The itinerary for our 8 days in Bhutan gets to us two weeks before departure, listing
a hot-stone bath in a local farm-house, horse-treks up to the Tigers’ Nest, visits to musically named Dzongs, temples and monasteries, walks high-up at 3800mt on the Dochu La and even an audience with Doctor Karma Phuntso about the principles of Buddhism and meditation. Will it all get ticked off?
Marina, my cultural attachée, gets set on this most unique trip and reading up on our material provided by Choki of Blue Poppy, we realise it is only since the 1970s that a few, fortunate visitors have been able to tour Bhutan. We will have a 4X4 Hyundai at our disposal, which later gets nick-named the Korean guest-house by our English-speaking driver and guide when it became their lodging for a night or two down in Punakha. Meanwhile, we stayed at the Amankora lodges (Aman meaning peace, Kora meaning circuit).
Upon arrival in Bhutan, our guide Rinchen, and Tshering, our driver, are outside the airport, dressed in their elegant national costume: a heavy knee-length robe, a gho, belted at the waist and folded to allow for a pocket on the chest for the all-essential mobile phone, notes, passes and cash for the temples. By order of His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wanghuck of Bhutan, also casually known as K5, all Bhutanese dress in their national costume during daylight hours, which means very little external influence and sloppy Western denim and tees can be seen on the streets.
The drive to Thimpu is equally manicured, and takes us just under an hour, through a leafy green countryside, and then through the city, which is buzzing with new Bhutanese-style buildings being constructed inside the bamboo scaffolding. No signs or billboards about new movie releases or cheap flights along the way – so refreshing!
Amankora – Thimpu
Our first night is at the 16-suite Amankora – Thimpu lodge, a dzong-inspired white construction set above the capital, where a colourful local dance is taking place to welcome guests. The wood-panelled rooms, low comfortable seating, high windows and floating wooden staircases have a calming influence, and in good Aman-style, we are greeted by a courteous and elegant Bhutanese young lady, called Sonam (meaning good luck), who speaks immaculate English and offers us warm, lightly-scented towels to refresh ourselves. There is no noise from the urban centre below, just birdsong and the crackling of the logs in the fire pit. Aman is unique in creating an atmosphere that mirrors the peaceful place within the mind where all stands still.
The first visit to the colourful Trashi Chhoe Dzong (fort-monastery) in town is of course memorable. The sun is sharp, the gardens and roses around the whitewashed two-storey structure are being tended to and the inner dochey (courtyard) of the monastic quarter is humming with monks in their red flowing robes. We try our first hand at spinning the prayer-wheels, to give the hundreds of prayers rolled inside continuous life, feeling a little self-conscious of this important Buddhist ritual. The temple inside is a burst of colour, patterns, patch-work and carpets, and a hundred natural smells of bark, flowers, leaves, fruit and roots surround us, coming from the organic incense burning day and night under the great Buddha’s toes. We could have just sat there for hours, watching, smelling and not thinking, but a quick (rather frivolous) shopping-spree on the high street is planned, and we buy interesting woven textiles, natty silk Bhutanese jackets, beads and hand-made papers, before heading back for the scheduled meeting with the great master of Buddhism and former monk, PHD at Oxford and former researcher at Cambridge: Doctor Karma Phuntsho.
Karma arrives ten minutes before time. We see him crossing the inner courtyard from the large bedroom windows. He wears a sober chocolate brown gho (bespoke, he adds later), and the regulation immaculate white cuffs and cream socks (the latter a sign of a higher rank to those wearing dark socks) with dark brown shoes. The only ornament is a wooden rosary, with a well-worn patina, wrapped loosely around his left wrist. He later tells us this is the tool of prayer and meditation, and it is his constant reminder for mindfulness. As we speak about life, Bhutan, Cambridge, the temptations of London, religion, food, urges, sex, yoga, visualisation and meditation, we cannot help but notice his calmness and presence throughout the topics.
His mind is focused and sharp, his answers deep and to the point. His knowledge of western religion and philosophy is vast, and he draws easy parallels with Buddhism: a delight for the spirit. One statement stirs the mind, as he says that when in London, he likes to meditate on the underground, in the chaos of this space. A most unlikely venue, we say, but being trapped inside, he finds the challenge of the bustle of life and noise a useful interference to work and train with. He doesn’t like to waste time and as he says that, his phone rings with a Chinese voice-alarm to remind him of his Mandarin lesson. He rejects the notice, and joins us for dinner instead, to reflect further on the four truths of Buddhism: Loving Kindness, Compassion, Joy and Equanimity.
Amankora – Punakha
Reaching Punakha after three hours of bumpy roads and temple stops on the highest peaks whipped with soft clouds, we wind our way down the zig-zagging dusty roads, enjoying the witty company and local tales of Rinchen and Tshering Dorji of Blue Poppy Tours, who have travelled on with us on the Kora (the circular pilgrimage) of the Aman lodges. The stop at Dochu-La, at 3140mt, is an absolute must and it is marked by a large array of prayer flags, which we add ours to, and an impressive new-build collection of 108 chortens, set overlooking the magnificent Himalayan peaks.
After the stop at Druk Yangyel Lhakhang, sitting on the crest of Dochu-La pass, we hear the Royal K5 couple had apparently just been by, calling into their Royal verandah to consider the peaks. We drive on and wind down again to ground zero all the way to Punakha and to the much-anticipated rickety bridge, which crosses a very lively Mo Chhu River. Once we park up, we consider the Indiana Jones style crossing, and start out, treading niftily across the planks, keeping a steady eye on the end of the traverse as the bridge swoops down closer to the ice-blue water and up again the other side.
As Rinchen had explained, the Aman-buggy awaits us under the shade of the weeping willows lining the river-bank. It’s a 5* buggy with a difference, as it has been kitted out with a hand-made dashboard carved from the local pines. We are in for attention to detail. We cannot quite believe where we are, suddenly winding through paddy fields glistening in the evening sun, and beyond, we can hear the bells ringing in the distant prayer wheels. One last turn, and there stands the Lodge with its eight suites, which was built approximately eighty years ago by Je Khenpo (the supreme religious leader in the Kingdom).
The Lodge is a traditional farmhouse, set in an orange orchard, overlooking endless rice terraces stepping up the hills, and layered mountains stacked up beyond in shades of dusk. The interiors are beautifully hand-painted, and navy blue wooden staircases run throughout and the open windows make every room airy, allowing a connection with the day or night outside. The courtyard below is set for breakfasts, lunches and dinners, which are served under an aged fig tree. As night falls, a fire-pit burns to light up the house and announce a group of Bhutanese dancers, who sing a series of local chants and songs, which, to our great surprise, we are invited to join in on. At first, it is a strange experience, but then the music, the rhythm of their steps, the light of the fire and the history we are all steeped in, make this welcome ritual quite unique. Anything here would melt the hardest hearts.
The next day, a cool breeze flows in the day-room in Amankora – Punakha, and outside, we hear the sound of gentle scrubbing on the flagstones. I recall the routines in Amanwella in Sri Lanka: I know I am at an Aman. Today’s activity here though, is about cleaning, and at the same time, tidying up the neat little droppings a mother-bird has left, whilst feeding her three young chicks huddled under the fig tree, as they are not quite savvy-enough to take flight into the clear blue skies. The staff at Punakha, naturally connecting to their inner Buddhist principles, ensure their safety, as these birds may well be reincarnations of one of their family members, who have passed away….it is a beautiful connection. In all these details, once again, you can appreciate the pleasure Adrian Zecha must have enjoyed in finding and creating this most idyllic outpost for Amankora – Punakha, set in this green sunny valley away from the dancing prayer flags, but surrounded in tranquillity and rest for the soul.
Amankora – Paro
Winding our way back towards Paro on day five, we are getting closer to the airport for our last two nights, where architectural style continues to mix subtly with the Bhutanese cultural experience. As we arrive at the third lodge, we note the similarities in the modular architectural format, which are creating a continuity in our stay, yet giving each resort an individual identity brought out in the furniture, the local woods and the natural beauty of the surroundings. Upon arrival at Amankora – Paro, we walk through a forest and onto a deep pathway of thick, fresh, rust-coloured pine needles, which give out an incredible pine-oil aroma. The main reception lies up an impressive staircase and once inside, we see an elegant old man sitting on the floor, block printing prayer flags by the sofa in his immaculate Bhutanese gho. These flags are for guests to take up to the Tiger’s Nest during this part of the stay. We enjoy a convivial dinner with Bradlie Goian, the resident manager at Amankora – Paro.
We are then up at 6am and join our guides at the stables where horses wait to walk us up to the Taktshang Goemba, the Tigers’ Nest monastery. With this iconic spectacle finally within our reach, I wonder how we will cope with any fear of heights as we trek up and up towards 900m to see these colourful temples huddled into the rock-face overlooking the Paro valley. This journey continues to surprise, and once up at the top, we comply with the required prostrations, which we run through smoothly now, with Rinchen setting the pace. It is said that Guru Rinpoche flew to this holy site on the back of a tigress (a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal) to subdue the local demon. He then meditated here for three months, creating a hub for all Bhutanese pilgrims, until a great fire in 1998 destroyed the main structure. Fortunately, as a focal point in Bhutan, it was soon rebuilt to its current state with the contributions requested by the Royal Family from every Bhutanese national. We thank you all for this.
Our one-week journey ends here in Paro, and casting our minds back, we feel this country has something fairy-tales are made of, hidden in these deep green forests of natural beauty. Since the 7th century, birds have sung from dawn till dusk, flags have fluttered day in, day out and the mesmerising hum of Buddhist chants has been on-going every day, while high winds have swept immense clouds across the highest mountain tops rising to 7,000 metres. Bhutan’s thin air and lack of pollution give a most vivid quality to the visual experience and we are left with the impression that our eyes and minds have never lived a clearer day.
Bhutan will change, but before it does, discover this most extraordinary space and its unique service and experiences with Amankora: www.amanresorts.com, in Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Bumthang & Gangtey. Tel: 00 800 2255 2626.
Blue Poppy Tours & Treks: www.bluepoppybhutan.com. Tel +44 (0)20 7609 2029, for all travel, treks, visas and ground transport services.
DrukAir is the national carrier of the Royal Government of Bhutan: www.drukair.com.
Required Interesting Reading
1) Bhutan – Lonely Planet
2) Beyond The Sky And The Earth by Jamie Zeppa
3) The Hero With A Thousand Eyes by Dasho Karma Ura
4) The History of Bhutan by Doctor Karma Phuntsho