Bhutan offers surprising luxury

PARO, Bhutan There is no TV or radio in the hotel room. There isn’t even a clock. And when you arrive at Amankora, there is no formal…

PARO, Bhutan

There is no TV or radio in the hotel room. There isn’t even a clock. And when you arrive at Amankora, there is no formal reception desk, no concierge.

Yet the four lodges here in this remote Himalayan mountain kingdom, which has only recently opened its doors to outside visitors, are part of the Amanresort group, at the top end of the travel world literally as well as geographically.

It’s not quite what you would expect in a Third World country with a still-developing tourism infrastructure. But unless you are a hard-core backpacker, you do appreciate returning from a hard day’s sightseeing to all the creature comforts.

With 24-hour guest service, a ratio of three to five staff for every guest, over-size (50-square-metre) rooms, traditional “bukhari” wood-burning stove and air conditioning, day-beds as well as king-size beds — Amankora offers the ultimate in beautiful design, understated luxury and exclusivity.

Two of the four properties have only six rooms each.

And Bhutan offers sightseeing like nowhere else in the world. It’s a unique combination.

This landlocked country of only 690,000 (Tibet/China to the north, India everywhere else, Nepal a couple of Himalayan mountain ranges to the west) started allowing visitors in 1974.

The annual number of visas granted eventually increased from 200 to 2,000. And, although today there is no limit, Bhutan is still a largely unknown and exotic land, regarded “as one of the last great travel destinations in the world today,” said John Reed, Amankora general manager.

“Today, life in Bhutan continues as before, true to its cultural, religious and social traditions. It provides a wonderful insight into life in the Himalayas as it was, and continues to be.”

Men and women still wear their colourful traditional dress — the gho and kira, respectively.

They turn the prayer wheels on the street and at monasteries. Prayer flags — some coloured, some white tied vertically up high poles — stream in the wind.

Young Buddhist monks in their crimson robes recite prayers; becoming a monk (or nun) and training in a monastery is an alternative to attending school.

Wooden shopfronts are carved and decorated in a unique style, somewhat reminiscent of those in India, which has the largest outside influence on Bhutan and is the country’s main trading partner.

TV, cellphones and the internet have arrived only recently. In the fields farmers still use oxen to pull their plows.

Some two-thirds of the population are subsistence farmers (you often see them gathering the marijuana that grows everywhere to feed their pigs); 80 per cent live at least an hour’s walk from a road and about half live more than a day’s walk from a road.

The roads themselves, most barely one lane wide and often with a sheer drop-off, are an ongoing challenge:

To the drivers who somehow manage to remain civil as they take turns passing one another, responding to the “honk horn” signs on the back of trucks and narrowly avoiding collisions with each other and with cows and dogs who often lie on the road.

To the maintenance workers from India and Nepal who live in makeshift roadside shelters as they – many of them women – wield hammers to break up stones to repair and widen the “highways.”

I have come to Bhutan because of a former student whose husband, Tshering Dorji, runs Bhutan Scenic Tours (www.bhutanscenictours.com.bt) and because of past contacts with Amanresorts (www.amanresorts.com — toll-free 011 800-2255-2626).

Together Dorji and Aman arranged for me to visit all four Amankora properties.

Like everybody who travels in Bhutan, I also had my own guide and driver — this is included, along with accommodation, meals, taxes and fees, in the $200 US a day per person the government charges all visitors.

While this might deter backpackers, by international standards such an all-inclusive rate isn’t bad, especially when you consider what you receive for the money in such a special destination.

The luxury hotels charge more — starting around $1,100 a day in the case of Amankora.

Is that expensive?

Like any expense, if it’s worth the money, then the answer is no.

Many visitors go to all of the Amankora properties; those who stay a total of seven days or longer receive complimentary guide, driver, tailor-made private itinerary and one spa treatment — as well as all meals and drinks, laundry and so forth.

While you can drive north from India, most visitors fly in on the only airline to service the country — Royal Bhutan’s Druk Air, which operates two fairly new Airbus 319s from New Delhi and Bangkok.

Bhutan has mountains higher than 7,000 metres in the north; the airport at Paro is at a mere 2,250 metres — although the 24-suite Amankora resort, farther up the valley and the first one built, looks toward 7,300-metre Mount Jhomolhari.

You drive along a narrow road flanked by bushes of wild white roses, gazing across the valley at the famed Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) monastery which clings to the cliffs some 900 metres above the Paro Valley floor, a four-hour round-trip hike.

Treks range from the four-hour hike across the mountains to Thimphu, the busy capital of Bhutan (a two-hour drive otherwise) to the 21- to 42-day Snowman’s Trek, often considered one of the world’s most difficult.

Thimphu is probably the world’s only capital city with no traffic light; instead, a policeman directs traffic through the main intersection.

The 16-suite Amankora lodge adjoins one of the queen’s palaces.

Thimphu attractions include the National Library, with the world’s largest book (weighing 60 kilograms, standing 1.5 metres high and 2.1 metres wide), the Jungshi handmade paper factory (plastic bags aren’t allowed in Bhutan), the Institute of 13 Arts and Crafts where students are taught a wide variety of crafts, and the Folk Heritage Museum, which features a three-storey farmhouse similar to those in use both 200 years ago and still today.

Also visit the mini-zoo, probably the only place where you will see Bhutan’s national animal, the takin — a cross between a musk ox and a gnu.

The four-hour drive to Gangtey takes you over the 3,150-metre Dochula Pass, with its 108 stupas (small pagodas) built two years ago for peace.

The Amankora lodge in Gangtey looks down a broad alpine valley, small Swiss-like chalets dotting the mountainsides.

This is the winter home of the endangered black-necked cranes; my goodnight gift at the lodge was two stones painted with these cranes.

On the 2.5-hour drive to Punakha, I saw black-faced langur monkeys scampering through the trees along the road.

At an elevation of only 1,300 metres (and Bhutan lies on the same latitude as California), Punakha grows produce year-round.

The former winter capital for 300 years is the site of the 17th century Punakha Dzong (fortress/administrative centre) which straddles the confluence of the Mo (mother) and Pho (father) rivers.

The Aman resort here, eight suites like Gangtey, features a traditional farmhouse as its main building, overseeing paddy fields where the locals still use oxen to plow.

You must deal directly with a firm like Bhutan Scenic Tours or Amanresorts for both your Druk Air flight and also visa and other government formalities for your visit to Bhutan.

When you book your flight to Bangkok (or India), also check out a Circle Pacific fare which, for not much more money, can include other southeast Asian countries as well as Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific.

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