; if the guide is not so good, the experience is diminished.
As mentioned before, all the rooms are basically the same: large with a freestanding bath in the room, a rain shower in a partitioned stall to the side, but no hand-held shower, so you always get your hair wet to some extent – not well thought-out.
Overall, we enjoyed the whole trip and would certainly do it again because of the beauty of Bhutan and the friendliness of its people. We felt slightly underwhelmed by the whole Aman experience in general, without being able to put our finger on why. We have stayed at many of its properties before, but this time there was just a feeling of something missing.
The country is beyond description and does feel as if it is caught in a time warp. How long this will last is hard to say. Many high-end brands are building properties, which are due to open in the next year or two. Whether that will change the nature of the country is difficult to say. The fact that the country taxes all visitors quite steeply may help, but as numbers increase and the Western world encroaches, things may change. Having said that, the people are very loyal to the national dress and their customs and for the moment would resist any Westernisation.
Photography courtesy of Dr Alison Coll and Aman Resorts
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