Bhutan: land of the thunder dragon

by Nicki.Grihault

In the romantic Kingdom of Bhutan, you'll find spas, gourmet cuisine and smiling faces as well as yaks, monasteries and mountains

With prayer flags fluttering serenely in the breeze, yaks grazing in front of impossibly high and snowy peaks and striking dzongs – fortress-like monasteries clinging to the hillside – in a scented pristine forest, it’s not surprising that Bhutan is described as ‘the last Shangri-la’.
Only opened to tourism around 35 years ago, three quarters of Bhutan is still indigenous forest, where leopards and pandas roam and mysterious legends abound. Add eternally smiling Buddhist people in endearing national dress, who measure themselves by gross national happiness, and it's no wonder Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall once wanted to get married here. Bhutan has always been a magnet for cool celebrities, although the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon hasn’t always had quite the same creature comforts.
Times have changed. While the main activity is still walking, there is now a luxury bed to come back to in the form of two hot eco-spiritual hideaways, both of which opened in 2004 and made Condé Nast Traveller’s hot list: Adrian Zecha’s Amankora, and Como Hotels’ Uma Paro, designed by Christina Ong. Both are in the tranquil, pine-clad Paro Valley near Bhutan’s only international airport, and offer spas, gourmet organic cuisine and private guides. It’s quite easy to see why Cameron Diaz decided to visit Uma Paro and Hong Kong tycoon David Tang chose Amankora for his 50th birthday celebrations.
Clearly very exclusive, Bhutan is also about holidaying with altitude and, with Paro at 2280 metres, the first few days need to be spent acclimatising. From its beautiful dzong, which hosts an ancient festival in spring, it’s only a mile long, with a main street featuring a row of almost medieval, wooden-fronted shops decorated with carved prayer wheels and ancient motifs painted in vegetable dyes.
Amankora Thimphu's minimalist hotel shocked the Bhutanese. (The only other undecorated building in the country is the prison.) Its 24 suites, with rammed-earth walls, wooden panels and frosted glass divides, have king-size beds, traditional Bukhari stoves and large central baths. The view from the glass-fronted lounge bar over the romantic ruin of Drukzel Dzong, and in season Tibet’s 7,300-metre-high Mount Jhomolhari beyond, is breathtaking.
Scenic walks start from the door and then there’s the Aman magic: a lute playing from behind the pines when you first arrive, a candlelit alfresco traditional hot stone bath by the river, or moonlit dinner for two in the stunning ruined dzong. With satellite lodges now in Thimphu, Punakha, Bumthang and Gangtey, travellers can journey into the countryside in luxurious style.
Perched on a hillside, Uma Paro looks like a pretty monastery, but is cosier inside. Red curved chairs lend a Soho-style to the bar, as do the black doors and cream walls, but gnarled pine floorboards from farmers’ houses cleverly used as room dividers and the scent of pine cones from the Bukhari in the lovely round glass restaurant add real local flavour. Yak burgers and chilli-spiced hot chocolate are on the menu, along with a traditional hot stone bath at the heavenly Shambhala spa.
Cameron Diaz chose Suite 34, one of two lovely suites with king-size bed, spacious lounge and modern bathroom in frosted glass. But if you want romantic seclusion, opt for one of the nine opulent villas with butler service, nestled in the pine trees. They also offer romantic tented safaris into the countryside.
There’s a bend in the road every eight seconds in Bhutan – maybe more on the vertiginous, hair-raising ride to Thimphu, the kingdom’s capital. The smallest capital in the world, it’s the only one without traffic lights. One drive worth doing is on Bhutan’s highest road pass, the 3810-metre Cheli-la, where yaks wander among prayer flags in front of unclimbed snow-capped peaks. From here, Uma Paro’s 35km freewheel cycle is the way to go down, winding through forest scented with sandalwood, spruce and juniper and filled with bird song. There’s no other place quite like Bhutan – the romance of a holiday here is incomparable.


When to go: spring is the best time to visit; try April to catch the Paro festival and April to May to see the rhododendrons in bloom. Autumn and winter, with their clear skies, are dry, with fine views of the mountains. Monsoon season is summer to late September.
Recommended tour operator: Western & Oriental, using Chambula Dorji Tours on the ground.
Airline: Druk Air flies to Bhutan from Bangkok, Kathmandu, Delhi, Kolkata or Dhaka.