The Last Shangri-La
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan offers the best escapes from reality and heavenly comforts on the range.
“The Bhutanese,” our guide Gayleg told us at the beginning of the journey, “are very superstitious. They are a people who love their monarchy and believe that even looking at pictures of the King is good luck.” So, having the peculiar coincidence of flying into Paro Airport with the previous King (fondly known as K4 locally) on board in a Drukair plane piloted by the current Queen’s father, portended for an auspicious trip to this magical and mysterious mountain kingdom. In our age of overstimulation and information inundation, Bhutan is something of an anomaly – a country fiercely protective of its natural resources, heritage and culture. The only country in the world that is carbon negative, Bhutan also has a Gross National Happiness index (one of K4’s innovations), which measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels instead of relying solely on GDP growth.
Roughly the size of Switzerland with its current population of 750,000, Bhutan remains largely an enigma to most because of its strict high value, low impact tourism policy, which obliges foreign visitors to pay a minimum tariff of US$250 per day. Although this fee is all-inclusive – accommodation, food, transport and an official guide are provided – it does deter most casual visitors. Nonetheless, with its majestic landscapes, picturesque towns and charming people, the last great Himalayan kingdom is a country you should visit at least once in your life.
Discovering this extraordinary place requires a base that is equally superlative, and the Aman resort’s Bhutan outpost, Amankora, is just the ticket. The Aman group was the first foreign entity to attempt setting up a joint venture in the Kingdom of Bhutan after its founder Adrian Zecha campaigned tirelessly to open the Aman Paro in 2004. Comprising five lodges – Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang – the circuit is collectively named Amankora; “kora” means journey in Bhutanese, and guests travel from lodge to lodge following an individually crafted itinerary during their stay. My programme covered Thimphu, Punakha and Paro – the recommended number of lodges for a week’s travel. Even as the Himalayan range came into view as the plane approached Paro, the anticipation was palpable.