Bhutan is not a country; it’s a Kingdom.
A kingdom built into the sides of sheer mountain faces. There are colorful prayer flags flapping in the wind, colorful Bhuddist murals, monks in their long robes, rice paddies on terraced hills, and families along the roadside enjoying the national sport of archery.
Until the mid-1970s the only way to visit Bhutan was to have an invitation from the King. (From CIA.gov) Following Britain’s victory in the 1865 Duar War, Britain and Bhutan signed the Treaty of Sinchulu, under which Bhutan would receive an annual subsidy in exchange for ceding land to British India.
Ugyen Wangchuck – who had served as the de facto ruler of an increasingly unified Bhutan and had improved relations with the British toward the end of the 19th century – was named king in 1907.
Three years later, a treaty was signed whereby the British agreed not to interfere in Bhutanese internal affairs, and Bhutan allowed Britain to direct its foreign affairs.
Bhutan negotiated a similar arrangement with independent India after 1947. Two years later, a formal Indo-Bhutanese accord returned to Bhutan a small piece of the territory annexed by the British, formalized the annual subsidies the country received, and defined India’s responsibilities in defense and foreign relations.
Under a succession of modernizing monarchs beginning in the 1950s, Bhutan joined the UN in 1971 and slowly continued its engagement beyond its borders.
In March 2005, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck unveiled the government’s draft constitution – which introduced major democratic reforms – and held a national referendum for its approval.
In December 2006, the King abdicated the throne in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.
In early 2007, India and Bhutan renegotiated their treaty, eliminating the clause that stated that Bhutan would be “guided by” India in conducting its foreign policy, although Thimphu continues to coordinate closely with New Delhi.
Elections for seating the country’s first parliament were completed in March 2008; the king ratified the country’s first constitution in July 2008. Bhutan experienced a peaceful turnover of power following parliamentary elections in 2013, which resulted in the defeat of the incumbent party.
Bhutan’s economy, small and less developed, is based largely on hydropower, agriculture, and forestry, which provide the main livelihood for more than half of the population.
Because rugged mountains dominate the terrain and make the building of roads and other infrastructure difficult and expensive, industrial production is primarily of the cottage industry type.
The economy is closely aligned with India’s through strong trade and monetary links and is dependent on India for financial assistance and migrant laborers for development projects, especially for road construction.
Multilateral development organizations administer most educational, social, and environment programs, and take into account the government’s desire to protect the country’s environment and cultural traditions. For example, the government, in its cautious expansion of the tourist sector, encourages visits by upscale, environmentally conscientious tourists. Complicated controls and uncertain policies in areas such as industrial licensing, trade, labor, and finance continue to hamper foreign investment.
Bhutan’s largest export – hydropower to India – could spur sustainable growth in the coming years if Bhutan resolves chronic delays in construction. Bhutan currently taps only 5% of its 30,000-megawatt hydropower potential and is behind schedule in building 12 new hydropower dams with a combined capacity of 10,000 megawatts by 2020 in accordance with a deal signed in 2008 with India.
The high volume of imported materials to build hydropower plants has expanded Bhutan’s trade and current account deficits. However, Bhutan and India in April 2014 agreed to begin four additional hydropower projects, which would generate 2,120 megawatts in total. Bhutan also is exploring energy exports to Bangladesh.
The Short Loop (7 nights)
Amakora is a series of five lodges strategically positioned in Bhutan. For this report we follow luxury travel advisor Jack Bloch of JB’s World of Travel and his wife through the Kingdom. Bloch used what’s referred to as the “Aman circuit” although there are other luxury options.
He likes the small lodge atmosphere. The manager is visible and intimately involved in the daily routine, Bloch says, adding the food is excellent, and you can either try local dishes or Western comfort food as well. There is an open bar and an honor bar for premium spirits. Dining is communal so you can either eat with your group or get to know other travelers, and you can eat whenever you want, on your schedule. The size of the lodges make them perfect for takeovers with small groups.
The Short Loop Journey is seven nights experiencing four valleys with one night at Thimphu, two nights each in Gangtey, Punakha, and Paro.
If you are traveling long haul to Asia to visit Bhutan, Bloch recommends combining it with Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore or Delhi at the start so you can recover from jet lag as Bhutan is full of hiking and soft adventure. As Bhutan is in the Himalayas and at high elevations, Bloch says, following the below itinerary enables you to adjust with the most rigorous hikes later in the trip.
As you fly into Paro you’ll view the Himalayan peaks. One benefit of sticking with the Aman itinerary is the Aman sourced guide will stay with you the entire trip.
Bloch says Thimphu is 1.5 hours drive and lies in a steep valley at an altitude of 7,709 ft. Upon arrival at Amankora Thimphu (bedroom above), you settle in and have lunch. Thimphu is the capital and is home to the Institute of Traditional Medicines, School of Arts and Crafts and the Folk Heritage Museum and Simply Bhutan. Other sights include the National Library, the Textile Museum, the Weaving Center, Buddha Point and the National Memorial Chorten.
Based on what you like, your guide will arrange the your itinerary, so if you prefer some activity, you can hike the Wangditse Leisure Forest trail for some mild exertion. You can also leave time for the spa.
Day 2 – Journey to Gangtey
The drive is six hours over difficult roads with interruption from construction of a new road. Bloch says charter a helicopter and make the trip in 45 minutes to the doorstep of the eight suite Amankora Gangtey (above) which is set on a pine forest hillside looking down into the valley.
Dat 3 – Gangtey Valley
You can start with a walk or run along a nature travel through flower meadows, pine forests and into the open valley. If you are looking for a longer and more challenging hike, try the Longtey Hike which will take through the rhododendron forest. You can also visit the Black Neck Crane Center and dependent on the season, spend time in the center’s nearby hide to view the breeding cranes which come in winter from Tibet.
Afterwards, Bloch says take a the traditional Hot Stone Bath. You soak in the wooden tub in a candle lit stone hut while you enjoy views of the Phobjikha Valley. Your body will benefit from the minerals in the heated stones and the healing effects of local herbs.
After you are relaxed the Potato-Shed Dinner features hundreds of flickering candles while the bhukari, the traditional wood-burning oven, makes the shed comfortably warm.
Day 4 – Journey to Punakha
The drive to Punakha takes about 2.5 hours up to an elevation of 4,100 ft. in the valley at the of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers. The sub-tropical environment allows the cultivation of rice and numerous fruits such as oranges, mangoes and bananas.
On the way you can visit Chimi Lhakhang, the fertility monastery built in 1499 where numerous couples visit to pray to become pregnant and receive a blessing from the saint with the ‘magic thunderbolt of wisdom.’
To get to the Amankora Punakha lodge (below), which was built from a Bhutanese farmhouse with eight identical suites, you walk across a suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River with your guides carrying your luggage on their backs in the traditional way.
Bloch says on arrival get a massage and enjoy the scent of the nearby orange groves.
Day 5 – Punakha
There are a multitude of adventures, including a morning hike to Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten, a stunning monument recently built by the Queens and consecrated in 1999. Following the hike you can visit the Punakha Dzong (above), home to the remains of Bhutan’s first ruler, Shabdrung Narang Namgyal, and the winter residence of the monastic order’s leader and his entourage of monks.
Bloch says for lunch or dinner, try a private riverside Private Riverside BBQ. You sit in the shade of pine trees and enjoy the sounds of the river, views of the rice fields and the Himalayan mountain peaks. Bloch says four couples, the dinner experience is more romantic with candle light, lanterns and a bonfire.
In the afternoon you can try your skills in archery, the national sport of Bhutan, or take a Bhutanese cooking class to learn how to make Momos, the traditional Bhutanese dumplings.
Bloch notes while traveling in January, he was still able to eat outdoors.
Day 6 – Paro
The four-hour journey to Paro is a winding, but good road, says Bloch and takes you across the Dochu La pass (above).
For lunch you can either stop at Thimphu lodge or picnic lunch at any spot on your way back along the dramatic Wang Chhu and Paro Chhu valleys.
After crossing through Paro Town you will find the Amankora Paro lodge (above) set in a pine forest towards the north end of the valley. In the afternoon, there is time for a short walk or run from the lodge, crossing open fields and passing village houses.
Before the sun sets, sit down by the big prayer wheel below the ruins of the Drukgyel Dzong, and relax whilst checking out the rural scenery.
Day 7 – Paro
In the morning hike up to view Bhutan’s most dramatic monument, the Taktsang Goemba, more commonly referred to as the Tiger’s Nest (above), built on a sheer cliff face at a height of 9,678 ft. The four-hour trek offers spectacular views of the sacred monastery perched on a cliff face 3,000 ft. above the valley floor.
After lunch in a local farmhouse or in the lodge, you can drive to the outskirts of Paro town where you will find the twin temples of 7th century Kyichu Lhakhang, one of the first Buddhist temples built in the country. Spend time lighting 108 butter lamps (chargeable activity) and learn about the ancient Buddhist traditions that are still practiced today.
Alternatively, take an excursion to the town of Paro. Visit the National Museum, previously the watchtower of the valley that displays an intriguing collection that illustrate the rich culture and heritage of the Kingdom. Just a short walk downhill lies the Paro Dzong, a prime example of Bhutanese architecture
As this is your last evening, Bloch says soak again in a Hot Stone Bath and relax your body with a Tibetan Ku Nye massage where warm oil is applied on specific points and joints to release energy blocks.
The two-story Paro Lodge (above) is the largest of the Aman lodges with 24 suites. Each unit has its own wood-burning stove.
Day 8 – Departure
The airport is 30 minutes from the lodge.
- There is strong WiFi at the hotels however plan on being out of touch while you are driving between lodges.
- At each Aman there are lectures about the local environs and local musicians making performances.
- Bhutan has four seasons and weather varies by altitude. Spring is popular because of the blooming flora and a multitude of festivals. June, July and August are the Monsoon season making it a good time if you are interested in cultural attractions but less so if you like trekking and outdoors activities.
Parc International Airport (PBH) has 7,431 ft. runway and is an international port of entry. It is not 24 hours operating sunrise to sunset. Druk Air provides handling, and the airport requires special pilot qualifications. Singapore is an approximately six-hour flight, Hong Kong around five hours, while Delhi and Bangkok are about four hours flying.