Bhutan is much more than an exotic destination to tick off a bucket list. Profound Buddhist philosophies weave a spiritual motif through the fabric of daily life in this remote Himalayan Kingdom. Travelling to four of the fabled Amankora lodges, in the valleys of Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey and Paro, my husband Fahad and I took a voyage of discovery through this enchanted realm still shyly unveiling its mysteries to the world.
The descent into Bhutan is spectacular. The sight of Everest and K2 emerging, imperiously tall, through a dense carpet of cirrus, was a breathtaking welcome. Banking through vertiginous peaks and narrow green valleys, we approached Paro international airport. Below the clouds, an arrow on the notoriously challenging runway signaled the path to the legendary Land of the Thunder Dragon.
We were received by our driver Karma and guide, Tashi. Over the next eight days, they would escort us through a country where history and myth are often hard to distinguish.
A drive through idyllic countryside on circuitous mountain roads brought us to our first stop. The Amankora lodge at Thimphu is located high outside the city. Nestled in a pine forest, the imposing edifices are built following the Aman axiom of harmony with the environment. Favouring natural materials, the lodge design emulates traditional Bhutanese architecture. The white, rammed-earth structures with carved wooden roofs present a starkly alluring exterior. Inside, large windows frame lush vistas and the Zen, wood-paneled suites enclose a cocoon of luxury at its purest.
Soon after arrival, Fahad and I were introduced to our teacher and travel companion, the venerated Buddhist reincarnate, his Eminence the 9th Neyphug Trulku Rinpoche. We also met four fellow travelers from different parts of the globe. We had all elected to journey through Bhutan with the High Monk who conducts a course on Buddhism, ‘The Meaning of Life’, bi-annually at Amankora. As per Buddhist custom, we greeted the Rinpoche by presenting him with a Khadar, a white silk shawl which he blessed and placed around us, and sat down for the first of many lessons on Vajrayana Buddhism.
Amankora thoughtfully provides vignettes of local culture in-house so guests may gain insight into Bhutanese traditions. At the Thimphu lodge, arrestingly masked drummers and dancers performed a ballet whose form has remained unchanged for centuries. I had a distinct sense that in Bhutan, one travels more in time than distance.
The aspiration of keeping alive the spiritual heart of this Buddhist nation is evident in its richness of temples, monasteries and statuary. In a resplendent temple complex atop a hill near Thimphu, a fifty-meter-tall Shakyamuni surveys the land with a serene gaze. Enshrined within this gilded bronze Buddha are 125,000 smaller golden Buddhas, a number that surpasses the human population of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan.
The next morning, we stepped outdoors with the Rinpoche to learn Shamatha, a meditation technique to steady the mind for deeper practice. Breathing pine-scented air under sun-dappled conifers, we continued our learning from the teacher’s deep scriptural knowledge.
After breakfast, we set out for Gangtey, the winter home of the black-necked cranes so beloved and revered by the Bhutanese people. Located in the Phobjikha valley, one of the most serene places on Earth, the Amankora Gangtey offers guests some exceptional experiences. Gazing out at the mist-draped landscape, while immersed in a rustic hot stone bath steeped with healing Artemisia leaves, is the epitome of high luxury in sylvan simplicity.
At dinnertime, a short walk led us to a craggy, medieval potato shed. There was a fire crackling outside where we enjoyed a drink of Ara, a local brew reminiscent of Sake, before stepping inside for a four-course Bhutanese meal amid hundreds of flickering candles that lined the old stone walls. Fahad and I agreed, that, through our world travels, this amber-hued, intimate dinner for two ranked among the most romantic of bespoke experiences.
Ceremonial ritual is ever-present in Bhutan. Up in the hills around Gangtey we visited a Shedra, monastic college, where three-day-long prayers were being conducted by a priory of monks. We sat cross legged on the temple floor, our senses brimming with the rhythmic chanting of scripture, the thrum of the Nag drums, and the air intoxicatingly fragrant with incense.
At the majestic 17th century Gangteng Goemba, the sight of little, red-robed monks scampering about during their lunchbreak, was a heart-warming reminder that no matter how disciplined in dogma and doctrine, children will play.
The Amankora Punakha is located across the Mo Chhu river and accessed via a suspension walking bridge. Secluded and tranquil, it is, as always in Bhutan, overlooked by verdant mountains. Built by a former Chief Abbot, the atmospheric old farmhouse at the center of the lodge has been lovingly restored and features vegetable dye painted murals, a tea pavilion, a dining room and even a meditation chamber.
Our visit to the magnificent Punakha Dzong, the second oldest and arguably most beautiful Fortress-Monastery in Bhutan, was made even more awe-inspiring by special access to the normally off-limits temple of the Green Tara. Legend has it that the deity had spoken out loud to the temple priests and has since been reverentially addressed as the Spoken Tara. The Rinpoche had kindly arranged for us to pray at the shrine in the hidden sanctum. Surrounded by Buddhist iconography, our minds swam with arcane images that contain layers upon layers of meaning not always comprehended by the uninitiated.
That night at the lodge, we dined al fresco in the courtyard overlooking an orange grove. The Drangyen player plucking at his strings and a blazing wood fire throwing dancing shadows onto the ornate farmhouse façade made for a magical setting. A kinship had developed between us fellow travelers and we dined with the gregarious Rinpoche at a communal table.
Conversation ensued about samsara, spirituality and the pleasures of fine cuisine. After an epicurean meal of yak sliders, melon soup, pork belly and a stellar risotto, it made perfect sense when we were informed that Aman chefs are often called upon to cook for the Royal family.
We bade farewell to the wonderful staff at Punakha the next day. Casting long last looks at the sublime views, we crossed the gently swaying bridge to meet Karma and Tashi for the drive to Paro.
At Dochula pass, surrounded by misty, cypress-clad mountains, we stopped to admire the hypnotic symmetry of the 108 Chortens, or stupas, that Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk had commissioned. 108 is an auspicious number for Buddhists as it completes one full prayer cycle.
It was fitting that our final Amankora destination was Paro, from where our journey had begun. Aman is the Sanskrit word for Peace and Kora, in the local language Dzongkha, means circular pilgrimage.
It was raining softly when we arrived at the sprawling Paro lodge with its twenty-six suites. In the peaceful stillness, the gurgling stream that runs through the property was loud and full and the green of the trees, vivid.
After a visit to the Paro Dzong, another towering citadel from Bhutan’s martial history, we had lunch at a traditional Bhutanese cottage, cooked by the lady of the house. The star of the elaborate meal was the national dish, Ema-Datse or chilli-cheese. Later, palate still tingling, I went to the temple next door to participate in an auspicious ritual.
It being the month of Wesak, when both good and bad karma are amplified manifold, I was told that my devotional act of lighting a 108 butter lamps at this ancient place of worship, garnered extra karmic merit.
Aman was the first luxury hotel group to open in Bhutan, over twenty years ago. The deep roots established in local communities therefore provide guests unparalleled access and insights to the indigenous way of life.
The end of our sojourn loomed and it was hard saying goodbye to our compatriots.
There was much to take back. The transcendent beauty of Bhutan, the theological knowledge gleaned from the Rinpoche, little Buddhist mementos lovingly left by our bedside every evening, the multitude of exquisitely curated experiences both in the lodges and outdoors. Our Amankora excursion provided an inspired balance between temporal delights and spiritual joy.
Along with sacred flags that we tied at various shrines, that carry a pilgrim’s prayer on the wind, we left a wish for the continued happiness of the warm and unique people of Bhutan, the last remaining Shangri-La.