King­dom of heaven

Schon! - - Contents - Words / Huma Hu­mayun Im­age / Cour­tesy of Aman Re­sorts

There is a time for ev­ery­thing and, for each of us, this in­cludes a time to slow down, to es­cape the end­less bar­rage of tweets, text mes­sages and tele­phone calls and… well… just breathe, but in a world where fast food chains and mo­bile de­vices have in­fil­trated even the most re­mote cor­ners, what es­cape is left to us? Hid­den high in the Hi­malayas is a mag­i­cal king­dom where time has seem­ingly stood still: the ‘Land of the Thun­der Dragon’, oth­er­wise known as Bhutan.

This an­cient and tiny na­tion is the world’s last sur­viv­ing Bud­dhist King­dom. Its se­cluded po­si­tion nes­tled be­tween China, In­dia and Ti­bet and a benev­o­lent monar­chy with a pol­icy of iso­la­tion have shel­tered its cen­turies-old tra­di­tions and peace­ful re­li­gious prac­tices from the out­side world. Dra­matic land­scapes of snow-capped peaks, deeply forested slopes and boul­der strewn rivers sit pris­tine and undis­turbed by in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. Bhutan’s first paved road was only built in 1962, tele­vi­sion only ar­rived in 1999 and there are still no plas­tic bags al­lowed. Now, slowly and care­fully, Bhutan is open­ing up to in­ter­na­tional tourism and wel­com­ing vis­i­tors in­trepid enough to ven­ture to this far­away land.

Even ar­riv­ing in Bhutan is an adventure. The minia­ture in­ter­na­tional air­port at Paro, with its sin­gle as­phalt run­way, sits deep in a river val­ley. At an el­e­va­tion of 2,200 me­ters, and sur­rounded by peaks of up to 5,500 me­ters, it is con­sid­ered one of the most chal­leng­ing land­ings in the world, with only a hand­ful of pi­lots cer­ti­fied to at­tempt this feat. If you can over­come your nerves, you will be re­warded by truly breath­tak­ing views of the mist cov­ered moun­tains.

Once safely on the ground, there are a host of op­tions for cul­ture vul­tures, na­ture lovers, adventure seek­ers and those just want­ing to wind down. In or­der to ward off the rav­ages of mass tourism, travel here is fo­cused on the luxury mar­ket, with an em­pha­sis on tai­lor-made tours, bou­tique ho­tels and spas. Deluxe tour op­er­a­tor Bai­ley Robin­son of­fers itin­er­ar­ies that in­clude the 10-day Amankora Jour­ney, with overnight stays at the Aman Group’s luxury lodges around the coun­try. Prices start at £7,530 per per­son, ex­clud­ing in­ter­na­tional flights, but in­clud­ing meals, drinks, pri­vate ve­hi­cle, driver and guide.

A good place to start your tour is Bhutan’s cap­i­tal of Thim­phu, where you can wan­der around the colour­ful mar­kets brows­ing for Hi­malayan arte­facts and tex­tiles. To find out more about th­ese tra­di­tional crafts, visit the tex­tile mu­seum or Folk Her­itage Mu­seum. You can also learn to make pa­per or hand roll in­cense – both part of the lo­cal cottage in­dus­tries. For the spir­i­tu­ally minded, there are nu­mer­ous an­cient monas­ter­ies and tem­ples to visit, as well as Pan­gri Zampa, two 16th-Cen­tury build­ings that now house a train­ing school for as­trologers. Ev­ery au­tumn, the four-day Tsechu fes­ti­val fills the city’s court­yards with masked dancers. The Taj Tashi Thim­phu of­fers five star ac­com­mo­da­tion in a build­ing that blends Dzong ar­chi­tec­ture and hand­painted Bud­dhist mu­rals with con­tem­po­rary de­sign. It houses a num­ber of restau­rants and cafes, where guests can sam­ple Ara, Bhutan’s tra­di­tional liqueur, Ema Dat­shi, its favourite dish, or the dis­tinc­tive ‘salted but­ter tea’.

From the cap­i­tal, a dra­matic drive over a 3,050 me­tre moun­tain pass with forests of flut­ter­ing prayer flags brings you to the hid­den Phob­jika Val­ley. The ex­clu­sive eight-suite Amankora Gan­grey, set on a forested knoll, pro­vides the per­fect base to ex­plore the val­ley, which is home each win­ter to a flock of 300 en­dan­gered black-necked cranes.

The mem­o­rable jour­ney from here to Bumthang winds along a high­way carved out of the moun­tain­side, past farm­houses pre­car­i­ously perched on the slopes and Trongsa Dzong, the an­ces­tral home of the monarch, where you will find novice monks recit­ing mantras and prac­tic­ing on sa­cred horns, flutes and drums. Bumthang it­self is a trea­sure trove of tra­di­tional art and paint­ing with its 29 monas­ter­ies and tem­ples. At Amankora Bumthang, share your day’s ex­pe­ri­ences around the bon­fire in the lodge’s large court­yard. The lodge pro­duces its own but­ter, cheese, honey, spir­its and brandies and can or­gan­ise vis­its to nearby or­ganic farms.

On­wards to the Pu­nakha Val­ley – home to the aus­pi­cious fer­til­ity monastery, built by the ‘Di­vine Mad­man’ in 1499. Hike through fields of chillies, cab­bages and rice to Nam­gyal Chorten, a stunning mon­u­ment built 500 years later by Bhutan’s Four Queens to ward off demons for the cur­rent Crown Prince. A sus­pen­sion bridge over the river brings you to an or­ange or­chard and Amankora Pu­nakha lodge, lo­cated in a farm­house cov­ered in in­tri­cate wood­work and built by the king­dom’s Chief Ab­bot.

The jour­ney ends in Paro, but be­fore board­ing your plane, a trip to the fa­mous Tak­t­shang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery), one of Bhutan’s most revered mon­u­ments, is a must. The spec­tac­u­lar views are well worth the steep three to four hour trek. Af­ter this chal­leng­ing climb, en­joy a Bhutanese hot stone bath at the Amankora Paro’s spa, with its floor to ceil­ing views of snow-capped moun­tains, or sim­ply retreat to your room to warm up by a tra­di­tional wood-fired stove – tweets, texts and tele­phone calls all a dis­tant mem­ory. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit bai­ley­robin­son.com aman­re­sorts.com

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