THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCESM
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES
THE MIDDLE EAST'S NEW TRAVEL MAGAZINE: FOR BEAUTIFUL DESTINATIONS, HOTELS, THINGS AND EXPERIENCES

Land of the Thunder Dragon: How to spend a week in Bhutan

Bhutan’s doors have reopened, giving travellers the keys to the kingdom and a world of temples, forts, preserved culture and elite luxury lodges. With new direct flights from Sharjah, there’s never been a better time to visit the Land of the Thunder Dragon

Isabella Sullivan

21 May 2024

bhutan travel guide

Fewer than a dozen pilots can make the landing into Paro International Airport. It’s famously dangerous, manoeuvring between a soaring valley with peaks as high as 18,000 feet onto a runway that appears moments before touchdown. Just two airlines are allowed to – Bhutan Airlines and Druk Aur (meaning Dragon, in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language). Our flight has flown in from Kathmandu on a journey that took us past Mount Everest – one of just a handful of direct routes, including a soon-to-be-launched flight from Sharjah.

Bhutan is unlike any other – a kingdom of valleys bordering India, Nepal, and China. It has never been colonised or invaded and was only globally known after the 1914 publication of an account in National Geographic. Road construction only began in the Sixties, followed by television and the internet in 1999 – preserving as much of the culture and old ways of life as possible. What exists today is a country effectively unchanged by mass tourism or development – of uniform Bhutanese houses and citizens donning national dress. Because of this charm, Bhutan soared to the top of bucket lists for anyone from backpackers to luxury travellers. And in response to this, in September 2022, emerging from two-and-a-half years of pandemic closure, Bhutan unveiled its new tourism strategy, rejecting mass tourism with a bold USD200 per person, per day, tourism fee, and with it making it a true once-in-a- lifetime kind of adventure.

Amankora, Thimphu Lodge's courtyard Chortens
Amankora, Thimphu Lodge’s courtyard Chortens

Our landing into Paro is, of course, seamless, and it’s at the airport that our Bhutanese immersion begins. It feels like you’re arriving at a temple, white and gold, with no advertising or brand names – instead depictions of pastoral Bhutanese life and the photogenic royal family plastered on the walls – the King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and his wife Jetsun Pema are progressive, well-loved and often likened to the Kate and Wills of the Himalayas. Wheeling our bags out past models of Bhutan’s most famous sites – the Punakha Dzong (a fortress and monastery) and the Trashi Chho Dzong, where our where smiling guide, Gayley, awaits clothed in a traditional Gho. Gayley will be with us for our journey ahead: six nights, three valleys and three resorts, from the snowy caps of Thimpu to the balmy valley of Punakha and forested Paro. It’s obligatory in Bhutan to have a guide in all valleys but Thimpu and Paro, and guides act as unocial ambassadors to the country.

Bhutan’s tourism development fee makes visiting here feel like a once-in-a-lifetime splurge, but the quality of the experience justifies the cost. For such a rustic country, it may surprise you that Bhutan is home to a shiny galaxy of five-star resorts, Six Senses, andBeyond and Como, to name a few. However, the most superlative is Aman – blending its Japandi vibe with traditional Bhutanese architecture and providing a marriage of cultural immersion and luxury. Amankora’s five lodges are gracefully dotted around Bhutan’s valleys, and visiting in a crisp January we begin in the Amankora Thimpu, making our way from Paro through a winding mountain road. Life is unhurried in Bhutan, and we pass uniform Bhutanese houses, paddy fields and prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Like mountains, prayer flags are a staple of Bhutan – coloured for the living, white for the dead, each gust blowing well wishes for all beings across the world.

Coloured prayer flags fluttering in the wind
Coloured prayer flags fluttering in the wind
Amankora, Bhutan, Thimphu Lodge
Amankora, Bhutan, Thimphu Lodge

Thimpu is Bhutan’s capital, a jumble of green- and red-roofed houses spread across a valley and the seat of the Bhutanese government. In the ‘royal’ pine-covered hills surrounding the city, home to royal residences, lies Amankora Thimpu – our first stop. Inspired by traditional architecture, the hotel has sloping roofs and traditional rammed-earth walls, and on a chilly winter morning, we step inside to roaring fireplaces in the open-air lounge and a steaming Kora tea – quickly becoming a ritual of the trip. Apple farming is one of the main cash crops in the country.

The lodge creates a sense of almost eerie solitude and peace – rooms are dotted across out buildings with gusty winds and echoey stone floors. Contrary to the cool, whitewashed, flagstone corridors – rooms are warm, dark and cocooning – where picture windows look out into thick forest, Bhutanese fireplaces crackle away, and soaking tubs with almond bath oil will have you bathing multiple times a day. On a waning winter day, the soft light from the forest illuminating the spaces feels almost ethereal. Amankora manages to marry the brand’s hallmarks with Bhutanese culture delightfully, and over Kora tea, this time spiked with Bhutanese whiskey, we sit on the patio and watch traditional Bhutanese dancers. The next day, a monk regales us stories from his life before dinner. There’s also a spa and steam room, but the real treat lies ahead – the Bhutanese onsen baths.

Rooms are laid out with individually printed excursions on parchment: a visit to the local post oce and paper factory and the Great Buddha Dordenma, one of the largest in the world. The imposing 52-metre gold structure lords above Thimpu, and inside, Monks light butter lamps and serve sweet Bhutanese tea made with condensed milk. We’re treated to a 20-minute blessing by three monks. As we depart, one scrolls on his iPhone – a dichotomy that sums up Bhutan’s delicate dance between fierce tradition and globalisation.

The Dochula Pass covered in snow
The Dochula Pass

Our time in Thimpu is fascinating and enriching; we enjoy lunch in Babesa Village Restaurant, a mudbrick restaurant oering a glimpse into the Bhutan of the past. Surprisingly, the Bhutanese have a love aair with cheese and put it into just about anything they can. The national dish is chilli cheese (mixed chilli peppers in a creamy cheese sauce), which we enjoy with hot butter tea (suja), rice, dried beef, momo dumplings and organic vegetables like turnips, eggplants, spinach and potatoes. ‘We’ve had chilli cheese every night for dinner,’ reveals a fellow Amankora guest, visiting the kingdom to mark a big birthday.

The road between Thimpu and Punakha is a long and winding one, over the Dochula Pass, which closes temporarily due to snow. We sit it out in a mountain café, where guides chatter over momos and guests sip tea overlooking the snowy Himalayan range – which traces 300 miles of border with China. We’re told of Operation All Clear, a military operation by the Royal Bhutan Army to suppress Assam Separatist insurgence groups in southern Bhutan in 2004 – the pass is now home to 108 ‘chörten’ built in commemoration.

Amankora gives guests a picnic between journeys, with Gayley and our smiling driver taking care of all moving around. Amankora tea is always close to sight, and all travelling is done on the Amankora minibus, which has wi- fi, reclining chairs and thick blankets. The temperature is noticeably dierent in the Punakha valley – the balmy lowlands of rivers, rafting and birdwatching and an escape for the royal family in the colder months (reaching up to 35 degrees Celsius in summer). Amankora Punakha is housed in an historic royal-owned farmhouse with modern outbuildings overlooking the river. Lighter and brighter rooms are decked with blonde wood, and you can look onto a lake-like swimming pool lined with elegant sun loungers.

Amankora Punakha

The farmhouse feels like a private home – multiple floors of charmingly crooked landings, low ceilings and Bhutanese furniture. After being serenaded in the courtyard over Kora tea – this time, chilled – we enjoy a cooking class to make the famous momos – one of many excursions including river rafting to the famous Punakha Dzong, hikes and a riverside barbecue lunch. We enjoy this after a sunny morning hike to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten – a temple built by the Queen in 2004 overlooking the valley. All temples in Bhutan are home to prayer wheels, and spinning them is akin to reciting mantras. We join a line of locals spinning, and hoping.

Bhutan’s landscape is largely made up of Buddhist temples – dedicated to gurus and royals with butter lamps – and forts, home to scarlet-robed monks. In Punakha Dzong, on our way back to Paro, we see monks practising for an upcoming ceremony, dancing in unison across the sun-dappled courtyard. Most visitors come for 10 days to two weeks, moving onto Amankora Gangtey and Bumthang before taking a domestic flight back to Paro and departing the kingdom. Our journey follows the same route back – where we stop to picnic and enjoy areas solely reserved for Amankora guests: elevated viewpoints and plush rooms on the well-trodden route between lodges. Our final stop is Paro, a lively valley town, where Amankora Paro is reached through a thick pine forest. Paro, the largest of Amankora’s lodges, has a spa and garden with temple and mountain views. Rooms are identical to Punakha’s, perhaps to minimise the discombobulation of moving from lodge to lodge – which is the done thing.

Amankora Punakha swimming pool
Amankora Punakha swimming pool

Bhutanese people love onsen baths, and public bathhouses and facilities are found nationwide – hot and bubbling with fragrant eucalyptus perfect for soaking away after hikes. Amankora’ Paro’s onsen baths are private suites overlooking the pine forests and served with ice-cold apple juice. During the evenings, we enjoy calligraphy and make our own prayer flags, and on the final night, we are loaned a Bhutanese Kira of our own – now a meaningful emblem of this beautiful country.

Paro is most famous for being the home of The Tiger’s Nest – Bhutan’s most iconic sight and an unequivocal must-do hike in the Kingdom. Believed to be where Guru Rinpoche brought Buddhism to Bhutan, the vertiginous temple clings to the rocks, 3,120 meters above sea level and is a pilgrimage site most Bhuddists will complete once in their lives. We hike for four hours up to the sacred spot, past fluttering prayer flags and with views stretching to the snowy Himalayas, finally ascending to the temple where we leave our phones behind and explore shrine after shine, jostling with pilgrims and locals. Afterwards, in typical Aman style, we rest our weary bodies in Aman’s private lodge – set in a forest clearing with sunloungers and a white-clothed dining table where we’re served Bhutanese lunch and hot kora tea – as we toast to our adventures.

Monk in prayer at Tiger's Nest Bhutan
Monk in prayer at Tiger’s Nest
Amankora Paro Bhutan overlooks a temple and mountains
Amankora Paro overlooks a temple and mountains

Getting to Bhutan

Flydubai flies direct to Kathmandu, Nepal, with direct connections available to Paro International Airport. Bhutan Airlines will soon operate a bi-weekly service from Sharjah to Paro. Amankora stays include all meals, laundry, visa processing assistance, house beverages, picnics and, for seven-day stays or more, complimentary private road transport. Stays from USD1,900 (about AED6,980) a night. aman.com

Bhutan visas need to be applied for in advance, as well as the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) fee of $200 per person, per day. As per Bhutan’s official website, the SDF enables investment in transformative programmes that sustain our cultural traditions, protect the environment, upgrade infrastructure, and build resilience.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2024 issue of Near+Far

Sign up for the latest travel news, reviews, inspiration and so much more from the Middle East and beyond straight to your inbox.

Latest reads

Circle Text Subscribe Now

* indicates required

SUBSCRIBE

For the latest, relevant, news for the luxury-loving independent travellers, where to go now, unmissable travel offers, travel tips and what to do, buy and see, direct to your inbox...

* indicates required

SUBSCRIBE

For the latest, relevant, news for the luxury-loving independent travellers, where to go now, unmissable travel offers, travel tips and what to do, buy and see, direct to your inbox...