Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Amankora Paro

Bhutan

Expectations met and exceeded on the first stop of the Amankora Journey

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Amankora Paro
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Amankora Paro

Location

10 minutes from the airport in Paro

Travel Information

The Amankora Journey is the best way to see Bhutan, and all travel is organised for you

Top Tips

A massage in the spa is a great way to unwind after a long day's trekking

5-Star X-Factors

If you're lucky enough to be invited, watching the monks practice their dancing at the Dzong of Paro is both sacred and surreal

Day 1 - 2 Paradise in Paro

I had heard so much about this precarious landing that I was almost disappointed when the wings of our much larger than anticipated plane did not clip at least one cluster of pines before landing. It was smoother than most touchdowns and, although the mountains appear alarmingly close, the 'air of calm' was already taking effect. Having just witnessed heaven before landing: folds of crisp white Himalayas, including Mount Everest and Cho Oyu, Earth was a potential disappointment; though not, as we discovered, if you land in Bhutan.

Our guide and driver, Choki and Sonam, were waiting for us at the exit dressed in dapper, traditional, wrap-around gingham tunic dresses (ghos), long black socks and city-slicker polished shoes; not that dissimilar to men in kilts. Little did we realise at the time that this dynamic duo would play such a profound and integral part of our journey. Nor did we really understand anything about this land-locked, democratic kingdom.

Driving from the airport to the centre of Paro takes around ten minutes. The town of Paro was unlike any other I or Lu had seen before: totally charming, with one main street, several bright white 'chortens', our first Dzong, willows waiting to burst, many dogs, and an architecture that instantly appealed. By law they cannot build something that does not adhere to its extremely quaint format and style: a Tibetan adaptation that has been carefully tweaked in order to deal with the different climatic conditions. Pitched roofs, often in slate, rise from a flat floor, usually used for storage, and windows are wonderfully elaborate with finely painted frames and intricate lintels. Criss-cross wooden beams across chalky-whitewashed stonewalls appear to hold all this 'Hansel and Gretel' sweetness together. However, what sets these houses apart from 'fairytale', are the wall-painted phalluses...

A winding drive up into the mountains of invigorating blue pine forest and we arrived at Amankora. My expectations were met and more as we walked the soft mattress of scented pine needles to our first lodge. It was breathtaking. Set against the real Himalayas with the centrally placed 'virgin' snow-white peak of the sacred Jomolhari (considered to be the home of the 16 Arhats and Goddess Jomo), it is privileged. What's more, it also looks onto a most auspicious monastic ruin; small, sacred, empty and steeped in mystery, wonder and intrigue - the Drukyel dzong: it is, indeed, blessed.

The smell of the pine's sweet scent in the crisp air is instantly rejuvenating, even cleansing. The Amankora team, dressed in perfectly crisp 'kira' and 'gho', greeted us on the wide stone forecourt, holding hot towels and short glasses containing a pick-me-up of ginger, clove, cinnamon and black pepper spiced sweetened milk... so good. Sunil, the house manager, then asked us if we minded being prefixed in our address with oum, like our 'sir' or 'madam', and pronounced 'Aum', so, aum Sophie and aum Louise. We agreed and suggested it could be useful in the event of forgetting our names? Laughter here is first nature. I suppose it would be, in the country that believes in Gross National Happiness: G.N.H above G.N.P.

Our suite was, for me, lodge-Utopia. It really was just what we desired: a brush of alpine rustic with creature comforts where you want them, including down duvets bedded in crisp linen on emperor-sized beds; an enormous, free-standing bath set into terrazzo along with the sensational potions created in the Aman Spa; stylish furniture with an organic and authentic feel; plenty of natural wood and a lacquered dividing privacy screen; set back twin vanity units with 'goddess' lighting and the all important vast window to frame our celestial view. The most sublime luxury, beside perfecting the art of understatement, was the wood- burning stove, which omitted both warmth and primal-sounding cracklings from the sweet smelling cones, whenever we desired. I am pining right now (these features are present in all the lodges).

We were looking forward to our Bhutanese dinner, but the town of Paro was calling and our duo were waiting patiently beneath the pines in order to begin our submersion into the world of their extraordinary culture and spirituality. The Paro museum is a tall round structure, initially the watch tower to look over the Dzong which lies below, and houses floors and floors of relics and icons. It is a great start to understanding both Bhutan's colourful history and culture, though spiritually it was perplexing. This does eventually fall into place, however.

After a dumbfounding couple of hours we ventured down to the Dzong of Paro. Dzongs were constructed throughout the main towns of Bhutan for political reasons and they contain both the regional Drukpa monastic communities as well as administrative offices. They are solid and imposing buildings, reminding one of an enormous fortress but on entering you are genuinely overwhelmed by the exquisite attention to fine detail and by the intriguing sense of proportion. The intricate hand-carved and painted detailing on the woodwork is enchanting, while the courtyards, together with the pitched roofs, add to the feeling of otherworldly, of something rather magical. Each Dzong was a little like a self- contained kingdom.

We were extremely fortunate on our visit as not only were we the only 'tourists', but we were also allowed special permission to witness the monks practising their dances for the forthcoming festival. Surreal and sacred are two words that spring to mind; the monks, along with the sound of only one drum, leapt, pirouetted, weaved, pranced and floated - their robes flaying around like a swirl of open burgundy and russet umbrellas beneath flashes of ruby-red lips.

Dining is fittingly communal at the Paro lodge, very organic in feel, with long wooden tables, roaring fires and a glass wall of window onto the pines. I was particularly excited about going 'Bhutanese' in cuisine, as I can't understand those who immediately look for the familiar. I was quite simply blown away and not just because of the chilli. Not only did this food surpass all expectations but I also became hooked on this intriguing spice. The menu is skilfully orchestrated to cater for all tastes and the wines are outstandingly well selected, for both their label and their price tag!

Day 2 - Tigers Nest - Taksang

The beauty of Bhutan was starting to take its hold on both of us. It's not like landing in the middle of Switzerland to picture-postcard-perfection. It's more rustic, more unkempt and obviously less traversed. This climb can be eased by horseback, even (they say) on horses that may have chomped on some 'happy' weed, thereby making the journey more pleasurable for them too. However, most enjoy this scenic trek in trainers or the likes thereof. There are several photo' opportunities, such as birds'-eye- views of the staggering snow-capped Himalayas, verdant green forests, a well-turned enormous brass prayer wheel, brimming with mantras, and clusters and lines of fluttering prayer flags - from faded and threadbare to 'primary' bright: a symbolic reminder of this country's seemingly timeless spirituality. Sadly the monastery was closed for visitors on our climb, so we could only admire its precipitous formation from the quaint tea-and-accessory house a very steep gorge away. For those of a vertiginous nature this may be the place to end the trek. It is also by far the best place to purchase authentic prayer beads.

After our morning hike we tried our hand (or arm) at a bit of the national sport, archery. Choki and Sonam were real pro's and excellent teachers. Feeling a little threatened and a little competitive, we gave it our best shot, while they remained comfortably behind us.

That evening back at Aman, after a striking crimson sunset behind the Paro Valley, my massage in the forested wooden spa was perhaps right time, right place, and even necessary; however, it was out of this world and into another. With muscles de-knotted and hearts soaring we walked under brilliantly bright stars to the glowing dining room for another palate pleaser. Bhutan together with Amankora delighted our senses, again, and again, and again.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant


Luxury Explorer