The nation of Bhutan is still considered ‘off-the-beaten-track’ by most holiday-makers. When Destination Expert Deepavali Gaind visited for the first time the place left a real impression…
Some travel experiences change your perspective, for me the peaceful culture and gentle pace of life in Bhutan
will leave an impact for years to come. Back in the 1970s, when Bhutan first opened its doors to tourism, Jigmay Singh Wangchuk, the Fourth King of Bhutan, introduced the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’. Since then, the population’s well-being and happiness has guided development; and this is a philosophy that came across even in my short time in the country. It is a place where enjoying life’s simple pleasures is not a cliché but a reality!
My journey through Bhutan started by road, crossing the border with India
at Phuentsholing, a town that separates the two nations. What is interesting is how the scenery changes as you enter the gates of the country. Traffic on the roads reduces considerably and beautifully painted and decorated buildings abound, you also begin to see people in traditional Bhutanese dress; men in Ghos and women in Kiras.
My first stop in Bhutan was Thimpu, a town where one fourth of the country’s entire population reside, and its main business centre. Thimpu is a perfect introduction and first step to get a taste of the Bhutanese culture and way of life.
From there it was onward to Punakha
, a journey that took roughly three and half hours, yet the scenery was enough to keep me entranced for the whole journey. The prayer flags along the way make you feel that this is somewhere really special and as you approach Punakha, you begin to come across beautiful rice terraces and steep valleys that really are a sight to behold.
I stayed at Uma Punakha by COMO
, which is small boutique hotel located in the midst of paddy fields. My room had incredible views of the valleys and I was overlooking the rice terraces as I sat down to have breakfast. I would recommend at least two full days to explore this area, though you could stay much longer. There is so much to do and see here, including taking scenic walks through the hills and local villages. A visit to Punakha Dzong (a Bhutanese fortress) is a must, as this is one of the most stunning Dzongs of Bhutan.
From Uma Punakha by COMO I travelled on to Gangtey Goenpa Lodge
. The scenery along the way was truly jaw-dropping! Gangtey is one of Bhutan’s prettiest and more remote frequently visited areas. Here, life moves at a gentle pace and the atmosphere of ease is infectious. In every direction there’s something beautiful or interesting to look at, so I highly recommend nothing less than two nights, just to soak it all in.
Gangtey Goenpa Lodge itself sits in the middle of the valley, a position that commands incredible views and makes you feel as if you’re at the heart of everything. Upon arrival we were welcomed by traditional song sung by the luxury lodge’s wonderful team, along with a crackling fire and a cosy blanket. The Gangtey Monastery (a stunning building and the area’s main attraction) is almost walking distance and you can catch a glimpse of it from your spacious, beautifully appointed room. Each room features a free-standing bath in front of a window taking in the most gorgeous views of the valley; a real wow-factor moment for me.
Next it was onto Bumthang, a long journey that can take anywhere between eight and nine hours, so after a day of travelling it was a pleasure to be greeted by the gracious staff at Amankora Bumthang. This 16 suite boutique lodge has a wonderful ambience, and I felt at home almost instantly. The property is incredibly well located too, right next Wandichholing Palace, where even today a lot of celebrations and ceremonies are conducted in the summer.
Bumthang is a vast area, with some 29 temples and monasteries. You could happily spend weeks exploring but on a multicentre itinerary I’d say at least a stay of three nights and two full days is a must. The monasteries are old and magical and almost whisper their stories to you as you explore the ancient sites. With some dating back to the 7th century, and the sites having an even longer history behind them, I recommend a knowledgeable guide, something we at Western & Oriental can happily arrange.
My next stop was Paro
, which we reached by a scenic plane journey from Bumthang. Paro is a much more commercial and busy in comparison to where we had flown from, but on our way to Amankora Paro - our base for this leg of the journey - we caught a glimpse of the reason so many flock to this area; the Taktsang Monastery. Perched high in the mountains and right on the edge of cliff, it is one of Bhutan’s most iconic sights and when you first encounter it you do wonder how anyone would ever get up there – and this was our task for the next day!
Amankora Paro is another of Aman’s Bhutanese lodges, and is created in almost identical style to the other Amankora properties. This is great because it gives you a sense of the familiar among the changing scenery; you feel you have come back to the same room and you know where to look for everything you need. There’s incredible attention to detail too. When I returned from dinner that evening I found they had marked my place in the book I was reading with a bookmark and left it neatly on my bed as part of the turn down service.
The next day it was time to take the trek up to Taktsang Monastery. We collected our walking sticks at the starting point and I don’t mind telling you I was not relishing the prospect, in fact I thought it might be impossible! But after a three or four hour hike we were finally there. The sense of achievement climbing 3,120 metres was incredible, but it was topped by the views! We sat down and looked out across the valley; it was a moment I’ll never forget and one among the many travel experiences that have left their mark on me following my Bhutan trip.
For me, Bhutan not just a country or a place; it is a feeling that will never leave you. I know I will return here many times and I am so excited to introduce travellers to its beauty and peace.