Just Back: The Beauty of Bhutan

Abbay King Lovell, the founder of Abbay’s Escapes, an affiliate of Brownell Travel, traveled to Bhutan recently with Rebecca Recommends and its DMC partner, Ventours International, and is back with this report.

I recently spent seven nights journeying through the hidden Kingdom of Bhutan, nestled in the Eastern Himalayas between Tibet and India.

My adventure began as my plane descended between the 18,000-foot Himalayan peaks onto one of the most challenging airport runways in the world. The flight boasted mountaintop views throughout the one-hour journey from Kathmandu, including a close-up of the star of the show, Mount Everest. Tip: On the way to Paro, be sure to book a window seat on the left-hand side of the plane.

Abbay King Lovell, the founder of Abbay’s Escapes
Peaceful and Awakening: Abbay King Lovell visited the gigantic Buddha Dordenma Statue of Shakyamuni in Thimphu, Bhutan. (Courtesy Abbay King Lovell)

Most of the non-stop flights to Bhutan are from Kathmandu, Bangkok or various cities in India. I began with an overnight in Kathmandu, before the early flight to Paro, the gateway to Bhutan. The best way to get to Kathmandu is generally via Dubai or Doha.

Bhutan is the only country that measures progress in happiness (referred to as Gross National Happiness), and it is the only carbon-negative country in the world. Travelers looking for a happy, stable and green country that still feels undiscovered will be rewarded.

Rooted in Buddhism, the Bhutanese have long prioritized caring for their people and the environment. Undoubtedly, this intersects with tourism, and the Bhutanese are proud to focus on high-value, low-volume tourism.

After landing in Paro, my first stop was Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital city, about an hour and 15 minutes from the airport and at an elevation of about 7,400 feet. I checked into Amankora Thimphu, one of the five Aman properties situated in the valleys across Bhutan. Surrounded by forest, the architecture and interior design perfectly reflect Bhutanese culture and complement the natural environment while showcasing the minimalism and fantastic service that Aman properties are known for. On property, you can enjoy the spa, hiking, and archery.

Thimphu, Bhutan
A Country With No Traffic Lights: Shown here is an intersection in the capital city of Thimphu, where a policeman is seen directing the vehicles. (Courtesy Abbay King Lovell)

Off property, it’s a short drive to the city center where you can explore the local shops, dine out, or enjoy karaoke later in the evening. Also, nearby is the Buddha Dordenma Statue of Shakyamuni measuring 169 feet, made from bronze, and gilded in gold. Located at the highest point, it offers great views of the city.

Lastly, not to be missed in Thimphu is the busiest intersection in the country, where a policeman directs traffic with a wave of his hand. Bhutan is the only country in the world that doesn’t have a single traffic light in its capital city.

A five-hour drive from Thimphu, my next stop was Gangtey. It’s a long and windy drive on mountain roads but well worth it to arrive in Gangtey, a place of peaceful monasteries within a landscape of alpine meadows and the endangered black-necked cranes. En route the road ascends gradually to Dochula Pass at over 10,300 feet, with vistas of the Himalayas.

My home for the next two nights was Gangtey Goenpa Lodge, commanding sweeping views of the valley below and the Gangtey Goenpa Monastery, just five minutes away. Upon arrival, I was greeted with a welcome song from smiling staff members, followed by a 10-minute head and neck massage before being shown to my room. Heated hand-cut stone floors and deep bathtubs with views, and wood-burning stoves give you the ultimate sense of coziness you’d expect from a mountain lodge. Here, I also enjoyed wearing the traditional Bhutanese dress, a Kira, for a family-style lodge dinner.

Abbay King Lovell, the founder of Abbay’s Escapes, in Bhutan wearing a traditional dress
Embracing the Culture: The author wore the traditional Bhutanese dress, Kira, for a family-style lodge dinner in Gangtey. (Courtesy Abbay King Lovell)

My next stop in Bhutan was the Punakha Valley, most notable for the shrine of Chimi Lhakhang, revered for its fertility powers. It’s a popular pilgrimage point for Bhutanese, and sometimes foreign visitors, trying to conceive. The fertility theme is present throughout Phunaka with plenty of opportunities to see and purchase phallic paintings and handicrafts. For adventure travelers, the Punakha Valley is the spot for white water rafting where crystal-clear rivers are fed by the glacial melt of the mountains.

I stayed at Pemako Punakha, which can be reached by crossing a suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River, covered in prayer flags. From here, my butler greeted me with a golf cart transfer alongside the river until we reached the property. Newly opened in Autumn 2023, Pemako Punakha is the first top-end Bhutanese-owned and managed property in the Punakha Valley (among the globally known brands such as Aman, Six Senses, Como and &Beyond). The property, designed by Bill Bensley, is composed of 21 luxury canvas tents built across the lush hillside with river views. Each has its own private pool and spacious deck.

Abbay King Lovell, the founder of Abbay’s Escapes, in Bhutan
An Exotic Walk: The Pemako Punakha hotel is reached by crossing a suspension bridge over the Mo Chhu River. (Courtesy Abbay King Lovell)

On the final leg of my journey, I returned to Paro (where it also began). Here, my tour guide had saved Bhutan’s best for last—Tiger’s Nest. To rest up for my adventure to Tiger’s Nest, I checked into COMO Uma Paro, situated in a location central to both the airport and Tiger’s Nest while featuring views of the forest, mountains and surrounding valleys.

Nearby, perched on a sheer rock face 3,000 feet above the valley floor, Tiger’s Nest is Bhutan’s crown jewel and the most revered pilgrimage spot in the Buddhist world. On average, it takes between four to five hours to do the approximately four-mile round-trip trek, plus one more hour to tour the monastery. Midway, a cafeteria provides refreshments—in my case, a cup of tea on the ascent and a hot lunch on the descent. The trail is suitable for anyone of average fitness—I witnessed the elderly to young families carrying toddlers, complete the pilgrimage.

Abbay King Lovell, the founder of Abbay’s Escapes, in Bhutan
Not a Checklist Destination:The author says that the best part about being in Bhutan was just about being in Bhutan. (Courtesy Abbay King Lovell)

While I kept busy in Bhutan and hiked to the famed, Tiger’s Nest, I ultimately found that Bhutan is not a checklist destination where travelers need to rush around ticking off a long list of to-do’s. Perhaps the mindfulness rubbed off on me because I found that the best part about being in Bhutan was just about being in Bhutan.

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