The Amankora lodges offer unparalleled access for those wishing to discover Bhutan’s interior without compromising on the standard of accommodation.
Holly’s adventure in Bhutan: A land like no other
If you are a trekking and mountain lover, it's highly likely that small, mysterious and untouched Bhutan has been on your radar for some time. Asia Specialist Holly is a beach and jungle fan, so this Himalayan beauty had so far escaped her gaze, but the quest for unique travel opportunities and trying something completely different led her here… Read on as she tells us how it turned into one of the best travel decisions she has ever made!
Simply put – Bhutan is incredible! Nestled between the Himalayas, with China to its north and India to its south, Bhutan puts the importance of the preservation of its Eco systems and upholding its traditions above that of profit from tourism, as you will discover when you look into the steep daily tourist tax levied per person per day to travellers. This is key for two reasons – it keeps away the backpacker masses that can have damaging effects on smaller countries, and it ensures the ‘footprint’ of each of its guests is removed after visiting. Whilst tourism is its second biggest industry, and very much one which the people rely on, the rule of ‘leave no trace’ strongly applies. Bhutan isn’t governed by wealth or GDP – in fact it measures its wealth by Growth National Happiness, putting the health and happiness of its people first and ensuring westernised cultures are kept at bay. It’s one of the few places I’ve been where you won’t find a Starbucks! Plastic bags and public smoking are banned, there are no traffic lights – anywhere, crime rates are incredibly low (due in part to the strong Buddhist beliefs of Karma throughout the country) and chilies are thought of as a vegetable, not just a spice (a fact which caught me out several times). It has ridiculously cute features which make it uniquely charming; you will find road signs along its main (and only) dual carriageway suggesting “Why not start early, drive slower?”, and the thick marijuana fields that coat the countryside are left unpicked, untouched!
The average trip to Bhutan would be between seven and nine days maximum. It’s a small country, and unless you are looking for some more challenging or specific treks (like the famous Snowman Trek), nine days is perfect. In this time, be prepared for Bhutan to tell you what to do, not the other way around. Druk Air internal flights are often cancelled or rescheduled last minute, and the road (singular) which links the more remote areas throughout the country is often, in places, pretty dire! This is merely all part of the Bhutanese charm. Whilst stuck in a traffic jam wheels deep in sand, being pushed along by locals, remember there are worse views than that of open passes of the Himalayas! Take some music, snacks, prepare for bumps, and enjoy the ride…
Starting in Paro, my trip took me to Thimpu, then Punakha, on to Gangte, and finally to Bumthang, before heading back to Paro. This route can be tweaked, but generally speaking this is what 90% of tourists undertake. Each place has its own feel and own appeal, all different and defined by climate, altitude and varying degrees of land fertileness, which allows different crops to be grown. The consistency which runs through each place is the breath-taking scenery and genuinely warm and welcoming people. This is often a travel cliché, but I felt this in Bhutan probably more than any other country I have been to, aside from Cambodia. There is a delicate and gentle curiosity the locals have about you when you walk into their villages or into the pubs for a bottle of Panda Beer, but it doesn’t feel staged or manipulated or driven by money. Most Bhutanese people learn Oxford English at school, so communication is easy, and everyone I met was more than happy to chat or help with questions.
As my trip got underway I soon realised Bhutan is all about four things: Dzongs (the large temples in each town, where the locals and monks come to pray); hikes (I’m a novice, but picked up a new love for hiking here); mountains and luxury hotels! The bi-product of keeping the masses at bay means a huge disparity in accommodation; Bhutan caters for its top end luxury guests with Amankora, Uma Como, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, Taj Tashi and the soon to arrive Six Senses. There is then a drop to more modest 2 and 3* accommodation, still with bags of charm.
In Thimpu. I was lucky enough to witness a local archery competition, which is the Bhutanese national sport and well worth watching if you get a chance. Later in my trip I was able to have a go myself – it’s harder than it looks but equally as fun! Thimpu has the lion’s share of temples and Dzongs, and it’s a great place to explore, soak up some local culture and cuisine, while witnessing Bhutan at its most commercial. The royal family are based here, and it was evident throughout my time here that they are held in genuinely high regard by all the locals. They are respected for having introduced democracy, and distributed land to poorer people. In Thimpu I was spoiled by my utterly amazing guide Wanchuk, who took me to his home to meet his family, say hello to his new-born, cook me a dinner (less spicy, he was kind to me!) and invite me to try Butter Tea – sampling this is a must when you’re in a Himalayan country, but it’s an acquired taste!
A three hour drive led us from here to Punakha, and straight into a hike up to the local temple. As the skies got bigger and the countryside got greener, I knew I wanted to try more adventurous things, and absolutely loved the white water rafting offered here. Tip – try the male river for more of a thrill! Here I stayed in gorgeous Uma Punakha, where, like most hotels in Bhutan, all food is included and its top end stuff. After the longer hikes we did here, it was an amazing place to relax and enjoy a massage at the end of the day!
A (pretty sketchy!) eight hour drive led us to Bumthang, but I knew instantly it was worth it! The weather here was warmer and sunnier, and the Amankora Hotel where I was lucky enough to stay for two nights lent me a mountain bike to explore the town. Bumthang has some really nice treks, not least a beautiful trail that finishes conveniently at the Red Panda Beer Brewery, and the Swiss cheese shack… an unusual addition to the Bhutanese cultural landscape is Swiss cheese and beer! They say it’s the little moments that make your travels, and sitting having an ice cold beer with my guide and driver, and a plate full of Swiss cheese, was indeed a great moment of my trip.
From here a less brutal five hour drive to Gangte took us to the home of the Black Neck Crane. These huge and incredible birds can be seen only at certain times of the year, and their existence is so important to this valley that there are no electricity cables built above the ground, to ensure the birds’ safety. The time of year I visited Bhutan meant that at points on my hikes around Gangte, Wanchuk and I were the only two people in the valley... amazing! In Gangte I stayed in Gangte Goenpa Lodge, which I felt at the time and still stand by, was the best accommodation I have ever stayed in, anywhere in the world. Gangte Goenpa Lodge is truly in a league of its own. My explanations and pictures won’t do it justice; it’s just the simple but thoughtful levels of service and small touches that make it so incredible. The friendly and home-like atmosphere of the main ‘mess’ room, the table top bar, and the telescope to look out at the valley while you sit wrapped in a warm blanket eating your breakfast … it’s like no other. If you come to Gangte, stay here!
Back to Paro meant the beginning of the end, but one thing remained between me and the end of my Bhutan love affair… Tiger’s Nest Monastery. The image of this astonishing cliff edge monastery, which has survived fires and its perilous rock etched location, is really the epitome of Bhutan. Google Bhutan and you will see Tiger’s Nest. My advice – start the climb as early as you can. The heat past 9am (even in winter), coupled with the thin air that comes from it being 3000m above sea level, makes this a really challenging climb, much more than I had prepared for!
My very fit guide told me most of his colleagues take this climb around three or four times a month with guests, which they needed to maintain the fitness levels required. There is the option to finish at a viewing platform café halfway, but you know you will feel disappointed bowing out early! Take your time, watch your step, and get to the top. It takes between three and four and a half hours in total, and of course don’t forget the 1500 steep steps up and down to the temple itself. When you reach the top it’s more about the journey than the destination, but the sense of achievement will stay with me forever. Tired, and really pleased, we headed back to base camp, the beautiful Uma Paro, for a swim in the pool and to ease our muscles in the steam room!
With a heavy heart, aching muscles, and a tonne of memories, it was time to leave Bhutan. Not without one final highlight – flying back to Kathmandu over Everest on a clear day felt like an apt end to one of my most epic travel experiences to date. Chances are I will never go back, it’s a pricey place to visit, but I recommend it to anyone and everyone who can go – it’s a genuine dream.