POSTCARDS FROM BHUTAN

HerWorld Brides LUXE (Singapore) - - Contents -

The plung­ing val­leys, ma­jes­tic monas­ter­ies and amaz­ing Hi­malayan land­scape –

dis­cover the ro­man­tic beauty of Bhutan

The plung­ing val­leys, the ma­jes­tic monas­ter­ies and fortress-like dzongs, the amaz­ing Hi­malayan land­scape, the fun-lov­ing peo­ple, the fab­u­lous ac­com­mo­da­tion... Steve Thio dis­cov­ers that all of Bhutan is re­mark­able!

You would think that after two trips to Bhutan, I would know ev­ery­thing about her. But this ma­jes­tic, mul­ti­fac­eted, and last stand­ing Bud­dhist king­dom in the world con­tin­ues to in­spire and cre­ate new ex­pe­ri­ences that leave vis­i­tors such as my­self yearn­ing for more.

This lat­est trip was planned ex­clu­sively for tak­ing the pre-wed­ding por­traits of ac­tors Jesseca Liu and Jeremy Chan for Her World BridesLuxe and IconWed­dings mag­a­zines. The pri­or­ity: an al­bum of ro­man­tic im­ages that not only cap­tured the stun­ning land­scapes, but their joy­ful love and af­fec­tion for each other as well.

The team and I trav­elled to new des­ti­na­tions in Paro, the gate­way for vis­i­tors pass­ing through the in­ter­na­tional air­port, and Bumthang in cen­tral Bhutan. Our Druk Asia Bhutan Travel Spe­cial­ists planned a busy itin­er­ary that in­cluded vis­its to lo­ca­tions where cen­turies-old monas­ter­ies and tem­ples tow­ered mag­nif­i­cently against crys­tal blue skies, and moun­tain trails opened up onto spec­tac­u­lar views.

To make our trip truly unique, we stayed at the ul­tra-lux­u­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful Amankora Paro and Amankora Bumthang Lodges, each with its own dra­matic nat­u­ral back­drop. Here are tips to note if, like Jesseca and Jeremy, you’re plan­ning your pre-wed­ding shoot in Bhutan.

KEEP CALM AND BREATHE DEEPLY

Eighty per cent of this sov­er­eign na­tion lies more than 2,000m above sea level, mak­ing the air no­tice­ably thin­ner, so it helps to take deeper breaths. In fact, your body may take a cou­ple of days to ac­cli­ma­tise it­self to the new al­ti­tude, so you might want to keep the sen­si­ble pace of your guide. The goal of a trek is not to walk ahead of ev­ery­one else or reach the pass first, but to en­joy the walk and scenery.

MOIS­TURISE AND PRO­TECT!

You’ll be higher and closer to the sun, and that means stronger UV rays. The air is also a lot drier than back home. So, although you may not feel it on cloudy, cool days, you can get sun­burnt. Slather on a lib­eral amount of mois­tur­is­ing cream or lo­tion with UV pro­tec­tion.

PLAN YOUR ITIN­ER­ARY AND ROUTE

Some of the most scenic and his­tor­i­cal places take hours to get to by car or van, so plan your itin­er­ary and route well in ad­vance. And, as you will most likely be trav­el­ling along wind­ing roads, be pre­pared for the pos­si­bil­ity of mo­tion sick­ness by get­ting pills for that be­fore your trip. On a brighter note, ev­ery jour­ney I’ve taken has al­lowed me to peek into the lives of the Bhutanese peo­ple as I rolled past farms and vil­lages.

FLAGGED FOR PEACE Prayer flags are hoisted out­side homes, and hung on bridges, hill­tops, and places of spir­i­tual im­por­tance for peace, hap­pi­ness, long life, pros­per­ity, strength and wis­dom. The wind is said to be an ex­pres­sion of men­tal en­ergy that ac­ti­vates them.

Beaded evening gown, Dang Bridal. Wong Hang Tai­lor suit, The Pro­posal.

There are al­ways

spots along the route with gor­geous

back­drops for a great pic, so be open and flex­i­ble with your sched­ule and keep your eyes peeled.

MAKE A DRA­MATIC STATE­MENT

There’s noth­ing sub­tle about the build­ings and scenery in Bhutan, so make sure the gowns you’re pack­ing for your shoot com­ple­ment the spec­tac­u­lar back­drops you’ll be shoot­ing against. Em­bel­lished wed­ding gowns with long trains and dresses in rich jewel hues will make you stand out beau­ti­fully.

An­other tip: The weather can be chilly, even dur­ing sum­mer, so bring along a blan­ket to wrap your­self in be­tween shots. Also, most places in Bhutan don’t have ideal spa­ces for chang­ing out­fits, so un­less you’re trav­el­ling in a van with drapes, pack a light­weight, por­ta­ble chang­ing tent you can eas­ily buy on­line.

DRESS RESPEC TFULLY

If you’re plan­ning to shoot at or near tem­ples, monas­ter­ies or dzongs, your wed­ding wardrobe should not be too re­veal­ing. Check with your guide for where you can and can­not take pic­tures as not ev­ery spot in a build­ing or at a site is open for photography.

SHOOT PIC­TURES WITH THE PEO­PLE

The Bhutanese are proud of their tra­di­tional dress, which of­ten dou­bles as work wear. We man­aged to pho­tograpgh some, as well as sev­eral monks, with Jesseca and Jeremy. Of course, you should ask their per­mis­sion first. Most are happy to oblige.

CLIMB FOR KILLER VIEWS

You want amaz­ing views for your wed­ding al­bum? Be pre­pared to climb. Ex­cept for Bud­dha Point, most of the best moun­tain or hill­top views are not ac­ces­si­ble by car, and the paths up­wards are usu­ally rocky and muddy. Pack trekking shoes, a sturdy hik­ing stick and lots of drink­ing wa­ter. Most treks are quite lovely, too, so take your time to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence.

DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE LIGHT

The light in Bhutan is al­most al­ways pic­tureper­fect, so your pho­tog­ra­pher shouldn’t worry about pack­ing too much light­ing equip­ment. Ev­ery shoot I’ve been a part of has had clear blue skies.

VISIT TH E DIF­FER­ENT CI­TIES

Here’s a short guide to what you can ex­pect from the dif­fer­ent ci­ties in Bhutan, and some of the best places for post­card-per­fect im­ages.

SCHED­ULE A BREAK IN THIMPHU

The cap­i­tal and largest, most mod­ern city of Bhutan is home to over 100,000 res­i­dents, in­clud­ing the Royal Fam­ily, and serves as the main cen­tre for gov­ern­ment and re­li­gion. While it has an abun­dance of restau­rants, In­ter­net cafes, night­clubs and shop­ping cen­tres, one of its most cu­ri­ous fea­tures is that it is the only cap­i­tal city in the world that does not use traf­fic lights.

Thimphu is also where you will find the mas­sive Bud­dha Dor­denma statue that sits atop a hill in Kuenselpho­drang Na­ture Park and over­sees Thimphu Val­ley. At 51.5m and made of bronze and gilded in gold, it is one of the largest stat­ues of Bud­dha in the world. In­side it are 125,000 smaller Bud­dha stat­ues that have also been cast in bronze and gilded. Ac­ces­si­ble by car, it is a must-visit for Bud­dhists.

KEEP THOSE POSES COM­ING IN PARO

This val­ley town west of Thimphu is home to the coun­try’s only in­ter­na­tional air­port, and is also known for sa­cred sites – 155 to be ex­act. They in­clude Bhutan’s most iconic land­mark, the Tak­t­sang Pal­phug (Tiger’s Nest) monastery that clings to cliffs above the forested Paro Val­ley, and the re­mains of a de­fen­sive 17th cen­tury fortress, Druk­gyel Dzong that sits north­west of Paro.

It also has many pic­turesque and im­pres­sive tra­di­tional build­ings that pho­tog­ra­phers will love. And, lodged be­tween many sou­venir shops sell­ing tra­di­tional items, out­fits and hand­crafted knick-knacks, are mod­ern cafes and even an ice cream par­lour.

The climb up to this awein­spir­ing tem­ple may be a chal­lenge, but it’s a trek ev­ery vis­i­tor to Bhutan must make at least once.

TAKE YOUR TIME IN BUMTHANG

About 45 min­utes by plane from Paro, and lo­cated in the north-cen­tral re­gion of Bhutan, Bumthang is known as the coun­try’s spir­i­tual and cul­tural heart­land be­cause it is home to a large num­ber of the old­est tem­ples and monas­ter­ies.

You will need to take your time to fully ex­plore the area, as the most sur­pris­ing and lovely places are usu­ally the hard­est to get to. But you will be re­warded with rich ex­pe­ri­ences and gor­geous back­drops.

The re­gion is also known for its lush val­leys, and as a ma­jor pro­ducer of ap­ple juice and cider, buck­wheat – the sta­ple diet of the peo­ple here – and brightly coloured, dis­tinc­tive wo­ven woolen gar­ments called yathra.

Be­fore the uber-lux­ury chain of Aman Re­sorts in­tro­duced bou­tique ho­tel chic to the amaz­ing Hi­malayan land­scape of Bhutan, lav­ish ho­tels were few and fur­ther be­tween. Its Amankora quin­tet of moun­tain lodges is ev­ery­thing but or­di­nary as they wel­come guests to ex­pe­ri­ence the won­ders of this coun­try and rel­ish their stay.

Lo­cated in Thimphu, Paro, Pu­nakha, Gangtey and Bhumthang, and with a to­tal of 72 suites be­tween them, each is set against a pic­ture-per­fect back­drop of val­leys, of­fers beau­ti­ful views of the sur­round­ing gar­dens, forests, and snow-capped moun­tain peaks, and mar­ries con­tem­po­rary de­sign with Bhutanese ar­chi­tec­ture in­spired by dzongs – the cen­turiesold fortresses that stand mag­nif­i­cently across the rugged land­scape.

A DIF­FER­ENT WORLD

My first in­tro­duc­tion to the Aman ex­pe­ri­ence was at the Amankora Paro Lodge, the clos­est to the air­port and the largest of its hide­aways with white­washed stone build­ings and tra­di­tional carved wooden roofs hid­den by a thick pine for­est.

To en­sure peace and si­lence, cars aren’t al­lowed near the main build­ings, so ac­cess to all the lodges is on foot. The HerWorldBrides Luxe team and I were dropped off at the start of the for­est and had to trek along a path car­peted with pine nee­dles and cones, and lined with blue pine trees reach­ing sky­ward.

The fur­ther we walked, the qui­eter it got, and we could feel all neg­a­tive en­ergy – fa­tigue from the daily grind and other stres­sors – slowly dis­si­pat­ing into the scented air around us. When the path fi­nally opened up onto the Amankora Paro’s grounds and re­cep­tion area, it was like we’d en­tered an en­tirely dif­fer­ent world.

At first glance, the stone walls and build­ings seemed for­bid­ding. Then, after we’d climbed sev­eral flights of stairs to get to the large, cob­bled space at the lodge’s en­trance, we were trans­fixed by the lush sur­round­ings, the clear blue skies, and the cloud-wreathed Mount Jo­mol­hari that dom­i­nated the whole land­scape.

To reach our suites (there are no sin­gle rooms), we passed green slopes, pine-tree groves, and trail­ing paths and more stair­ways.

Once in­doors, we noted that our suites con­trasted rus­tic el­e­ments with con­tem­po­rary de­sign, and were lux­ury well thought out. All the rooms had large win­dows with beau­ti­ful views, wooden floors, slid­ing doors, mar­ble top bath­rooms, stand alone bath­tubs, and fire­places!

A large stone pav­il­ion housed the main din­ing and liv­ing rooms, as well as a li­brary, which all had open fire­places, too. Clad in pol­ished warm woods, the liv­ing room, from which we could hear the dis­tant rush of a river, and the trick­ling mu­sic of a tiny stream flow­ing by the al­fresco din­ing pa­tio, had sturdy mod­ern fur­nish­ings, and large floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows that looked out to the for­est of pine tress, the mag­nif­i­cent 17th cen­tury Druk­gyal Dzong and Mount Jho­mol­hari.

Even for the first-time vis­i­tor, phrases like ‘jour­ney of a life­time’ tend to fall short when used to de­scribe the last great Hi­malayan king­dom, and the Amankora Bhutan ex­pe­ri­ence.

Set amidst lush forests, Amankora Paro is a vi­sion to be­hold. With cloud wreathed moun­tains and tow­er­ing trees, the lodge of­fers stun­ning

views all round.

BE­LOW The iconic stone cor­ri­dor at Amon­akora

Bumthang is rep­re­sen­taive of Amankora’s mod­ern and el­e­gant

ar­chi­tec­ture.

MAR­VEL­LOUS JOLT TO THE SENSES

Although spread across sev­eral hours’ drive from each other, the in­te­ri­ors of the five Amankora lodges are al­most iden­ti­cal in de­sign and fur­nish­ing to en­sure guests who travel be­tween them re­tain the fa­mil­iar­ity and warmth of their first ex­pe­ri­ence.

I also stayed at the 16-suite Amankora Bumthang Lodge, the new­est that was nes­tled near the grounds of one of Bhutan’s royal palaces, and an ap­ple or­chard where wild horses roamed free.

Cou­pled with gar­dens and green fields bor­der­ing a river, as well as great views of a monastery and the palace, it was just a mar­vel­lous jolt to my senses that left me im­me­di­ately re­ju­ve­nated from my jour­ney to reach it. The other dif­fer­ence was that Bumthang was qui­eter – a re­fresh­ingly sooth­ing change for my mind, body and senses that made me more con­tem­pla­tive than usual.

While my nights were fo­cused on re­lax­ation, the days here were busy as the lodge had ar­ranged a se­ries of ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing my stay. I lunched with my team in a tra­di­tional Bhutanese farm­house, toured a palace that is now on its way to be­ing re­stored to its for­mer majesty, and even vis­ited a monastery, where I joined the ma­roon­robed monks in their evening prayers.

Th­ese eye-open­ers re­vealed that while Bhutan may be one of the small­est coun­tries in the world, its cul­tural di­ver­sity and rich­ness are pro­found.

OUT­STAND­ING, UNPRETENTIOUS DIN­ING OP­TIONS

Food al­ways mat­ters, and Aman re­sorts all over the world are known for their out­stand­ing din­ing op­tions that em­pha­sise fan­tas­tic food in­stead of fa­mous chefs. So, of course, the Amankora lodges are also known for their ex­quis­ite, beau­ti­fully pre­sented Bhutanese, Asian and Western dishes fea­tur­ing their own or­gan­i­cally grown, gar­den-fresh veg­eta­bles and fruits.

I must con­fess that, thanks to the hearty break­fasts, the other ir­re­sistible meals, the snacks, the tea, and the amaz­ing desserts served at com­mu­nal as well as in­di­vid­ual ta­bles, I ar­rived home a cou­ple of ki­los heav­ier.

I was al­ways the first to the break­fast ta­ble, and my favourites were the masala oats and tra­di­tional buck­wheat pan­cakes washed down with spiced and flavour­ful chai or masala tea. Lunch, eaten at the lodges or taken on the road, came from a set menu, while din­ner was more for­mal, and in­cluded a set Bhutanese menu with the tra­di­tional shar­ing plates of cur­ries, cheese and chilli, green beans and cheese, sal­ads and veg­eta­bles served with red rice that has been grown for thou­sands of years at 2,438m in the fer­tile soil of the Paro Val­ley, and is said to im­prove health and longevity.

EX­CEP­TIONAL EX­PE­RI­ENCES

Of course, the Amankora lodges’ com­bi­na­tion of in­ti­mate spa­ces, im­pec­ca­ble, dis­creet and warm ser­vice, and unique ex­pe­ri­ences, are ab­so­lutely per­fect for cou­ples and hon­ey­moon­ers. In fact, one can cre­ate trea­sured mem­o­ries of love and ro­mance in a mag­i­cal place quite ef­fort­lessly.

One can also in­dulge to the max at the Amankora Spa. Ev­ery lodge has one, and all are fa­mous for their own unique, tai­lored treat­ments – from fa­cials to body scrubs and mas­sages, as well as hot stone baths – that draw on both 7th-cen­tury Ti­betan tra­di­tional medicine and In­dian ayurveda.

I couldn’t get enough of the Amankora

Paro’s hot stone bath treat­ment that used the herb called khempa, a nat­u­ral anal­gesic and mus­cle re­lax­ant, and took place in a room with cedar pan­els that opened onto a pri­vate gar­den. Min­eral-rich stones from the riverbeds were heated on a fire for four to five hours be­fore they were im­mersed in nat­u­ral spring wa­ter where they cracked and re­leased min­er­als.

The ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing in the bath and soak­ing in the gor­geous scenery was ab­so­lutely dreamy! Then, do as I did, and com­plete your en­tire well­ness jour­ney with a Bhutanese oil mas­sage to re­lieve ten­sion and mus­cle ache – and let you sleep like a baby!

Last but not least, be­sides spoil­ing me rot­ten when I was in, the Amankora lodges also in­tro­duced the cul­ture, life­styles and tra­di­tions of Bhutan with planned ex­cur­sions, trips and ex­pe­ri­ences for their guests. Aside from the ear­lier men­tioned op­tions, there were vis­its to her­itage and re­li­gious sites, an overnight trek across spec­tac­u­lar ter­rain, and even lessons on a tra­di­tional craft. With­out a doubt, stay­ing in one of th­ese while in Bhutan is the best way to go. The per­son­alised ex­pe­ri­ences, and the level of ser­vice and com­fort are in­com­pa­ra­ble.

The Amankora lodges are known for ex­quis­ite Bhutanese, Asian and Western dishes fea­tur­ing their own or­gan­i­cally grown, gar­den-fresh veg­eta­bles and fruits.

Young faces of Bhutan: Some are a lit­tle dusty, some have runny noses, but all are friendly, and just want to say ‘hi!’

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