Our trip to Bhutan was designed around three valleys – Thimphu, Punakha, and Paro. We were to take our journey for eight days. Halfway through, an opportunity came up to visit Gangtey in Phobjikha Valley, a three-hour car ride from Punakha. All the different towns are about two to three hours away from each other by land. Amala Destinations, being a bespoke travel service, adjusted our itinerary and brought us to Gangtey. This explains the many hotels we got to stay in. Each one different but each reflects so much of the culture and architecture of Bhutan.
All new buildings in Bhutan, whether residential, commercial, agricultural or for tourism are mandated to follow the form of traditional Bhutanese architecture. A royal decree in 1998 mandated all buildings in Bhutan must be constructed with a mud brick structure (or the appearance of), either whitewashed or left as terracotta, multi-coloured wood frontages and cornices, small arched windows, and sloping roofs. You will see how the hotels and resorts have adapted this very unique architectural style and translated it into their own.
In our eight days in Bhutan, we stayed in a local inn, a luxury lodge, a hip hotel, a forest lodge and a luxurious mountain. Getting from A to B was quite an adventure and sometimes a test of patience. There is only one main highway in Bhutan – a one-lane meandering road that zigzags up, down, and around mountains. The country is predominantly Buddhist, and part of their belief is that mountains are sacred sites. There are still unexplored mountains in Bhutan. Needless to say, they will not be blasting mountains to make way for tunnels ever. Bhutan has a strict environmental stance and believes in protecting the country’s 72 percent of forest cover.
I loved the balance of our trip. Though the terrain was tough during the day, all our accommodations were more than comfortable, even luxurious. Amala Destinations chose a beautiful range of styles and services for us. By the way, there’s wi-fi in all the establishments we went to in Bhutan… except the dzongs and temples, of course.
Here’s what our journey from town to town looked like.
The Dochula Pass with 108 Stupas, elevation 3,000 metres above sea level. These stupas were constructed as a memorial by the queen, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, to honor the victory of the Bhutanese army in the 2003 war of Southern Bhutan.
Bhutan roads are currently under construction for widening and repair. They have a system of closing the roads for thirty-minutes a few times a day. We ran into a couple of these road closures and though our driver and guide from Amala were very apologetic, we actually loved this little “inconvenience.”
GANGTEY GOENPA LODGE (5-Star)
Originally unplanned, our trip to Gangtey or Phobjikha Valley proved to be the prettiest and most unforgettable. This is where we visited the small village where Amala Destinations’ guests donated a monastery roof and where we interacted with the local villagers. It is in Gangey where I felt like I was in a really special faraway place cut-off from the outside world. It was almost magical.
There are very few structures in Phobjikha Valley – just some farm houses around Gangteng Monastery, a few local inns and a couple of luxurious resorts – the Amankora and the lodge we stayed at, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge. The reason for this exclusivity could perhaps be that Gangtey only got its electricity three years ago. This vast valley is the home of migratory birds – the almost-endangered black necked cranes. Gangtey is also 6 hours away by land (rough roads) from the Paro international airport.
From the outside, Gangtey Goenpa Lodge looks like a typical Bhutanese farm house with whitewashed mud brick walls, small arched windows, carved cornice, and wooden roofs anchored by big stones. But once you enter, the space opens up to an informal lounge and dining space with a wide view of the valley below. The lounge and rooms are decorated with heated stone floors, exposed mud brick walls, wooden beams and an earthy palette of leather sofas and woollen blankets. There are only 12 guest rooms. .
Our room had a stunning view of the valley, as all rooms do. And to maximize this special vista, the designer of the lodge set the enamelled cast iron bath tubs right by the windows. Amazing! Note that we were here in the beginning of February, the tail end of winter. In the spring and summer, Gangtey valley is filled with greenery and colourful flowers. Each room also has a bukhari fire place which provided warmth physically and visually. It was my favourite spot in the room – the couch beside the fire place.
Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, rated 5-stars, had all the beautiful design details and amenities of a luxurious resort. What set it apart for me was the impeccable service and personal touches — the welcome surprise when we entered the lodge, the five-minute back rub when arrived, the lovely staff that served us tea and lit the bukhari in our room, the turn down service with treats under the sheets, the friendly and very well-trained staff, the delicious food during all meals, the free laundry delivered on the same day, and priceless view from all corners of the property.
DHENSA BOUTIQUE RESORTS (5-Star)
Dhensa Punakha, a new boutique hotel opened in March 2014, has successfully merged contemporary design with Bhutan’s traditional architecture. I loved the clean lines and modern, minimalist feel. Our room was quite generous and provided the perfect backdrop after a few days of trekking and rough roads. I loved our balcony, surrounded by pine trees. We loved it so much, Patrick and I sat out every morning to have coffee in our pyjamas (and coats). The mini-bar is complimentary in all rooms.
I took a lot of pictures of the main structure. I love how the designers translated traditional Bhutanese farm architecture into this unimposing modern hip hotel. I hope to use this as a reference for our future weekend cottage.
Punakha was once the capital of Bhutan until it was moved to Thimphu in 1955. It is also one of the warmest valleys, being lower than others at 1,200 metres above sea level.
BHUTAN SUITES (3-Star)
Our first night was spent in Thimphu in the quaint boutique hotel, Bhutan Suites. I found this to be the homiest of all the lodges we stayed at. It also had the most local feel of all the hotels. Our room had a full kitchen and a separate living room. There were TVs in the room, but we honestly never turned on the TV during our 8 day trip. At nights we enjoyed slow dinners, nice conversations and read books. I particularly loved the wide balcony that had a stunning view of Thimphu valley. The food at Bhutan Suites Cafe was excellent. I loved that they served me chilli cheese (as in green chillies) at breakfast.
NAK-SEL BOUTIQUE HOTEL & SPA (3-Star)
In Paro, we stayed one night at Nak-sel Boutique Hotel & Spa, with lovely mountain cottages surrounded by a forest on one side and a view of the vast Paro Valley and Mount Jumolhari in the distance. Every room, cottage, and suite of Naksel Hotel features dramatic views of Jumolhari. While we were there, the clouds broke a short time and afforded us a glimpse of the snow-capped mountain. Mount Jumolhari sits in the border of Bhutan and Tibet. Also visible from the cottages and the main chalet were cliffs where Tiger’s Nest Monastery sits. We were to climb Tiger’s Nest the next morning.
We had a wonderful experience wearing the traditional Bhutanese attire — the Gho for men and Kira for women. Amala Destinations sent spa staff to our room to help us get dressed in the ornate silk robes. We all wore them to dinner.
This small landlocked kingdom in the Himalayas has five (yes FIVE) Aman resorts under the brand Amankora set throughout Bhutan’s central and western valleys. Aman means peace in Sanskrit, and kora refers to the ‘circular pilgrimage’ in Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. We were fortunate enough to have had lunch, hosted by Amala Destinations, in Amankora Paro. This happened right after our climb up and down Tiger’s Nest monastery.
Amankora Paro is located in Balakha Village, 30 minutes from Paro International Airport. There are 24 suites in Amankora Paro with contrasting rustic elements and contemporary design. “Its architecture features natural rammed-earth walls, gently sloping roofs and wood-panelled interiors. Centred by a large flagstone courtyard, a lime-washed stone pavilion houses the living and dining room facilities, library and outdoor terrace, all warmed by fireplaces.” I don’t think I will look at corrugated iron the same way again. Its chic factor just went up.
UMA by COMO, PARO (5-Star)
Our last night in Bhutan was spent at Uma Paro, a luxurious 29-room resort with private villas in a beautiful spot in Paro Valley. The architectural style of Uma Paro combines local craftsmanship with COMO’s contemporary style. The Bukhari restaurant is a beautiful space with a semi-circular view of the forest.
We had a Valley View room, which was perfect as I said farewell to Bhutan from our room balcony. The airport was just 10 minutes away from Uma Paro. From all over the hotel, one can see the distinctively traditional Bhutanese wooden roofs anchored by big stones. Very charming.
After our trek through Gangtey Valley, with our driver Sangay and guide Mani from Amala Destinations. All hotels, treks and tours within Bhutan were arranged though Amala Destinations. For inquiries regarding our hotels, tours and itinerary, pls email firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to get to Bhutan, visa and other requirements, click here.