POSTCARDS FROM BHUTAN
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
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.
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!’