Kingdom of heaven
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