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March 21, 2024

Just Back: A Private Luxury Tour of Bhutan

We recently returned from an unforgettable private luxury tour of Bhutan, a Himalayan kingdom with warm people, well-preserved traditional culture and beautiful landscapes.

Bhutan has an enticing range of beautiful luxury lodges throughout the country, including Aman, Six Senses and Como properties. Additional options include &Beyond and Pemako lodges.

We flew Drukair, Bhutan’s national airline, from Delhi to Paro, stopping en route in Kathmandu. Flying out of Kathmandu afforded great views of the Nepalese capital and Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks.

Bhutan’s international airport is in Paro, a charming small town surrounded by rice paddies and verdant mountains. Images of the revered Bhutanese royal family are ubiquitous throughout the country, including on the tarmac at Paro Airport.

We stayed in Paro at the beginning and end of our trip, which afforded ample time to enjoy the region’s many attractions, including the hike to legendary Tiger’s Nest Monastery (Taktsang Goemba), one of the highlights of Bhutan.

We started with a short hike to acclimate to the elevation in Paro (approximately 7,500 feet/2,300 m) and get a lay of the land.

A key structure in most Bhutanese towns is a dzong, a fortress with religious, military and administrative functions. Paro Dzong watches over the town and its fertile valley.

The COMO Uma Paro is one of our preferred luxury lodges in the town. It’s a complex with a traditional building and freestanding villas among pine trees in the hills above Paro.

The restaurant at the Uma Paro offered a delicious introduction to traditional Bhutanese cuisine.

Next, we flew to Bumthang, a remote region in central Bhutan known for traditional culture and several important temples. Our private guide and driver were waiting for us upon arrival. They were an excellent team throughout Bhutan. Our guide gave us incredible insight into Bhutanese culture, religion and history. He was indispensable in our experience of Bhutan.

Here’s our guide showing us how to tie a kabney (scarf). Bhutanese are required to wear traditional attire (gho and kabney for men and kira for women) as a sign of respect when visiting a dzong.

Amankora Bumthang was our luxurious home during our time in Bumthang. Its whitewashed exteriors and stone walls evoke traditional dzong architecture.

The food, service and accommodations at Amankora Bumthang were exemplary.

Another top luxury lodge in the area is the Six Senses Bumthang, which is on a forested hillside overlooking a river.

Highlights of Bumthang included Jambay Lhakhang Temple, one of the most ancient and revered Buddhist temples in Bhutan…

…Tamshing Goemba Monastery and Jakar Dzong.

Bumthang is known for its food products, and we stopped by a local store that sells items such as honey, herbal tea and dried cheese.

Just outside town, we visited a local workshop to browse for yathra, the traditional woven textiles of central Bhutan.

From Bumthang, we journeyed west through the towns of Trongsa, Gangtey, Punakha and Thimphu en route back to Paro.

Bhutan’s main towns are in a series of valleys that run north-south through the country, so traveling east to west meant driving over several beautiful mountain passes with prayer flags flapping in the wind through bucolic valleys with small farms, traditional Bhutanese farmhouses and water-powered prayer wheels.

Traffic jams in rural Bhutan are often caused by yaks and cattle moving between pastures.

Next, we stopped in Trongsa, a small town that clings to a steep slope, to visit impressive Trongsa Dzong.

The largest dzong in Bhutan, Trongsa Dzong was built in 1647 under the direction of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, the legendary Tibetan monk who first unified Bhutan.

Trongsa Dzong’s courtyards and temples are particularly atmospheric.

We also toured the Tower of Trongsa, a museum dedicated to Buddhist art and items related to Bhutan’s royal family, which is from the region.

Continuing west, we crossed over Lawa La Pass (10,967 ft/3,343 m) and descended into the Phobjikha Valley, a spectacular glacial valley with a broad wetland fringed by farms and forest.

The area is frequently referred to as Gangtey, the name of the main village in the valley.

We stayed at Gangtey Lodge, a wonderful Bhutanese-style hotel with evocative style and a wide terrace overlooking the valley and mountains.

The bath tub and wood-burning fireplaces were particularly inviting, as Gangtey tends to be cool due to its elevation (approximately 10,000 feet/3,050 m).

Other luxury lodges in Phobjikha Valley include the Six Senses Gangtey and the Amankora Gangtey, which has outstanding views and architecture.

The RAMSAR-protected wetlands in the Phobjikha Vallery are a wintering ground for endangered black-necked cranes. We visited the Black-Necked Crane Information Center to learn more about the graceful birds.

Our favorite experiences in the Phobjikha Valley were visiting Gangtey Shedra (Buddhist college) for evening prayers and touring the nearby Gangtey Monastery, where young monks were going about their daily lives.

The Phobjikha Valley has several great hiking trails along the edge of the wetlands and through the mountains.

From Gangtey, we descended into the Punakha Valley, which has a mild climate and a relatively low elevation of approximately 4,000 feet (1,200 m).

We stopped at Wangdue Phodrang Dzong at the southern end of the valley.

Rice terraces, vegetable farms and fruit orchards cover much of the fertile land around Punakha.

Considered the most beautiful dzong in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong sits at the confluence of the Mo Chhu and Pho Chhu rivers.

Another highlight of Punakha is crossing the river…

…hiking through farmland…

…and ascending a hill to Khamsum Yulley Namgyal Chorten, a monument commissioned by the Queen Mother.

The interiors of the chorten have colorful religious paintings, and the views of the valley from the top floor are breathtaking.

Also in Punakha, we visited Chimi Lhakhang Temple, a fertility temple dedicated to Drukpa Kunley (1455–1529), an eccentric Buddhist monk who introduced the concept of painting phalluses on buildings to protect them from evil.

Six Senses Punakha was our luxurious home during our time in the region. We really enjoyed the spacious rooms, iconic swimming pool…

…great food…

…and massage in the spa village, a collection of stand-alone treatment rooms.

Amankora Punakha is another of our favorite luxury lodges in the area. It has a traditional farmhouse, upscale rooms and terraces that descend a gentle slope to a stunning swimming pool overlooking the valley.

Other lodges we like in Punakha are COMO Uma Punakha

…&Beyond Punakha and Pemako Punakha, a new property designed by Bill Bensley.

Next, we drove to Thimphu. En route, we saw wild monkeys…

…stopped at a roadside produce stand so our guide and driver could purchase provisions (chilies are a favorite ingredient in Bhutanese food)…

…and visited the 108 chortens monument at Dochu La Pass (10,171 ft/3,100 m).

Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and its largest city, with a population of approximately 100,000. We were surprised at how big Thimphu felt relative to other towns in Bhutan.

We enjoyed a wide range of interesting and immersive experiences in Thimphu. We visited an important institute where young people train in traditional Bhutanese arts, such as carving wood masks and painting thangka (Buddhist images).

At the Folk Heritage Museum, we learned more about traditional Bhutanese culture, architecture and crafts. We then browsed the small stalls in Thimphu’s handicrafts market for Buddhist and secular items.

Other interesting things we did were watching a spirited competition of archery—Bhutan’s national sport—at the municipal archery range…

…visiting a small factory where tree bark is turned into high-quality, handmade paper…

…touring Tashichho Dzong (the seat of the Bhutanese government), visiting the main produce market, seeing takins—Bhutan’s unusual national animal—at the Royal Takin Reserve…

…and visiting the Buddha Dordenma, a monumental Buddhist sculpture.

Artisans of Leisure offers so many additional touring options and activities around Thimphu, including hiking to temples, a meeting with a local astrologer, a private Bhutanese cooking lesson at a local home, private meditation sessions with monks and butter lamp-lighting ceremonies.

We stayed at the Six Senses Thimphu, a luxurious resort in the hills above the capital. It has a huge spa, a beautiful pool…

…and comfortable guest rooms with beautiful views. The service and cuisine at the Six Senses Thimphu were also excellent.

Amankora Thimphu is another wonderful luxury lodge option in a quiet corner of a forested hillside on the edge of town.

Travelers who prefer to stay in downtown Thimphu will appreciate the Pemako Thimphu, a luxury hotel with traditional Bhutanese style that’s walking distance to a wide range of shops and restaurants.

From Thimphu, we headed back to Paro, one of our favorite places in Bhutan. We visited the top cultural attractions in the region, including the National Museum, Paro Dzong (also known as Rinpung Dzong) and Kyichu Lhakhang Temple.

We also spent time walking the main street in Paro, which has many shops selling traditional Bhutanese items and souvenirs.

The highlight of Paro was our hike to Tiger’s Nest Monastery with our private guide. Light rain at the beginning of our hike created a misty and atmospheric start to our pilgrimage.

The uphill hike is an exhilarating climb through beautiful native forest.

The mist slowly lifted just as we reached the most dramatic viewpoint of Tiger’s Nest, revealing the complex of small monastery buildings that cling to the edge of rocky cliffs.

Our guide introduced us to the temple interiors (no photos allowed), where we lit butter lamps to honor Guru Rinpoche, the revered Tibetan monk who introduced Buddhism to Bhutan. According to tradition, Guru Rinpoche flew across Bhutan and landed at this spot in the eighth century. Taktsang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest Monastery) is now one of the most important Buddhist complexes in Bhutan.

After our hike to Tiger’s Nest, we checked in at Amankora Paro, one of our favorite luxury lodge experiences in Bhutan. The location, views, service and cuisine were the perfect way to end our private tour of Bhutan.

We met a local prayer flag artisan at the Aman. He helped us print a set of prayer flags to take home.

We also enjoyed browsing for traditional Buddhist items in the small boutique, including devotional objects such as this small sculpture of Guru Rinpoche.

A musician playing traditional Bhutanese music added ambience to our dinner.

But the ultimate way to relax was with a traditional Bhutanese hot-stone bath in the Amankora Paro spa.

Artisans of Leisure arranges private tours throughout Bhutan, including the highlights of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Gangtey and Bumthang. We can arrange attendance at annual Buddhist festivals, multi-day treks and other unique ways to experience Bhutan.

Drukair flies to Paro from Delhi, Kathmandu, Bangkok and Singapore, so Bhutan combines well with India, Nepal and Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Contact Artisans of Leisure to start planning your private Bhutan tour.

Destinations:  Asia, Bhutan

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