Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Amankora Punakha

Bhutan

Lush, exotic and extremely picturesque

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Amankora Punakha
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Amankora Punakha

Location

Punakha

Travel Information

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

Top Tips

It is tempting to soak up the valley as well as the understated, yet tantalising, luxury, but many excursions are just a walk away and well worth it

5-Star X-Factors

The smallest of the lodges, Punakha immediately feels like home

Day 6 -7 Pray you get to Punakha

It had not taken long for the mountains to entrench their endless powers of rejuvenation beyond our bones, but we were not prepared for our 'Punakha- penetration': the sinker to our hook-and-line. Descending into Punakha after a journey of, primarily, pine-and-incline, is a sublime contrast. The village and surrounding countryside is spattered with plants that favour a semi-tropical climate and banana trees and oranges thrive here in rich abundance. The paddy fields are jade-green and the fresh intensely aqua-hued river has an energetic pace that resounds throughout the valley. It is lush, exotic, and extremely picturesque.

Before we reached our destination (it's always so exciting just prior to arrival at any of the Amankora lodges) we were 'dzong-struck'! The Punakha dzong stood radiant in the glow of the late-afternoon sun and we both urged Sonam to pull over so we could admire its beauty. It is situated on the confluence of two rivers, the Pho (male) and the Mo (female), beneath a row of hills, one of which is shaped like an elephant's trunk, a sign that was necessary prior to its construction.

Sonam parked the car beside a swaying bridge, thronged in colourful prayer flags. Lu and I looked faintly surprised as there was no building in sight and we were not accustomed to camping, as such. Of course, the beauty about these 'arrivals' is the unexpected, and soon our surprise unfolded, as members of the Amankora 'family' walked towards us holding 'our' prayer flags on outstretched arms. With the wind rising we walked across the bridge stopping midway in order to pin our flags to the bridge's rope. We made our wishes as they fluttered with new promise above the turquoise-blue Mo Chhu River.

After a short buggy-ride up a hillside, we reached our lodge, set around an architecturally traditional and classic Bhutanese 'palace' belonging to the royal family. The air was pulsing with tropical nuances, the rich sun was dipping behind the valley, and the cicadas were starting their evening chorus, along with a multitude of songbirds. Our first instinct was to sit beside a table on the terrace in front of the exquisite farmhouse-styled palatial home, with the valley's breeze in our faces, and eulogise. We did just that, with drinks and hot towels in our hands before we could blink. This was going to be big-chill time, but with some hikes of course, plus a visit to that outrageously mesmerising dzong, and... a visit to the spa. We had also heard, along the pilgrimage-way, that the resident 'flint-eyed-Texan-chef' was creating quite a stir in the kitchen. So, once again, our taste buds were welling with expectation, and he didn't disappoint...

Our suite was comfortingly familiar, like moving home with all your favourite belongings, and yet, with the valley outside, it was a whole new experience. By now Lu and I were becoming a little possessive with the honey-herb-and-salt scrub and I think the staff had picked up on this near clashing of the claws: we had double the amount beside the freestanding bath. Both touching heaven once again, we embraced Punakha and the lodge, with total 'I've landed' submission. We felt like we never wanted to leave, however this would not have been a popular option as there are only eight suites here, and you need to book well in advance.

It is tempting to just soak up the valley as well as the understated, though tantalising, luxury, along with the blissfully gracious service, but excursions from here really are only walks away and well worth doing. We met several like-minded luxe-trotters along our journey with Amankora, though the Punakha lodge is a little 'cosier' than the others, so bonding happens fast. It is interesting to note that people come to Bhutan for a variety of reasons: from nature and culture, to trekking, and of course the spiritual. Some come for the entire package and we met a few luxe-trotters who were doing just that, including 'camping out' for several nights. Another couple were extremely keen to embrace the physically challenging options, such as white-water rafting and serious hiking (rock-climbing is prohibited). There is also horse riding, extreme trekking, lessons in archery and so on. Opportunities abound in Bhutan, and Amankora will stop at nothing in order to fulfil your dreams.

Lu and I came to Bhutan for a balanced blend of luxe-lodge, a ray of spiritual enlightenment, culture, and to walk/hike with pristine nature. At Punakha we wanted to chill primarily, enjoy gentle activities, admire the dzong, 'perhaps' visit the fertility temple (between us we already have a football team) and soak up the balmy atmosphere! We achieved our goals and more besides...

Breakfast on the terrace to the sounds of songbirds, rustling banana leaves, the dulcet tones from the distant river, and the entrancing view, is positively elating. The rest of the day is very informal and we chose to stroll across paddy fields and farmland in order to hike up a hillock called Nyizergang to visit a chorten most sacred: Khamsum Yuelley Namgyal Chorten. This fantastically elaborate recent construction was built by HM the Queen Ashi Tshering Yandon (the Queen Mother) for the protection of the country. It is extraordinarily ornate, with remarkably detailed iconography depicting images of manifestations in staggering detail. When you reach the 'window' to the sensationally sultry Punakha Valley at the top of the chorten, on a whitewashed circular terrace, with breathtaking 360-degree views, you will no doubt see kestrels circling, hear the chime bells tinkling in the warm breeze, and feel good to be alive.

We visited a typical farmhouse, walked around the village, and, of course, we visited the majestic Punakha Dzong. It is here that the Buddha puzzle gained many recognisable pieces for me. For this I thank Choke, my guide and teacher, for his patience, and the glorious temple for its exquisitely painted murals that span, in vibrant painterly detail, Buddha's birth through to Nirvana. While the monks were reciting their evening prayers by the light of hundreds of butter lamps together with shafts of sunlight, in a temple of such extraordinary dazzle, I wished all my teachings in life had felt so profound.

That night at the lodge we dined with some fellow travellers in what was previously the royal family's kitchen and enjoyed an impromptu, festive, dinner party. It was our last night and we didn't want our Amankora bubble to burst. We feasted on sensational dishes of chicken curry, yak curry, mixed vegetables, red rice, wild mushrooms, braised yak with turnip greens... it seemed endless. As the night continued with much laughter, most of the resident guests joined the gathering and we dined on the spirit of Punakha beside the glow of the fire and thanked Amankora for its spontaneous and superbly generous hospitality.

No one is judging you in Bhutan, in fact, I would go as far as to say that they seem to be the least judgmental people I have ever encountered. Live and let live and above all else, be happy.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant